independence day is one of the holidays that i never fully appreciated until i lived outside the country and missed it for five consecutive years now. i don’t even know what i miss exactly; i can’t imagine what i would be doing now were i there. i just have these vague images in my mind of walking through carlsbad with a beer in hand and hearing music pouring out of every home we passed on our way to the beach and another time in del mar, sitting atop a hill watching the fireworks over the fairgrounds. mostly, i remember the feel of sand beneath my feet, the smell of salt, fish and seaweed combined with the smoky, meaty smell of barbecue twinged with the sharper, pervading hint of already-exploded fireworks and the sounds of summer all around.
of course, i’m probably romanticizing it, as per usual. most likely, i was working most days, or going to school. and i’m pretty sure i only hung out in carlsbad one year.
perhaps the embellished memories come partly from barcelona. after all, the fourth of july can’t help but pale in comparison with san juan. and if ever there were a celebration that didn’t need exaggeration to begin with, it’s san juan. it’s so powerful in fact, you can feel it coming every year. first with the children, as the heightened energy in the classroom becomes almost palpable and then walking home there’s the first of many groups of boys, randomly (carelessly and recklessly) throwing fireworks at anything and everything they see in the streets (and one year, at me, from above – looking up, i expected to see the tops of hiding teenage heads when what do i see but a four year old boy grinning ecstatically and his yia yia looking down as innocent as can be.) then it grows as the fireworks stands start popping up all over the city and the days get longer and the august holidays approach, but still seem too, too far away. looking back, the city practically glistened in anticipation: the beaches were full, guiris were walking around looking like gambas (sadly, myself included) and out in the plazas, the sun shining those few extra hours meant that parents could have another vino blanco while their children kicked fútbols at the walls, at the clock tower, at each other and ran around delightedly, knowing what was coming, but not knowing how to contain themselves until then.
though i was always happy that san juan was coming – intertwined with the fact that it meant the end of the school year and summer were also imminent, it also, frankly, scared me half to death. every year i expected someone around me, if not myself, to have their leg/hand/hair exploded/set on fire while some seven year old watched in fascination. of course, all of my adult students and friends always told me that i was crazy – ‘nothing ever happens, it’s perfectly safe’. yeah right. though i never saw any accidental or on-purpose firework-related injuries, i still have no doubt that they occur.
my first san juan will always be the most special. i had arrived in barcelona about two weeks before and the experience was still new and exciting and open to anything and everything. though we were all working hard at our tefl course, we were also playing hard and none harder than our little les corts flat, thanks in no small part to our lovely irish contingent, claire. of course, looking back, we can easily blame her for a large part of it, but in fact, her influence was more than welcomed.
i, of course, was trying desperately to change my initial impression of the city, which was, sadly, negative. it’s just that, having finally arrived after such a long and arduous flight (naively and blissfully unaware of the fear that would clench my whole body each and every subsequent time i re-entered the country illegally) i was ready for something big to hit me. i knew that tingle that i felt (and still feel) when i first saw san francisco at seventeen and every inch of me just knew that i would live there one day. i thought, ‘this is barcelona. (europe!) it’ll be even better…’ it was not. the taxi ride from the airport into the city center is everything i expected barcelona not to be: boring, mundane, industrial and frankly, ugly. i was disappointed and the longer i was there, i was nervous. nervous that i would hate it and that the ‘oh my god, what have i done’ feeling would never leave. (of course, most of it did and some of it didn’t and i probably should have moved to madrid after christin left, but that’s a whole nother story. on top of that, i should mention that the drive from sfo to the city isn’t all that great either.)
so, i was showing myself that i’d made the right decision by throwing myself whole-heartedly into everything: walking all over the city, drinking, partying, studying, learning english grammar, learning spanish and again, partying. and then, just two little weeks barcelona presented me with a perfect opportunity to do just that: san juan, the shortest night of the year and the official start to summer. i really have no idea why it isn’t celebrated everywhere.
san juan happily coincided with both claire and devin’s birthdays, so we threw a pre-celebration party at ours and then took ourselves off to the beach to join in the revelry. the entire night was complete with everything that one should experience when one moves to spain in their twenties: drinking cava out of the bottle, dancing with thousands of people to loud techno blasting from the chiringuitos and skinny-dipping surrounded by fireworks in the sky and bonfires on the beach. all around us were people from different countries, different cultures and i could hear every language i could recognize and many that i couldn’t. the best part of it all was how innocent it all seemed. we were in the middle of a bacchanalia and everyone was smiling like children – even the skinny dipping had no sexual overtones or innuendo, it was simply that we wanted to go into the water. the night ended with the sun coming up on us sitting in a kumbaya circle, smoking joints with a group of lovely gay catalans.
of course, now i see that the san juan celebrations are not as innocent as i felt that night, which was confirmed the next year when tiana got her bag stolen, and that feeling of the first one was never quite captured again. but in that moment, it was everything i had moved away to experience and contained the promise of everything barcelona could be for me in the next year. and, of course, it absolutely blew any memory i have or could possibly imagine of the fourth of july out of the water.