With Mardi Gras and the season of Lent upon us, my thoughts turned to a time we spent wandering the streets of Basel Switzerland while celebrating “Fasnacht” as truly starving artists.
It was 1980, and Linda and I had been married for almost four months. Linda was a student at Marcel Marceau’s school of Mime in Paris. A group of the students planned a trip to Basel, also Bazel and Bale – depending on whether you spoke Swiss French, Swiss Italian or Swiss German. From Wikkipedia – Located in northwest Switzerland on the river Rhine, Basel functions as a major industrial centre for the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. The Basel region, culturally extending into German Baden-Württemberg and French Alsace, reflects the heritage of its three states in the modern Latin name: “Regio TriRhena”. It has the oldest university of the Swiss Confederation (1460). Basel is German-speaking. The local variant of the Swiss German dialects is called Basel German.
Two of Marceau’s students, Alan and Mark – were particularly interested in the ‘masque’ technique of mime . A style made popular in the US at the time by the Swiss troupe known as “Mummenschanz”. Apparently there was a famous mask factory in Basle. The plan was to visit the factory, buy some masks, and celebrate Fastnacht – Mardi Gras – at the same time.
We were living in Paris as starving artists. I had quit my full time job in radio to get married and move to Paris with Linda, so we were on a very tight budget. The round trip ticket to Basle and back to Paris – 190 French Francs – approximately $47.50 in US at the time – was a big deal to us. But what was the point of living in France, if we couldn’t leave it and see a bit more of Europe if the opportunity arose? Alan and Mark had been there before, so they would act as tour guides. A three day trip was planned, more friends joined in, and we purchased Swiss Army backpacks in the flea market to make our travel easier. We also loaded up on home made GORP, since we weren’t going to be spending money in fancy restaraunts. Luckily, the Youth Hostel served a ‘continental breakfast’ in the mornings.
While digging through old negative files to illustrate this blog, I came upon our shared Parisian journal from back in the day. What a delight it is to relive those days through the handwritten word on faded page. An emotional experience lacking in this day of emails and digital text files. I’ll let Linda narrate our trip to Basle, and our first night there, in her own words.
What an adventure. We tramped toward the metro in that blue gray time of morning on Sunday with our fat, full packs strapped to our backs. I like leaving in the morning – it adds a sort of chill to the anticipation – and one never knows if it is the temperature of the air or the excitement that makes one shiver.
We met the rest of the crew at Gare-de l’Est and got onto the train. Six hours across the countryside of France. I crocheted a little. Alan, Marc, Tina and Jeanie played cribbage. Steve read and Ric watched for castles until the sun gave him a headache.
Late afternoon found us in Basel – wandering around waiting for the youth hostel to open so we could ‘check in”. It is an old European town, that is so well kept that one almost feels it is new – perhaps built last year by the Disney people.
As night fell over the city, we became aware of an airy , almost haunting sound floating on the cold clear air of the Rhine. We turned down a twisting side road and were met by a group of citizens of the town, all marching at a slow, meandering sort of pace – in army like ranks. All were playing a lilting tune in unison and occasionally in harmony on their piccolos.
All night long processions of men and women, young men and girls, sailed smoothly through the streets and canals of the ancient village at a pace that matched the swans swimming gently down the river. The stars and moon shone brightly – freshly polished by the tiny shining notes sent to them from the thousands of Swiss piccolos, flying on the cold night air.
We went to bed early and fell asleep – lulled by the magical wine like atmosphere of music and age.
We woke at 3:00 am and dressed in the strangely silent darkness. Ric and I met on the stairs of the youth hostel. We kissed a good morning and with my left hand grasped in his right we went out onto the street.
Small groups of people speaking in hushed voices were joined by more and more people as they we walked quickly toward the center of town. Silently following the crowds, we made our way – feeling vaguely like lemmings – to the front of an old tavern near the market place. There we stopped and waited.
All around us bizarre creatures with huge pale and shadowed faces wandered among the crowd – their wild colored hair lit by lanterns somehow balanced on the tangled mass. Not a piccolo to be seen or hear – just a shuffling of humanity broken only by the sight of some costumed, masked and painted monster. The shuffling began to settle, more and more people were standing still. It was a waiting. Then the thousands of people shuffling and silent, were plunged into total darkness. A shout that reminded me of the final ritual of a high school football team went up to catch the setting moon. Before it had died in its valiant effort – the piccolos had appeared from no-where and were playing for all they were worth – Each trying to sing louder than the others. Now the processions in their gaudy dress began the slow dance that was to continue for days. Lit only by the giant lanterns they followed and their precarious lantern headpieces – the piccolo players and the group of drummers who seemed to chase them – moved slowly through the town together. Later, as the sun rose, they separated and they began the systematic squeezing of winter out of every nook and cranny of the town. With slow determined steps they found his secretes hiding places and sent him flying to the Alps to pack along the mountain tops and plan his next year’s campaign.
And that’s why she’s a better writer than I am, to this day.
To back up and fill in some details – When we arrived in Basle, we were immediately accosted by a kindly old lady at the train station who was trying to sell us something. I tried to decline, but Mark and Alan explained that we HAD to buy one of the years ‘official’ badges to wear on our hats or coats.
“Why? What happens if I don’t?”
Mark smiled and said, “You won’t make it out alive. Trust me. The kids will pelt you with apples and oranges. Seriously – buy one. It’s health insurance.” So we each bought a bronze Fasnacht badge and wore them on our coat lapels or stocking caps.
