Only when living in a foreign country can you be blindsided by a national holiday. Even when you live on a fairly normal day-to-day basis, when you speak (or have someone speak for you) fluently, when you pay bills and run errands and negotiate the minutia of getting around and making it work, you can find yourself standing in the middle of the beach at 4 a.m., surrounded by thousands and thousands of people who are throwing fireworks wildly into the sky and at the sand all around your head and feet.
Yesterday was the Berbena de Sant Joan, St. John’s Night, the biggest celebration in Spain—particularly in Barcelona—besides New Year’s Eve. It ushers in the Dia de Sant Joan on June 24, the feast of St. John the Baptist, and celebrates the summer solstice, the shortest night of the year. The day is marked in an unusual way: besides the expected feasting, where people apparently eat a pastry called the coca de Sant Joan, everyone spends the night—the whole night—setting off fireworks they’d stocked up on during the week. By fireworks, I don’t mean sparklers. I mean flashy, rocketing, apartment-shaking fireworks, so many of them that Andrew and I felt like we were in a war zone as we drank gin and tonics in our bedroom at midnight.
From our balcony, we watched some young boys setting off fireworks on our street. Unconcerned, they lit the fireworks in their hands and threw them; lit them on the ground then doubled back to reposition them; lit them and let them explode under their shoes. One of the boys was having trouble lighting one, and he stooped over it, studying the sparks and the meager smoke, then grabbed it to light it again. A man approached them—the boy’s father. I expected the man to yell at the boy, to instruct him angrily to stand well away from the firework, but this was not the case. The man took up the firework in his own hand, lit it with his cigarette lighter, and, with a smile of pure happiness, threw it into a storm drain. The explosion shook the whole street, maybe the whole block. Andrew and I looked at each other, open-mouthed. “He threw it into the storm drain,” we kept saying as we ventured into the streets and made our way to the beach to witness the festivities firsthand.
Like so much else about this celebration, the firework thrown into the storm drain was something that, as Americans, we simply could not make sense of. Living in a foreign country means growing adept at quickly assembling cultural clues to figure out unfamiliar situations: if an empty café table on the sidewalk is yours for the taking or if people are actually waiting for that table inside, for example, or whether you order at the counter or let a waiter come to you. When you see the same kind of espadrille in every shop window, you know it’s the right shoe for summer; when you see everyone gripping their handbags when a seemingly cute small child walks through a café, you know that child is going to grab whatever’s not pinned down as she walks past. But with St. Joan, we didn’t even recognize what we were seeing as clues. All week, occasional fireworks would go off, which we could hear from our apartment. “Who is setting off those fireworks?” we’d say, annoyed. Early in the week, a kiosk selling fireworks was set up near the metro entrance. Great, I thought. These fireworks will go on all summer. In Spanish class on Thursday, I heard something about Friday being a holiday; but Andrew didn’t have the day off, so I didn’t think too much about it. Eventually, we pieced it all together, what the celebration was and what to expect that night. Later, under siege in our apartment and dodging fireworks in the streets, we finally understood the essence of the holiday completely.
This isn’t to say we understood. Fireworks are illegal in the United States. On the Fourth of July, fireworks displays are set off by professionals, usually from boats situated well away from any spectators. Americans are raised with a simple understanding: if you set off a firework, you risk losing a finger, a hand, a toe, or an eye. Fireworks, like snarling Dobermans or leering men in pickup trucks, are something we are culturally wired to avoid. On the beach last night, it was impossible for me to relax. Fireworks were being thrown under dumpsters, into crowds, and into narrow streets so the sound would reverberate dramatically. Children were setting them off with little regard to where the firework might fly once lit. Everyone was drinking. There wasn’t a policeman in sight. There were thousands of people on the Barceloneta beach, drinking, dancing, skinny dipping, smoking pot, and—of course!—setting off the fireworks, and it was understood that this would go on all night. It was a scene that could never, for so many reasons, happen in the United States.
No one seemed concerned. No one ducked when fireworks sailed over their heads; no one flinched when small children ran around throwing ridiculously loud cherry bombs into the middle of crowds. When a group of people rigged a fire-filled balloon out of a large cloth and let it drift over the crowd, making a fiery landing in someone’s lap, I was the only one giving the group dirty, incredulous looks. Everyone seemed to be certain that nothing could possibly happen, that fireworks in the hands of children and drunk people couldn’t possibly be dangerous.
I tried to point out that they were wrong. In my Spanish class that morning, a girl from Norway was late, showing up limping fifteen minutes into class, her foot wrapped in a bloody bandage. She’d been at the beach that morning, and she stepped on an unexploded firework with a bare foot—blood was everywhere, she said; people were throwing gauze at her from windows; and the beach security gave her three stitches. I told this story to a Catalan friend of Andrew’s, who dismissed it easily. “That could only happen to a Norweigen,” he said.
At 4:30 a.m., though the party was nowhere near slowing down, Andrew and I headed home. As we walked to the metro—open all night in honor of the holiday—we noticed shattered phone booths and smashed-up manholes, evidence, surely, of inventive places people found to put fireworks. Women were passed out on benches and steps. If they had handbags, they were gone now. A man in front of us had an open wine bottle in his back pocket; there were still, somehow, fireworks going off. When we got home, the sun was just beginning to brighten the sky. Our neighborhood was finally quiet, and we instantly fell asleep.
Now, drinking coffee on a beautiful, sunny Saturday, my eyes and fingers intact, my skin and hair unsinged, I wonder how many people spent the night in the hospital with severed digits or burns. Such a night couldn’t possibly pass without casualties—if you touch a firework, after all, you risk losing a finger, a hand, a toe, or an eye. I understand that Americans are fearful and obsessed with safety; I understand that the extent to which Americans go to avoid or eradicate danger can be extreme. But it also seems like common sense that fireworks + crowds + alcohol + children equals disaster. I’m almost certain, however, that I was the only one with disaster on my mind during the celebration of St. Joan.