FASNACHT & CARNIVAL
By Jonathan Freedman
IN MY OVERSEXED TWENTIES, as an apprentice reporter in Rio de Janeiro, it was a supreme sacrifice for me to cover the orgiastic Brazilian carnaval for the Associated Press. But someone had to do it, and I persevered.
With a Brazilian press pass, I had free access to the escolas de samba (samba schools), the costume balls, and a front row seat at the delirious parade.
All year long, Rio’s humble folk prepare for a night of glory, when the rich become beggars, and poor become princesses. Maids and janitors spend a month’s wages to outfit themselves in satin and brocade.
After a grueling day at the sweltering A.P. office at Praca Maura, I escaped to the legendary samba schools perched on hilltop squatter favelas. Strictly as an impartial observer, I watched nubile Brasileiras perform gravity-defying feats of gyration to the incessant samba drumbeat. I tried the dance steps, but my clumsy feet did not obey. Carnaval defied poverty, but I suspected the money might be better spent on nutrition and education. Yet… who was I to judge?
And now the preparations were done. The hilltops echoed with drums. Rio held its breath for the big night, a noite do carnaval. Let the parade begin!
First came the phalanx of drummers beating the heart-stopping drums, then the nearly naked dancers shaking their Brazilian booties, followed by the ebony Bahainas swirling their lacy white skirts, and then the fantastical floats bearing mythological beasts, crowned by the fat King of Carnaval — Rei Momo!
Around 4 a. m., fireworks burst over the parade. I had an epiphany. To hell with grubbing for money, struggling for success, and worrying about failure. Life is carnaval! Let this be my guiding star…
A naïve wish that makes me sad just thinking about it.
Thirty-odd years later, I am a recovering editorialist and second-time-around father apprenticing as a novelista and hausmann in Switzerland. Here in Basel they celebrate their own form of carnaval, called fasnacht. It comes in the dead of winter, just the opposite of Rio. And the stereotype of the dour, sexually inhibited, penny-pinching Swiss is diametrically opposed to the exuberant, promiscuous, and profligate Brazilian. Beware of invidious comparisons: Today, Brazil’s economy is booming, and the largest Swiss bank may go bankrupt.
Nevertheless, over time and distance, impressions grow into caricatures. I left Brazil to celebrate America’s Bicentennial, and though I promised to return to Rio for carnaval, I’ve never made it back, except in daydreams and nocturnal emissions.
I never thought I’d be a hausmann looking after my adorable kinder while my talented Herren Doktor Isabelle Rooney, a clinical oncology researcher, brings home the bacon, so to speak. And though some might envy my freedom to pursue my avocation while the kids are in school, on certain days the grey skies turn me blue. …
So, with a twinge of carnaval envy, I await fasnacht.
How does it compare with Brazil? Do the Swiss wear fur-lined coats over their costumes? Do they have sex with strangers? Do they pull wads of Swiss Francs from their mattresses… to buy a moment of bliss? Do bankers disguise as beggars? (More on this theme, anon…) Do hausfraus and hausmanns strip off their aprons and kick up their heels? Do the law-abiding Swiss violate the verboten? Flush toilets after 10 p.m.? Park in an unauthorized zone? Smile on the street?
The Alps and the Amazon are antipodal environments, yet the Brazilians and Swiss and share this paganistic ritual, which the French call Mardi Gras — Fat Tuesday. What repressed desire and spiritual hunger does carnaval-fasnacht-mardi-gras fulfill? Why them, and not the rest of us? Questions burning to be answered by a brave soul willing to endure pain for the mere possibility of pleasure…
At midnight, I gazed at my cozy family camping out in the attic of our little rented house at #2 Rosenweg – Rose Lane. It was the first sleepover in our new digs, and our furniture had not yet arrived on the slow boat from California. We had four sleeping bags, a Coleman inflatable mattress, two gorgeous Italian quilts, a Dell laptop with 24-inch monitor, a rose-scented candle and matches – everything you need for a cozy camp-in. The creaky old house was cold and empty beneath us, the radiators had not been turned on for weeks, and the pantry was bare. Rain fell on the skylights.
I plugged in the computer and blew the fuse. The entire house fell in darkness. Dang it! I stumbled down the staircase to the cellar and unscrewed the ancient ceramic fuse – then screwed it back in. Light!
We got the computer working and slipped in the DVD, an old Hollywood movie. Rain drizzled on the windows. Hot air from the furnace whistled in the flue. The 1920s-era house shivered its timbers. I looked out at the streets wet with rain, cold and deserted.
Hausmann, my indoorsy doppelganger, took me aside and whispered, “Freedmann, why are you going out there? Do you believe you can recapture carnaval in this frigid wasteland? Stay in this cozy attic with your wife and children…”
Freedman looked at his Hamilton watch, the same brand he’d worn in the Amazon. “I’ve got to hurry,” he said tersely. “Or I’ll miss the last tram.”
