Scholarly Roadkill

Mitch’s Blog

The Best Birthday

Sunday, July 30, 2017

“Do you have a favorite birthday? One that really stood out from the rest?” Chelsea asked. We were sitting around the dinner table ready to dive into my favorite birthday meal of turkey and trimmings. Answering her question was easy. That memorable day was only last year, when I hit 65. A big party for the event? Too conventional. Fortunately, the choice had already been made for me. I would be dancing in Portugal.

Jubilee American Dance Theatre had been invited to the Espinho Folklore Festival. Espinho is a beach town, tourist spot, and suburb of Porto, the second largest city of Portugal and home of port wines.  And it was lovely. Sand-covered beaches, a downtown filled with cafes, shops, and pubs, an endless open market each Monday populated by people from all over the region. A casino. And a folklore festival in late July, last year on my 65th birthday.

We were housed in an abandoned school and cared for by a passel of local grandmas from the folklore society who cooked wonderful meals. The beach was reached by a walk through winding streets bordered by crumbling stone walls. That was how my day began. The beach had the water-smoothed remains of painted wall tiles and shards of ancient oil jars.  Water dashed over my toes and sand caressed my ankles. A California boy at the beach on his birthday.

How could it get any better?

But today was festival day and most of the morning was spent preparing for our show. We were the headliners, the performers from America who would come on stage after half a dozen neighboring folklore groups had finished. We were bussed downtown for the sound check and for an ice cream cone while waiting for Joe to be satisfied with the musical balance.

Then came the festival dinner for all the participants. Our guide Rosa had found out it was my birthday. The result was a birthday song sung by the 300 performers at the dinner. In Portuguese. For me.

Parabéns pra você,
Nesta data querida…

How could it get any better?

The festival began with a parade through downtown as the sun set over the Atlantic. The Portuguese groups dressed in traditional costume of their villages as they marched through the center of Espinho. An agricultural society, they came equipped with hoes, pitchforks, and baskets of vegetables along with their folk bands. Leading the charge were the Lusitanians, a group that reconstructed prehistoric Portuguese culture, dressed in fur robes and gym shoes, pounding their drums as they marched. Finally came the Americans. Our band led, playing strains that would be familiar to anyone familiar with cowboy movies. We handed out American flags and candy to the people cheering along the way and sang an endless chorus of O Susanna to accompany Joe’s fiddle. A parade before a burgeoning audience, a cheering crowd. For my birthday.

How could it get any better?

The show started late and featured an endless cycle of simple village dances by the local groups to the sounds of guitar, violin, and accordion on the wooden stage abutting city hall. A misty night, a wet stage. The crowd that filled the town square ebbed and flowed in dark shadows. We waited impatiently, but the show went on for hours. Finally, the call came. We were next. It was already after midnight. Tired grumbling switched to stage smiles, sweatshirts were pulled off revealing the brightly colored costumes, Joe’s violin started up, and away we went. We were ready to hoedown the audience as a stark contrast to the subtle distinctions that separated folklore groups from neighboring villages.

“Stay on the stage when you’re finished,” whispered Becky, the director, as we dashed onto the stage for the final number, though she didn’t explain why.

It went well. The crowd was enthusiastic, clapping and cheering. A crisp clogging number ended our show, with the performers in a line across the stage, armed stretched to the sky as the audience applauded. The perfect ending of a show for a lifelong dancer. A perfect ending of a 65th birthday.

How could it get any better?

That’s when the confetti cannon went off.  I was at the edge of the stage and the whoosh of air rushed past my face. Then a second one.  The sky filled with bits of red, yellow, and blue, covering our sweaty faces and sticking  to our clothes and shoes.  Scattered bits of white and green were still drifting downward when the fireworks started. Fireworks? Roman candles had been affixed to the front of the stage and to the wall of City Hall behind us. They hissed, howled, and  flared on all sides of us.

That’s when the festival banner, attached to City Hall above the fireworks, caught fire. We were sandwiched between the two batteries of flames, a fire accelerating above our head, and covered with combustible shreds of paper.  The stage crew leaped into action to save their public building. Maybe the performers too.

Dawn at the beach. A mass birthday song. A parade. Cheering crowds. Confetti. Fireworks on all sides. City Hall ablaze. An exhilarating  performance. A group of good friends.  Abroad in bucolic Portugal. The clock striking 1 a.m. The end of a 65th birthday celebration.

How could it get any better?

That’s the story I told Chelsea. But it wasn’t the first time I told it. In Urbana at the qualitative research  congress I attend every May, it was my favorite tale to respond to “what is retirement like?”    Late one evening in Murphy’s Irish Bar, I told it to Marcello and Claudio, two Left Coast authors we lovingly nicknamed “The Boys from Brazil.” Claudio, always the prankster, burst out in Portugese:

Parabéns pra você,
Nesta data querida…

The following day I repeated the story to Sarah and Chris over coffee on the patio outside the Illini Union. I reach the moment where the assembled performers cue up in song.

Parabéns pra você…” boomed a voice from behind me. With impeccable timing, Claudio and Marcello had just come out the doors of the building. We all collapsed in tears of laughter.

How could it get any better? 

(c) Scholarly Roadside Service

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