Basque Festival in Saint Jean-de-Luz

“I Can Hear the Mermaids Sing Each to Each” The bus dropped me in the middle of Saint Jean-de-Luz at one end of the three-day Festival Andalou. There were aperitifs and tapas and overture des Casetas. There were dances espagnoles and ambiance flamenca. Several towns had gathered under tents on the board-walk next to the quiet bay. It was a warm spring evening and the distant thunder and rolling lightning went unnoticed and unheard by the merry throngs. Wood boards covered the asphalt and people twirled, spun, slid, stamped, and clapped to the driving flamenco guitars punctuated with songs that sounded all the same to me but were hypnotic when added to the precision flow of the dancers.

The people were in pairs, in threes, and in fours. They were young and old. Often women danced while men watched in smiling subtle appreciation. One lad in all white more stood than danced while surrounded by two women dressed in identical pale blue. Were they sisters? Were they complimentary or in competition? They kissed him and desired his attention, but I neither discerned nor sensed rivalry. All three were content in the momentary arrangement – at least temporarily. Everyone was happy. The joy of the moment was evident in the eyes and expressions and movement of the dancers.

I know nothing of flamenco but there was an ordered rhythm and pattern. Everyone knew the moves and the timing. It looked like the seductive moves of a bull fighter. Except for the trio who had their own dance, no one touched. The dancers caressed each other with telling eyes and sensuous movement – to the brink in order to draw out the passions. It may have been fore-play. It may have been much more. It seemed satisfying and exhilarating to the dancers and was a joy to watch. Even though this was the final night of the festival, in ten days there would be another. Looking into the faces of the dancers, I have a sense these people do not miss a chance to wring out of life its fleeting joys.

Two days later, I was wandering through the public market in the Spanish coastal town of San Sebastian. The loud and bouncing sound of a brass band dragged me towards a crowd gathered in a corner of the fish sellers’ aisle. About six of the female workers, clad in rubber boots and thick white aprons, had been joined by a couple of bystanders and were moving in time, sort of, to the band. First they wrapped arms around their waists in a chorus line effect. Then they formed a single line with both hands on the waist of the woman in front, and bent back and thrust forward while shouting or singing in Spanish, Basque or a combination.

Was this a festival? Was this break-time in the fish market? The moment is all that mattered to these women. They were happy. The band was happy. The crowd was happy; except for the old, confused man in a dark beret who just wanted a fish to take home to his dead wife’s cat. Even I wanted to join in. But was it against the custom? There were only women dancing. I debated internally whether or not to join life and turned away to view the offerings of the adjacent counter. At that moment, a woman from the group grabbed my hand. I did not resist, protest, or hesitate. Timing. I was in the line which had now become a circle. We kicked and twisted our way down the aisle of breads and pastries and headed for the flower section. The band followed or lead or wind-milled within and without our whirling and snaking circle.

The crowd parted and faded. There was only the music. The dance. The joy. The moment. I asked in Spanish where we were going. The lead woman replied in something I didn’t hear but understood to mean that it’s the journey and not the destination, Grasshopper.

As I took the escalator up out of the market and into the blustering sunlight of a Spanish spring, I felt a stinging chill and raised my collar. Timing is so important to human existence. Missed opportunities, lost moments, journeys not taken. Like Mariner fans, we’ve all learned to step into the shivering world of disappointment, compromise, and hollow hope.

I would take the “little” narrow-gauge train back to Saint Jean-de-Luz. Perhaps there would be music – another moment, another hand of a stranger reaching out to pull me into the dance.

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