Friday, April 26, 2013


 The San Francisco church, right after its Nazareno blessing

The first time I heard about the madruga processions in Semana Santa was last year in Palencia: a friend mentioned casually that if I thought Easter was intense in the north, I should know that down south processions often went through the night; some even began at 3 am. “But why!?” I asked, puzzled.

“I think it must be the heat,” my friend said, in that way that suggests a person doesn’t actually know the answer to the question you’ve asked. “Sometimes in April it’s already very hot in Sevilla. They want to avoid the heat of the day.” And that was that—we wended our way through our own cold, rainy Easter week, and I didn’t think about late-night processions at all—until I arrived this year in the south.

As I wrote here in my last entry, Semana Santa in southern Spain is more intense on a variety of levels. It occupies a special place in the collective consciousness, and as such it is on everyone’s lips even in the heat of September and the cold of January. From almost the moment of my arrival, people had been talking to me about the wonders of of a Linarense Easter. They mentioned the centuries-old pasos; the special, electric atmosphere; the haunting power of the saetas (the spontaneous flamenco performances I also mentioned last entry.) And almost without exception they recommended the Nazareno, a madruga procession that begins at 3 am on Jueves Santo (Thursday night) and ends in a powerful town-wide blessing in the Plaza San Francisco (madrugar means 'to get up in the middle of the night'.) I knew my parents were coming to visit, and even months before, when we hadn’t made any plans about our travels together, I had already decided we would see the Nazareno together.

In the end, we spent five non-stop-full, gorgeous days in Mallorca, then three more exploring southern Andalucia. We arrived back in Linares in the early evening on Thursday, and despite exhaustion my mother and I managed to get ourselves to Plaza San Francisco to see what all the fuss was about. Despite the fact that I woke up with a terrible stomach bug the next morning, my expectations were more than exceeded. And so here, I present to you a minute-by-minute narration of the unique Linarense madruga: the Nazareno.

10:15 PM: It’s really a carnival atmosphere tonight, although of course outside Carnaval time. Linares feels abuzz, electric—there’s no other word for it. People are running everywhere to and fro, calling to each other “Oye, tio, donde estais?”, buying popcorn from the little mobile snack carts that have materialized around town. People in colored robes, carrying brass instruments or the traditional, eerie coned masks under their arms, cross the road every which way.Walking down the street to catch a couple of processions despite the threatening rain, we say to each other, “Man, this is a weird atmosphere.” and “Have you ever felt anything like this?”

10:30 PM: We end up in the main shopping street, waiting with a chattering mass. The DaVinci cafĂ©, where I’ve had so many cups of tea, is filled with people, as is La Minera tapas bar across the street (which I have never seen open, let alone full.) Exactly on time, we see a Santa Maria paso come down the main street. The saint is in her raincoat, a thick sheet of plastic, to protect her from the dripping sky. The crowd claps and whoops as the paso passes. I can see the white sneakers scuffing the wet concrete, cut off by hanging material under the platform; the costaleros (men or women who are charged with the holy duty of carrying the paso) call to each other, grunt, make adjustments in their route. I turn and watch them continue into the main plaza, their outline silhouetted against the lit-up green letters of the Cortes Ingles department store. I’ve walked past that store perhaps 50 times; tonight it is transformed into something altogether different.

10:45 PM: The second procession is called on account of two drops of rain. We head home to rest and prepare.

1:15 AM: Lights out, in that strange space of anticipation when you know you will have to wake up very, very soon. My apartment is on the procession route of many brotherhoods; I am not expecting to sleep very well, in any case.

1:45 AM: Just drifting off. The insistent, hard, enormous beat of a drum catapults me out of bed to my window, before I can even remember I’ve gotten up. Below, in a haze, I see blue uniformed bands in epaulets, smudges of maroon with gold braid next to them. They are walking to meet the rest of the procession.

