All this past week, people were celebrating: Bilbao Semana Grande. It is exactly as it translates: Bilbao Grand Week of party and festivities and dancing in the streets.
Let me start by saying, Spaniards know how to party. For anyone who hasn’t been to Spain or similar parts of Europe, the kinds of “parties” that they have do not even compare to the American version. Not only can we Americans not hold a candle to their festivals and holidays, but when it comes to party hard, the Spaniards take it all the way.
I say nocturnal, because for the past week that is exactly what it was. I saw two sunrises. TWO. And never before have I pulled an all-nighter without a textbook in front of me, or a test to cram for. I was amazed, flipado, at the craziness of it. Even with my nocturnal habits, keeping up with the extremely late night schedules in Spain is difficult, but if you want to start the fun, you have to bear with the changes and go with it. In the United States, a “night out” usually starts around 10:00 or 11:00 pm and ends around 2:00 or 3:00 am average. In Spain for the fiestas, or even during a regular Friday or Saturday night, this is not the case.
The typical schedule:
21:00 (9:00 pm) – shower and get dressed for the night
22:00 – eat dinner and leave dished for tomorrow
22:40 – prepare kalimoxe (explained later)
23:00 – run out of the apartment to catch one of the last buses to the center of the fiesta
23:30 – arrive in plaza to meet friends; begin fiesta
24:00-7:00 – fiesta por el noche
7:00 – see sunrise over the city
7:30 – drag your tired body back to the apartment
8:00 – sleep for the next 15 hours
17:00 (5:00pm)– wake up and do it all over again
I guess you could say I never really got a chance to adjust to Spanish time, because fiesta time fit New York time almost perfectly. It was incredible. Never in the states would you see something like this!
Not only are you practically nocturnal, but the number of people there is astounding. Even when the street cleaners and garbage trucks arrive the next day (later that night?) to chase all the partyers home, the amount of people still partying in the streets is incredible.
En Las Calles
Oh did I not mention it was all night in the streets?
There are probably half a dozen plazas that house Txosnas (a Basque word, tent-like structures) that offered drinks and more importantly music. They blasted music (much of it American) across the plaza where hundreds of people had gathered to dance and hang out with friends.
Drink of Choice
It is hands down Kalimotxo (Basque) – Co-cola and red wine. This is the favored drink of choice by young Spaniards, and when I first heard what it was, I was disgusted. Gross. But I tried it and it was…not what I had expected at all. It definitely grew on me as the week went on.
Other drinks were Clara (light beer and Fanta Limón) mixed together, which wasn’t too bad either. That took some time to grow on me as well. Then there was the typical vodka shot mixed with Fanta Limón. These, people would carry in giant 2L bottles in a plastic bag, which of course would be left behind or discarded in the street as the partyers moved to another plaza. There are open container laws in Spain, but at least during this duration of time, it seemed that the police and other officials ignored this rule.
All The People and All That Trash
I was shocked with how many people there were, but what probably shocked me more was the garbage. Every person had at least on giant bottle with him or her, carried in a plastic bag. Bags and bottles, beer cans, cups, and glass bottles were strewn everywhere, that I had been advised not to ware open-toed shoes. I could not get over the amount of trash, and I could only hope that it would all be recycled.
What was slightly gross to me, was everywhere you looked, there was a guy up against a building, peeing. Even girls could be seen squatting in a corner, making their water. There were bathrooms and public restrooms (they construct giant bathrooms in the plaza just for this week of partying), but the lines are long and I’ve been told its cleaner to go in the street. When I had the go to the bathroom, one of the girls I was with brought me to side street and pointed to a deserted corner. I was mortified. I made her wait with me on the 30-minute long line to use a restaurant’s bathroom…
Then comes the street cleaners. Giant green trucks with spinning brooms and tanks high with water enter around 7:00 as the sun just peaks over the buildings. Men in bright jumpsuits clamber about, with brooms and hoses, cleaning the plaza. It’s the city’s indirect way of telling everyone to head home, and it works. As the plaza clears out, the street cleaners get to work, repairing the mess of the night, and they do an amazing job. The next night, before the festivities begin again, the streets are clean with hardly a trace of what happened the night before!
All Clothes, No Kissing
I must address this interesting observation. I am a people-watcher, and I was so fascinated watching everyone walking (or stumbling) about. At a place like this, everyone has their story, and I hope to save some ideas for some characters in a book some day, but I digress. In the United States, at something like this, you would probably be guaranteed a “show” with girls walking about with hardly any clothes – a pencil skirt that barely covers her butt cheeks and a halter that looks more like a bra. I was surprised when I noticed that many girls were not dressed in this fashion (of course there were a lot of people dressed this way, but overall people wore a variety of clothes). I had expected. Actually, half of the people wore pants, or dressed as they might going out to a nice restaurant and others wore short shorts and shirts or dresses. Hey, I love dressing up and looking great, but I think you can still look great without looking trashy.
Another interesting thing I happily noted was that there was none of the PDA (public displays of affection), that you would find in the United States. PDA is just isn’t, and should be called “private displays of affection”. It is not like everywhere you look, do you really see couples making out, feeling each other up, or grinding while they dance. It happens, but it is not extremely frequent. In general, relationships and the “hook-up” scene is culturally very different. I have yet to come up with a personal statement on this.
Reason to party
Now, I believe that that Spanish can find any reason to throw a fiesta. When when they celebrate is isn’t a one-and-done thing. It is days long. The fiesta in Bilbao is an annual thing from Saturday to Saturday, this year August 17-24.
The symbol of the Bilbao Semana Grande is Marijaia, a fictional character designed by the painter and writer Mari Puri Herrero in 1978. The Basque name Marijaia has become to mean “Lady of the Parties”. Apparently, Smith conceived the character as a traditional-looking woman in Basque rural robes and headscarf, but with a comic face with prominent features and ruddy complexion. It is a sign of optimism and dancing; to bring your arms up.
Each year a copy of Marijaia is created to start of the holidays. A reading of the proclamation by the town crier (txupinera in Basque) and the launch of a rocket by the txupinera from a balcony of the Arriaga Theatre kicks off the party. The last day the constructed figure of Marijaia is burned on the river, ending a crazy week of fiestas.
Since 1997 Marijaia has a song of its own, called “Badator Marijaia” (Here comes Marijaia), composed by Kepa Junkera and it is the theme song of the party…
//EDIT: I was surprised to find that About Basque Country, which seems to be a newspaper or tourism blog of sorts, did a story about my experience and observations during Bilbao Semana Grande, using many quotes from this here. Take a look at their article. //