Starcat 1 by my favourite artist

Thursday, 28 February 2013

¡¡¡Estoé Carnavá!!! ¡¡¡Estoé Carnavá!!! ¡¡¡Estoé Carnavá!!!

Pronunciation tips for non-Spanish speakers:
The accent in the title and the capitalisation below shows where the stress falls, and the phrase should be pronounced: 
estooo-WEH carr-na-VA where the two stressed syllables should have an abrupt bite to them and a slight aspiration at the end.

"Yes, fine." you say, "But why are you telling me this?"

I shall begin. Practising Christians are now in Lent and as we all know, Lent is a time of sacrifice when people give up luxuries to mark JC's time of fasting in the desert. Before Lent in times past  people would blow out on the luxuries in the larder so as not to let them go to waste. The result of this is the English Shrove Tuesday (from the verb to shrive - to cleanse of sins) when we all enjoy pancakes while the French enjoy a bonne bouffe during Mardi Gras - or Fat Tuesday.  Whether the fat part refers to using up this cooking material or to the gargantuan meals eaten there I do not know - je ne sais pas, mes amis. And, of course, in the Mediterranean/Latino countries we have Carnival (Spanish Carnaval) where people took the chance to scarf down meat (Latin: carnis) before fasting.
Town Hall, Cadiz.

I am going to restrict myself to Spain where any excuse for a fiesta is a good excuse. Slowly this flesh-easting beano turned into a popular street festival and it was a time of licence. People released steam and it became a time of non-religious partying and parades where anything went and the de facto powers were mocked. Nowadays, the most famous Spanish carnivals are those of Cadiz, Spain's most captivating city, and in the Canaries whose festivities have more in common with those of the Americas and which rely more heavily on spectacle than on wit and inventiveness. Such was the biting wit and comment displayed in the Cadiz carnivals that they were banned during Franco's dictatorship and only began again after his death. 

Seville's Feria
Seville does not really celebrate the Carnival - it waits until April, just after Easter and then explodes into Feria. This is a Bacchanalian week of drinking, Flamenco and loud music distortedly blaring from low-quality loudspeakers while little old men stuff twists of paper napkins into their ears to protect them from the constant tiddly-tiddly-piddly-piddly-pom of sevillanas music. Sevillian women dress in trajes de gitana and add colour and loud conversation to the whole city. If you live in Seville, this is a great time to escape and visit other cities as the world and his wife seems to be gyrating in the Feria - either due to the music or a surfeit of ManzanillaFino, or indeed the deceptively refreshing rebujito - a bottle of sherry, plus a litre of 7-up and plenty of ice.  

Carnival, however, does exist in Seville - among the young sevillanos. It  is extremely popular in playschools, and primary and secondary schools.  The activities consist, as far as I can make out, of dressing up and enjoying Carnaval. There may be music, there may not. There may be refreshments, there may not. In Seville this particular celebration seems to celebrate nothing but the fact that it exists.

I am usually hyper-critical of the magical thinking so typical of Seville. What Sevillians perceive with their five senses often has little to do with their inner reality. Seville is a place where a strongly-held misconception is oft at odds with physical reality. The children's Carnival celebrations however are the positive side of Sevillian magical thinking. As Ford states in his excellent Gatherings from Spain (1846) "The frugal, temperate, and easily-pleased Spaniard enters with schoolboy heart and soul into the reality of any holiday, which being joy sufficient of itself lacks no artificial enhancement".

Carnival Parade à la Oliver
Once a year, when I lived near to the Oliver playschool to which all three of my offspring went, a snake of gaily-dressed children would issue forth from the school dressed up in their Carnival outfits. All would be grasping a clothesline so that they didn't wander off and, orchestrated by their teachers, would shout at the top of their little lungs  ¡¡¡Estoé Carnavá!!! ¡¡¡Estoé Carnavá!!! ¡¡¡Estoé Carnavá!!! (This is Carnival! This is Carnival &c. &c.) and parade around the neighbourhood. They would literally bring activity in the neighbourhood to a halt. The traffic would stop, customers and shopkeepers would emerge from the shops, shout to and applaud the little mites as they paraded past. Children, teachers, residents - everyone - enjoyed it hugely. 

After about ten minutes the shouting, smiling snake would return to the playschool and Carnival would be over for another year, but for those ten minutes we were all on holiday. Estoé Carnavá, at least in Seville - or at least in my memory.

Estoé Carnavá 2013 at High School, but still with the joy of
being sufficient of itself. 
One last comment: correctly written, the Spanish expression that I have used is Esto es Carnaval. I have written it as it is pronounced here in Seville. 


  1. When I went to Seville as a student, I missed Carnaval and, in fact, until I read about it here, had no idea that there was such a thing.

    The first thing that hit us ingleses was Semana Santa with its interminable processions of people dressed up like the Ku Klux Klan (I assume the latter derived their uniform from the Spaniards).

    I was bemused by the penitents of the cofradías, amazed by the heavy pasos with the sweating men carrying them, and astonished by the saetas sung (theoretically) spontaneously by by-standers. If you wanted to get across town in a hurry, it was a pain because you would find your route blocked by a barely moving procession and you were not allowed to cross through it.

    I heard a no doubt apocryphal tale. It was said that one of the penitents was suspected to be a woman when only men are allowed in the procession. How could they verify the suspicion as it was prohibited to unmask a penitent? Easy: they pinched her bottom and when she cried out in a woman's voice, they knew they had caught their man, er, woman.

    Feria was exciting and fun and really picturesque: all those costumed men and woman riding fiery horses! For us students, the disadvantage was that all prices were literally doubled: our landlady doubled the rent, our favourite cafe doubled the price of meals and, moreover, removed all the bar stools, expecting a huge crush.

    I remember my months in Seville as a magical time. I knew so little about life, even in England, and so Spain seemed like an exotic place, a land of romance and dreams. Even the horrid Franco regime seemed to add a seasoning of danger.

    My Seville, though, is remote not only in space but also in time. I cannot go there again. Were I to visit Seville today, it would be a different Seville. Maybe I would learn to love it again but I think it would always be haunted by the dreams of a young student experiencing a strange new world.

  2. The existence of Feria and Semana Santa had me convinced I had been born in the wrong city, possibly the wrong country. I can't agree more with: "If you live in Seville, this is a great time to escape and visit other cities..."

  3. Please don't get me ranting about Semana Santa! After spending more than half my life here, I still object to having such basic rights as crossing or walking along a road removed from me during Easter by a bunch of people dressed up like the Ku Klux Klan accompanying groups of people carrying large tables with life-size statues of JC and his mum on their backs.
    BTW the parading of gods through the streets in Spring time began in Ancient Greece. So much for the second commandment's strictures against idolatry.
    This is also a good time to escape from Seville, but unfortunately as it's a school holiday in most, if not all, European countries it's also a peak season for the travel/tourist industry.