People like to say that you either love or hate Carnaval. Either you are a free spirit who spends half the year counting down to the week when they get to cut loose or an uptight killjoy who probably should be living in São Paulo anyway. That’s more or less the official line as it was represented to me. But the terrible fact knocking around on the fringes of my consciousness is that I don’t love or hate Carnaval. I just feel kind of “meh” about it. It’s at times like these, not coincidentally, that I get the feeling that my youth is wasted on me.

This isn’t because I didn’t like the blocos I’ve gone to. I went to new blocos, traditional blocos, crowded ones, half-empty ones, most of them playing the marchinhas that got my heart racing back on the first day, and it was incredibly fun. But even the best moments on the best days – singing “Carinhoso” along with the crowd, seeing the sunset through showers of confetti, beholding the communion of the Sambódromo – just didn’t make me as happy as translating a long article, or reading a good book on a still, bright afternoon. I have been made to understand that this is some sort of profound failing of character. Continue reading


the secret of carnaval

Keep your pants on, everyone, I went to blocos besides Carmelitas and did have plenty of fun. And I’m not just saying that. After having Carnaval’d for nearly a week, now, I feel myself qualified to make sweeping pronouncements about it. Aren’t you excited?

First things first. The recipe for a good bloco, in my opinion, is almost insultingly simple: good music and people who want to enjoy it.

It sounds obvious, but so much of Carnaval ignores that rule. I can’t for the life of me see why people go to the blocos that are known – famous, even – for being painfully crowded. (What’s up, Bola Preta?) That’s why the several billion gringos who flooded the Aterro on Monday (me proudly among them) loved Sargento Pimenta so much.

I study marchinhas de Carnaval, so I’m a bit of an exception. I had even more fun at Sassaricando and the Trapiche Gamboa ball and Gigantes da Lira, since they’re pretty much the high temple of marchinhas originally recorded by Orlando Silva, Carmen Miranda, even dear old Chico Alves. When Alfredo Del Penho, dressed regally in a sparkly yellow bikini at Sassaricando, introduced the top “marchinha que vocês  nunca ouviram falar” and it was Cidade Mulher, which I not only know but know all the words to and freaking love, my Carnaval was already made.

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vamos rir mais

What does Ash Wednesday mean, anyway? On the bus uptown today, I was looking for signs that some sort of air of responsibility might have descended on Rio once more. Would people be hanging their heads, squinting hungover against the sun? Would everyone still be glittery? But things looked disappointingly normal. A few more people than usual on the beach, maybe; there was still confetti in the cracks in the cobblestones despite the street sweepers’ best efforts; and I spotted one feathered hat stuck impressively high in a tree. Apart from that, business as usual. Some people on the beach, othersjoggingaround the Lagoa, people wearing sundresses and shorts and tank tops or sweating in suits like they do any sun-drunk business day of the week.

But business as usual in Riode Janeiro, it occurred to me, is pretty damn Carnavalesque already. “Vamos rir mais,” read one abandoned fan lying on the aterro, which struck me as really unnecessary. I’m not saying that the city is all sunshine and joy; I did live here for half a year, after all, and it takes a healthy dose of willful ignorance to buy into the tourist brochure. But, as cities go, Rio needs laughter much, much less than others. Detroit could really use some more laughter. Berlin could use some more laughter. London. Most of Europe, for that matter. Even Buenos Aires, with its crowds of besuited neurotic porteños irritated by the comparsas. “Son realmente muy alegres los brasileros,” said the taxi driver when he was taking me to the airport. “Tenemos que ser así.” And then he started singing that Charly Garcia song. “La alegría no es sólo brasilera, no, mi amor.” Continue reading

the greek and the fairy

There’s nothing quite like the solitude of being the only person on the bus wearing a costume.

I’ll just fess up now – on Friday, that was me. If you happened to be an upright carioca commuter on your way to Glória that morning, you were faced with the eternal Carnaval question: how to react.  Do you stare? Do you comment? Do you look into the middle distance?

Personally, I found it horrifying. I had to go by the office on my way to a bloco, so I figured I’d cut out the clothes change and go in full regalia: a short white tunic with a gold sash, nothing particularly scandalous. But being the only reveler in sight will do strange things to your head. As the bus crawled along and I saw exactly zero costumed people in block after block, I realized what was happening. Carnaval was the most elaborate prank in the history of mankind, all designed to make me dress up like an idiot for all the cariocas to laugh at me. Any minute they were going to reveal the elaborate ruse. I maintained my dignity as best I could. It is absolutely normal for me to be dressed in a toga. I was the most stately Greek on the public transit system that day.

