Monday, March 22, 2010

Of Firecrackers and Huge Pillars of Flames

This weekend, I decided, after being convinced by the constant advertising of a certain bus company and some friends, to take a trip to Valencia on the east coast of Spain for Las Fallas, a traditional festival.  Unfortunately, in my wavering, I missed the sign-up with Erasmus Student Network (the name is in English for some reason), the exchange student social program at my university.  I ended up having to having to buy a ticket with said bus company, which was more expensive, but at least left from a much more conveniently located station.

From what I have heard and been told, Las Fallas (Falles in Catalan*) is a month-long celebration of Saint Joseph, but has turned into a demonstration of Valencian heritage.  The central part is the building of Fallas, which are giant satirical sculptures, in every neighborhood square.  Each day, there is a wake-up call by a brass band and 2:00 pm firecracker events.  The celebration becomes more intense towards the end, with an offering of flowers to the Virgin, which are later turned into a statue of the Virgin herself, and four consecutive nights of fireworks shows.

The last day is really the culmination of the festival.  We arrived around 1:00 pm, having received an text from a friend that there were "explosions" in the municipal plaza at 2:00.  It was immediately clear when we had made it to Valencia.  All around us, we could hear what sounded like gunshots at frequent but irregular intervals.  After finding a map and asking many people for directions, we began to get into the old part of the city.  We were shocked to find that the sounds were not any sort of official celebration, but rather people in the street just throwing around firecrackers.  Perhaps that descriptions is too tame: by "people", I mean mostly kids under the age of 15, and by "throwing around" I mean dropping them from windows, setting them in the street and running away, or even just throwing them at people.  While a few, mostly those under 5, had poppers, most had the real deal.  They would light them with special fuses, drop them, and five seconds later there would be an incredibly loud sound as they exploded.  They were small and you couldn't really see if they were lit, so we had to constantly scan our surroundings to make sure there wasn't one near us.  Parents didn't seem to think anything of handing live explosives to their kids.  In fact, the only discipline I saw was when a teacher halfheartedly scolded a elementary school student for throwing one at us.  It felt like a war zone.  I'm really glad I didn't have battle PTSD.

By 2:00, we reached the municipal square, which was absolutely packed to the brim, to witness the final Masclet√†, a display of firecrackers and fireworks that is supposed to be a loud as possible.  We were far enough off that it was just sort of fun, but in the center, I hear it can be hard on the eardrums.  We also ran into a few parades, full of people in traditional dress.  The rest of the afternoon was spent looking at the fallas and avoiding firecrackers.

As the sun set, we went to the parade.  While the first few performers were just people in traditional costume and bands playing the local oboe-like instrument, it quickly descended into more and more ostentatious displays of Roman candles: grim reapers carrying scythes with Roman candles, devils holding pitchforks with Roman candles, giant statues of bulls lit up with Roman candles, jesters running around with Roman candles, etc.  It was fantastic.  The climax was a giant metal turtle with people under it swinging around fireworks on sticks between the cracks in synchronized patterns.

After the parade, we went off to look for paella (which is originally from Valencia), which was difficult since the streets and restaurants were both full of people, not to mention avoiding firecrackers again.  We eventually found a man outside of the cathedral selling to-go containers of paella for a reasonable price.  He gave us a long lecture about how what we had been eating in Madrid was not legitimate paella, how it requires a special giant pan, and how we were lucky to have found him.  It was, in all fairness, very good.  The special pan allows the bottom of the rice to fry and become crispy.  Between that and the many varieties of fried dough, I was pretty happy with Valencian food.

The ultimate part of the celebration was la crem√†, or the burning of the fallas. Around 11:00, the children's fallas are burned, which are smaller and tend to deal with lighter themes.  We saw one burn near the cathedral, and then went to the market square to a falla we thought would be less crowded, but large enough.  While they were supposed to burn at 12:00, ours was delayed by a lack of firefighters until 1:00.  We got places about four people back in the crowd.  Eventually, the firefighters arrived and pushed everyone back.  A barrage of fireworks was let off and the falla was lit.  I sort of expected something slow, but I was gravely mistaken.  The whole thing immediately burst into flame.  It was REALLY HOT.  The same crowd that only reluctantly moved a little when asked by the firefighters suddenly ran as quickly as they could to escape the heat.  Within 10 seconds, it was nothing but a burning wooden frame.  The band played a bit and the firefighters sprinkled the crowd with their hoses.  It was great.

We went back to the cathedral to see two more fallas burn.  The first lit slowly, but promptly fell over.  Safety is sort of a new thing at Las Fallas.  Apparently this was the first year they implemented barriers and other precautions, but the whole thing was still many levels below American standards (and did I mention the little kids in the street with firecrakers?).  We next saw the falla in front of the cathedral burn.  It was very much like the first, but without the searing heat and pain since we were further away.

Unfortunately, by the end of this, it was only 3:30 AM or so.  Our bus didn't leave until 6:30.  After waiting around in the square and dodging firecrackers (people started to release Roman candles, which would fly around the street in random directions with little to no warning), our interest in staying in the old city waned.  Having nowhere to go, we went to the bus station, where, in our exhaustion, we fell asleep on the cold tile for an hour or two.  There were enough people there that it was pretty safe, but we woke up really cold and with achy backs and necks.  I was also not ready to deal with the drama of my bus not showing up.  See, Avanza, the company I took, had a huge advertising campaign for Las Fallas.  As a result, there were supposed to be 6 buses for my time slot, but number 5, mine, did not come.  To make matters worse, customer service doesn't really exist in Spain like in the U.S.  Employees don't see themselves as representatives of companies, but rather reluctant semi-slave laborers**.  If something isn't their direct fault, they don't see how it concerns them - they hate their company just as much as you do.  When we complained about our bus not coming, the manager told us the driver probably slept in or so, and that while he'd look for a bus, it wasn't his problem and Avanza (his company) shouldn't have booked so many buses for the weekend.  Fortunately, one came within an hour, and I was on my way.

So, the moral of the story is that fire can be deeply entertaining, even for an entire day.  Also, if you give little kids firecrackers, most of them will be just fine.  Except for the kid who had a bloody face after running through a line of Roman candles like they were sprinklers on a hot day.  His parents didn't seem too concerned though.

*Valencians claim to speak their own language, called Valenciana.  This is a patent lie.  No linguist would classify Valencian as a language distinct from Catalan, since it's really just the series of Catalan dialects that happen to fall in the Valencian community.  Even some Valencians admit they just speak Catalan.  In many ways, Valencia seems to me like Catalunya's overshadowed little brother - they retain the same flag, language, culture, and history, but claim they're really different and unique.

**My crazy Cuban anthropology professor claimed this was because of Catholic ideology: Spanish people see work as a punishment for original sin.  This neglects the fact that no one in Spain knows the first think about Catholic ideology, or that Cuba was also Catholic until recently.  Still, if you consider most of them don't believe in original sin anymore, it makes sense why they see working as such an inhuman activity.  Or, it could just mean that my professor was really bitter.

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