I wish I had been able to fully capture the images of that amazing first night. We did get to spend some time wandering the streets before sunset. As we wound our way through the fairy tale village, we would encounter the odd masked Piccolo player or Drummer, marching along and playing a tune. Mark and Alan informed us that just as there were ‘crewes’ in the Mardi Gras parade in the US – here there were ‘Guilds’ or ‘Clicks’ – that worked together to create their unified theme for the festival. This included deciding on their parade float theme. (Sometimes comical, often political), designing their costumes, and most importantly, writing their own secret Piccolo tune, that would not be played until the festival started officially at four in the morning.
I’d like to add that the reason we had to meet on the landing, was that the Youth Hostel did not allow cohabitation – even for married couples. So we bunked in dorm rooms for the two days we were there
At four in the morning, the square was absolutely packed. I imagine it feels like being in Time Square at New Years. And all of the costumed characters had little lanterns – honest to God lanterns with candles – built into or perched upon the top of their masks or hats. When the appointed hour came – ALL THE LIGHTS IN THE SQUARE went out – the shout went up – and all you could see where the troupes of players with lanterns on their heads, following large parade floats that resembled fantastic Dr. Zeuss creations.
Imagine dozens of different Guilds, each with a Piccolo and Drum corps, all playing their own special tune – AS LOUD AS THEY POSSIBLY COULD. It was beautiful chaos. As one troupe would pass, you could hear their tune clearly and distinctly, but before it would lodge in your head, they would be replaced by another troupe with an equally catchy tune with a compelling drum beat.
Towards dawn, we took a break, retired to the hostel got a short rest, and ate our ‘free’ continental breakfast at the hostel. Croissants, coffee, hot chocolate and baguettes – we stuffed our pockets with pieces of bread to hold us through the day. Did I mention we really were ‘starving’ artists?
In the ‘Small World’ department – it was while passing through a large crowd on the stairs to get to my bunk in the hostel, that I heard a familiar voice shout out “Ric! HEY RIC!” I turned to the voice, and was greeted by an old friend from my days at the American Fencing Academy. I hadn’t seen Andy in a couple of years. It turns out – he was hitch-hiking through Europe, and happened to be in the same hostel at exactly the same time. He joined us for the next two days – and even came to Paris to visit during his extended sabbatical. As broke as the two of us, we all managed to split the cost of a small Pizza while we were there – our only ‘restaurant’ meal. We ate to the sounds of a masked band, just outside our window. It just goes to show, you don’t know WHO you’ll run into in the oddest time or place.
There were numerous parades scheduled throughout the weekend. Each with a different theme and hosted by a different Click. The Clicks were sometimes actual ‘Guilds’ as in work union related, sometimes political parties, mostly social groups and fraternities. Much like the ones in New Orleans.
We took our place in the square at noon, to watch the major parade of the day kick off. There was some kind of festival clown, or character or ‘mascot’ that kept popping up in the weirdest places. A particular type of clown or trouble maker, he was apparently the ‘imp’ of the festival. This character could be spotted on the various floats, tossing candies and treats – and apples and oranges – to the children in the audience. The oranges were injected with a red dye to make them more likely to ‘explode’ when they hit something. (Harmless and edible, it made them juicy)
I climbed up on top of a newspaper stand to get a better view. It was then that I noticed quite a few of the shops had their plate glass windows covered in plywood. People on the upper balcanoies shouted for treats, and the Bazle Imp tossed them high. I waved my hand, and shouted, and one clown turned toward me – and through an orange at me.
“WHACK” – I fielded it bare handed. It stung my hand, but I now had an orange to add to our food stash. Did I mention we were starving artists? I was looking at the orange, when the next one beaned me on the head. I looked up just in time to see a crew of half a dozen ‘imps’ winging oranges at me for all they were worth. “The nail that stand up, gets pounded down…” as the old saying goes. I made too inviting a target. I jumped back down into the anonymity of the crowd, but not without snagging one more orange.
After the parade, we wandered the streets enjoying the scenery. Alan explained that the guild members MUST play their tune whenever they are out on the street. They cannot stop in the middle of the tune. IF they want to go into a restaurant, they must finish the tune before they entered. Most of the restaurants had window displays of marvelous food – featuring special ‘fasnacht’ pastries and treats. Did I mention we were starving artists?
It was an oddly magical, somewhat surreal experience to be wandering the streets of the medieval town, and come upon a group or even a single piccolo player, marching along playing their tune. Sometimes groups of drummers would face off in a ‘drum duel’. Not to be outdone, the piccolos tried to one up each other in volume.
We did manage a trip to the mask factory, where Alan and Mark purchased a number of mask forms, with the intention of customizing them when we returned to Paris. It was amazing to see the thousands of masque forms stacked on tables and hanging from wires – all waiting to have papier-mâché applied to build up the final shape. Of course, they also had masks already made and ready for wear.
We worked in some time visiting the museums, and medieval church – but too soon our trip was over. I will never forget, watching swans swim on the Rhine in the moonlight. Or the crazy masked faces in the darkness. But without a doubt, my favorite memories will be those of wandering the streets of old town Basle, hearing the faint sound of a lone piccolo floating through the air. Spotting a single masked and costumed figure approaching. He takes no notice, intent on marching on, playing, playing, playing. Until his final destination reached, his tune complete, he may lay down his pipe and rest for next year.