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Well, the time is upon us - Fasnacht. In this area, it is absolutely the biggest holiday of the year and Luzern seems to be the epicenter of it. The overview is that otherwise well-behaved Swiss people spend an entire week being as wild and insane as possible. This week-long event is a BIG deal here. It has proven to be a much bigger deal than Christmas. Everywhere is decorated with "party" style stuff (imagine New Year's decorations in the US if you can). Then combine that with Halloween decorations - 300 million Americans have a lot of Halloween leftovers that seem to fit right in to this event. So everywhere you can see balloons and streamers and witches and ghosts, etc. In addition are the Höri (not to be confused with the Hure!) which are mannequins that range from half size to life size of costumed characters. These all have elaborate masks and hang from balconies and in shop windows everywhere. Very large paper mache masks are popular too as decorations.
The general name of the game here is "party". For weeks leading up to this week, there are warm up parties all over the region. These parties are often hosted by a Guggenmusig club. Musig is music in Swiss and Guggen refers to music that's not professional and somewhat rough. These clubs are basically Fasnacht party clubs. Their whole purpose is to pool resources to amplify the party experience as much as possible. Besides hosting parties and doing a lot of other stuff, these clubs play music.
The music is hard to describe exactly, but easy generally - marching band. Indeed, these groups spend the day going from parade to parade doing precisely the marching band thing. There are, however, some subtle differences. There are no lightweight instruments like flutes and clarinets etc. It's all trumpet, trombone, tuba, drums, cymbals, etc. The wimpiest instrument are those marching band style xylophones. These groups seem to place a premium on loudness over clarity and enthusiasm over talent. That's not to say they have no talent - it's just that they're VERY enthusiastic.
So these clubs don't just wear normal Swiss clothes (adorned with especially meaningless English text). Oh no, they wear the most fantastically elaborate outfits that laborious Swiss craftsmanship can create. Each of the Guggenmusig clubs have their own outfit for the year and each member must make or have made one of the costumes. So every year in the middle of winter, lots of people are busy making costumes for Fasnacht. Since these costumes are so elaborate and expensive, they raise money for materials and club expenses - this takes us back to the party hosting.
Each club also designs a "plaquette" each year. These are like very ornate badges with the club's name and mascot or theme for the year on it. Each member helps to hand paint a bunch of them and they sell these to raise money. The latest rage are plaquettes with blinking LEDs. The clubs also sell other things with their theme on it - playing cards, drinking glasses, bottle openers, and other party stuff.
So ever since I've been here, Hanspeter has been spending his free time working on his costume, going to practice with the club, and making plaquettes. His club is "Chloschtergeischter" which means "monastery ghosts". This is because the little village that he is from has an old monastery as its focal point. Their costume for this year is supposedly based on a Star Wars character. I know enough about Star Wars to play Star Wars Trivial Pursuit with Kelly (and lose...) and I don't remember this character. But it's a generally ugly looking monster head with a regal looking suit of lavish clothes. So there is a very elaborate mask that every member of the club has and there is the opera quality suit. Without the mask, I think Hp looks like a Renaissance duke or something.
A couple of days ago, I felt it was time to do some grocery shopping and so I put on my cool weather descending gear and rolled/slid down to Rusmu (that's how they say Ruswil, the little town to the north - see why learning German here is a bit like learning English in Jamaica?) As I rolled into town, I noticed that the street was closed to cars. On closer inspection, it was a parade. Thousands of people all wearing ultra-elaborate costumes spectating and participating in this parade. It turns out that this parade was mostly for the benefit of the kids since they don't have such a partying opportunity at some of the more adult venues. But it was quite impressive. I'd say about seven groups like the Chloschtergeischters came through and about every group of school children in the area. While Fasnacht isn't exactly an official bank holiday, the kids do get off of school. Susan tells me that a lot of safety critical businesses shut down during Fasnacht due to a higher accident rate - go figure.
For some weird reason, Hp's group wasn't in this parade. I did talk to his mother and sister-in-law after the parade and they said to come back in the evening for the "monster concert". And that's what we did. Susan and I went down with Urs and Marlis and it was a "monster concert" if ever I saw one. The first point is that it was outside and it was pretty dang cold - the thermometer said -4C. The town square was closed off and there were bleachers set up on one end. One by one, a Guggenmusig group would march into the square with all drums blazing and climb up into the bleachers. Once in place, they would start to play and everyone would start hopping up and down like rabbits on speed.
