Sunday, July 01, 2012

...and continues.

Today we wake up to the quiet of a morning after.

We’re lazy about coming down to breakfast, lazy about the day’s plans, weighing options, glancing at the skies, uncertain if there’ll be rain or if the cool air really warrants an effort to get to a good Atlantic beach.

And then I hear the sound of that Basque music again.
Isn’t San Pedro Day over? It’s June 30th. Surely another saint has the honors. No longer one hovering protectively over Mundaka.

Well no. Not over. There is still a big celebration today – of Basque cooking. Many people will be making the traditional ‘sukalki’ (chunks of meat and potato) outside, all over the village. There will be judging of who cooked the best one. You can go see the cooks now – with large pots, simmering sukalki. The rules are that they have to cook outdoors, visible to all.

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On the day of the great sukalki cook-off, people dress in traditional Basque clothing – on the coast, this will be navy and blue. With plaid kerchiefs. Most everyone wears some form of this. Young, old, male, female.


In fact, if I pass someone without a plaid kerchief, I think – outsider or rebel.




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[By now, we are recognized as the outsiders – the tall one and the one with the camera. I get, now and then, curious questions about that thing around my neck.]

Most of the cooking is done in small groups and I am surprised that men dominate this event. Shaving bits of potato, trimming meats, even scrubbing the pots – all of it helped with bottles of red wine or beer. We walk from one group to the next, from one table to another... up one side street, back to the square. The smell of food is everywhere.

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One exceptionally friendly cook encourages me to try one of the side dishes (because some prepare those as well – for the enjoyment of the cooks and their friends) – a sausage placed in a crusty bit of bread. With a swig of red wine. I’m thinking the drinking and eating this weekend is intense (even though I don’t see the miserable consequences of excess – maybe the heavy eating soaks things up a bit and, too, it’s not that any one person drinks copious amounts at one sitting, it’s just that the whole ingestion of everything takes place all day long).

We look into the pots of one cook, then another (and as they do the final preparations, they meticulously wipe down the pots, the handles too, because in cooking competitions, appearances matter)...


... and soon it is 1 pm and the judging begins. The cooks bring their large pots to the square...

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...and several official tasters go from one pot to the next, taking notes, exchanging comments – there are at least fifty pots out there so this is no easy task (and the band plays on...).





Some in the audience seem very invested in the outcome, but even for those who do not have a pot up there, finding out who won is a big deal.

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When the winners are announced, Ed and I don’t really understand who got what prize for what reason (it’s all in Basque). In the end, I'm too impatient with our lack of knowledge and I ask some youngish guy who surely still remembers his school textbook English if we are now hearing about  winners or losers (the applause for each is mild, tempered) and he answers with a lot of contradictory yeses and so we just retreat into our ignorance and continue watching.

But it is obvious who the top Sukalki dogs are. They get Basque caps and aprons as a prize (maybe more than that, we can’t tell...).


There isn’t a roar of appreciation for these guys either (it could be that they came from outside the village, or -- maybe everyone was intensely backing their friend or relative). They come up, they get their prize, they pick up their pot and carry it to their car. I am one of the few who wants to see the winning results and to photograph them for the record. Here they are, the top Sukalki cooks in Mundaka for the year 2012.


The end of intense waiting. Time to exhale and get an ice cream cone. Our hotel also serves as the local ice cream place so it's always tempting, coming or going, to pick up a cone. There are so called 'adult' flavors as well.  Mojito! Try the mojito! -- we're told. We did. Yesterday. Today it's mango and deep chocolate.


So now it’s over, right? The world returns to normal?

The day is rapidly coming to that part where you can no longer do anything grand. Forget about exploring the Atlantic coast. The rains come down but for only five minutes, so I can’t blame the weather. We’re stuck in Mundaka because it’s hard to leave when all these celebrations unfold before us.

Normal. Surely it’s time to wave good bye to your friends and retreat home to clean up the chaos of getting ingredients ready, to wash all those pretty dresses from yesterday and crisp blue and white frocks from today, yes?

In our room a hare's breath from the main square, all is quiet. The curtain moves slightly with the breeze.

