out of this world: the freaky fun of Carnaval de Nice, 2018

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My parents came to visit for 10 days for my winter teaching vacances. For a home base, we picked Nice, as it’s close to my home of Cannes but considerably more lively. We were greeted with the perfect illustration of “rain on the parade,” as miserable weather threatened to cancel the last few days of the carnaval, the grand Niçois celebration intended to usher in spring and kiss winter goodbye.

Most days were gray and streaked with rain, or else wet snow that sailed upon the Mediterranean winds and hit us right in the face. Day travel was a study in perseverance, as was simply leaving the apartment.

I bought us tickets for the last night of the parade and crossed my fingers it wouldn’t be snowed out.

The Carnaval de Nice, sometimes called the King’s Carnival, is one of the oldest and most well-known carnival celebrations in the world. The fairly small city of Nice (only the 5th largest in France) receives about a million visitors annually to celebrate the carnaval.

Carnaval history can be traced back to 1294, when Charles of Anjou, the Count of Provence and King of Sicily, spoke of the ‘joyful days of the carnival.’ At this time, though, the carnaval was but a big, messy street party, a way to indulge before the stricter days of Lent, when meat, sugar, eggs, and dairy products wouldn’t grace citizens’ tables until Easter. The word carnaval itself is derived from the Latin “carnelevare”: to take out the meat. 

Today, the Carnaval is known for its parades, which feature 17-18 grand floats, or chariots, and up to a thousand dancers and performers. The Carnaval is a loud, pulsating confusion of flowers and confetti and silly string. This more modern incarnation of the Carnaval dates to around 1830, when Italian royalty visited Nice around carnival time. The city hosted a parade to mark the occasion. Carriages paraded past the palace balcony carrying elegant Niçois in costume. This first organized carnival was such a success it was revived annually, despite the absence of a king to oversee the festivities.

Instead, citizens constructed His Majesty “Triboulet,” a straw and rag puppet that functioned as a replacement for the king. The mock king came to symbolize the beginning of carnival festivities…a tradition that continues today. Nice has celebrated carnaval most years, save for interruptions by major wars, making the carnival we attended the 134th. This year’s festivities were presided over by the “Roi de l’Espace,” or King of Space. Each year, the carnival king embodies the year’s theme, which is also loosely adhered to by the floats, dancers, and crazy costumed creatures that run through the streets.

This year’s carnival king was a likeness of Thomas Pesquet, a European Space Agency astronaut and all-around badass.

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My parents and I had standing room tickets for the 9 pm carnival parade, the last of 2018. We stood on Place Massena’s black and white checkered floor as a spunky French announcer tried to pump up the crowd (which mainly involved versions of make some noiiiise! Un, deux, trois: ouaaais!) We stood facing a set of packed stands. Behind us were the Promenade du Paillon gardens and an enormous ferris wheel, impressive in the bright lights. The best part: it wasn’t raining, blizzarding, or otherwise destroying the spirit of the carnival.  

The carnaval launched in an explosion of noise and confetti. Outer space lent itself well as a theme, resulting in a delightful nightmarish party of rockets, robots, planets, Steam Punk flying machines, aliens, and Jedi.

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I loved seeing the floats up close. Designed by ‘Ymagiers’, the floats are recognizable by their signature style: colorful and grotesque. As in the world of political cartoons, well-known public figures morph into bloated caricatures with bulbous noses, gaping grins, and larger-than-life heads. They were strikingly detailed, fabulous and a little freaky.

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The political cartoon style of the floats was no coincidence: it wasn’t long before things got political.

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In the Planet of the Apes float, a grotesque Trump-ape beats his fists against his hairy chest, his teeth bared in a terrible grimace. Joining him are fellow ape-people Theresa May, Putin, and Erdoğan. Even better is the story of this float: it depicts a space explorer who lands in the middle of this strange new world where apes have the run of things.

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Soon after came French president Emmanuel Macron, apparently being spun in circles by his wife Brigitte (meaning she runs the show? I’m not up enough on my politics).

