Don’t drink and surf they say, but it’s not for the reason you may think.
San Sebastian, mid-August, the biggest weekend of summer.
It’s Festival of the Virgin: ostensibly a Catholic celebration, but no-one’s told the hoards of young stoners and surfers who are swamping around, perhaps erroneously then, in the bars of this mini-Barcelona looking for a love story (or, if you’re over 25, then you’ll probably just have to settle for a story).
Everyone’s got one, a tale of debauchery from San Sebastian. An editor friend arrived planning to sleep on the beach. It sounded romantic: and then someone stole all his clothes when he was skinny-dipping. But he did meet a French girl there who he later married.
Visiting the dreamy surf town is a young Australian’s rite of passage, like growing up in the bush, working two years in a London pub, or wasting 8 years of your life in Paris waiting for life to happen.
It’s where Australian surfer boys go to play – or Australian boys go to play up the fact they saw a surfboard once, whatever.
“I’m a surfboard shaper,” said one glassy-eyed lad with shoulder length blonde hair from the Northern beaches. He was going to have no trouble pulling, and in fact was having a harder time shaking off the girl he’d met the night prior.
His mate, however, who looked like a lankier knock-off of his better-looking friend, was having a harder time with his “I’m just bumming around, but I’m interested in odd jobs” angle.
The namesake Saint Sebastian, you’ll recall, survived being shot by arrows, only later to be clubbed to death. In actually fact, the nightclubbing life is healthy.
The Sirimiri bar, opposite the cathedral, attracts young international types like a piper to the cave outside Hamlin. We went in on Friday and only emerged, bleary-eyed in the wee hours of Monday.
This bar served brilliant old fashioneds, so good they were drunk in half the time we were. Barmen spent so much time preparing them, that after 11pm, with lines two deep around the bar, it was considerably un-fashioned to order them.
And it was while waiting in this line that I realised why not to drink and surf (finally the point of the story awaits).
For we had spent the best part of the afternoon in the heady swells off Zurriola surf beach. Stef, confident on his rented surfboard, and me on a body board – don’t call it a ‘boogie board’ okay, thanks – at the end of which I’d been dumped numerous times and washed up on shore, water pouring out of every orifice.
And by later that night, the water was still pouring out, though sporadically and with no warning.
Well, I’m not sure who’s margarita it was on the bar waiting to be collected, but they probably regret not having removed it earlier given what now happened.
For as I stood there, arms on bar waiting for the barman’s attention, a healthy serving of saline fluid emergency-exited from my nose and straight into the drink.
It would have been impossible to detect on the palate, what with salt being an essential element of the drink. The only witnesses to my crime were two bystanders who rubbed their eyes, unsure they’d seen what their eyes told them so clearly they had.
I had no option but to pretend it hadn’t happened, though now stood two steps to the right to avoid it happening again.
When people swarm in such close proximity to food and drinks as they do in San Sebastian, perhaps the odd “unsanitary incident” is only to be expected.
For while the tapas – Pintxos – bars are delicious, they would also be a health inspector’s nightmare.
A healthy variety of savoury bites, from octopus to chorizo, blood pudding and baked cheesecake, and an unhealthy range of teaming, steaming, sweating tourists leaning over the food, pointing, gasping and spluttering about what they’ll have next.
As for me, I’ll have la cuenta, por favor…