2:10 AM: Roused again by upbeat melodies drifting through my earplugs. I go to the window again and see a group of at least 25 standing in the road by the plaza (not in the plaza, mind you— something I see as indicative of the kind of odd lawlessness that’s taken over the night.) They seem to be talking and hanging around with the band. Maybe they’re warming up?

2:35 AM: Yes, they were warming up. I get out of bed again, more resigned: the insistent beat is back (but not so enormous). Now the band is marching away through the plaza. Outside, more people are walking back and forth than usually do except at the busiest time of the day (when the elementary schools down the street let out.)

3 AM: Try to go back to sleep. Even with earplugs, I’m hallucinating band music. Give up and watch an interview with Amy Poehler online.

3:17 AM: The drums start again. Things must be beginning. I go to wake my mother.

3:27 AM: Hair in bun, shoes on, camera packed, eyes bleary. We walk toward Plaza San Francisco. From all over, people are streaming in.

3:32 AM: We come out in the plaza face to face with another Maria, a gorgeous flower-lined paso fronted with at least 40 3-foot-tall candles, all lit. She’s being lifted out on the street. I stop short. She’s so beautiful.

3:35 AM: We stand, frozen, watching them maneuver Maria. In the process of being lifted onto the costaleros' shoulders, she lists dangerously to the side. I gasp along with everyone else in the crowd.

3:36 AM: Plaza San Francisco is already crowded and filling fast. I can see a second Jesus paso at the far end. They seem to be maneuvering him into position.

3:38 AM: We find a spot in the center of the plaza, facing the church, with the Jesus to the left and Maria up a little hill to the right. A breeze has already blown out several of Maria’s candles and most of Jesus’ as well. People are streaming in, packing tight.

3:40 AM:  Some women in their 30s arrive and settle in a spot a few feet away. They’re talking loudly among themselves, and they have opinions on everything-- who should or should not be taking photos now, how other people should stand etc. I listen to them for awhile and crane my neck toward the church door.

3:52 AM: A few drops of rain start to fall from the cloudy sky. I swear under my breath—if it rains, all this will be cancelled out of concern for the pasos. Umbrellas sprout up immediately, and the crowd around me bursts into complaints. “Ey, paraguas!” they yell; “Put down the umbrella!” Obviously, the women next to me have an opinion on this. When a single umbrella remains up, blocking our view, one yells. “Que fuerte! Pero que fuerte! Poca verguenza!” What little shame you have!

3:56 AM: The sky is holding out. The lone umbrella goes down. The whole crowd around me cheers, and we hear the sound of trumpets. Thirty seconds later, the trumpets sound again-- and all the lights in the plaza go out.

3:58 AM: Waves of silence flood around the plaza, as much quiet as 2000 people can produce, before rolling back into whispers and noise. There’s a slight movement up front, what looks like feathers out the door of the church. I can’t see.

4:01 AM: The people around me are talking about whether this is enough rain to stop the procession. “Is it coming out? Should we wait?” As they talk, we hear more trumpets. People around me are starting to yell some kind of slogan, but I can’t tell what they’re yelling yet.

4:10 AM: The doors open. At first all I can see is candles, then branches attached to those candles, then an enormous paso—probably 25 feet long—filled with glass candelabras and Jesus of Nazareth (El Nazareno). The paso pauses; the whole crowd bursts into applause—maybe 1500 people at 4 am, telegraphing their joy.

4:13 AM: More trumpets, more yelling—this time I can make out what they’re saying. Someone will yell a name, and another group will yell “Viva!” (long live ____!) I deduce that it’s names of Cofradias, brotherhoods that are in charge of parading the saints during Semana Santa. And then people are yelling “Viva el Nazareno!” and the whole crowd is yelling “Viva!” and clapping.

4:19 AM: More trumpets, longer lasting this time. At the end, a true hush goes over the crowd. (Except the group of seemingly drunk 30-somethings next to me. Isn’t it always the way? They’re giggling and chatting and joking. I try to shoot them some dirty looks, but it doesn’t work.)

