Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Surviving Carnival

An American friend of mine lost her boyfriend in Trinidad a few weeks ago. They left together from New York to spend the Carnival period with his family. Once they got there, she found herself stuck with his mother and sister, both of whom could not understand why she was angry at his disappearance. They kept whispering behind her back that she was so sour.

I tried to ask my friend – a Carnival novice – if she really knew what she was getting into. She replied confidently that her boyfriend had told her what to expect and that she understood that she would have to give him some space. What she was not prepared for was his complete abandonment, and the equanamity with which his family accepted that entertaining her was their responsibility, not his.

I could have told her that I am convinced that there are certain things couples should never do together – not if they want their relationship to last more than a few weeks anyway. Like argue over politics, religion, or whether OJ really did it. Or allow one to teach the other how to drive. Especially a manual car.

Or play mas’ in Trinidad for Carnival. A break-up is practically guaranteed.

I’ve been pretty successful at side-stepping the religion and politics booby-traps in my love-life, but I remember well the experience of a boyfriend teaching me to operate a stick-shift car. For two weeks, I chafed under his unending barrage of criticism. He in turn became increasingly frustrated by my seeming refusal to learn “something so damn simple!”. The car in question, an old Ford Escort, kept stalling just for spite.

Finally, one of us ran out of patience, threatened to beat the other to a pulp, and jumped out of the stalled car, leaving it to roll backwards down the hill as the other scrambled to control it from the passenger’s side. He recovered fast from the experience, my boyfriend, and, after driving slowly back up the hill, suggested – quite calmly under the circumstances – that perhaps I should let somebody else teach me to drive. I agreed.

Would that my own Carnival story had a similarly easy resolution! Suffice it to say that the bacchanal started in the pitch-black of J’Ouvert morning, and continued right through to last lap on Tuesday. By Ash Wednesday, the relationship was history.

But I started telling you about my friend who lost her boyfriend sometime after they landed in Piarco. What is it about the experience of Carnival that places such terrible pressure on relationships, she wanted to know?

Problems often start during the early months of the season when a couple may have difficulty agreeing on whether to party separately or together. There are advantages and disadvantages on both sides of the equation. What there isn’t is a resolution that can make both parties happy at the same time.

Carnival tends to bring out terrible feelings of insecurity for both men and women. Infidelities sometimes occur, particularly under the influence of free-flowing booze.

Differences between a couple may become highlighted. She may want to go dancing in the streets while he prefers to watch the spectacle from a more sedate distance. Or vice versa. Under the stress of Carnival, such differences become glaring, and oppositeness temporarily declines in attractiveness.

Finally, the alcoholic frenzy that characterises the Carnival period can bring out the worst in people. Relationships often suffer as a result of alcohol-induced bad judgement. Couples fight over whose turn it is to be the designated driver. Quite often one partner gets stuck with this responsibility and comes to resent the other’s continued drunkenness.

Add to this the stress of visiting a country and your boyfriend’s family for the first time – and it is a wonder that any couples survive the return trip. My friend last saw her boyfriend on the flight back to New York. He seemed genuinely shocked when she asked the flight attendant for a change of seat. He asked her why she was being so sour.

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