Sitges, Spain is a small town that lies on the ocean about 30 minutes outside of Barcelona. Every February, 300,000 people gather in the streets to celebrate Carnival — known in the United States as Mardi Gras.
When I found myself standing in a sea of drag queens, costumes and glitter below the streets of Barcelona waiting to catch a train to this seaside town, I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was that it was a Sunday night and I had to be back in Barcelona by 10 a.m. the following morning for class, as did the friends I was traveling with. At first, we boarded the wrong train — the gray line that doesn’t stop in Sitges. We needed the pink or purple lines, both aptly fitting for the colors of Carnival. We disembarked at the first possible station into another crowd of masked spectators. I wasn’t wearing a costume. Just a metallic dress and a lot of glitter. I felt as though I had stepped into “Hocus Pocus,” only it was 60 degrees in Spanish February.
Carnival is traditionally a Catholic holiday held the week preceding Lent, during which many people give something up in order to demonstrate their faith during the period between Jesus’ death and resurrection on Easter Sunday. Many of the traditions likened to Carnival — including masks, masquerades and parades — debuted in medieval Italy and have carried a particular nostalgia into the celebrations of today. Nearly every European and South American country holds a parade on (at least) the final day of the week, which is always a Tuesday. The United States hold their own version of the spectacle derived from the French tradition, known as Mardi Gras, the most famous celebration belonging to French and Spanish settled New Orleans.
I had never attended any sort of Carnival parade even in the States and had no idea what to expect from this small town outside of Barcelona where over 300,000 people were supposed to be gathering on a Sunday night. After following the costumes and boarding the right train, all we could do was wait. After about 30 minutes of weaving through towns, the wigs and the glittery jackets began to stir, finally standing and crowding the aisles as they waited to disembark, marking our stop. If it weren’t for the people in costume, we would have never found our destination. No one announced the stops. No one really said anything that didn’t involve slurred words in a range of unintelligible languages. We had been waiting to get off the train to open our own bottles of Cava.
Drinking and otherwise indulging are very important parts of Carnival, evident by the lavish parade we witnessed. Glitter, dancing, glitter, peacock feathers, glitter, Madonna, glitter, drinking, glitter, rich cakes, glitter, fire and more glitter filled the route. The performers held drinks as they danced and shouted at the crowd. One of the floats included a bar in the center of it, displaying different varieties of Spanish whiskey. Each float had their own set of high-powered speakers blasting music particular to their theme, the majority involving Spanish salsa or traditional top 40. Except for the one German float with lederhosen and German drinking songs.
People dressed however they wanted, no shame, no fear of societal judgment. More than once I heard a mother explaining the tall, fabulous man in a dress standing beside them to her child without the negative words often associated with the transgender community. Worlds crossed in a mess of glitter and music and over all debauchery, and none of it actually mattered. People were just people and that’s what mattered.
We stood watching the parade from our arrival until the last float inched by. The route ran along the oceanfront until it curved up into the hills of the town and disappeared beyond the police parameter set up to funnel the crowd to the proper streets. Upon its completion, we stood there for a few moments, quiet, just listening to everything around us. The families began to disburse, headed either for their flats or the trains that carted them in. The younger generation dissipated among the different side-streets where the bars and clubs began to open, marked by the different styles of music floating down from the hills. We weren’t the only people still standing there by any means. Others had stayed, too, talking about their next moves, waiting for someone to break through the grates — meant to separate spectators and performers — in order to sit in the sand of the beach.
The night was just starting. Only the rest of Carnival is a blur of beautiful drag queens, glitter, music and masked people that couldn’t expire at midnight. It doesn’t expire until Wednesday morning when everyone wakes up and goes on with their lives, masks and costumes stowed for the next celebration, waiting for those few nights a year where costumes disguise the lines we have drawn between different gender communities and all people are finally just people.