How we whitewashed carnival
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How we whitewashed carnival

My mother was never a fan of carnival: she always claimed it gave her the creeps, which meant that the task of ferrying us around on carnival weekend fell to my father who, like the true blue Gozitan he is, would take us up to Nadur. Having lived abroad for most of my childhood, it wasn’t until I was around nine that I went for the first time. I won’t forget it in a hurry.

Around 20 years ago, the Nadur carnival was still largely unspoilt. Macabre, black, surreal, it was a dark vacuum: a strange, twisted space. I remember the streets still being quite empty, which meant that each mini-show would get your full attention. I remember the pungent smell of the rotting meat which was proffered to passers-by by people in faceless masks, the opaque humour of costumes that most people wouldn’t dream up in their worst nightmares and I remember going home and finding what looked like a smattering of blood on the bottom leg of my dungarees. This was my carnival.

While Maltese people seemed to delight in dressing up as princesses, just a 25-minute ferry ride away teens would bring out warped gorilla masks

What made it even more intriguing was the fact that it was so different from its Maltese counterpart. While Valletta was all about lurid, garish colour and merrymaking which would force you into a state of joy even if you resisted having any part of it, Nadur acted as the underbelly for all this. There were few floats if any and almost all of them spoke to a far darker side of life, one which many of us would only visit in horror stories. It also showed you that life wasn’t just rainbows and butterflies. While Maltese people seemed to delight in dressing up as princesses and clowns, just a 25-minute ferry ride away, young teens would bring out boiler suits and warped gorilla masks to hiss at passers-by and old enemies who hadn’t dressed for the occasion.

Of course, the minute more Maltese discovered this phenomenon and started to make the journey across the channel, the concept inevitably became watered down. Nowadays, there are more Maltese at the carnival than there are Gozitans and the old ways have been all but forgotten. As terrified as I had been as a child, it’s made me sad to see something so irreplaceable become so commercialised and well, devoid of character and charm.

What was once a unique space has become little more than a giant street party where people can barely move around let alone participate, while others hover around bars, wine glass in hand, complaining about the noise and pretending they’re in their suburban houses rather than in the midst of a folk festival. 

It’s things like this that have contributed to my obsession with preserving our past and our customs and as I attend yet another diluted version of what once was, I will have to content myself with a lovely ftira from Mezzan. At least that hasn’t changed.

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