Fools on Parade

In Zurich, for this annual street fest, the weird become the norm, as lines blur in the cross-breeding of urban life

On The Town | David Reali | September 2010

11:12 – The journey from Lugano to Zürich rolls us smoothly through the majestic tranquility of the Swiss Alps. Usually, this two and a half hour train ride is memorably relaxing. This time, a niggling sense of nervous anticipation stirs inside me, as I realize we’re on our way to the Street Parade.

We are four: Gretchen, Sergio, John, and myself – I’m the only one who seems to be nervous. Gretchen’s never nervous; but that’s because she doesn’t know what she’s gotten herself into. Sergio participated last year and seems to be completely at ease; maybe he forgot. John, an eccentric and in-your-face homosexual, is a three year veteran of the Street Parade, he’s positively looking forward to the mind-numbing chaos that awaits us.

His outfit is evidence of this.  Unlike the rest of us, he has taken the time to deck himself out in the most ridiculous attire he could lay his hands on: a sleeveless tie-dye shirt, skin-tight multicolored Lycra pants which could only have been tailored in the 80s, and a fanny-pack made necessary by the impracticality of his exercise pants. He is dressed as a participant, the rest of us as tourists. There is no dress code to this party but casual is not fashionable… We’re definitely not going to fit in.

The train rolls forward and the drinks start to flow. John produces a concoction of gin and blue Powerade, a sickly sweet mixture strangely reminiscent of a piña colada. As I sip this odd translucent liquid my nervousness subsides, and my attention is brought back to the chatter and passing landscapes.

It’s raining. For a moment I ponder the rain that has been falling into the steep waterfalls tumbling off the mountains as we pass, subsumed into the flow and propelled along for the rest of their journey. I too am about to lose my autonomy in the madness of the crowd, wandering without restraint until I am absorbed and carried along with the white water current of bizarre humanity known as the Zürich Street Parade.

13:51– Zürich Hauptbahnhof. Upon arrival we’re confronted with an army of the atypical – Goths, punks, ravers, and drunks, hippies, creeps, hipsters and freaks.  The train station is saturated with these people – just for today this is their home. Just for today, the aberrant have become the typical and the typical the awkward and out of place. Scattered and hugely outnumbered within this horde remain a few reluctant commuters negotiating their way through this congregation of the outlandish. Finding our friends in this place is not going to be easy.

14:35 – We’ve joined the rest of the team – that was easier than I thought. A flush of recognition to old friends united on rare occasions. Booker and Sergio, miraculously, have made it. How strange a place to meet them here, considering the three of us had spent most of our adolescence roaming the streets of Florence.

14:50 – We hit the streets and immediately infiltrate the mix. The team has devised a system of locating each other. This involves raising both arms vertically, index fingers pointing straight up – in this fashion we navigate our way through the crowd and wander deeper.

All around us are mostly ordinary people adorned with the oddest of ornaments: rubber, Lycra, liquid latex, fishnets, fencenets, false lashes, tutus, corsets, gasmasks, body paint, wigs, glitter, creepy contacts, and lots and lots of makeup… men and women alike. This place is an oasis for an anthropologist, where every exotic species comes for a drink.

Since its inception, this event has been a nucleus for the crossbreeding of a range of urban sub-cultures, otherwise considered distinct and unique societies. At the Street Parade, the lines become blurred. Goths, gays, transvestites, ravers, metal-heads, pill-heads, etc. mingle, discover and blend together to produce hybrids of all kinds. As a result, on this day the streets are littered with previously unseen and taxonomically unclassified species of the unconventional: gay/lesbian goth hip-hopsters wearing pink, über-maskulin bodybuilder cross-dressers, evangelical ecstasy enthusiasts who have found God through dance and drugs… the variety is boundless.

16:00 – As we get closer to the music the crowd gets thicker and weirder. Our original tactic of keeping our arms raised isn’t really working anymore. A new system called stacking (similar to that employed by soldiers preparing to breach a building) is adopted. We line up and keep hold of the person in front of us, and in this manner, are able to choo-choo our way through the masses.

