Prior to my getting married, Fiesta meant either a car, or a cheap and cheerful gentleman's interest periodical which could be purchased discreetly from the all-night garage on the Maidstone Road in Chatham, Kent. Here, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, it is an annual spring festival held in San Antonio, Texas with, as Wikipedia is my witness, origins dating to the late nineteenth century when it was held to honour the memory of the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto.
I had lived in San Antonio nearly three years, and yet never attended any of the numerous events of Fiesta, principally because I dislike crowds, noise, and enforced jollity. The last time I took pleasure in boisterous public ceremony, I was ten years old and had landed the part of Jack of the Green in the May Day celebrations at Ilmington Junior School. That local scale of event makes sense to me, it being produced by and for the people of a geographically distinct region. Larger events which provide spectacle in the service of drawing attendees from far and wide seem impersonal, even potentially cynical in some cases, and once you've seen one truck customised so as to resemble Buddy the Value Dog, you've seen them all.
Nevertheless, San Antonio is a beautiful city, and as pleasant a setting as you're likely to find if public spectacle is your thing, presenting no chance of gaily decorated floats thrown into depressing relief by urban squalor or the stench of a rendering plant; and my wife had been given free tickets to the river parade; and, frankly, it had been a somewhat shitty couple of weeks - people dying, pets going missing, and at least two elderly relatives admitted to hospitals under moderately harrowing circumstances. We needed some distraction, just an evening away from feeling pissed off over circumstances beyond our control.
It took us some time to get there, a consequence of a city centre suffering no radical reimagineering since at least the early twentieth century, with none of those Gernsback style flyovers carrying forty lanes of traffic coming anywhere near. Personally I didn't mind, being in no great hurry. I was still a little shell-shocked following the disappearance of Kirby, our youngest cat, so it was all just forward motion to me. My wife had received the tickets from a company for whom she had done work, and these admitted us to a private enclosure on the bank of the San Antonio River along the stretch running through the centre of the city. Most major companies and organisations had their own sections of river, simply because otherwise it would have been something of a free for all. Everybody else had crowded across bridges or along otherwise unclaimed sections of the riverwalk.
The event we were here to see, one of the three major parades of Fiesta, was organised by the Texas Cavaliers, a voluntary organisation distinguished by sky blue and blood red uniforms which for some reason put me in mind of campy Belgian techno musicians, specifically the Confetti's. One of these Texas Cavaliers stood guarding the steps to our section of the riverwalk.
'This is a new style of music,' he smiled at us, slipping effortlessly into a series of robotic bodypopping moves. 'This is the Sound of C...'
He didn't really. He told us we were in the wrong place and should look to the other side of the Chamber of Commerce building. We did so and immediately realised that actually we hadn't been in the wrong place. We returned, and the Texas Cavalier told us we should have been more specific in our request, dutifully failing to concede that he had misheard.
'I think I know that guy,' Bess told me. 'I think he may be a friend of my ex-husband.' For a brief moment I tried to imagine Byron serving his award winning brisket and borracho beans in the corner of some Belgian techno club.
We went down to the riverside, and as usual I felt like a fraud, like we would be revealed as intruders any moment. Nevertheless we were checked from the list and given name tags. They even took our photograph, an image that would doubtless end up reduced to a few pixels in the here we are letting our hair down section of some corporate brochure. Being from England, I generally expect to be moved on or told that my security pass lacks the required clearance. In this respect I'm still not entirely accustomed to America, or at least to my own experience of America. It's not that we're any less further along the road to a security obsessed Orwellian future so much as that people seem a little more relaxed over here, in a general sense, and in Texas it's really too hot for failed parking lot attendants with delusions of authoritarian grandeur.
Folding chairs had been set up along the path beneath the palms, three or four rows of them, but mostly occupied by this point. We shrugged and queued for the free food - proper corn chips, guacamole, Oaxacan cheese, and street tacos made with those small corn tortillas, the sort of fare I recall from Mexico, and really as good as it gets in terms of food purchased from a guy stood on the pavement scraping away at a portable grill. With two small plates each, we made our way along the riverside to a line of empty chairs. These, we realised, were most likely nothing to do with the people who'd given us the free tickets, but we sat down anyway.
It was quiet for a while, just the chatter of crowds lined up on the bridges and on the far side of the river, then eventually a small motorised dinghy containing eight fully armed Marines in full camouflage rounded the corner to a swell of cheering. The Marines smiled from behind their green and black face paint and waved at us. We waved back and watched as they went further upriver in the general direction of the Grand Hyatt, like this was some cheerier remake of Apocalypse Now.
I don't know why, but the sight of US Marines always makes me happy, although I know this revelation will probably horrify those of my more self-righteous friends who might reply well, I doubt if the sight of US Marines makes the villagers of Kunar Province quite so happy. It's nothing to do with American military action or even foreign policy, but I find it encouraging to see people who take themselves that seriously without turning into a bunch of dicks, generally speaking. Military service is something I know I couldn't do myself. I can only understand people in terms of individuals. Those huge faceless demographic blocks gathered in one place so as to be labelled either good or bad, us or them, make no sense to me.
The Marines were followed by more Marines, and then a float, a float on a boat - a floating float, if you will. Texas Cavaliers stood waving from the gunwale in their bright blue uniforms, and everyone cheered. Some businessy types were stood at the centre of the float, this vanguard of the Fiesta parade. There was a sign on the side which read First Capital Bank.
I looked at my wife. 'First Capital Bank - yay!'
We indulged ourselves with a small faintly sarcastic cheer.
Other floats followed in quick succession representing other banks or business, Whataburger - a local fast food chain, school bands all honking away, small children jumping up and down and coming close to exploding with excitement. We even saw Mayor Castro waving from the prow of one launch, assuming it wasn't his identical twin brother. We stayed until it began to get dark, helped ourselves to some more street tacos whilst discussing how the term street taco sounds unfortunately like a euphemism for something much less appetising; and then we left, sated and happier than we had been when we arrived. I thought of all the people I had ever heard whine about crass, uncultured Americans with their goofy parades and flags all over the place, and understood how inane such commentary had been.
I can no longer tell if I've outgrown my scepticism regarding noisy, public spectacles, or if it's simply that Americans do them better, just getting on with it and having fun without any hierarchies getting in the way, but for something involving both armed Marines and investment bankers honking away on tubas, it was all strangely relaxing, even life affirming in its own way; and I can say this because I was there.