“But fasnacht doesn’t start till 4 a.m.!”
Hausmann’s words were silenced by the slamming front door, as your intrepid correspondent disguised as a ski bum ventured out into the night…
I boarded the midnight tram and arrived at the central train station around 12:30. Since this was the first night of fasnacht, I expected the streets to be crowded with revelers. In Rio, Avenida Rio Branco would be teeming with hundreds of thousands of marchers and spectators waiting for the carnaval parade. The incessant drumbeat would be echoing from the hilltops to the sidewalk cafes, and it would be sweltering hot….
The streets of Basel were nearly deserted. The cafes were closed. The park benches were wet. The banhoff was dank and cold. Where are the people, the costumes, and the marching bands?
“Got the wrong date, Freedmann?”
I sat down on a bench inside the terminal with a couple of deadbeats, and slunk down in my parka for warmth. The gloomy depot echoed with sharp commands – polizia rousting out bums. Move on…
I wandered around the streets for an eternity it seemed.
“Come back to your beloved family.”
I was tempted, but the trams had stopped running.
Around 1:30, I was startled by youths belting out a drinking song. To my untrained ear, they sounded like Storm Troopers singing the Horst Wessel song in a B-grade World War II movie. Paranoid, I ducked into the shadows and watched as they pissed in unison on a wall and roared off into the night.
I hurried on, hands thrust in pockets, ducking into my parka like a tortoise in a shell. The rain drilled down, soaking through.
Barfusserplatz, which means “barefoot plaza,” was virtually empty. A travel agency advertized flights to the Brazil. If I boarded now and flew west across time zones, could I arrive in Rio in time for carnaval?
“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride!” my grandmother Helen whispered in my ear from long ago and far away.
Look! A neon sign beckoned — RIO BAR. I pinched myself, but it was still there. I pushed through the swinging doors into a smoky saloon smelling of wet woolen socks and stale beer. I looked around the seedy joint. Hairy apes locked elbows, raising foaming steins, and poured beer down each other’s throats – a male bonding ritual. A mousy herren with pointy secretary glasses rocked out on her seat, while her droopy-eyed herr belched and fell asleep. The jukebox alternated between classic rock and Germanic beer songs. I snickered when they played Ringo’s “Yellow Submarine.” Then I remembered the Beatles got their start in Hamburg, Germany.
The Rio Bar was not exactly Copacabana, but being pressed against warm bodies revived me a bit. Then I realized I was the oldest dude in the joint. What are you doing here, Freedmann? Trying to recapture your wastrel youth?
The smoke made my eyes tear up, and I pushed out into the rain once again.
A church bell clanged twice — 2 a.m.
What are you going to do for two more hours in this rain?
Barfusserplatz showed a few signs of activity. Men in harlequin costumes… grotesque masks with huge noses… lugging bass drums… vendors setting up wurst stands. Charcoal embers sizzling in the rain.
A swank piano bar beckoned. I looked through the window at the rose-cheeked couples sipping champagne and highballs. Candlelight softened their sharp features, as the setting sun softens austere churches. And the raindrops on my glasses captured the glow like stained glass windows. The piano player decked out in a penguin suit tickled the keys, “Stardust.”
I yearned to join the sophisticated crowd, but caught my reflection in the glass – a bedraggled outsider with woolen stocking cap pulled low over forehead, dark eyes brooding under thick brows, unshaven cheeks.
I backed away from my reflection. It was raining hard now. Puddles forming on the cobblestones. The dregs left me feeling tired and heavy on my feet. I sought shelter under a spectral tree silhouetted against the façade of a darkened cathedral. Gnarled roots buckled the cobblestones, reaching deep below the pavement, tenaciously gripping the soil. What scenes had this tree witnessed over fasnachts past?
I sought its shelter and comfort. Looking around to see the police wouldn’t arrest me for loitering, I squatted down on my heels, rested my back against the tree, and laid down my heavy load. Above, the branches offered a small perimeter of shelter from the icy rain. I drew up my knees to my chest and pulled my feet inside the protective circle. Only my toes got spattered on. I pulled up the collar to my ears, grasped elbows around knees, and slunk down in the parka. Dry and safe from the rain, anonymous and invisible, I melted into the darkness. I felt warm and secure and grounded, nestled in my tent, and breathed warm moist air into the little hollow space. The Rio Bar sign blinked on and off, brushing the cobblestones with pastel pinks and blues like an Impressionistic painting. Two legged pigs strode across Barfusserplatz. A gigantic mouse hurried by. Drowsy, I closed my lids, drifting off…
Magically, I was back in Belem, at the mouth of the mighty Rio Amazonas. It was my last night in Brazil, and I’d planned it to coincide with carnaval in the steamy port town. The provincial parade was less spectacular than Rio’s extravaganza, but more intimate and inviting… Sporting a tattered Panama hat and linen shirt that stuck to my sweating chest, I blended into the crowd, joining a samba line. My feet lost their clumsiness, and my hips swayed with the rhythm.
