Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, so tomorrow is … Fat Tuesday! And that means it’s Carnaval season in the southern (historically Catholic) part of the Netherlands. The flavor includes a generous slosh of Mardi Gras, a soupçon of Philadelphia’s Mummers, a dash of Austin’s Sixth Street on Hallowe’en, all mixed into a a Dutch base.
We actually missed the big local parade on Saturday, because there was a big work event. The company rented out the entire Efteling fairy tale theme park. It’s decorated for winter (lots of fake snow on trees and rooftops) and most of the wilder rides are closed this time of year, but we still had a good time. The Dutch employees were very impressed that the company had rented the park; it’s apparently an iconic childhood memory for a lot of them. It is aimed more at children but had enough to keep us entertained.
The most impressive ride was Villa Volta, the home of a accursed brigand. It’s You go in and sit on benches lining both sides of a room furnished like an 18th century drawing room. The benches move just enough to let you feel your weight on your back or to fall forward a little, but the rest of the room rotates around you, eventually to a full 360 degrees, so that it looks like you’re moving much more wildly than you actually are. There were some other good rides as well: a very large swinging ship, a rollercoaster in darkness, a “bobsled” ride. One of the most memorable rides was Carnaval World – not a wild ride, but not precisely gentle on the sensibilities, either. It was something like an extremely un-PC version of Disney’s Small World ride.
It was entertaining to spot the differences between the Efteling and US theme parks. The first one we noticed was in “PandaDroom” (Panda Dream), a 3-D movie sponsored by the World Wildlife Federation. The film in the intro area had several clips showing human activities followed by equivalent animal ones. While the bare-bottomed baby toddling in a field might have passed US censors, I’m pretty sure the closeup of a baby nursing wouldn’t have made it into a family attraction (which is funny, considering it’s nothing the youngest members of the audience haven’t seen recently). The next difference was when I visited a restroom: men with babies to change or small daughters to supervise take them into the women’s restroom. It makes sense; all of the stalls had doors that came down close to the ground and extended much too far up to see over, whereas the men’s restroom had lots of urinals (with nobody using them, probably thanks to the open main door that showed them off). There were several times when we were closed into a secondary waiting area (with a film showing, or something to set a mood) with no visible staff – in the US there would always be one. There were a lot fewer “pregnant women and people with heart conditions should avoid this ride” sort of signs; one ride, the dark rollercoaster I mentioned, could actually have used signs, because there were strobe lights in some areas, to help disorient people. Given that my only sibling spent his adolescence avoiding video arcades after flashing lights there triggered a couple of seizures, I tend to expect warnings for such things.
One thing that charmed me entirely: in the Efteling Museum, they had not only pictures and exhibits from the park’s history, but also fairy-tale artifacts, like Snow White’s apple, Sleeping Beauty’s spindle, and the pea that proved the princess who couldn’t sleep on it.
We were afraid that we’d missed the best of Carnaval because we were at Efteling all of Saturday. We’d already seen balloons decorating the Centrum area, a couple of small marching bands, and lot of people in costume Friday and Saturday night. As we came home from rowing Sunday, we heard a band playing up the street, so went to see. It turned out to be a small parade with a safari theme and several bands. This parade seemed to be for families and there were lots of adorable small children in explorer or animal costumes. The bands in this one were all kids too, middle-school or high-school aged (presumably this is how they grow all the adult bands we’ve heard playing at every holiday). One guy was pulling a sled, runners clonking on the cobbles, with a small gray hill on it labeled “Laatst pool ijs” (last polar ice). This parade was mostly just people in costume, no floats, and the signs and many of the costumes were clearly homemade. I think the big parade Saturday would have been glossier, but I like that there are enough parades that everyone can be in one if they want. Inexplicably, there was another band following the parade, adults in medieval-ish costumes. Possibly they were on their way to a different parade and had to follow this one to get there.
Nearly everyone we’ve seen in the Centrum, whether parading, at a bar, or just walking around, has been in costumes – many more than we saw watching Mardi Gras parades, or even promenading Sixth Street in Austin on Hallowe’en. We’ve seen cows (with udders!) and convicts, angels and fairies, powdered perruques and feather boas, along with plenty of people in nonrepresentational outfits of many colors.
There are quite a few bands walking around. I’ve enjoyed them all except for the drummers that woke us at midnight last night – one downside to living right in the Centrum. There was also a huge temporary building set up the market square last night, with a band playing. I don’t know what they were playing, but every else did, and sang along. In parades but even just while walking along, people often start bobbing to the music in something that’s almost but not quite a Mummers’ Strut: more rocking the head and hands side to side, less kicking out the feet. The bands are brass rather than string, and I haven’t heard “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” yet, but it’s been going through my head all day.
I suppose the big parades probably are as glossy as the ones we’ve seen in Philadelphia or New Orleans (though probably not as much as Pasadena!) but I like these more participatory celebrations, and I like that the celebration is everywhere, not herded into narrow parades. I think this is what Fat Tuesday and New Years’ Day might have been like decades ago, when they were still mostly about a bunch of people get drunk and dressing up funny. Also, like the Mummers, who take their name from a tradition that began with the Romans, there’s a resonance here that makes me think maybe this Carnaval celebration that happens when winter is growing old and spring is waiting to be born has roots older than the Christian holidays it’s tied to.