Sunday, February 19, 2012

New Friends and Carnival in Maastricht

We have experienced Carnival! We went to Maastricht yesterday afternoon to watch the festivities with some new friends. As soon as we drove into the city, I immediately noticed all of the trash and broken glass in the streets. Maastricht is generally a very tidy city so I was surprised to see so much debris littering the cobblestone. Obviously Carnival was off to a rowdy beginning!

We met with our friends at Vrijthof Square and began a walk around the city. Carnival has been confusing for us. There are lots of little events and ceremonies that lead up to the last days. They take place all over the city and most of the time we aren't sure when and where things are happening. We just follow the crowds and that seems to work well. The city was a little quieter than I imagined. Revelers from the night before were sleeping their hangovers away, preparing for a few final nights of debauchery.

The weather, as usual, was dreary. We made our way into a cafe for some beers and people-watching. The music inside the cafe was the traditional Carnival soundtrack. It sounds something like a mixture of polka, techno, and 80s pop music. A large group were seated behind us and they were singing along with the words and dancing in the aisles. A grandfather and his young granddaughter were very charming as they danced together and he whispered the words to her, no doubt making sure the tradition of Carnival lives on in the next generation.

We made our way to the City Hall to see the key ceremony. This is when the mayor of the city hands the key over to Prince Carnival. We are still not sure what we saw, as this ceremony was supposed to take place at 1:11 and we did not arrive in Maastricht until 2. But we definitely did see lots of smartly-dressed men (city council leaders?), bagpipers, and the Prince. We still don't know what they did but it was very interesting.

On the steps of City Hall

I'm still confused about the bagpipers.

Distinguished gentleman leaving City Hall

Prince Carnival arrives!

The Prince hopped off his chariot and waved to the crowd. He approached City Hall and went inside for a few minutes. At this point, we thought whatever happening was over and we began walking away from the square. Luckily we realized that the crowd was shifting toward a new location so we followed. And thank goodness we did or we would have missed the traditional hanging of the vegetable wreath. This is by far one of the oddest things I saw at Carnival. The Prince stepped up on a ladder as the crowd applauded. He lifted a large wreath high above his head and turned around several times to give the gathered mass equal views. Then solemnly, he turned toward a statue and hung the wreath around its neck. 

When this ritual was complete, the crowd and the Prince moved on and we stepped forward to take a closer look. Much to our surprise, the wreath was festooned with fresh vegetables. From afar, I thought some type of shrub adorned the bottom of the statue. Upon closer inspection, I discovered it was a bed of broccoli florets. We took some photos and then scratched our heads for a few moments, wondering what all of it meant. We shrugged and decided it was time for our own vegetable feast so we made our way to the Cafe de Momus for lunch.
We lingered over our food and drinks, speculating about what all of these traditions meant and what was going to happen next. Soon the waiter told us that this round of drinks would be our last. Large speakers were set up in front of the cafe so booming club music could be blasted into the street. 

By now it was getting dark and more people were milling around, beginning another long night of drinking, dancing, singing, and breaking glasses in the streets of Maastricht. We found ourselves at a huge concert in front of one of the churches. It was a funny juxtaposition: an ancient, beautiful church rising behind a makeshift stage filled with costumed performers singing "Sex on Fire" by Kings of Leon (in Dutch). 

Several groups performed and the crowd became more and more festive. Popular, modern songs were followed in sweet earnest by traditional Carnival favorites and everyone was singing along. Impromptu conga lines formed every few minutes and soon my husband was caught up in a circle of merrymakers doing some kind of strange dance. As I lifted my camera to take a photo, I was also grabbed by one of them and swept into the dance. We linked arms and moved forward, backward, and sideways. The man beside me leaned over and shouted something in Dutch. I assumed it was some type of direction so I yelled back, "Oh I'm sorry! I only speak English! I don't know what we're doing!" He laughed as our group spun around several more times. When the song ended, the dance troupe broke up but not before I was sandwiched between two costumed men who each kissed my cheeks. One ran away while the other, the one who attempted to talk to me while we were dancing, almost tearfully turned to me and said, "I will never forget what you have done for our country!" I didn't know how to respond so I just smiled and nodded as he trotted off to dance the night away and kiss some more girls.

We stayed on for several more songs. The night became more and more surreal. The polka-style music accompanied by strange costumes made it feel as if we had stumbled into another world. I felt like I was Alice stepping through the looking glass. 

Despite all of the beers consumed and the anonymity afforded by masks and costumes, the crowd was very well-behaved and orderly. I didn't see any mosh pits, shoving, or fighting. There is no doubt that Carnival is celebrated boisterously, but the sense of tradition and history is also ever-present. 

Tomorrow we will be going to the parade in Immendorf so we will experience Carnival in the Netherlands and Germany this year! We'll be watching the parade with my new friend Ulrike. She has been reading this blog and offering insightful comments and welcomed clarifications for the past few months. Finally we met for drinks on Wednesday and I'm excited to have a new and wonderful friend here!

Carnival continues until Tuesday and I hope to have many more interesting things to tell you about it. Until then, Alaaf!

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