Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Tale of Two Festivals

First off, I appoligize for not posting in some time.  I'm finally getting work in accordance with the end of the semester.  I have now completed three classes (Seminar on Contemporary Spain,  Politics of the EU, and the academic component of my internship program), the first two of which I did quite well in (still awaiting the third).  I still have one more paper and an oral exam for Economics of the EU and I have to finish a paper for the academic component of my internship.  Other than that, I finish my economics class tomorrow and then I can focus on my internship, my last paper, and my last exam, which I'm told will actually be a low-key conversation as a reward for attending class regularly.

Lately, I've been staying in Madrid on the weekends.  Part of this is that I realize that travel is really tiring.  While I enjoy travelling by bus, not sleeping, and holding all my stuff in my school backpack, it's not really sustainable and I think I've overdone it a little.  The other reason is that there has been a lot to do in Madrid recently.  It's finally getting nice outside (about a month later than expected), which makes the city about twenty times more enjoyable.  Spanish culture just makes more sense in good weather.  People spend a lot of time in the street*, which isn't much fun when it's cold and/or raining.  Now that it's nice, it's worth it just to spend the afternoon having a drink outside or going for a long walk in a neigborhood I haven't seen before.  I took a trip to the mountains this past weekend, which was incredibly beautiful.

Two weekends ago was Europe Day, the official holidy of the European Union, which commemorates the Schuman Declaration of 1950, which outlined French plans to create a de facto political union.  While I have been...uh...observing this holiday since my sophomore year of high school, this was my first year doing so in the EU.  Needless to say, I was quite excited.  I looked online and found all the available information.  There were a few events, but the important ones appeared to be a flag raising in Princípe Pío, a plaza outside a major train station, and music, dance, and theater festival in Lavapiés, the mostly immigrant neighborhood to my north.

It turns out that Europe Day is only slightly more celebrated in Spain than in the United States.  The flag raising was fantastic, though poorly attended.  The vast majority of people there, which was probably around 150, were official invitees, including politicians from all levels of government, civil society representatives, military honor guard, and some students in European flag shirts.  The remaining 40 or so were just average people, who stood around outside the barrier trying to get a view.  A young woman distributed pins and balloons and tried to get everyone excited.  The ceremony itself consisted of some sailors raising the European flag with the band playing Ode to Joy (the European anthem) followed by Marcha Real (the Spanish Anthem)**.  A few officials made speeches about the importance of the EU symbols (flag, anthem, Europe Day, and motto) for solidifying a European identity and discussed the goals of the European movement and the EU.  I found it quite moving, but I'm admittedly strange in that regard.  One amusing event was that I ran into a Spanish friend, Marcos, as everyone was leaving.  He was officially invited and was sort of surprised that I would have bothered to show up.  I was just surprised that out of all the people in Madrid, I would run into one of my few friends (and one who I did not meet in an academic or professional capacity, at that) at an event with such low attendence.

I have more pictures as well.  I'll try to get all my other pictures up now that I have facebook uploader working again.

The afternoon celebration, entitled "Europe in the World of Lavapiés" was actually quite a big deal, though I don't think anyone realized what was being celebrated.  They got performers from all over Europe and put them in the main squares of the neighborhood.  I saw a Bulgarian folk dance group and some Czech jugglers.  There were a ton of balloons (I got one to keep for posterity) and people watching and drinking beer.  Lavapiés isn't exactly a classy place (some of my friends were once scoffed at for asking if there was more than one brand of beer in a bar), which made it a good site for the event.  I didn't stay for long, but it was a good time.

In contrast to the underwhelming observation of Europe Day, the next Saturday was the festival of San Isidro, patron saint of Madrid.  According to Pilar, San Isidro used to be a small affair characterized by a single folk dance event.  It has since grown and this year was a huge celebration in honor of the 100th birthday of Gran Vía, the main street of Madrid.  I checked out the Gran Vía first thing in the morning.  It was covered from end to end in a bright blue carpet that erupted into celebration around 6:00 PM.  What exactly people were doing on the carpet was not exactly clear.  There were performances on either end (at Plaza de España and Red de San Luis), but in the middle there were many, many blocks in which the only excitement was the blue carpet.  This did not phase the Spanish, who turned out in huge numbers to walk back and forth on the carpet, watch people do impromptu traditional dance performances, and sit down and drink.  It's hard to believe that it would be difficult to move because everyone was crowding to see not much of anything.  Other excitements included the traditional folk festival for which the holiday is known, a very avant-garde theater festival in Lavapiés (the immigrant neighborhood to my north), and a giant cake sculpture in Plaza de Callao.  There were also fireworks at night.

Also, the number of men wearing black and white tweed vests, jackets and flat caps was astounding.  This is apparently the traditional Madrileño costume, with women wearing not particularly elaborate white and black/blue/red polka-dotted dresses.  Given how pretty the traditional dress in Valencia was during Las Fallas, it was a bit of a letdown.  I did learn, however, that it represents Madrid's unofficial "chulo" attitude, which means something between cool and cocky.

As an added bonus (it took me weeks to get this post out) I saw a third festival, the "Homonaje a María Auxiliadora", which best I can do translates roughly to "Homage to the Assistant Mary" (according to some websites, it is because she is the "assistant" to God).  The church on my street goes by the same name, so on her saint day, there was a celebration.  After what I can only assume were many masses, a procession was held in my neighborhood, complete with horseback riders, two bands, adorable children, a giant statue of the Virgin on a float being pulled by two people with a ring of supporters around them, widows dressed in black, and a few priests.  Afterward, there was a surprisingly good firework display.  I'm not quite sure the religious significance of fireworks, but then again I don't understand virtually anything about Spanish Catholicism, and since no one I know really believes in it, I don't foresee an end to my confusion anytime soon.

This weekend I'm off to Basque Country!  Nire aerolabangailua aingirez beteta dago!

*As a side note, Paco, my portero, expressed his concern to me this week that it must be very difficult for Americans to meet girls, since they don't spend enough time out in the streets, presumably drinking.  I assured him that college culture makes it quite easy, and after that, there are pleanty of house parties and bars, but it didn't really translate culturally.  Residential colleges seem just as real to many Europeans as cowboys.  I once had an Austrian coworker (in the U.S.) ask me whether fraternities really existed or whether they were just from movies.  Moreover, house parties and going to a bar to meet people make little sense in Spain.  People only invite close friends into their houses and in my experience, going alone to a bar or club is generally viewed poorly.  I once had someone ask if I was feeling okay when I was sitting alone in a lounge, because obviously this meant that I was sick and was taking a break while my friends danced.

**Both don't have lyrics that are used anymore; in the case of Europe because of laguage issues, and for Spain because the words were written by Franco.  Because of this, Marcha Real usually seems silly, but less so when paired with Ode to Joy.  Also, I say "European" rather than "EU", because these symbols were originally used by the Council of Europe, which is an unrelated human rights body.  The Council of Europe also observes Europe Day, but on 5 May to commemorate its founding.


  1. There's an episode of the British comedy game show Quite Interesting (QI) in which the host (Stephen Fry) asks the panelists what language the Spanish national anthem is in:

    The point at the end of the video about the Dutch national anthem pledging loyalty to Spain is only sort of true. If you're interested, Wikipedia has a pretty good explanation:

  2. I love that part about the proposed lyrics being too nationalistic. Figures. In fairness, though, they aren't the only one without lyrics. Bosnia is about to approve lyrics for the first time and Kosovo (anthem title: "Europe") hasn't adopted any. The Balkans are hilarious. Kosovo uses the euro, has a flag designed after the European flag, and an anthem entitled "Europe"