In the above photo, the mayor of Dunkirk is tossing shrink-wrapped fish out of the window of town hall, into a cheering crowd of intoxicated, disguised Dunkerquois (and their friends). As far as I know, fish-tossing is an exclusively Northern France tradition. Out of the whole weekend in Dunkirk celebrating Carnaval, this was the moment when I realized that I was seeing something I would never see anywhere else in the world.
A little background: my housemate Dana works at the Language Resource Center at the university where she also teaches English. The director of that center invites all the lecteurs who work with him to Dunkirk every year to experience Carnaval with his family and friends. His mother has a huge and beautiful house where everyone gets a bed, and his sister’s family hosts a party (une chapelle) before the ball. Because there were extra spots, Dana invited Laura and I to come with them!
The unlucky few who had to take the train (me, Laura, Dana, and Jeff) left at around 3 PM, to arrive in Dunkirk around 5 PM. We had some preparatory Ruby on the train.
When we arrived at the house where the pre-party would be, we donned our costumes and put on make up (after a last minute run to the costume store, which was teeming with shoppers).
Here are some before and after pictures.
Our man friends were required to respect the Dunkirk fishing village tradition of men dressing like women for Carnaval. As the story goes, Carnaval was a celebration before all the fishermen went out to sea for a very long time, and they disguised themselves as women to avoid having to go. We decided to dress as men in solidarity. A trip to the Ressourcerie in Val before leaving was all we needed to acquire 50 cent crazy ties and a 6 euro blazer. Our artistic lectrice friend did all the makeup.
The chapelle was full of dancing and eating (croque monsieur, yum) and drinking and merriment. There were a large dog and several small children running around, which made it sometimes hazardous to be on the dance floor, but everyone had a blast. I was surprised to see some teachers from my school amongst the family friends of our host’s sister! Turns out, his sister’s husband is one of the teacher’s brother. Crazy coincidence, crazy small world…
Around midnight, we left for the bal de Dunkerque, which was in the exposition hall of the town.
As you can see, it was quite the party! Everyone was dressed up. Like Halloween plus.
Here we are, sweaty and tired mid-ball!
We were dancing in one of the rooms when suddenly a different tune started to play, and everyone linked arms and started walking around a large centerpiece in the middle. We got caught in the crowd so we turned with the rest of them, and almost got knocked over and trampled in the fray! Eventually we got out and watched. This tradition is called le rigodon, and it happens at every carnaval.
We left the ball at the respectable hour of 4:30 AM, returning home to eat onion soup (another tradition) and sleep for a few hours. 1 PM was the official wake up time on Sunday, and we had a feast of meats and patés and cheese and bread and nutella and jam. And lots of coffee. Then, we took to the streets to see the daytime festivities.
The streets were covered in costumed people. There were thousands of them, just as there had been at the ball. We were a little more conspicuous this time, having not re-donned our smoky, sweaty costumes from the night before. Touristes!
We also walked by the port, which was beautiful. The air was full of the sea and crisper and cleaner than air I’d breathed in other parts of France. It brought me to tears with how homey it felt.
Every so often, I have a weekend that reminds me why I came here. Carnaval was a huge moment of “I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else in the world right now,” and that is one of my favorite feelings. I couldn’t help but grin stupidly in the crowd as I reveled in the ambiance, and tried not to get hit by a fish.