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Carnival Ambivalence


Thursday afternoon, Oliver Gee of the Earful Tower and I took a leisurely 45+-minute walk during a live broadcast from the Square du Temple to the end of rue de Bretagne in the 3rd arrondissement — with a few detours along the way to point out some of the special spots. We added some historical facts, little-known secrets that only a long-time resident would know (my 21+ years in the “quartier”) and explained some of the different architectural styles. While on tour, listeners sent in their comments and questions that added fodder to the mix and at one point, while ogling beautiful Valentine’s Day desserts in a “patisserie” window, House Hunters International fans stopped to say hello.

For those of you who weren’t able to see it live, don’t despair. There’s still plenty of time because it’s available on Youtube. Be sure to watch and don’t hesitate to comment and let us know if you enjoyed it (or not) and share it with all your friends!


The annual carnival festivals on the Riviera always leave me with ambivalent feelings. This is when the culture shock of living in France hits me like a ton of bricks, having been born and raised in New Orleans where Mardi Gras festivities every February-March leading up to Lent were a way of life.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing Mardi Gras in New Orleans, then you know that it’s a time of year when everyone lets loose…really loose. There are no holds barred when it comes to donning elaborate costumes, or costumes made only of paint to disguise bare skin. There is music in the streets and everyone is dancing to it or dancing to their own drummers. Alcohol flows freely, if not drugs, legal or not. Parade floats are elaborately and frivolously decorated. Beads and other souvenirs are thrown from the parade floats or passed out for everyone to enjoy. The partying is continuous for weeks on end and it’s all free and open to the public. The merriment is contagious. And all you have to do is show up.

That is not true for Carnaval à Nice, nor for the Fête du Citron in Menton. Neither are free. Neither are open to the public, except for those who buy tickets. There is some costuming by the public, but that’s only done to avoid paying for their entry. (Entry is free “in certain zones” for those in full costume…just a colorful wig doesn’t count as a disguise.) These are happy times for the French who imbibe, but only within their own controlled environments. They don’t let loose even during carnaval, at least not in the way we would or in the way in which I am familiar. I think they wouldn’t feel comfortable, either, if they didn’t self-impose the many controls they have placed upon themselves.

Don’t get me wrong. What the festival organizers accomplish to put on these elaborate parties is impressive. They work hard, spend a lot of money and creative energy to put on a big showing. All-in-all it’s a terribly fun experience that will fill your photo album and memory bank with lots of great imagery, but there is a sad side to it that I just can’t shake. This is where the difference in our cultures makes the biggest impact.

Let me explain in greater depth before you accuse me of just being critical! You readers all know that I love Nice and the Riviera, but with the preparations for Carnaval à Nice come the tall walled barriers that don’t allow entry to the public who don’t have a ticket into the parade routes. It’s also set up with metal detectors and security measures. The tram is stopped from running a key portion of its route during the time the parades are about to take place. Walking paths are blocked and simply getting from Point A to Point B becomes very challenging. Place Masséna has been taken over by bleacher seats. Restaurants along rue Masséna complain that business is down because of the barriers and reduced flow of walk-by traffic. The merchants have to grin and bear it — because Nice will be this way for two solid weeks, from February 16th to March 2nd.

There are 11 parades in all, but really there are two primarily different parades that roll multiple times over the course of the two weeks. Two special parades were added to the mix this year. If you miss one, you can catch another. Tickets are on sale at special ticket booths near the parade route entries and online. You can’t buy a pass to attend them all…it’s one ticket per one parade. There are different “zones,” and you can pay more to have a seat to watch the parade, vs standing. Personally I prefer to stand, and be among the crowd as I might at Mardi Gras, rather than stuck in a seat where I can’t move, dance or take photos from many angles, etc…but remember, I’m not French and rebel against being so controlled!

