A March to the Tune of Tradition

I caught myself whistling a strain of music today.  It ambled up and down around just a few notes, like a children’s song or a folk melody, returning to the beginning only 10 or 20 seconds after it had started.

I stopped whistling for a moment, trying to recollect where the tune had come from.  The refrain continued quietly inside my head, a soft but slightly piercing sound like wind in reeds.  Then the melody slowly marched forward to the beat of many far-away feet, and the sound grew in my head and multiplied until it emerged into the forefront of my consciousness as hundreds, thousands of little flutes…

Flutes…of course!

I had heard this refrain played again and again over a period of many hours one evening in September, on hundreds of flutes played by hundreds of men, backed up by hundreds of drums and marching feet, in the Basque town of Hondarribia.  The sound had become embedded in my memory, linked note for note with my memories of that enchanted accidental evening.  Whistling those few simple notes had pulled me back into those cobbled, lamp-lit lanes, and the warm evening air of early September along the coast of Northern Spain.

We had been warned that it would be the last real weekend of summer and we wanted to take advantage of it, so we drove west from Pau for about an hour and a half, crossed the Spanish border and headed for the beach.

It was a gloriously sunny, hot day and the air was mostly still apart from an occasional curling breeze.  Suddenly around 6 PM a fierce wind swept across the beach; one moment people were splashing happily in the water and lying nearly naked in the sun, and the next moment a deluge of sand was flying through the air, filling backpacks, tote bags and picnic baskets, finding its way into eyes and mouths and slapping across every inch of uncovered skin.  Lifeguards evacuated the water, and most people cleared off the beach. We were among a few intrepid groups that held our ground, hoping for the storm to subside so we could eke out just a last little bit of sunshine from the summer.

Despite being as stubborn as we both are, after about half an hour of relentless wind, flying sand, stinging skin, a horribly unpleasant crunchiness in our teeth, and completely disabled vision, we decided it was time to give up.  We packed up and trekked across the beach. I felt like Lawrence of Arabia in a bikini.

We made it to the car and drove off a little disoriented; we got off track, and instead of driving towards France we found ourselves going up the side of a hill on a winding two-lane road.  We turned around and drove back down, but didn’t end up where we had started – instead we ended up in the small Basque town of Hondarribia.

We pulled into a big grassy space and David looked at me questioningly and asked, “Should we park?”  We gave each other mischievous, ‘well this wasn’t the plan, but let’s go explore’ smiles, and got out of the car.

We found ourselves in the middle of a classic Basque hamlet.  Basque towns abound with color, especially along the coast – bright reds, greens and blues in particular.  Basque facades are very cheerful, clean and bright, and always manage to look freshly painted. They have a warm and welcoming quality even in cold winter months, when everything else seems to be drained of color and life.

We decided to follow a small but steady stream of people headed in one direction down a broad street. After a few minutes we turned a corner and the street opened onto a tree-lined boulevard teeming with people, balloons, voices, flags and general hubbub.  It seemed that nearly every single person that lived in town was out on the streets lining the sidewalks, or filling the pintxos (tapas) bars and ice cream parlors.  The children played and the adults chatted with one another in a relaxed, cheerful manner.

Flags were hung from most of the balconies and street lamps.

People also stood on their balconies, watching the crowd below.

We had a glass of sangria in a pintxos bar and then some homemade ice cream as we strolled down the packed streets, waiting to see what everyone else was waiting for.

And then from far off we heard the sound of drums.  In a few minutes a band of perhaps a hundred men and boys of every age marched down the street wearing red berets.

The first half played flutes in a little melody that repeated again and again, and the rest played marching band style drums, and in between them a young woman of the village, wearing bright red lipstick the color of their berets, marched in high heeled espadrilles with a never-failing smile, briskly waving a little fan in her hand while resting the other hand lightly on her hip.

People applauded (particularly enthusiastically for the pretty village girl). Children ran around in giddy packs twirling and dancing in circles, and little boys who were not yet old enough to march stood on the sidewalks and tried to play along on little flutes they had been keeping in their pockets.

After a minute or two the men had passed, continuing their circuit around the town.  In about 5 minutes we heard more flutes approaching, this time playing a slightly different tune.  These men wore black berets and were followed by an extensive section of drums, all marching in unison like the men before them.  I was struck by the diversity of the men marching together – the old pot-bellied, grey-haired man alongside the punk with the piercings and tattoos, alongside the seven-year-old child, next to the muscle-bound surfer guy, and the gangly thirteen-year old covered in pimples and the man that might have been a businessman.

Every 5-10 minutes a new group would appear.  We began to wander, weaving in and out of the crowds, as group after group, hundreds and then thousands of men gradually marched by, filling the air with their simple melody.

Take a stroll with me through this part of the Marina of Hondarribia:


As night fell we took a little break from the festivities for a glass of sangria and some pintxos (the Basque version of tapas) in a warmly lit bar covered in fantastic cartoons that toyed with Hondarribian stereotypes…


…and then in the dusk, we wandered up narrow cobbled lanes into the medieval walled citadel above the Marina.

Hondarribia, overlooking the Txingudi Bay, is formed by the conjunction of two neighborhoods – a fishing village along the Marina, and the ancient quarter, replete with a castle, a cathedral and a handful of palaces. It is currently home to approximately 16000 permanent residents.

Much of what you see in the old town was built in 1498, after a fire destroyed the original medieval town.