So that was pretty darn strange to see thousands of Swiss people dressed to be in an opera performance all hopping up and down to boisterous marching band-like music. I'd say that 90% of the people were decked out in these fancy costumes. And the music...Surreal. There are some songs here that are popular in a very strange way. The two weirdest examples (and there are many, many others) are Country Roads by John Denver (right?) and YMCA by the Village People (I'm pretty sure it's their original!). It's kind of like a dream for me in the literal way; you know how dreams are a big muddle of sensation and experience that don't have any logical orientation? For me to hear these bands play things that I've not heard in years is pretty weird - Eye of the Tiger, Flashdance, etc.
We hopped up and down for a couple of hours until all of our feet were cold and then we paid a surprise visit to one of Urs' friends who is somewhat of a Fasnacht scrooge. I guess some people are not too into this, but it seems to be the small minority of people under 40.
Well, the next exciting event on the program for day 2 was the Rusmu "masked ball" which rhymes with "basketball" here. I was alone in the Stökli when I got a call from Urs - come over and pick out some Fasnachtkleider (a costume). So I went over there and they had A LOT of costume stuff. Maybe not a lot by Luzerner standards, but a lot by mine. I picked a super elaborate opera costume that was one of Hp's creations from a previous year. It had quilted silver pants with leather trim and the top was a big Renaissance looking tunic with big shoulders that looked like they were made out of bear fur. There was a leather part around the neck and the rest was bright silver and shiny blue bits of fabric painstakingly attached all over the rest of it. I felt like the emperor of some foreign planet wearing that action. I also picked out a top hat which reminded me of Clockwork Orange. Silly hats are de rigour here.
It seemed that Susan had to work late that day and she got home just as we were leaving. I thought it was a shame that she couldn't come with us. But she had left for work at 6:00 or so in the morning and was pretty tired. So the crew from Stäublig consisted of me, Urs, Marlis and the neighbors (who build garage doors - very nice Swiss doors - and want me to do a web page for them), Walter and Vreni. Or Valter and Freni if you wanted to read it in English and get it right. It was more than cold outside on this night as Urs drove us down the snow covered mountain to town. This is a critical thing with Fasnacht costumes - they need to be as warm as possible AND as cool as possible. Impossible. We went from the freezing outdoors into a sports hall (a gym, if you're American).
Inside, there was a stage and with a band playing on it. There were hundreds of tables and benches set up with thousands of elaborately decked out Swiss people sitting at them. One thing that I had a tough time with was the fact that I was in a gym, yet there were no basketball hoops - that was all the Twilight Zone I needed, yet there was more - much more. So we sat there for a while listening to the band. I was playing with a cool LED yo-yo that I found in the costume stuff and periodically checking to see if any basketball rims had showed up while I wasn't looking. Nope. Everyone pretended like they were really impressed with my yo-yo skills. But that could have been a joke - I take none of this seriously! That's very important.
Out of the zillions of people there, I saw maybe three who didn't have on some kind of serious costume. The theme was ostensibly "Wild West". Or vealed vest as I jokingly pointed out. Consequently, there were a lot of dudes there looking like dudes. And Indians was a popular theme. But about 1/2 of the people were wearing the opera costumes like Urs and I were. Urs looked like a palace guard for a Russian Czar. The others were dressed up in stylin costumes attempting to conform to the "West" theme.
Some people there were doing the full mask deal where they really didn't want anyone to know who they were. These people would go around doing amusing things to everyone else. They would hand out stuff like candy or balloons (or penis-shaped pasta). Or they would go around doing things that related to their costume. Some guys chained together dressed as criminals had a pretty elaborate routine where they'd pretend to blow up the chain with a bomb that produced a lot of sparks and smoke. And a couple of girls dressed as old men came up up to me and put shaving cream all over my face, started to give me a shave and generally made a big mess. I could only tell that they were girls by their shoes - I've been needing some new shoes and so I know Swiss shoes.
