Carnival in Maastricht

Trip Start Apr 06, 2003
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Sunday, March 7, 2004

Hey guys.

Things are going well in A'dam. Julie and I have spent the last few weeks relaxing in town and spending time with our friends here. Last week we went to see "Big Fish" - I really liked it but Julie just thought it was ok. This morning we went to the Nieuw Kerk (New Church - which was built in the 1400s...not so new I suppose) where there was a cool traveling Hermitage exhibit on Love. The Hermitage Museum (from St. Petersburgh) just opened a museum in A'dam so I'm sure we'll go see that soon too.

We are planning a snowboarding trip with our Aussie friends Bruce and Ange and probably with a girl Julie knows from the American Woman's Club named Tiffany and her Dutch boyfriend Carl. We aren't exactly sure what we are doing yet but the thought is that next Wednesday night (March 17) we will drive to Austria. Isn't that crazy? We're going to drive to Austria? Or maybe to the Bavarian Alps. The Bavarian Alps are about 8 hours away (Austria is on the other side of the mountains and is about 90 minutes farther). We are going to spend four days snowboarding. It's still crazy to think that we are going to drive for a casual weekend snowboarding in the Austrian/Bavarian Alps. I love living in Europe!

But now is the best part of year...if you're not an Indiana fan that is. With the NCAA tourney coming up, I am reminded again that living here has its negatives as well. I'm not sure how much of the tourney I'll get to see but I'm sure I'll be ok...I was up this past Wednesday at 3:30 AM to listen to the Badgers beat Michigan State - a HUGE win. Now tonight I'll be rooting for Ohio State! Go Buckeyes - tonight only!

Anyways, that's about it for now. We are almost caught up on some of our past trips...just in time for snowboarding.

But for now, here's our trip to Maastricht for Carnival a few weekends ago...

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SATURDAY

Julie and I decided to spend the weekend in Maastricht for Carnival. Carnival in Maastricht is much like Carnival in every other place in world. Obviously, it puts its own stamp on it. Mardi Gras has boobs. Rio has tanned and sequence bodies. Maastricht has...what does Maastricht have? We'll soon see.

I had been to Maastricht in August with my parents. I really liked the place a lot and thought it just had a really great vibe. Maastricht is a university town in the province of Limburg in the south. It is basically an isthmus that digs into Belgium and just a few KMs from Germany. While I studied my junior semester in London, Jeremy studied in Maastricht. And I am certain he had an amazing time.

So, here's the deal...we woke up Saturday morning and headed over to Central Station with our backpack packed for the night. We took the train (EUR 44 for 2 roundtrip tix using Julie's 40% discount card) which left at 9:28 on the dot - not a second late.

After a 2-1/2 hour ride (see Pic 1), our arrival to Maastricht coincided with some sort of chaos but we were not sure what it was. One of our fellow train passengers said "it's the Prince" to which I said "William Alexander?". She almost lost it when she said, " no, the Carnival Prince". I guess Carnival is not the place for the Dutch heir-to-the-throne. The train was decorated with colorful masks (see Pic 2), the train station was packed with families, and the Carnival Prince followed a procession filled with musicians and colorful costumes into town.

Rather than follow the processional, we headed toward our hotel and saw an immediate Carnival impact as the buildings were covered in Carnival colors...red, yellow, and green - unlike Mardi Gras' purple and yellow (see Pic 3). We stopped first at tourist information to pick up some general info on Carnival and Maastricht before it closed for the holiday. We continued on to the hotel (Maison de Chene for EUR 95 per night).

After checking in, we headed into town to find some lunch. After window-shopping some very nice stores and encountering the occasional costumed troupe of musicians marching through town (see Pic 4), we found a small brown café called Moulin Rouge where we had a very typical Dutch lunch - Julie had onion soup and a cheese and tomato toasti, which is basically a grilled cheese with tomato, and I had an uitsmijter, which is basically fried eggs and cheese served on toast (EUR 16 total).

At the restaurant, we started talking to 2 other non-Dutchies who were in Maastricht for their first Carnival as well. Both are professors in the Netherlands, one Scottish and the other from Saudi Arabia. They were both really nice and on a side note, we met the Saudi woman for coffee the other day as she lives in A'dam but I'm sure you'll hear more about her another time.

Back at the restaurant, the waitress told me that I speak Dutch very well. While my Dutch lessons have not been going very well at all, I do think the 5 Dutch words I know I pronounce well. Again, I'm sure you'll hear more about our pathetic attempt at this crazy language later, but it did feel nice to have the compliment.

After lunch we decided we would continue to just wander around town. We walked past some more very nice stores, which Julie ducked her head into, but unfortunately, she was unable to find anything she wanted - shucks!

