Having spent 6 months in the Netherlands so far, I can tell you with a fair amount of conviction that the Dutch are not the most reserved people you will encounter. This is generally. You know, average everyday dutchness… the type that occurs about 360 days a year. Of the 5 days not included in this figure one is Queen’s day, where everybody dresses from head to toe in orange, drinks their bodyweight in Heineken and cruises the canals of Amsterdam praising the merits of the monarchy. There’s also a strange day in December where people embrace the apparent joys of blackface and give sweets to excited kiddies… but both these days both pale in comparison to what is perhaps the least-reserved day in the Maastricht calendar. Carnaval.
Now carnival is not celebrated throughout the Netherlands in its entirety.. It’s far too crazy a festivity for those in the North. For true carnival craziness you need to head south of the Catholic belt. Limburg, the cross-border area where Maastricht happens to be, does carnival very nicely indeed. It’s a BIG deal for these people too, they start preparing their costumes and stuff a good three months in advance (there’s a special day in November to mark this moment), and they put a lot of effort in to them.
For the people of Limburg, carnaval is the day where anything goes. Anything. Think you can dance for 73 hours straight? Try it out at carnaval. Want to be a Rastafarian zebra? You can at carnaval. You have a husband? Find another one at carnaval. Never engaged in cunnilingus in a public fountain? Change all that at carnaval.
You get the picture. In fact, you can probably do all of the above simultaneously at carnaval, and still not penetrate the upper quartile of crazy.
Our first carnaval experience began bright and early with some 10am pre-beers at a friend’s house. This involved painting people’s faces, making sure everybody had a suitable hat, and then a spot of drinking on the street.
Once everybody had arrived, and we’d had one or two warm-up beers to prepare us for what we were about to experience, we headed off out into the madness that was the city centre. But first, a group photo:
(I hadn’t set aside much time to prepare a costume, so went as a “true scotsman” in some tartan shorts, some long Argyle socks and a Scotch Beef t-shirt. Somebody thought it would be fun to paint a beard on my face to accentuate the look)
At carnaval you see so many strange things that nothing looks strange any more. Like this giant clog-footed dutch mama swinging by the neck from a scaffold? Normal.
This demon donkey-human strung up from a lamp postwith a bunch of carrots dangling from its mouth? Nope, no longer weird.
There’s a long parade, where they crown the “king of carnaval” and a selection of increasingly odd floats go past. Like these tiered jesters, for example:
And, of course the Viking delegation complete with horned helmets and polar bear skins. Classic.
After we’d had our fill of weird parade, we headed further into the town for some other types of weirdness. After a spot more beer drinking and some cheerful photos, obviously. Oh look, there’s the Vikings again…
In the streets to the East of the Vrijthof (the main square where we were watching the parade) there are a lot of bars, so we decided to head there. This is where the real fun is happening. The bars have brought kegs out to the front so they can serve people on the street, and they are just churning out these wee €2 beers like there’s no tomorrow. And it’s getting busy. Good busy.
The next part of carnaval is basically spent mooshed up in the crowd, dancing with strangers, occasionally dashing into a bar to pee, getting lost, trying to find your friends, rejoicing when you are reunited, introducing the friends you made when you were lost to your original friends, dancing with everybody, finding new add-ons for your costume, posing for photos, etc. It’s a lot of fun, lemme tell ya.
These are some of my “lost friends”. I never knew them before, and I will probably never see them again, but we spent a joyous 15 or so minutes together at carnaval, and that makes us bonded for life.
We obtained a fun new prop from somewhere. It’s a horn, clearly, but also an ingenious device that can carry up to five glasses of beer. A real must-have for carnaval.
This is a small square called Sint Amorsplein, just east of the Vrijthof. Normally a quaint wee place where we’d come for a quiet beer or three after class, now it is a chaotic solid blob of costumed drunken humans moving as one in the general direction of alcohol.
And it’s the same on every street. Complete madness everywhere you look.
But we’re mad too (it’s carnaval, you just can’t avoid it) so it’s all good.
By this point my expertly painted-on beard had rather smudged and it was beginning to look like I’d spent the afternoon smearing shit on to my face, but does anybody care on carnaval if you look like you have shit all over your face? Nope. As long as you have a beer in your hand, you’re just fine.
And there we are, a bunch of beautiful crazy postgrad students, halfway through our first Limburg carnaval, and still in one piece. These guys are the absolute best, and I wouldn’t want to celebrate whatever it is carnaval is actually supposed to celebrate (something to to with Ash Wednesday?) with any other people.
We partied on down until well after dark, then Anouk, whose house we’d been to at the start of the day, invited us all back for an after party, which was a jolly lovely way to end what was one of the most bizarre yet outstandingly awesome days of my life so far.
The wonderful Dutch have truly out-crazied their reputation here, and may they continue to do so every carnaval for the rest of time. Because it’s bloody fantastic.