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Austria 2011

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Useful things learned . . .

Austria 2011 - or, Two Americans with Very Little German Between Them Move to Innsbruck for Four Months

Fasching: It's like Carnival, but with oompa bands!

13 February 2011

If ever there was a month that needed a damned good party in the middle of it, it's February. In the Tirol, they have a traditional excuse for such a party. It's called Fasching, and after attending a traditional (and, in some ways, not-so-traditional) Fasching celebration in the small town of Mils, I am in favor of instituting this custom in the states, by law if necessary. This was definitely as much fun as one can have in the Tirol without inviting Bode Miller.

While we were having lunch at our friend Willi's house a couple of weekends ago, talk turned to all the neat things there are to do in the Tirol. Like Gunde, Willi lives not in Innsbruck, but in one of the nearby villages, and he is anxious for us to experience some of the things that go on there, including customs and festivals that predate Christianity.

Julian and I had noticed costumes for adults and children for sale in stores recently, and had wondered if they were for Mardi Gras. We asked Wili about this, and he explained that it's not really for Mardi Gras but for Fasching -- which, of course, we had never heard of.

Fasching, according to Willi, is an old celebration that takes place in late winter. It has become Christianized, of course (the Catholic Church was so smart about tweaking local pagan customs just slightly and turning them into Christian customs), and now takes place between Epiphany and Lent. The theme of Fasching is the driving out of winter and the welcoming of spring. The day starts with a party (much drinking and eating), and then the Fasching parade begins.

Willi told us about a Fasching celebration in a village near his own. Apparently, following some ancient practice, Fasching in this village takes place on a five-year cycle (I hope I'm getting this right!), with men taking part in the festival for five years while they train the young boys, and then the boys taking part in the festival for the next five years. This year was to be one of the boys' years. Willi asked us if we would be interested in going, and (up for anything as we always are), we told him that of course we would love to go. So we agreed that we would go together, and see if perhaps Gunde would be interested in going, too.

The following week, when I went in to the University to have lunch with Julian, Gunde, Willi, and I all got to talking about our plans to attend Fasching. Gunde and Willi had a discussion of which local village has the best Fasching festival. Willi had never actually been to one of the children's Faschings; Gunde had, and had memories of small children crying in the cold. It was decided that we would all four go instead, then, to Fasching in Mils, where the grownups would be performing. We decided that Gunde would pick us all up (leaving the rest of us free to have a beer or two) on Saturday morning, 13 February, for the Mils Fasching.

Gunde arrived, but without Willi, who had discovered he had quite a bit of work to do, and did not think that several hours of drinking would further that cause. The three of us headed to Mils.

Click here for the church in Mils.
Click here for the church in Hall.

We parked the car at about 10:30, and walked toward the center of town. On the way, we passed the parish church. Remembering our experience of Gunde's church, we stopped in to take a look around. For those of you with an interest in church architecture, I have put up pictures of the church, plus pictures of a larger, older church in Hall at which we stopped on our way home.

We found the tent where the pre-parade party was being held. I don't know what I was expecting, but this was bigger and more fun than anything I had imagined.

Crowd in the Fasching tent
Crowd in the Fasching tent.

There were bands playing traditional Tirolean music (and variations thereon). There were Mullers (Fasching players) in (partial) costumes. There was food and beer. There was dancing.

This band started one of its songs with a rap segment. Gunde deplored the commercialization, but I think that's how you can tell a tradition is truly alive, and not just a historical reenactment: It incorporates modern elements.

Muller in partial costume
Muller in partial costume, with beer and cigarette.

Dancing at Fasching
Dancing at the pre-parade party.

A really big horn
Band member playing on an alphorn.

Then, properly fortified, we headed outside for the parade. (Had I known what was to come, I might have fortified myself less thoroughly with beer and more thoroughly with food.)

Mils does not follow the tradition of having the young men participate in Fasching for a given number of years, followed by a few years of the adults taking over Fasching duties. Here, young and old parade together. It is also traditional for Fasching to be done entirely by the men. In Mils, however, although all the traditional Mullers are male, there are a number of modern interpolations that allow the women to become involved.

A small performer
A young Zottler waiting for the parade to begin.

Zottlers, with their whips, fringed costumes, scary carved wooden masks, and elaborate hats with peacock feathers and animal pelts, represent winter.

