Click on the title bar of this post, and you will see three onions dancing to a bad cover of Meatloaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light." It's the 2007 Aalst Carnaval website, and it gives you a teensy tiny sense of the gargantuan party we dropped in on this afternoon.
We had come to understand, over the past few days, that Carnaval is a Big Deal in Belgium.
1. JieJie's classmates wore funny hats throughout their studies this week.
2. I saw a "Carnaval Kit" while shopping at the Carrefour, which contained confetti, a mask, noisemakers, streamers and silly string.
3. On tv lately, there have been shows on the local station that feature a strange hybrid of the Big Joe Polka Show and a crazy Halloween party.
4. The schools are all out this coming week, and Friday afternoon there was a party-like atmosphere in the public squares as people began the late winter holiday.
5. BIG CLUE: While walking around Thursday, John and I saw an entire school group in costumes (one teacher was Minnie Mouse) parading toward the town center. If we'd been in the US, I would've said "oh, they're all going trick-or-treating."
So we were starting to get the picture. We had our choice of two places to go for Carnaval festivities today. Aalst is west of Brussels, and about 1.5 hours by public transportation. Binche, whose Carnaval celebration is on the UNESCO world heritage list for notable cultural events, is further south of Brussels, getting close to the French border. At first we were leaning toward Binche, but The Green Guide (a very helpful series of travel guides, I must say) said that Sunday's events begin at 10pm, so that was out and Aalst was in.
Caught the 11:40 train to Brussels-Zuid (south) but it was delayed, so we missed the direct train to Aalst. We found an alternate, though it was a local. It stopped everywhere on its way so we didn't get to Aalst until almost 2. On top of that, Genius Mom forgot to pack food because I assumed all the trains had snack carts rolling down the aisles, but this is not so. Lesson learned--no train travel without just-in-case food & water. You'd think I would know this by now. Anyway.
We were wondering whether we would know where to go from the train station to see all the festivities. THAT IS A REALLY FUNNY THING TO WONDER WHEN GOING TO THE AALST CARNAVAL because before we even got off the train, we heard the raucous music and crowds and we could see the parade, already underway, from the train overpasses. All the streets were closed, and this town was kicking off a three-day binge that culminates on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras). But it was a family-friendly binge. Of course. Just like the beer on tap at Pirateneiland Fun Park.
So we started to zigzag through the crowds and follow the giant floats that depict Belgian politicians in caricature through huge groteque statues. That's the hallmark of this parade: it's a chance for the hoi polloi to make fun of the movers and shakers, and they take their job very seriously! There were lots of song parodies with tunes I recognized, like "Love and Marriage," "Downtown" and "Jailhouse Rock" to name a few, but all sung in Flemish with lyrics that I'm sure were skewering the local politicians. One of the Belgian princes is in a bit of trouble right now over the financing of the large addition he's putting on his home, or something like that. His picture was upside down on a mirror being manipulated by a skeleton on one float. That one seemed the most serious of the floats we saw though...the rest of them had certain features in common:
1. Cross-dressing men, bonus points for a huge "bumsie" as we call it. Faux breasts optional, but if you use them, bare them!
2. Depict the politician in question in some phase of using the toilet. Bonus points for flushing noises.
3. Choreographed dances that spotlight huge bumsies emitting huge flatulations are sure to please.
4. The louder the music, the better the float!
We watched the parade (which lasts 5 hours if you want to see the whole thing!!!) from several different vantage points, and the work that goes into the floats and costumes is just amazing. It's like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Tournament of Roses Parade and whatever parade you can think of all rolled into one and multiplied by fifty. And it's not just a holiday for performers! Many of the spectators are all dressed up in detailed colorful costumes, and they have huge bags of confetti to throw. Lots of the men we saw today were in hilarious drag outfits...latex groteque breasts seem to be a cottage industry somewhere - we saw so many today, we got blase about them after a while.
The girls had a blast today! I wish we'd gotten there earlier. If you're reading this wondering whether to take the kids, definitely go. We saw people of all ages today and it was a totally kid-friendly event. There are food booths everywhere, rides, games, and of course the main event, and people are in this great festive mood, throwing confetti on complete strangers and laughing together. The girls didn't want to leave when we had to head for the train (which we had to approach several times by different roads because the crowds were too thick to navigate with The Stroller). They loved the parade, had great fun throwing confetti on each other and on us, and even got to ride on a carousel with REAL PONIES - whoa! We were so busy watching the parade and festivities that we barely ate, just hot dogs and bratwursts, with plenty of onions.
What's the deal with the onions? Well, I don't know why, but tomorrow's festivities in Aalst include throwing onions from the tops of buildings. I'll see if I can find the story behind that one, but this carnaval is an old tradition, so who knows if anyone can even explain it anymore.
Tuesday there's another parade there, with more cross-dressing hilarity. And probably more beer drinking. Of course people along the parade route were drinking. I saw cans of Jupiler (the Budweiser of Belgium) in many hands today, and people on the balconies along the parade route were toasting mightily while their kids threw confetti on the merrymakers below. But what's more, there were floats in this parade specifically designed to dispense beer from not-so-concealed taps as the costumed participants went down the 5-hour parade route. Party on, Garth!
Three days of Bacchanalia and rule-breaking, and on Wednesday we will be reminded: you are dust, and to dust you shall return. In the meantime, to quote the Mary Tyler Moore show, "a little song, a little dance, a little selzer down your pants." Or Jupiler, in this case.