Glad to be back: I was in northern Spain for a few days last week — the Basque Country specifically, and San Sebastian to be precise.
God knows I have bored on here about the glories of San Sebastian in the past — the tortillas! the txakoli! — and last week was as pleasant as ever. Strolling Fermin de Cableton, though, I noticed white and blue flags aplenty: all for the local soccer team, Real Sociedad, no doubt.
Wrong. Though the colours were the same, they belonged to the local rowing side, who were competing in a coastal rowing regatta — part of the Euskal Jarriak, the Basque festival of culture.
The significance of the event was brought home in the Meson Portaletas near the harbour, where the context would have been immediately recognisable to a GAA county or club secretary anywhere in Ireland.
The Meson heaved with drinkers and eaters. They sipped their canas and copas and chattered away for a while but then the TV was switched on and the conversations stilled.
A local channel was showing a couple of people standing in a nondescript committee room somewhere, each holding a small black bag.
Representatives of the rowing teams entered the shot, fished in for a token and withdrew it.
Clearly it was the draw for the next round of the regatta, and for this visitor it was like watching the arrangement of junior hurling championship fixtures, with all the constituent elements present.
From the entertainment of seeing a couple of the witnesses in the bar — two chunky, magnificently-moustached gents in their sixties, both in green tops — elbowing each other knowingly when their side came out of the bag to the fixture-arrangers themselves looking off to the side occasionally, slightly confused about the procedure.
A stroll down to the harbour front itself offered another view: The heavy rowing boats borne in by their crews, odd signage on the hulls (Amura Pasai san Pedro, for instance, or Bizkaitara Kaiku Ibarbierri).
For all I know those could be local pubs or inflammatory slogans, maybe both; Basque is a tough language to crack. The teams were from towns and villages up and down the coast.
It was enjoyable to be part of the partisan crowds which flocked around each boat as it was taken dripping from the water, each rower slapped on the back by people who clearly knew them all well by name.
Drone footage would have made an interesting splash of colour if the scene had been shot from above: the long, heavy boat flanked immediately by the rowers, all in team colours, their supporters in the same colours surrounding them and spreading out two or three deep from the rowers; then the normal crowd in duller shades further back.
Some of the enjoyment came from that occasional holiday feeling of tripping across something unexpected, a chance flash of life in the place you’re visiting.
And some of the enjoyment came from how self-contained the experience was. I’d heard of the Basque games — stone-lifting, wood-chopping — and it shouldn’t be a surprise that a coastal culture should incorporate rowing.
But the fact the sport was enjoyed on such an intimate level struck home with your columnist — participants and fans mingling over oysters and Verdejo on the Calle Mayor, the elderly lads in green singing their version of ‘Sean South of Garryowen’ outside the Ganderias bar come 11 o’clock ...
Kavanagh would have understood it, and made his own importance of just this kind of local row. I was just glad to have been there for it.
Here’s hoping Boom Town lives up to the dizzying billing
You probably know me well enough now (I know too much about your love for San Sebastian anyway, says you).
If you pay much attention to this particular part of the page you’ll know that the kind of book title I cite below was created specifically to poke the centre of my brain, right where it says BUY BUY BUY.
I stumbled across an online reference to Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, its Chaotic Founding, its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis
by Sam Anderson and and knew it was only a matter of time before I’d get my hands on it. I didn’t even need to see “dizzyingly pleasurable” used to describe it in The New Yorker.
I have already reached out to its author and will duly put him through a friendly but thorough interrogation for your reading enjoyment. I don’t know if it’ll be dizzyingly pleasurable, but I’m certainly looking forward to it.
Aldo still a hero in San Sebastien
I didn’t bring much back in the way of holiday gifts so don’t be bothering me for treats.
I did get to a few of the local hostelries, which you have to do on your txikiteo, but I didn’t get to the fabled bars which have the photographs of John Aldridge in Real Sociedad gear.
Aldridge was the first non-Basque to line out for the local team in San Sebastian, which is a bigger deal than you may think.
The supporters at the time weren’t too welcoming at first, but Aldridge’s work ethic and scoring ability won them over and I was told before going that in some of the tabernas the familiar pencil-thin moustache figures is visible over a white and blue striped jersey.
I did make it into the club shop, which was flogging pens with the club logo for nearly a fiver, so I didn’t dawdle.
Not before clocking an exhibit at the front, however, which features the actual Ikurriña, the famous Basque flag, brought onto the field by Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao players for their 1976 derby.
By flying the flag — literally — which had been banned by Franco, who died the year before, the players helped accelerate its return to legitimacy, and now it can be seen everywhere in the region.
Of course, one of the players who carried it onto the field that day was later sentenced to eight years in jail for kidnapping, but that’s a whole other story.
The more things stay the same...
The upside of last week was missing the scramble for angles: by that I mean the hunt for a Dublin/Tyrone perspective that hasn’t been done to death, particularly with Dublin appearing in a 512th major final in a row.
Hurling writers have had it good in that regard recently, with a couple of novel All-Ireland final pairings. The mock-sorrow of their football counterparts was noticeable a few years ago when Tipperary and Kilkenny slugged it out every September, but now the boot is on the other (ok, that’s enough of that — everyone).
Anyway, if I’m working the week of next year’s football decider I’ll be interviewing a) the red carpet and b) the wife of a steward. I called those first.
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