Monday, 8 May 2017

Blimey! A peck on the cheek from a bearded man in fishnets, and other spring-time rituals.

Local carnivals are profoundly strange events, particularly if you are not a local. Wandering around Meze yesterday we suspected that there was some sort of street event planned for today - the VE public holiday - as there were lots of traffic barriers stacked-up by the kerb, some sporting official looking notes from the Mairie authorising road closures. 

On the way to the supermarket this morning we noticed a group of women gathered outside of a house, all wearing identical flower patterned cotton calf length skirts, white tees and sneakers. This was not a random gaggle, this was a definitely a troupe, what manner of troupe, however, remained a mystery. By the time we arrived by the harbour for an early afternoon noisette, preparation had developed into a buzz of expectation.

Actually, we had just gone out for a quiet coffee


The small stand of tiered seating by the harbour slowly filled up. More gaggles of people in costume wandered about aimlessly. A few them even appeared to be sober. It was while we were sitting watching these mysterious events unfold that the crew dressed as characters from 'The Mask' wandered by. At was at this point that I was gifted a friendly peck on both cheeks from a handsome young man with a trim beard dressed as a NYPD lady cop, complete with 'Village People' style peaked cap, a black ra-ra skirt, fishnets and precarious heels.

It was the bearded one on the left who gave me a friendly kiss
By now the PA had stopped blasting out 'Sympathy for the Devil' and the crackly microphone was in the trusty hands of an MC dressed in a black 50s style sharp suit. He seemed to be attempting to jollify the crowd though some kind of Gallic version of 'Mr & Mrs' which involved plucking hapless couples from the audience for a bit of ritual public humiliation. At least that's what it seemed to us. However, we were somewhat disadvantaged by being unable to understand a word. 

Up a side street the carnival floats were being mustered. The management of the event, aside from the MC., consisted of two bored looking gendarmes, a sinister looking private security guard with a shaved head, and a couple of chain-smoking employees wearing 'Ville de Meze' sweatshirts, each armed with a banana yellow walkie-talkie, into which they gabbled excitedly from time to time. Their primary function seemed to be to slow proceedings almost to a standstill.

Why the carnival needed heavy security I am not sure, there was a minimal police presence.
This did give us time to watch the shenanigans around the arrival of the first revellers who were welcomed into the performance space in front of the VIP stand with much ceremony and lengthy, high-decibel explanations from the sharp suited MC. First up was a giant effigy of a bull - Le Boeuf de Meze - supported by eight 'beefy' young chaps, the beast danced down Boulevard du Port to the staccato rhythm of a snare drum, rearing-up to the spectators gathered on first floor balconies who tossed coins into its gaping mouth. On its arrival at the quayside a mock bull-fight ensued, part of which involved the bull 'eating' children plucked from the crowd, until a brave 'toreador'​ intervened to save them and the kids scattered across the square to a big cheer from the crowd.

Le Boeuf de Meze

The beef behind le Boeuf

Feeding the beast

then the mock bull fight
Next, a traditional dance involving a hobby-horse and two female companions accompanied by a trio of bombarde, fife and drum.

There's a hobby horse dance in English Morris I think - clearly it's a pan-European tradition.


They were followed immediately by the May Queen and her small princesses perched majestically on a flower decked farm trailer pulled by a small tractor. 

The arrival of the Queen of thje May (by tractor) 



The arrival of these traditional​ characters was announced with a flourish; however, the attendant photo opportunities, interviews with local TV, introductions to civic dignitaries all seemed to be taking an inordinate time, so we wandered up the street to where the rest of the floats had queued-up.


The themes here were more contemporary, based on Hollywood musicals and films, a French take on a Spanish gypsy dance, and a homage to Freddy Mercury and Queen. This lot were not bothered at all about the formalities down the road, they had started the party already in the road junction outside Café Fontaine. It provided an ideal space to practise their best moves before hitting the public arena, as well as taking on copious liquid refreshment.

Revellers and spectators pause for refreshments


The performances ranged from the almost co-ordinated (top-hat and tails danced to Sinatra's New York New York) to the utterly shambolic attempt at a 'Footloose' themed routine. Top prize for the most expressive had to go to our old friends in the 'Mask troupe who managed to work in some outrageously​ suggestive moves which would have gone down a storm in London or San Francisco's Gay Pride march.


The 'New York, New York' routine was carried off with a bit of panache


What the Mask dancers lacked in co-ordination they more than made up for through theatricality
And surely that is what Carnival is all about, the opportunity to throw-off the mundane and be be a tad less inhibited for just one day. There was certainly plenty on offer to discomfort the straight-laced:

Blacking-up and wearing Afro wigs and grass skirts would not happen in the UK these days I don't think


The church was the target for this troupe
Not sure what this was about - the costume mixed 'French Maid & Nun' - the dance moves seemed more profane than sacred

This lot just had a ball being outrageously suggestive 


And in among all the grown-up fun, kids too having a great time, either doing what they were supposed to, or misbehaving a bit, just like the adults really.

The smaller kids were content to be cute

some were precociously talented

others had fun firing party poppers at the crowd

The main aim of the younger teenagers seemed to involve covering each other in shaving foam
What is remarkable to me is that mixed in with the mundane workaday merriment were ancient elements that would not merely be familiar to our great grandparents, but recognisable to our Bronze Age ancestors. The Bull has been venerated in Southern Europe since Minoan Crete, and the shenanigans this afternoon was a pastiche of that, as well as more modern events such as the bull-running in Pamplona. The hobby-horse recalls legendary creatures such as Centaurs. The girl crowned Queen of May may have derive her fashion sense from Disney, but May Queens are not queens at all, but Christianised pagan goddesses. It was a descendant of Persephone sitting on the flower decked farm trailer. Meze was welcoming the return of Spring, this small, unpretentious harbour has Phoenician roots, they have been doing this sort of thing for millennia.


Quite what our venerable ancestors would have made of the chap just in front me in the bright yellow suit and green mask bumping and grinding against the bearded bloke in a lady cop costume it is difficult to know. Most likely they would have pigeonholed them as some latter-day bacchanals, which may, of course, be the case. 

Often the commonplace is extraordinary, if you take a moment or two to think about. We do have the luxury of time to stop and stare; what price can you put on having time to think? Surely time is the richest thing we have. The freedom to wander at will, with time on your hands, it's undoubtedly a 'happy place for us'.

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