Zottler mask
Close-up of Zottler mask and wrapped whip.

A note about the Mullers, or Fasching characters: The participants themselves often don't know what their characters represent, although they do generally know the names. This is the sort of thing where you do it simply because you've always done it -- which is a damned fine reason, at least in this instance.

The best site I've found on the Mullers is, oddly enough, the home page of a Milwaukee Muller group. Go figure. I learned things from this site that most of our Austrian friends didn't know about Fasching. (Julian says they are now all in awe of my web searching skills. Aw, shucks . . . ) Anyway, I will share some of what I learned from that site and others as we go.

Beginning of parade
Here comes the parade!

Small parade-watcher
A small Muller watcher in a ladybug costume, mit ihrer Mutter.

There is a sort of an order to the Fasching parade, and a sort of a story is told. This is not exactly a linear narrative, however. Characters reappear, and modern interruptions to the old story take place.

However, generally speaking, the Hexen (witches) appear first. They carry brooms, and sweep the way clear for the other characters.

The Hexen also occasionally pick out an innocent bystander, come over, give her a noogie, pat her hard on the shoulder -- this is known as the Mullerschläg, or Muller Tap, and is supposed to bring fertility, which is just what I need -- and offer her some schnapps. Receiving the noogie, Mullerschläg, and schnapps is considered an honor.

A Hexe.

Miscellaneous Muller
I think this Muller is called a Kloetzer, which (I think) means show-off. Or possibly "guy wearing wooden blocks." The Milwaukee Mullers will know, but, alas, the Milwaukee Mullers don't have an email address, so I'll have to wait until I get back to the States.

The Hexen are followed, roughly, by Mullers wearing clattering wooden strips all over their costumes. They dance vigorously, perhaps to scare away evil spirits? They also occasionally pick out an innocent bystander, come over, give her a noogie, pat her hard on the shoulder, and honor her by offering her some schnapps. It would, of course, be rude to refuse. Note: even the teenagers carry schnapps.

Next, Great Birnam Wood shows up at Dunsinane Mils. These Mullers (the Mossmänner) turn up again in force (or in forest) later (and two of them flanked the Hexen at the beginning of the parade), but, like I said, this is not a straight linear narrative. Again, I have not yet figured out what these Mullers represent, but they do, of course, carry schnapps.

Tree guys
Tree guy

As mentioned above, the Zottlers represent winter. And they carry whips. The most exciting moment of the parade was, hands down, the moment when the Zottlers cleared out a space in the parade just large enough, and began using their whips.

Zottler with whip

Julian was impressed that I got this action shot. It actually wasn't too tough. I was holding the camera up anyway so this guy wouldn't get me in the face with his whip. Every time he cracked that thing, I jumped, and my finger came down on the shutter. At least one of the pictures thus taken was bound to turn out okay.

After the tree-guys and the clattery-wooden-guys and along with the Zottlers come the Zagglers, who represent autumn. They wear blue suits and multi-colored pompoms with their wooden masks. Occasionally, one of them will pick out an innocent bystander, come over, give her a noogie, pat her hard on the shoulder, and honor her by offering her some schnapps. (Did someone put a sign on me somewhere, reading, "Give this woman some schnapps"? Gunde looks innocent, but she's got a real wicked streak.)


Mossmann - dead leaves

Gunde gets some schnapps
Gunde gets some schnapps. By this time, I had been honored by the Mullers about four times, and it was about time they honored someone else.

Clown in the crowd
Fasching is a wonderful place to people-watch. I love the solemn little clown above.

In the middle of all this centuries-old Germanic tradition, what happened next? Rio came to Mils, that's what.

Don't ask me. I'm a stranger here myself.

Rio in Mils

Rio comes to Mils

More Rio dancers

See the little casks the dancers carry? Well, they contain schnapps, and occasionally, one of the dancers picked out an innocent parade-watcher, came over, gave her a noogie, patted her hard on the shoulder, and honored her by offering her some schnapps.

More schnapps
Gunde and Julian getting their just schnapps. I must mention that although it looks like they're volunteering for their schnapps, this picture shows them returning their glasses to the basket, not helping themselves to the schnapps. It is not necessary to go looking for schnapps at Fasching; the schnapps will come to you.

