Friday, June 24, 2011

the fires of Sant Joan

The village dances.


Again and again until the night is so dark and the little children are hours beyond their bedtime and yet those who know the steps dance and those who don’t watch and imitate on the side.

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It is the day of the Catalan celebration of Sant Joan (to us -- St. John's) – perhaps the most important moment of Catalan solidarity, up and down the hills of the eastern Pyrenees.

The hills of the Pyrenees: don’t we have one more climb in us before we leave here Saturday morning? It’s cool outside – one of the cooler days we’re to have in Sorede. And there are clouds touching the peaks again. But then, how often do we reach summits? Isn’t the goal in the hike itself?

We start with the late breakfast at the café. Children watching.


It’s a good hour before we’re ready to hike back up the hill. Noon hour. The hour of street quiet. Of looking up to see laundry in the window, because when the streets are empty your gaze strays upwards.

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At home, the unstructured nature of our day is slowly evaporating. We have things to discuss for the week ahead. We’re heading up to the Dordogne Department (once called the county of Perigord) – in the southwest of France. The plan is to take the canoe – the collapsible one we’ve stuffed into the tiny car along with our camping gear – down the Dordogne River. Sleeping on the banks, eating in the villages along the way. We think we’ve picked a stretch of river with minimal rapids. That’s important, because our canoe could not take a rough ride – the aluminum poles holding it together would bend, the fabric may rip. And I don’t want to be tossed around in the waters either.

Perhaps the toughest part is figuring how we can fit into the ultimately very small canoe the tent, sleeping bags and mats, and some minimum change of clothing. And our computers, in the hope that some cafés along the way will have WiFi.

For me, too, the challenge seems to be in finding places to pitch a tent. You can do it in France more freely than you can in the States, though less freely than in Scotland. But are there places along the river to do just that?

All this we discuss and weigh – Ed most often taking the more daring approach, me, toning it down some, and when he resists, I threaten that I’ll get out and take the bus to our final destination. All the while knowing that he would be quite fine with that.

The afternoon passes, and now it is five already and the idea of a last hike into the mountains has nearly been put to rest. No, that cannot be. I suggest a half-assed climb. One that we would have taken, had there been time: it leads across the summit to our west, all the way to Spain. But that’s a 3.5 hour climb. We can do a reduced version!

And so we hike. Uphill for an hour, for that last splendid view across the Roussillon plane...


...through forests, across rocky terraine...


... then down for fifty minutes. Yes, Ed’s downhill is about the speed of my uphill. The man extends his mighty gait in great strides going up and slows down as if perpetually pushing on the brake pedal going down.

We can be so mismatched.


We eat dinner at the pizza-bar. Moulles frites. With ketchup and sangria. Some things should never be changed.


And by 9:30  I am at the Stade where bleachers have been set up for the great Catalan dances. They’re all here – the butcher, the baker, the old widows in one line, the teenage boys surreptitiously shooting off firecrackers...


...the teenage girls hanging back with that dreamy look of an adolescence when it isn’t yet threatening or heartbreaking.


And the villagers dance, oh how they dance!


In between the Catalan music, the school kids do contemporary dance numbers. It’s much like an end of year dance recital back home except here, the whole village is watching. I’ve attended many, many kid dance recitals in my time and I have to say that for the most part, our kids are smoother dancers, better performers. And they have that American grin that every dancer back home is told to slap on her or his face. In Sorede, they are stiffer and a lot more somber. Still, they have the support and applause of everyone, including their peers, who sit on the sidelines, cameras out, recording, posting on Facebook maybe, while the widows look on...


...and the families grin.


During dance breaks, the little kids run around, crazily chasing each other, I mean really, this is what little kids do here, they chase each other – boys after boys, girls after girls, not infrequently girls after boys...


They all look out for each other. If a kid wonders off, someone will snatch her and bring her back. A bump on the head brings a child to mom or dad’s knee, then off he goes again, lost in the frenzy of movement and music.

On the side, there is the flirtatiousness of the young and we note that next to us two older girls are kissing, right at the feet of the older widows. I think we are the only ones who notice, and maybe we are the only ones who are taken by surprise.

It’s nearly 11. Now we see the fire coming down the mountain. A parade of kids, older kids, makes their way down the hill with the chapel, the hill that Ed and I climbed our first day here. You can see the torches now. The village looks up, takes note. This ceremony is repeated year in and year out – we saw it last year after all – and it still is, to me, so breathtakingly beautiful!


Eventually, the kids with torches arrive. They place their torches in the center, the mayor lights the flame of Sorede as the villagers dance around him. He carries it then to a huge mound of old grape vine trunks and lights it and the blaze is enormous.

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The village lights now are turned off and the sky is exploding with fireworks.

Sorede is a ablaze with fire.

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The fireworks end. There is music now – contemporary rocky sounds that send the very old and very young off home.

The stars are out for our walk back. The hills have shaken off the last wisps of cloud. Tomorrow, our last full day in Sorede, should again be a fine day.