A Pedacito of Fasnacht
Updated: May 19, 2021
I have to admit I was a little disappointed when I first arrived in Basel, Switzerland. I was there to meet up with an old college professor of mine. Originally from Switzerland, he had recently retired and decided to return there with his wife to enjoy their golden years.
The professor had been a favorite of mine while in college, and we continued to keep in touch through social media, even after I graduated. So, when I was living in Avignon, France, my professor invited me to come to Basel and stay with him and his wife. He suggested that I visit in mid-February because he told me that was when Fasnacht would take place. He explained that Fasnacht was a festival held in Basel every year after Ash Wednesday. Beyond that, I had no other information about the festival. Still, it sounded fun, and I knew it would be great to see my professor again, so I agreed.
Maybe it was the fact that everyone in the city seemed to wear black clothing. Maybe it was the cold and grey weather at the time. Whatever it was, I did not have a very good opinion of Basel when I first arrived. I admitted this fact to my professor. His reply was, “Just wait until Fasnacht.”
At 2:30 am Monday morning following Ash Wednesday, my professor and his wife woke me and told me to get ready. By 3:30 am, the three of us were sitting in an exceptionally crowded restaurant eating hot soup and drinking schnapps. I still didn’t know what was happening but I was informed that the hot soup and schnapps would help me warm up before the festivities began.
Almost all at once, the people in the restaurant paid their bills and filed outside. In the cold night air, with literally every Basel citizen joining me on the street, we stood in silence as if in a dream.
At exactly 4:00 am, every light in Basel was turned off at the exact same time. One minute later, an explosion of lights and noise erupted from the streets. People cheered and danced and threw confetti at one another. Having not slept or understood what was happening around me, I felt as if I were hallucinating.
The Basler Fasnacht is the only Protestant carnival in the world. For exactly 72 hours, over 18,000 participants, known as Fasnachtler, dress up in costumes and masks and parade through the streets playing piccolos and beating drums. The participants are separated into groups based on costume and function. Some of them play instruments, some of them ride in carriages tossing candy at onlookers, and some walk around singing satirical verses about current events.
Unlike other carnivals, Fasnacht keeps a clear division between participants and onlookers. As a spectator, I had to watch out for being constantly showered with confetti. It is the job of the Fasnachtler to come up behind unsuspecting victims and shower them with the stuff. In fact, confetti was everywhere! On certain streets, there would be an inch-thick layer of it, and I would have to do a little dance to get it out of my hair and clothing whenever I entered my professor’s apartment.
The whole thing was crazy. Imagine spending 72 hours in a city where everyone is partying, and music is coming at you from hundreds of live bands who walk the streets in costume playing their instruments day and night. Imagine a city whose streets are ankle-deep with confetti. For 72 hours, it didn’t stop.
At one point, I was sitting in a restaurant having dinner when all of a sudden, I felt confetti falling from my hair and down my back. I looked up to see a figure in a clown mask looking down at me. The prankster then ran to the back of the restaurant, where he joined his fellow band members (each group is known as a Clique), and began to play. That was when I realized that even indoor restaurants were not safe from the celebrations.
The whole experience was unbelievably entertaining. My professor introduced me to the special dishes and desserts of Fasnacht, and we attended a few of his neighbor’s house parties. I had a blast!
On the fourth day, I woke up to see armies of street sweepers cleaning up the city of confetti and debris. By that afternoon, it was impossible to tell that the whole thing had even happened because the streets were so clean. Obviously, they had done this before and knew what they were doing.
Because of Fasnacht, my short trip to Basel is among the best trips I have ever taken. By the end of my week there, I looked at the city with a new pair of eyes. The people of Basel are so friendly. The food was absolutely delicious. Even after the festival was over, I felt a warmth for the place that I didn’t have when I first arrived. That week in Switzerland, I was reminded not to pass judgment on a place too quickly because you never know what your trip might have in store for you.
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