This week in Basel it was Fasnacht!
Fasnacht is the spring festival in Basel – it’s a bit like Mardis Gras, and takes place a week after Shrove Tuesday. It lasts exactly 72 hours, running from 4am on the Monday to 4am on the Thursday. It’s INSANE. Some Fasnacht facts (Fas-facts?) I’ve been told over the last few days which I can’t confirm but sound good:
- 1 in 7 Baslers is an active “Fasnachtler” – Fasnachtlers are members of the marching bands which patrol the city in full costume throughout the festival.
- Some people stay up for the WHOLE 72 hours. (how???)
- Fasnacht is supposed to “chase away the ghosts of the winter” – the sun has been out in Basel this week, so clearly it works.
The official Fasnacht website doesn’t offer a lot of clues as to its origins, other than that, “the terrible earthquake of 1356 which destroyed large parts of the city and many official archives”, so there’s no real record of the festival’s beginning.
The profits from these badges help to fund Fasnacht, so it’s bad form to be seen without one. You can even buy a gold version! The design this year is based on the new tower at Roche, where I work. A surprising choice, as not all the locals are big fans of the tower; it’s set to be the tallest building in Switzerland when it’s completed, so it’s pretty big on the Basel skyline.
Before Basel Fasnacht is Chienbäse, which takes place in Liestal. “Cheinbäse” is the name for the bundles of pinewood which are traditionally set alight and carried through the old cobbled streets of the town.
These seem pretty impressive. Then you see the bonfires:
It gets pretty warm! The procession gets on for about an hour, with the bonfires getting taller and hotter until the whole street is filled with smoke. This happens the Sunday night before Fasnacht begins in Basel, so I left smelling of woodsmoke and opted to stay up all night for the 4am start.
Fasnacht in Basel begins with Morgenstraich.
At 4am on the Monday of Fasnacht, all the lights in the city are switched off, and the laterns belonging to the various “cliques” are illuminated. They then parade around the city into the morning, playing the traditional Fasnacht tune on piccolos.
The next day, things get very different. Large brass marching bands assemble to play Guggenmusik, often discordant versions of pop songs or standards (I heard the Pink Panther Theme A LOT). Waggis appear, showering everyone with confetti, flowers, and increasingly strange gifts – on separate occasions, I saw fruit, cuddly toys, scarves, cakes, lighters, cans of cider, leeks, potatoes and bulbs of garlic handed out. In my bag at the end of the day I had sheets and sheets of stickers, a white rose, a bag of popcorn and a lemon.
Many of the costumes and lanterns featured jokes, mostly about politics or social issues. Being written in the Swiss German dialect, the majority of these went right over my head. However, I think everyone can appreciate this topless Putin costume:
After an exhausting weekend, I was back to work on Tuesday – no 72 hour partying for me. Despite the rain, I can definitely see why the locals call Fasnacht die drey scheenschte Dääg, or “the three most beautiful days”.
As usual, I’ve been using my stack of uni reading as an excuse to go and drink coffee in pretty cities near Basel under the pretence of “studying”. This week, Freiburg:
Freiburg is a small German city on the edge of the Black Forest. I’d visited Freiburg once before, but on a Sunday; as with Basel, Freiburg is pretty much closed on a Sunday so it was great to see it on a busier day. Even if it was a bit grey:
The weather did nothing to deter the stallholders, however; the Freiburg Münstermarkt has existed in one form or another since the town was granted market rights in 1120, so a bit of rain wasn’t about to stop it. There are huge flower stalls, as well as vegetables, handicrafts, and all kinds of exciting food stands.
I even found a stall full of mysterious vegan treats! They’re made from nuts, dates, dark chocolate and dried fruit. I got a few to try, which went well with my coffee on the train home.
I spent the rest of the day exploring Freiburg. The city is full of beautiful cobbled side streets, lined with pastel coloured buildings and “Bächle” – tiny canals set into the ground.
All in all, a great place to get lost for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. On the train back to Basel I encountered a group of Fasnachtlers who were already gearing up for the festivities, which begins this evening! I’ll be at Chienbäse and Morgenstreich tonight – any advice would be greatly appreciated!
It’s become a running joke between me and my housemates that I am the “artsy” one – cemented last week when I convinced two of them to accompany me to see Birdman at the cinema. I’d like to think I enjoyed it enough for all three of us? I asked around to see if anyone wanted to join me to see The Tiger Lillies this week at Kaserne, but in retrospect, it probably wouldn’t have helped my reputation..
When I heard that The Tiger Lillies would be coming to town, the name rang a bell – the Peacock & Gamble podcast used to use their music, so I’d heard bits and pieces. The bio for the band on the Kaserne website was in German, and running it through google translate gives possibly the best description of them you could write:
“the lyrics are not for the value Conservatives and wherever there is objectionable, they put it provocatively another. Bandleader Martyn Jacques sings about whores, junkies, pickpockets, murder, the common man’s life and all the smoke died sparkled figures in the world”
So there’s that.
