Sunday 18 March 2018

An Irish mother abroad: Life is still a rollercoaster

There’s no way I’m going on that, I say to my daughter. It’s too high.

We’re peering up at Maxximum, the ride that everybody’s talking about. My 14-year-old had come home last night with ‘news’ – he’d ‘done’ Maxximum.

The other day at the dentist’s, the dental assistant had told me she’d been on it three times. (The dentist said he wouldn’t dream of it.)

Maxximum is a pendulum that climbs what looks like hundreds of metres into the sky and then swings its occupants over and back till it finally pitches them upside down and stops in mid-air. At the top.

There they are – screaming and laughing, while I look up, my neck craned, and wonder how anyone could be stupid enough to go on that thing.

So I agree to go on Insider instead. I don’t want to go on that either. Fairground rides scare me. I’m a coward.

The first time I tried hillwalking (in the C group, which is for older people and slowcoaches), they needed to change the route back down because I got afraid.

But I give my daughter the money to get the tokens – five francs each – and we climb onto the wooden deck at the edge of the ride to wait our turn.

I watch as the double-seater swings spin and music screams and the man on the tannoy encourages everybody to wave their hands in the air. I don’t feel great. I won’t be able for this. I can’t do this. I want to go home.

When the ride stops, we rush to get on but we can’t get a seat. Too many people. So we return to the decking. I wonder if they’ll give me my money back. ‘Alright Mum?’ My teenage daughter asks. ‘Grand’, I reply.

We’re at the Herbstmesse – Basel’s autumn fair. It’s been going for 543 years. On 26 October this year, the Basler Franz Bauer rang the city bells at midday to announce its start, and teenagers and children and adults rushed onto the rides that are always free for the first hour.

About 1 million people from Switzerland and nearby France and Germany usually come to the city over the fair’s two weeks.

Today it’s crowded in Kaserne, the old garrison on the new side of the city, Kleinbasel. We’ve made our way here from the market at Petersplatz in Grossbasel.

There the air had smelled of sugared almonds, caramel, chocolate-covered fruit, the cinnamon-chocolate Magenbrot cake, Fondue, Glühwein. We'd stopped for crêpes – eight francs each; I’d ordered mushroom, my daughter chocolate. We couldn’t find anywhere to sit so we stood outside to eat and did our best not to spill sauce on our clothes.

The place was packed, but we linked arms and pushed our way through the crowds, stopping to look at Tibetan prayer bowls, silver jewellery, silk shawls, second-hand records. We took a photo of a man in a top hat selling beeswax candles and stopped to listen to the guy who’s there every year selling slicers that promise to transform our vegetable-cutting lives.

I dithered at the cat stall. I know I have cat-loving friends at home who might be thrilled with a cat plate or a cat coat-hook. Even a cat pen or apron, but everything was so expensive. Instead, I bought my mother a handbag holder from a handsome Croatian man, who told us that he lives in Berne and that it was his first year at the Messe and that yes he’s having fun.

We decided to share a small candyfloss. The man handed me a ball of pink sugar spun bigger than a child’s head and we ate our way through the crowds to the centre of the park where the carousel stood.

It was teeming with parents and toddlers and sliver and blue and red and yellow balloons. There were lots of ‘sorrys’, as parents tried to negotiate the buggy traffic to get through the crowds. It was noisy.

We decided to head over to Kaserne, ignoring the Raclette stalls and the leather-handbag stall and the magic man performing his tricks. We wound our way through the Nadelberg backstreets, where the houses are old – one house was built in 1295.

We crossed Mittlere Brücke into Kleinbasel, passing prostitutes vying for afternoon business, men drinking beers outside cafés, children on parents’ shoulders, teenagers in Abercrombie & Fitch and Converse.

And now I am waiting. This time when the ride stops, we pick a seat and we run. I push past a little girl in pink and beat her to the chair. I refuse to let another child get on – mine, I say to him, pointing at my daughter who’s already in place. I don’t feel guilty: they’ll get their turn. I need to get on so that I can get off. As soon as possible.

When the music starts and the chair begins to spin, I realise it’s much worse than I’d thought. And this is the slow part. It’s going to get faster. And it does.

My head bumps off the seat. My body is propelled so fast I think it’s going to fling itself out and up in to the air and onto the waiting observers at the side. I scream at my daughter. How could you do this to me? Why didn’t you tell me it was so bad? I want to go home. You’re grounded.

Finally it stops. We get off. My legs are shaking. I’m sure my face is white, but I am OK. I feel a burst of adrenalin. I feel good. I am alive.

Maybe next time we’ll try Maxximum I say to her as we head towards home. What do you think?

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