Foreigners lost in Arrasate

A report on Maritxu Kajoi

Euskal Irrati Telebista

Call it herriko jaia, fiesta local or a local party, Basques know how to deal with them. Every town seems to have at least one. So has Arrasate, celebrating Maritxu kajoi every first Friday of October.

In the Basque Country people don’t seem to have a hard time enjoying the good things in life. Where else would you find this many people out on the streets when the weather allows them to? Where else would you find whole families together, eating and drinking, looking as if time doesn’t exist? And where else would you find people, crazy enough to honour a little statue of the virgin Mary in a glass box? Well.. Just make sure you’re in Arrasate, a town located just in the province of Gipuzkoa, on the first Friday of October.

It takes a while to find out, but finally you will see that this day really is a celebration of a little Mary in a box, or Maritxu kajoi. “Say what? Maritxu kajoi? Okay, just Maritxu, thanks a lot!” If you make your way to the old town, you’ll find this little Mary in her box. The appearance might not be all that impressive, but if you stand on the town square facing the church, just look up a little and there she is! At first you’d might think this celebration goes way back and has a strong cultural or religious feeling attached to it.. I’m sorry, the story isn’t that heroic or sacred, but it’s quite enjoyable..

Some thirty years ago, a bunch of regular drinkers from Arrasate, gazed up to little Mary and started singing something between a drunken lullaby and a hymn of praise. This resulted in a fine tradition, adopted by more of these characters, growing, until they decided to make it an official anniversary. The priest forbade it at first, but it seemed too late for that. Every first Friday of October, people from all over the Basque Country would pour into Arrasate, and even larger quantities of wine would pour into them. Finally, to difference this day from a regular drinking day, the men and women decided to dress up in their most elegant outfits.

What would we, a bunch of foreigners, do? We just happened to study in Arrasate around this occurrence. Well, besides our length, we didn’t want to stand out from the crowds too much. These days, if you want to live somewhere as a foreigner, integration is the keyword. So we decided to integrate. Since Arrasate was buzzing with anticipatory pleasure weeks before the festivities, what could we do but getting ourselves up to speed on the ins and outs of Maritxu Kajoi? Thank God or Mary, this isn’t all that hard, a suit, some liquids and a group of friends to drink it with is all you really need on this one.

A fine “laguna”, Basque for friend, advised me a second hand shop in Bilbao to find my perfect grandpa suit, topped with a typical Basque beret. I supposed this would help me assimilate, conveniently forgetting that it was oversized, outdated and worn with a purple shirt under it. Having quite a nice apartment, we invited everyone over, cooked a great ’pasta con veinticuatro huevos’ for the next day, bought some drinks and ready we were!

On the day itself, our little flock of foreigners came together in the afternoon on the main square. I’m still unsure whether is was for my grandpa suit and beret or just the fact that we looked foreign but we formed quite an attraction there. But the atmosphere was great, people looking impeccable with a drink in their hand, whole families out on the streets, brass bands playing Basque songs and proud showings of the “Ikurriña” (the Basque flag) next to Maritxu.

After an opening ceremony with a speech of the mayor, which we assumed was about nationalist issues, the festivities started officially. This included that the people on the square spread all over the bars in town to drain themselves in ample quantities of liquid, as tradition requires them too. All bar staff looked well prepared for this day, with dozens of “pintxos” stocked up in every bar to feed a hungry mob. Through the night, we mixed with this jolly crowd as much as we could. As mentioned, foreigners draw quite some attention in Arrasate, so we got to meet lots of folks. I doubt if they all remember me and vice versa but at a certain moment you just drown in the amount of people and consumptions. But except for the shoes of my Russian pal, everyone returned home well to enjoy their Saturday, contemplating on the previous day.