Carnaval de Nice for a City Healing
Story & Slideshow by Skip Kaltenheuser
Sting recently played at the reopening of the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, marking the one year anniversary of the mad tragedy there. Other healing gestures will be in Nice, recovering from August’s shock and awe from a broken mind. The holiday season will provide some comfort, but a more boisterous defiance is coming. The incomprehensible act had me recall when I joined celebrants on a different occasion, watching fireworks from Nice’s Promenade des Anglais long ago. It’s a sadness now to envision the tragedy of Bastille Day, the vulnerability of those looking skyward.
But those who know the city, and who have felt the joy of crowds on the promenade – La Prom – can also recall the city’s irrepressible spirit. Among the occasions it shines brightest is Carnaval.
Starting in the 1700’s, much of the English aristocracy wintered in Nice, drawn to the splendid coastal panorama. Egalitarian roots were planted in 1820, when a rough winter brought beggars from the north. The English dreamed up a project for them, constructing a walkway, paid for by the English barrister and reverend, Lewis Way. Christian charity at its best and most coveted.
The beautiful Mediterranean backdrop is a good fit for one of the most artful and whimsical cities in Europe. Art museums are an embarrassment of riches, from the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art to museums specific to individual artists including Matisse and Chagall, with loads more up and down the Cote d’Azur. Contemporary galleries that stretch the imagination testify to the quality of artists still drawn to the magnetic region.
Overlooking the beach It is hard to imagine a more innocent seven kilometers than when La Prom is filled with families. Baby carriages, skaters, bicyclists, skateboarders, walkers and joggers – it stays in happy motion beneath the palm trees. It is also hard to imagine a more artful place than when I was there in February of 2003, for Carnaval de Nice.
One of Carnaval’s treats, the Batailles des Fleurs – Battles of Flowers – comprises five parades on La Prom, interspersed with other parades over a couple weeks. Twenty or so painstakingly decorated flower floats, each with thousands of stems refreshed on the design in a single day, carry costumed models throwing one and a half million or more locally grown flowers at the crowd. Floats are accompanied by artful dancers, bands, jugglers, acrobats and stilt walkers. It’s a jolting contrast, the recent tragedy and flowers flung at delighted crowds.
Satire reigns in other carnaval parades scattered over the celebration, including the parades of “big heads” and parades of a couple dozen or more elaborate two-ton floats built by volunteer artists over six months, based on winning themes submitted by cartoonists from around the world. The biggest worry was string in a can.
The satirical theme when I was there was the King of .comMedi, with plenty of hard jabs at media’s oppressive and intrusive aspects. I remember a float of a papier-mâché Larry King driving a giant tank, firing confetti from the turret with a CNN microphone at the end. Easy to reflect now on the pundits of major bellwether media that cheer-leaded for the invasion of Iraq. Shortly after that parade, the neo-diss and dats, Nut’nyahoo and the other geniuses got their way. Afghanistan was back-burnered and Iraq was invaded, unleashing waves of hell that destabilized the region, displaced desperate millions and lost the childhood of generations. It incubated Daesh and gave some broken minds wherever they might surface the illusion of higher purpose, even for massacre by lorry. As prescient was a float of a giant grim reaper with a video cam.
The port city is strengthened by its international melting pot. The loss Nice suffered won’t disappear as easily as a Carnaval’s King burned in effigy, taking away a year of woes. As with any senseless tragedy, there will always be wounds within surviving family and friends, tended to by whatever ways they find to cope. But this city’s artistic sensibilities and playful humor will survive any assault from madness. It is a perspective needed for France and Europe to avoid damaging backlash. This is a time not to diminish but to draw from the strength of people of different backgrounds finding common ground.
The 2017 Carnaval theme is the King of Energy. Perhaps global warming, another great displacement in the queue, is on the mind. It was on mine last summer, as the heat dome settled in, part of the hottest five years on record, Donald.
For counter-programming, any part of the year is a good time to uncork a lunch bottle of rose’ on the French Riviera, but if you want to join Nice poking fun at society’s foibles, check out Nice Carnaval. <http://www.nicecarnaval.com/en/> Nice tourism, <http://en.nicetourisme.com/> French tourism. <http://us.france.fr/> The 2017 Carnaval is Feb. 11th-26th.
Whenever you explore, bet on the triumph of Nice culture over those unable to grasp and embrace it. LIberte’, Equalite’, Fraternite’. That shouldn’t be a hard sell.