One reason for traveling to foreign lands is to experience other cultures. To see how other people live. Those of us afflicted with the travel bug are usually curious about how people live in other parts of the world. Here in Spain, daily life is — for the most part — similar to daily life back in Illinois. But there are some striking differences. More than just the siesta.
We haven’t been to church in a few weeks (I know, seems like a non sequitur but stick with me here), so this week, church came to us.
On Saturday night, about 8 p.m., Leslie and I were relaxing after a busy day; just reading our books and thinking about a nice salad for dinner. Then we heard music coming from somewhere — sounded almost like a drum and bugle corps, but playing in a minor key. The living room window overlooks a short street that leads to a small plaza, and we can’t see much from that window. As the music got louder, we put our shoes on and headed downstairs to see what was the matter (getting in the Christmas spirit there).
What we saw was this: From a distance, it looked like a parade float. But as it came closer we could tell it was a platform bearing a statue of Jesus carrying his cross to the crucifixion site. It was probably 20 to 30 feet high. There were flowers on the platform and candles on each corner. It was coming toward us, right down Calle Mayor, accompanied by an impressive procession of people with banners and long metal poles, each topped by a Jerusalem cross. And right behind the float was a brass band, playing what sounded like a dirge.
When the procession passed our apartment, we fell in with other people and followed. It ended at Basilica Santa Maria, the Roman Catholic church just a block or two from where we’re living. It’s the oldest church in Alicante, built between the 14th and 16th centuries. The people carried the platform by placing long poles on their shoulders. They were very close together and completely in step. I counted 42 in front and 46 in back. With the massive church doors open, as you can see in the photo (left) they carried the platform right inside. This solemn procession was very impressive, and quite moving.
We watched the band milling around in the plaza outside the basilica and it seemed they were waiting for something. Sure enough, after about 15 or 20 minutes, those carrying the Christ statue brought it out of the church, turned it around with some deft maneuvers, and went right back up Calle Mayor to the Plaza Santa Faz.
Leslie and I felt like we had been to church — or rather, that church had come to us! I hope you’ll be able to see this 2-minute video and hear the band, but it was dark and all I had was my iPhone. I shot the video as they left the church, and at the end you can Basilica Santa Maria. Cue the bells!
Now, I’m not Catholic so I can’t say this with total certainty, but I doubt you would see anything like this in a U.S. church. This is one of those cultural events that we can only appreciate through travel to other countries, and becoming immersed in other cultures. We’ve asked around but still don’t know exactly why this event was happening. We know it was something the Santa Maria congregation does regularly.
As the procession made its way away from the church, I noticed one priest on a cell phone. Maybe he was talking to the pope, who knows. And I noticed one little trumpet player in the band who was very determined. Looked like he was marching next to his father.
Just one more note on the band — and how many churches in the U.S. have a brass band for cryin’ out loud — some of the instruments looked like bugles, but with valves. Now, I played trombone in the high school band, so I know my brass. But I have never seen anything like these valved bugles. Not valves like on a trumpet or cornet (I saw both of those instruments, too), but valves nonetheless. Maybe they’re historic. Who knows?
Are there downsides to other cultures? Of course. We’ve noticed that lots more people smoke in Europe. And they smoke in outdoor seating at restaurants, which is annoying to those of us accustomed to fully non-smoking restaurants. It was true in the U.K. and also here in Spain. They don’t always clean up after their dogs, either.
But experiences like the Saturday night procession remind us why we travel, why we try to get a feel for what people do in other countries. When we learn about other cultures, we grow and expand our horizons. When we learn about other cultures, we often see more similarities than differences. When we learn about other cultures, we tend not to mistrust them or fear them.