We head for the roaming discothèques – trucks covered in amplifiers roll slowly through the city, blasting the repetitive techno music used as today’s excuse to invade Zürich. The hardcore follow these Love Mobiles at inhumanly short distances, dancing their way through a city they hardly take notice of. Where they find the energy to do this for more than 6 hours is no mystery: though it is possible for some to survive this nowhere-bound-dance-pilgrimage completely sober, it is very unlikely.

The unfortunate truth is that MDMA, conventionally called Ecstasy, is the coal that fuels most of these ravers’ engines. Grinding their teeth, they dance frenetically to what they perceive to be the beat.

A group of Americans in our vicinity are looking to buy. When given a sample, one of them asks the connoisseur of the group, "Does it taste real?" He turns, and with a sarcastic smile replies, "Tastes like bitter." His response reveals the absurdity of the original question. How is it possible to effectively evaluate the quality of a drug, when empirically, it cannot even be distinguished from a run-of-the-mill aspirin?

Though it is the most widely consumed, ecstasy is not the only substance paraders are after – far from it. The streets are flooded (today slightly more than usual) with people seeking all kinds of smokeables, drinkables, swallowables, snortables, and injectables – the Street Parade caters to all of them.

Nevertheless, most seem to be able to hold their drugs. So far no puddles of vomit, violent acts, or physical non-function. To be honest, your average Saturday night is much more likely to involve one of the aforementioned elements usually associated with drink and drugs. These people are here for a good time, to let go, to dance and take pleasure in the company of a legion of strangers. Far from the negative stigma usually associated with drug use, the event is characterized by a surprising sense of community that I can’t help but feel is encouraged by collective insobriety. If anybody were in need of help, someone would without a doubt stop and lend a hand.

17:30 – The conga-line has been severed and we’ve lost four members of our group. The best approach is to remain in this very spot until we see them again. Fifteen minutes of frantic searching, and we find each other again and continue to explore.

17:49 – Now we’ve lost three others. They went off to dance while the rest of us decided to take temporary shelter under a tree. It’s been a while though and I’m becoming worried, mainly because one of them is Gretchen. I instruct the rest of the team to stay put while John and I search for Gretchen, Sergio and Booker. Big mistake.

Far from aiding me in my rescue efforts, John uses this opportunity to flirt with strange men. As we push through the masses, he stops to ask every good-looking guy he comes across, "Have you seen Gretchen? No? Hmmm… Are you a model? No? Well, has anyone told you you should be?" Utterly frustrated – both with the situation and my friend’s uselessness – I retreat back to the tree and wait there.

18:28 – Finally Gretchen appears, seemingly out of nowhere; now all missing members have rejoined the group, and I can finally enjoy myself once again. Relatively sober, I try to appreciate the ‘music’ which has been blasting throughout the day. This is not as easy as it sounds.

In fact there are several obstacles. Primarily, I’ve hardly ever been able to enjoy techno music; I find it obnoxious, repetitive, and unimaginative. This aside, it is also impossible to listen to just one song at a time; the Love Mobiles keep driving past, behind and in opposite directions to each other… not to mention the fixed stages. The opposing beats and melodies bounce off of one another as well as the surrounding walls to produce a cacophony of the utmost disagreeable; it’s impossible to follow a rhythm. And even if it were possible to keep the beat, dancing is a sure fire way of losing one another; we don’t want to do that again.

Then, for a second, a tune I recognize… could it be? Hold on… is it? Yes! Yes it is! This is Daft Punk! Finally, a song I can enjoy! Oh… wait… no… no it’s not. It’s that obnoxious remake of the classic "Tu Vuoi Far l’Americano". I hate this song… and whoever is responsible for "writing" it, producing it, promoting it, and playing it right now. The music, I decide, is not the true attraction at the Street Parade, but rather the people, the ability to cut loose, bend some low-impact rules, meet new people, and express oneself freely (through dance and dress) without having to worry about being judged – none of this is possible on any other day.  Well, maybe Karnival.

20:00 – The street portion of the parade is over, the mobile discos roll back to wherever they came from, and the party moves indoors to pubs, clubs, and concert halls. It’s over for me and although it was enjoyable, right now I just want to have a meal and go to sleep – pastimes made foreign by the parade. I don’t hesitate an instant in accepting their invitation.

Other articles from this issue