Pust, Or: When I Was a Purple Butterfly.

I could hear the sharp sound of whips hitting the pavement even before I’d untangled my feet from the cobblestones that lined the streets of the Slovenian town of Ptuj. A large crowd had gathered on both sides of the long, narrow road that wrapped around the outskirts of the town, and the surge of people seemed to move backwards in a wave as the first whip hit the ground.

For a moment, the parade had stopped. Two men dressed in traditional Slovenian clothing—embroidered vests, dark pants, and peasant hats—were flicking their wrists to show off traditional leather whips. Their movements seemed off-handed, but their choreography must have been carefully choreographed: their whips never came close to touching anyone in the crowd as they made impressive swoops through the air.

In a moment, after we reached the edge of the crowd, the men marched forward, and the traditional Kurentovanje—or, Carnival—parade continued.

Musicians playing folk music on accordions passed by, as did marching bands from neighboring towns in Slovenia and nearby countries, including Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, and Croatia.

Some groups were dressed in elaborate costumes: one homemade float featured more than a dozen adults and children dressed as giant squirrels. Another long float represented the Kulpa River, which runs along Slovenia’s border with Croatia. Poking through person-sized holes in a long band of blue fabric and paper at waist level, some of the participants were dressed as ducks, others as fish poking their heads up, and still others as kayakers paddling along.

While neither Ptuj nor the crowd gathered could rival the size of an American Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the gathering was quite large for Slovenia’s standards. Each year it is estimated that around 70,000 people gather on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, known as Shrove Sunday, to watch parades across Slovenia, with 9,000 or so people participating in them. For a country of roughly 2 million inhabitants, that’s a significant number.  

The most significant portion of the parade included the most traditional elements: close to 1,000 kurents, who look like bears with horns. While unmarried men traditionally played the role of kurents, nowadays  married men, women, and even children can don pelts of sheep skin, covering their whole bodies, only their eyes peeking out through a wooden mask. With horns on their heads and bright red socks, they also carry several heavy cowbells on a rope or leather belt around their waists.

The kurents jumped and shimmied down the streets of Ptuj as I looked on, letting their bells clang loudly in hopes of scaring away winter.

All of a sudden, right out of the crowd, a large kurent approached me. Reaching out his hand, I wasn’t sure what he wanted. I wanted to sink into the ground or run away, never being one to eagerly answer the call: “Can we get a volunteer from the audience?” But the cobblestones were, well, hard as rocks, as the saying goes, and I was blocked up against a wall. There was no escape, and the kurent kept getting closer, until he was jumping around me in circles as people aruond me laughed wildly.

Only later did I learn that kurents approach unmarried women, who traditionally give the kurent a handkerchief to avoid my embarrassing fate.

Next in line after the kurents was a group of young men dressed in traditional peasant clothing, running out into the crowd trying to kiss girls or earn kisses themselves, adding one more set of lipstick stained kisses to their faces. Traditionally, the single men who were on the market for a wife would parade around at the carnival, so that young women could identify potential mates for the coming year’s weddings.

Carnival consists of 10 or more days of parades and masquerade parties all around the country. It’s not uncommon for children and adults alike to prepare as many as three different costumes for the celebration, which is a less commercial and more intense version of Halloween: children often go door to door asking for a mandarin or small change, reciting a phrase at the door that kind of resembles the concept of “trick or treat!” when translated.

This year, Ptuj was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its modern carnival. It was elected to the European Federation of Carnival Cities in 1991, and it will serve as a European Capital of Culture in 2012.

“Is this like parades in America?” my Slovenian host asked as we watched a group of people dressed as giant chickens run into the crowd the day before at another parade, violently pecking at the spectators with their enormous beaks.

“Um…” I said, and my mind flashed to the carefully choreographed Disney World parades, with lights, friendly characters and princesses waving from aboard floats to animated film theme songs. Then I thought of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, with all its fanfare: celebrities waving from atop floats, giant balloons and elaborately expensive decorations.

The Slovenian version had a decidedly more homegrown feel… alongside a certain violent comic effect which I could only imagine would instigate a few lawsuits in the U.S.

“No,” I said, as I took a giant step back, just to ensure a human-sized chicken wouldn’t snap at my arm. “Parades don’t attack you in the U.S.”

We both laughed as we watched the chickens attack spectators further along the parade route, and as another group of kurents blazed on, we turned to purchase a traditional carnival donut with apricot filling and mulled wine from a street cart.

 Published this week in the Southbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press and Villager Newspapers.

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