Féria de san lucas, ii

22 October 2008

San Lucas, the physician-iconographer whose day is 18 October, commemorated in Jaén by féria, & in Granada by the ritual hazing by gauntlet of first-year graduate medical students (of whom he is their patron saint), is said to have written two books of the Bible & to have lived in the ruins of Troy, escaping martyrdom to die a peaceful old age in Thebes.

In his honor, in the eight days leading up to his feast day, men wear flatbrimmed sombreros of the kind worn to correos del toro, women pin red carnations in their hair, & women & little girls both can be seen in the plazas wearing brightly colored festival dresses, elaborately ruffled at the edges, suited to dancing the flamenco & more familiar to an American via the fiestas of México. Fireworks are lit off, carnival barkers call out, neon lights installed over thoroughfares, & litre bottles of locally brewed Alcázar are put on sale in supermarkets throughout the province in preparation for the inevitable botellón.

III. Los Deliqüentes

On the sixth day of féria, after I’d slept my way through puente, nursing a bronchial cough, my roommate & his friend filled a glass pitcher with ice, rum & fanta and took me to a part of the city I had never seen before, through the ruins of an immense 15th century stone gate, through a park lit at night by white electric lamps & filled with jiennenses engaging in the botollón. We’re taking you, I was told, to a concert. “Real Spanish music.”

People streamed past us, there were more ahead & more coming up behind. I hadn’t known there were this many people in Jaén. I’d been taking hour long walks every night, even when I was sick, & I hadn’t seen this many people anywhere.

This is the way it was: A sea of faces in an open-air venue covered by a tent, a type of ampithetre (concrete steps sloping down towards the stage). Spaniards pushing past each other in their familiar & direct way, the physical contact as no-nonsense as the language, dancing. flamenco clapping, cherried cigarettes glowing in the darkness, the smell of marijuana smoke, wrists twisting in the air, large plastic cups of cuba libre or cerveza, everybody singing to every song, a line-up of between two and twenty people on stage at any given time, all part of the same band, announced wordlessly behind by a sign that read, LOS DELINQÜENTES. Everyone knew the words.

Sometimes it was flamenco. Sometimes there was just a man playing the guitar with his fingers, three people clapping into microphones behind him in the characteristic flamenco rhythm, flat-palmed, emphasis on the fourth beat. Things veered wildly into a Bob Marley cover, a version of “Come Together” that was almost English, a half hour reggaeton jam, some serviceable punk rock, more flamenco, a sung version of “Feliz cumpleaños” to one of the band members, songs that were clearly old traditional numbers, songs that everybody knew, children’s songs. There were maybe six encores, the first of which was enacted by ten minutes of applause, chanting, an entire audience of five hundred people singing in unison a song that began, “¡Encore! ¡Encore! Encore y encore, . . .” & includes more words that I do not know, & shouting ¡OLÉ, OLÉ OLÉ, OLÉ, OLÉ! & cheering madly before the band finally re-emerged.

Lighters were hoisted into the air, open flame by the hundreds, the concert continuing for what seemed like a night & a day, there was a giant pirate flag.

By the end the band was sitting on stools near the front of the stage while the roadies cleaned up behind them, singing to each other in a circle, the air hazed over with herbed smoke, fire, lights. I thought to myself that I was maybe beginning, just beginning to start really experiencing Spain.

Afterwards, we went to the fairgrounds outside the city, to have a look around.

IV. La Virgen

At the top of the mountain that anchors the old city of Jaén, in the south, near the ruined castle, is a giant cross lit up at night. I didn’t see the procession of the Virgen on Sunday night, the evening after the saint’s day. My roommate waved his hand & kept eating cured ham & watching television when I asked him around time it would happen, the dueña was cooking dinner for the four of us; it didn’t seem worth it to go outside again. It’d been raining all day. I decided to stay in, eat, talk Spanish instead.

