Carnival

I’ve been in Switzerland this weekend, staying with my daughter and her family. Unfortunately I haven’t found time to finish the story that I planned to post today – I’m sorry about that. However, we went into Sion this afternoon and saw the carnival. I’ve written a brief account that I hope you enjoy!wp_20170225_14_18_18_pro

The sousaphone player marched at the back of the band. He must have been as strong as an ox, because his was no ordinary sousaphone but a monster. It needed a full breath for every note. The tone blended with the boom of the big drum, providing a rhythmic, percussive bass for the ensemble. The bandsmen wore costumes so brightly coloured that a jester in motley would have been an austere figure beside them.

The Carnaval de Sion is an annual event, one of many carnivals in Valais that take place just before Lent. Its origins, though, predate the church’s calendar, having their roots deep in pagan beliefs. Thousands of people take part in the march, almost all in bizarre, and even sinister garb. If I tell you that a voodoo display was amongst the milder disguises you’ll get the idea. Tens of thousands come to watch, and, delightfully, many of the spectators come in costume too. The throb of the drums and the rhythmic music arouse a sense of magic, of possibility.

I sat in a café, drinking an Americano and watching. A monstrous pirate ship mounted on a lorry came down the street. Every so often, the pirates fired a cannon, filling the street with smoke, and, amid shrieks of laughter, showering bucketfuls of sparkling confetti over the crowd. The café where I had my vantage point was on a corner that the pirates needed to round, an operation that required them to strike their colours, lower the black sail, and take down the mast. Halfway through this one of them fired the cannon, earning scowls and suitably piratical curses from his colleagues.

One spectator, perhaps thirteen years old, was in a white dress like a bride. I watched as she ran around with a group of boys of similar age carrying light sabres. She seemed very familiar with all their games; if it weren’t for the dress you would have thought she was one of them. Two men in cowboy costumes, hand in hand, picked their way through the crowd.

The town square was filled with stalls, mostly selling food and drink, featuring such traditional Swiss fare as crepes, fajitas, pies and curry, with plenty of German beer to wash it down. A metre of beer cost forty Swiss francs, which seemed rather expensive. I gave it a miss this year; maybe I’ll try it next year.

I cut through back streets, and when I rejoined the route of the procession I found that I had overtaken the band. The sousaphone player was still at the back, still blowing one breath to every profound note, still synchronised perfectly with the man on the bass drum. The costumes no longer seemed outlandish. Like the carnival itself, like the spectators, they were just a representation of some of the colourful ways we can all be human. 

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