On a Monday morning I went to the Carnival celebration in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a quaint village only twenty minutes from Nice by bus, but a world away. Down at the harbor a band went wild playing big horns and drums. There were other folk groups from around Europe, dressed in traditional costumes, waiting in small groups to play. It was a mild, windless day. Families sat outside the cafes enjoying the sun and each others company. A few vendors sold the local speciality, socca (a sort of thick crepe made with chickpea flour), italian sausages with onions, junky carnival masks, and crepes with Nutella. The scene was charming; the fun music, the relaxed people, the beautiful views.
An announcer on a balcony spoke incessantly. I enjoyed the fact I couldn’t understand what he was saying. There was something so wonderful and freeing about going to an event like this and not knowing what to expect.
The main event of the day was called, “Combat Naval Fleuri La Bataille De Fleurs Sur L’eau” (The Naval Battle of the Flowers on the Water). Held since the early twentieth century, the event combined the two economic symbols of the town, the floral industry and fishing. About a dozen traditional fishing boats (called pointus) were lined up along the quay in the protected Port de la Sante, all bedecked with local flowers; the yellow mimosa bloom and the red carnation. A security gate kept people without badges out of this area. I stood near the gate and took a photo of a security guard behind the bars. He asked if I wanted to take a picture of the boats closer up. “No, I just want a photo of you.” He laughed, opened the gate and insisted I come in and take photos of the boats.
Now I was on the inside of the event, a place I loved being. I wandered up and down the quay taking photos of the people getting their boats ready. There were two people on the quay who looked like big-shots; suits, smarmy smiles, handshakes all around, talking with a fisherman in his boat. I took their photo. Mr. Big-shot gave me a big cheesy smile and asked me if I’d like to go in the boat. Yes! Before I stepped into the boat there was another discussion between the fisherman and Mr. Big-shot. I had no idea if I’d sold my soul, or my body, for this boat ride. One of the other big-shots asked for my camera to take a photo of me and the captain, whose name was Primo. They told Primo to kiss me; I offered my cheek. This got great laughs, but Primo was not at all happy with just my cheek. I never did find out who Mr. Big-shot was. But Primo was stuck with me.
There was a new blue and white sailor shirt in a bag on the seat of the boat. Primo told me I could wear it for the event. Now I really fit in. No one would every guess I wasn’t French, except for the ear to ear smile on my face. An hour passed. Nothing happened. We sat in the boat at the quay. The crowd along the shore was now four people deep. I was still smiling, bobbing in the boat, waiting for who knew what.
A horn blew. Time to start the 60th Battle of the Flowers. I didn’t know if we’re going to throw flowers at each other, the other boats, or the crowds. The boats traveled slowly through the port, close to the wharves, to throw flowers at the crowds. People yelled at me in French, “Madame, throw me a flower, please, to me, Madame, Me. MEEEEE!” Their arms were outstretched hoping to catch a flower; actually desperate to catch a flower. The boat was filled with piles of flowers. I stopped throwing the flowers for a minute to take a photo and Primo yelled at me, really yelled at me, to keep on throwing the flowers. I wondered whose place I’d taken in the boat, who really should’ve been throwing those flowers?
It turned out once your boat had no more flowers you could stop going around the port. Primo had been coming to the Battle of the Flowers since he was a young boy. He and his friends would scoop up all the flowers out of the water with a fishing net and go around town and sell them.
The battle began when the spectators threw the flowers back at the boats, sometimes quite hard. It was tough to get rid of all the flowers since so many landed back in the boat. An hour later we were finally out of flowers, most of them afloat in the water.
The boats docked in the quay again. We stripped the boat of all the greenery and decorations attached to it. Then it was time for me to go. I kissed Primo goodbye (on the cheeks) and thanked him profusely for the experience. An amazing day, even if I didn’t get to keep the shirt.