There was another room where a sub-party was going on. This was more of a disco style. There was a D.J. and colored lights etc. I was in there a bit dancing when possible. Again the music was right out of a confused dream. Sometimes it was cool in the "Gosh I haven't heard that cool song in ages" way and sometimes it was lame in the "Gee I thought that song was finally dead". Overall, I thought that the D.J. didn't really play extremely dancable-to music. Even in my limited party going experience, I have been to events where the music was such that one HAD to dance. I liked the D.J. room though because sometimes he did play a cool song AND I could sing along - Aha! Take that, you multilingual Swiss guys!
Back in the gym, there were still no hoops, and the lines on the floor were all nonsense-like. The band in there was decent, but being a Vealed Vest theme, you can guess what the problem was there - yes "country" music. Not too much of it, but enough. And then there was some things they played that were sort of universally understood as cues to do certain things. One was for everybody to run around with their hands on the shoulders of the Opera character in front of them. That was chaos and amusing as hundreds of people did this. And another tune cued everybody to link arms while sitting on the bench and rock back and forth to the music. That was amusing to witness also. I was linking arms with one of the anonymous masked characters who seemed to know someone from our group, yet no one knew who it was. She (I could tell by the shoes) was wearing a mostly black outfit with a big black wig and an all white mask that reminded me of Michael Palin's mask in the movie Brazil. A lot of people had that kind of creepy weirdness. Later on this person gave us some Gummi Bärli and revealed herself as Susan! That was cool.
So we hung out some more, dancing, and hanging out and playing with the yo-yo and carefully checking for where the basketball nets might be hiding. In the gym, a lot of people were smoking, but it wasn't too bad since it was such a big room. In the disco room it was smokier, but it could have been worse. There I started to worry about the broken bottles all over the floor - I have the best boots in the world, but trampling broken glass is not one of their specialties. Maybe this is the forte of the shoes that are in vogue right now with the 10cm soles.
And then we ate some food and left - ya, I thought that was weird timing too. I guess Urs got hungry at 2:00am. Back at the ranch, I put the opera costume out to get some fresh air and I hopped in the shower and took off the rest of my clothes - in that order. Bed by 3:00am, no problem.
I was told that this regional partying was just a spinoff of the big party and that party was in Luzern itself. So Sunday evening Susan and I headed for Luzern to check out the festivities there. For some strange reason that I wasn't able to fully grasp, the prime time to be there was at some absurdly early hour in the morning. To make sure we were there at the right time, we stayed with Hanspeter's sister, Maria who lives relatively close to the center of town. We had dinner there and I had a good time playing with the windows and doors in the apartment - I can't believe how incredibly well made Swiss windows and doors are.
We tried to get some sleep before waking up way too early for my taste - before 4:00am. Ug. Then we put on our opera costumes and then "schminken". German doesn't seem to have too many words that English doesn't also exactly have, but schminken seems to be one of them - it's a whole word dedicated to the idea of painting one's face. You might not think that such a word would be terribly useful, but in Luzern in February, it gets a workout. So once we were suitably ready for some kind of grand performance, off we went to see what was going on in the middle of Luzern in the middle of February in the final hours of the middle of the night.
At this point, the answer wasn't too surprising though it is incredible nonetheless - zillions of people dressed for an opera performance were wandering around enjoying the fact that there were zillions of people in elaborate costumes wandering around. There were Guggenmusig groups all over the place marching around or in position playing little concerts. I don't know if they had a plan or if their leader just wandered around the streets aimlessly until he/she felt like stopping for a concert. Of course they played while they were marching too, but a more limited program. While they were marching, they would be followed by large groups of opera characters forming impromptu parades all over the place. We wandered around in this way for quite a while.
