Or: the Trials and Tribulations of an Uptown Girl with a Boyfriend from Old Europe

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Location: Basel, Switzerland

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


After Karneval in Cologne, I was very curious to see how Fasnacht in Basel - the only Protestant Carnival in the world - would compare. Fortunately I didn't have to wait a whole year to do so, since Basel kicks off its fesitivities six days after everyone else finishes theirs. No one really knows why, though I've heard a few explanations:

1. Fasnacht is the original festival. After the Protestant Reformation, the areas around Basel stopped observing it. Basel did not.

2. Lent is supposed to be 40 days long, but there are 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Protestants dropped six days to make the correct number; Catholics did not, and instead claim that Sundays don't count as Lenten days.

3. Basel moved its holiday by a week, just to be different.

Irrespective of why, each year Fasnacht begins on the Monday after Ash Wednesday with the Morgenstreich. At precisely 4 am, all the lights of the old city are turned off, and over ten thousand costume-and-mask wearing participants take over the streets, playing fifes, beating drums, and carrying gorgeously painted lanterns and light screens. It's a unique event, so I wanted to experience it at least once. But when the alarm went off at 3, my resolution melted. Rain was pattering on the shutters outside, as it had been doing off and on all weekend. "Mmph," I said. Swissy Pie correctly interpreted that to mean: hit the snooze button so we can go back to sleep.

There must be something magical about Fasnacht, though, because half an hour later, the rain decided to suspend its own festivities, and we found ourselves somehow stuffed into our clothes and stumbling through the chilly canyons of Basel's streets. We weren't alone. While the sidewalks were hardly jammed, I'd never seen so many people walking around before. Unlike Karneval, no one wore costumes. One exception: children, who were generally bundled into cute jester or penguin outfits.

By the time we made our way to the Mittlerebrücke, the crowds had swelled. Spectators lined the streets and poured over the bridge. Some had even crawled on top of the horse sculptures next to the Hotel Drei König. Everywhere I turned, I could see clusters of costumed participants at their collection points, grotesquely deformed masks in hand, darkened lanterns resting on the ground, waiting for the start of the parade.

Then, somewhere, a switch was thrown. The old city, with its gothic spires and Roman stonework and ancient bridge, disappeared into the twilight. Drumrolls burst in the air like gunfire. The high-pitched, relentlessly cheerful piping of piccolos joined in. Over 200 small round lanterns and huge light screens, some of them 2 meters tall, flared to life, seeming to float above the ground.

In less than one second, we'd been whisked back to a primeval, primitive time.
With the city doused in darkness, and spectators' camera flashes flickering eerily on the buildings like St. Elmo's fire, the robed paraders with their exaggerated, oversized masks looked entirely otherworldly. If it hadn't for the light-hearted music accompanying them, the paraders would have been downright terrifying.

The lanterns, however, were far from primitive. Each group of paraders, or clique, had chosen a theme. Some had decided to be merely decorative. Others mocked famous figures or made political statements. Local officials, soccer clubs, Vladimir Putin, the Pope, and corporate executives were among the targets.

Though it was easy to let the parade flow past, the lilting lure of the pipes soon drew us out to walk behind the cliques. They seemed to move around in a haphazard manner, but it was wonderful to see the city alongside them. With them, we circled into the choked Marktplatz, crossing the paths of other cliques and proceeding according to some predetermined order of precedence. Around us, the narrow side streets up the Spalenberg glowed with streams of bobbing lanterns. Spectators watched from apartments and offices, and from wine bars and restaurants, which were open and serving. The whole city teemed with activity, and it was scarcely 5 am.

Eventually we grew exhausted and home. But the cliques kept going. They marched through sunrise. They marched when the rains began again. They marched in a parade in the afternoon. In the evening, when we finally went back to the old town, they were still marching, wading through the thick layers of confetti that slicked the streets.

