Every year the normally sober sensible law-abiding Swiss go a bit crazy. They risk life and property by dragging huge flaming pyres through narrow streets. That’s for starters.
Then they converge on the city of Basel (or Basle in French) for a 0400 kick off. Yes, that’s four in the morning. It’s called the Morgestraich. At that moment all lights, including streetlights, are shut off. Then band after band of bizarre, grotesque, odd and even cute creatures begin three days of constant parading.
Rain or shine, day or night – including right through the night – they march, they bang their drums, play their fifes and blow their brass. They may have have a huge repertoire, but they’re very good at it. The city seems to be possessed by musicians.
Some cities have ghetto gangs and flash points where armed rivals flaunt their colours at each other. Basel neighbourhoods each mobilise their Fasnacht bands and raise their roof.
Marching for hours and days, playing tunefully and in time, is no doddle. They do it. They do it while wearing large artificial heads or masks. Many of them are horrific looking. You’d think they’d scare children. They scare me.
And they keep going, even when they don’t have an audience, even if a street is deserted, even if people living nearby have decided to snatch a couple of hours of kip amidst the madness. They keep marching and playing. Except for occasional refreshment stops.
As the band members march, their comrades pull large lanterns, decorated with political or satirical messages and allegories. Some are funny, some close to the bone. Some pretty nasty. As darkness falls they’re illuminated from within. Hence “lanterns”. More on them in a future post.
Other comrades deluge the watching crowds in multicoloured confetti. The streets quickly become carpetted with the stuff. They also toss oranges, lollipops and flowers into the crowds. I saw one group lobbing turnips.
You also have to watch out for maurauding Waggises amongst the crowd – especially if you’re an attractive young lady. This is where an elevated vantage point comes in handy. You see a big-headed Waggis lurking below, one hand in his sack of confetti, spying out approaching girls as yet unaware of his attention.
But he doesn’t pounce on them unexpectedly. There has to be a chase. So first there’s a confrontation, a pursuit and usually a capture. The Waggises are very determined. Though often the victims are wannabees looking for a pursuer.
When a Waggis catches his quarry, he usually stuffs as much confetti down her back as he can manage. And then presents her with a flower by way of recompense. So, as a local mate explained to me, a particularly dishevelled woman clutching many flowers can feel reassured that she’s been the object of many a Waggises affections.
But the Waggises can target anyone. I think its if you catch their eye or show fear. It is possible to buy immunity in the form of a Fasnacht badge. But it doesn’t work for everybody. Muggins here is a case in point. Or maybe they mistook me for an uncommonly gorgeous young woman. Easily done.
Keeping a low profile when wandering Waggises come near is also more difficult if you have a normally macho companion who goes all gooey at the sight of the big nosed plaster heads. He only has to spot their frizzy hair or bulbous red conks to start cooing: “Aah look at the Waggis. He’s so cute.” He gets a bit high pitched on the word cute. And there’s me trying to keep a low profile.
Some say that confetti was invented in Basel. If that’s true, it’s yet another “gift” from Basel to the world. In the local German dialect the confetti is called räppli. It comes in big single colour bags. All sorts of colours are available, but not mixed. Apparently that’s to prevent the reselling of used confetti.
The confetti-throwing Waggis character is a staple of the Fasnacht. He’s based on an old-fashioned caricature of a labourer from Alsace (the next door to Basel region of France, which has sometimes been in Germany). The huge red nose is a comment on the quantity of wine the labourers were reputed to get through.
Is cute the word I’d use to describe a Waggis? Especially the lovely specimen who caught me? Let’s just say, cuteness is in the eye of one particular beholder. And that beholder is not me. The furthest I’d go is to echo George Galloway’s greeting to Saddam Hussein – “Waggis, I salute your indefatigability.”
Some of the marchers – like the one on the right – hand out schnitzelbank s – which are short rhyming verses with satirical or funny content. Later on the verses are declaimed to appreciative or bemused crowds. They can be hard for outsiders to follow. You need to be up on local politics.
Oh – apologies for the quality of the pictures. They were taken on a handy and discreet, but not super phone. More on the lanterns to follow.