Many countries celebrated carnival not long ago. I am so used to spelling it Carnaval (the French way) that I have a hard time accepting the English form of a word that evokes so many memories and many of them are quite mixed.
In Haiti, it used to be a yearly huge thing. In my family we planned our costumes and most of the time I ended up as a pirate, maybe because unconsciously I relived the life of this old pirate under the orders of Napoleon who traveled to Haiti, fell in love with one of the natives and started the beginning of our family. I remember drawing carefully with a black pencil a line of some imagined elegant mustache on my upper lip and draping a sash around my waist while ample sleeves of white cotton fell on my arms. I was transformed into a fierce buccaneer with knives and sword on my waist. I was menacing, at least in looks. I used to dress my friends and dribble gold specks on their hair while I transformed my sister into a fawn ready to roam the slopes of our nearby mountain. And we danced like crazy. All hot nights at Choucoune, the night club en vogue at the time. I loved it. I even remember one night of Carnival when we danced all night, ending the ball at the beach, sipping on coffee and worrying my parents to death (I realize, now that I am a long time parent and grandparent.)
In the afternoon we used to gather on top of a friend's house on the Champ de Mars, the big park close to the National Palace and watch as each group of dancers paraded around a float where the queen and king would salute from their height while around them people would dance ardently, wildly gyrating while the music blared leaving me nearly deaf. Group after group competed to be the craziest dancers in the crowd, loud and probably somewhat drunk and I wished then to be back in the quiet of my home with my books or brushes in my studio. Carnival was becoming too crazy. Too loud or too wild.
While living in Peru, my husband had business to do in Rio and it was Carnival time. Was it a coincidence? I prepared what I thought was a very fancy outfit with a long skirt, slit on the side, a bra-like top, all in satin hot pink with jewelry and hairdo to match. We watched the schools of Samba with dazzled eyes realizing that what I was used to in Haiti was a pale version of Carnival. It was an incredible, awe inspiring spectacle that we waited for as each school of Samba announced itself with its own music, its own amazing costumes and singing with percussion and passion. A sound we could hear coming around the corner and announcing a total feast for the eyes. The elaborate, unimaginable, magnificent costumes, the bodies and legs undulating to the sound of the drums had me in a trance myself. It lasted all night and I stayed awake to watch it all, completely mesmerized and astonished.
But the ball the night after was something else. I got to wear my costume and packed into a car with some American couples from my husband's company and we all went anticipating an evening of dancing like in any well-behaved night club. We were wrong. Poised on a balcony we watched the immense ballroom as it filled up and by ten o'clock it was packed with the most extravagant unimaginable costumes I had ever seen. It was obvious that it took them a year to prepare such elaborate and often diminutive costumes and headdresses versus mine that took me only a day to create, and looked like a nothing and forgettable pale dress. Around us were a group of women clad in so little as to derange the minds of the men that accompanied us. With wild eyes they were looking at them and obviously were drooling, senses ablaze.
At the table next to us was a beautiful woman with some tiny little red lights magically lit on her naked nipples, a small beaded V covering her sex, and otherwise naked with a huge green feathered boa around her neck; she got close to total drunkenness as were most people and of course, could she dance! If you want to call the amazing motion of her waist and rump a dance. Her laughter was also an irresistible draw. Pretty soon, my husband was dancing with her and so were the pale, mild men who were at our table leaving us women wide-eyed looking at each other with astonishment and disbelief. It ended up with the green boa woman spread on the table, legs open, while some of her companions held her with delight. When they popped a camera to remember the sight, I nearly jumped in fright for her. But she only laughed! It lasted all night. Once you got in the ballroom, you could not get out. Somehow at dawn, we managed to leave and collapse in the car, exhausted with so much stimulation while my husband was green with little feathers that littered the car and later our hotel room. I will never forget!
My memories of carnival were mixed. Some enchanting and some obviously not so. A friend of mine sent me a video of the carnival in Venice and I loved the amazing old world, imaginative masks and costumes and it made me dream. I keep seeing myself drawing the elaborate frilled tulle, gorgeous rich embroidery and lace framing the many white masks with pearls and crystals glittering from marvelous headgear by the Adriatic sea. In a way, we espouse a new identity while we hide carefully under the masks and veils and it gives us the liberty to act so very differently than we would in real life. A chance to borrow the image of a new self and be the person we would never dare or imagine to be in normal life.
Carnival, this very old feat, can be inspiring and give us a chance to be a confident double. But for me, it is now safely in my memories where I can just recall it while quiet and purposeful in the mountains of Colorado.
Copyright 2012 Micheline Brierre