In the elegant beach town of San Sebastian, I found myself with a warm late spring afternoon free to take in the city by foot. It was the last Saturday of May and the whole city was alive. It’s as if all one hundred and eighty thousand residents were in the streets dancing, singing and watching dancers and singers. The beaches were packed, one with fotballers and bathers, the other with surfers and kite boarders, and both had pet dogs running wild with the children on the sand.
Under the promenade along one beach was the weekly flea market, a hippyesque amalgam of colorful crafts and alternative lifestyles. Above them, those children not below on the sand were making origami and decorating pottery and climbing on everything, while packs of pubescent youths insouciantly circled – the girls dressed older than their years and the boys seemingly unaware, yet constantly lurking nearby. With earbuds in, both sexes moved on well-oiled joints curating the music of their own coming of age.
Nearby, the carousel musically turned – its two stories colorfully populated with animals and fantastical creatures all ridden by little children with parents hovering nearby, while at the bandstand on the other end of the plaza there was a steady mix of talent performing one after the other to canned music – couples in a tango display, groups dancing to popular tunes, and lip-singing singles – all in front of an appreciative crowd. Then, farther over in the park, couples of all ages and sexes were doing an elaborate mime together to instructions called from the stage. I watched transfixed, but couldn’t figure it out – the Basque language is foreign to me. It was the mix of generations all coming together as a community that I understood.
All this takes place in the nexus between the beaches, where the serpentine river that bisects the city meets the bay. As threatening clouds rolled in, partially obscuring the blue sky, I filled my lungs with the citrusy scent of spring and mingled with the crowds, admiring the warmth and naturalness of the Spanish people.
Down pedestrian-only cobblestone streets I wandered, guided by the crowds and the sounds of celebration. In one large square an orchestra played while conga lines and circles of dancers filled the open space, moving to the calls of a man in a red shirt dancing in the middle of them. I was amazed yet again at the mixture of ages dancing together. If I knew their language I’d follow the calls and dance with them.
The shadows lengthened until eventually the dark clouds won, and the rain in fits and spits signaled the imminent arrival of the threatening storm. Slowly the band packed up and the area cleared. Family groups, couples and individuals drifted under the shelter of the arched promenade surrounding the square.
As elsewhere in the city, the pubs came to life and the generations came together to share their hospitality. Suddenly the extraordinary day became an ordinary family evening of pintxos at the pub, as the rain and wind washed the celebration inside.
I’m told that this is a normal Saturday in San Sebastian, except sometimes it doesn’t rain, or it rains earlier, as it will on the “green coast of Spain,” but everyone spills out of their houses and apartments anyway and the city pulses in an intoxicating celebration of life. The night brings films and plays and operas and symphonies and poetry readings staged throughout the city. There is seemingly no end to the cultural events planned for this day and for the entire year. Welcome to San Sebastian, Spain, the 2016 European Capital of Culture.
RICHARD FRISBIE IS A WRITER, BOOK PUBLISHER AND BAKER LIVING IN SAUGRETIES, NY.
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