The bands are really serious about coming up with cool outfits. There was a group whose members were dressed like different wild animals - lions, elephants, gnus, zebras, etc. A lot of groups had HUGE masks. There was a group who looked like Musketeers with heads almost the size of their body. Often the leader would be the only one with the HUGE head. There was one group that I thought was kind of cool that had big hats with a "grocery" theme - on the hat were all kinds of random groceries and some had shopping baskets and one had a doll pushing a little loaded shopping cart - on the hat! Some of the groups had pretty cool looking scary outfits and some kind of more sinister theme. My favorite group was dressed after the Fantasia Sorcerer's Apprentice scene. All of the members wore the same outfit that Mickey Mouse was wearing - which in real life is quite elaborate. They all had mouse heads which was suitably comic. The coolest thing was the leader who was dressed like the Sorcerer himself. His costume was dead on the cartoon and when he led the band with his staff, it really reminded me of the movie.
It was also funny to see a big pile of masks lying around somewhere when a group was taking a break or stopped to play a concert. They generally only wore the masks when marching. So it would be common to see 15 monster heads sitting on a window ledge. The best one like this was a group who had masks that were full little monster figures with arms and legs. I'm glad I saw them sitting on the ground and not on the heads of their owners because it was a riot. The were shaped in just such a way (it had to be deliberate) that they were...uh...stackable...in a...lascivious way.
So we wandered around for several hours checking out the endless flow of heavily costumed bodies. This was punctuated with a couple of cafe breaks. Fortunately my hosts knew how to find bathrooms here! I don't really comprehend the zillions of people who were wandering around drinking a lot of beer. Where does that go? There was something else that was as strange to me as a gym without basketball nets - icy sidewalks. In the United States of Enthusiastic Legal Action, NO business or municipality would dare have sidewalks as icy as I experienced in Luzern. No one except me and the people I saw fall down seemed to think much of this condition. I guess they just figured that since it had snowed a lot recently, of course the sidewalks were icy.
Susan and Maria seemed to be under the impression that there weren't that many people all wandering around at this obscene hour in the middle of winter. I guess it's all relative - I sure thought there were plenty. They thought that the especially cold and snowy weather kept some people indoors. How many courtyards full of opera cast members dancing and jumping up and down to marching band music do you need? It seemed like a pretty considerable number to me. I think that this fact was kind of nice in a way since it caused Susan to say "tode Hose". What!? "Tode Hose" apparently means "there's not much action here" or "this party's lame". I'm sure there's a better phrase in English that I can't remember, but you get the idea. The literal translation which I think is hilarious is "dead pants". So I thought that was funny - they thought it was funny that I thought it was funny. And between us, things became a little less dead pants for a few moments while I contemplated that phrase.
And there were the Umzüge a.k.a. parades. The first one that I just wandered into by accident was a little parade. Later on, there was a bigger parade in the same place (Ruswil). And we also went to one in Wolhusen so that we could see Hanspeter's group actually marching and playing. Remember that all this week, he has been who-knows-where with the club playing and marching and partying ad nauseum. Anyway, these parades are similar to American parades in some ways - a bunch of stuff that normally isn't on the street comes down the street. I'll try to cover some of the different things. The big concept with a Fasnacht Umzugwagen (I hesitate to call them "floats") is to make fun of something. So most of the parade vehicles had some theme that made fun of a stupid government situation or something. And what is THE stupid government thing by which all others are judged? Bill and Monica... Yup, they were there.
These parade vehicles try to get pretty elaborate - with complete disregard for American-style liability safety. There was one cool trailer that had a ski slope on it and guys would go to the top of this thing and ski down it on real snow and at the bottom, they'd jump off onto the road. Quite a few of the vehicles had features that produced flames, smoke or explosions or all three.
The weirdest thing about these parades was that all of these organizations that build these vehicles, for some reason give out oranges during the parade. So each of the 40 or so such vehicles has a bunch of people on it tossing oranges into the crowd (somewhat dangerous really - I did see people getting bonked in the head). Why oranges!? There was no explanation. The other thing that these groups handed out was coffee. They'd have a bunch of people on the ground running from coffee tanks on the vehicle to the crowd, passing out cups of coffee. And this wasn't the normal coffee that Americans drink at work (though I bet many would like to) - this was coffee with Schnapps. Why couldn't they hand out chocolate, damn it!
We finally got to see Hanspeter's group march on by in their fancy duds and monster heads. Hp was even playing too. Then after the parade, they did a quick concert in the town square. And by the time our feet were nice and cold from a lot of standing around in the snow, the show was over.
