Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Belgian carnivals

This year I attended my second Belgian carnival, Aalst. It's a bit different from Binche.

Binche is all about the Gilles. Yes, there's a children's day, and a carnival parade, but it's the Gilles with their stuffed straw bellies and hunchbacks, their ostrich feather headdresses, green-spectacled masks, and clogs and bells, who are the heart of the carnival. Hear the snare drum, the stamp of sabots on cobbles, the tangling hollow sound of the bells, and the plaintive clarinet tune of the early morning as the Gilles assemble, one by one, and you feel something primitive and bloodstirring. There's nothing quite like that at Aalst.

Aalst is carnival as show. One local described it to me as "The Rio of Europe". Well, no samba bands, but I understood what he meant. The definition for a small carnival group here is "fewer than a hundred members". Some of the biggest ones have three or four floats as well as marching and dancing members.

Some of the small groups are genuinely small. We saw a couple of solo participants and a number of groups of only five or six, including the 'Gay Farmers' Group' on their pink tractors, 'Hell's Grannies' on souped-up mobility scooters, and the 'Allahschnackbar'. (Tastefulness and political correctness are very much not part of the Aalst carnival. To be honest, I wasn't very happy with the 'African' contingents. I doubt those would be allowed in Britain. On the other hand, blackface in Aalst is generally smudgy griminess and you couldn't confuse it with any attempt to look 'African' - it's simply dirt.)

There is a genuine satirical element to the carnival, too. I spotted at least 26 Angela Merkels, mostly considerably more buxom than the original, plus three Vladimir Putins and a couple of Obamas, (David Cameron was refreshingly absent, unless I just missed him.) The Belgian police starred with an example of how to get a police horse to go faster - put him in a jeep. (I got the impression this might actually have been the Belgian police taking the piss out of themselves, given that there was a real police car detectable under its disguise in that carnival group.)

As soon as we arrived, we saw a crowd of identically arrayed Carnival Princes. Now, there's only supposed to be one carnival prince - this year, Prins Dennis, whose spectacles became one of the leitmotifs of the carnival. But another contender for the position had threatened legal action - he was passed over because his exam paper was wrongly marked, he said. These Princes were of the view that anyone could be a prince; one told me they thought the whole idea of suing was one of the best practical jokes he'd ever seen.

Unfortunately for outsiders, a lot of the satire is expressed in Oilsjt (the local name for Aalst) dialect - even basic Flemish isn't going to help you. The message of the smoke-belching, grimy Volkswagen corporate limo, though, was easy to understand. The Spar cashiers with plastic penises on their noses remain a mystery.


The heart of Aalst, though, is the 'Voil Jeannette' or 'Dirty Janet'. Big Flemish men from below the age of legal drinking up to grandfathers, wearing women's clothing.

This isn't a transvestite or drag festival. Several of the Jeannettes were carrying banners that said (excuse me if my Flemish isn't up to the mark) 'Een voil Jeannet is geen travestie'.

The tradition stems from the fact that Aalst is an industrial town. It had a big brewing trade and a lot of factories, and a lot of factory workers, who weren't all that well paid. (A hero of Aalst is the catholic priest and socialist Daens who worked to improve workers' conditions.) No spare cash for carnival costumes. So they simply borrowed their wives' old dresses and anything else hanging around the house. And so the Jeannette costume has come to include:
  • fur coats (preferably but not exclusively fake)
  • big wigs
  • bird cages
  • herrings, often in the bird cages but sometimes in a pram or on the end of a fhsing line
  • saucepans
  • toilet brushes (one official carnival float had a massed band of drummers playing on bedpans with toilet brushes)
  • lampshades, worn as hats
  • big boobs, sometimes naked
  • umbrellas, preferably lacy
  • perambulators.
One Jeannet we met not only had the pram, s/he had a baby dangling from one tit. What was in the pram, then, we asked?

"Jupiler," she told us. "Want one?"

(Aalst used to have its own beer, Safir. That brewery was bought by a bigger brewery and closed down, though a few bars still show its name proudly above their doors. Jupiler is the big-brewery replacement.)


 Poor Jacques. He's game, I'll say that for him. But in the space of three days, he was given a dressing down for dressing down, and then liberally made up with bright red lipstick; kissed by a number of Voil Jeanettes; smacked with a very smelly herring; and given a garlic salt dressing for his hair "to get him in the party spirit".

I escaped most of this, though not the herring, nor the garlic salt. (It didn't wash off in the shower, either; I drove all the way to Tournai smelling like a failed culinary experiment.)


The Gilles may not be the centre of the carnival, as they are at Binche. But Aalst does have its Gilles. The story is an interesting one.

Once upon a time, back in the 1930s I think, there was a bunch of Aalst locals who had been to Binche and thought what a good idea the Gilles would be for a carnival costume. They could have picked Hawaiians, or cowboys, or chimney sweeps, or characters from Mother Goose, but they just happened to pick Gilles - nothing traditional about it. They won a prize. They thought hey, that turns out to have been a good idea, why not do it again next year? (I imagine that economising by not having to buy another costume next year might also have been a motive.) And eventually, the Gilles did become an Aalst tradition.

And in Aalst, they have women as Gilles. Progressive.


On my way back, I visited Tournai, and found to my surprise another tale of one Belgian city pinching a festival tradition from another.

I found out about it when I saw a delightful wrought iron shop sign, on which was written in gold 'Au siecle de Louis XIV'. This turned out to be where cabinetmaker Edouard Trehoux set up his shop.  But as a plaque on the facade told me, that wasn't his real claim to fame.

Making furniture was not enough to satisfy his artist's soul. After he visited his sister, a nun in Ath, and saw the giants there, he decided that Tournai needed its own giants, and he started work. In 1932, Reine Tournai danced in the streets for the first time, to be joined over the years by crusaders Lethalde and Englebert, the Princesse d'Espinoy, Louis XIV, Childeric ... and more recently, M Trehoux himself.

As a final twist in the story, M Trehoux has now been immortalised among the Tournai giants. And in a spirit of friendly rivalry, a few years ago the Tournaisiens decided to take him to the festival at Ath.

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