Knit stockings at the Fête de l’Escalade

Today is a special day in the Swiss canton of Geneva.

This weekend, Geneva commemorates the Escalade (“the climb”), or the military victory against the Duke of Savoy’s attempt to seize the independent city-state in a surprise attack in 1602.

Coinciding with the holiday season, the Escalade celebrates Genevan independence – a spirit still very much alive in the canton. Street celebrations include mulled wine, battle re-enactments, a huge bonfire, and a torch-lit, 800-person procession through the cobble-stoned Old Town staged by Geneva’s Compagnie de 1602, the historical society of the Escalade.

The day is also steeped in history-making through story-telling. When I attended the celebrations in 2013, I remember overhearing a man in a café tell his children, for instance, the triumphal tale of Mère Royaume, the (fictional?) legendary local cook who warded off the Savoyard troops scaling Geneva’s city walls by pouring down a full cauldron of steaming hot vegetable soup (!), causing enough commotion to rouse the sleeping city in time to defend against the invaders. This is why, by early December, the Genevan chocolatiers fill their shop-windows with displays of le marmite – a chocolate cauldron filled with colourful marzipan veggies. This little soup pot has become a kind of edible emblem for the Escalade celebrations, and is broken to bits and relished at the opportune moment, like this Genevan duo below.

Chocolate-thoughts aside, I recently found myself looking through some of my old Escalade photos taken in 2013, when I lived in the city for research and to visit family. Specifically, my eye couldn’t help but be drawn to the very bright knit stockings worn by the musketeer and pikemen re-enactors. I wonder: did early 17th century Genevan troops really defend Geneva donning these playful palettes and colourful hosiery?




I remember that it was a very cold day. The stockings looked up to the task.

It turns out, the Compagnie de 1602 acknowledges that there are colours and ornaments in the costumes that do not reflect the military uniforms of the early 17th century, shaped as they were by Geneva’s sumptuary laws – moral codes, in the spirit of the Protestant Reformation, intended to curtail the use and display of luxuries, including certain kinds and colours of fabric. In Calvin’s Geneva, I assume, hot pink might have been a no-go.

I dug a little deeper. I learned that the majority of the current costumes were made in the 1950s, and were inspired not by historically documented costumes but by a series of relatively recent paintings – the watercolour illustrations of Swiss artist Édouard Elzinger for the 1915 book, Nuit de l’Escalade (The Night of the Escalade). Elzinger’s own renderings of the soldiers’ 17th century uniforms was influenced by early 20th century Escalade costumes and Flemish painting.

Bright stockings in Elzinger’s colourful aquarelle, La Nuit de l’Escalade (1915).           © Musées d’art et d’histoire de Genève

So, it seems, the costumes – like all practices of history-making – are a mix of the old with a dash of creative re-imagination. These stockings make me want to get my double-pointed needles and make a new pair of knee socks.

More 2013 Escalade snaps below.

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Bonne fête de l’Escalade!

Meanwhile, back in Chicago… (lots) more snow today and yesterday.

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*Rosenblatt, Helena. 1997. Rousseau and Geneva: From the First Discourse to The Social Contract, 1749-1762. 


Auden’s “September 1, 1939”

I have been home, today, working at my usual table, trying to process the never-ending flood of “Day 1” news that has been coming off of my feed – heartbreaking news of how some persons have been newly emboldened to commit violent acts – physical and symbolic – which express fear and hatred toward their fellow citizens and humans. Perhaps equally disappointing has been listening to good-hearted citizens that I know  – people who would never think of committing those acts of violence themselves – deny the gravity of what has (long) been happening. My partner teaches at a high school outside of Chicago, and arrived home yesterday with stories of how certain students were already being harassed by their classmates. Alongside news of other hate-fueled messages and acts across the country, it pains me to think of the personal and political consequences of denial and, like many others, of what lies ahead.

My response today is to revisit W.H. Auden’s September 1, 1939–written at the outset of WWII. It was recited to me during a good-bye, by a dear friend, at a time when I was returning home after a long stay abroad and was facing an uncertain transition. I have always remembered the last two sections of the poem:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.


Tom O’Bedlam recites the entire poem, here.

A higher power

I am blissfully re-watching footage from yesterday’s Jens Lekman concert. It was one of those nights where you come home from singing with a crowd of strangers to find out that the Chicago Cubs have taken the World Series Title for the first time in 108 years. I’m not a sports-person, or a “native” Chicagoan, but the cheering in the streets and fireworks down our block were a festive conclusion to the day. Wending our way through groups of ecstatic Cubs fans, I felt like I was encountering what Emile Durkheim called “collective effervescence” – powerful collective experiences of shared symbols that, for Durkheim, were at the origins of religious thought, concepts of the sacred, and ‘society’ itself.

I leave with some Durkheim (1912) and some Lekman (2004):

“It is not difficult to imagine that a man in such a state of exaltation should no longer know himself… It seems to him that he has become a new being… And because his companions feel transformed in the same way at the same moment, and express this feeling by their shouts, movements, and bearing, it is as if he was in reality transported into a special world entirely different from the one in which he ordinarily lives…In one world he languidly carries on his daily life; the other is one that he cannot enter without abruptly entering into relations with extraordinary powers that excite him to the point of frenzy. The first is the profane world and the second, the world of sacred things.”*


*1995 [1912]. Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. NY: The Free Press.

Jens Lekman, live


A little musical post: Completely unbeknownst to me, the beau bought two tickets to Jens Lekman’s Chicago show (November 2nd at Lincoln Hall) knowing that 1) Jens Lekman is one of my much-loved singer-songwriters – he has a way of going from quirky to comic to transcendent and sublime, all in one go – and 2) that I was too swamped with work and such to consider getting the tickets myself. The last time I saw Jens Lekman live was 6 years ago, in Berlin – long enough for me to justify resigning myself, earlier this week, to missing the concert; the tickets came as a complete surprise. It was a much needed night out. Bless the beau.



The show included a moving opening set by Emmy the Great, audience sing- and tambourine-alongs, a marriage proposal made by Jens to a man in the front row (“but only for the citizenship”), and an old classic – “The Opposite of Hallelujah,” concluded with a tambourine benediction and some exquisite air xylophone which I tried to capture on film. Magic.