Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2013/5 posted by hidden europe on

Welcome to the fifth season. Spring, summer, autumn, winter... and now the fifth season. This weekend, and the day or two thereafter, mark the culmination across Europe of fifth season frolics. It is carnival time. The normal rules of social engagement, most particularly with anyone in authority, are suspended. Mythical creatures and not-quite-human beings take to the streets, transgressing gender and power relations. In Cologne and other cities in the Rhineland, for example, normality is suspended for a few days. Revellers will mock their mayors, their bishops and their politicians. Anyone in authority is fair game. Carnival characters parody the ups and downs of the preceding months.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Welcome to the fifth season. Spring, summer, autumn, winter... and now the fifth season. This weekend, and the day or two thereafter, mark the culmination across Europe of fifth season frolics. It is carnival time. The normal rules of social engagement, most particularly with anyone in authority, are suspended. Mythical creatures and not-quite-human beings take to the streets, transgressing gender and power relations.

Yes, the fifth season is well and truly here. In Cologne and other cities in the Rhineland, for example, normality is suspended for a few days. Revellers will mock their mayors, their bishops and their politicians. Anyone in authority is fair game. Carnival characters parody the ups and downs of the preceding months. It is a time to settle scores (and simultaneously bury them). And it is a moment to stretch the imagination into liminal territory. What if the mayor really was locked out of his town hall for ever? What if the (male) Chief of Police really was required to dress in a pink tutu and ride through town on an ass?

We love the idea of carnival time. The laughter of carnival is different from ordinary laughter. It is recuperative, redemptive and reviving. It touches something quite universal in our souls. Universal perhaps, but also utterly local. The prosaic scenes of everyday life are transformed by burlesque colour and banter. That "No Parking" sign poking out from the heads of the carnival crowd is suddenly revealed as incongruous and absurd.

Yes, we love the idea of carnival. The reality is often rather different. The rowdy crowds who, over the coming days, will transform streetscapes across Europe have no high-flown anthropological ideals in mind. Carnival is a pretext for widespread bedlam. In one small town on the southern slopes of the Pyrenees, a place called Bielsa, the young bachelors will march through town in search of carnival 'brides'. They will dance la ronda to a brass band on the main square of Bielsa. It all sounds like a pretty piece of fun, but it will end - as it always does - with the young men of Bielsa on the hunt for any passing women. All carnivals have their victims. The story of Bielsa features in the upcoming issue of hidden europe magazine, due for publication next month.

Like it or not, the fifth season is building to its inevitable noisy denouement. Those who think they can just be observers are inevitably and inexorably drawn in. All the world's a stage in these few days. Liminal madness is sanctioned for a spell. But next week (on Ash Wednesday), normality returns. The mayor will be back in his town hall. And the Chief of Police will be cruising the streets in his limousine - and, no, he'll not be wearing a tutu.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.