Another highlight was Trump and “Rocket Man” Kim Jong-Un.

acs_0195A bit more beautiful, though, and my favorite float aesthetically, was the Queen of Space. lrg_dsc01111

I’d only ever seen such festivities on TV. To be in the middle of it all, the dizzying sound and color, confetti landing in my hair, was a vastly different experience.

After two hours of joyful chaos, the crowd swelled towards the edge of Place Massena, tripping over streamers and feathers and tiny children dressed as clowns. There, we watched as the King of Space was destroyed in a ritual burning. Soon, nothing was left but a cloud of smoke rising from a metal frame.  acs_0204Any day now, spring.


To read about my carnival experience last year, in Montluçon in the rural Auvergne region, click here

war & peace & confetti

My shoes were full of confetti. My purse was full of confetti. My bra was full of confetti.

My heart was simply full.

It was April, my second-to-last week teaching primary school English classes. Early that morning, I had sat waiting for my ride to school, dressed professionally but staring blearily at my hot lemon water, willing myself to wake up.

Bleep. A text from my ride, one of the teachers I work with. “Did you know that today’s le carnaval?”

First reaction: I don’t have to teach today!?

Second reaction: what is le carnaval?

She continued: “I’m worried you’ll be bored.”

Far from it. When I arrived at school I saw clowns, princesses, and ladybugs. Cats, ducks, pirates complete with eyeliner mustaches. A tiny boy from the youngest class wore a Spiderman suit, muscles included. As he walked he beat his fists on his artificial pecs.

I sat at the desks with my fifth-grade class, English class disrupted for the day, as the full-time teacher handed out bags of confetti. I was the only one not wearing a costume, much to the class’s dismay. “Sorry guys, I didn’t know!”

“Eh ben,” one of my sweet students said. “T’es déguisée comme prof d’anglais !” (You’re disguised as an English teacher!)

After a quick ten-minute French lesson about language registers (I won’t lie, I took some notes myself), class was dismissed. The kids started whispering, making plans. “Jessica, will you help us ambush le maître?”

Uh, sure. I didn’t know quite what this entailed, but they laughed wildly. It wasn’t until later that I heard the term bataille de confettis.

Confetti war. Okay, I could get down with that.

We lined up the kids outside, un petit défilé, a parade march into a nearby park. There were fountains, evergreens, and bright pink magnolia trees. Hidden around a few turns five minutes from the school, I’d never seen this park before.

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I followed the teachers, some dressed like clowns or birds or pirates, all of us trying to keep wayward little costumed people in line.

We stopped at a square where a Thursday morning market was taking place and crowded around a large, colorful character on a float. She was called Carmentrau, I found out later, the official personnage of the festival. img_1471

A group of cool-looking guys in blazers and jeans played dance-worthy tunes in a brass quintet. The kids buzzed with excitement.

If there was an official directive to start throwing confetti, I missed it, but after my first face-full, the battle was on.

Students approached me slowly, with a gleam in their eye, as if I had any doubt that they were about to shower me in colored paper. I’m not a natural confetti warrior, I must confess. When I sensed an attack was imminent, I tended to shout oh lala ! which just gave me a mouthful of paper.

It wasn’t just children, either.

Le maître of fifth grade, who bears a resemblance to Dennis Quaid with his handsome paternal charm, who rides to school on his motorcycle and who commands respect from his class without ever raising his voice, grinned as he tossed handfuls of confetti into the air…or into the faces of students, colleagues, and passersby alike.

After a while, the band lined up kids to start another parade. They marched around the market three or four times, following the joyful flatulence of the tuba. img_1470

They marched around the farm eggs and the herbs in pots, the flowers and the salmon packed on ice. Mostly around. One child stepped–splaton a tomato plant ripe with fruit.

Kids–or monkeys, witches, and Batmen–starting scooping up fallen confetti, and with it, handfuls of gravel. That was about the time we headed back, just in time for recess.

I still had no idea what this festival was, so I went to chat with the directeur, who told me that this school event marked the beginning of the Bœuf Villé, Montluçon’s version of le carnaval that takes place all over France in late winter. Le Bœuf Villé isn’t just a small-town interpretation of the famous Niçoise fête, though. It’s actually unique to Montluçon.

