Le Carnaval de Dunkerque

The reason I love the north of France (and the reason that explains why I fit in so well, perhaps) is that while certain other regions of France have the reputation of being cold or snooty, the north’s reputation is just to not give one solitary fuck.

This attitude culminates in the early months of the year when Carnaval season begins. In other countries you might imagine scantily-clad and dangerously curvaceous samba dancers sashaying down the street, but in the north of France it’s a lot of cross-dressing, neon and enough feather boas that you would assume there would be no birds left in the country. Here’s an example of the costumes:


The tradition in the olden days was that the fishermen dressed up and, since they were poor, couldn’t afford new clothes so simply wore their wives’ dresses. Now people wear whatever they want. Notice that blackface? Try seeing that as a foreigner. I always think France is a bit like living in the 70s. Drink-driving is perfectly acceptable, there’s strikes every two minutes, people have no concern about food hygeine (stop eating stuff that raw chicken has touched, it scares me) and….blackface. Here’s a photo of a poster taken that very day. It’s to raise money for lifeboats. Because, obviously.


 So, my Carnaval experience. One of the bars on my street was running buses to Dunkirk and back so we headed along there at 10 in morning. I reiterate. 10 in the morning. I was largely unprepared for the scene that greeted me. Everyone was dressed up and utterly wrecked, the standard costume for men seems to be a fur coat (with beer towels from bars sewn on it), neon tights and mini-dress and full-makeup. There was one man there who was so drunk he couldn’t stand up and was slumped against the wall. Again, 10 in the morning. The barmen were all dressed as sailors and one was out his dish. He tried to serve someone a jaeger bomb and put it at the very edge of the bar so that is was probably about half a millimetre actually on the bar. Naturally, physics prevailed and the glass fell to the floor. 2 minutes later, clearly having forgotten this incident, the barman jumped over the bar and right into the puddle he himself had created. Much like a Shakespearean tragedy, he couldn’t escape the fate he had created for himself and decked it a fucking belter. 2 minutes later he was back serving behind the bar (professional) and vomitted on one of the beer pumps (less professional).

We arrived in Dunkirk after a drunken, song-filled bus ride. I was only a couple of beers in at this point, so still had the mental capacity to learn a charming, traditional song. Here, in its entirety, is the translated version of the song:

willy, willy, willy, willy, come and play with my willy! Five minutes isn’t a long time and my willy will be happy

Upon arrival, we headed off to meet one of Clem’s friends. The tradition at carnaval is to go round people’s houses, have some scran and a couple of beverages and move on, it’s called chapelle. I think back in the day you could turn up at strangers’ houses and they’d welcome you in but now you really need to know someone. I had no idea what to expect at all and was a bit shy when I first went in. My shyness was quickly gone when I got chatting to the host’s dad, a burly and lovely gent, who found out I was Scottish and flung his arm round me, hauled me over to the kitchen and shouted to anyone that would listen “She’s Scottish! Get her rum! Get her a rollmop! Where is the rum??”. Living in Lille, being foreign is only occasionally interesting to anyone. There’s a lot of foreign students so no one really bothers. However, in Dunkirk everyone seemed super excited by it, to the point that at the last chapelle we arrived at, later in the day, I overheard someone say to his pal “did you hear there was a Scottish girl here?”.

After several rums, a guy whipped out a drum he’d brought with him and everyone started singing and jumping around. Obviously everyone but me knew the words so I was jumping about anyway, trying to pick up the lyrics as we went along. At one point, the host’s dad stopped everyone abruptly, turned to me and said “what’s the English for ‘boîte à caca’?”. Everyone turned to me and in my head and I was thinking “did he just say ‘shit box’? What if he said nothing like that, or it’s an expression? You can’t say ‘shit box’ to this man.” I finally said “j’ai aucune idée”(I have no idea). Not to be defeated, he simply placed ‘I have no idea’ into the song instead. Turns out he did say ‘shit box’, by the way.

One of the boys we were palling about with was a bus driver, so when we needed to head further into town he simply called one of his colleagues who diverted his bus and came by to pick us up. I can only imagine the stooshie that would be caused if you did that in glasgow. Like I said, the north does not give a fuck. If their bus is diverted to go and pick up a bunch of wrecked carnival-goers, one of whom will board the bus as a pirate in a 6ft cardboard ship then so be it. Walking through the streets to get to our nextchapelle I realised just how huge the event is. There’s folk of all ages everywhere across the town. They have a massive parade that everyone’s encouraged just to jump in and be part of, rather than watching from the sidelines. Watching the parade go by, I told the afore-mentioned pirate that it was my first carnaval and he just grabbed me and we ran into the parade. He ran right up to the band and basically just said, this is her first carnaval, can we walk with you? Here’s what that looked like:


At the last chapelle we went to, a man dressed up as Noddy and a man wearing a kilt with union jack boxers underneath told me it was tradition for a girl to basically kiss everyone. Since everyone was wrecked and since this is genuinely the kind of chat that French men hit out with to try and seduce you/trick you I was like “Oh! You kidders! But I won’t be fooled! You’d have to get up pretty early in the morning to fool this ol’ girl, let me tell you!”. My boyfriend (who I am at pains to point out was wearing a feather-trimmed pink stetson with a pink, plastic penis on a spring on the front of it) told me they were telling the truth and said that tradition stated I had to do it. For a moment I dramatically imagined what our lives would be like if we were drug addicts and he was pimping me out to keep that golden brown flowing. Then I remembered it’s not every day you get to pull Noddy.

Having spent the day inside, we missed a bit of the outdoor action that Dunkirk is so famous for. Like when the mayor throws fish out of the window to the thousands of revellers gathered below. Only joking. Surely that’s not a tradition. Yes. It is definitely is.

The outside action we did catch was the rigodon final which is where there’s a band playing traditional songs on a podium in the middle and everyone marches in circles around them. There’s lots of circles round them and the further in you are the more like a moshpit it gets. Everyone links arms and tries not to fall down/die. You’re all crushed together and it’s roasting so there’s actually a cloud of moisture visible above the crowd, where it meets the cold air above. There’s also one song where, at a certain point, everyone kneels down. It was amazing to see. Two seconds before this, I hadn’t been able to see anything but the guy in front of me’s back and suddenly, in waves, everyone just knelt. Writing this now, I realise it was exactly like dominoes falling but at the time I felt like we were the animals of the kingdom and we’d just seen Simba held up for the first time.


I feel a bit disloyal saying this but the whole day I kept thinking, this is brilliant, you could never have this is in Glasgow. Yes, Glasgow’s a brilliant and friendly place for a carnival but make it a day-long event where you’re allowed to drink in the street and it’s all going to end in tears. I have no idea how it works but there were genuinely no fights or bad feeling between folk. I saw drunk guys bang into strangers, spill their whole pint on them and for the person just to turn round and say “don’t worry, happens to us all. You having a good time?”. When people fell, everyone would just haul them back up again. I don’t know how large crowd + all day drinking doesn’t equal violence but well done, Dunkirk. See you next year!


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