Fasnacht nostalgia from New York
The first time the piccolo-and-drum clique «Nej Yorgg Bebbi» took part in the Basel Fasnacht was in 1981. Twenty-two times the Swiss expats made the pilgrimage to their home town for the carnival. The last time was in 2005; the «Nej Yorgg Bebbi» clique no longer exists. Its former members, however, are still Fasnacht regulars, and this year is no different.
By Stéphanie Erni, English by Nigel Hulbert and Martin Pütter
It all began back in 1979, with a Basler called Peter Oberhänsli working for the Swiss Consulate in New York. He could well imagine that the many Basel expats living in and around the Big Apple at that time would be keen on meeting up. He posted an ad in the Swiss American Review, and booked space for 15 in the “Swiss Bear Restaurant” at 20 East 41st Street. 40 turned up. Later, a number of members of the Bebbi Club New York set up the “Nej Yorgg Bebbi” with the aim of taking part in the Basel Fasnacht. Piccolo and drum practice took place in the clique’s homebase – the specially renovated basement of the «Swiss Valley Restaurant» in Chamber Street.
However, the first Morgenstreich was celebrated by the newly-created expat clique only in New York City, as not everybody could get away to Switzerland at short notice. But the time difference meant that the “New Yorkers” kicked off at ten o’clock in the evening – the moment the four strokes of the St. Martin’s bell were heard in Basel at 4 a.m. “After the ‘Gässle’ (going round the side streets with piccolos and drums; the editor), and to unfreeze our fingers, we then naturally had lovely flour soup with cheese and onion tarts and listened to ‘Schnitzelbangg’ (satirical poems, the editor) – you couldn’t have had a finer Fasnacht in New York,” wrote the homesick Baslers afterwards on their homepage.
The following year saw the premiere for the entire clique in Basel. “For the 1981 Fasnacht we made all the accessories such as costumes, masks and lantern in New York and took them with us to Basel,” recalls Peter Bürgin, a member of the New York clique in its early years. “I worked abroad for Swissair for 34 years in a variety of countries, for no more than three to five years at a time,” the Basler explains. “I was never very interested in the Swiss clubs while I was abroad; I wanted to discover new things.” But then on one occasion at the Fasnacht in Basel he met New Yorkers who told him about the Bebbi Club: “So my wife and I decided to try it out one time.”
The Bürgins only lived in New York for two years, but they remained loyal to the “Nej Yorgg Bebbi”. “Some of our members came from half way round the world to support us at the Fasnacht in Basel.” In response, a “New York Bebbi Club” was also set up in the city by the Rhine, so as to be able to coordinate everything locally. Thus the Clique took part in the Cortège (the Monday and Wednesday afternoon carnival parades), wearing parade costumes every two years.
New Yorkers at the Basel Fasnacht – that was something of a novelty, so it attracted a lot of media attention at the time. The clique’s New York basement, too, became popular with Swiss visitors to the USA. Whether it be Heinz Spoerli, still choreographer with the Basel ballet troupe at the time, or the Basel government: a trip to New York also meant dropping in on the Bebbi clique. The Baslers also performed in the States, at the “Ancient Muster” gathering of fife-and-drum corps in Deep River, Connecticut.
Those were the days. The Nej Yorgg Bebbi have since disbanded, and the Bebbi Club in New York is abandoned. Peter Bürgin explains: “Most of us moved away, and we got no new recruits.” But that doesn’t mean there’s no life in the Bebbi Club. “We still have 52 members.” And they still hang out together on the first Thursday of every month in the Kornhaus restaurant. What first saw the light of day in New York lives on in Basel. The simple reason is that many of the former Swiss expats have meanwhile retired or returned home for other reasons. “And most of them have gone back to their old cliques.” Peter Bürgin and his wife Margreth are now with the piccolo-and-drum group «Die Unfertige». Bürgin adds: “Others are with the ‘Alti Richtig’, the ‘Gipfelstürmer’, the ‘Vertschubblete’, and so on.”
As well as the former New Yorkers, the monthly get-togethers also sometimes draw visitors from the States, or “people who are just interested”. Nostalgia has long since ceased to be the main factor, Bürgin says, but “that time spent together in New York has created a unique common bond.”