A Travellerspoint blog

March 2018

Basel: Introduction and Preparation

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Basel is the No. 1 place for Fastnacht-type carnival which is worldwide known. In Basel they spell it “Fasnacht” without the T, by the way. Basel is absolutely unique.

Their most famous event is the Morgestraich, the starting ceremony on Monday morning at 4 a.m. But there is more going on during the “three most beautiful days of the year”. Monday and Wednesday afternoon see the two big Cortège parades that tour on acircular route through the city centre and Kleinbasel for at least three hours. Monday night belong to the Schnitzelbängg and their sung presentations of current events in politics and society. Tuesday is the day of the children and the Guggemusik bands. The latter are performing in the evening on three open-air stages at the Monschterkonzert.

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These are the official events. But there is always something going on. Basel does not sleep for those 72 hours. Cliquen and bands, small groups and individual people roam the streets day and night with pipes and/or drums or full Guggemusik equipment.

If I say day and night, I mean it. Catching undidturbed sleep is impossible. I’ll never forget that damn Gugge band that marched the street past my hotel up and down, up and down, up and down at 3 a.m. in the morning. Had I had a bomb at hand, I’d probably have thrown it…

I have been to Basel a couple of times during Fasnacht, usually just for the day to see one of the Cortèges. There are special trains during the night of Morgestraich from all directions, so that would be doable from Karlsruhe, but I always found the prospect too stressful.

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One year, though, I booked myself a hotel room for the entire three days in order to see it all. I booked already in September. Choice was already limited, but I managed to find an affordable hotel, a bit shabby but conveniently located in Kleinbasel between Claraplatz and Mustermesse. The Cortèges passed more or less underneath my window.

Having everything within walking distance was an advantage. Basel’s public transport is well organized to bring the masses of spectators to where the action happens, nevertheless I was glad to have a heated room to rest and warm up, and my private WC at hand any time.

Then later, I went again together with some other fellow members of our Soroptimist Club: Our Swiss link club organized a visit to the Chienbäse parade in Liestal as well as Morgestraich in Basel, including a hotel in central Basel.

The diversity of activities, as well as the gigantic number of photos that I have, require splitting up my report on Basel into a series of half a dozen blog entries. Stay tuned…

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The Date

Fasnacht in Basel takes place one week later than everywhere else. How come? The explanation is a simple bit of maths.

The Lent’s duration is, in accordance with biblical fasting periods, 40 days, cpunting backwards from Easter Sunday. In the current calendar, though, it lasts seven weeks. Now do your maths.

40 days and 7 weeks, that does not match. It used to be exactly 40 days, but at some point the Roman Catholic church decided that the Sundays should not be counted as fasting days any more. 40 days plus six Sundays, that leads to the current date of Ash Wednesday as it is observed almost everywhere.

Almost. Basel, however, and other parts of Northern Switzerland have stuck with the “old” carnival date to this very day.

A big advantage for us “Fas(t)nacht tourists”: We can visit other places first and still go to Basel one week later.

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Sunday: The Day of Anticipation

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A local from Basel once wrote, “On that Sunday we are like children on the day before Christmas.” Everyone is waiting for the morning of all mornings. The last preparations are being done, and the atmosphere is full of anticipation. Most shop windows are decorated with Fasnacht themes. The first shrill sounds of piccolo flutes can be heard in the streets.

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On Sunday in the late afternoon, before nightfall, the Cliques bring their lanterns to their chosen starting point for Morgestraich. When I arrived by train and walked into the city, I saw several such groups. The lanterns are still hidden under linen covers, lights turned off. Until the next morning the themes and images are kept secret, although the shape and protruding unveiled parts allow assumptions.

The lanterns are accompanied by an escort of marching pipers. On Sunday, it’s piccolo flutes only, no drums yet. This is called Yypfyffe, “Piping in the lanterns”. Participants do not yet wear any masks or fancy dress but everyday streetwear.

I had an appointment that night. Through the Tripadvisor forum(!) I had established contact with a member from Basel who is active in the Fasnacht herself. She and her husband take part in one of those many, many smallish groups which are lovingly nicknamed Schyssdräggziiglli. They have no lantern to bring into town, but they cultivate their tradition to meet at the eve of Morgestraich to play their flutes and “pipe in” Fasnacht. They very kindly invited me to come to their house and join the party.