I’ve decided I’m a big fan of going to gigs alone – go can stand where you want, show up when you want, and you don’t need to fight your way back to exactly where you left everyone if you want to go to the bar. Kaserne has a bit of a weird layout, and kept the audience in what I can only describe as a holding room until about 15 minutes before the band took the stage. In this time, I was approached by a guy from the local tv news who was covering the gig. I quickly gave up on trying to talk to him in German (I really haven’t made much progress) but he was undeterred and pressed on in English. The outcome of this is that there is now footage out there somewhere of me like a rabbit in the headlights (quite literally; Kaserne has pretty low lighting, so the camera had a huge lamp strapped on the front) mumbling about how I was excited to be there. The world is a strange place.
Tiger Lillies took to the stage and were faced with perhaps the most unusual audience I’ve been a part of at a gig. People drink WINE at gigs here – I can’t imagine ordering a glass of red wine at a gig in Birmingham. And right down the front was a kid with his parents who couldn’t have been much older than ten. Now seems like a good time to point out that a LOT of The Tiger Lillies’ songs are about drug abuse, prostitutes, and dead babies. This is not an exaggeration:
I don’t know how much English your average swiss ten-year-old has under his belt, but I’m pretty sure he got the jist.
No one in the audience seemed the slightest bit phased by the content of their songs, though. The Tiger Lillies have been gigging hard for a pretty long time, and it shows – they are a really tight band live, and use everything at their disposal to give a great performance. (Think props, masks, and the occasional over-enthusiastic audience member). They mix up the instruments a fair bit too – they’re a three piece band, but the stage was full of instruments, including a piano, drums, double bass, guitar, accordion, ukelele, theremin and musical saw. The latter was a highlight for me.
Perhaps down to the diverse audience and unpredictable performance, but the atmosphere was fantastic. Basel is gearing up for Fasnacht right now, so Tiger Lillies with all their greasepaint and circus vibes seemed to fit right in. After a brilliant (and long!) evening, the band were hanging out right outside, and were kind enough to pose for a photo:
Second from the left in this picture is Kimmy, who isn’t in the band – we met in the audience! She’s staying in Alsace on study abroad from university in DC, and heard my English accent a mile off. Just shows how international Basel can be.
In a few weeks I’ll be off to Berlin to see Father John Misty – any suggestions for what I should do while I’m there?
Since coming back to Basel after the Christmas break, I’ve realised that I need to find some more time for my University course. My physical chemistry exam is only weeks away, and I’m the first to admit that it isn’t my strong point!
This means a lot of sitting down and reading through notes. On the plus side, I find trains a great place to read, and I live right near Basel SBB station. So, I’ve been taking advantage of this excuse to do some exploring!
Last weekend I made my way to Mulhouse, which is only a half hour trip across the border into Alsace. I’d been advised by a coworker not to, “waste time visiting Mulhouse”, so my hopes weren’t high – it’s just so close that it seemed silly not to visit. However, I was pleasantly surprised! Mulhouse has some great architecture, including the gothic Temple Saint-Étienne or “Cathédrale de Mulhouse” right in the centre of the City.
Just across the square from this is the Rothüss, or city hall – a great pink Renaissance style building covered in paintings. Hung in the doorway of this usually flamboyant building was a sobering sign, reading, “Je Suis Charlie“. These signs could be seen in the windows of businesses all over the city; I was there on the 10th of January, only a few days after the Paris attack, and the events had cleary resonated throughout the country.
After a few hours wandering around the city, I found a great little café where I settled down to get some reading done – I had to do something to maintain the idea that I was getting some uni work done. Everyone has different ways of studying, and for me environment makes a huge difference – I can never get anything done in my own flat. Great coffee and pain au chocolat is a big help, too ;)
A week later, and I decided to visit Bern. The train there stopped in Olten, which was excitingly snowy. The Swiss of course are used to a bit of snow – everything still works, nothing shuts, and the news doesn’t devote 90% of it’s attention to weather reporting. However, as a Brit I can’t help but think it’s a big deal whenever it happens.
In Bern itself it was a little more rainy than snowy, but still pretty cold! There’s so much to see in the city, and the old covered walkways offered some shelter. I feel a bit like cities in Switzerland offer a lot more independent shops and small chains than British high streets, which makes shopping much more interesting. I found a branch of Fizzen, a really cute clothes shop that has a few shops across Switzerland. I also managed to make some great additions to my ever expanding postcard collection!
Do you have any suggestions for where I should go next? Or any great study tips? Let me know in the comments!
The Basel music scene doesn’t compare to Birmingham very favourably, so I was super keen when I found out that electro-folk dream boy Patrick Wolf was coming to town! I snapped up a ticket as soon as the posters showed up around town, and was lucky enough to get the last front row seat.
The evening was a benefit for World Aids Day 2014. As such, it started with a speech which appeared to be at once both funny and moving. I say, “appeared to be” because, as regular readers may remember, my German isn’t up to much. Following this we were ushered into the venue where I quickly found my seat at the front. I proceeded to excitedly send pictures of my view of the empty stage to politely interested friends before realising that the place was packed out. Basel may not have a whole lot of live music, but people show up for it when it happens!]
