Sunday, March 1, 2009


We really didn’t know what to expect for Carnival. Neither of us had been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras; we’d only seen it in the movies and on TV. And we were certain that there wouldn’t be any women wearing only body paint as there are in Brazil. It’s just too cold here. So we were glad to have Saturday evening with Lex and Maria to talk about what we were going to be doing and to watch some Carnival events on TV.

We went to only two events: the arrival of the Prince on Sunday and the main parade on Monday. But first we needed to dress up a bit. Many people wear whole costumes; we did the minimum, which is a scarf in the red, white and yellow colors of ‘s Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch). I also added a stocking cap with Oeteldonk (the name of Den Bosch during Carnival) on it and pulled some red-and-white stripped socks up over the bottoms of my jeans. Lex and Maria have costumes that they wear every year, but they aren’t elaborate, so we didn’t feel out of place.

Shirlee and Maria in Oeteldonk attire

What was most amazing to me was the community spirit. There were red, white and yellow banners everywhere. And frogs. Oetel is frog in the dialect of Den Bosch, and Oeteldonk translates as frog hill, the historic Den Bosch being slightly higher than the surrounding lowlands. Lex and Maria assured us that many of the people in the crowds came from other places—north of the rivers that divide the north and south of The Netherlands, for example—but everyone had the Oeteldonk spirit.

If you’ve ever been to the Castro on Halloween, you have some idea of the crowds involved. But there was no violence at all, and people were good-natured about the pushing and shoving required to move from one place to another in the crush. And move people do! There are Carnival clubs whose members dress in the same theme and dance around and party for the whole three days of the celebration. Many of the clubs participate in the parades or have bands. Lex says it’s hard work to be in a club.

I was really impressed with the quality of many of the marching bands—their music, not their marching. High schools and colleges here don’t have bands, so they were all regular citizen groups. John was most impressed by the bandleader who stopped in the middle of one parade and whipped out a bottle of jenever (Dutch gin), which he proceeded to share with everyone who held out a glass. Yes, there was drinking and lots of cigarette smoking, even by those in the parade.

A fun but less musical band

In fact, a common theme was the national ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. It was reported in the news that the police would dress in costume and check to see if people were smoking in the pubs so that they could levy fines. So, of course, many people had costumes that included the word politie (police). It was the first Carnival since the ban. We’re told that the pubs are packed with lines outside, so it is a hardship to first force your way outside for a smoke and then have to stand in line to get back in. We assume that the prohibition was largely ignored.

Other common themes were the financial crisis and Barack Obama. Apparently, many Dutch put their savings in Icelandic banks for the higher interest. And Dutch banks have been hard hit too. There was a very clever funeral march for the blue lion that was the symbol of a Dutch bank that was taken over by ING, itself not that healthy. Another favorite was the “Yes we can-can” dancers, which we also saw spelled out in dialect.

"We shall overcome" and "Yes we can" in dialect

All in all, we had a delightful time, and we’re very glad that we had the opportunity to experience Dutch carnival. Once again Lex and Maria were extremely gracious hosts, and this time it was nice not to have to worry about Märzen. Sjoerd and Julia kept her at their apartment for us. Thanks to them all!

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