It seems to be a Tuesday as every Tuesday in the Portuguese mountain village; But that is until dusk falls. Today, on this special Tuesday in February, you hear odd human voices in the evening darkness.
The penny drops when they come in: of course! The carnival! But perhaps not so ‘of course’ for Western European eyes as they are suffering from a severe culture shock. Firstly, we can’t see any faces. Yes, that’s because of the masks you will probably think, plain old masks. Well, indeed the faces are covered with several kinds of fabric: stockings, socks, and scarves change the carnival celebrators into lugubrious looking, faceless characters. Their clothes mostly consist of boiler suits and caps or scarves on their heads. That is, if they are not dressed up as women. In that case they wear flaunting dresses as well as actual overalls. Underneath their clothes, the ‘ladies’ are all equally sensuously shaped, although without much sense of differentiation. Almost all carnival celebrators wear socks on their hands. It reminds me of a story my grandfather once told me about how people would dress up in such a way that they were unrecognisable in the old days when he celebrated carnival. It must have been the same as this.
I am not very good in linking cause and effect but because of the masks, and perhaps also because of the socks on their hands, nobody was drinking. And apart from the sound of shuffling feet over the floor, the characters are silent. It must be to prevent themselves from giving themselves away. Everybody must know everybody around here. People are dancing. Mainly the ‘ladies’ who present themselves to the men in the audience using a very unsubtle type of body language. The speechless language barrier is high enough to prevent people from running away: including me. The masculine force that sweeps me through the room confirms the thought that this man in drag might well is having the best night ever; unlike me.
And the concept of ‘mystery’ works. The following day, when you greet your neighbour like you always do, you wonder in the back of your mind…
Because of the silent, slow but distinctly moving, faceless characters, the event reminds me of Ensor although in his case masks are the centre of attention. I come to the conclusion that there are no dressed up women here. Realizing that a dozen blunt shepherds are sensually and stupidly moving around as if they were dancing makes the show even more bizarre.
I can hear the only woman that is dressed up before I can see her. A horrid scream penetrates the café and when the doors swing open, another party of mummies in boiler suits appears, holding a small coffin on their shoulders. The woman walks behind the coffin. I should describe this in another way.
-Firstly, this female character is played by a beautiful young girl of about seventeen years old. – Her face is, unlike other faces, visible – She is all dressed in black with a scarf over her head.
-Her way of moving cannot be called walking as her impression of mourning resembles the well-known TV footage of the way Arabic women mourn when a disaster has happened in the East and. The woman screams like a pig and swoons every two steps only to be brought to her senses again by the crows around the coffin. Two steps further she faints again. Because of the fact that the coffin hasn’t got a lid, the doll inside is visible. People in the audience take turns to throw red roses to the coffin while the girl, without much sense of timing, remains screaming her head off. The many bystanders that came into the café along with the procession – dressed in normal clothes, like us – laugh effusively while lavishly spreading a white powder that seems more magical than it actually is. When crossing the language barrier it appears to be flour, just plain flour.
Perhaps the shock effect plays a part in this, but the impact of this show, to me, exceeds all the carnival celebrations I had ever known consisting of raden van elf, carnival hits, and farmer’s bands. The satanic procession departs soon – after all, no need to buy a round of drinks – and leaves the café to a few Dutchmen and ‘the silent of Portugal’.
The following day, all over the village white ‘flour stains’ can be found being the only reminder of what, in retrospect, seems to be an experience from a dream. But I have had that feeling more often after carnival!
In an exhibition in the beautiful International Carnival and Mask Museum in Binche, Belgium, I saw fantastic masks and clothes from Poland, Austria, Italy etc. All from mountain areas!
In Trentino in Italy, the prince of Carnival is bizarrely dressed up like a traveller who warns the villagers that spring is coming.
Of course this reminded me of the carnival in Portugal.
Could it be the isolation that keeps people living in mountain areas from being influenced from the outside? Is that the reason they are so attached to ancient rituals? Or could the mystery of the mountains be the reason that people are more open to the supernatural?
And wasn’t that the case in the Peel once?
And wouldn’t it be possible to reintroduce that, state-aided by the forest commission?
Obviously it is possible in the case of the extinct Kempic long-tailed sheep! I rest my case!

Someren, the Netherlands 7 December 1998
Toon Maas



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