As we got lost wandering town, we got a better sense of what the night and following day of Carnival would introduce us to. Every few minutes, groups of 20-ish people in coordinated colorful outfits marched throughout town making noise and spreading cheer (see Pic 5). The costumes are very intense, with wonderful colors and masterfully applied facepaint (see Pic 6). Going back to the cheapness of the Dutch, many of the costumes appeared to be self-made. However, they were all very well done. Most of the paraders played a musical instrument - anything from a drum to a trumpet to a washboard and spoon (see Pic 7). Anything that makes noise. It was really fun to watch.

The time spent watching all the fun inspired Julie and I to look into costumes. We had actually bought 2 costumes in A'dam for about EUR 50 but began to think that maybe ours weren't Carnival-appropriate and got a bit too into the whole vibe so we went to one of the temporary costume stores set up to accommodate the hoards of Carnivalers. Although we did not need them, we picked up 2 costumes (EUR 82 for both) which we decided we would wear at the parade the following day.

We also spent some time trying to find a special Carnival pin which all the locals seemed to have been wearing. We were not so lucky though - it seemed that the whole town was sold out. Oh well. We continued to walk around town for a bit when we decided we would rest before what was expected to be a long and fun night.

Following our small nap, we decided we would cross the St. Servaasburg Bridge and eat dinner on the east bank of the Maas River in an artsy area of town called the Wyck. We found a really good restaurant (Eetcafe Ceramique). We shared tuna carpaccio and Julie had beef tornados and I had a white fish called Zeebars (total of EUR 59). The meal was very good. After some coffee and tea, we walked around town to see what sort of craziness had unfolded.

We followed the crowd to the Vrijthof, a large plaza that had a temporary stage set up in the middle that had a hefty crowd jiving with the local act (see Pic 8). There's something pretty cool about having a concert with a church in the background. I don't know, kinda a neat ambiance. Surrounding the Vrijthof was a handful of packed bars (see Pics 9 and 10) serving up tasty cups of brew. We hung out for a bit but felt somewhat naked in our jeans and long-sleeve shirts.

So we checked back at the hotel to get our costumes on - although all Julie really needed was a phone booth to get into her Super Woman outfit (see Pic 11). And I put on my colorful wizard outfit (see Pic 12). We headed back to a small street just off the Vrijthof that was packed with tons of Carnival goers (see Pics 13). We found a spot to people-watch and enjoy the night.

There were some amazing costumes (see Pic 14) and people seemed to really be enjoying themselves. One of the more creative costumes of the night was a group of guys who were dressed in doctor's smocks and were wheeling a "patient" on a gurney around town (see Pic 15). The "patient" was hooked up to an IV which was a wine-in-the-box. It was really clever and the fellas seemed to be getting the attention they were looking for.

We stood on the side of the de facto beer garden, listening to some horrible techno music (with the occasional break of "If I had a Hammer" or some other oddly placed song), watched as random musicians marched through the sea of drunken humanity, and enjoyed the occasional creative costume.

As the street became more and more crowded and the night became more and more cold, we finally called it a night. Along the walk back to the hotel, we were often serenaded by the words "Super Vrouw!" (see Pic 16). It was pretty funny and Julie got a ton of notice...cause she looked so damn cute!

SUNDAY

The next morning we had the normal breakfast and decided to do a self-guided walking tour of Maastricht. It was a walk along the old city walls, which were first constructed in the 13th-century (see Pic 17). The walls were built for defensive purposes, with canons, archer lookouts, and something called a portcullis, which is kinda like a lookout that also allows the guards to remove a part of the floor to drop weights and weapons on the approaching enemy (see Pic 18).

It was really very peaceful, walking along the walls and looking out onto the still of the early morning. We ascended the wall and descended the wall. We crossed the Jeker River, a roaring waterway that runs through the walled-in city center and outside of the city to form a moat around the wall, many times over. The walk was very picturesque, with an amazingly surreal watermill from the 17th-century (see Pic 19). It was really cool. We continued to walk through town, getting views of the city and the 40-foot high city walls (see Pic 20).

But as we continued to walk, it began to get later in the morning and therefore, the amount of Carnivalers intensified. We decided that we would cut our tour of the city walls short and get ready for the main attraction - the Carnival parade.

So as we walked back to the hotel to get in our costumes, we encountered thousands of costumed Carnivalers who were already preparing for the day at the local bars. Families adorned in the same outfits, regardless of age, were packing the bars. That is still a bit strange for us, to see families in a bar with young children. The kids kinda run around playing while the parents get drunk. Too strange.

We made it to the Vrijthof and the place was PACKED! It was crazy. There were thousands and thousands and thousands of people in the most amazing costumes. We went back to our hotel to assume our new personas, as King Stephen and Queen Julie (see Pic 21). It was pretty fun.

