“That guy just threw confetti in your hair,” hisses Kate as I lower the camera and walk away from the enormous, primary-coloured float that I was shooting. I grin at her, not bothering to shake it out. “I know.”
We’re at Acireale Carnival, also known as ‘Il Più Bel Carnevale di Sicilia’ (the best carnival in Sicily). From what I’ve seen they’ve got a fair claim to the title. Catania, despite being a big city, doesn’t have anything like this. Today is a display of allegorical floats, enormous mechanised structures made of papier maché and covered in flashing lights, blaring music from giant speakers. On other days there might be floral floats or displays of children’s marching bands. More than anything, though, there’s a sense of fun and silliness. Bags of confetti are sold at 50-metre intervals along the roadside, along with silly string, masks and wigs. Kate and I are two of the very few people not dressed up. Scraping silly string from my coat later on, I realise the hidden value of wearing a costume to carnival – it protects your clothes. I’m not worried, though. Everything washes out and I’ve had far too much fun in the sunshine to be bothered. I’ll still be finding confetti in my bed nearly a week later; it’s like glitter that way. It creeps in everywhere. Then, just when you think it’s all gone, a little piece shows up to make you smile.
A girl across the road peels floating whirls of candy floss from the giant bundled cloud in her hand. She crams it into her mouth without looking as she gazes in awe at the enormous float coming down the road towards her. In common with most of the kids running about the carnival today she’s dressed in costume. The most dedicated parents buy costumes a few sizes too big and bundle warm weather clothing underneath to avoid ruining the overall effect. However, either this girl’s parents aren’t that forward-thinking or she’s had this costume for a few years; there’s no space underneath for extra layers. Instead, over the translucent powder-blue gauzy material and shiny turquoise satin that make up her princess dress, she’s wearing a heavy knitted Aran cardigan of the kind that you’d see Shoreditch hipsters wearing with thick-rimmed glasses and skinny jeans. It comes down nearly to her knees, at which point the chiffon of her skirt explodes outward like so many clouds of pale blue, shimmery mist. Her parents steal pinches of spun sugar from the stick in her hand. She edges away and starts making efforts to stick it to the back of her ears as she dives into it, mouth first.
A family of penguins walks past. Mum, Dad and baby in a pushchair, all bulging fur-fabric stomachs and flappy wings, complete with beaked hoods and giant, webbed orange feet attached to their shoes.
A row of teenage boys lines the front of the float, smirking with the insouciance of being 18 and part of the inner circle. They lounge as they roll their cigarettes, too cool for school in their leather jackets and skinny jeans. A younger boy runs up to the side of the 4×4 bike that pulls the float, giggling with glee, and one of the teenagers shouts across at him. “Get back here now!” The boy glances over but continues to bounce along beside the bike. The teenager – an older brother? – launches himself off the float and onto the street, grabbing the younger boy gently but firmly by the arm and propelling him backwards. “Sit down and stay out of trouble, you hear?” The boy nods and clambers up onto the slow-moving float, swinging his legs over the edge as he settles himself next to the older kids with an open-mouthed grin and sparkling eyes.
A group of friends shriek and giggle in their glittery eye-masks as they chase each other with bags of confetti. Proving that Carnival is not just for the kids, they’re all in their mid-40s and having the time of their lives as they compete to see who can get the most confetti in the others’ hair and coat hoods. As I point my camera at them, one woman laughs and throws a handful of confetti directly at me. It flutters to the ground in a cloud, clinging to my hair and my eyelashes and my coat collar as it falls. I grin back at her, snapping a photo as retribution.
Kate wants a cup of tea. We go into the nearest bar and she orders, but in a whisper, unsure of her Italian. The man behind the bar squints at her. “Cosa?” I call over her head, telling him that she wants hot tea with lemon. He grins and gives a thumbs up. She looks back at me, confused. “That’s what I said to him.” I laugh. “Say it louder next time.” I order myself a coffee and knock it back before heading back outside to continue taking pictures as Kate works her way through the pot of tea and plate of biscuits that’s appeared in front of her. Five minutes later, she comes outside with the guy from behind the bar in tow. “Can you translate for me? I don’t understand what he’s saying.” He’s chatty and friendly, talking about the enormous float that’s directly in front of us. “Do you think it will win?” He points at Kate and grins. “She’s nice. She liked the tea and biscuits.” It turns out he’s from Catania, too. His break’s over, but before he goes back to work we all shake hands and make hopeful noises about maybe seeing each other around town sometime.
At the train station, a twenty minute walk from the centre of town, we find that there’s an hour and a half to wait for the next train, despite what Trenitalia’s website had told me earlier in the day. It’s hardly worth walking back into town again, so we sit and wait. The ticket machine has frozen and doesn’t respond to my jabbing at the screen, so I give it up as a bad job and resolve to buy a ticket on the train. Kate fusses over the silly string on the back of her new jacket as I turn my face to the winter sunshine and close my eyes, drinking up the warmth on my eyelids and cheeks. Ten minutes later, the sun’s gone in and we’re both cold. We head inside. There’s an Indian guy standing next to the ticket machine. He waves me over. “Do you speak Italian? I don’t understand.” Pleased that he’s got it working and I won’t have to go through the charade of paying for a €4.50 ticket with a €50 note on the train, I take him through the various screens, chatting to him in Italian as I do so. He has no problem following what I’m saying and I wonder why the machine is a stumbling block. It doesn’t occur to me until we’ve finished the process that he didn’t want to say he couldn’t read. I feel humbled.