“I am the only costumed person in all of Rio de Janeiro,” I pronounced solemnly to my boss when I got into the piauí office.

“No, you aren’t,” he said comfortingly. “I saw a six-year-old girl dressed up as a fairy on the way over here. It’s you and her.” Continue reading

eu, velhinha

This is going to be the most boring Carnaval dispatch. After a day that started with an improvised wine cocktail on a northbound bus and ended the next morning with on the steps of the state legislature building, my hangover and I mutually decided to spend a day fitfully napping and recovering. This seems like further dismaying proof of the fact that I am legally 20 but philosophically and internally somewhere around 85 years old. Today, though, I embraced my senior citizenship and hid myself at the back of the house. But, being within spitting distance of the beach – and the velocity of bodily fluids is not an irrelevant metaphor – I soon realized that the party was going to find me.

One of the guys who lives on the ground floor was “doidão já” and throwing a really impressive midafternoon shindig. His window faces the street, and passersby soon started inviting themselves in. There is a doorman, of course, but the neighbor’s new friends would whistle or knock on the gate and, having obtained the host’s gleeful approval, were let in. This was okay until they all started peeing in the garage. Which is, I believe, and let me just consult Emily Post on this one, not the recommended etiquette when one has just met one’s host.

Public urination is one of the things that the municipal police tries to crack down on during Carnaval; I read in the paper that over 700 people had been arrested (a very small fraction being women) since the start of the festivities. Given that there were 2.2 million people at the Cordão da Bola Preta alone and Avenida Rio Branco is going to smell like a gas station restroom for the next five years or so, either those 700 people had massively full bladders and rampaged across the city or police enforcement is not 100% in this respect. It wouldn’t have helped in our case, though, because the garage isn’t exactly public property. Continue reading

don’t tell anyone

Carnaval is the art of making you feel that you’re perpetually missing out. That horrible crowded bloco you showed up on time for was really great two hours ago; while you were searching in vain for a concentração in Ipanema, there was a great new bloco starting in Laranjeiras. If you buy into it all, you’ll spend the whole week racing around the city from bloco to bloco in vain, snatching at butterflies.

In this respect, successful Carnaval itinerary-making seems remarkably akin to discovering indie bands. Once I spent an entire afternoon trying to explain to my dad the fine and aggravating differences between “indie” and “alternative” and “alt” and God knows what else, with limited success and much arguing. What it tends to boil down to is being able to like a band before everyone else and then complaining about how mainstream it is. It takes the edge off your satisfaction if you jump on the bandwagon too late, or if the bandwagon never really gets going; nobody gets cred for liking an awful garage band that never takes off.

Blocos are just like that. They need people to function, but if they’re at all good they’re all fated to reach that terrible tipping point. Then it’s officially cheio demais, you can no longer hear the band, and you’re sweating and pressed between two Smurfs.

This, in the end, seems to be the secret of Carnaval: it would be great if not for the people.

why are we pushing, again?

I know, I know, they warned me not to go to the blocos alone. And I wasn’t; I thought I’d meet up with some friends midway through the Carmelitas. It’s Santa Teresa, all narrow little streets, and a traditional bloco to boot! How bad could it be, anyway?

Very, very bad, is the answer.

Carnaval is no joke if you’re a lone girl. At first I dodged the grabbing and the “oi gata”s and everything else, but things got worse as the bloco went on. I have never wanted a Y chromosome so badly. Making eye contact apparently is the same thing as singing, “Voulezvous coucher avec moi?” Soon I felt as though my mouth were under siege. The low point was probably when a freckled guy in a Wando wig started diving at my face and insisting amorously that I’d been looking at him – while I was trying to give directions to a friend over the phone. That’s what you call persistence. As I shielded my lips from Wando, I pondered wearing a Jason mask in all the next blocos.

But Don Juans aside, something seemed off about the bloco. When I got up the slope, I looked around to see if anyone looked as though they were having fun. In front of the bloco, people walked sort of aimlessly, squinting into the sun; on the sidewalks, people watched the masses go by with about the same excitement that I reserve for watching dough rise. I figured that I was in the wrong part of the bloco – I couldn’t hear the music at all, for one thing – so I waited on the side until the sound car got within striking distance and then sidestepped my way into the crowd.

An uninformed tourist at Carnaval might be forgiven for thinking that samba is danced by shoving.  At least at the Carmelitas, I didn’t see anyone, least of all me, managing to samba. It was all pushing. As I was jostled from side to side and arms gently rammed into my back, I couldn’t help but wonder where everyone was going in such a hurry. Carnaval’s not a race, is it? Or maybe it is and nobody told me. Continue reading