Belgian's Best: The Craze for Carnival

by Lydia Cheng

The crowd is almost loud enough to drown out the cold, almost but not quite.  For every voice that raises up in cheer, another gust of wind cuts through layers of clothing.  Drums clash and trumpets blare, sounds that are magnified within alleyways and narrow roads.

Crazy costumes a common sight
Crazy costumes a common sight. Photo by Lydia Cheng

The city of Binche is located in the south of Belgium, nearly an hour from the capital city of Brussels, and is the size of 6,063 hectares.  With a population of over 33,000 Binche has the same population density of Falls City, Nebraska: that is to say, 547.5 people per square kilometer.  Usually, this means a quiet Medieval city, with French-speaking locals, and a small museum dedicated to the area's history.

Yet every year before Lent, the city swells in size: tourists, relatives and friends descend upon Binche in preparation for Carnival.  The celebration is designed to be a human release of emotions and excess before the forty days of sacrifice begins.  Ever since the festival was designated a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible History of Humanity” by UNESCO in 2003, tens of thousands of people have roamed the streets during the four day celebration, which begins on Saturday and continues until Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday.  

It's easy enough for you to see the chaotic, yet jolly atmosphere.  In fact, the chaos starts well before you even arrive in Binche.  The first step is the trickiest: finding a way to get there.

You could use a GO Pass, a youth train ticket that allows for 10 different train trips and costs 50 euros.   The problem is finding a seat: benches are overflowing with people and corridors are nearly impossible to squeeze through with people standing so close to each other, that even the European sense of personal space has been invaded. Between the boisterous students, the reserved families and the excited tourists, if you can't get onto one train, cross your fingers and wait for the next one.

You could try to ride in a car, which presents issues of finding someone with a car and finding an open seat.  There's the issue of splitting gas which, at around 1.50 euros a liter, could be relatively pricey.  Finally, there's the matter of radio stations: music can make or break a car ride, and since you'll be spending two hours with these people, you better have a good playlist.

Once you arrive in Binche, it is easy enough to join the festivities.  All you have to do is follow the flow of people, leaving the train station, walking across the well preserved ramparts, carousing towards the town square.  People wear hats and costumes with aplomb, brandishing their different accessories, including musical instruments and drinks.  There are parades sponsored by individual neighborhoods, also known as communes, schools and even businesses.  There are children decked out in London telephone booths, men wearing skeleton-like outfits, and women as empresses of olden ages.

Shrove Tuesday is the largest celebration out of all four days.  From early morning, the city is crowded.  Trains unload more and more passengers, leaving town with very few.  Various bars open earlier, to keep visitors warm with champagne buffets and body heat.  The small grocery stores have bags of confetti for children, as well as cans of beer for harried adults.  There are street vendors with masks and makeup for those who have not dressed up.

You have made the decision to wear a thick jacket, as well as sturdy shoes and even gloves.  After all, you know you will be walking across cobblestone, an already dangerous adventure.  As you walk towards town hall, you are grateful for the thick soles on your shoes.  Even though it's barely 10 in the morning, the cobblestones are sticky with spilled alcohol, while the stone cracks are covered with pieces of broken glass.  Trash cans are overflowing with plastic cups, the remnants of early morning revelers.

Since you have done your research, you know that the parade will end in front of the town hall.  As you cautiously make your way past people stumbling out, children giggling in the streets, and a few silly string fights, you see that several streets have already been blockaded by the police.  You hop through a gap between metal fences to where an empty fence.  Despite wearing your gloves, your fingers are cold and can barely bend.  Thankfully, there's a man selling spiced wine for two euros a cup next door, and a friterie, or fry shop, that also sells hamburgers and fried foods.  You perch for the next thirty minutes.

When the parade begins, you hear it.  Even though the start is a few kilometers away, the jingling bells and music can be heard through the cold.   As the parade draws closer, you realize there are multiple groups of people, including children.  While the children are adorable in pastel colors, with pointed hats and small woven baskets that look like lanterns, the Gilles could be jesters in a historical movie.  The Gilles are local men, selected because they have a long history connected to Binche. Their hats are covered with large white wavy plumes, bells attached to their wooden clogs, and even to their orange colored costumes.  They also carry the same wood woven baskets filled with round objects. In between are groups of musicians, and people in jeans carrying backpacks.  As you continue to watch, you realize that the people in parade reach into the baskets and turn those round objects into flying missiles.  You see how people grab at them, filling umbrellas, plastic bags, even purses with blood oranges.  As each basket empties out, you realize that the people with backpacks are part of the “Orange Brigade”: they refill each basket, assist the Gilles with re-situating hats and make sure that no one has dropped anything.

Even though the majority of people are crowded on the streets, there are the select who have access to balconies that are now covered with wires.  The wires cause the blood oranges to bounce back down towards the crowds, including you.  Despite the fact that you duck several times, you realize that you will still end up with bruises: where the blood oranges have missed, the boisterous crowd has not. There will be some bumps from elbows that clipped you, red areas from hands that reached up and missed, even a few stubbed toes.

Three hours later, when the cold has bitten through your coat, when the bruises start to form, when you feel that your hair will forever be covered in confetti, it comes to an end.  The police break down the barricades, people slowly quiet down, and street sweepers appear out of nowhere.  As people return once more to the dark bars and their homes, you see several people arrested for drunken behavior.  The police throw them against the barriers, as the rest of the crowd stares.  Drunken misconduct is looked down upon in Europe.  You would laugh, but your cheeks hurt from grinning and your fingers need to be warmed up.  You turn to your friends and debate getting a final drink before heading home.  All in all, it was a successful Carnival, for this year.  Next year will be another experience.