These people were living in the suburb of St Alban right on the river bank. They have a roof terrace with a terrific view of the river and the old town panorama with Münster church. Impressed, I asked them, how does one find such an apartment. They said that their search had lasted seven years, but they had absolutely wanted to live on the Rhine bank.

Piccolo flutes are tiny instruments. But I assure you that 15 or so of them played inside a relatively small living room create a noise that cuts everyone’s eardrums to pieces!

I have taken pictures that night but please understand that I am hesitating to publish photos of someone's private living room.

Posted by Kathrin_E 02:34 Archived in Switzerland Tagged basel alemannic_fastnacht Comments (1)

The Clock Strikes Four: Morgestraich, vorwärts, marsch!

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Seen in a pastry shop

Fasnacht in Basel begins on Monday morning at 4 a.m. sharp. The municipal energy supplier has a special switch that is used only once a year. One single click turns off all street lamps in the whole city at once.

All of a sudden, the streets are dark except for the lanterns and headlights. Everywhere you hear the command, “Morgestraich, vorwärts, marsch!” Pipers and drummers begin to play and the cliques march off.

A goosebumping moment. THE one particular moment of Basler Fasnacht. (I am shivering while I’m writing this.)

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The origins of Morgestraich have to do with military musterings, which used to take place at the crack of dawn. The only instruments permitted are piccolo flutes and drums. They play the traditional marches, also closely related to military music. All year round they have practiced in order to perform the rhythms perfectly.

The sound that echoes through the streets, the shrill piping and the drumming, is incredible, and hard to describe.

Morgestraich is no parade with a fixed route. Each group marches where they like. They are wandering all over the city. They will pass more or less everywhere, hence there is no “best” spot to stand and watch. The whole of Central Basel as well as Kleinbasel on the other side of the river are involved.

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At Morgestraich they go “Charivari”, which means that the groups have no common costume. Everyone wears his or her individual “Goschdym” (outfit) and “Larve” (mask). The larger Cliquen present their big lanterns. Many participants carry their own small lantern on a long stick. Almost everyone has a little headlamp on top of the Larve. All these are painted in bright colours with pictures related to the group's sujet, or with figures or scenes related to Fasnacht in general.

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My new friends from the previous evening had told me where they would set off in the morning, so I went to meet them in time before four o’clock.

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My host let me try on her mask… (The last photo shows, and taught me, why flash should not be used.)

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Five minutes to go. Streetlights are still on. The formation is being set up.

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We said good-bye already because it is close to impossible to find anyone in the dark crowded streets. But I marched with them for a while until I lost contact in the thickness of the crowds.

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It is possible, and allowed, for visitors to march behind a Clique and follow them through the city. In perfect marching pace please, 90 steps per minute.

In fact, this is the only way to move safely through the dark streets. They have chosen their routes carefully. The first in the group, called “Vordraab”, are without instruments and have the task to make room and to lead the others along a route without stairs, elevated curbstones or other traps they might stumble over. They know their way. The others literally must be able to trust them blindly. And so can the follower.

All this motion is timeless, without direction or purpose, meditative despite the noise, like swirling clouds, or swarms of fish in the surf, or leaves in the wind. It’s best to go by yourself, so you don’t have to worry about losing your companions. It’s best not to plan anything but to float with the current, stop somewhere to watch, then find new guides to walk with. It’s all about the feeling. In these hours, the rest of the world and daily life are far, far away.

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At dawn, things slow down but don't stop. Most will want a rest now. A must-have for breakfast is a plate of hot "Mehlsupp".

