Friday, July 31, 2009

San Sebastian (Pt. XX)

Note to readers: This is the twentieth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part XIX here.

Un buen día en San Sebastian
I first heard rumor about San Sebastian while attending the classical music concert in Vienna with the two bickering sisters. An elderly Spanish gentleman told me of it. "Es muy linda, mi ciudad. Debes ir alla," said he.

From Barcelona, I took the night train north. It was absolutely packed. Spaniards of all shapes and sizes were going home after El Día de los Muertes: including the shepherd with the tall walking stick, the dapper older gentleman with wife and daughter; modest Catholics all. I had entertained hopes of stretching out and sleeping on the ride up. False! Each seat was occupied. In the seat across from me was Australian Jay (down-to-earth surfer dude).

Jay and I, both veteran travelers, conversed on the ride since sleep was unattainable. We struck up an immediate friendship in that way that travelers have. When the train stopped at San Sebastian we debarked, assuming, without ever having discussed it, that we would room together while we were there. We were approached by a matronly Basque doña before we even left the platform. Un dormitorio, nos dijo. We followed her to the pensione.

Hace mucha lluvia
The North Atlantic raged that day: a heavenly inundation on the Bay of Biscay. It was just as well that, due to the sleepless night of rail riding, we both were exhausted and spent much of the day in repose. But we did do some dashing about, from portico to eave, later in the day to capture a sense of the town.

San Sebastian is in Basque country. The town had fallen in 1808 to Napoleon's Grande Armée forces.

But Nappy, the diminutive Corsican, would learn all too well how fiercely those denizens of Iberia guard their liberty. Guerrilla actions, partisan activities bled l’Armée, as it lumbered around rugged Spanish terrain. The Spaniards sapped French strength, leaving them spent and demoralized when Russians, Austrians, English, and Germans brought the tyrant to bay in Paris.

Later, in 1935, Franco's Nationalists imposed the fascist jackboot on San Sebastian in the Spanish Civil War. Resentments still simmer.

Jay (down-to-earth surfer dude) and a beautiful Basque girl
Basques hide a separatist movement, intermittently violent, within their fold. But no anger did I discern in these proud people. They were friendly, distinctly good-looking, like my Basque friends Tony (funny, happy raconteur) and Tina (dark haired, dark-eyed beauty) back home.

We found an Irish pub in town where we met Australians Jody and Troy, in Spain on their honeymoon. We swilled Guinness stout, with its silky, animated head. The evening was spent gulping Irish ale in Spain with Australians, listening to stories about sharks in Australia, recounting past loves, proclaiming hopes for the future. Van Morrison played on the stereo.

Honeymooners Jody and Troy
"Van's the Man," said I.

"Van is the Man," Jay agreed. "He's never let me down."

We ended the evening very drunk.

Next day, the weather was beautiful: sunny and cool, blue skies, blue water. Jay and I climbed to the top of the hill that overlooks the bay, where sits the old Cathedral. In the courtyard was a wishing well. A crone crouched at the top, raising coin-filled buckets from below, where her son gathered the castaway hopes of passing tourists.

Jay and I clowning around at the water's edge
A tale she told, in a ghost of a voice, all in Spanish. I did my best, but can make no guarantees: earlier in the century, a fire swept through the town, consuming everything. The people did their best, but in the end could not contain it. They retreated to the Cathedral, there to pray and hope for the best. After a long night, they emerged to find that the town was devastated but miraculously the flames had not touched the church. San Sebastian, the patron saint, had sheltered his people from the consuming fire. Or so the old crone believed.

Las aguas de la Bahía de Vizcay
San Sebastian was easy, peaceful. Jay (easy-going surfer dude) and I sat out by the sea wall, watching the tide go out. He, pondering what awaited him in Australia: a woman he loved, another that loved him. I, pondering what awaited me back in the United States: who was I? What was I? Two men at similar places in their lives: a transitional pause, the brief idle of life's gears before the clutch engages.

The next morning I left for France. Jay stayed in San Sebastian another day. Onward. Jay, I hope you found it, whatever it was.

To be continued...

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