In Presentation, Production on March 15, 2011 at 9:44 pm

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”.

Thanks K.

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.


[tweetmeme source=”@RobinJGraham” only_single=false]


  1. Love the idea of masks being an equalizer. I didn’t dress up for carnival this year either but want to next year just to have the chance to wear some of the outrageous costumes and masks.

    • Yes I think I´m broken in now – I will brave a mask and maybe even a costume next time. And that from someone who has never been to a fancy dress party in his life!

  2. I love that “most Spanish of solutions — the siesta!”…

  3. The male is a strange species. With a mask, no-one knowing you, and Manzanilla provisioning we can do anything!! Even wear a dress!!

  4. Robin, next time you HAVE to wear a mask.
    And you probably should have that snoring operation before someone kills you.
    I remember a dire dire night in a hostel in Edinborough where I actually got out of bed and went out into the street looking for a brick to belt the snorer with. Met a lovely chap with a hip flask who calmed me down a bit, so I didn’t kill that one. But it was a close call.

    • I know, I know. Mask next time and nasal surgery both required. That or I just never stay in a shared dorm again. Through the miracle of human adaptation K has managed to tune my snoring out. Clever K.

      Glad you didn´t kill anyone.

  5. great post! nothing like a good dress-up, and this one on an epic scale! mask next time? i was a bit worried when you mentioned the italian guy said you were a nightmare to sleep with!

  6. Funny how our reactions can differ. When I read that the Italian guy said your were a nightmare to sleep with, I thought “Wow! Robin is really put it all out there. Good for him.” Perhaps Jaimie was worried because it may have sounded at first like you just didn’t perform well, which would have been sad! 🙂

    BTW, This really stood out for me…

    “Our mask is inside out – we have transformed not ourselves but everything around us.”

    I have said it before, but I will say it again… you have a way with words.

    • Thanks so much once again, and you’re right of course – if anything like that was to happen as a result of all the sherry I would at least have hoped to put in a good performance…

  7. Robin, I loved this post! So well written. You’ve captured the spirit of carnival and the mystique shall we say of the mask.

    I would avoid staying in a dorm with Dropout Diary!:P

  8. You actually raise a really good point about attending these kinds of events. Is it necessary to completely blend in or is there something even more fun about being a tourist? We happened to be in Napier, New Zealand for the Art Deco weekend, when everyone dresses in clothes from the 30’s (when a major earthquake destroyed the town) and participate in all kinds of activities. There was no way we were dressing up and we enjoyed just watching everyone, though we felt in no way involved.

    • Yes – I didn’t feel like a kill-joy at all and wasn’t made to; the atmosphere on the streets was so open and relaxed evn in all the mayhem. It was a very comfortable place to be.

  9. We’re starting to feel very left out. Just about everyone is attending carnivals around Europe at the moment and writing about them on their blogs. No such luck here in Turkey! Maybe we should ask the authorities to create one that we can write about too! 🙂
    I don’t think we would have dressed up either – we just don’t do fancy dress.

  10. It was my first Carnaval and it won’t be my last – if Cadiz is anything to go by you should definitely make a point of attending one when you can!

  11. Masks and costume let you slip into another personality, it’s a glorious experience which I just had in Venice too.

  12. Hilarious that K “didn’t want to get involved”! What a fun post. You and K sound like so much fun — but I would not want to share a dorm room!

  13. […] streets are more numerous, the stately terraces of town house taller, but all of a sudden a place I know quite well is perfumed with palomino and Pedro […]

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