Monday, 21 December 2009

drinking and singing all night in St Jean de Luz

This weekend St Jean de Luz started to fill up with Christmas spirit. My choir were on duty. Meeting mid afternoon at our clubhouse in the port we crammed into the back of a transit van and headed for Biarritz. Assembling outside Maison Adam, the owner sings tenor with us, we broke into a variety of traditional Basque Christmas songs. Far from being carols the songs are upbeat and more folksy than religious. All very rousing, we attracted a significant crowd. Between songs the lovely girls that work in the shop ensured we were fueled by wine, chocolates and macarons. By the time it started getting dark we headed back to St Jean de Luz and the main event.
Gathering in one of the trinquets (a very Basque place where pelota is played) we enjoyed more wine before heading into the centre of town. Walking en masse with two of our more seasoned campaigners leading the way with large wooden sticks (our costume is that of the mountains) we were immediately the centre of attention. First we sang at a tapas bar, then outside another chocolatier on Rue Gambetta before moving to Place Louis XIV where we set up outside the main Maison Adam. Wearing Basque costume, including large floppy berets, we sang loudly and well. By the time we had finished our set in the Place the shops had closed. I had also sussed that the singing was centred around food and drink. Unbeknown to me the main event was about to start. A traditional event dating back decades and longer, a very Basque event that I was to feel exceedingly fortunate to be part of.
To kick-start the evening we had been invited to sing at the opening party of a new gallery by a famous local painter. He had painted our accordianist as the centrepiece of one of his favourite works. After canapes and wine we moved to Le Petite Grill Basque for more singing, wine, piquillos, crevettes and oysters. Next up one of the main bars in town where the local celebrity group Arin Luzien was practicing, complete with mandolins and other assorted Basque instruments. We combined and sang more, accompanied by a myriad of locals and several bottles of wine. Moving on we arrived at another restaurant where the local fire brigade were holding their Christmas party. Again more singing and more beer. From here, across the river into Ciboure and to Chez Mattin where we set up camp beside the bar. As the evening drew on more and more Basque was spoken, songs became increasingly passionate and the brethren ever more close. It was about midnight when we finished at Chez Mattin. The snow was falling heavily outside so we took a break to enjoy a snowball fight before moving on.
Heading back towards the port in Ciboure we descended upon a bar next to the fronton. Despite the hour, weather and quiet streets the bar was mobbed. We heightened the revelries into the small hours as the barmen kept the flow of beer moving in our direction. I was quite bewildered. I had expected a sedate rendition or two in town, not twelve hours of drinking, singing and socialising. In St Jean de Luz everybody knows everybody else. To have been at the heart of such a local group and embraced by the throng was a delight, something I dare say few other 'outsiders' can lay claim to. Around half two we left the bar, I presumed for home, not so. We still had our own private party to contend with. Back at our clubhouse we set about a feast of marinated veal, song and more wine.
I have no idea when we finished or how I got home but I did wake the following morning feeling exceedingly satisfied at having been part of something quite special. I also seem to recognise many more faces as I walk around town. Slowly, slowly, I think I am being accepted. Before arriving in these parts I had been warned that the Basques are notoriously unfriendly and that it's difficult to get on with them unless your family has lived here for generations. I am yet to experience this and think it's just an image they convey in order to keep unwanted visitors at bay.
Basque of the day:- thank you :: eskerrik asko