I spied a gorgeous Cat Woman wearing a black mask, whiskers, and tail curling alluringly from her nearly bare derriere. Her chaperone was a bare-chested pirate festooned with golden bangles, brandishing an antique sword. I don’t know what got into me, but I followed Cat Woman at a polite distance, strictly as an impartial observer. The crowd surged, pushing me against her back. Her tail brushed my zipper. I jumped back, terrified of the pirate’s sword.
“Opa!” she cried, wheeling around. When she laughed, her white teeth gleamed in the darkness. She spoke a bit of English. “I’m Egypt cat goddess. Who are you?”
“Getulio Vargas,” I replied, channeling the legendary president of the 1940s, who sported linen suits… moldering in a grave.
“I present you my cousin, Julio Cesar,” she said.
The pirate smiled gaily, gave me a limp handshake, kissed his cousin on both cheeks, and got lost in the crowd.
We ended up at a little sailor’s hotel near the riverboat docks. She slipped off her cat suit, and I shed my linen suit.
We were making torrid love… when I saw a mini-Freedman conceived in passion, abandoned by his American father, growing up in misery… Panicked, I pulled back.
“What’s wrong, amor?”
“I forgot to put on my little hat.”
“Huh?” she asked, looking quizzically at the Panama.
I dug into my wallet, where I always kept a foil wrapped condom, just in case… and dove back into her arms.
“Ai, meu amor!” she cried, fluttering against me.
Joined like butterflies, we drifted off to sleep, borne on the tidal river rolling to the sea.
Later, a weary band passed under the window, playing a plaintive samba. I was awakened by church bells, calling repentant revelers to Ash Wednesday mass.
“My God, I’m going to miss my flight!” I cried, exploding out of bed.
We hailed a taxi, rushing past the carnaval carnage to the bush airport. In the daylight, we looked like an old married couple after a catfight. Sweetly, she accompanied me to the boarding gate. We embraced one last time, mascara running down her cheeks.
“When you come back?”
And then the plane lifted off, winging over the scaly river snaking through the rainforest — my last glimmer of Brazil.
Clink, clink… I heard a ringing sound on the wet cobblestones, and shivered my rain-soaked shoulders. CLINK! CLINK!
I forced open my eyes, peeking at the platz.
A murder of crows – drunken youths wearing immense beaks and black feathers— towered above me, laughing derisively and tossing coins at my feet. I didn’t understand their guttural slang, but I got the message.
“Wait, I’m an American.”
“Rich American beggar!”
I gave them the middle-finger salute.
“You fool, they’ll peck off your finger!” shouted my guardian angel, Hausmann.
But the crows didn’t take the bait. Maybe they didn’t recognize the obscene gesture, or just maybe they saw the killer in Freedmann’s dark eyes.
I climbed to my feet, maintaining a penny’s-worth of dignity, and walked away, leaving the coins in the crevices. Hopefully, a poor wretch would find them.
The crows cawed at the retreat of the American chicken hawk.
I ploughed through a gaggle of gawkers and climbed a steep lane toward a Kafkaesque castle. Passing through a stone archway, I found myself in Old Basel. A warren of streets leading back centuries. The windows peered down, arching their brows. I thought I saw one wink, but it was a lantern reflecting off the glass. The low doorways echoed softly, as if gossiping among themselves. I heard giggling and laughter. Above the doors antique numbers were painted: 1764… 1568… 1485. Addresses, or historical dates when they were built? Astonishingly, they were still being occupied!
Revelers dressed in velvet pantaloons, scarlet capes, and lace gowns were gathering in front of fasnacht clubs. Lights glowed inside, and Herr and Herren doktors, bankers, professors traded their suits for antic costumes. White-haired ladies and gentlemen raised fluted wine glasses to their lips, recapturing youthful romance, or catching up with old friends. Year after year, they reveled together at this hour, aging gracefully like fine old Swiss watches.
The venerable fasnacht associations dated back decades, perhaps centuries, and membership was a privilege and responsibility. Baslers took their fasnacht seriously, and preparations lasted all year. The societies also served as social clubs: members wooing, marrying, and inducting their children. The Swiss equivalent of the samba schools! But Old Basel was not a squatter slum.
I had no press pass, no entré to the parties, and no chutzpah to barge in.
“Go ahead, peek inside!” Hausmann cajoled, peering over my shoulder. “What delicacies are they serving? Look at their exquisite furnishings.”
“Go back to your inflatable mattress!”