Patrick Wolf took the stage alone to applause from the house; he clearly has a fan base here, and after his first song it was clear why. Those who know his work will be familiar with his distinctive voice. And for those who don’t:
It’s fair to say that live, his performances are on another level. A solo performer, Wolf makes great use of loop pedals to reimagine his studio works using violin, harp, piano, and guitars to build the tracks up piece by piece. However, relying on technology like this comes with risks. After a fantastic arrangement of Wind In The Wires, he started getting some pretty major feedback, and the sound team weren’t able to fix it. The rest of the set was unfortunately plagued with technical problems, but Wolf was more than able to charm his way through with talk of Virginia Woolf, Ghostbusters, and why he would like to be a pigeon for the day. His open and understated presence gave the concert a very intimate feel (following the ballad Enchanted, Wolf mused “I wrote this song at a time when I was drinking two bottles of Baileys a day”) which more than made up for the issues with the tech.
I was told that I couldn’t miss this show by my long suffering bff Drum, who’s seen Patrick Wolf before and likens it to some kind of glittery electro-folk religious experience. I was not disappointed.
“This next one’s a happy song about the end of the world.”
Yann Tiersen, most famous for his work on the Amelie and Goodbye Lenin! soundtracks, isn’t without a sense of humour. This is how he introduced the second song in his set at Kaserne, Basel on Wednesday night.
The show was at Kaserne, a deceptively big venue not far from my apartment. Having only seen it from the outside, I was surprised to see the queues down the street to get in on the night! Thankfully it’s a bit of a tardis – after getting in, you’re led into a large hall which is also used for theatre and dance shows. From a technical aspect the sound was brilliant, and I’ll definitely be heading back in the future.
LA based Black English weren’t an obvious choice to support Yann Tiersen; however, their big, loud pop-rock did a good job of setting the scene. They proudly announced to the audience that they’re, “pretty big on instagram, if you guys have that over here.” Indeed we do, Black English:
(although I’m not sure a following on an image sharing network is a ringing testament to your music? Nonetheless, they were a lot of fun! )
After a short interval (in Switzerland, even the gigs are efficient), the lights dimmed, and Yann Tiersen took the stage to a monologue from Aidan Moffat. Hearing a thick Scottish accent was surprisingly comforting after almost two months out of the UK, and not what you expect when you’re going to see a French musician at a show in German speaking Switzerland.
Yann and his band went on to perform most of his new album, “∞”, with a few older compositions thrown in between, creating an interesting mix of avant-garde and electronica. The band seemed to switch between instruments with every song, and Yann himself was constantly up and down between piano, guitar, violin, and melodica. The show itself managed to strike the perfect balance between theatrical and understated. Lights and stage setting were co-ordinated perfectly to create a great atmosphere, which culminated in an amazing violin solo:
Sur Le Fil, from his 1998 album Le Phare, is better known for featuring in the Amelie soundtrack, and was a big crowd pleaser. After a generous encore, the house lights came up at 11pm on the dot (Switzerland!) and the audience headed back out into the real world.
Have you heard “∞” yet? Let me know in the comments!
It’s been a while!
Apologies for the silence – wifi at my new apartment is ropey etc etc EXCUSES. But, I’m here! I’ve just finished my first month at my new job, so I guess that makes me pretty much fully integrated.
Except that I speak about 10 words of German, and precisely 1 word of Swiss-German.
This evening at the supermarket a siren went off, they evacuated everyone (“Raus! Raus!”) and a bunch of emergency services turned up. About five minutes later, the fire engines and police cars drove away. They let everyone back into the shop. A bit more German would have been handy in this situation I think! I’m going to assume it was a false alarm, but I’d have a much better story to tell if I’d understood anyone..
Nonetheless! Here are my top 5 German words:
- Kichererbsen – Chickpea. But, literally “giggle pea”. I’d like to say this has been useful – even in my households quest to find hummus in Swiss supermarkets – but it really hasn’t.
- Bluesliebehaber – A blues enthusiast or “blues-love-haver”. I found this gem on a poster for Luzern Blues Festival. Compound words are the way forward, seriously. I’ve tried telling people I’m vegetarian by claiming “Ich bin ein tofuliebehaber”, but I’m told that “vegetarier” is also acceptable.
- Kopfkino – “head cinema” ie. mentally picturing something. Is this also used in the nadsat language in A Clockwork Orange? I feel like it is..
- Naschkatze – “nibbling cat”. Someone who has a sweet tooth is considered a “naschkatze”.
- Doch! – An exclamation/response/adverb/intensifier that seems to be able to mean literally anything depending on the context. I know it’s used to express disagreement or doubt but beyond that, no idea. Anyone?
So thats pretty much all I have – apart from the word for every piece of equipment in my lab. Can anyone suggest any more reasonably useless German words (or even better, Swiss German words!) for me to add to my vocab?