By then, the crowds had dispersed somewhat, and the groups were fewer in number than they had been . (Many were taking dinner breaks themselves). But in the meantime, the survivors had been joined by brass bands playing Gugge music, so festive music still echoed in all the alleys. Puppets plays were being performed on wooden stages scattered throughout the main squares.
Booths everywhere sold Glühwein (mulled red wine), cheese tarts, and sausages. We hit a couple of wine spots, tried a few types of wurst, got confetti dumped on us, and visited our regular bar by the university hospital before making our merry way home.

There are still two days of Fasnacht left to celebrate, but I can already say that the festivities in Basel and Cologne are too different to compare. Which do I prefer? Both are exhausting. Basel's seem more low key and family-friendly. The parade is also more impressive here. And although Köln throws a far better (and longer) party, there's something about being able to go home at the end of the night that's tough to beat.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Fifth Season

During the period before Lent, Catholics around the world let loose with extravagant celebrations. Brazil has its Carneval; New Orleans has its Mardi Gras. In Europe, the biggest and arguably most famous one happens in Cologne (or Köln, as it's written in German, or Kölle, as it's affectionely called by locals). There, the festival is called Karneval, though elsewhere in the German-speaking world it's known by other names, including Fasching and Fastnacht.

Karneval is Swissy Pie's favorite time of year. He makes plans for it months in advance;
he (nearly) cries when it's over. I wouldn't be surprised if he's made this annual pilgrimmage to Köln ever since he could legally drink. This year, since I was in the neighborhood (sort of), and since I was curious what the fuss was all about, I decided to go up as well.

First, a bit of background. The Karneval season actually begins on the 11th of November at 11:11 am, and plods tamely along until Weiberfastnacht, the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, when the Tolle Tage (Crazy Days) begin. From then on, the population of Köln more or less doubles, as impressively costumed people from all over the region squeeze into the city's bars to spend their nights consuming kegs of kölsch (the excellent local beer), bellowing along to songs celebrating Kölle, and flirting with anyone and everyone within shouting distance.

Presumably, everyone spends their days recoverying from the previous night's excesses, though on Monday (Rosenmontag) there's a huge, four-hour parade through the downtown area, followed by smaller neighborhood parades on Tuesday. As in New Orleans, ancient clubs organize the whole thing. They build elaborate floats for the procession, they organize the marching bands and the troupes of dancing girls, they procure the tons of candy and acres of flowers that are showed upon bystanders. Their own uniforms are militaristic Prussian get-ups, but then they make a mockery of it by singing subversive songs, disobeying orders, and generally acting up.

The whole thing draws to a close at midnight Tuesday with the burning of the Nubbel. The Nubbel is the straw-stuffed mannequin that has been placed over the entrance to each bar. It is held responsible for all the sins committed during Karneval. At midnight, after a short comedic mass, during which its crimes are enumerated, it's set on fire. The ashes are then mixed with water and used to mark crosses on bystanders' foreheads. And with that, the holiday is over.

So what was it like?

It's really difficult to describe the mood. On the one hand, it's crazy. People are sometimes at the bar for over 12 hours at a go, which is remarkable considering that they're standing the whole time. Tables, chairs, and anything else that can be removed, are removed, to maximize the number of people that can be jammed in.
People are standing on benches and windowsills. There's scarcely any room to move, much less dance; getting to the bar requires a good deal of shoving. The queues for the women's bathroom are rivaled only by the queues to get in, so perhaps it's not too surprising that you find lots of females invading the men's bathroom. (No one even blinks at this.) Small wonder that these places have to close for a week afterward, to renovate post-Karneval.

On the other hand, there's such a sense of friendliness and familiarity that even foreigners like me immediately feel included. The same litany of Karneval ballads are played everywhere, every night. The songs are written to be very repetitive, so anyone can pick up on the refrain and sing along. (It also helps that many of them have been ripped off from other sources. Gypsy Kings, Frank Sinatra, Negro spirituals, klezmer music... you name it, and it's probably been rewritten as a love song to Kölle.) Strangers link arms and sway together to the music. And people are very well behaved. While it's true that whereever there are drinks, there are jerks, there are a lot fewer than one would expect, given the amount of alcohol being consumed and the crowds.