4:25 AM: They finally shut up, making way for a deep silence and a single ringing note of a triangle. Then a few more notes ping ut in the dark, still, breath-held plaza. A moment more, and clarinets and flutes join, then the whole brass band, and the crowd breaks into the largest cheer yet. A light goes on, illuminating the front of the church. I think we’ve been blessed.

4:27 AM: The Jesus paso starts to move again, with its accompanying band. It moves into position on the road that goes through the plaza. The costaleros lift it, with many preparatory grunts and yells, and a final dramatic jump from knees to standing, with 60 kilos on their backs. I’ll never get used to that; I don’t think it will ever stop being impressive.

4:29 AM: Before they can move out of the plaza, trailing the penitents with the black pointed caps and silver staves, the costaleros stop—a woman is singing a saeta to the saint. In Linares, the costaleros are required to stop any time anyone wants to sing a saeta.

4: 33 AM: It’s a long song and extremely difficult. The woman’s voice is serpentine, undulating, threading in and out of the sounds of the crowd talking in undertone around me. At the most difficult parts, the crowd shouts “Ole!” like we’re at a concert instead of on the street. When she finishes, trailing off, there’s applause. The costaleros jump; the Jesus on the cross moves off around the corner.

4:42 AM: Now focus shifts to the Nazareno Jesus, his candles flickering in light breeze and fine mist. People all around are taking pictures; the band starts to play but again we’re interrupted by another saeta, the woman’s voice strong in the air like cord, sinuous, passionate.

4: 48 AM: To watch the Nazareno be mounted is something truly incredible. The full sculpture and platform must weigh at least a ton, maybe more. I would estimate there are 40 people under there. The paso is trailed by cofradia members dressed in legionnaires outfits, including hats with elaborate white plumes—now I can see what the feathers were before, the cofradia members coming out of the church. The candlelight casts shadows on the dwindling crowd; people are starting to go home to sleep.

4:52 AM: We have more room to move, so we move closer to the Maria. All of the candles in front of her have blown out, but her beauty is unmistakable. The trumpets sound again, followed by gentle processional music. The costaleros jump, grunt, and move out. We linger, watching Maria disappear around the corner after her companions.

5:01 AM: The rain starts again, this time heavier and more insistent. We walk home, feeling truly touched. To see a community come together like this is something powerful. And to see such beauty and magic come to life in a place I think about as a kind of “home” is something extraordinary. Tonight, Jueves Santo, is a night full of “madrugas,” and the same kind of things are happening in Cordoba, in Sevilla, in Jerez, in Granada, on bigger scales—more pasos, more people, more processions.

But to see these streets transformed, to see the places where I walk to go to the post office, to go to school, to get tapas, to drink coffee candle lit, made new—that’s something different. It’s like seeing something ordinary and every day made sacred. Or maybe it was sacred all this time.

The lovely Maria before her candles blew out

Sunday, April 21, 2013


I was on the verge of posting my promised second entry on Semana Santa in Linares. I edited and worked out the kinks on the train ride back from a long-weekend trip up north to Palencia. But then--two enormous things have happened; suddenly. (And I punctuate that strangely because in reality that is how they have been punctuated, incredibly strangely.) Semana Santa will have to wait.

Since the beginning of winter, my Linarense friends have been warning me that northern Andalucia has only two seasons: broiling and freezing. As a Bostonian born and bred, I admit that I brushed them off. In Boston, your reward for surviving the long, dark cold is glorious warmth, an overabundance of flowers and blue spring sky, and ducklings at the Public Garden. Spring means a gradual transition between harsh grays and lush greens. It's logical; it provides continuity. Spring, between winter and summer, makes sense.

Which is part of why I struggled this past Tuesday morning, and all through this week. It's true, they warned me, but I didn't believe them. All through January, February, March, up until as recently as two weeks ago, the sky was grey and dripping. I needed a heater almost constantly to avoid shivering in my drafty apartment. I wore two pairs of socks to bed under two blankets. The trees were bare, the ground barren.

