It's that time of year again -- empty beer bottles are sprouting in my garden like so many crocuses, flocks of young chicks in bikini tops and belly rings keep swooping into my neighborhood Starbucks, and, if the boys who have rented the apartment across the courtyard are any indication, young men's fancy is turning to lust.
Yes, it's spring break in Miami Beach. And for the hordes of college students descending on my adopted hometown, I am the biggest buzzkill. Actually, I'm the second biggest buzzkill; top honors go to my 6-month-old who likes to scream every day around three p.m., just when the boys across the courtyard are waking up, projecting smooth jams over their sound system, and trying to look cool for the young ladies they've invited over.
"Hi, ma'am," they say, sheepishly, as I pass by, pushing the stroller. I say hi back. And I look meaningfully at the six-pack they've placed on the wrought-iron table in our courtyard, as if to say, "you'd better be planning to clean that up, son."
But part of me wants them to know that I get it, I know what they're up to, and on some level, I respect it. Not that I was ever a rabid spring breaker. I never got a tattoo or anything pierced. Come spring break I was usually visiting my boyfriend's parents or watching the Holy Week parades in colonial towns in Mexico. Any spring break hurling I did was the result of waterborne parasites, not Goldschlager.
I was less than a party girl in college. But I was a folklore and mythology major. And in the course of studying the rituals of several cultures I can't help but notice that come February or March, many religious, ethnic and cultural groups have a sanctified, codified, plan for cutting loose. And somehow, that seems to make all this partying seem OK. Or even necessary.
In Catholic countries and cities, it's Mardi Gras or Carnivale, when revelers are supposed to feast, dress up in costume or disguise, and gorge themselves on delicacies before the self-imposed privations of Lent.
In Greece, where Orthodox Christians give up meat and dairy during Lent, the just-before-the-fasting celebration is Apokries (the word literally means "farewell to meat" in Greek, the same way Carnevale does in Latin). There are regional variations (people throw flour at each other in Galaxidi, for example), but mostly, the same recipe for fun is followed -- disguise+gorging = religiously sanctioned good times.
In India, where I traveled extensively to research my new novel, Other Waters, this time of year brings Holi, the spring festival when adults and children alike throw colored powder or water at each other, social norms are reversed, women harass men in the street, and hash milkshakes are consumed. (An anthropology professor of mine wrote his dissertation about Holi in Varanasi, but had to extend his fieldwork by a year, because the first Holi he was there he passed out after taking his neighbor up on the kind offer of a hash milkshake, and missed the whole festival).
And today is the last day of Purim, a holiday which commemorates Esther saving the Jews from destruction in Persia. In celebration, little girls dress as Queen Esther, everyone boos the villains as the Book of Esther is read aloud, and adults party hard. "I have heard that the usual prohibitions against cross-dressing are lifted during this holiday," writes the author of the Purim page on Judaism 101. "But I am not sure about that."
There are no hash milkshakes at Purim, but plenty of sugar highs as the triangle-shaped hamentaschen cookies (formed to resemble the evil Persian Haman's hat) are baked and distributed. And there's lots of booze. "According to the Talmud, a person is required to drink until he cannot tell the difference between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordecai,'" says Judaism 101. "Though opinions differ as to exactly how drunk that is. A person certainly should not become so drunk that he might violate other commandments or get seriously ill."
If only I could convince the spring breakers across the courtyard to heed that last sentence.
There seems to be something primal, maybe instinctive, that makes us want to dress up this time of year. Is it the longer days making us feel frisky? Or do we just need a little taste of good times to get us through the spiritually serious time to come (in the case of Lent and Easter) or the hard work ahead of us (in the case of my temporary neighbors and final exams)?
These are questions that don't seem to trouble the boys across the courtyard, who are leaving to head to the beach as I type this. So if I can't beat them, I think I'm going to join them. I'm going to dress up Amalía as a mini Queen Esther (did Queen Esther wear faux leopard coats from Babies R Us, perchance?). And then I'm going to leave her with a babysitter, change out of my spit-up stained clothes, grab my husband (who will not cross dress for the occasion), and go out to dinner, where I will drink not one but two glasses of wine and eat king cake or hamentaschen if they happen to be on the menu. But I'll probably save the hash milkshake for a year when I'm not breastfeeding.