The Postscript: A chorus from the streets

Published 8:03 am Thursday, October 25, 2018

The great thing about being in the middle of things is that you don’t need to go anywhere to see everything.

My husband, Peter, and I are spending a month in Spain, renting an apartment in the oldest part of Pamplona, a very old city. The apartment is described as a “fifth-floor walk-up,” but don’t be fooled. In Europe, the first floor is really the second floor, so a fifth-floor walk-up requires I climb five flights of stairs. Yesterday I counted: there are 98 of them. But who’s counting.

Still, the climb is worthwhile because I have a wonderful little balcony that overlooks the city. It is not fancy; there is a derelict cactus on one side, a dying yucca on the other, and some slightly-worse-for-wear patio furniture in between. But the location cannot be beaten. Beneath me is an endless parade of people eating and drinking and chatting.

I had just been to the cheese shop which, like everything else in Pamplona and most of Europe, keeps hours that take some getting used to. Peter and I already knew there wouldn’t be much for sale on Sundays, but even on weekdays, the stores are closed for several hours in the middle of the day. Since Peter and I are cooking nearly every meal, purchasing cheese has taken on an unaccustomed urgency. I was returning to our little apartment with the cheese and a new scarf (Peter will tell you I don’t need another scarf, but it was a color I don’t have—and only $3.50!) when I heard the music.

This was not a handful of people singing. There was a chorus of more than a hundred voices coming down the street. I hastily changed clothes. (I didn’t know what was happening, but it seemed reasonable to dress for whatever occasion presented itself.) When I got to the street, I was astonished. There was an accordion, a guitar, and castanets accompanying an enormous group holding songbooks and singing in unison.

I could not understand a word. I’m used to understanding very little Spanish, but I truly understood not one word. I snuck a look at the songbooks (some showing considerable signs of wear and some laminated) and saw that whatever was written in them contained far more x’s and z’s than anything in Spanish.

“Basque!” I thought. “Basque singers!”

We are in a part of Spain where Basque is very much a living language. All the street signs and historical monuments are in Spanish and Basque. Still, I’ve not heard a lot of Basque spoken—and none sung—until this morning.

I worked my way into a doorframe and listened to song after song. Finally, the leader said something to the assembled group accompanied by one finger in the air which meant (in any language) “one more song.” He played the first chord and everyone let their songbooks fall to their side as they sang something they all knew by heart. It was more somber and emotional than anything that had proceeded it. Then it was over.

“How lucky!” I thought, “to be here just while this was happening!” I climbed the five flights of stairs to our apartment (which, in all fairness, should seem a little less steep by now), the balcony door was wide open. And, again, I heard singing.

But this time it was not a giant chorus. Now a group of twelve voices, men and women, were positioned directly below my balcony. They stood in a circle and sang in perfect harmony. It was so beautiful—it made my heart hurt.

Till next time,


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