It’s all about the mask.
We spend an afternoon in Cadiz, bickering. This one is my fault; I buy a cheap and simple mask for the night ahead in preference to the rather ornate and dandyish one that K had bought for me. Big mistake. Never mind that at Carnaval one is supposed to be ornate, dandyish – I have to feel my usual self-consciousness and hurt her feelings.
Or it isn’t about the mask at all (I end up wearing neither). We’re like cranky children – having been looking forward to this for so long but tired – over-tired – and both feeling the pressure: It’s Carnaval! Have a good time! Now!!
So we don’t.
Until we implement that most Spanish of solutions; the siesta – and as the sleep haze lifts a couple of hours later so do our moods. We put on some smarts and go out.
We start beneath the cathedral towers where a crowd has gathered and snack vendors have set up stall. Throughout the night this square will be packed with pirates, popes and every kind of wildlife. If there is a lesson to be learned from the proliferation of costumes it is this: women, in general, would prefer to be ladybirds and men, by and large, would prefer to be women.
There are no PA systems or staged acts here. In the streets around the cathedral music is provided by coros and satirical chirigotas who lampoon the smoking ban, Zapatero and whatever else has been bugging gaditanos this year. Next time we will understand more – for now we can enjoy the music and the laughter of those who already do.
Confetti covers the ground like the hundreds and thousands on a cake, its little icing figures run amok. Each corner reveals another bacchanalian tableau – studies in mischief and joyful menace. We weave between juggler, jester and clown, policeman and prisoner, alien, ape and insect until we reach La Viña. This barrio is the heartbeat of Carnaval. The streets here resound to the music of the neighborhood illegales; do-it-yourself musical ensembles to replace the more formal coros elsewhere.
We run into a sweaty mass of people that block our way. A rhythmic din. A Rio style drag queen fluffs her feathered outfit in a throng of drum and dance that fills the street. The beat is deafening and irresistible. We grin at each other and join in. In the midst of a city where nobody is what they appear to be everybody is just being themselves.
We break away and stroll. I am happy. I have K in one hand and a bottle of Manzanilla in the other. Later I will still have K, and a second bottle. I haven’t seen her this drunk for a while and it suits her. At some point she has removed the Carnaval mask to reveal her face – it looks different. Less guarded, more content.
It’s all about the mask. We have uprooted and transplanted ourselves. All along, this night – this celebration of Spring and transformation – has been a beacon. A place, a time to get to. A “we made it” moment. Our mask is inside out – we have transformed not ourselves but everything around us. Though it began in bad temper it feels right not to have hidden myself tonight. The reinvention is so much more than a changed face. Everything is new. We can be anything we want to be here.
Or it isn’t about the mask at all. Back at the hostel in the morning after a few short hours of sleep the male half of the Italian couple who share our four bed dorm turns to me.
“It’s a nightmare”, he says beaming at me with a broad, friendly face “sleeping with you”.
When is our guard lowered more than when we sleep? And when I sleep, I snore. That I had been nursing a severe head cold for a day or two didn’t help – it had apparently been a torment to be anywhere near me while I dreamt. K tells me she heard them shushing me in the night but “didn’t want to get involved”.
So much for my dignity then. So much for my notions. Maybe we can’t be whatever we want to be. Perhaps we’re stuck with who we are, the good and the bad. Perhaps. This celebration is a great equaliser – anybody can indulge in its conspicuous anonymity. The social order is removed for a time, the norms of behaviour set aside temporarily. For one night at least we can be whoever or whatever we want. But only for a night. That’s what makes it Carnaval.
Next time I might even dress up.