Féria de san lucas, i

18 October 2008

Try to summarize féria in Andalucía & it’s a struggle even to begin. Everything to do with what makes a city – religion, art, local politics, civic life – convluses for an entire week. The féria y fiesta de San Lucas in Jaén closes out a summer of fairs & saints’ days that flare up in every city & even ever little pueblo, & ends the bullfighting season in Andalucía altogether. You can feel the city, that massive organism, doing something as one. The air ferments; the cobbles shake.

I. Parade

I find myself on the first day of the féria in center of the old city, just outside the cathédral, without having planned to be, not knowing exactly what’s going to happen. Teenage boys in purple church robes, half-untucked, smoke cigarettes under the eves of buildings. A troop of knights in maroon livery wander the streets. In twos & threes appear bandmembers in suits & green sashes, carrying their instruments under one arm; costumed Moors with crescent spears; knots of gossipy high schoolers; ladies in waiting; boys in grey uniforms; Catholic schoolchildren. Old men in cardigans roost on park benches. There are traffic cops in neon green vests & special police holding dog leashes & automatic weapons. A catapult is rolled through a back alley. Two horses are teathered near the cathedral. Everyone is half out of costume. A living statue painted silver over his entire body & top hat is drinking a beer with his gloves off. There are unlit floodlights, colored lights hanging over main streets in intricate arabesques. I find a corner near a concrete mixer & some green construction screening to watch; at some point a woman comes up and asks me in Spanish if I’m a journalist, because I’m writing in a blackbound notebook.

The parade, when it begins, proceeds like all civic festivities. Officials speechify; a man (the mayor? I can’t see him from where I’m standing) proclaims from a balcony that it is la féria de la crisis. There are invocations to Jaén, to ¡jienenses! that I barely understand. Families, children on shoulders, young girls holding their infant siblings on their hips, strollers, old people – everyone floods the plaza in big groups of extended family, friends from the pueblos. I feel like a German in Cleveland during the Fourth of July.

The parade, when it begins, is a mishmash of suggestive historical gracenotes & fantasy: There are inflatable dragons and dryads on stilts alongside painted medieval tumblers, men blowing fire, marching bands, Christian knights, little people dressed up as gypsies robbing market stalls, Moorish armies playing Islamic music, a group of belly dancers brought out on harem pillows, the knights shoulder to shoulder and doing an odd, halting march – step-slide-step-slide-step – as the drums play. The music is rhythmic, insistent, vaguely North African or Seraphic – certainly not central Europe, nothing close to Wagner, or the uncomplicated, cheery pomp of an American university marching band. In Jaén, city overseen at night by an Islamic fortress sacked & made a Christian castle & by a giant cross lit from below, the reminders of reconquista are constant.

It gets darker, the parade winds through the center of the city, I duck into a side street & get lost for a while in the old part of the city north of the cathedral, stumble onto plaza fronting la Iglesia de San Ildefenso, where a shrine commemorates the apparition of the patron of the city, la Virgen de la Capilla. The music still in the distance, rising & falling. I walk past little public courtyards I hadn’t known existed, small fountains, the sound of running water in darkness, greenleafed trees lit from behind, tiled atriums. Eventually I find my way back to an avenue, where the crowds are beginning to break up. I go to a tapas bar in an alley behind the cathedral paved with marble & lit by a string of paper lanterns & have two cañas & what comes with them & by now I am feeling lonely, the children are playing on the steps outside the bar, nobody is out here by themselves. I walk home – I’m coming down with a cold, and spend the rest of the weekend in bed coughing.

II. Féria

The fairgrounds are on the outskirts of town, near the train station: squared-off lots of hardpacked dirt, concrete, & brick roadways left vacant all year until fiesta comes, at which point the space is transfigured & becomes a city of white tents, noise & innumerable neon lights.

There is a cacophony of amusement park rides – roller coasters, whirling teacups, bumper cars – & smaller fairground stands with flashing barometers next to punching bags or targets where giant stuffed bears can be won. A line of market stalls run by North Africans selling leather handbags, scarves, watches displayed on ersatz red velvet, beach towels, robot dogs, jewelery. Tented halls devoted to cured hanks of Iberian pork, to whole roasted chickens on spits, to giant iron pans of day-old paella, home for flies.

All of this next to a district of chuerrerías and stands selling Belgian waffles covered in chocolate sauce or kiwi & whipped cream, and banks of soft-serve machines like dairy cows, and banks too of televisions broadcasting horse odds & lottery numbers & raffles, the ground in front littered with a wet plaster of spent tickets, a man yelling the winning numbers into a bullhorn. Underneath incandescent naked lightbulbs, bright-whites, pieces of fresh coconut are displayed underneath running water & sold next to sugared almonds, piles of chocolate bars, trays of candied apples.

Animatronic pirates tromp pretend grapes above giant casks of wine sold at booths in little slender glasses with pastry straws, speakers behind the pirates’ feet blaring flamenco music. There are beer halls in the tents, & brightly lit countertops selling bottles of champagne & paper coca-cola cups full of alcohol, & an entire nightclub district, the music here a constant warring between venues separated by canvas, the speakers so loud you can feel the song in your molars, the dirt between tents a beery, fizzing mud, people dancing on tables & bartops, broken bottles & spent cups on the margins, well-stocked bars pouring nothing but tall glasses of cuba libres & wine over ice with fanta.

Other tents feature live music, flamenco singers, there are tents sponsored by banks & cajas, by the government, by cultural nonprofits, telephone companies, manufacturers. There are gypsy women carrying roses & cartons of cigarettes. The entire fair loops over itself, built on a hillside, so that the nightclub district overlooks the neon-lit expanse of the amusement park, the colored lights hanging over the street, the incandescent bulbs, the smoke rising & the smell of sulfur from the firecrackers that young boys are throwing to the ground and that burst with a sound like gunshots.

People are dancing flamenco in the middle of the streets. The crowds outside the tent bars are singing. By midnight, there are so many people in the mud & tumult of the streets that it becomes difficult to move, a sea of typically Spanish casual physical contact, jostling, copas hoisted, joints being rolled right out in the open air & smoked as though they were nothing more than the omnipresent cigarettes.

I go to the féria twice, alone at first, and then with my roommate, who meets a half dozen friends from the pueblo of Jódar, where he grew up, & before I can speak I’m being handed a big paper cup full of whiskey & orange & puffing on an open-air marijuana cigarette, which I’m beginning to realize is the common habit of all of Jaén province, & being asked more or less constantly, “¿Comó te pasa?” by Spaniards concerned that I’m not having a good time because I’m not dancing enough.

Outside the fairgrounds, at least a thousand teenagers & university students flood the Parque Nuevo and the streets at the edge of the city in one immense botollón, lines thirty people deep in front of locutorios to buy bottles of soda, ice, & snacks, knots of people carrying plastic bags & litres of Alcázar & passing their féria in the time-honored manner of Andalucían youth.

We take the bus back at 6:30 in the morning on the last night of féria – when we leave, everything is still in full swing. Anywhere else, it’d be daybreak, but the sun rises late here, & likely the crowds are waiting for dawn & breakfast to head home.

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One Response to “Féria de san lucas, i”

  1. Roman Says:

    Jim,

    I’ve been reading your latest travel writing and now I’m running late for work and won’t have time to eat lunch.

    Thanks a lot.

    -RS

    PS. Vietnam is up now.


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