By this time, I had already fallen over once. In all fairness to myself, I must point out that there was a guy waving a very large whip in my general direction, and I simply tripped over the curb while trying to get out of his way. Still, I was beginning to look for ways to disappear into the crowd whenever approached by a Muller.

The Brazilian dancers were followed by a very interesting tableau. A float came by, with a sort of oven on it, attended by a number of guys dressed as bakers. (One of my neighbors turned to me and warned me to cover up my camera. She knew what was coming.)


The bakers occasionally jumped off the float, grabbed an innocent bystander, dragged her up onto the float, and stuffed her into the oven, headfirst. Flour flew everywhere. (Hence the warning to cover my camera.)

Baking girl

After that, the girl came out of a side-door to the oven, and one of the guys grabbed her and danced with her. (I'm pretty sure he also gave her a noogie, patted her hard on the shoulder, and honored her by offering her some schnapps, but I didn't actually see it happen.)

Dancing with the baked girl

I wonder what Freud would have made of this. Well, no, actually, I don't. I've had Psych 101.

This interesting float was followed by one with The Three Tenors.

Three Tenors

And, after The Three Tenors, Acapulco came to Mils.

Mexico in Mils

Mexico, again

There followed a tableau in which a Muller dressed like Napoleon took ruthless advantage of a bunch of Mullers dressed like Tirolean peasants, and then was soundly made a fool of by the same peasants. This sort of thing is actually an old part of Fasching, and dates back to the days when ordinary citizens couldn't make fun of prominent figures without finding themselves in jail, except during Fasching.

A neighboring town has brought the tradition up to date, and replaced Napoleon with a Muller in a George Bush mask. I approve. I'm waiting for Mullers in Sarah Palin masks, though. Or possibly Michelle Bachman. Now that would be scary.

Mocking Napolean

By this time, the Mullers who represent spring are starting to put in appearances. Since it's spring, of course the bears are coming out of hibernation.


And, of course, the bears are hungry, so they attack innocent bystanders.

Bear attack

Bear eating girl

After attacking her, the bears give her a noogie, and -- well, you know the rest.

As Fasching drew to its conclusion, I made a an important discovery in ethnomusicology, or possibly anthropology.

I don't know if any of everyone reading this knows what the Chicken Dance is. I didn't, until I moved to Ohio in the late '90's. Ohio has some sort of law that decrees that in any gathering of 10 or more citizens of that great state, someone (probably the most senior person in attendance) must yell, "Hey! Let's do the Chicken Dance!" Then someone else, perhaps second in seniority, produces a cassette player, and they all do this little polka. Sort of. The first time I was at a picnic and witnessed this, I was flummoxed. Flabbergasted. Speechless.

Well, I now know where it comes from:

Chicken wagon

The music was different, but all of my friends in Ohio will recognize these moves.

dancing chickens

chickens continue to dance

With the arrival of the dancing chickens, summer is well and truly here. Summer is represented by two Mullers. The first is the Melcher, a handsome youth in lederhosen.

MelcherA Melcher gets some serious altitude while dancing.

And, finally, the Spiegeltuxer, a very special Muller, indeed, with a splendid headdress.


By the way, no one can explain why these guys have gaps in their sock coverage. Gunde sniffed and said, "I think it's a Bavarian thing. It's not Tirolean at all."

Oh, well. There's no accounting for Bavarians.


Finally (except for a bunch of people from neighboring smaller villages reprising many of the previous attractions), these Mullers appeared:

Carrying the men home

We talked to some of these Mullers afterwards, and they had no idea what they represent, but Julian had an idea that I think must be correct: After Fasching, the women have to carry their menfolk home. And I know why, too.

They've all had way too much schnapps.

Update: As of 3 March 2011, we're planning to attend the Fasching celebration at Axamer Lizum. This is held on the final pre-Lenten Sunday (this year, the 6th of March), and seems to be awfully well-organized. They even have their own web page for the event.

Useful things learned:

  • Before going to Fasching, eat something hearty. You're going to need it to absorb the schnapps.
  • If at all possible, assign the picture-taking to someone else so that you notice if you're being approached by a Muller and can duck behind someone taller.
  • Wear a hat, if you care even slightly what your hair is going to look like at the end of the day.

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Living in Austria
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