My Carnival Experience As An Expat In Brazil - plus55


Virginie Montoneri tells her experience during Mocidade Alegre's parade, in São Paulo
Brazil Carnival 2017
Translation by Christine Bootes

There are many different options to experience Carnival. We’ve got blocos, or street parties, that blend music, costumes (without being too over the top), beer – lots of beer – and locals that dance and sing (they know the words to all songs, it’s amazing).

And then, of course, there are the Samba Schools. Certainly, Rio’s school is the most famous, but Sao Paulo also has its Sambódromo with competition between different Samba schools.

In 2014, we decided to march with the Mocidade Alegre school, which we loved. And this year, the choice wasn’t so complicated: Mocidade or bust!

The preparations

Everything starts after the month of November. Costumes must be reserved, and the ensaios (or rehearsals – which are advised but not mandatory) are frequently held. We had one rehearsal at the Sambódromo, and one at the school itself. While the official goal is to learn both the song and the choreography, it’s also important to get to know others sporting the same costumes as you. Each group (or ala, in Portuguese) has a specific place during the parade.

They’ve even created an ala group on WhatsApp to give out information and advice – and let me just say, the Brazilians and WhatsApp have a great love story, with 300 or so messages each day and constant selfies … help!

D-Day approaches. Several days before, we get our official costumes. Worrying that I might not have everything needed for my costume, I decide to try it on in my room ahead of time. I managed to put on the whole ensemble, fix the things on my shoulders, and then the part that fits underneath, and then I say to myself, “Okay, I’ll just take a quick photo.”

Don’t laugh too much, but I couldn’t leave my room to grab my phone because the costume even wouldn’t fit through the doorway!

And then, suddenly, we all wake up one morning saying to ourselves: “It’s tonight!”

The parade

Two options: either you arrive at the Sambódromo by your own means and join your group, or you go to the school first and board a bus headed to the Sambódromo. We opted for this second choice, because the Carnival atmosphere starts as soon as everyone piles into the bus. Imagine fifty or so buses following one another, all packed with people in costumes, and no one even bats an eye at having feather boas.

Having arrived at the Sambódromo, you find yourself at the Pre-concentration (10:30 pm, since the start of the parade is planned for 0:40 am!), and you need to put on the rest of your costume (i.e. the helmet, that thing for your shoulders, etc), and drink one last cup of water.

Then it’s time for the Concentration. We start putting our groups together, seven people per row, everyone trying to move forward calmly with those in charge of our ala verifying that each costume is perfect: no poorly positioned belts, no missing pieces. This year, our ala was just in front of the Baianas group, women who are a bit older and wearing sumptuous, enormous dresses – in fact, they can only fit four people in per row – and I spend my time at Concentration admiring them, in awe of their perfect alignment.

And then, we start moving forward. The president of the school gives a short speech to motivate everyone, thanks the volunteers, and then – it begins! We start to sing our first song, start to dance. From that moment on, there are no more questions about taking photos. The phones must be hidden as much as possible beneath the costumes. And so we start to advance, moving forward into the middle of the parking lot where enormous floats are stored.

We glide forward in tightly aligned rows of seven, always singing and dancing, and start to see the lights of the Avenue. Brazilians also call this the Sambódromo Avenue, and it’s brightly lit – it feels as though it were daylight. We see the audience on the bleachers, and everyone is emotional: full of happiness, joy, positivity – it’s difficult to find the right words to describe it.

And meanwhile, we don’t stop singing, we don’t stop moving, not even for a second, and we don’t forget to glance right and left to make sure that our row stays aligned. And yes, everything is being judged.

Judges are placed throughout the Avenida in small towers and note everything: the costumes, the singing, the choreography, the alignment of the row, and whether or not the ala respects the allotted time to cover the 500m of the Avenida – no more than 65 minutes, otherwise there are penalties. And then, once we’ve found ourselves at the end of the Avenida, we say to ourselves: “Already?”

After the parade

The end of the show is kind of a nightmare because everyone – and by everyone, I mean between 2,500 and 3,000 people per school – arrives at the end of the Avenida in a parking lot that isn’t very large. And so you find yourself lost in a soft blend of colors, shapes, glitter, feathers – it’s superb!

Then we take the buses back to the school. This year, since we marched fairly early, we didn’t feel like going back to the school directly. And there we find ourselves at the Carnival after-party, where others from our ala have already arrived.

Someone opens a car door, puts on the music, we start to drink, and then we’re already on our second round! Tireless. Brazilians are tireless.

The results of the parade are published on Tuesday afternoon. And if Mocidade Alegre, our school, makes it into the first five, we’ll march again next Saturday for the parade championship. We’re crossing our fingers that we’ll get to relive this all! And then, we catch ourselves dreaming about what the celebration might be like if our school were to win, because it celebrates its fiftieth birthday, its Golden Jubilee, this year. Because of course, we will head back to the school to witness the results!