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Finding Fasnacht



We were somewhere near the Weinerstrasse on the edge of Luzern when the bats appeared. It was pitch black and 5 a.m. so maybe bats weren't unusual. Except it was winter and the bats weren't diving for insects over steely River Ruess where it cleaved a leitmotif of lights, covered bridges and medieval towers backed by Sound of Music hills that were, quite suddenly, garishly alive. Instead, the bats marched in formation, playing French horns, saxophones, and drums. Trapped in each creature's sardonic maw, illuminated by camera flashes, was a twisted, leering, human face. Surreal and terrifying, it was an improvement on what we'd already seen.

Awakened at 4 a.m. by an electronic jackhammer drilling high-frequency spikes into my frontal lobe, a friend had knocked on my door, tossing a costume through the portal like a limp body. "Hurry!" he urged, struggling to get into his own, "they're coming!"

His eyes hung like laundry behind foggy glasses and it was clear he hadn't slept. "I was drinking with some Roman Centurions and Snow White," he said. "Frankenstein was there, too. The band's drummer passed out and they asked if anyone could play. I've never jammed to 'Gorky Park' before." He chopped the air with invisible sticks.

One by one we downed the pharmaceutical aids of any morning in Europe—Advil, vitamins and Grand Marnier-spiked coffee — then headed downstairs into the vaulted gilding of Hotel Schweizerhof. The fact that Tolstoy had written a book and Wagner completed Tristan and Isolde here made it all the more shocking to see what swirled around the lobby's pink Corinthian columns: mythological forest beasts, pink panthers, religious figures and an ungodly amount of tassels and sequins. Is this a Lord of the Rings set? I mumbled, as a river of B-movie zombies swept us into the street.

Geese honked somewhere in the dark. "Not geese," said my buddy, "Instruments. I think it's 'Copacabana.'" The crowd surged toward the river where an evil-looking boat lined with torches had appeared. A gangway flipped down and a freakish honour guard poured off like bilge rats followed by an imperial, ermine-trimmed couple. The king and queen of Fasnacht waved, fireworks exploded and a hundred mutant bands struck up different tunes.

Now it was getting weird.

If Googling the bizarre winter carnival of Fasnacht hadn't alerted us that normally stick-in-the-mud Swiss-Germans could be fun, the fact that we'd already been beaten with cheese, dredged in chocolate and wine, dragged up a postcard mountain suspended from a cable, and dared to find our way down certainly had.

It started three mornings earlier high in the zentralschweiz, surrounded by limestone shark's teeth. At breakfast somebody passed out melatonin, which mixed poorly with mimosas. Suddenly the dining room filled with stampeding mountains until our jet-lagged brains realized someone had merely opened the blinds. Staring through soupy eyes, we decided those precipices were no place for us. Someone suggested a walk up-valley instead and civilization unwound into a Brueghel painting. Wooden tools and dried flowers hung with stacks of hay at every dwelling. Doorways featured garish totems to ward off evil. Some 15th century prankster had painted stars on the ceiling of a tiny chapel; the configuration looked familiar, which, I understood, was the point.

The descent to the valley twisted through forest and meadow, passing cottages that channeled Heidi but wafted a miasma of various manures. We'd eventually caught a train to Luzern and lodged ourselves in the Schweizerhof, which seemed safe haven from the 7.5 million volk collectively removing corks from their behinds to dress-up, misbehave, and puke as one. Even the most luxurious digs, however, proved no refuge from the ├╝ber-debauchery. On that first festival dawn, as we were pushed back from the lakeshore, I'd landed in a medieval square watching a theatre performance in a squat, wood-beamed edifice with its wall removed. Onstage, a freckled milkmaid reached into a cloth cow's butt up to her armpit... I didn't wait to see what would materialize. Rushing away, I looked nervously for the Mothership that delivered all these aliens. But it didn't matter what galaxy you were from; by 6 a.m. every sentient being in town was wasted. In one bar, a table of hot-pink Elvises downed schnapps after schnapps. "Thank you. Thank you very much," they sneered in unison.

Finally, with the sun bleeding sanity across the horizon, the corks went back in. Everyone slept until the entire masquerade coalesced into an official afternoon parade. As I watched from the ledge of a building, gargoyles came to life playing a brass version of Van Halen's "Jump."

Shuffling back to the Schweizerhof through ankle-high broken glass, crushed cups and confetti, I wondered how the otherwise meticulous Swiss would handle this unorderly municipal mess. True to form, the parade finished with a phalanx of street-sweepers four vehicles wide and a hundred drones deep. Like some Teutonic miracle, Luzern looked gorgeous again.