Wander the cobbled streets and see the ancient fortifications surrounding the old town here:

As a border town, Hondarribia was vulnerable to attacks.  In 1638, during the Thirty Years’ War and the Franco-Spanish war, the French laid siege to Hondarribia for several months.  On September 7th, the Spanish army defeated the French and released Hondarribia from the siege.  Every September 8th since then the people of Hondarribia have celebrated their liberation from the French with a military procession composed of regiments, each representing a different neighborhood of town.  This is what was being commemorated on the day we happened to stumble upon this beautiful hamlet.


As we wandered through the old city, we ran into one of the regiments high up in the town, on a quiet back lane.  They marched past us, serious and concentrated. It was thrilling to be all alone at night in an ancient street and to hear hundreds of far-off instruments, and then to have those sounds start to expand until they were quite loud, and then to suddenly have the previously empty street we were on explode with men bearing flutes, armed with drumsticks, marching in time right past us, and on and on into the night.

There was something magnificent about the way the men continued to march through the empty streets, commemorating a victory from almost four hundred years back.  These boys and men marched for the camaraderie, the tradition, and their pride in their home, playing the same tune over and over and over again, almost meditatively, through empty streets, no audience, no onlookers anymore, just their own commitment to the moment.

We continued to meander through the twisting streets of the Old Town, and the sounds of flutes and drums drifted up to us from every direction as the dozens of regiments made their ceremonial march around the city.

By the time we left around 11 PM we could still hear the echo of flutes playing in the distance.


I was taken with the way the marchers played the same refrain over and over again, street after street, with seriousness, commitment, and joy.  It reminded me in a strange way of a circle of old villagers I saw during a festival in India, who sang the same chant over and over and over again, all night long until the dawn, singing the one line each time like it was something surprising and joyful no matter how many thousands of times they had repeated it before.

While the march itself wasn’t what you’d call ‘spectacular,’ it created an ambience, an energy, a joy, and more than anything it reinforced a sense of community.

I was also impressed by all the young people I had seen taking part – not just children, but tons of teenagers and guys in their 20’s and 30’s.  I watched the little boys who were still too young and I imagined how they must long to finally be old enough to take part in it themselves, and how proud they must feel on their first day in the march.  Then, year after year, as some of the older faces disappear and new younger ones join in, these boys and men are bound by the experience to one another, and to something that goes past the boundaries of generations, and stretches over centuries.

I was trying to imagine cocky American teenagers thinking it was “cool” to be part of something like this and I just couldn’t.  Sometimes Americans have a hard time understanding other people’s traditions, since we have relatively few of our own, and there are often such gaps between generations in America that it’s hard to get younger people to take part in the same activities that older people enjoy.  Is it because when we are children we don’t participate in enough activities with a community, activities that we yearn for and need to recreate with our friends and then later with our own children?


I think so much of the beauty of tradition and ritual comes from the simple act of spending time with one another and bonding.  That is what is missing from so many people’s lives in the US apart from a few days of the year, those holidays where we let ourselves be part of a family again, part of a community, part of a tradition.

Usually while living abroad I’ve let holidays pass without much fanfare – but on November 25th, I made my first ever Thanksgiving Feast.  I looked up recipes the night before, made up grocery lists, and spent practically the whole next day cooking.  I couldn’t find a turkey or a pumpkin, so I made do with a roast duck and sweet potato pie, plus stuffing, mashed potatoes, a cucumber salad and stuffed mushrooms.  It was nothing fancy – but it went pretty well for my first effort.

The morning after Thanksgiving when I woke up and I smelled the lingering holiday aromas in each room – the smell of roast and baked things, I felt a wonderful post-Thanksgiving lazy satisfaction, despite or perhaps BECAUSE of my exhaustion from the previous day’s activities.

I ate the few bites of leftovers (a duck doesn’t go very far among 5 people) and those mouthfuls connected me to all the day-after-Thanksgivings of my childhood, when everyone lounges around the house, relaxing and feeling grateful for each other.  I knew in that moment that the holidays had begun.  And I felt so much pure, simple joy.

Recreating the tradition of my country and my childhood made the approach of December feel much more logical; I could embrace freezing temperatures, holiday decorations, and Christmas carols, rather than feeling like the year had passed too fast and that I wasn’t ready.

While my American nature recoils on occasion at elements of ‘traditional’ life in France, where tradition ends up meaning complete inflexibility and unwillingness to change or improve anything, I am also trying to come to terms with the importance of ritual and tradition in most people’s lives, and in fact in my own life.

Traditions, nostalgia, and ritual are so important – even in relatively young countries like the United States.  Without them something very precious is lost – our sense of connection to the past and to one another.  Our traditions are not WHO we are, but they are still very much a part of us – I feel that more strongly than ever living abroad, so far from my own roots.

Unfortunately most societies seem imbalanced on one side or the other – focused on either individualism or the rules and traditions of the community.  How can people recognize their role as one part of a larger community but also be able to think as individuals?  How can a society strike a balance between feeling a connection to the past and the community, but also a willingness to change what isn’t working and to think creatively about the future?

~ by zoetropic on December 3, 2010.

3 Responses to “A March to the Tune of Tradition”

  1. EY! PACIFY! I love your posts! Miss you and Cabeza de León!!!!!

  2. […] A March to the Tune of Tradition […]

  3. […] *A March to the Tune of Tradition […]

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