It’s a hot, bright Saturday in September. I’m pacing uphill in search of Parque de Florida. I’m about to have my first encounter with the Cuadrilla.
There are lots of hills in Portugalete. This, they say, is why the people in the city have the best asses in the Basque country. From the river you have a steady ascent to the top of the town. The street I live on is so steep it has 5 escalators. They crank into life about 6 each morning and the gentle mechanical hum continues until 11pm.
At the end of Portugalete’s high street stands the slope of Cerantes – 410 metres tall. It seems odd to be able to see a small mountain from a city street, not silhouetted or shrouded in mist, but just sitting there, lush green and dwarfing buildings 11 stories tall. It’s a typical sight all over Bilbao; cities shouldered by mountains.
I continue uphill. I have a bottle of wine and some beers. I hope they like the wine.
A Cuadrilla is basically a group of friends. There are roughly twenty people in the Cuadrilla I’m about to meet. Amongst the gang are Emma and Una, my workmates. The two girls are understandably proud to be members of the Cuadrilla as they can be very hard to infiltrate, especially if you are a foreigner and are not partnered up with any group members. Emma was initiated 3 years ago while Una, the last one in, has been part of the group for nearly a year. The initiation takes place at dawn on a mystical hilltop…okay I’m joking. Initiation involves you being added to a whatsapp group; A small deed that has huge impact on your social life.
I’m a little nervous. My Spanish is nowhere near good enough to be charming or funny – some might argue I never was in the first place. Adding to the anxiety is the fact that sources close to the group tell me there have been whispers of discontent about the increasing number of English speakers in the Cuadrilla. This is understandable. Let’s say you are Pedro and after a hard day’s work you go to meet your buddies in the bar. Suddenly you find yourself surrounded by people you barely know speaking in another language. ..In your group…in your hometown.
As I enter the park I see people stretched out on the grass basking in the sunlight. I follow the distant roars to the centre of the park, which is a hive of activity; groups, predominantly consisting of men, are stooping, stirring, fretting and bickering over large pots that are billowing steam. Today is the Putxera – an annual outdoor cooking competition where contestants make a stew in an old fashioned pot to be tasted by judges.
When I arrive greetings are cast over shoulders; everyone is a little preoccupied. Aketz, who has been keeping a watchful eye on his pot since early morning, steps back to explain the history behind the putxera (railway pot). It started on the steam train as a means of feeding the men delivering materials to the burgeoning steel industries in the Basque region. Red beans, onions, garlic, red peppers, sausage and bacon were placed into the pot and the stew was gently rocked by the train as it meandered through the countryside. The railway pot is no longer in service on the train but has not been forgotten by the Basque people, as evidenced by this annual event.
At 1 o’clock the pots are delivered to the bandstand where the judging panel of two ladies and a man taste the most important ingredient; the beans. This is no easy task when you consider that there are seventy two pots and the stew is infamous for causing wind.
Anyone about to forget the competitive nature of the event gets a swift reminder via a scene unfolding near the bandstand; there is a heated exchange between a contestant and an official; The contestant’s pot has been refused admission to the competition having been delivered two minutes after the deadline. The official is not for turning and the contestant has to return to his friends for an early lunch.
We watch and wait while the judges dip spoons into pots and taste.I try to chat with everyone but my limited Spanish means many conversations fall flat. Unfortunately my group’s pot is not among the prize winners. The pot is taken back to our station.
As people gather round the table I feel a pang of anxiety. Where will I sit? Who will be burdened with my presence? Everyone has been so nice but I am aware that sitting next to me requires patience, carefully chosen words and an ability to switch between languages. I hanker for a cigarette but don’t have the guts to bum one.
Seeing my hesitancy Aketz calls my name and gestures for me to sit down next to him. I feel a rush of gratitude towards the man. The spoils of the pot are shared. There is also bread, Spanish omelette, cheese, beer and wine. Everyone is packed in close and compliments to the chefs are issued from stuffed mouths. Warnings about the dangers of mixing the grape and the grain are delivered through rhyme;
‘Vino y Cerveza- dolor en mi cabeza!’
I cause unintentional merriment by announcing that I am horny; Tengo caliente is not how you inform people that you are warm. I listen to exchanges around the table. I cease on a word I know, repeat it in my mind and translate it but, by the time I tune back into the conversation it has sped up and accents and colloquialisms throw me off. These exchanges often conclude with laughter. I try to look pleasantly amused but I feel awkward or sometimes bored. It’s frustrating. There are two ways I could react; I could moan or take it as motivation and get stuck into my Spanish phrasebook. Obviously, you are reading the fruits of the former option.
Afterwards the table is cleared and the cards are taken out. What game will we play? The group opts for something simple and easy to follow. I pay close attention; my mistakes are small and forgiven by everyone. As the game develops a rhythm I become engrossed and anxiety about following the thread of conversation dissipates. The game is punctuated by slagging and laughter. Beginner’s luck smiles on me and I win a few hands.
As the evening grows chilly the cards are put away and the things are packed up. I have finally met the Cuadrilla. We leave the park and walk back towards our respective homes in the town centre. It’s all downhill from here.