Saturday, June 30, 2012

and it continues!

On Thursday, the celebration of San Pedro began. Music, carnival rides, dancing late into the night. You’d think the next day, things would calm down. But no – that was just the beginning. Friday, June 29th, is the real deal – it is the day of San Pedro and for the small town of Mundaka, here on the Atlantic coast of Spain, that is one huge deal. Marco, our hotel guy tells us – only Carnival is as much fun for us as the feast of San Marco!

San Pedro (St Peter) is the patron saint of Mundaka. In my interpretation of things, it should mean that San Pedro offers Mundaka special help and protection. For the villagers, in practical terms, it means they can throw a party for themselves for days on end.

And so now it is June 29th. We’re in the small breakfast room at the Hotel Mundaka.


They ask us if we slept well. Funny how that works – loud music can keep you awake, or it can lull you to sleep. We went with the latter.

I hear a drum. What is that?
Musicians. They play Basque music all day long.
On the streets. You have to listen for them.


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It’s a gray, slightly cool day, but at least it’s not raining.
What else is planned for this day?
Mass at the church. With really good choral music. 

And so this is how one heathen and one Jew (though really not much of that even) find themselves in Mundaka’s church for noon mass in honor of the day of San Pedro. I don’t think Ed has ever attended a mass before and I think it’s been at least a decade since I sat through one myself. In fact, we do not sit. We stand toward the back, upstairs, by the organ, where we have a commanding view of the congregation below and the organist and the small choir to our side.

For the most part, it is the grandparent generation that attends the service. And their grandchildren, prettily dressed today in matching colors and outfits.


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Missing, for the most part, are the parents. Still, it is an impressive show of faith. Unlike in France or even in Italy, where church attendance is low (I’ve never seen a crowded church in either, not even in Sardinia on Easter), here, the local faithful pack the place.

The kids squirm. Some leave halfway. Those who stay are promised treats, carnival rides (right outside the church doors!) and other good things to get them to keep still. One woman comes up to us and whispers, with a note of warning – this is the longest service of them all!
How long ? – I want to know.

And I understand none of it. Mostly it’s in Basque, with Spanish translation on a flat screen to the left of the altar. Or the other way around. With Latin thrown in.

The music is, indeed, beautiful.

I suppose our foreignness stands out, because when an old man comes to us at the end, for the greeting, he says it in English– peace be with you.

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The service ends with a procession. Through town, to the square. The musicians play, a man does a dance...


And so it ends.


That’s the serious part of the day. And now the partying really begins. In the late afternoon, pintxos are piling on bar counters and we go in for some as well. Mussels and anchovies. They’re becoming our go-to foods. When in doubt, get those.


I point to something that looks like miniature pig hooves (see photo above), but it’s really something from the sea. No, the server says to me. Don’t choose that. Too hard to eat.  As I said, mussels and anchovies. And a glass of blanco, poured from up high.


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(While the dogs, waiting outside, drool.)

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(And the musicians come in to play.)

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There is a complicated schedule for the evening. Some games, some dancing – of the traditional sort, but no one is clear on when all this happens. The town feels crowded. Everyone’s outdoors. We book a dinner for 8:30, but no one is eating then. We ask – when do people eat today? Early. Not now, the waitress tells us. Now they just drink. I can see that. And sing.


Come back maybe at 10.
At 10? In the Basque? I can tell that today does not replicate any part of the everyday.

We do take a pause from the chaos of the carnival, the music, the firecrackers popped by boys on the sidewalk and go for a hike. Nothing big – a two hour loop, but it’s time well spent. In the hills, the quiet is intense. And the views are lovely.


The waves aren’t there yet for surfers, but it’s not entirely flat either. You can imagine now how this might look on a good surfing day.


In a sense, the absence of waves is not an issue for us. We never wanted to surf. And the cool temps (upper sixties maybe?) make even light swimming in the sheltered cove not so alluring.