Then, after Easter, I got sick--horribly stomach-bug-bronchitis-10-days-of-antibiotics sick--and when I managed to emerge from my apartment and return to an approximation of my former routine, the smallest signs of change had begun to appear. I noticed buds on the trees in the plaza. On the train up north, the fields were a neon, almost noxious, green, full of new growth. My weekend at "home" in Castilla y Leon with my friend Hannah featured coffee in sudden, absurdly warm sunshine; picnics in the park; and my first sunburn of 2013... And then, back in Andalucia, I returned to a world altered.

The first thing we noticed when we got off the train in Linares was that everyone was wearing flip flops and t-shirts. We stripped off our sweaters waiting for the bus, and when it came the air conditioning was on. Dropping my suitcase in my apartment before my weekly flamenco lesson, I saw that the trees in the plaza were in full leaf, that kind of deep, shady green that seems like it's always been there. "This is some 'I Dream of Jeannie' sh*t," I said to Hannah. "You know, *blink blink* and pop! flowers in the gardens; pop! leaves on the trees."

I had my lesson (more on the amazing time I am having learning to sing flamenco in a future entry), and then strolled the usual 15 minutes back to my apartment. The strange feeling of having walked in on the middle of summer persisted; the twilight was that special purple that characterizes late evening in July. In Plaza Colon, one of the nicer plazas in town, palm trees shaded playing children in the fading light, teenagers in short shorts gossiping and chewing gum and flirting, old couples sitting on benches enjoying the breeze. Trees flowering a lurid shade of magenta bent their heads downward, heavy with blossoms. The scene was absolutely free of any hint of spring. I texted Hannah again: "I feel like I've been Rip Van Winkled, slept for 100 years and woken up in the middle of summer. I feel like I missed something."

It was an important sentiment to hold onto, because when I got home and signed onto the internet, the first thing I saw was my friend Maya, in Boston, posting: "Boston people: STAY AWAY FROM THE COPLEY SQUARE AREA. There have been two explosions at Boylston and Exeter, down by the Marathon finish line." Reading that sentence, I felt an echo from an hour before-- that feeling that I had skipped over something important and arrived in a profoundly unexpected place, one I had to struggle to understand.

That was beginning of a long, awful several days for many people, in Boston and around the world. Maya sent me the news feed she was following, and I lay on my bed, eyes glued to the computer, for some 6 hours. I felt lost, unable to process this sudden turn of events. I read some paragraphs repeatedly, trying to find a way in to understanding. But I just couldn't seem to believe the terrible things I was reading about what is supposed to be one of the happiest, most positive, most festive days of the year in a city that so many people (myself included) presumed without question would be free of violence of this kind.

For me, the most unsettling part was the idea that the happiest time, crossing the finish line-- a place that another writer on another blog called "the site of the most human potential"-- could be so suddenly altered. I had taken for granted the natural transition of winter to spring to summer; we as Bostonians had all taken for granted the easy logic of safety and order during one of our most hallowed days. But there was nothing logical about how easily this bubble of security, the one we all carry around with us that allows us to go about our lives without fear, could be so suddenly burst, nor about the perpetrators' desire to inflict such suffering (physical or psychological) on innocent people. Nothing made sense about going away for a weekend up north or for an hour to a flamenco lesson and coming back to a world that looked so profoundly different. I thought back to my "I Dream of Jeannie" comment, which now seemed weeks earlier. I wished I could *blink blink* this away, too. In my enormous, empty apartment I felt very alone and very far from home.

The next day I got out of bed with some difficulty, having slept perhaps 3 hours, feeling like a heartsick, shaken zombie. I went to school dreading having to put on a happy face, although surprisingly my hours of teaching that day were the easiest, providing something else to think about. The day was incongruously bright with that same strange mid-summer sunshine, its accompanying chirping birds and lush greenery. Around me, people went grocery shopping, drank coffee, talked to neighbors-- another normal day. Between classes, I checked for updates, found my eyes welling up at descriptions of the victims and the injured, the paramount importance of Patriots Day in New England life, and the kindness of strangers in the face of such sudden upheaval. A few teachers offered kind words. The rest were unaware.

