Federer and UBS’s Ospel were probably not playing the same tune
Update 25 February 09:30 (video clip) Basel, Switzerland (GenevaLunch) – The people of Basel will have sore feet by the early hours of Thursday 25 February, as Fasnacht moves into its final drumbeats after three days of incessant marching and parade-watching.
If you’ve read Swiss newspapers you could be forgiven for thinking that the guests of honour were Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi and former Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz. They were indeed present, but only in effigy, dozens and dozens of versions of each of them. Uncle Sam, who looked like an IRS (US tax authority) employee saying “I want YOU!” also showed up several times during the parades and in city bars.
More intriguing, however, were the rumours flying thick that one of the pipers behind a mask was Marcel Ospel, former boss of banking giant UBS and a citizen of Basel. “He never gave back his bonus!” the word went round. But should the piper pay the piper? Ospel apparently thought not.
If he was behind a mask he was one of thousands, and there was no danger of it being pulled off in this festival with no written rules, but an unspoken list of do’s and don’ts. Masks stay on.
Another giant question mark hanging over the crowd was the possible presence Roger Federer. The tennis star had said that he would not be participating in the Dubai tournament because of a lung infection, that he would be taking a little time off. Where better to do that than in hometown Basel during its famous Fasnacht, the city whispered loudly.
For loud it is in Basel during Fasnacht, surely one of Europe’s most spectacular shows and all the more endearing to visitors because it is not put on for tourists.
The parade route is 7km long, but the city’s population joins in so enthusiastically that there are 14km of people. “It poses a few organizational problems,” says Fasnacht Comite President Felix Rudolf von Rohr, a former politician, ruefully.
The way money really works in Basel
How many tourists come to town for the event, von Rohr was asked by visiting journalists. “We don’t know. We don’t count them,” he says. The closest anyone has come was to calculate one year that CHF30 million more is spent on food, drink, costumes and related items during the Fasnacht week. And CHF1m is spent cleaning up afterwards.
The finances are simple: Fasnacht is not subsidized and those in the parade pay for their own costumes, elaborate masks, props and floats. Badges, called Blaggedde, are sold everywhere during the festival, for CHF10 and 15 francs. Anyone on the street who is not wearing a badge is fair game for pranksters, so the badges sell well. The money goes to the Comite, a group of 13 who are members with unlimited terms, and they decide which cliques, the parade groups, get money and how much. It depends on how good their costumes and sujets, or themes, were for the last festival. Within each clique, the president then decides who gets reimbursed for some of their expenses.
“People are very keen to get the president’s jobs,” according to one woman from Basel who says that you join a clique when you’re young and stay with the same one most of your life. “It’s pretty unusual to change.”
That kind of power, to take in money and disburse it, could be a temptation to some, so are the accounts verified, von Rohr was asked. “Of course!” he says. This answer is repeated by others, when asked if the money given to the president of a clique must be accounted for, too.
The money serves another, law enforcement function. Fasnacht has no rules, only do’s and don’ts that are remarkably well observed. Satire can walk very close to the edge of cruelty, however.
A journalist ask von Rohr if there are ever problems with anti-Semitism, or anti-Muslim sentiments, for example. He is quick to say that “Swiss law is the rule,” in the end, so anti-religion comments are taboo, as is anything that invades an individual’s privacy.
“But you don’t have any way of enforcing this, right?” insists another journalist at a pre-Fasnacht press conference.
“Oh yes,” he smiles. “We just don’t give them any money. The word gets around pretty fast. People know how close to the edge they can go and where the limits are,” says von Rohr.
A din well before dawn
The festival, Switzerland’s largest February carnival and arguably the most colourful, begins officially when the lights in the city are turned off abruptly at 04:00 Monday.
Twelve thousand people marched in the parade early Monday this year and cheered, despite a drizzling rain. There was a sudden din as thousands of pipes and drums went to work. The musicians and others marched with lanterns in hand or more often on their heads, to wake up lazy citizens still in bed. There cannot have been many of those.
The size of the crowd watching was as great as the marchers.
Two hours later the crowd begins to thin as some people head for bed, but most find breakfast in the cafés that keep whatever hours they want, for a change. Typical fare: Basel brown flour soup, onion and cheese tarts.
The big public events of Fasnacht that follow are the parades on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, with several activities and a parade for children on Tuesday. Brass bands boom Gugge music as they march Tuesday night.
Privately, the city never stops partying.
It’s all about poking fun
Fasnacht in Basel is living proof that the Swiss are organized, can move like clockwork (but we knew that), have a wicked sense of humour, and that there is no one they like to poke fun at more than themselves. Upright citizens most of the year, Basel’s population lets loose for half a week: they close most shops but open others in the wee hours of the morning, forego the office and continually shove confetti down each other’s necks. Unsuspecting tourists get bopped on the head by wooden clubs that are really balloons, carried by grunting cavemen. A larger than usual number of street people wander around.
The streets are the messiest you will ever see in Switzerland, but everyone knows they will be swept later in the week. The near-absence of police is remarkable and something other cities might envy, especially given that the party runs night and day for three days. Alcohol is consumed, but drunkenness is rare.
There is one golden rule: do not take yourself seriously. This goes for the butt of jokes – you, me, Qadaffi and Merz included.
Fasnacht is also proof that not all Swiss talk alike, for much of the humour is lost on anyone who cannot make sense of Basel’s peculiar own brand of German – which is anyone not born and raised in the city.
The power of the community lies behind unwritten Fasnacht rules
The festival has murky origins, but it has existed in some form since at least the 14th century. Records exist of a 1376 event which began as a jousting tournament and ended as a bloodbath, with Basel losing the protection of the Holy Roman Empire as a result of its rowdy behaviour: this is the first recorded Fasnacht.
In 1529 it was decided to hold it on the Monday and Wednesday after Ash Wednesday, unlike most Catholic Mardi Gras festivals today, but it is not clear if this was done to snub Rome. Masks were banned as “perilous” in 1715 and in 1798 parades and drumming were banned. Later, the torches used for parading through the city were not permitted, considered too dangerous.
Fasnacht as it exists today is 100 years old. The Comite oversees the parade route and security but the event is loosely organized by the 500 or so cliques, or groups, each of which decides soon after one Fasnacht, what its own “sujet” or theme will be for the next one. Politics and politician’s foibles are high on the list.
Elaborate costumes and masks for the parades are organized accordingly, posters and wagons are painted to illustrate the satirical sujets, which lie at the heart of Fasnacht. People lining the parade route eagerly read the posters and painted wagons. They grab the flyers handed out by the cliques as they walk along, eager to see who’s being made fun of now.
Fasnacht tips for visitors
- do’s and don’ts: top of the list is do not use flash on your camera during the darkened parade the first night, called Morgenstreich, and stay out of the way of the marchers
- do buy a badge from anyone on the street selling them
- wear comfortable shoes, for you may find yourself standing for four hours watching the parade, and consider an alternative to eye-poking umbrellas if it rains
- be sure to pick up a copy of the parade route from the tourism office in advance and arrive 30 minutes early; trams run most of the night, but not on normal routes, so check the schedule and stops that are working
- stay out of the marchers’ way and if you find a wonderful mask sitting outside a bar, leave it: a lot of work and often money has gone into making it, but the owner is taking a short break.
The Basel Tourism Office has package deals for the weekend which are well worth considering, with bed, breakfast and city transport included. You won’t go hungry in any event, with bread and a variety of sausages for CHF4-6 on sale on every street corner.