|Bonfire for San Juan. Click for source.|
And there is fire everywhere. All over Spain people carry torches to downtown city plazas, yards, hilltops, town squares, farm fields, pastures and beaches to light huge bonfires at midnight. The deepest part of the night will largely be spent cavorting about around those flames, with much drinking and dancing, and, then, when the blaze dies down to a manageable height, the boldest and/or most foolhardy will engage in the celebratory leaping over the bonfire, an ancient rite of purification, courage and consecration.
My initial contact with this festivity came on my very first day and night in Spain as a child (not counting a visit at the age of three from which I have photos but no conscious memories). One afternoon in June 1968, at the tender age of 11, my parents took me to JFK airport in New York City to begin what they had promised me would be the most remarkable and wonderful of adventures, a trip to Spain, where I would meet and spend the entire summer with my grandmother, aunts and uncles and a dozen or so cousins at the family farm in Asturias. An exciting plan, but not without tears and nervousness for child and parents alike. It was my first time away from home by myself; I was determined to “be a man”, but still … And my parents were convinced it would be a great experience, but yet …
Everything about the flight and my arrival in Madrid the next morning is now a soft gentle blur. As I was a young boy travelling by myself, I was well looked after by kindly stewardesses on the overnight flight. At the airport one of them escorted me to the passport control point, where an unsmiling immigration officer stamped my passport and released me to be examined by a wall of faces pressed up against a huge plate glass window, each one straining to spot someone who was not me. I walked through the doors and suddenly someone stepped forward from out of the strange chattering faces, picked me up high in the air and twirled me around a couple of times before locking me into a big rowdy hug. This is perhaps the only moment I recall being truly scared: hoping against hope that the big shadow stranger was family, looking down at him to try to make out if he was friend or foe, whether he was to be hero or monster in my story. When I saw great blue eyes gushing tears down a laughing face, I knew I had just met my tío (uncle) Javier. “Larry! Larry! Larry! Larry!” he shouted over and over and over again.
Tío Javier whisked me to his apartment in downtown Madrid to meet my aunt, tía Ana, and my six cousins, Barbara, Helena, Alejandra, Javier, Cristina and Joaquín. We exchanged our shy introductions and then all of us went off to the neighborhood church to give thanks, except my tía Ana, who was busy packing the car for the trip up to Asturias. Yes, the all-night cross-Atlantic flight was to be quickly followed, except for the quick visit to the church, by a tumultuous all day drive up north.
I will not give the details on the car trip. Most of it is a pleasant fog for me now. But if you have seen classic Italian films, you can probably imagine what it was like to have nine of us packed in the car, plus the big mangy family dog, and all of our bags for the entire summer. I ask that you please suspend disbelief briefly; it won’t do you much good here. Air conditioning and leg and tush room would have been nice, but disbelief was out of place and of no use whatsoever.
The three hundred plus mile journey must have taken us over 10 hours or so in the scorching summer heat. There were not many highways back then in Spain, so it was slow going. Not that the car could have managed to go very fast with the load it was carrying anyway. There were some stops along small rivers, and I remember eating my first Spanish tortilla next to one in the welcome slender shade of a cypress tree somewhere on the endless flatlands of the Spanish meseta near Tordesillas. Later, as we neared Asturias, we had to wind up and over the magnificent mountain range between León and Asturias, with its lush green landscape and cool reprieve from the summer heat of the central plateau.
By the time we arrived at my grandmother’s farm it was getting dark. As we pulled in through the gate, I saw a couple of men throwing branches on a big pile of wood in the middle of a pasture under the watchful eye of an old grey donkey. Perhaps seeing my puzzlement, tío Javier simply explained “es San Juan”, and told me, as well as I could understand in my very meager Spanish, that Saint John’s day was tomorrow, and something about a fire. A big fire...
I’ll stop here and continue tomorrow. It is nearing midnight. I have to go pick up María from work at the hospital and then we have an appointment with a bonfire ...
San Juan bonfire, before and after being torched in Caravia, Asturias (source of photo here)