Scènes Européenes: Letter to America Part 2
Continued from Part 1...
Apart from the children, who were generally great fun, the main reason I headed to Basel was for the Herbstmäss- the autumn market which is one of the traditions of Basel. E-D is friends with the President of the Basel Church History society, (or something like that), and so he was able to get us into the opening ceremony of the Herbstmäss-,which takes place at the top of the belltower of the Martinkirche (St Martin’s Church) in the old town.
The bells of the Martinkirche are rung at midday on the first day of the Herbstmäss and at the end of the market at the end of the week. A local Basel citizen is chosen to be the bell-ringer, and as payment for his duty, he gets a pair of black gloves. BUT. But. He receives one after ringing the opening bells, and then the second one to complete the pair when he rings the bells at the end of the market. He also gets to wear a little horn-shaped trumpet around his neck for the duration of the market.
So there we were, climbing the rickety mediaeval staircase of the Martinkirche, and at the top we joined a group of guests crowded into the bell-ringer’s room at the top of the tower. (The bell-ringer used to live up here, and had the best view in the city. It’s still the best view in Basel and nobody is allowed up there normally.)
At five minutes to twelve, the bellringer was presented with one black glove. He then went over to the window and leant out, waving his glove and blowing his little trumpet to show the crowd below that he had received the first half of his salary. Then at 12:00 exactly (and remember that this IS Switzerland, so you can be sure that it was exactly the right time), the bellringer begins to ring his bells, for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, everyone in the tower looks out the window and waves at the people in the street below and looking at the view- it was a perfect day, and we could see the three mountain ranges that surround the valley of Basel and the Rhine: the Black Forest to the North-East in Germany, the Jura to the South in Switzerland and the Vosges to the North-West in Alsace.
This was the 531st time that the bells of the Martinkirche have been rung to mark the beginning of the Herbstmäss- which means that the first time it was done was in 1469- before Columbus arrived in America, before Basel was part of Switzerland, and even before Michael Jackson recorded Thriller. That, believe me, is a very long time ago.
The Herbstmäss involves lots of fairground rides in the little squares around the Old Town, and the town was full of neatly-dressed Swiss families (3-year olds in Fubu and Armani being pushed around in Audi baby buggies, that sort of thing) all earnestly munching on candyfloss (Zückerwatte/ barbe de papa) and making their way between the various attractions. There are sausage and chocolate stands everywhere, and the main market, where you can buy all sorts of things at Swiss prices. One stall just sold Advent Calendars, and they even had these really small ones, perfect for putting in envelopes (one of them is in this letter, if I remember to put it in).
Apart from exploring the Herbstmäss, I helped E-D buy materials to build a new garden fence. A Swiss DIY shop is something to be experienced, I tell you. Everything is just so NEAT and TIDY. The power drills look so shiny that you could perform brain surgery with them, the timber is neatly stacked out and there are special hydraulic-suspension trolleys on which to to carry your timber to the checkout with. At which point you must part with an amount of money which you could use as a deposit on a house in New Zealand.
However, I shouldn’t be too harsh on Switzerland- I really enjoyed the change from the dogpoo and baguettes and Peugeots that you find in my town. AND the drivers in Switzerland are polite and STOP for pedestrians. Everything works, there are no strikes (Switzerland has 1% unemplyment, and those are just the cuckoos for whom a clock has not yet been built), and the place is CLEAN. H dropped a piece of chocolate on the pavement, K picked it up straight away and H ate it without question. In France, a piece of chocolate that was dropped would probably fall into something else that is brown.
Not that I hate France at all, it’s just such an unreliable country, with funny public holidays that interrupt your travel plans and fonctionnaires who move as fast as glaciers and train companies where the drivers are constantly on strike to demand compensation for nocturnal frog attacks (or something like that). But it’s all good, really. Challenging sometimes, frustrating to the point that you want to stab administrators with a baguette, but really good. My town is so completely French and Alsatian at the same time, and even when I’m completely fed up with the place, the boulangeries suddenly sparkle in the morning sun or I find some beret-wearing old Alsatian men playing pétanque by the river or a poodle relieving itself on a postman’s bicycle and I realise how lucky I am to be here. I’m beginning to understand how the French have managed to con the whole world into thinking thay they are the absolute best at making wine, cooking and living with complete joie de vivre.
I’ve just about run out of things to say for the moment, so until I hear from you, keep safe and have fun whatever you’re doing!
Grosses Bises comme toujours
Isaac Hayes – Never Gonna Give You Up
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