So Karneval ends up feeling like Halloween, karaoke, and a neighborhood block party, all rolled into one. I now understand why Swissy Pie likes to go. But how he manages to party like that night after night remains a mystery.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Mysteries of the Day

1. Since my earlier encounter, I've been wondering: is there some secret simpatico between Germans and Scots? The Steuben Parade, New York City's annual German celebration, also featured a bagpipe company. Several bagpipe companies, in fact. (Yes, I'm conflating the Swiss with their northern neighbors. But since the nice guys with square flags hosted several floats in the Steuben Parade, I feel somewhat justified.)

2. Has anyone else noticed that Switzerland has way more than its fair share of graffiti? There are probably more abused walls and overpasses in Basel than in all five boroughs of New York City. It's baffling, given how clean and orderly the Swiss are otherwise.

3. And while I'm at it, why on earth are the y's and z's switched on German/Swiss keyboards? Yes, I'm aware they use the 'z' more than the English, but honestly, it's not as if the American keyboard was laid out for maximum typing efficiency. Quite the opposite, actually. Way back in the Dark Ages, before computers and even IBM's ball typewriters were invented, there was a different, more efficient layout. But good typists got so fast that the typebars couldn't keep up with their fingers and jammed. The QWERTY layout was introduced to slow them down.


Saturday, February 17, 2007

Twelve highlanders and a bagpipe make a rebellion

If the old Scottish proverb is to be believed, this afternoon World War III was staged in the middle of Basel.

I was making my way along the Rhine, toward the old Mittlerebrücke at the heart of the city, when the wind carried a low, throbbing wail to my ears. Given Basel's recent spate of earthquakes, I initially thought it was an emergency alarm. But when the sound refused to conform to any logical shape or pattern, I realized my mistake. Really, I should have identified it immediately, for once heard, the shrill, insistent whine of the bagpipe is not easily forgotten. I can only plead cognitive dissonance. Who expects to come across a brigade of bagpipers in Switzerland?

I knew at once that there were quite a few of them, since I'd started hearing them well north of the Johanniterbrücke. Still, it was disconcerting to find myself squeezed aside by a phalanx of solemn, kilt-clad men as I attempted to cross into Kleinbasel. There must have been around 100 paraders. Some bore the bagpipes I'd heard from afar. At least four wore tubas draped around their bodies like feather boas. (Feather boas made from coils of shiny brass, that is.) The rest, as far as I can recall, kept their eyes straight ahead and marched with all the pomp and circumstance they could muster.

I must say that they looked quite impressive in their traditional regalia. Even more impressive was the green monster nipping at their heels: the tram, inching along ever so politely despite the driver's probable wish to ram through the crowds. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, today a band of rogue expatriate Scotsmen managed to disrupt the clockwork regularity of a Swiss mass transit system.

Too bad I was too distracted to make use of my camera phone. But I have now been stuck in traffic jams caused by sheep, cows, and bagpipers. Hurrah for Europe!


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Painting the town red (or at least a pale shade of pink)

Last night, Swissy Pie and I went to a charming wine bar called Rosario's Lo Spuntino, a cozy, casual little place on the Spalenberg, where we met one of his friends (and former boss). The seating consisted of a handful of tall oak barrel-topped tables and comfortable stools. An animated waitress with steely, close-cropped hair reigned over the bar, dispensing wine with a precise but generous hand. In the back, a small blackboard described two daily specials.

The menu was short and simple. The front page listed wines that could be had by the glass; the reverse side described cheese and/or meat cold platters that could be nibbled alongside. Everything was written in the type of oversized font I used to use back in college, when I was trying to get my papers up to the required minimum page count.

In New York, there would've been nothing particularly noteworthy about the place. Though the Italian Merlot on the menu was excellent, the Dolcetto was not. The mixed plate we got was good, but anyone can throw together a decadent plate of charcuterie. What's more, most of the patrons were smoking, which I'm not used to any longer.

