A few days ago The New York Times ran a travel feature called “36 Hours in Basel.” It reminded me of my beloved, adopted city and its annual carnival, called Fasnacht, which begins next week.
The piece took me back to the mid-1990s, when the Swiss company whose American affiliate I worked for sent me on a business trip to its headquarters in Basel. At that time, all I could envision was a drab, grey river surrounded by drab, grey buildings cloaked in drab, grey clouds darkened by soot puffing from the smokestacks of pharmaceutical companies. Some years earlier, a chemical fire at one of those companies had created an international clamor that the media memorialized in graphic cover stories showing the Rhine in Basel blanketed in dead fish.
Nothing could have erased that toxic image. Nothing except landing in Basel and seeing with my own eyes another image that was as colorful, wondrous and enchanting as its predecessor had been dark and depressing: a clear and tranquil river running through a quaint, European village-city whose brown church steeples cast soft shadows on multicolored, tiled roofs; deep-red geraniums billowing from planters on balconies overlooking centuries-old cobblestone streets filled with casual strollers shopping, relaxing at sidewalk bars and cafes, browsing the town’s numerous art galleries and taking in its pastries and distinctive culinary treats.
That became MY BASEL. My wife and I could not have been more pleased when my company sent us to live there on an expat assignment that started in 2001 and lasted until 2017. One of the highlights was our experience of Morgenstreich, the official opening of the annual three-day Fasnacht festival. People told us about it numerous times, but it was one of those things that can’t be pictured; it has to be lived.
And that’s what we did, toward the end of our stay in my adopted city. We booked a room at a lovely hotel in the center of town, where the staff woke us up at three in the morning, served us a traditional breakfast of flour soup, and equipped us with flashlights to venture out into the pitch darkness of those medieval, Old Town streets, until… the strike of four, when a silent blast of art-filled light illuminated the city.
This poem was inspired by that experience.
We dined again at our favorite place
Drank wine and talked and slowed our pace
We savored our meal and shared dessert
Reminisced and laughed till our faces hurt
We sipped tea and wondered with delight
What would happen next on Firefly Night
Everyone said we’d never forget it
That we had to go or we’d live to regret it
For fifteen years we’d let it slide
But now we knew we could no longer hide
We finally tired of the fight
So we booked a room for Firefly Night
We took a nap and got up at three
Still chasing thoughts of what we’d see
With sleep in our eyes and wonder in mind
We ventured outside to see what we’d find
In pitch-black darkness, our hands held tight
We took our first steps into Firefly Night
The crowd was enormous but quiet as mice
It was a little bit scary, but we’d rolled the dice
All that was left was to see how they fell
It was like being at the bottom of a wishing well
Then suddenly darkness transformed into light
Lo and behold — it was Firefly Night!
Around us were lanterns like lightning bugs
Illuminating the city like candles in jugs
And people in costumes and colorful masks
Like a village of servants set free from their tasks
Let loose from their toil with all of their might
Thanking God for their freedom on Firefly Night
We marched with the revelers till night turned to day
Covered in confetti determined to stay
In our clothes and our shoes from our heads to our feet
As the Fasnacht cliques carried on in the street
We were a little bit weary but high as a kite
Carrying with us our memory of Firefly Night