Grote Twentse Carnavalsoptocht, The Netherlands

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The title for this post could alternatively be “How to Know When You Are Burnt Out on Travel.” “What?” you are saying if you know us (okay, really, if you know me, Jess,) “not possible.” But it is true. Five days after returning from the Maldives we had planned to go to Cologne for the “other” European carnival (a/k/a not Venice.) While laying on the beach, however, we admitted we both had the same thought: we did not really want to go to Cologne.

Since returning I have read a few blog posts on how to know when you should take a break for traveling. Coming up frequently is the point that you procrastinate making travel plans. I took it a bit further: When I called Hyatt to cancel our hotel reservations I was told that I had not made any. Considering we had been talking about taking the trip since last September I took this as a clear sign that burnout had happened. Not only had I procrastinated, but I was so tired from making reservations I had not even realized I had not made them! Ultimately, we decided to stay at home and attend the Grote Twentse Carnavalsoptocht in nearby Oldenzaal instead.

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The Netherlands is not known for its celebration of Carnival, and, where celebrated, the festivities are limited to a single day. We, thus, found the Oldenzaal carnival to be a unique experience in madness.

The Dutch are incredibly blunt and seem to not take offense at anything except for bicycle-related issues or noise restrictions in Amsterdam AirBnB rentals, the most common example of their individual freedom to be who you are mentally demonstrated by their tolerance of soft drugs. Thus, it is no surprise that they have very little sense of the political correctness that is so deeply rooted in Americans, especially when it comes to racial stereotyping. You may recall the recent debacle over their black-faced (or, as the Dutch argue, soot-covered) Santa’s helpers, the Black Peters. As we boarded the short train to Oldenzaal a large group of young men, dressed in nun costumes and wearing black face paint crammed into our train car. Had a group of drunk, college-aged men got on the metro in any sizeable American town with their faces painted black I can only imagine the youtube videos of the resulting altercation that would be circulating on social media the next day.

The large Turkish (or, most commonly, Kurdish,) population aside, there truly are almost no dark-skinned people living in our area of the Netherlands where the majority of the people are tall and blond, the most Dutch of the Dutch, so the fascination with blackface is truly baffling. During Dutch Carnival it seems, however, that any race and ethnicity is up for giggles as during the two plus hour Carnival parade we watched, mouths agape as large-bottomed, bosomed Brazilian dancers salsa by, American Indians hoot and holler, and Arabs with black-tinted sunglasses and gold chains pull an oil cart. All of this had a message behind it we were told, though it was written in Dutch.

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But what about the nuns, I wondered. What was their message other than dressing up to have a good time? And dress up they did. When the Frenchman resisted wearing a costume we were warned we would be the only non-dressed up people at the parade. Given the complete lack of Halloween celebrations I shook this off, but it was true, we were the only people who were not at least wearing a wig or funky hat. “We should have bought some of those fuzzy onsies from Primark,” I told the Frenchman repeatedly as we stood, shivering.

What makes the Dutch celebration of Carnival mostly innocent fun instead of media fodder is the fact that everyone is only out to have a good time. The Dutch are simply always so happy, smiling, laughing, hooting and hollering in their direct, no-nonsense Dutch sort of way. If you asked one of them about the non-PC-ness of the Carnival you would likely get the answer they are not making fun, rather, they are just showing things how they are – the truth in the stereotype.

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The Oldenzaal Carnival was a truly fascinating glimpse into Dutch culture in more ways than simply confirming the Dutch attitude towards political correctness. The Carnival centered on a multi-hour parade with approximately one hundred floats and acts, for lack of a better term. The acts and floats are different each year and can cost around 25,000 euros per act for the float, costumes, and props. The floats themselves are made from sprayed foam layered on mesh frames and incorporated mechanics, such as lights, swiveling parts, or, most impressively, penguins on a roller coaster. Every few floats a truck full of elderly, excessively drunk men wearing capes and plumed hats would roll by while they waved like celebrities. They were, we later found out the Carnival Associations whose job it is to plan and organize the festivities.

Soon after finishing the parade route the floats were already being dismantled, their parts smashed in drunken fun or hauled away. How many homes have a large head or figurine sitting in their basements, is a question I continue to ponder as, were I Dutch, I would most certainly open a backyard tourist attraction of the best carnival float memorabilia. On the auspicious day of November 11 at 11:11 a.m. planning for the next year’s Carnival will begin.

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