I have to admit, too, that if it’s swimming in waves that I wanted (for Ed), I picked a less than ideal spot for it. You have to swim through a strong current before you can get to the waves that pound the sand lip. That scares me, even as Ed has instructed me many times what to do when a current snags you.


So we hike, up one hill, down the next through forests, farmlands and pastures...


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 ...and, back in Mundaka, we watch the festivities -- the carnival, the handball competition, all of it, colorful and loud...


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(and the bars are overflowing and yes, I encounter the Mundaka surfer...)


... and finally, at 10, we eat.

The owner of the restaurant comes to chat about America (he visited there once) and he suggests this fish for a main course, and that salad for an appetizer (no no, don’t order shrimp! The fish is so fresh! Grilled for you!) and when we are halfway into the meal we get this realization that we miss eating bread and cheese and market stuff and basically anything that grows from dirt and does not swim in the sea.

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I tell Ed the story of when my little girl and I discovered, one hot day, that we only like the first half of any iced tea we buy. You’re thirsty for it and you purchase it with joy and after a few good swigs, you’re done. No more. So it is with big hunks of white fish: you’re hungry, it’s local, regional, fresh and honest, bla bla bla and then half way through, you understand that the reason you don’t grill it yourself at home more often is that the best part is in the first few bites. And then you reach for the bread and anything else that'll distract you from the remaining portion of pescado.

Late at night the music and dancing really get going. And if yesterday was American and Spanish pop, today is one hundred per cent Basque.


It is beautiful to watch, even as it is all very loud – 48 hours now of very loud and Ed says – you go watch. And I know he needs the quiet of the room right now.


I do watch, for a while. There is so much energy in the movements! The traditional Catalan dance is gentler. It’s all in the steps – there are patterns that all must follow. The Basque dances are insanely fast! Feet move quickly, sometimes there is a circle, sometimes there is a row of pairs...


I’ve seen it once before and thought then that it was riveting! Now, with more years behind me, I think about how the energy of someone young is endless, absolutely without limits or time constraints. Tonight's dancing ends at 5 a.m. I listen to it on and off, from our bed in the little hotel by the square.

We talk about setting out along the Atlantic coast Saturday. There are beaches to look for, markets to find. But when we wake up, we have a sudden change of plans again. Oh, but that's the next day's story.

Friday, June 29, 2012

waves of music

We are at the Casino Restaurant in Mundaka, eating a three course meal in the early afternoon. It’s 2 o’clock and the dining room is busy. Lots of men eating fish.


Hungry, we went looking for what’s here in this small town on the coast of the Atlantic. The Casino meal had the best deal – 11 Euros for three courses, including copious amounts of wine (and including taxes and service).

For a main course, I have grilled anchovies liberally doused with olive oil.


Is the food good? It is like what my grandma would have made had she been in the habit of grilling anchovies (which she wasn’t): fresh and honest.

I watch others come to eat. Not kids. The kids are outside at the carnival. Their parents. Kids come in asking for things, in the way that kids do everywhere and the parents oblige to make them go away (girls here love big hair ribbons).


I notice a table set for maybe two dozen. And just as we’re ending our lunch, a large group barrels into the room, boisterously and noisily claiming the space. More bottles of wine, salads, grilled whatever, so I ask – is this a family reunion? There are no children, but the people at the large table are of mixed ages.
No, they’re teachers.
And I am reminded of the line that’s now sadly remembered by so many – I want to have (when I'm back home, at work related lunches) what they’re having! (Because I can’t remember being that joyous and animated at work-based events. We’re all so dignified and serious it hurts.)


We are in Mundaka in the worst of times: at a grand level -- the terrible economy, the depleted fisheries here, on a smaller scale, affecting just the next four days -- the weather and the waves – they are all plummeting here in this village by the sea. (Why mention waves? In Mundaka, surfing is, if not everything, then a hell of a lot of things. In the summer, it draws crowds. When there are waves.)

So why, on this calm, gray June day is everyone at the large table so animated and happy?

