Tuesday, March 4, 2014


Unlike the one-day (or, if you're in New Orleans, the one-week) celebration of Mardi Gras in the United States, in France the parades and festivities take place any time during the period that stretches from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday. There was a big parade yesterday in Pau, when the effigy of Sent Pançard was paraded through the streets along with Sent Porquin (the Holy Pig!), but the weather was fairly crappy and although I had the day off, standing in the milling crowds in the pouring rain wasn't so appealing. But the Biarnés Carnival in Pau is one of the biggest in the Aquitaine region, and as a journalist/blogger/travel writer (in my dreams) I probably should have made the effort, rain or no rain. Sent Pançard, after embodying all of the sins of humanity during the carnaval period, will be burned at the stake on Mardi Gras - or at least they'll attempt to do so, because he escapes every year - and humanity will be purified for the Lenten period of fasting and penance. Which I don't think many people pay much attention to any more, here in this once very Catholic country, and personally I don't plan on giving up anything this year. The weeks of dorm life ahead of me will be penance enough for any sins I have committed recently.

A few weeks ago, Florence took me to the last day of le Carnaval de Géronce, which has been going on since the Middle Ages. San Pançar, the local incarnation of Sent Pançard, isn't a porky portly dissipated king with a crown tilted on his inebriated forehead. San Pançar has been represented since 2000 by a beret-wearing big-nosed Béarnais named "Batistou Païdetouts" (Baptiste Père de tous, or "Baptiste, everyone's father"). He's got a starring role in the parade of flower-bedecked floats that have been the tradition in this town since the 1950s.

This year he was wearing ski gear, in honor of the French teams competing at Sochi (or "Sotchi" as spelled in the French media). France hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924 at Chamonix and did fairly well this year, taking several medals in the cross-country and downhill skiing categories, though in one of the downhill events the French athlete in first place was edged out at the very last minute when an American skier completed his run just one second faster. I was eating lunch with the Bergeras while we were watching the live feed from Russia, and there was a bit of friendly international name-calling around the table when the final results were posted.

Although I knew that everyone gets disguised in some way for the parade, I was a bit startled to see so many of the disguises involving blackface. Or redface, or yellowface, or a weird orangeface that was supposed to represent people from Mexico. I'm not sure why the blackfaced women with robes and headwraps of kente cloth, black dolls tucked into their sashes, made me feel uncomfortable. But I didn't really enjoy watching that group march by, or the several bunches of fake Indians in fringes and feathers and red-smeared faces, or the yellow-painted women in polyester cheongsam, or the band of young men with orange paint on their cheeks, each with a droopy black bigote retorcido adorning their upper lip, straw sombreros on their heads and ragged ponchos over their shoulders. Maybe it's because of all of the recent argument over using the team name "Redskins" or the history of the United States and racism, or maybe I'm just too uptight and need to relax and get into the spirit of the event and not worry about political correctness, especially since the politics of the country I'm currently living in aren't what I grew up with. This is not, however, one of the more racially diversified areas of France; I think I can count the number of non-white people I've seen in the last six months on one hand.

There were people with green paint on their faces (aliens) or with blue paint (Smurfs) and even a few with bright gold faces and round gold-foil costumes (Ferrero Rocher chocolates). Characters from the comics were well represented, from Spongebob to Obelix (Astérix's strongman companion), and there were a few people in the masks and medieval outfits you might see at the Carnevale di Venezia. A set of mustard and ketchup squeeze bottles strolled by, and then a young man dressed as a pumpkin (I think) with two onions and a carrot at the end of a string on a pole. Although a family-oriented celebration - the dancing and drinking would start later in the evening - there were not a few frankly phallic costumes, including a handful of men dressed as bananas with large penises, and more men with huge fake breasts. There were also at least half a dozen men in cow costumes with prominent udders but if this is something sexually suggestive for the Béarnais then I don't really want to find out more, thank you very much.

There were only two dozen or so floats, but Florence said that the various community and/or business-supported groups work on them for months ahead of time. The festival has expanded from the village of Géronce over time, and now includes the other villages that run like a string of Mardi Gras beads tossed from a New Orleans float along the side of the valley of Josbaig: Orin, Saint Goin, Geüs, Aren, and Préchacq. When we arrived, the parade had formed up in Géronce and we walked ahead of it to the next town where we met Nathalie and Frédéric and Clément, and eventually several other people from the extended Bergeras family, and waited for the floats to rumble by.

There were no strings of plastic beads or candy thrown from these floats, but there were vendors walking ahead of the parade with carts, selling fortunately not too loud air horns, along with balloons, plus bags of confetti and cans of silly string. Sometimes the people on the floats had the confetti and silly string, and other times the children in the crowd sprayed the silly string on the people in the parade. The younger children quickly ran out of confetti, and started scooping it up from the ground to toss it at each other and the passers-by.

The last float went by, and then people either walked on behind it, in costume or not, following the parade to the next village, or waited chatting and visiting until it came back in the other direction. More friends and family members showed up, and while everyone was catching up on gossip I went over to the side of the road to sit on the stone wall. A group of older people sitting on the wall next to me were talking to each other in Béarnais, and I caught a phrase or two that I understood, but not more than that. Helium balloons were being accidentally or deliberately set free, and all around me winged unicorns took to the air, dolphins went swimming towards the clouds, and superheroes demonstrated actual superpowers.

When the sun came out it was nice and warm, but the wind had a bite and I did not envy some of the people in the skimpier costumes, though the underwear-clad rugby cheerleader team of young men seemed to be feeling no pain after visiting some of the refreshment booths. The usual crêpes, gaufres, and barbe à papa stands were selling sweets, and there was probably hot wine along with the coffee for sale, but it was getting cold and late and there was the long walk back to the car, so we left along with the last half of the parade floats as they retraced their route towards Géronce. We ended up walking beside one of the floats for a while, and I got a double handful of confetti down the front and back of my sweater and in my hair and although I tried to shake it all out before getting in the car I couldn't get it all without undressing. We were sweeping up multicolored dots of paper for days.

Oliat is the onion soup traditionally served at the festival in Pau. To make oliat, peel and smash a head of garlic and chop two onions, then cook them in a spoonful of duck fat until they're soft and golden. Add salt and pepper and thyme, and two litres of hot water. Simmer for 15 minutes. Separate three eggs and beat the whites, then stir them into the soup and let cook until the whites are set. Whisk the yolks in a large tureen and pour the hot soup over, whisking constantly. Serve right away to four or five people who are chilled and hungry after standing in the cold wind to watch the parade go by.

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