We later learned that most people disguise their faces during Carnival so that the evil spirits can't harm them. I personally think the masks are so that people can act like asses and not be recognized by their neighbors and colleagues. Regardless of not having a mask, there was no way anyone would recognize me in my amazing costume (see Pic 22).

As we waited for the parade to begin, a group of Carnivalers hung out in the street in front of us. They had a wooden cart that looked like a lemonade stand on wheels. Many people had these. They were very colorful and often had some sort of theme. One that was near us for a while had the words "Las Vegas Wedding Chapel" painted on their blue wagon decorated with balloons and lights. The people with the cart were all wearing crazy colored tuxedos with ruffled shirts and big lambchop sideburns. Their cart provided music from a car battery or old lawnmower engine hidden underneath the decorations. Usually the cart served as a place that could store backpacks filled with normal clothes, often times held children like a form of stroller, and as expected, served as a bar (see Pic 23). These carts looked like something that the people had spent a lot of time and money on and probably made repeat appearances at Carnival.

For those who didn't create their own cart, often times they used actual strollers to hold their beers. I looked at each of them carefully and was usually surprised (and relieved) to see that the strollers did not have kids in them.

I'm not sure that Julie noticed much of this...she was so cold she ended up hiding in a nook trying to avoid the mild wind (see Pic 24). But I enjoyed watching the people and listening to their horrendous music...they still listen to and like Michael Jackson for god's sake! But finally, the parade was approaching and everyone was getting to the starting point. Actually, watching everyone make it to the beginning of the parade route was a parade in itself. There were so many beautiful colors and costumes (see Pic 25).

But finally the parade began (see Pics 26 to 29). Similar to our Sinterklaas experience, I was mortified to see such un-PC behavior when about 30 white Dutchies dressed in blue and purple costumes made to look like church choir gowns. They were leading a float that looked like an alter with an organ. They were moving their arms to choreographed beats, held microphones, and wore afro wigs. And last but not least, were in blackface. They were trying to be a stereotypical southern church choir but ironically, were performing to Aretha Franklin's "Respect". Talk about poor taste...R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (see Pic 30).

Many of the costumes were very clever and beautiful, and then there were some that were not. Among my favorites that fell within the "half-ass attempt" category was a man who had rubberbanded toast around his head, the group of kids who cut a hole for their head in hallway carpet, and the people who wore bath mats. On a sidenote, our Dutch friend Astrid is from a small town in the south and she said that it is tradition in her town to wear household products like shower curtains and rugs as costumes as the townspeople never really had money to spend on costumes so even now when they do have money for costumes, they stay with the tradition. I'm sure that is part of the reason for some of the costumes we saw in Maastricht but since they were so rare, I thought it was interesting.

At this point, the parade had been going on for about 45 minutes but since we had claimed our spot along the route about 90 minutes before the parade began, we were both pretty cold and Julie no longer had any feeling in her feet. So we decided we had had enough and went back to the hotel to change before getting some lunch. We woofed done some really great French fries with sate sauce (like warm peanut butter) but thought we needed a little more than that so we grabbed a pizza. It was perfect and granted us a place to warm up for a bit.

After lunch, we grabbed out luggage from the hotel and headed to the train station. As we did this, the parade was ending in the Markt, a square just outside our hotel (see Pic 31). It was great to see so many people who all seemed to be enjoying themselves so much. After looking around, we decided that Julie's costume next year would likely be dressed as "black" with her warm winter coat being the centerpiece of the costume (see Pic 32). The only thing she will need is to paint her face black and in the Netherlands, that is not such a big deal. I don't know why Julie is always so cold?!?!?

As we walked to the train station, we got one last look at the parade as most of the spectators had made their way into local pubs. Too bad for them because it was at this point that I saw 2 of my favorite costumes, a marionette and puppet (see Pic 33) and a pair of headless tuxedos (see Pic 34). The crowd was still pretty heavy though (see Pic 35).

We fought our way through the crowd and made it to the train moments before its punctual departure. It was a great weekend. Maastricht it truly a wonderful city that I hope to go back to often and most likely, in the summer. Carnival was fun. Despite the lack of boobs and sequenced and tanned bodies, the Dutch do it right...that's not to say that I wouldn't mind being in Rio for Carnival next year - and based on Julie's tendency to develop hypothermia, I'm guessing she wouldn't mind either.

But the question still remained, what was so special about the Dutch Carnival? I suppose the beer and overall good spirits of the people! At this point, I sure am looking forward to April 30 - Queen's Day!

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That's it for now. Hope all is well with everyone. Please continue to keep us updated on your lives and keep sending us those pics of the exciting things in your lives.

Speak with you all soon.
-Stephen

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