A Malta carnival testimonial by Pauline Lephew
Today I can safely say that I have experienced one of the coolest things of my life. I arrived in Malta with my husband 3 month ago and, from the beginning, I had been looking forward to the Maltese carnival. I have always enjoyed taking pictures and decided to spend this special moment on a date with my camera. I am a crowd lover, an event follower, an amateur photographer. I have been up and down Paris demonstrations, climbed phone booth and bus stops for the perfect shot, used my strength extensively walking 14 km in one day.
Today, I remembered those experiences, put on comfy shoes and jumped on the boat to Valletta. I had a Sinus infection, a legit headache and no attraction to loud, blasting, repetitive music. After, the usual climb to the centre of the capital, my mood had drastically changed. Colours and costumes were starting to blast and, after all, life is what you make of it.
A newly acquired huge smile on my face, eyes sparkling from wonder and a full-blown desire to discover, I entered the main streets of the city. From the square I saw my first float. I had never been to a carnival before, and although I had documented myself and watched a couple of pictures of the Maltese tradition, I had really no idea what to expect. Getting closer, I quickly glanced on both sides and couldn’t believe what I was witnessing.
There were vivid, bright, multicoloured, huge, majestic floats everywhere. The streets were buzzing with people, joy was on every face. There were kids running in pretty costumes smiling ear to ear, families walking up and down the streets, and colours, colours, colours.
I had never thought I would ever get to see that many dragons and unicorns in my entire life. As I was going up the street toward the end of it, I was getting more amazed by the richness of the floats. I had read previously that building floats is a Maltese art passed by families, a tradition that has been going on since the fifteen hundreds. Neither was I expecting something that extraordinary, nor could I process what I was seeing at that time. Each float has a theme, which you can quickly guess by looking at the rich decors. What I didn’t understand as fast, is that the colourful people that walk around “belong” to these themes. As I was taking a picture of a group of joyful Nefertiti, I remember thinking to myself that these ladies were smart to coordinate their costumes and that it was creating a beautiful unity. A few meters up the road, I saw an Egyptian-themed float and understood the trick.
After my journey in Egypt, there was a chess float, a pirate one, one with dragons, another with a mermaid, and so one. I passed by a Maltese knight, a gentleman with a castle on his back, the queen of hearts, an old wizard, a lady with the Eiffel Tower, a group of young Japanese geishas.
As I was taking pictures, I would always mime a thank you with my lips in address of my model, as they couldn’t hear me in the congested streets. I was surprised by how open to being photographed people were, how nice they would be to me, how willing they were to smile at a stranger. My favourite pictures are often the ones where the subject is unaware of being shoot, but these were hard to take as people were almost looking forward to being immortalised in their fantastic costumes.
The weather was nothing extraordinary, a grey sky that quickly turned into a light rain, and many would have expected the mood to be accordingly. Not distressed by a few drops, participants were, on the contrary, bringing the spirit up by dancing, cheering, smiling, posing, drinking, laughing, chatting.
Many were sharing a beer with their friends, waiting for the parade to start moving. Kids were going to and fro the defile, waving at the characters, taking pictures along their side, enjoying a cotton candy or a cookie.
The whole street smelled like popcorn, caramel, crepes, and sugar. You couldn’t hear one another, would lose your friends if you stopped holding their hand, could get abducted by the masses in a heartbeat. Yet, I was surprised by the simplicity and the friendliness of people. Even though adults were having a good time, they paid much attention to their kids. I have seen so many fathers carrying baby dragons, baby knights, baby koalas, baby bees or baby harlequins that it has given me faith back in fathers being able to be family man.
The few drizzling drops were just enough time for me to go grab a coffee and some ibuprofen. Once I came back out of a surreal McDonald`s packed with fairies, pirates and pharaohs, the night had fallen. While wondering whether to go home or not, I saw from the far and additional float that I hadn’t noticed before. It pictured the infamous Ben and Jerry, the mouse finally caught by the cat and ready to be eaten. Lights were on, the float was glowing, and the spirit was all different. The float was slowly moving towards me and the parade had started.
I walked towards St. George square, remembering that I’d seen something mentioned about it. A few people were sitting in the bleachers, but most were packed along the barriers, looking at dancers finally showing their rehearsed routine in front of Buckingham Palace. People were in a friendly atmosphere, climbing trees and benches, shooting for the best possible view.
As I was watching myself, a young couple asked if I could take a picture of them with an old costumed man. As I proceeded, he asked where I was from and wondered if he could get a shot with me too. He had this colourful Hawaiian shirt on and the best 70+ smile I had ever seen. He was part of the official organization and shook more hands in a minute that I know people on the island. Looking back at it, it’s amazing how such a small rock has so many cultural and traditional events. It seemed that all 400 000 Maltese were in the streets last night. And those narrow little aisles were way beyond crammed. If you ever wondered how those Arriva King Long bus make it through the winding roads, try with a float! They are wide, tall, imposing, heavy, and slow. In the front, they are pulled by a tractor on which sits the DJ, blowing up music. It gave me the impression that every tractor in Gozo had made it to Valletta to be part of the festive occasion.
A little kid in a red costume – maybe three or four years old – summed of the spirit of this day for me. As a float was passing by at night, he had his head up, his eyes opened in amazement, his jaw dropping in astonishment. I will always remember what his facial expression conveyed that day, and always try to see those things through children’s eyes.
There was plenty of embroideries, feathers, sparkles, lights, confetti, xxl eyelashes, and camera flashes. I passed by little red riding hood on her daddy’s shoulders and a crocodile in a pushchair. Groups of teens were singing last summer hits in sync with the floats, male teenagers were cross-dressing, baby girls became princesses and boys superheroes. It seems that, for one night, it became acceptable to forget decorum and etiquette and rejoice in lightheartedness, happiness and buoyancy. And although it was a little wild, it was all about family, as the Maltese do best.
To see Malta’s carnival pictures, click here