Two weeks after I arrived in the Netherlands was Carnaval. Now being English this was a new phenomenon to me, but Gino has been talking about Carnaval week ever since I’ve known him, so there was definitely excitement to find out what all the fuss was about.
When I was first told about Carnaval two thoughts popped in to my head, firstly the seaside summer celebrations my grandparents used to take me to in Norfolk, where we would spend hours waiting for a 20 minute parade put together by the local scout and guide groups. Secondly was Mardi-Gras. Neither of which can be compared to what I now know to be the Dutch Carnaval.
Let’s start with the outfit, every city or district has their own mascot, in Den Bosch it’s a frog, you must think “what?” but yes frogs. More importantly, lots of frogs which were sewn onto a blazer. This is then topped off by the colours of the local town or city you are celebrating Carnaval in. We planned to go to Den Bosch, which was renamed Oeteldonk (HUH?) for the celebrations, and therefore our colours were red, white and yellow. I went for a scarf, gloves and leg warmers, it was February after all!
Now Carnaval officially starts on the Sunday and goes until Tuesday, but in true Dutch fashion this has been extended from Thursday to Wednesday. We chose to just concentrate on Saturday to Monday, for three reasons; firstly I think Gino wanted to ease me into my first Carnaval slowly, secondly we didn’t want to spend our live savings on beer, and thirdly my liver wouldn’t be able to cope with that level of drinking.
So on the Saturday night instead of putting on a dress and heels I put on my Carnaval colours and caught the bus into Den Bosch with Gino. I was delighted to see that everyone on the bus was also emblazoned with frogs and bright colours and rather than standing out, I faded into everyone around me. Hooray, finally I was becoming a Dutchy!
When we arrived into Den Bosch I can only describe it as a sea of people, more like a Spanish party town in the height of summer rather than a quiet Dutch city. However it wasn’t just 18 to 30s that lined the streets, people of all ages were not only covered in frogs like me, but also dressed in crazy fancy dress.
We drank at a bar called Paternoster, which was in the main square in the city. As we walked in I was overwhelmed by the amount of people, we pushed our way to the back where Gino’s friends were drinking. The music was loud, but not just the usual music you hear in a bar on a Saturday night, instead “Wooompahpah Wooompahpah” music played, with some kind of Dutch over the top. I understood one song to be the Children’s classic “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”! My first reaction was “what the hell have I got myself into”, quickly followed by “get me a beer now”, but after three or four drinks I found myself bobbing along to the “Woompahpahs” quite happily.
Day two started much earlier, after a full English breakfast we headed into Den Bosch to watch the unveiling of the puppet. Now this is the part I don’t understand, a giant puppet is set up in the centre of the city covered by a cloth, at 3pm on Sunday Carnaval is officially started by removing the cloth from the puppet. Yes I think it is as crazy as it sounds! After the puppet unveiling we headed back to Paternoster where more beers were drunk, and I spent about a quarter of the time in the queue for the ladies. I hate to admit it, but I was quite enjoying this weird celebration by this point!
Monday, and the final day for us but the day I was looking forward to most, parade day! I grew up in Disney and so was used to the Parades of Disneyland with princesses and my favourite Disney character, expectations were high! We headed to Jeroen and Celesta’s, who live on the parade route; therefore we could keep warm and drink beer in the comfort of their living room. Despite my high expectations I was not disappointed, the parade was an amazing mix of floats that the people of Den Bosch had obviously been working all year on, and when the parade was held up the brass bands would continue the whoompah whoompah music to keep the crowds entertained.
After three days of Carnaval, to say I was exhausted was an understatement; I can see what Gino means when he says he gets tired translating from English all the time. Gino’s friends were amazing, and welcomed me into the group like I was meant to be there. There was always someone who took pity on me when I looked slightly confused during the weekend and would explain what was happening and why, as well as someone to always come and help me dance to the weird music that everyone seemed to know all the words to!
Even though Carnaval was overwhelming at first, I can honestly say I am excited for next year, when hopefully I can sign along to the Whoompa-ing, finally understand the puppet tradition and my liver will hopefully be recovered. Here’s to Carnaval 2016!