The parades this year are, first and foremost, the “Bataille de Fleurs” (Battle of the Flowers) and the Corso Carnavalesque Illuminé (the main nighttime illuminated parade). The flower parade is a beauty, thanks to the 100,000 fresh flowers that are thrown to the crowd from elaborately decorated floats. This is the one I like to see standing along the Promenade des Anglais against the blue sky and blue waters of the Baie des Anges. The Corso Carnavalesque Illuminé is the primary and most elaborate parade of them all. The place to be in order to see it best is Place Masséna in the center of it all.

In addition, this year there is the Corso Carnavalesque – Parada Nissarda and for the first time ever, the Lou Queernaval. The Parada Nissarda is made up of 18 floats designed around this year’s theme and offers up figurines in dazzling colors, with the participation of street theatre and music groups from all over the world. The Lou Queernaval is the first and only gay carnival in France, designed to show off a universal message of living-together, with respect and humanity.

Saturday afternoon, John Garland Jones and I headed over to the “Prom” (Promenade des Anglais) to see the Bataille de Fleurs. The entry was right at Ruhl Plage, a short walk from my apartment. The sky was blue blue, as was the water, and the sun so bright we were blinded. Thanks to John being heads taller than me (or most of the crowd), he was able to see more and take better photos than I was. While the flowery floats are beautiful, there are other additions to the parade that pepper it with life — feathered dancers from other countries, costumed stilt-walkers and various cleverly designed animations.

I stayed long enough to see most of the parade, but I needed enough time to maneuver getting to the train station to meet my cousin, Leslie, arriving from Italy to spend Carnaval week with me here. “Thanks” to the barricades and tram not running, I had to hoof it wildly all the way up to Gare Nice Ville to arrive just on time, and it meant doing a major detour around town to get there.

That evening, Leslie and I geared ourselves up for the first run of the Corso Carnavalesque Illuminé. We fought our own way through the crowds at the main entry points to be on the Place Masséna, even though we were armed with press passes which would normally get you through the hordes. Even videographers carrying big cameras weren’t able to get through the masses. The barriers being even more acute than in the past, clearly attributed to heightened security. And they hadn’t planned for a special entry for the press — even the police we asked about other entry points were complaining about the poor organization this year. The lines were miles long and it seemed like it took forever to go through the security controls and file into the main square.

The bleachers were full. Music played loudly. An emcee kept the spectators abreast with a blow-by-blow description of what was coming next. Big screens around the square showed close-ups of what was taking place that some might only see from a distance otherwise. Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi and his wife were seated center, center. The spotlight was on him as he opened the festivities with a brief speech. An acrobatic display by a group of young performers launched the entire event in the center of the square. They shot off confetti guns that filled our hair and every crevice with the paper bits…then the parade began to roll.

We were standing dead center, too, just in front of the mayor. We had to move our spot constantly to avoid someone complaining that we were blocking their view. This is one of those culture clashes that I’ll never get over…that sense of entitlement that we simply don’t have…at least not New Orleanians at Mardi Gras! It’s a so-called public event, even though you have to buy your ticket. Your ticket is for a place to stand, not an assigned seat, unless you’re in the bleachers. You have the right to stand anywhere and you do your best to get the best spot. But from my point of view, everyone is entitled equally to be wherever they want. We had the slight advantage of having press passes hanging from our necks, but that didn’t matter. I got yelled at for standing in front of a pram with a one-year old in it who couldn’t see anything or care much about what was going on anyway…even though with the passes, we were officially entitled to be on the front row and in the middle of the performers.

The parade lasted almost two hours. The theme: “Roi du Cinéma” or “King of Cinema.” The animations and the floats were spectacular. All in all, it’s an amazing display of creativity, skill and craft…but, the messages and themes are complicated. Many are political. The creatures and faces are downright mean, foreboding and scary. Even on the Eiffel Tower costume was a screaming face. The parade itself is not filled with a sense of happiness — but more a sense of fear and doom. Donald Trump was portrayed as a dreadful scary clown holding a tiny, weak doll-like Emmanuel Macron. Emmanuel Macron was a major player in the parade, also portrayed as a “Super Zero,” not a “Super Hero.” Characters from the cinema were not their usual glamorous selves. Their faces could create nightmares, and not just for the young.