We left San Sebastian early. The cheaper bus to Bilbao leaves at about 9 and we’re big on seeking out “cheaper” anything. The walk to the bus is long, but we like it.


And we get there early enough that we have time to find a cafĂ© for a sweet treat and a coffee for me. We’re pleased that our old friend from across the Pension has a branch here, near the bus stop.


The bus ride is to Bilbao – an hour and ten minutes for the 100 kilometers that separates this big city from San Sebastian. Bilbao is indeed large. At nearly a million, it is the largest of the Basque cities. We’re not staying here (at least not now), but we need to connect to the little train that takes us back to the coast. So we walk through Bilbao along the shortest route possible from bus to train (30 minutes) and I only take a few photos and they’re not of Bilbao’s best face, but not of an uninteresting face either – it’s what we see on our fast walk through it. So, prekindergartners.




A sign by a bar inviting you in, during these tough times in Spain.

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And the small train station with our small blue train waiting for us.


We get off at the next to last stop. In Mundaka (population: not quite 2000).


We’re here for the waves that aren’t here. (Calm waters are rare in Mundaka. There is an estuary with a huge sandbar which causes hollow waves – the kind that attract champion surfers from around the world. Right now: no waves and, therefore, no surfers.) 


We are staying at a wonderful little place –the very central Hotel Mundaka. It has only a one star rating (as low as you can go), but the owners are fantastic, the rooms are clean as can be, the atmosphere is relaxed. And at 69 Euro per night ($85), including a wonderful breakfast, taxes and services – it’s cheaper than pretty much anything we could get in Sheboygan.

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Marco is the guy behind the desk. So are you the owner? Ed asks.
Marco who is extremely good natured, laughs. It’s my wife’s. And mine as long as I’m married to her!
So...where are the waves?
Well, I can tell you – not here. He points to a posted forecast for the next five days or so. Scattered showers, low waves. Less than a foot. (Ten foot waves are common and considered dangerous. Half that size is thought to be optimal for surfing here.)

But if the surf’s flat, the atmosphere is charged! We missed Sorede’s San Joan festivities, but we placed ourselves in Mundaka at the time of the most important festival here: that of San Pedro.

So we hover around town. (Actually, first, we doze off on a bench by the sea... Not used to big lunches, not used to lots of wine with big lunches, we are in need of a nap!)


And we do little things. A short walk, a poke into a store for cookies.


And we do lots of spirited watching. Of the visiting carnival that set up the rides by the village church. (Boys appear to be drawn to certain things, girls make different choices...)





Forget the gray skies, it’s a brilliant time to be in Mundaka!


In the evening, there is dancing. In three stages. First the little kids, up on stage, one number after another, with the whole village watching, clapping, laughing at the sweetness of it.


(Kids sit on the square, adults stand behind.)


I’ve been to my share of dance recitals and in some ways this one is like all others. In fact, many of the music numbers are straight off our charts. (Think: Grease, for example.)


One huge difference is that boys are not outnumbered by girls in the dancing. And, too, I can’t say that anyone takes it that seriously. Many of the dancers barely remember the choreography. And still, it is tremendous fun.


Ed, who, to my knowledge, has never attended a dance recital in his life, is as drawn into this as I am. Not surprising. All genders, all age groups are in the audience and it's like we're all watching for different things but enjoying the show together.



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When there is a break, we find another place to eat – this is to be a light supper and it is a very simple one of artichokes followed by grilled shrimp, with green peppers on the side.

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The dancing continues. The older kids are on stage now, imitating American rock stars. It’s very late. The audience, too, is somewhat older now. The little ones are at home, tucked in, though I can't imagine it's easy to sleep anywhere in town. The music is loud!


 ... the stage is in a blaze of color.


And when all the performances are over, the music continues. The kids are gone, the older people, too, have retired. Dancing is now informal, in small groups all across the square. The Macarena. And so on. We only stay for a few minutes, but we hear the music from our room, late, very late into the night.