Bonding Insanity at its Best

Carnival of Dunkirk

February 2, 2016

According to some legends, at the beginning of every year, each village would see its men leave to fulfill their destiny at sea. The chances of survival being what they were at the time, and the appetite for celebrating no different than it is today, the villagers would honour the brave fishermen with music and dances, as well as with one understanding: During this time of celebrations, no cheating would happen (or rather everyone would turn a blind eye on infidelities…), and anyway, who could have told?

Their clothes having already been packed on board ships, men would have had nothing left to wear but their women’s attires.

    

 

To this today, even if fate is not decided by seas anymore, the carnival still happens, and is loved so much that it lasts for about a month, varying in intensity as time passes. Daytime festivities are usually relatively family friendly and can roughly be compared to a regular carnival, however some radical differences take place.



The idea is not to dress as something, but to throw refinement out the window and embrace extremely poor taste.

Artistic touch can only be spotted in make-up and hats, especially in hats. These pieces are so elaborate it is sometimes hard so see its wearer. They are made more complex every year, as for each attended carnival a new element is added to the contraption: feathers, flowers, glitters, membership cards, buttons, beer caps, pearls, plastic ducks…

Many attendees carry umbrellas, handy in case of rainy weather (far from being unheard of in this flat and grey country) and especially convenient for hearing catching. The most experienced participants can be spotted by their taped shoes, an apparatus which should be made mandatory when night comes and crowds get thicker.

As for most men, they still dress as women but I sincerely hope it is not their wife’s garments they are wearing: monstrous wigs on bearded faces, ripped tank-tops showing stretched lace bras sustaining nothing but balls of socks on furry chests, rugby man legs sporting tight blue skirts and green pantyhose, sturdy feet in kitten hills…

These are only some of the horrendous fashion statements I have seen.

 

I have lived surrounded by many cross-dressers and drag queens (I have been one of the later even). But I assure you, this wasn’t training enough to face this army of ugliness!

Another difference lies in the purpose of the brass bands which are not merely making people march or dance, but keep the pandemonium going by giving signals. Not many exist, two to be exact, but their importance is undeniable.

As long as the music keeps on playing, the carnival caravan follows, happily carolling ribald songs in the Picard or Ch’ti dialect. But as soon as the “Stop” signal is heard, the apparent simplicity of the carnival evaporates. Musicians stop advancing while the parade pushes forward and merrily tries to overtake the rear ranks of the band.

On the font, the participants’ duty is to protect the players at all costs and one or several lines of defense are created in this effect, pushing the bold crowd backwards. In the ensuing chahut the joyful mob is happily crushed and gasps for air amidst bursts of laughter until the “Supply time” signal is heard.

At this simple sound, the call is taken over by every follower and a horde of parched men, women and kids storm the nearest pub in search for refreshment. Orders are shouted, poured, spilled, carried around and drunk in only minutes before the whole parade starts again, leaving the now rich shopkeeper completely disorientated and exhausted.

The marching mass goes on in this fashion until every bar in the village has been raided and robbed of its precious liquor, until every parading soul has been properly moistened for adequate fish catching. In the brass band’s wake, the now united procession stampedes to the city hall, where shouts for fish resonate until the mayor and its assistants deign to open doors and windows to throw smoked herrings and candies at the (slightly drunk and) hungry crowd. Umbrellas are being upturned (never mind the rain) and used as nets or baskets to catch the needed sustenance. Herrings rain on the satisfied crowd, landing on damp shoulders and chanting heads until every mouth, full at last, consent to finally dissipate… to meet again, later at night, at the city ball.



Hence, after a tasty combination of light beers, strong tasting smoked fishes and sweet candies, I left the village behind, bid goodbye to baby-cousin Léonie and her family, and headed for Dunkirk proper where Jacques and a bunch of his so-called adult friends would be. We had met the night before in Lille and had hit it off fairly well. Well enough to guaranty me a partying spot within their small but intense group.



A few hours later, upon hitting the bars lining the North Sea, we realized we had been following the exodus without even knowing it.

 

There, the multitude was already dancing, pushing, pulling, jostling, and exchanging imaginary names alongside real kisses in the tradition of their forefathers - how could I have forgotten this part of the legend?

I rubbed shoulders with dancers, twisted and turned, fraternized with the brass band, clandestinely visited the kitchen, made friends and traded kisses, ran off in strong winds and flying sand, a heard of horses among sea spray, a welcomed relief to cool off from the pre-partying heat and mayhem, a break in the night chaos, the calm before the storm as I was about to discover.


Indeed, at close quarters the migration was slowly taking place. Little by little, the raving crowds of all surrounding bars and pubs were joining forces to conquer the main dancing hall.

It consisted of three gigantic rooms, the first of which, big enough to receive a convention, had been transformed in an enormous coat-check. The second room hosted no less than four bars scattered along the edges, possibly more, and a large stage where bands would play all night. In he third room, in addition to numerous drinking holes fringing the place and a colossal platform welcoming brass bands, a three-masted ship had been deposited in its center. It functioned as bar, stage for performances, and above all as rotation axis for the never-ending chahut. This was the holy land.

 



In the course of the afternoon, I had discussed with one of the bartenders we had mistreated. Upon hearing me commenting on my friends’ hesitation to go to the ball, he had urged me to motivate them, telling me this Bal des Corsaires was one of the two bests, and insisted on their stupidity if they decided to bail off on me. He had however warned me: The premises would hold no less than 10,000 people tonight. I had headed his recommendation and forced my co-partier to buy their entrance ticket to the ball, but had dismissed his warning as a slight exaggeration of things.

I shouldn’t have.

People, like waves, were answering to the brass band calls, turning in never-ending circle around the ship, lines of resistance forming and falling, shoes being lost and found, carried back to their owners in exchange for a smile or a kiss, friends being met, lost, and re-joined again, names being invented, learnt and forever forgotten.

Caught in its midst, I could only follow. Crushed, pushed, resisting, pulling, clamped arm in arm with my squished neighbors, I could hardly budge. Now and then I would feel myself levitating, still moving whereas my feet weren’t touching the ground anymore, carried away by the flow.

Someone happened to fall next to me. Immediately, a new line of resistance was created, the person was lifted off the ground and put back on its feet, protected and cared for until out of the way or fit enough to battle again.

And when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, when I was pressed to pulp and exhausted, a friend was always there to escort me to the closest drinking hole. It was a seemingly continued flow of music and movement, a gigantic rough and friendly mess.
 


Night changed into morning, the masses were still twisting and turning, dancing and colliding. I, myself, was barely able to stand, exhausted by a couple of sleep-deprived nights and a day of parading. All that was left to me was to change my make-up, alcohol, and sweat soaked clothes in the freezing wind, and designate drive our asses back to the house on the beach a few dozen kilometres away.

 © 2018 by Elsa Chesnel

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