Bœuf Villé takes place at the end of Lent, instead of before it. The name of the central character, Carmentrau, is a patois of the words carême (Lent) and entrant, so that she represents winter and the entering into Fast. The goal of this festival is to chasser l’hiver, faire renaître le printemps: to chase away winter and to welcome the rebirth of spring.

We hunt winter by hunting the poor Carmentrau, who is “caught” by the children on Wednesday, paraded around the town for several days, and finally burnt at a ritual crémation by characters who represent life. Her ashes are then sprinkled in the Cher river. img_0957

I was puzzled by the bœuf connection until I learned that the end of Lent was traditionally celebrated by eating a big meal featuring beef, a food prohibited during the fast. Montluçonnais today, then, celebrate the return of spring with a community meal of the no longer “forbidden” food.

Interestingly, the word carnaval is itself connected to meat. Since cows would be killed as a sacrifice to mark the end of Lent, carne comes from the Latin caro meaning “flesh” or “meat,” and carnaval, then, means “to God the meat.”

I went home for lunch, shaking confetti out of my hair, my scarf, my oxfords. I felt cheered by the music, the laughter, the joyful silliness of the morning, all of it unexpected.

Later in the week I would see the culmination of the Bœuf Villé, this crémation of Carmentrau, at a city-wide festival where I saw dozens of my students.

It was a beautiful day to wish winter away as we stood under la sourire du soleil (the smile of the sun) and watched Carmentrau burn. img_1473img_1472 img_1474

Goodbye to winter, to Montluçon, to these students who are dear to me, to a strange, dark, cloudy season that gave me occasional glimpses of great joy.

 

bordeaux: à la foire

Bordeaux began as all good trips should, as a decision made at two in the morning the night before. Blame train travel for enabling my dangerously spontaneous ways: the luxury (or gamble) of the young and single.img_3612-1

Bordeaux was another city I knew nothing about, but for its association with red wine. It was closer to Montluçon, though, and I wanted to avoid another six-hour train ride, if possible.

I’d like to write about epic dinners enjoyed in grand chateaus, but the truth is Mary and I spent both nights in Bordeaux running around the carnival. There was something deliciously wrong about this, a feeling akin to skipping school and eating pancakes in bed.

Bordeaux’s Place des Quinconces is one of the largest public squares in Europe, and every foot of it was covered in roller coasters and kebab stands, ferris wheels and trampolines.img_3604-1

Dressed for dinner in silk, ankle boots, lipstick, and after a dinner of seafood pasta and wine, at the fair I felt like an elegant Charlie let loose in the chocolate factory. It was kitsch and bright lights and the smell of sugar, just like anywhere, but with a more insouciant (and much skinnier) crowd. We dodged groups of French teenagers, the straight hair, skinny jeans, and cell phones, to climb aboard dizzying rides like the inexplicably-named “Sexy Dance.” The magic ended at midnight, so we had to act fast. It helped that there were no lines. Maybe the French aren’t as accustomed to putting their lives in the rusty metal hands of carnival machinery.

We rode a Halloween train, in which you sit in a monster’s claw and visit a cave containing all sorts of melted-wax-looking monsters, and tried the flying carpet ride, a breathtaking view of Bordeaux that required trying to keep your balance in a metal cage as a pair of mechanical arms lifts you over the city.

We ate fair food–overly-sweet crêpes–and rode the French “Octopus,” La Pieuvre, a spinning ride that played Olé Olé Olé and released clouds of noxious strawberry smoke that smelled like a trip to the dentist. The only ones on the ride, the controller gave us the choice to keep spinning longer than was probably healthy. Continue?! He yelled.

On the Mouse Coaster we had the front seat next to a grinning six-year-old and her big brother. C’est bien? I asked them. With several teeth missing, the little girl breathlessly recounted how great the ride was. We’ve been on it trois fois!

So the fair was expensive and gave me whiplash, but a French city isn’t all cathedrals and art galleries and stained glass. My best travel memories don’t come from completing checklists of must-see attractions, following in the footsteps of every tourist before, but rather from those things I’ve done naturally and spontaneously. Chasing the incongruities. I’d recommend it, the view of Bordeaux under neon lights, drunk on laughter and music (not to mention half a bottle of red wine).