Tuesday, July 14, 2009


"Happy Birthday to you!" I made sure to sing to le Petit first thing when he woke up, before even pulling open the shutters of our hotel room. In a few years I'll make sure to tell him that we spent July 12, 2009 in a medieval castle in the foothills of the Catalonian Pyrenees. He'll imagine we were trying on armor and preparing to fight dragons; I'll neglect to mention that we were staying in the Parador of Cardona and took an elevator to our reach our air-conditioned room.

"Hap-PY birf-DAY!" repeated le Petit. Two years old already! I could hardly believe it.

Lucky for us, two years old is still too young for him to have any strong ideas about what constitutes a proper birthday celebration, so we unilaterally decided to head to nearby Solsona and visit the museum where we'd could see in person some of Catalonia's most famous pre-Romanesque frescoes. My in-laws were accompanying us, and with four adults, we could let le Petit run around the deserted museum and take turns chasing after him in between absorbing some of the culture.

Outside the museum there was music. A street festival, with brass instruments playing one of le Petit's favorite songs, la Pitxuri. We escaped the cool, quiet museum to the blistering heat of the town outside and we were in the middle of a gathering of giants. They stood in two parallel lines, their paper-mâché faces fixed in wild grins, crowns on their heads, scarves around their necks, or roses in their teeth. There was the Moor, the King, the Peasant, the Jew, the Knight, the Infant, the Wet Nurse, the Dragon, the Politician, the Politician's Wife: Spain, modern, past and imagined, gathered in the town square, towering to second-story balconies and ready to dance.

Le Petit was terrified like I've rarely seen him. He clung to me and made it clear that he would not go any further than the edge of the shadow thrown by the portico at the far end of the square. Each time I inched forward with him, he threw his head back, shrieked, and pointed violently in the other direction. Grandpa, Grandma, and Daddy all took turns explaining and cajoling him, but he would not budge.

Then the music got going and the crowd began to dance. We swayed back and forth and pointed at the giants who, two by two, left their lines to dance together in slow circles. "See, they're nice giants! They're friendly! See the people who are hiding underneath? Look at that little boy over there, he's not afraid..."

Le Petit was first reassured, then absorbed by the spectacle. From a new perch on my husband's shoulders he could see everything. He pointed out saxophones, clarinets and drums, and he clapped to the beat. We watched for a long time as each pair of giants had a turn dancing, and then the party took to the streets.

My childhood experience of town festivals is of Fourth of July parades with taped-off barricades, disciplined marching bands on one side and spectators in lawn chairs on the other. In this parade the spectators and the performers were one in their chaos, falling into a winding procession that expanded and contracted as it snaked through the stone streets. People turned around and snapped pictures, danced and clapped, pushed strollers and chased small children or thumbed text messages on their BlackBerrys. Le Petit, well over his fear by now, joined in marching behind a band of saxophone players clad in red t-shirts.

The parade eventually reached a modern, treeless square where crowd dissipated and the giants were immobilized under the hot sun. It was nearly two o'clock. As we walked back in search of a sidewalk café for lunch, streets emptied and the town entered an eerie, Spanish midday hibernation.

Our plan for le Petit's nap was a long drive up the nearby Pyrenees into the Lavansa i Fornolls Valley. It worked like a charm, for after the excitement of the morning, the winding mountain roads lulled him to sleep immediately. That was when we realized we were running low on gas. None of the tiny mountain villages we'd pass through would have a gas station, and even if they did, stopping would reliably wake le Petit up.

I started to watch the digital gage tick down the kilometers of gas left with one eye and the map with the other. We'd detour to the nearby town of Seu d'Urgell, we decided; it was far enough away for a long nap, but close enough that we'd surely make it.

I relaxed and started to fall under the valley's spell. Black-green pine forests and golden-green pocket meadows. Angular cliffs and the symmetry of rounded bales of hay. Stony slopes of wild marjoram and lavender, and nodding clusters of wildflowers along the steepest edges of the road. An occasional village grew up almost like a geological formation on the crest of a hill, the culminating point the steeple of a church and not one of the construction cranes omnipresent elsewhere in Spain. Here and there on the gentler slopes someone, a very long time ago, had seen fit to pile innumerable stones into terraces that had since fallen into disrepair. I wanted to stop and run to the end of a path, gather stones or pick armfuls of sweet-smelling flowers to bring back to Paris, but we dutifully kept driving until le Petit woke up.

Finding a gas station in the Seu d'Urgell turned out to be tricky. Of course, I thought, for there's plenty of cheap gas just across the border in Andorra. We eventually found a sleepy station with ancient gas pumps on the main road heading out of town. We were too far away to wind back into the valley the way we'd come, it was too late for an afternoon hike, and it was beginning to feel like the entire trip had been a mirage. Resigned, we'd take the straight, modern road back to the Parador.

Then my in-laws called. We'd split up earlier and they were off on their own, at the end of a dirt road deep in the valley on a hike to visit an isolated 11th century church. It took me some time to understand that they had hiked down too far and weren't sure they'd easily make it back to the car, and they were hoping we'd come to rescue them. After consulting, we found a new road that looked navigable, if barely, according to our Michelin map. We were ready to give it a try when we noticed that the names of several of the towns had been crossed out on the signs indicating the turn off. Too risky. We recalculated our itinerary; we wouldn't arrive for at least an hour and a half.

The sun crept down the rings of peaks, turning the bare stone gold and the treetops copper. It was getting late, but even eastern Spain steals hours of extra daylight in the summer by scoffing at Greenwich. We called my in-laws to check in whenever we ducked out of small valleys and regained cell phone coverage. By the time we got to the last pass, they'd made it back to their car. Relieved, we decided to stop ourselves. We took pictures. I picked three stems of lavender and three of marjoram, one for each of us, and tucked them into my purse.

Back at the Parador, with the entire family reunited over drinks on the rooftop, the Pyrenees seemed oddly distant on the horizon. Celebrating together in the dining room later I felt like one of the giants, a head above and oblivious to the crowd. Maybe it was the champagne, or the bottle of wine that quickly followed -- birthdays are taken seriously and "watered" accordingly in my husband's family -- or maybe it was the Pyrenean air, but for the first time, I didn't care about le Petit's behavior in the restaurant, which was irreproachable for a two-year-old anyway.

In the years to come, I'm sure le Petit will think his parents are a little crazy for joining street festivals outside of museums or chasing across mountain valleys to find abandoned churches. I kind of hope so. I also hope he'll be impressed that we manage to create memorable days despite ourselves: Two. The birthday of lavender and marjoram, of churches and trumpets, of giants and mountains.

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