Yet being there was like wearing a favorite sweater, comfortable and familiar. Part of it was the wine and food; part of it was the thrill of experiencing a new city. But mostly, I think it was the good company. Swissy Pie's friend reminded me of some of my own friends in New York, and it was unbelievably comforting to bask in the warmth of their laughter and their jokes. I felt welcomed and accepted. And for a brief time, I could pretend that I've always been here.

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Book Review: Case Histories

I spent part of my last evening in New York at Barnes and Noble, browsing the aisles and talking myself out of a ruinous shopping spree. I could hear a devil (or angel?) on one shoulder whispering, "Go for it! It'll be a long time before you get another chance to pick from so many English language books! Haven't you always wanted to read this one? And that one's a classic, everyone should own a copy!"

Luckily, common sense prevailed: books are heavy, and since I'd succumbed to the argument before, over clothes, I already had a great deal to lug over. Besides, I told myself sternly, I should be reading German books (though I still haven't found Richard Scarry's Big Book of Deutschewörter, which is roughly where I ought to start). Plus, there's always the miracle of Amazon.com.

I did end up getting two novels, though. One is going to be a birthday present for Swissy Pie, so I won't spill the beans in case he drops by for a visit. The other one I purchased on the grounds I needed something for the plane ride: Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson. An excellent decision, if I do say so myself, though my friend Dalia gets the credit for recommending it to me. If I hadn't been excessively sleepy from those two whiskey and tonics and a couple of follow-on glasses of wine, I would have stayed up the entire flight just to finish it.

The book is difficult to describe. Set primarily in Cambridge, England, it's technically a mystery - a mystery about multiple murders, at that. But it's far too literary to be associated with the predictible thrillers found on grocery store shelves. The writing is by turns spare and gritty, then lush and evocative, then humorous and ironic, as the point of view changes from one protagonist to another. And despite a large cast, the characters are mostly well-fleshed out, from the pathetically fat and unloved Amelia Land, sister to a girl who went missing decades ago, to the childish, bitter, yet oddly sympathetic private investigator Jackson Brodie. By the end, it's clear that the satisfaction of Case Histories doesn't derive from finding out whodunnit, but from examining the impact that deaths - particularly sudden, shocking ones - have on the survivors.

I could complain that the plot is driven by a few too many coincidences, or that the ending is simply too tidy. But those are small complaints for a novel that is, by and large, deeply satisfying.


Sunday, February 11, 2007

The best laid plans of mice and men

It's been an inauspicious start to my life in Switzerland.

It all began Friday, on a gorgeous afternoon that seemed to taunt me with visions of roads not taken. As I rambled through Riverside Park for one last time, sunlight gilded the elegant Manhattan skyline. The achingly clear blue sky whispered: "See what you'll be missing?" And just like that, I didn't want to leave.

I was booked on a 6:20 pm flight out of JFK that evening, but since Swissy Pie would be at a meeting the entire weekend, I was tempted to put off my exodus a day or two longer. I didn't take the idea too seriously, though. My sister, who's been putting me up (or should that be putting up with me?) for over a week, had suffered enough. Not to mention, Swissy Pie's mother had kindly offered to come all the way from Bern to pick me up in Zurich and take me to Basel; asking her to reschedule on a whim would've been downright rude.

Too bad that New York is just thoughtless that way.

The airport isn't far from my apartment - less than 20 miles, according to Mapquest. By car, when traffic is light, I've made it in as little as 20 minutes. Usually it takes about 45 minutes, though, so I thought I was giving myself a comfortable buffer by budgeting an hour, on top of the 2 hour advance check-in that airlines request for international flights. Traffic at 3 pm shouldn't be too terrible, I believed, and even if it took 1 1/2 hours (the longest I'd needed up until that point), I'd still easily make the airlines' hard check-in deadline of an hour in advance.

