I RESPECT THE PEOPLE of Venice for carrying out tradition. However, they did something with Carnival I didn’t think possible. They created a celebration that’s more boring than everyday life. A bank holiday would be preferable. It might actually be fun.
Visiting Venice for Carnival is like attending an incredibly dull party thrown by a beautiful woman. Don’t get me wrong; I love Venice to bits, but if they want to make Carnival fun, perhaps next year they could invite over Germany, or better yet Brazil — I hear they know how to throw a party.
Things overheard at a hotel breakfast buffet
There’s no fruit, no eggs, no meat. Someone has ‘dipped’ every croissant into a sugar solution. The only thing fit for human consumption is Coco Krispies.
“We should really travel across America some day,” says girl #1.
“Yea,” girl #2 says, “but it’s so expensive, with gas and all.”
“And you can’t get a hotel for less than, like, a hundred dollars a night,” says girl #3.
“How bout an RV?” says girl #1.
“The gas!” says girl #2.
“Oh, right,” says girl #1.
I’m eavesdropping on the American Dream, fizzled. I want to walk up to their table and slam my fist down. “How could you possibly appreciate Venice? You don’t even know your own country!” Of course nobody wants to hear this sort of talk from a stranger who hasn’t brushed his teeth.
Crowded, cold, and rainy. Many tourists wearing masks with cat eyes, musical notes for eyebrows, or long beak-like noses. The masks have different personalities, and there are hundreds of mask shops throughout Venice. After lunch of pizza, we follow yellow signs through alleys and over arched bridges to San Marco Square.
A section by the tower is under construction and gated off. There is a giant, messy stage with a Jumbotron playing Coke commercials. We’re walking outside St. Mark’s Basilica when something pink catches my eye. Pink Thing is not wearing street clothes like the others. She’s wearing 20 yards of hot pink bridal netting. Her mask is hot pink too, and covers her whole face. She stands before a crowd arranged in crescent formation, taking pictures as if on a photo shoot.
Take a shot
“Get in there,” Takayo says. I join the crowd to get my picture of Pink Thing. The people before me are blocking my shot, so I raise my camera high and push the button. I capture Pink Thing and the top of some woman’s crown. My fingers are numb from the wind, and to be honest, I’m not totally committed to getting the picture.
An Asian woman bumps my arm as she plows her way to the front of the crowd. I watch her take the shot, and then storm off toward the quays. Maybe she’s drunk, I wonder. That would make sense. I’m certainly more courageous when I’ve had a few. One night, when I waited tables at a seafood restaurant, I jumped off the pier into the Atlantic and swam back before my fifteen-minute break was up. Our boss didn’t mind us drinking, but she was livid that I hadn’t taken my vest off.
“What are you doing?” Takayo says. “Get in there!”
So I do what I do when I have to be brave and there is no booze around: I take a mental shot of tequila. Then I hip check an Asian girl out of my way and move in to get the shot.
Know your role
The locals might also take a mental shot of tequila before leaving the house each morning. The 99 Percent — otherwise known as “gawping tourists” — are all over the place. I’m surprised I haven’t seen any locals screaming or bludgeoning tourists with gondola oars. A sign outside a doily shop reads PLEASE DON’T SIT HERE – THIS IS NOT A PICNIC AREA, but this has not deterred folks from sitting and drinking Bellinies (Cocktail Ufficiale di Carnevale).
I notice several distinct types of revelers:
- Those who fashion pop culture costumes and ‘roam’ the alleys, such as Willy Wonka, cardboard box Wonka bar (in brownface), and Oompa Loompa posse.
- Old white men with staff-mounted camcorders recording anyone who’s had so much as their face painted by the artists set up in the piazzas shouting “make-up, Maquillage.”
- Young white men wearing three-faced masks with beanie hats, scarves, and peacoats.
- Goth boys and girls with blue or pink hair and black capes, swigging wine bottles beneath awnings in less crowded alleys.
- People from Japan.
Near a hut selling hot wine and hamburgers, we come across another group gathered in crescent formation.
“Get in there,” Takayo says, and this time I get in there.
There are two men posing. One is wearing a gold tapestry dress blooming with ruffles. His face is painted white (no mask), and he’s striking rigid little expressions. The other man is so fat he looks like he’d puke at the mere sight of a treadmill. He has a blue, readymade king suit with white fur, scepter, and three-pointed hat holding approximately 2 lbs. of flightless bird feathers. As I’m taking my shot, the woman to my right saunters out (intentionally?) before me.
“Hey lady!” I say.
Feather Head checks his phone, then wrinkles his forehead. I take their picture before he leaves. Ruffle Boy remains poised, his eyes closed, red lips pursed like a marmoset. For a moment, dignity seems to be restored. No one moves. Then a man with a ‘telescopic’ camera walks up to capture it, and I saunter out before him as I leave.
Letting tourists take pictures whenever and wherever, as far as I can figure, is some sort of unspoken rule in Venice. Some of the revelers, like the guy with a 4-foot-wide chandelier strapped to his head, make me wonder if the Tourism Board is paying them to be nice to us. At least, that’s what it feels like.
Even when Chandelier Head gets tired and walks away from one crowd, someone else approaches him for a picture, and he stops, causing a whole new crowd to form, and the situation plays out again.
Things overheard in a busy cafe
Masks make Venice Carnival unique, but they are not without their dangers. Consider this conversation I overheard from an American woman wearing a serious ‘sunburst’ style mask.
“You know how I’ve been wearing my mask for 2 months? Well, last week I fell asleep with it on and woke up with a pain like I-don’t-know-what on my forehead. Turns out it was a sore, but I figured ‘what the heck — it’s Carnival!’ Of course now I have to wear the mask all the time when I leave the hotel. The sore is hard and feels like plastic. Oh, and did I mention my cheeks? I knew they’d be red from where they sanded my face for the mask fitting, but now it looks like I’m getting rosacea. Anyway, I hear the tiramisu here is to die for!”
Catch a buzz
I flew into Venice from Düsseldorf, Germany, where Carnival celebrations are like a giant Halloween party except with scarier music. Germans like dressing up as characters from American sitcoms, movies, and, for reasons I haven’t figured out, American cops. You have the right to get Duffed!
I understood the party scene in Germany. But I don’t know what to make of the Carnival revelers here — so elegant, so sober. Just what do these people get from standing around, striking poses for tourists? I don’t know if I’m having fun. It all seems so contrived: You buy a mask. You walk around the square. You get a photo of Queen Victoria in drag. What’s to be gained by Carnival here? Certainly not a buzz.
Whereas Carnival in Germany is an inclusive celebration — that is, ‘everyone’ is in costume, drinking and socializing — Carnival in Venice is exclusionary. Obviously, you can try to engage people in conversation (most everyone speaks at least a little English), but there are no social activities (music / dancing / a communal wine fountain) to bring people together. I did, however, ask one masked king if he made his own costume. He lifted up a sock puppet hidden behind his cape and “meowed” at me.
As someone who enjoys exploring blind alleyways, Venice is one of the most interesting cities I’ve ever been to. And yet, when you step out and look at how most tourists interact, it begins to take on the aspect of something like a Disney meet-and-greet, except neither side is interested in getting beyond “buon giorno” and “grazie.” You get in, get your picture, and bounce.
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C Noah Pelletier
C. Noah Pelletier is working on a series of essays about growing up in the American South, marrying young, and living abroad. Having spent two years in China, he has traveled extensively throughout South East Asia. A native of North Carolina, Noah now resides in Germany with his wife, where they have once again come to terms with metal cutlery. Follow him @flyingknuckle.