Practical Hints, Dos and Don’ts for Visitors

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  1. Come in time. Decide in advance where you want to stand and watch. Go there well before 4 a.m. while the streetlights are still on.
  2. Expect crowds.
  3. Dress warm. You’ll be tired and thus feel the cold even more.
  4. If you have a place to stay, leave all your stuff there. Don’t take a bag if possible. Crowds in the darkness may include pickpockets. Keep your wallet, money, documents in an inner pocket of your jacket.
  5. Tie the camera strap round your wrist or wear it round your neck, so it can’t fall to the ground in case you are pushed by accident.
  6. No flash please. It ruins the atmosphere for everyone around and blinds the participants. And your photos won’t turn out too great either.
  7. Lanterns, masks, musical instruments and everything are precious property of the participants. When they are parked outside a pub while the Clique is taking a break, looking and taking still-life photos is fine, but don’t touch anything.
  8. Dress code: One either wears a full Goschdym and Larve from head to toe and participates, or normal streetwear if just watching. Fancy dress and painted faces among the spectators are frowned upon.
  9. The marching groups always have precedence. Don’t stand in their way.
  10. Forget your everyday world, and enjoy…

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Lanterns parked outside a pub while their owners enjoy a refreshment

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Photo Experiments

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Taking photos in the darkness is a tricky matter. Closeup shots of the illuminated lanterns are easy to take, but catching the general atmosphere in focused photos is extremely difficult because it is dark and everything is in motion. A tripod cannot be used in the dense crowds, everyone would trip over it. Using flash is a no-no: it ruins the atmosphere and blinds people who have a limited eyesight through their masks anyway.
Unfortunately too many spectators are thoughtless in that respect…

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Things become easier when dawn approaches and the sky turns blueish.

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Finding one of those (inconsiderate and thus detested) shops that had not turned off the light in the shop window also helps the photographer.

My solution, however, is a different one: Forget about focus. Play with the motion and the blur. Create artistic images that almost look like paintings.

Here are my results. I am actually quite proud of some of these…

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I am including some pictures I took on Monday and Tuesday night, when the streetlamps were on again, so there was more background light.

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Can't we almost hear the noise of the drums?

Posted by Kathrin_E 12:31 Archived in Switzerland Tagged basel alemannic_fastnacht Comments (2)

Basel Part 3: Gässlegehe

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“Gässlegehe” literally translates to “walking the lanes”. To many participants it is a vital part of Fasnacht activities, a rather meditative part. Outside the parades they roam the streets playing flutes or drums, some alone, some in small groups of two, three, or ten or twelve.

You’ll hear the sound of flutes or drums approaching at random in the quieter side streets and lanes of the centre, on Münsterberg, along the Rhine promenade, on the bridges, in Kleinbasel as well. They appear out of nowhere, pass and disappear round the next corner, totally absorbed.

They walk in the same slow marching tact, 90 steps per minute, as during Morgestraich and play the traditional tunes respective rhythms. It’s the same timeless and aimless motion.

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Father and son

Photographers – such groups of Gässlegeher give you the chance to catch fine shots of the masks in broad daylight.

But please be discreet and don’t disturb them. They won’t want to pose for your camera, they want to wander and play their music.

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This is my favourite Gässle photo, which I have already used in the introduction. I caught these three in Augustinergasse on the way up to Münsterplatz. In the square they paused and took off their masks, and I saw that they were three young girls of about thirteen.

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A peculiar outfit: Everything, really everything from head to toe is knitted, even the mask and the wig.

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In the run of the Monday the Guggemusik bands, who are banned from Morgestraich, begin to make their appearance in the streets. Gugge bands will be out and about any thime from then onwards until the wee hours of Thursday morning. Day and night.

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Parked lanterns, piles of drums or brass instruments and Larven outside a “Beiz”, a pub or restaurant, indicate that the owners are taking a break from all that marching and enjoying a rest and a refreshment inside.

Often they unintendedly create the finest still-lifes that scream for the camera to be set to work. (Looking and taking photos is fine as long as the photographer does not come too close and does not touch anything.)

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Posted by Kathrin_E 14:33 Archived in Switzerland Tagged basel alemannic_fastnacht Comments (2)

Basel Part 4: The Cortège Parades

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My previous entries may have suggested that Fasnacht in Basel is all calm and meditative and beautiful.

Oh no, it is not.

A completely different, noisier and messier side shows up in the two big daytime parades, named “Cortège”. They take place on Monday and Wednesday afternoon, starting 13:30 and going on for at least three hours.

The route is fixed and minutely organized. A circular course through both Großbasel and Kleinbasel is marched in both directions. Since the clockwise and counter-clockwise routes differ in some parts, I recommend standing in places where they both run parallel in the same street.

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The best spots are, to me, squares with a tramstop, for example Barfüßerplatz or Claraplatz, where there is room to stand in the middle and see both directons.