Alas, even though rush hour hadn't officially begun, cars already choked the streets of Manhattan. It took at least 3 traffic light cycles to cross one city block, and despite my predictions to the contrary, the highways were little better. So, 4:20 found me creeping along the Grand Central Parkway in Queens, barely halfway there and still bogged down in sludgy traffic. As the clock rolled inexorably forward, my anxiety ticked, leaped, and finally rocketed Pluto-ward.

I made it onto JFK grounds around 5:10, but my troubles were far from over. I couldn't see my airline listed on any of the terminal signs, so I hurtled from one to the next, searching frantically for the right one. Three rounds (and one inadvertent exit from JFK) later, I was tumbling into the proper check-in line, my hastily loaded luggage cart careening tipsily behind.

The man behind the counter gave me a disapproving look. "Which flight, miss?"

"The 6:20 to Zurich," I panted. "Just a minute while I dig out my passport."

"I'm sorry," he said, though he didn't sound the least bit remorseful. "The flight's closed."

I gave him my best pathetic look, which probably wasn't too far off from my original appearance, and launched into my tale of woe. He was unmoved. "The flight's already been locked down. There's nothing I can do. We'll have to move you to the 9:10. Please step aside and go over to the ticket counter."

I looked to where he was pointing; I looked down at my luggage. I had so much stuff I looked like a refugee: an unwieldy ski bag, an enormous hard-sided suitcase, and a fat red duffle bag that were threatening to tumble off my luggage trolley, and a wheeled carry-on that had a tendency to topple when loaded with the messenger bag and satchel I was toting around. Though the ticket booth was no more than 100 yards away, I couldn't face the prospect of dragging it all over there. But I was also too tired to argue, so after my initial moment of speechless horror, I sighed and obeyed.

Fortunately I didn't have any problems getting on the next flight, but I had far bigger problems trying to get in touch with Swissy Pie's mother. International calls weren't enabled on my cell, I didn't have a calling card, and I couldn't find a phone booth. The knowledge that it was nearly midnight in Switzerland didn't help. Finally I thought to call my brother, who called her for me. He spoke to her directly; she understood the message that I was delayed.

At last, the crisis was resolved, or so I thought. I rewarded myself with a nice whisky tonic (actually, two) while I waited to board.

Little did I know that Saturday would be almost as bad. Suffice it to say that the plane arrived an hour before I was told it would. Then, Swissy Pie's long-suffering mother couldn't find me in the airport for 45 minutes, because I'd gone outside to wait for her so she wouldn't have to park the car, and neither of us had cell phones. Because of all the delays, we missed lunch, and I had to throw together an ad hoc meal when I'd really wanted to take her out to a nice restaurant to thank her for her trouble.

Well, best not to dwell on it too much. Instead, I'll remind myself why missing my flight was actually a good thing. I had a chance to have a nice long talk with my family. I had time to turn off my cell phone service. The later hour made it easier for me to get to sleep on the plane. And I'm left with a memory of New York that I'm in no hurry to experience again.

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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Around the world in 80 boxes

My movers arrived at 9 AM sharp last Tuesday. I'd ended up picking a German company that had been recommended to Swissy Pie, and while I wasn't sure exactly what to expect - a small army of blond, stony-faced packing machines? - what I saw definitely wasn't it.

Three young kids stood outside my door, stale cigarette smoke seeping from their pores. While the crew chief could have been a poster-child for the Third Reich - tall, muscular, blond, and blue-eyed - he turned out to be Polish, as I discovered after he started giving instructions to a skinny silent Ukrainian kid who stuck near him the entire day. The third member of the team was a chunky, dark-haired Irish-Italian-German. I'd have happily wagered that none of them was older than 25. In fact, I wondered whether the Ukrainian needed a fake ID to get into bars. (On second thought, this could be a sign that I'm getting old.) How much experience packing could they possibly have had?

