Last Tuesday—Mardi Gras—found me in Binche (pronounced bansh), a community of moderate size in Wallonia, the southern French-speaking half of Belgium. If one of the UCL faculty hadn’t stopped at our table during lunch on Monday, I wonder if either Paul or I would have known about this peculiarly Belgian beginning to the Lenten season.
Technically, Carnaval de Binche is a four-day affair, from Saturday and through the weekend, building to fat Tuesday, with all the debris and detritus (and comatose revelers) swept away in time for Wednesday’s Lenten smudge. Most of us boarded morning trains in Brussels for the Tuesday culmination, wondering how it might compare with more familiar celebrations at places like Sydney, Rio or New Orleans, closer to home and personal experience.
Whatever images I’d conjured were quickly dispelled passing through the station door onto the south side of a sad landscaped square defined by buildings of the 19th and 20th centuries. The station itself is the best of the lot, a grand Gothic Revival pile erected in happier financial times. [Half the passenger benches trackside consist only of their cast-iron brackets, the planks and backs long gone the way of wood left to its own devices.] To the left and right were typical narrow commercial fronts, shops on the ground level and apartments above. Opposite the station is an eminently regrettable apartment block more typical of the former Iron Curtain countries; I would have guessed Kutna Hora on a good day. But the visual display presented by Binche was quickly displaced by the sonic experience: incessant snare-drumming from every direction.
Moving slowly up the west side of the square (toward its only public house) was a clutch of Gilles, chief characters in the Carnaval de Binche and participating only in Tuesdays events. Not speaking French, I’ve been left to google their history and role in the larger story. But their strange rhythmic behavior—hardly marching as we know it—was mesmerizing in the same spastic way that a rugby scrum defies description. I haven’t checked youtube, but I’ll bet there’s something there to satisfy your curiosity. It turns out there are random gangs of these Gilles moving about the city as Monty Python might have staged the Normandy invasion, bumping into one another like mating moths.
Not a particularly worldly person, I was left to the limited range of cards on my mental rolodex for comparison. Happily, Cecil Elliott came once again to my rescue.
In the winter of his first year at NDSU—he came mid-year, starting on January One—Cecil was inordinately curious about his new home, though I don’t for a moment believe that any place Cecil lived ever became his home. Scarcely four months in the saddle, Cecil found himself at West Acres, the regional shopping center, in the midst of displays and folks in colorful native costumes. Ever curious about local lore, he presented himself at one of the displays, one that no doubt offered an array of baked goods. “What’s behind all this celebration?” he cheerily inquired.
“Why, it’s Syttende Mai!” one of the be-ribboned and hyper-aproned ladies replied, no doubt offering a sandbakkel or other goody.
Innocent of our wiles and ways in these parts, Cecil followed with “What’s that?” a not unexpected question for which there was one likely reply: “Well, it’s the 17th of Mai.” Even without a working knowledge of the Scandinavian languages—minus Finnish, of course—even this was hardly likely to satisfy Elliott, who pushed ever onward toward enlightenment.
His “Oh? What happened on that day?” was met with furrowed brow and a decided drop in the temperature. “It’s Norwegian Independence Day” intoned one of the celebrants, the starch in her apron beginning to show some cracks. To which Cecil delivered the coups de grâce: “Really” with a tone of Thanks awfully for that worthwhile information, “Independence from whom?”
One by one the ladies glanced at one another with disconcertion and drifted off in the sense of Move along now; nothing going on here; nothing to see, because, apparently, no one knew.
Eventually only one lady remained, all the others having found something more demanding of their volunteered but valuable time. “Why, independence from Sweden,” to which Elliott pushed on: “Oh? When?”
Silence, even in the middle of a hectic shopping center, can be deafening.
Had I a rudimentary ability in French, I wonder what sort of explanation for Carnaval de Binche might have been forthcoming.