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Unlike in other cities where the participants assemble in side streets and all start from the same spot so that spectators at the end have to wait for ages until they finally get something to see, in Basel they have a cleverer system. The groups are assigned their starting point all over the circular route, and the entire circle starts moving at the same time. Everywhere the activity sets in at half past two sharp. No long wait, no matter where you stand and watch.

The route plan is published in advance on the website of the committee: http://www.fasnachts-comite.ch/cortege_en

The groups and clubs in Basel's Fasnacht are called Clique. The committee probably has a number how many there are registered with them – to the visitor it looks and feels like several hundreds. Then there are also the smaller “Schyssdräggziigli” which don’t have the complete “staff” and programme that the big Cliquen present.

They say that there are about ten thousand participants in the Cortège – no idea if this number is true, it’s impossible to count them as a spectator. But there are many. Very many.

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Guggemusik bands take part in the Cortège, too. Again, many of them, and all of them excellent.

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Goodies are thrown to the visitors from the floats and carts: sweets, flowers, oranges, vegetables – but als loads of confetti, which is called “Räppli” just like the smallest Swiss coins.

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The unsuspecting visitor is more likely to receive a load of Räppli than anything else…
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Typical Cortège selfie...

Basel’s Fasnacht is not only fun, though, but also highly political. This is the ancient right of the jesters. Under their masks are allowed to speak the truth and say everything people would not dare to say aloud under normal circumstances.

Each Clique selects a “Sujet” for the year’s Fasnacht, a theme concerning politics, society, economy, culture, whatever. The topic can be local, national or international. This theme is then commented upon in a half humourous, half critical way. Costumes and lantern are designed according to the Sujet.

While at Morgestraich they went “Charivari”, i. e. everyone wore an individual costume to their liking, in the Cortège parade the Cliquen present their Sujets and dress up accordingly.

Lanterns pass quickly during the parades. They are artworks that deserve a closer look. More about them in a separate blog entry.

Examples for Sujets

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100th anniversary of the women's bath in Eglisee, a lake on the outskirts of Basel

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Shop advertising and discounts (2006)

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The situation in Libya under Ghaddafi (2010)

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"In the water up to our throats"

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"Yes We Camp" (2010): A serious one, quite goosebumping among the colourful parade. It refers to the earthquake of L'Aquila in 2009, people still homeless and living in tents a year later, and a prime minister Berlusconi who did nothing except big-mouthed speeches.

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"Hail Helvetia, you still have your bridges": marching in an impressive formation

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"Aldi et Obi": fearing the German invasion, and referring to the German Empire under Emperor Wilhelm II.
Anti-German topics are frequent. They really must have ressentiments against us.

A Fasnacht Clique consists of...

In the Cortège the Cliquen march in a certain order. Each section has a particular task to do.

Vordraab
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They are the ones who walk in front. A job for members who can’t play neither drums nor flutes. During Morgestraich it’s their task to lead the way and make room for the formation behind. In the Cortège parades they distribute the so-called “Zeedel” (papers) to the spectators. On these papers, the Sujet is explained and commented in verses, half humorously, half seriously. In Baseldytsch, of course. Understanding them requires profound language skills and, in case of us native speakers of (German) German, a solid amount of imagination,

Lantern
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The lantern is either carried by four strong pairs of shoulders or placed on a cart and pulled. During the Morgestraich on Monday morning the lanterns are illuminated from inside. In the daytime parades on Monday and Wednesday they are presented without illumination.

Wagon
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Almost every larger Clique also has a wagon. This can be a small cart, a horse-drawn carriage, or a huge float pulled by a tractor.
From the wagon all kinds of gifts are distributed: sweets, oranges, flowers, sometimes vegetables, beer cans, little toys, packs of paper handkerchiefs... and confetti. Big sacks of confetti in colours that match the Clique's costumes.
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Tambouren
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The wagon is followed by the music. Traditionally there are only two instruments involved: drums, played by the Tambouren, and piccolo flutes, played by the Pfeifer.
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Conductor
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The conductor walks between the flute group and the drum group. The conductor is usually an oversized figure with a very large papermâché head, a hole in the throat allows the person underneath to see.
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The Guggemusik bands also have these oversized conductor fugures.
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Pfeifer
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The Pfeifer masks are shorter than the others, they don't cover mouth and chin of the musician.
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Pink tulle and grey beards go well together...