Before I could get too nervous, they charged. The Irish-Italian-German headed for the bedroom. The Polish and Ukrainian stayed in the living room. Soon, whiny squeals and dizzying clouds of chemical fumes choked the air, courtesy of the alarming quantities of markers, bubble wrap, and tape that the movers were consuming.

Like some neurotic ping pong ball, I bounced back and forth between the living room and the bedroom, marveling as the pile of boxes grew. Within a couple of hours an entire wall had been obscured; by lunch time, the closets were empty, and the big pieces of furniture had been completely encased in packaging material.

As fast as this had all happened, however, it evidently wasn't fast enough. In the afternoon, their boss - the man who'd surveyed my apartment - called to check on their progress. Whatever he said apparently made them nervous, so they started to speed up, just as they were getting to all the breakables in the kitchen. I watched anxiously as they wrapped up my favorite wine glasses in nothing more than paper (though they did use plenty of paper!) and piled them into an enormous dish boxes. Odds that all the kitchenware survives intact: pretty much close to zero, if you ask me. (Though one of the moving companies I'd interviewed told me the damage rate is about 25%: 1 in 4 shipments is reported to have some damage, either minor or catastrophic.)

Because they were short on counter space, the Ukrainian kid had placed a pile of packing paper on top of my gas stove. At one point, as he turned from wrapping to packing, he accidentally hit one of the knobs. Click click click went the stove. "Sh**!" went the Un-Swiss Miss, diving forward to turn it off. Just in time, too: the bottom layers of wrapping paper were already polka-dotted with smoldering ash. Good thing those plastic fumes had long since conquered my apartment, or the whole thing might have caught fire. And that day I wouldn't have been able to locate my brain, much less the fire extinguisher.

As it was, we were forced to endure the overwhelming stench of burnt paper for the rest of the day. Around 2:30 the boss called again, and the crew chief got so anxious that he actually asked me to help out. Not that I was entrusted with much: he gave me rolls of colorful stickers and told me to slap them on the appropriate boxes. I was the official sticker fairy, flitting around dispensing green "SEA FREIGHT" and red "FRAGILE" labels.

The guys had another panic attack when they went to start moving the boxes down to the truck. A sign hung from the door of the back elevator, which is the one we're supposed to use for moves: "STOP! ELEVATOR BEING SERVICED. PLEASE USE STAIRS." I live on the third floor. I have big, bulky, heavy furniture. Schlepping it down the stairs would not be fun.

Fortunately, it turned out that my building was being helpful: they'd hung the signs to make sure nobody but us would use it. Some of my neighbors gave the guys strange looks as they headed into the evidently out-of-order elevator. One even asked the crew chief: "Are you the repairman?" "Yep," he answered cheerfully, though I doubt the neighbor was dense enough to believe him.

At 4:30, I was signing a little form stating that the guys had arrived on time, and that they'd taken everything they were supposed to. It wasn't strictly true, since they were still ferrying down boxes and furniture. My beloved bicycles were still hanging from the walls, completely untouched: those would be wrapped later, in the warehouse. At 4:50 I got the inventory form - 4 pages! 80 items! - and we said our hurried goodbyes.

Or so we thought. Five minutes later, I was catapulting myself down the stairs after them, shrieking that they'd forgotten the enormous armoire that was sitting in the middle of my bedroom.

"Lucky for you that you caught us," the crew chief said, trying to make a joke of it. "You already signed off on the form!"

I smiled and agreed, though I was really thinking: "Lucky for you!" The armoire was listed on the inventory already; I suppose I could've just sold the thing here and claimed they lost it.

Finally, around 5 pm, the apartment was well and truly empty, except for a few piles of 6-year old dust (amazing how much can build up under furniture!), opened bottles of vinegar, oil, and cleaning fluids that the movers wouldn't pack, and the suitcases I'd be taking on the plane with me. I surveyed the place, trying to feel some sense of sadness, or regret, or... something. But I felt nothing. I was utterly drained.

I tottered back to the living room and slumped to the floor. Catharsis, I thought. My frantic, fretful month was finally over. And I would soon be headed home, to Switzerland.