Carnival is over. In some places it continues into Lent with the funeral of Vaal (Carnival) which starts penitently enough but becomes a second bacchanal. We experienced something different in Belgrade. As an excerpt from this letter from May 2009 shows.
Saturday morning Suzi and I were having a late breakfast in the outdoor café Via del Gusto. This Saturday the café music seems to be a Philip Glass CD. This is not exactly normal Balkan restaurant music. But after a few minutes we heard what sounded like a fife and drum corps playing “Gary Owen” cutting through Glass’s repetitive, repetitive, repetitive, refrain, refrain, refrain. I looked up to spy a gaily costumed band, wearing carnival masks and carrying a Swiss flag marching down Knez Mihailova right toward us. They stopped in front of our cafe, finished their tune, took off their masks, sat down and ordered trays full of local beer.
This was a Basil, Switzerland carnival troupe. Every year they vacation together after their carnival performance, Lenten penance and Easter celebration. This year they are making holiday in Belgrade. They laughed over their beers, stood up, put on their masks, picked up their instruments and marched off playing “British Grenadier” and “The Girl I left Behind Me,” gathering a crowd of children skipping behind this platoon of pied pipers. Migrating swallows swarmed overhead adding their squeal to the fife’s squeak. The band obediently stopped for a red light. The parade was, by this time, longer than the light allowed so our line of followers tied up traffic, car horns adding to the fifes, drums and swallows. The lead fifer picked up a Serbian flag along the way and draped it over his shoulders before another beer stop.
That experience made us decide that we should go someplace where there was a “real” carnival the next year. In 2010 Carnival fell on a Serbian holiday completely unrelated to Mardi Gras. But we took advantage of the four day weekend. It didn’t start well. (See text below the pictures.)
Last weekend in Belgrade was terrible with lots of fast falling snow. Nikola Tesla airport doesn’t like wasting deicing fluid, so officials held planes until the runway was clear before deicing the planes. By the time the plane was deiced they had to hold the plane to plough the runway again. When the runway was clear there was more snow on the wings. Each time the pilot came on the intercom he started with a big sigh followed by an explanation in German, another sigh and the same explanation in English. Our 6:30 AM flight boarded at noon and didn’t take off until after two. At one point, after the sigh, the pilot said he was trying to explain to “these people” how to run an airport. Missing connections, we arrived in Lisbon more than ten hours late. Not wanting to hassle mass transit at midnight we plopped into a cab. The only words I knew in Portuguese were fragments from a ‘60s Bossa Nova hit. “Mais Que Nada.” That didn’t tell the cabbie where we wanted to go but was somehow appropriate. (It translates as “but nothing,” colloquially, “so what?”) So what? We were in Lisbon.
The ostensive reason we went was for Carnival. I figured that since Rio was the grandmama of carnivals Lisbon must be the great grandmamma. Fat Tuesday is a legal holiday but the action is mostly in the suburbs. On Sunday we saw kids in carnival costumes (really costumes from cartoon shows) during the kid’s carnival parade. Monday, the night before the Fat Tuesday holiday, (Wednesday is a workday, it was for us to, we had to fly out on Tuesday) is the real party with young people roaming the streets in costume One of the most popular seemed to be guys in drag — pregnant nuns. Carnival decorations highlighted balconies and the music in cafes was mostly Brazilian, (“Mais Que Nada”) although we did see one Fado busker, standing on a wheelbarrow singing into a megaphone, he had an LED flashlight taped to the inside of the megaphone so he could put a listener in the spotlight as he sang to her.