It has become a tradition for me to seek a Mediterranean escape around this time, when Southern countries get ready for the carnival. I did not grow up with a similar tradition. There is a festival (called Užgavėnės) with scary masks and pancakes, but it is very different from the colorful costumes and street music of the South. I grew up hating Užgavėnės with a passion. My first experience of it was at primary school, when older kids stormed our classroom with cans of paint and threw it at our faces. I spent the next hour or so trying to rinse my eye. In middle school, we were paraded to a nearby forest in makeshift scary costumes to make campfire and play games – a tiring and quite pointless trip. And let′s not forget that people still make derogatory masks depicting Jews and Roma in the Lithuanian version of this festival, two generations after the genocide of these populations. Needless to say, the only tradition I respect from the Lithuanian festival is making pancakes.
Last year I spent the carnival days in a small town in the region of Murcia (Spain). Although it wasn′t quite warm, it was sunny enough for the whole town to be on the street. The local school paraded its children, dressed in various costumes. Parents didn′t have freedom to choose the costume – it was decided top-down. In my friends′ son′s class, all boys had to be nutcrackers, and girls had to wear ballet costumes.
After the procession ended, many girls were sitting around and posing for photos with these short skirts and heavy make-up, which in the adult world would be considered ′slutty′ if seen outside of the carnival. Mothers, many in hijabs, proudly took photos of them with their cellphones.
This year I attended the carnival in Malta.
It lasts five days, from Friday to Tuesday. A special booklet is published to introduce various artisans and participants, and competitions take place. On Friday already, various dance schools parade in impressive costumes, similar to Rio and the like. Saturday night in the village of Nadur on Gozo is known as a wild feast for youth. Many costumes are somewhat kinky, and carnival floats are predominantly political.
Floats are made from old trucks. One of them posed as a polling station to re-vote in the US election. Some made fun of a recent scandal, when two politicians allegedly visited a brothel while on a work-related trip in Germany.
Some people had bought their costumes, others made them. Some opted for easy solutions, such as a ′budget Batman′ from trash bags or a Jesus costume from a bed sheet. Others crafted elaborate outfits.
Many people from the island of Malta travel to Gozo for the wild party experience. We took the ferry well in advance to avoid traffic jams and find parking. Due to this planning, everything was surprisingly efficient. I did not expect to meet people who didn′t travel with us in the crowd, but Nadur is so small that it was actually possible.
I chatted with a photography enthusiast, who was hanging out with a professional camera and a huge zoom lens. He showed me some portraits of the participants. There were several stages with DJs, their music clashing in this small space of the central square and several narrow streets. Lots of food trucks offered hotdogs, French fries and similar fast food. Trash started accumulating on the streets, although the municipality made sure there were plenty of trash bins. Several bars provided shelter from the wind, refreshments, and bathrooms.
One of the bars was very special – a band of senior citizens played folk music. I had never seen such instruments before. One of them, called żummara, is like a drum with a hole and a stick being moved in and out of it. I got to try local ratchets.
The next day in Valletta was very different from the wild crowd in Gozo. Children were showing off their costumes, and adults were taking a stroll, but dancers and cheerleaders who accompanied a small orchestra looked somewhat lazy and unmotivated. The creativity of the costumes, however, surpassed anything I saw on Gozo.
Targeting children, the floats were, obviously, not political.
Many families dressed even small babies in various costumes. Those people who adore kids could melt from what they would see as cuteness overload.
It was exciting to see that people take this holiday so seriously. It was also remarkable how peaceful the crowd was, and how relatively easy it was to move around and see everything.