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As we get closer to evening I tell Ed that my Internet search has revealed that there is a place in the next town (Bermeo) that makes brick oven pizza. We’re ready for that kind of a supper and we’re even willing to walk for it (the next town is a mere half hour trek so we’re not taking on a huge hike here).

Bermeo is on the coast, but it’s hardly a tourist destination. It’s much larger than Mundaka (Bermeo's population is at nearly 20,000) and most regard it as the most important fishing town in the entire Basque region.

There are some good views of it on the approach. First, of the Basque farmsteads and homes along the road (if it's Basque, then it must have peppers in it, on it, or around it).


And of the coast, curving back toward the estuary and Mundaka...


...Then of Bermeo itself.



But I can’t say that it’s exactly a pretty town once you’re there. And it’s large enough that I can’t really find its core, its heart. And for that reason, it feels to me a tad sad. You’re not likely to see people dancing on the streets here. Well, not too many anyway. Spontaneously, a small group of older types – meaning my age – suddenly does break into song and dance. I see that in Mundaka as well. Someone starts singing and suddenly two or three raise the hands and do the Basque steps. Here's a photo from Mundaka of just such a sudden quick dance:


In Bormeo, it happened only once.

So now we are asking about the pizza place and eventually Ed is understood and, too, he understands the answer. (The Basque people have a terribly hard time with a foreigner’s rendition of Castillian. They never, ever call it Spanish and look puzzled if you ask for a ‘Spanish’ translation.)

The pizza place is take-out only. Who knew.

Inside, there are three adults and two toddlers, cramped behind a small counter. Ed tells me – I’d really like it if, for dinner, we bought a pizza and ate it outside. On a bench or on the (scraps of) grass.

Dinner on a town bench in a sad port town seems a tad pathetic. But Ed’s been so good at going along, even as the deck hasn’t exactly dealt him a quiet hand lately (Ed likes quiet) and so we do exactly that: we buy beverages in a little shop that sells liters of boxed Spanish wine for one Euro and plenty of Rumanian wines for more (why?) and we order the pizza at the take-out place and the missus behind the counter cannot understand our request at all even though we say the words pizza and champinones which, BTW are also clearly spelled out on the posted list of pizzas – all this, I think, underscores how difficult it is to be understood here.

The men behind the counter (the ones shoving the pizzas into the oven) are much more friendly and affable and one of them finally jumps into the getting-nowhere-with-the-missus conversation. He speaks very broken English, but he understands. Grande pizza with champinones -- ah, a large pizza with mushrooms! Ed asks him – where did you learn English and he says – video games. He loves them and they don’t make the good ones in any other language.  

He's the one who encourages me now -- Come behind the counter! (ohh, it's crowded back there, but now that we've reached an understanding, the missus also is smiling and encouraging me to step there, with the camera, so that I can see their brick oven).


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We take the pizza to a bench and the people watching is actually quite good and I am grateful for this chance to just eat in the way we so often do at home – on our laps, informally, watching, listening.

We could walk back to Mundaka, sure, but it’s not an especially interesting road and besides this is the end of the line for the little blue train, meaning if you get on it in the reverse, your first stop will be Mundaka and we do just that.

In Mundaka, we soon encounter a group of young, spirited musicians. We pause for a while to listen.


An older woman, a Mundaka resident, sits down on a bench next to Ed and asks him the usual. Where are you from, etc etc... She explains that she herself does not speak Basque because her generation lived under Franco who made sure that the Basque, Catalan and all such independent peoples had little opportunity to speak their own languages. She tells Ed the children of her nieces and nephews all study in other countries – Austria and England. She reflects for a moment, then informs him (as if the whole world hasn’t been talking about it), in quite decent English -- the Spanish economy has tanked. (Her choice of words.)

The youthful group of musicians is delightful and really quite international in their musical choices...


...playing such things When the Saints Go Marching in and it is, we think, a nice conclusion to a three day revelry here.

Except it’s not a conclusion.

We see that the stage is being set yet again for a night of music on the square! Loud loud loud Basque rock (Marco, our hotel husband says the next morning – they were really bad, though my 13-year old son liked it!), with our little window just off the square picking up every last pounding bit of drum and base. I write this at 2 am and it’s still going strong. The party that never, ever ends.