I stood outside, looking in on a world lost in time. Courtiers bowed to ladies, knights saluted lords. A medieval bestiary opened its parchment pages, and parrots and griffins flew out. Each costume was unique, each lantern hand painted. Enchanting, bizarre, martial, scary, shrewish, and sublime. The masks were big papier-mâché affairs that fit over their heads, with protruding noses and grotesque mouths with eyeholes. They wore wooden clogs clomping on cobblestones worn smooth by the slow shuffle of their forebears’ feet in the processions dating back centuries.
Today’s revelers were bursting with zeitgeist like crocuses popping through patches of snow. They gabbled quietly, ignoring the rain. Slowly they began lighting up lanterns affixed to their headgear, or raised on poles. Once upon a time candles illuminated the lanterns, but now battery-powered bulbs served the purpose. They were brilliantly decorated with heraldry, surreal imagery, or cartoonish satire, and glowed like portable stained-glass windows. Amateur musicians pulled silvery fifes from pockets and waggled fingers on the holes. Burly drummers heaved bass drums on shoulder harnesses.
The block party gained momentum as revelers sloshed out of the clubs like mice fleeing from a flood. I shivered in the rain, gradually warmed by the fasnachters’ closeness, charmed by their gayety, basking in their camaraderie. I was drawn to the lantern light like a lost hiker to a stranger’s campfire. I no longer felt alien, nor old. Age was venerated by fasnacht, while carnaval worshipped eternal youth.
They were forming up, without my noticing. No one gave commands. No bustling. No shouts. No whistles. The orders were issued by their cultural DNA.
High above the street, a mother in a dressing gown held her babe to the forth-storey window. It watched, wide-eyed, as if beholding a magical caterpillar unfolding on a twig.
I heard the collective inhale and hold its breath, as the hour approached four o’clock. The witching hour when the ghosts fly about like bats in belfries.
Suddenly, the lights of Basel went off. Black as the night sky following a lightning strike.
In the darkness, the lanterns glowed more brightly.
Then the fifes piped up. The drums struck up. Rat-tat-boom! Clogs rose, legs swung forward, and the procession began. A slow march of thousands of feet moving in unison up the cobblestone lane. The lanterns bobbed on poles like caterpillar antennae feeling their way. The faces of the old houses flushed as the procession passed by, showering them with flowers. Creaky timbers limbered up; chimneys inhaled deeply, lighting hearth fires.
As my eyes adjusted, my senses sharpened. I heard the crunching of pebbles under wooden soles; smelled mixture of perfumed ladies and storm drains, felt the cool raindrops on my nose, and tasted water bubbling from a fountain.
I stood at a crossroads where four parade groups marched toward each other.
“Watch out, they’re going to crash!” Hausmann cried, waving his hands like a traffic cop.
The marchers rotated in a circle and did a complex crossing maneuver without breaking ranks. I got caught between parade groups and got shoved aside by some hefty line blockers.
“I told you so!” Hausmann gloated.
I glowered, losing him in the crowd.
After awhile, the fifes got on my nerves. There are more than 40 fasnacht melodies, I’ve been told, but they all sound like variations of “Yankee doodle dandy.” The monotonous drumbeat penetrated my teeth like a dentist’s drill. The slow parade blurred into a funeral procession. Yodelers can’t dance.
Brazilians are born exhibitionists. They strut, gyrate, leer, make obscene gestures, twirl bangles around their nipples, bump and grind their hips like steel blades grinding coffee beans. Carnaval crescendoes at dawn, into an orgy of exploding fireworks, leaders blowing whistles in a futile attempt to bring order out of chaos.
As I followed the fasnacht bands from the narrow streets, down the hill to the vast Marktplatz jammed with tens of thousands, the scale reduced the quality like a big screen TV showing grainy newsreels of the 1955 Macy’s Day Parade. On Marktplatz the fasnacht groups were bigger, the lanterns huge, the instruments louder and brassier. But ompah bands no longer excited me. Floats with sponsors rolled by, passing out candy and oranges. It seemed canned and commercial.
There were ugly scenes with men stuffing confetti down young women’s bodices. They laughed and squealed as if they enjoyed it. So what do I know?
I grew tired of the fifes stuck like a needle in an old record. I fell behind and yearned for carnaval.
No one knew me. What did I care?
So I let loose. I danced. I strutted. I capered. I leapt. I sang “Cidade Maravilhosa” and “A Noite do Carnaval.” I raised my hands above my head like Zorba the Greek. And sometime in the coldest, darkest hours before dawn, rain-soaked and shivering, I shrugged the years off my shoulders and was young and naïve once more. I reached the place where carnaval and fasnacht bridged the polarities, where winter turned to summer, misery transformed into joy.
Exhausted and purged, I caught the tram home and crept up the squeaky stairs, into the attic where my beloveds slept. I climbed gently onto the inflatable mattress, trying not to bounce my sleeping angels, and slipped between the quilts into a deep, untroubled sleep.