Thursday, 28 June 2007

Sant Joan – the noisiest night of the year

Sant Joan can be celebrated with big fires and a huge amount of people on the beaches of Barcelona. I celebrated it with a few friends, here in Vilanova. Judging from the noise level we reached in our small town, I am grateful that I did not look for anything wilder.

Catalans will agree that one characteristic feature which they have in common with people from other parts of Spain, is the love for anything that booms or explodes. It is almost as if the size of the fireworks and the loudness of the crackers are decisive factors for a the reputation of a place, something we are reminded of now in the summer when each town celebrates its festa major. Luckily enough, these parties are held at different dates, so people who prefer calm can easily go to a different town for the night.

During Sant Joan there is no escape, at least not here in Catalonia. To make things worse, this is not like New Years Eve, when most pyrotechnics go off at a certain time. Already many days before the event do we have to live with regular explosions, in the town centre as well as on the beach. When the actual celebrations take place in the evening of the 23rd of June, the sound background bears more resemblance with a war report on TV, than with the national festivities I am used to from Sweden.

A true Sant Joan party, verbena, can be held anywhere outdoors but preferably around a bonfire. The fire has the symbolic effect of clearing up the skies and scaring away evil spirits but also is, practically enough in a country where apartments are small, a good opportunity for people to get rid of old furniture. In a few neighbourhoods, the authorities help to collect the stuff to be burnt to make sure that the bonfires are piled up in a safe way. However, it is the spontaneously organized beach parties in Barcelona which attract the biggest crowds. So many people try to reach the coast area about the same time that public transport usually collapses. This year, the metro had to close for some hours since the authorities simply could not guarantee people’s safety on the overfull platforms.

Personally, I have no need to go to the beaches of Barcelona for Sant Joan. I am always horrified with the pictures of tons of litter being cleaned away the day after. Our new au-pair went somewhere close to Port Olímpic with her friends, but they left early with a comment that there were too many strange people there. It might be an old tradition to jump over fire on this supposedly magic night, but I am not sure that I see the beauty in it when most people who do it are either overly drunk or high on drugs.

My guests and I had planned for a calmer celebration. I did not find any recommendations of typical Sant Joan main courses, but since my friends come from the landlocked Czech Rebpublic, it was easy for me to impress them with fresh seafood - Girona-style monkfish ovenbaked with prawns, tomato and burnt garlic. For dessert, we had the traditional coca de Sant Joan, decorated with caramelized fruits and pine seeds. To add local flavour of the dinner, the food was accompanied by a Penedès white wine and cava for drinks. For all the success I might have had with the cooking, I could not do anything about the constant bangs and booms, repeatedly followed by angrily barking dogs.

I am not sure whether it was the wine, the noise or simply the fact that we are parents with small children, but we all got tired embarrassingly early. Many other Vilanovins did not. Before we went to bed we observed a man shooting off one firework after the other just below our balcony. He obviously enjoyed the moment, although his wife was his only audience and she seemed far less interested. It must have taken him about an hour to finish all the crackers he had bought and the scene left us - his secret Czech and Swedish spectators - totally stunned firstly by his almost childish enthusiasm but then even more by his wife’s patience, where she stood in the street with their sleeping baby in her arms.

For all the hostile atmosphere, it is Saint John the Baptist who has lent his name to the Spanish version of this originally pagan holiday. However, there still seem to be limited success in making it Christian. My guests are Catholics so I followed them to the church Sant Antoni on the actual day of Sant Joan and truly hope that what we took part in was not a well-visited mass. The congregation was small and notably old, but maybe this was only due to the fact that all young church goers had had a too active night. Some of them had not even finished the party yet. I estimated that still on the Sunday morning, loud explosions came with a time interval of less than ten minutes.

Yesterday Wednesday was the first truly calm day for more than a week. There were some odd bangs, but we are getting back to normal. Sant Joan is a beautiful holiday but, honestly, does it really have to be so noisy?

No comments: