From an outsider’s point of view, us Dutchies must look like a bunch of odd-balls, especially when it comes to celebrations. We clad ourselves in orange to pay tribute to the king on his birthday. We find the best time to celebrate a couple’s anniversary is after 12 and half years. And we have a Madrid-based Sint-Nicolaas with a sidekick named Black Pete, who’s presence has become less than favorable in the last few years.

But for all the strange happenings of the Netherlands, the strangest of them all has to be Carnaval: the formally pagan spring festival that takes place in the provinces of Limburg and Noord Brabant forty days before Easter, originally to commemorate the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the desert. So how do you celebrate the fasting of Jesus? By dropping all social norms, dressing as ludicrous as possible, and gulping down endless pilsners, of course.

To get an idea of just how peculiar this festival is to the foreign eye, EM followed the American exchange students as they took a cultural exodus down to ‘Lampegat’, the honorary name given to the city of Eindhoven during Carnaval.

The Rules of Society Don’t Apply Here

From Friday to Wednesday, daily life in the regions that celebrate Carnaval comes to a complete standstill. All the shops close (except the bars), and the people gather in the streets to create a world where the social rules that uphold Dutch society come crashing down in epic fashion. The exchange students arrived as the opening parade begun, and it soon became apparent that this is no ordinary celebration.

“It’s as if Halloween and Mardi Gras had a baby,” said Salvador Terrones, an exchange student from San Diego. “I’m very amused at the moment, but also very confused.”

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King Hertog Jan of Brabant would have been proud of these merry beer-drinkers. Image credit: Utsa Bhatia

Social critique and role-reversal is a general theme of Carnaval. One float in the parade featured women dressed as coal-miners being chased down the streets by men disguised as ditsy nurses holding massive syringes, perhaps a critique of the Trump’s calls to reinvigorate the coal mining industry. Another had prisoners being covered in French fries by kids dressed as judges with powdered wigs to the tune of polka music. What the meaning of that was, we have no clue. Then again, at the rate in which the beer was flowing, it was getting more and more difficult to make meaning of anything.

“This is something you would never see happening in the U.S,” said Kelsey DeGuia, who is also from San Diego. “Everyone is letting loose on the streets, and there’s barely any police around. This is a whole new crazy side of Dutch culture for me.”

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One of the many floats that passed through the streets.

Techno and Polka?

After wading aimlessly through the confetti filled streets, we found ourselves in an enormous tent filled to the brim with inebriated merry-makers. We fit right in, and danced like madmen to a fusion of music you could only bare to hear once a year: Techno mixed with polka.

“I just saw a four-year old dancing next to me on the bar,” laughed Will Murphy of San Francisco. “This city is just one huge party.”

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It was nothing but smiles at Carnaval this weekend. Image credit: Utsa Bhatia

A Timeless Community

A full-schedule of day-drinking will certainly put you in a daze, but as the day aged, something became clear about Carnaval. Under all those funny costumes and strange wigs were fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, strangers in the arms of other strangers doing nothing but give and receive love as they pushed aside daily life and sung traditional songs all day long. Exchange student Zachary Engberg of Oakland said it best.

“For me, the biggest thing was seeing the whole community embrace this celebration,” said Engberg. “It’s just nice to see people young and old coming together in the name of Carnaval, culture, and getting drunk as a sailor. I now feel like a part of the Dutch culture and the community as a whole, and I feel that’s something I haven’t had many chances to do on this scale in the U.S.”