The faces in the crowd of spectators were not particularly smiling, either. They weren’t dancing in the streets to the music. The spectators watched with amazement, but not with a sense of pure joy, as I am used to. As I watched the floats go by, I wondered why? Why is there so little happiness on display to represent what should be a time of elation? What is so different about our cultures that we would see life from such differents point of view? Why would they represent these characters in such a dismal light? This puts me in a quandary year after year and have never found the answers. It doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy the parade, but it’s such a different experience than what we might have expected.

We walked home exhausted, but ready to take on a new adventure the next day. Early Sunday morning, Leslie and I took the 100 bus along the “Basse Corniche” (the road along the sea) all the way to Menton for the annual Fête du Citron, on until March 3rd. The sun was as bright as ever and the stunning ride along the coast never ceases to thrill me. Menton was just as barricaded off as Nice for its annual Fête du Citron, and we had to walk a long way around to get to the Tourist Office to get our press passes. Still, we had time to have lunch along the water at a table “al fresco,” plus visit the Jardins de Lumières.

The Fête du Citron is in some ways frivolously fun, seeing as the floats and enormous structures on the garden are made of chicken wire, lemons and oranges, using rubber bands, each citrus fruit placed one-by-one. The organizers bring in more than 140 tons of lemons and oranges to make the floats and garden structures. Seven-hundred-and-fifty-thousand rubber bands are used to construct the structures. These are works of art in design and construction and a lot happier than their Niçois counterparts. We saw the garden in full daylight, but the nocturnal stroll, under artistic and artificial lighting, is said to take on a dreamlike dimension under the moonlight of Menton.

At the parade on the waterfront, there was a special spot for the press. This is where that sense of entitlement hit me right between the eyes. Long before the parade even started, as we were all waiting for something of note to begin, other members of the press were complaining that we were blocking their view and should move. They grumbled, they showed their teeth, they snarled like mad dogs.

“But, madame, you see, I am a member of the press, too,” I said. “What makes you different than me? Why are you so special?” We knew better than to stand in their way for long, so as the parade started we worked our way forward, hanging in close to the city’s official photographer who was uniquely friendly to us. We left the snarling reporters to their own demise. As we moved forward against the parade, each time we landed in a spot on the street, mind you, someone would complain that we had usurped their special position. That special position…that one on the street that seemed to have their names burned into the concreate. Once, four women with phone cameras started to yell at me at one time. I turned, forcefully and loudly said (in English), “Oh really!? Really?!,” then turned back around and ignored them. We moved on.

Where was that carnival-anything-goes spirit? The one that I grew up with? Is it because the box they place themselves in starts with the barriers, the paid entry and the controls that are placed on the spectators? Then, they place even more barriers on themselves and everyone around them? I’m just not getting it. Even after all these years, and having had many similar experiences, I’m still in a dilemma to understand how their minds work.

When the festival is all over, the citrus fruit structures get dismantled. There are all those tons of which to dispose. Half are rotten by the end of the festival, so they compost them. The rest are sold off at bargain prices.

Before we left Menton, we strolled in the old town, had an early dinner in a restaurant adjacent to the garden and rested our feet before taking the train back to Nice. In spite of the altercations with the territorial snarling spectators, we had a glorious time taking in the sights and sounds of the Riviera extravaganzas.

I do not want to discourage you from experiencing them — by all means do! But, be prepared for a different experience than you might have had in New Orleans or Venice or Rio de Janeiro or Viareggio…and be prepared to buy tickets…for what is considered a public event! And in the end, be prepared, too, to find confetti everywhere and anywhere…for a long time to come.

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds

Editor of Parler Nice


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