Two weeks before, another Sunday: I was homeless, living in a hotel a mile outside the city, next to an abandoned gas station, a freeway, & a brewery. I hadn’t started yet at school. I had walked for six or seven hours that day taking down postings for apartments, & called the numbers & stumbled through Spanish & found almost all of them were rented out. It was close to nine, after dark. I had gotten hopelessly lost in the alleys of the old city looking for the name of a street I’d probably misheard, to try and meet a man with a daughter who had a room to rent, and I hadn’t found him, and I’d missed the meeting, and I was still homeless, and it didn’t look like I would ever find somewhere to live, and I can’t really communicate how infinite & timeless that anxiety felt, that rootlessness, that dispossession.

I sat myself down on a bench in a plaza, blind with frustration, to read my García Marquez. That was when I heard the music – drums, somewhere in the distance – and I figured I’d get up and have a look and see what was going on.

I walked through iron benches & cobbles & small trees in the stonepaved plaza behind Jaén’s cathedrál, towards the rear facade, the older one, the smaller back entrance. There was a kind of alley behind the church, walled in, and I couldn’t see much at first. Incense wafted in clouds. I got up on tiptoe to peer past the small crowd that had gathered in this little space, and the drums got louder – they were moving closer, I didn’t know then quite where I was, didn’t even know that this was the cathedral – and then the trumpets, the brass, the clarinets began. It was a slow, triumphal march, but mournful – I don’t quite have the vocabulary to describe it, the closest referent I can think of, lacking all else, might be Ennio Morricone – the sound rose and fell like a wave, people crowded the alley, the drums continued. I looked closer: men in black suits with silver medallions hung around their necks; enormous, white candles set atop wrought holders & carried by alter boys; three priests in navy blue silk vestments embroidered with gold: – and finally I saw her. They were processing the Virgen.

Surrounded by white flowers & open flame, swaying back and forth in time with the music, advancing in minor key with the hopelessly sad & rising discourse of trumpets, set atop a platform and adorned, the Virgen listed this way & that as she moved forward, the platform draped in cloth, turning slowly, very slowly, rounding the corner of this small stone alley behind a church. You couldn’t even hear the noise from the street anymore. After a bit I saw that she was being held on the shoulders of a small multitude, a set of feet, I could not count how many, they were shuffling in a kind of march, in time with the music. Sometimes people on their way to their apartments or back from work pushed their way through the watching crowd, matter-of-factly, and stepped around the Virgen & through the incense.

After the longest time she came to a stop, and was put down. The priests stood stock-still, the incense burning in censers hung by small-linked silver chains, & swung them back & forth, frankincense, red sandalwood, herbs & gum arabic transfigured into smoke, a billowing perimeter, and after a moment the music stopped & there was clapping & the men who had been carrying her on their heads and shoulders came out, sweating, grinning, clapping each other on the backs, dressed alike in what looked like maroon soccer jerseys. Some were wearing thick support belts for their backs; they cracked necks & rolled shoulders & grimaced.

Slowly, things broke up. The incense hung around for a while. I walked back out into the world- Spanish hip-hop blasting out of car windows, old people & children & teenagers filling the plazas, the city continuing on indifferently. I still don’t know what I stumbled onto, though I can guess – rehearsal for the férial procession, the one I missed.

And right then I felt – I don’t know. I worried practicality, I was still homeless, I had not yet begun to teach, but there was beginning to be something marvelous about how impossibly out of place I was. San Lucas, the féria – all of this was yet to come.

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2 Responses to “Féria de san lucas, ii”

  1. Jackie Says:

    Jim – I love this entry. Your life sounds like a dream, with so many unexpected twists and turns. I am infinitely jealous. I was really interested in the part about that concert you went to and I love the vivid descriptions of everything.

    “…there was beginning to be something marvelous about how impossibly out of place I was.”

    Incredible.
    Keep writing!
    (Like I even have to say that).


  2. […] are shown by someone who grew up there are not the same city. Jaén during la Fería de San Lucas*, and Jaén shivering under the wet, slick onslaught of late November rains*, and Jaén* at the […]


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