I came home, went straight back to my news feed, and found a post from a fellow expat in China. Somehow, his words managed to echo my own thoughts, and it was a comfort. 

"Today I’m sitting in a virtual corner, all alone in my Chinese office," he wrote. "I’m surrounded by nice people (very nice people, I fact), but they don’t get it. They can’t get it. None of them are from Boston. Hell, none of them are even Americans. The few quiet words that they offered when I first arrived were nice, but they barely helped. Not since my first days after moving here, when I didn't know anybody in this huge megacity, have I ever felt so isolated. What I really want are some Bostonians to commiserate with, to hug."
"Exactly," I thought.

The next days were still difficult, but sleep and time heal many things. I was lucky-- no one I knew was injured (or worse) in the bombings-- and as Boston held vigils, I started to move toward healing, too, across the ocean. I napped, I talked with friends, I discovered a new cafe in the old town behind my house. Its umbrella-shaded terrace seemed the perfect place for a mid-day beer and a tapa of bull's tail in savory brown sauce (it may sound bizarre, but actually it's quite delicious!) Sitting on the bleached brick streets, watching the light mid-day traffic roll by, I soaked in the contrast of orange tree leaves against the sky. I watched a man lean his bold red Vespa against the brown stone of the house next door at an angle so perfectly picturesque that it almost hurt-- and felt peace for the first time in days.

But then Friday morning: chaos again. A friend had arrived for a weekend visit, but I could hardly leave my room and tear my eyes away from the news coverage. It was almost too intense, too bizarre, to be believed. Police chases snaked through what amounts to my childhood, tearing down Mount Auburn street, where I waited for the bus to Harvard Square in my bored and rebellious high school days; past the Town Diner (still my favorite in Massachusetts), where I've eaten dozens of eggs over leisurely Sunday brunches. I watched with horror as the media set up camp at Arsenal Mall, the site of many back-to-school shopping sprees. How could it be possible that the suburban streets five minutes from my childhood home could so suddenly become a war zone, transformed with the same surreal abruptness that had heralded this strange Linares summer?

With relief, Friday night brought some closure. My tired eyes stayed open until 3 am, waiting for the all-clear call, having to know how this was going to end. I fell asleep breathing a sigh of relief along with my fellow Bostonians, imagining our exhalations making my window panes rattle all night. And this weekend, although the summer has continued to blossom,  the temperature has fallen back a little. The trees are still in full leaf, and that specific summer light persists, but the temperature whispers of spring.

I wish there were an easy moral to this, a neat way to sew up the parallels I see here. But in the search for meaning (in something as enormous as the violence and upheaval Boston experienced this week or as small as a sudden season change) things are rarely so simple. That's as close to a moral as I can find: to hold fast to the small beauties-- the sweaty achievement of a goal, a beer on sunny bleach-bricked streets, a neon-green field full of new growth, or a picture of a city you love-- and to understand that that the logic and continuity of New England spring is an unusual luxury in a world that is most often abruptly unexpected, uneven, inexplicable, unfair. Winter can become summer or the dream a nightmare in an instant-- but (as I watched my city prove from afar but always knew in some part of me) together we can make it to the otherside.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Palm Sunday, Mallorca

I've got another Semana Santa post almost ready to go, but the realities of living (in Spain and in general) sometimes get in the way. So, while you wait, I offer you this portrait, which I was thrilled to capture. This little girl was posing for her mother with her palm (almost taller than her!), a traditional craft for Palm Sunday. This picture was taken after the Pollenca Palm Sunday procession, which featured a significant percentage of the townspeople marching through the medieval streets with their elaborately-folded palm fronds and traditional olive branches