Traditional Figures in the Fasnacht

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Basel's best-known mask type is the Waggis with his big nose, big mouth and teeth and a mullet-like mane in bright colours.

The person inside sees through the open nostrils of the mask. This is perhaps the iconic image that crosses people’s minds first when thinking of Basel carnival.

The Waggis is originally meant to be the caricature of a dumb Alsatian peasant. It came into existence in the late 19th century after the German-French war of 1870/71. Imagination has created the weirdest changes and varieties.
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Harlekin (Arlecchino) and Pierrot have their origins in the Italian Commedia dell'arte.

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The Alti Dante (Old Aunt) is a dignified, well dressed, old-fashioned elderly lady.
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Glaun is simply a clown. Spelled according to Baseldytsch orthography.

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Ueli wears the costume of a medieval court jester in mi-parti colours and a hood with long ears and little bells. He is a very old figure in Basel's Fasnacht.
The lantern of this Ueli Clique presents the world of the Ueli... the Ueliverse, the griffin with Ueli ears, the crest of Canton Ueli (the one of Canton Uri, ueli-fied), the Ueli newspaper and an Ueli flying saucer.
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Not so traditional figures…

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However, there is no limitation to these traditional types. People are free to use their imagination. Anything goes (as long as it isn’t obscene).
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Anything.
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Nothing is holy. Really nothing.
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The Miraculous Transformation of the Basel Citizen

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Putting on the mask changes everything...

Posted by Kathrin_E 04:14 Archived in Switzerland Tagged basel alemannic_fastnacht Comments (1)

Basel Part 5: A Closer Look at the Lanterns

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Outside the parades, the big lanterns are on display at Münsterplatz. More or less all Cliquen bring their lanterns up there and leave them standing until they need them again. This is the chance to have a closer look at them.

Treat this like an art exhibition. These lanterns are artworks. Renowned artists in the city take pride in designing them. Cliquen usually have ‘their’ artist with a distinct style. Styles differ widely, but all have in common that the images are rich in details. Often little comments have been written onto them Clique members.

The lantern expresses and illustrates the Clique’s Sujet of the year. They are meant to deliver a message. Be prepared that there are no taboos in the selection of the sujets. No one cares about "political correctness". They show how people actually think.

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Depending on the respective topic, some are funny, some are satirical and ironical, while others are downright bitter and scary.

There is also an exhibition of carts and requisites. These are on display in a different place, at the arsenal. But I found that of less interest, hence I won’t go into further details.

Back to the lanterns. In here I am showing you some examples. Most of these date from 2010, some from 2006 and 2014.

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Barrack Obama as the new Messiah

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Scientists create the perfect child

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Invasion of High German words endangers the Swiss German language, and a detail of a different lantern also dealing with the fear of us Germans. A widespread topic.

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Hedgehog Switzerland: curled up into a spiky ball like hedgehogs do, the Swiss want to protect and defend their country a gainst anything coming in from outside.

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Italy under Caesar Berlusconi

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Alcohol and its dangers

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A vision of Fasnacht in 2060, islamized

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Naked hiking, a new trend among nudists

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Henhouse Swiss parliament

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"Bauer sucht Frau": a popular trashy format on German TV, a dating show for single farmers.

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Walking the city at night is dangerous for women

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Rhine bank in summer

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Goddess Konsumia (consumerism - thanks Toonsarah for the correct translation)

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A really tough one.
In 2009/10 this horrible story was all over the media. A father imprisoned his adolescent daughter in the basement of his house for more than 20 years, sexually abused and raped her, she bore him seven children. Three of the kids stayed with her in the cellar prison, the others were taken in as, allegedly, foster children by the parents.
And a mother who would close eyes and mouth, and keep the family secret instead of interfering and helping the victim, her daugher. The opinion of the neighbourhood was more important than the tortures the young woman went through - this aspect is the one they criticize most. They entitled the Sujet, "It is among us and it stays among us."

Posted by Kathrin_E 01:38 Archived in Switzerland Tagged basel alemannic_fastnacht Comments (6)

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