Confetti + costumes + cakes = Carnival

March 11, 2011, 1 Comment

In the tram back from town today, I sat next to a pirate and opposite Pippi Longstocking – and that was just the adults. Everyone’s hair, and the floor of the tram, was festooned with what look like countless drops of rainbow rain. All that can only mean one thing: it’s Carnival time! This is the one point in the year when the Swiss (or at least the German-speaking majority) get dressed up, let down their hair and have a good time in public. With so many people in costumes,  it feels a bit like a three-day long Halloween street party, but without the scary black magic overtones.

As far as costumes go, they tend to be practical as much as decorative. Although it’s unseasonably warm at the moment, and Easter is very late this year, it’s still not the weather for gold body paint and a dental-floss outfit. This is Switzerland, not Rio. So lots of things that can cover layers of thermals, if necessary, and very little exposed flesh. It might be Carnival but there’s no need to go that far.

The next essential ingredient is confetti, though not the type used at British weddings – ie a discreet little box filled with pastelly paper hearts and horseshoes. This is confetti on an industrial scale, with the supermarkets selling giant bags of coloured dots and children running round throwing it at everyone. In about six months’ time, I will no doubt find a few last spots tucked away in the depths of my coat pockets. It really does get everywhere, particularly during the carnival parades when confetti cannons are used to spray the onlookers.

Lastly there are the special cakes, or Fasnachstchüechli (Merveilles in French, little carnival cakes in English), which have been in the shops for a few weeks now. They look like giant poppadums dusted in icing sugar, but taste more like flat crispy donuts. And that’s essentially what they are. It’s almost as if someone took a rolling pin to a donut before frying it and coating it in sugar. Nice, in a oily-sweet kind of way. I’m content to have one a year, a bit how some people view Brussel sprouts.

Carnival time, or Fasnacht, started in earnest last week in Lucerne, where masks of the papier maché or wooden variety are the big thing, and arrived yesterday in Bern. Last night the bear was released from his winter prison, where he’s been hibernating since 11 November last year. Actually it’s a man in a bear costume, just in case you thought the Bernese were being cruel to their bears; today is children’s day, not a good day to be in town if you want to shop without hundreds of over-excited kids running around your legs. Tomorrow it’s the big parade, by the end of which the whole town will be ankle-deep in confetti. But this is Switzerland, so it’ll all be hoovered up as soon as the festivities are over. Next week it’s Basel, where they take their Fasnacht very seriously, all getting up at 4am to see it start. Pipes, drums, lanterns and days of having a jolly good time. Or escaping abroad if it’s not your thing.

Once it’s all over, the big question is: can I live in Switzerland and still manage to give up chocolate for Lent? For some strange reason (certainly not religious) I’ve set myself that challenge this year. It could be a long forty days…

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