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Semana Santa 2013: Passion and light-heartedness in the Andaluz streets

 Hooded penitents march in a Semana Santa processions outside the cathedral in Jerez de la Frontera

After experiencing it last year in Palencia, I thought I knew from Semana Santa. Castilla y Leon (the Spanish state that contains Palencia) is known as an area with amazing Easter festivities. It's true: the processions, in which enormous pasos (statues of bible scenes, sometimes hundreds of years old) roll through town, followed by penitants in eerie hooded costumes and accompanied by complete silence, are affecting and impressive. People come from all over to see Easter in Salamanca, Burgos, and Leon, and I understand why. Something powerful and unique is at play there.When I moved south, people kept telling me: “Semana Santa in Andalucia is different.” They insisted it was both more passionate and less serious, which was a hard combination for me to imagine. In the end, though, that is exactly what I found.

The biggest difference is immediately obvious in any Andaluz Semana Santa parade: the costaleros. Andaluz pasos are similar to their northern brethren in that they are enormous platforms topped with statues, although these tend to be images of saints and Jesus’ last days and beautiful renderings of Mary (well, Maria) on top. Instead of being rolled by the penitents, they are carried by teams of “costaleros” (the ones who carry), between 15 and 40 people depending on the size and weight of their burden. For the weeks leading up to Easter, the costaleros practiced in my neighborhood, training like marathon runners--and it’s a good thing, too, the pasos can weigh more than 1000 kilos.

I would come upon them suddenly, rounding a corner to find them moving slowly, almost silently, along the street. The clues to their presence were the soft thud-thud of their sneakers moving in under an enormous but as yet empty platform, a borrowed police light on top warning drivers to stay away, the ding of a triangle keeping rhythm. A week before Semana Santa, they added weight, building the metal skeletons of their saints on top to simulate the distribution of weight. Later, though, in the processions themselves, the costaleros were almost invisible behind a curtain of cloth, only their sneakers visible, always moving in unison. They'd move a hundred meters, then stop to rest and put the paso down. Then, with grunts and yells from hidden places, they'd jump up, suddenly, landing dramatically with knees bent and the paso on their backs again.

In the course of a few days, I saw processions in Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz, and here in Linares, and it’s true that by and large the atmosphere was light, funny, social. People chatted with neighbors, penitants texted on their phones as they marched, mobile stands sold snacks and plastic trumpets for the young ones-- all behavior that would never be permitted up north. It felt like a big street party, crowds of people dressed up in their best dresses and slacks, bows in the kids’ hair, gossip and salty snacks on everyone’s lips. There was never a moment of silence, even as the costaleros shuffled by.... but it all stopped for the saetas. These long, intense, deeply-felt and often improvised flamenco songs are sung for the saints as they are paraded through the streets, and they are unique to southern Spain. I heard three saetas during Andaluz semana santa, and each time I was struck by their vocal acrobatics,  pure emotion, and the silence and stillness that would sweep over the scene for just a moment.

That’s where the passion comes in, I think—no, Easter may not be a silent, serious time here in the south, but people certainly feel very intensely about it. Some hate it ("A bunch of hypocrites, they don’t go to church the rest of the year," one friend commented to me); others look forward to it all year with mounting excitement. The costaleros go through enormous pain and suffering in the name of the holiday and their savior. The saeta singers pour their hearts out in front of crowds who turn out from all over town and at all hours (more on that next entry.) And when it rains and the pasos can’t go out (most are considered priceless works of art due to their age and provenance), the people hold each other and cry—real tears.

It was a rainy Semana Santa all over Spain, especially in Andalucia, and ESPECIALLY in Linares (I read in an article today that up to 4 times the normal amount of rain fell in March. In some places up to 6 times!) so there was a lot of crying this year. But one particular, particularly impressive procession took place at 4 am on Thursday night, and I was there to witness it. Stay tuned for my next blog entry to read all about it.

 A late-night procession, bringing a paso home to its church in Jerez de la Frontera