Unlike American holidays (that I have experienced) Fasnacht is supposed to be fun. That's the whole point if there is one. If something's not fun, then something needs to be fixed. It must be an extension of this logic that insists that it be a week long event. After all, if it's fun, why do it only one day a year? On the other hand, why stop after only one week? The answer: fatigue. Both Susan and I noticed at various events that a lot of Guggen-musicians looked pretty shagged after nearly a week of nonstop partying. During our brief encounters with Hp this week, we learned that he had lost his voice and could barely speak in any language. He could still play the trumpet though, and on the final night of the Fasnacht period, we made a special mission to hear him play.
Marlis drove Susan and I to some small town nearby that was having a big final night party. We found Hp and about half of his club in the Kaffezelt (coffee tent - in case you didn't get enough Schnapps coffee at the parades). I ordered a "Coca Cola" pronounced just like a Coke executive from Atlanta might say it - I still had to point to the written word. I didn't think it was possible to screw that up.
Anyway, there was another, smaller, gym that had no basketball potential. And inside was a compressed crowd of people wearing - you guessed it! - opera costumes. Opera costumes and Yankees hats. What's the deal with this? Are the Yankees good or popular? One guy was wearing an Indiana Pacers baseball hat. I really wanted to know if he knew what a "pacer" was.
The music was again about as stylistically smooth as falling through ice on a frozen lake. The D.J. would go from Offspring to a Cat Stevens remake in one song. I was just hearing Twilight Zone music in my head. So there was dancing with widely varying levels of enthusiasm and there were objects being thrown around. One of them hit Susan in the face. Then it hit me in the face. And then it hit Marlis in the face. The same object. And Marlis seemed to take the most damage from it. I guess with a coincidence like that, we three were just meant to get hit in the face by a oo-foe. That's how you pronounce the German word "das Ufo" which of course means U.F.O. There were two Guggenmusig bands there including Hanspeter's and when they felt like it, they'd come marching in to the little gym and play for about 20 minutes and then march out. It's pretty cool actually.
And that was that - the final event. Whew! Time to pick up all the trash; the otherwise excruciatingly tidy Swiss litter like Navajos during Fasnacht. I think they get it all out of their system. I saw clean up trucks out even on the final night. Hanspeter just got back, tired, and still somewhat "softspoken".
Hanspeter takes a full time break from reality for a week for Fasnacht; I was just a part-time visitor. I've been continuing my computer work and my German learning. I spend a lot of time doing various interesting things in front of the computer while I keep an eye on the exciting snowy weather we've been having here. Every once in a while the house will tremble a bit as if there was an explosion in the basement - just a sonic boom. The military trains in the middle of nowhere; in Switzerland, that's here.
I also have been doing some cooking experiments trying to infect this country with some American food that I like. I made some excellent tortillas de harina and followed up with the best chicken fajitas in Switzerland. My chocolate chip cookies sucked though. Many factors conspire against me on that project. I made a little culinary breakthrough here - good cheese. It's called Saint Paulin and it's similar to Monterey. That's a relief! I have also done some kitchen assisting in the industrial strength kitchen of the main house. Making bread and packaging up a butchered cow were interesting experiences. I also got to help make Fasnacht specialties, Chnöiblätze and Schlüferli - which I'm sure I'm misspelling even though I wrote the labels for the latter about 10 times. The Chnöiblätze are thin pastries that are formed by pulling them very thin on a towel on your knee - hence the name which literally means "kneepatches". These are deep fried and they looked to me like extra light taco salad shells. And that's what they tasted like. The correct way to eat them here (where American style Mexican food seems to be prohibited by law) is with powdered sugar.
We also went to Luzern a couple of weeks ago to see a slide show from a Swiss guy who had ridden a horse all over Patagonia. I kept thinking - hell, Susan and Hanspeter's slides are as interesting and they'll show them for free. The neat thing about this was that I was the anthropologist there studying this guy and his audience while it was he who was the anthropologist in Patagonia. Switzerland is a rich country whose people do more than their fair share of traveling and studying of other cultures. I think it's really neat and interesting to be in the rare situation where I'm here studying them. It's the subtle ironies that I enjoy. Tschüs
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|Chris X. Edwards ~ February 1999|