For the second year of my assignment as an adviser with the United Nations in Geneva I decided to get to know more of the country than just la région Genèvoise, beautiful as it is. Switzerland isn´t big, but the trains are expensive, unless you purchase a half price ticket card. Which is what I did in January 2015. By mid-February I’d already been for day trips to Lausanne and Neuchâtel in the French-speaking region and by boat across Lac Leman to Evian-les-Bains in France. But my sights were fixed on longer journeys into la Suisse profonde (the deeper regions…). According to this logic the town of Luzern (Lucerne) seemed a good option for an overnight excursion.
After a busy day at the office, the train from Geneva left at 18.15 and I arrived in Luzern around two and a half hours later. Somewhere between Fribourg and Bern an invisible border is crossed and the signs change from French to German. Luzern is pretty much in the heart of the country and certainly has a very Swiss-German atmosphere. Indeed, I had chosen well for my trip in terms of atmosphere: after passing Bern the train began to fill up with young people wearing funny costumes – lions and tigers seemed to be popular – and I realized that I was heading east to celebrate fasnacht or the start of lent, otherwise known as the carnival!
In the old god-fearing ages dominated by Christian morals and behaviour, there was fasting from fasnacht until Easter when the Lord rose from the dead and normality returned. The carnival is a big letting down of hair and a chance to imbibe some goodies before the rigours of lent. The Swiss-Germans celebrate in style as I discovered. Thus, on an evening stroll around Luzern I found small groups of musicians hanging around outside bars, despite the chilly night air, enjoying some tunes and beers. It seems that the evening before had been the really big blowout: so called schmotzige donnschtig (dirty Thursday…). I keenly anticipated more festivities as I dozed off in my room at the little Alpha hotel.
I probably heard at least ten brass bands in the course of a sunny Saturday in and around Luzern. First I crossed the famous wooden Kapellbrücke (Chapel bridge) and strolled around some squares and side streets in the old town where groups of crazily clad musicians gathered at small stalls serving warm drinks. The costumes and especially the masks had to be seen to be believed. People go way over the top with gaudy colours and outlandish designs, not to mention gruesomeness. Some look like tortured souls, others like clowns and monsters, many people are dressed as animals; cows are obviously a favourite for the Swiss…
The bands perform swinging jazzy numbers with beating drums and lots of trumpets, saxophones and trombones. The town echoes with wailing and rumbling. After a couple of hours wandering I ate lunch at a rooftop cafeteria where the sounds of music swirled in the air from the streets below as I gazed at the city walls and the alpine ranges in the distance.
The sun was shining and I decided to take a boat trip on the Vierwaldstättersee (the lake of four forest cantons). There was seating on benches at the stern in the sunshine and after a while some musicians in silly clothes appeared. By the time we reached my destination – a little village called Beckenried below the Kleweralp – the band was really cooking and some passengers boogied with them on deck, hopping around to the rhythms. A group of young Japanese tourists grinned and squeezed close up to the musicians to take their selfies.
In the village at the foot of the mountain I watched another parade. In the countryside there was obviously great pride and much effort devoted to the costumes. Grotesquely masked adults and striped tiger kids swayed along through the narrow streets behind the bands.
On the one and a half hour trip back to Luzern the sun was dipping behind the mountains in the distance. There was hardly a ripple on the surface of the water and the snowy slopes reflected against a blue sky. A few gulls appeared and a little girl threw bread which some of the birds could catch in mid-air. Another brass band was swinging in the second-class saloon.
My legs were tired and the glaring sun had slightly burnt my face. I was glad that much of the train ride back to Geneva was in darkness. I looked at my ‘photos and ate my sandwiches.
A fascinating phenomenon in Switzerland is the timetable. The whole country is linked by a near-perfect system of inter-city trains, suburban rail, boats, trams, cable cars and buses. Who needs a car? The half price ticket offers a vast network of seamless connections. Arrival and departure are invariably on time. I watched the nervous faces of the crew at one of the little harbours we stopped at, as they could see a slightly delayed mountain cog railway was depositing passengers at the last minute for a run across the quayside to the departing boat.
Switzerland is an obsessively orderly country. There is no room for unruly elements and everything must be done correctly. At the cafeteria the checkout girl began to explain that I had made a mistake by taking two plates for my meal, not just one. She gave up when I returned a blank look and mumbled that I didn’t understand in English and French. As for cleanliness, it is an over worn cliché, confirmed at every corner in Luzern during fasnacht by the huge extra bins that have been installed to make sure that the waste gets treated right.
I wonder what it means to get out of control in this pristine and “chocolate box” polished country. Going a bit beserk with music and dressing up is best done within limits. But fasnacht brings the wildest dreams of imagination to the fore for a few days and perhaps that is the main purpose.