Wednesday, March 28, 2007

It Would Be Your Own Fault

I devoted my last post to a discussion of Swiss responsibility and I now realize that the subject deserves at least one more post.

Mickey and I spent the weekend before last in Klosters, a charming ski resort town made famous by Prince Charles' frequent visits. Worn out after a frustrating morning on the bunny slopes on Saturday (that is another story), we spent Sunday wandering the hills and visiting some friends in their newly built Klosters vacation home. The conversation turned to our wedding and Mark mentioned that he visited a castle much like the one in which we will marry, when he was a kid.

"I remember the torture chamber," Mark said. "I wanted to lie down in the spiked coffin, but I knew that my brother would have closed the lid."
"You know what the Swiss say," his wife Carla chimed in, "it would have been your own fault." I was going to ask Carla what she meant by this, but I already knew. Suddenly, it all made sense.

Last month, Mickey and some friends and I trekked out to Basel to partake in pre-Fasnacht activities. Basel's Fasnacht is a three day carnival involving parades of grotesquely masked piccolo players designed to scare away the winter and usher in the spring. Believe it or not, the madness began promptly at 4am on Monday and thus we were unable to attend Fasnacht. On Fasnacht eve we settled for Chienbäse, a parade in a small town outside of Basel featuring some of the same masked piccolo players, but with fire. And I'm not talking about 'that torch casts a festive glow' kind of fire, I'm talking about 'hold on to your kid, hope your clothes aren't flammable, Barbie melting' fire. I could try to describe the heat and intensity of this parade, but the pictures offer a better sense of the scene. (Thanks, Pete, for sharing these fantastic photos).

People carried enormous bonfires on their backs (next to their heads and hair!) and had to be sponged with water and flame retardant substances every few yards. The parade passed through narrow medieval streets and the flames licked centuries old buildings and trees. There was no barricade preventing the crowd from walking straight into one of the raging bonfires and only a couple of firefighters were staffed to survey the chaos. It was a miracle that no one was hurt and that no property was damaged.

There is no way that anything like Chienbäse could ever take place in the US. If so much as a handbag was burned, the city would be faced with so many lawsuits it would rue the day it dreamed a fire parade was possible. If Chienbäse came to the states, firefighters from three counties would barricade the parade route and protect the crowd and still it would be too dangerous. I wondered how Chienbäse could go on year after year, but Carla's words helped me make sense of it. The Swiss figure that if you get burned in the fire, it was your fault for standing too close. Perhaps in a nation where personal responsibility is of utmost importance, the fear of lawsuits does not bother parade planners.

Yesterday afternoon I took the girls to the local playground for some air and sunshine. A slide that follows the slope of the hill, a tireswing and a shaky rope bridge over a dry creek bed make this the most appealing playground I have ever seen. I didn't realize until yesterday, however, that its fire pit also makes this playground attractive to adolescents. While Elena and I enjoyed the tireswing, an older man helped two young boys build a fire in the pit. Because this is Switzerland and people seem to defy stereotypes, I couldn't tell whether this man was the grandfather of one of the boys, the principal of the school next door or the type of stranger from whom your parents advise you to never accept candy. One of the boys threw a snowball at us and said hello when it crashed in the sand next to us. When the boys grew tired of tending to the fire, they played nearby while the man read the part of the newspaper that he hadn't already burned as kindling. There were so many things wrong with this picture I felt like I was looking at the back of a Highlights magazine. Why is there a fire pit at a playground and who is this man? The teacher in me wanted to approach them, but I've only learned how to order from a menu and comment on furniture in German, so I let them be. Besides, if they caught on fire it would be their own fault. :)

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