Jul 20 2013

Well Elevated

There were three of them, smooth skinned, thick brown hair, chestnut eyes. They might have been in their early twenties, or younger. We’d met them somewhere along the night, dancing or stopping off for a drink, and invited them to our terrace in the morning to watch the encierro. It would be easier not to invite anyone, and to sleep as long as possible without interruption. But the terrace of the apartment we rent in Pamplona every year is too large and well situated not to share it.

There are rules, if you’re invited to our balcony. You must arrive before 7:00 am when the police close off the street for cleaning. But it is forbidden to ring our bell before 6:55, so we can maximize our sleep, a scarce commodity during fiesta. When we’ve let you in the building, a key tied to a long string is dangled down the stairwell to allow for entrance to the second, inner door. Once inside, you climb the six flights of stairs to our apartment. The encierro doesn’t begin for another hour, so you have to occupy yourself, quietly, until we’ve all risen from the dead sleep, the kind of sleep you have when there’s only been two or three hours of it.

These boys, the Minorca boys as we called them, based on their origin, were especially appreciative of the invitation. They waited on the balcony, chatting with each other, surveying the street below or looking up at the Navarran hills on the horizon beyond the city while we girls scurried to and from the bathroom, dressing and primping, one by one joining them on the balcony as our fiesta costumes of white and red came together. bulls_run_belowAt eight o’clock, when the rocket shot off, we scrambled inside inside to catch the beginning of the run, which is televised, and then ran back out to the balcony to watch the bulls live as they stormed up our street, Estafeta, toward the bullring. It’s an impressive sight, even from six floors up.

Afterward, the boys accompanied us to the Txoko, where our friends who run in the encierro go to check in with each other and discuss the morning’s run. We introduced them to the ritual morning drink, a sweet milk called Kaiku mixed with cognac, and the boys took out their wallets to treat us, as a thank you for the privilege of viewing the run from our balcony.

“These boys are well elevated,” said the Fiesta Nazi. I agreed, thinking about how their mothers had done a fine job of raising them.

Every year, it seems, we manage to net a gaggle of three or four freshmen at the fiesta, young guys who have tripped into town, eager for the Pamplona experience. We run into them while dancing at one of our favorite night spots, or having stopped off for a plate of peppers and a beer during an afternoon bar tour, or just running into them on the street. We suss them out – to see if it feels right – and then extend the encierro invitation. I suspect we’ve kept a few innocents out of the bull-run by inviting them up to view it from our place. Then, at the Txoko we introduce them to experienced runners who give them a few safety tips – or scare them off it altogether. One year we met up with a trio unable to find their host, and rather than let them sleep in the street we offered them couches in our living room. There are a few mothers out there in the world who would be grateful for our interventions and invitations, if they knew.

We keep the cougar to a minimum. I admire the handsome youth of our guests, but I am merely imagining a future my daughters might meet. It’s all absolutely hands off, and any uncontainable lascivious remarks are made briefly and in whispers, between women applying make-up in the bathroom.
ole
The following morning, at 6:55, the Minorca boys rang the buzzer again, caught the key as it dangled down, climbed the stairs and went directly out to the balcony. They were as polite as the day before, staying out of our way as all the women in the flat went about our ablutions. They brought with them a tray of croissants and pastries – and a bottle of gin, for good measure – which they set out on the terrace so we could enjoy a light breakfast with the bulls.

The Fiesta Nazi caught my eye. I nodded. “Well elevated,” we mouthed to each other, in tandem.

Some day Short-pants and Buddy-roo will have the urge to travel and explore the world with their friends, wide eyed and trusting, the romance of the travel overriding any sense of planning or organization. I’m hoping that they’ll run into some “aunties” or “uncles” just like us, good-hearted strangers who offer some kindness, sage advice or who simply point them safely in the right direction. Each time we help out some youngsters in Pamplona, I know I’m paying forward for my daughters, whom I can only hope will be as polite, appreciative and well elevated.


Jul 5 2013

About the Bulls

About this time very year I write a post about my annual escape to the north of Spain with my clan of girlfriends. I’ve recounted the rituals we re-enact every year when we go to the fiesta San Fermín in Pamplona. I’ve described the departure stress of the preparation to go, the bitter sweetness of the return from the fiesta, the feelings of joy and desperation that are both components of this week that I take for myself every year, when I attend one of the world’s hardest parties.
bull_painting
The one subject I haven’t addressed fully: the bulls. If I tell people that I am going to Pamplona, to the running of the bulls, I usually get a few raised eyebrows. Almost everyone has heard of the running of the bulls, although their understanding of it is more often incorrect, thanks ot the way it has been depicted, poorly, by Hollywood. If you want to see what it really looks like, click here.

For the record, I do not run with the bulls. I watch them go by from the safety of my balcony. They run down the street in front of where we always stay, and I can lean against the railing and watch the big, beautiful beasts, and thousands of runners, sprinting by my door.

And then there is the bullfight. I am not a strong advocate for the tradition of bullfighting, nor am I opposed to it. I am a guest in Pamplona for their fiesta – the city welcomes foreigners to attend, rather graciously as their town gets trashed from it – and I’ve never felt it was my place to enter the debate for or against the encierro and the bullfight. But I have learned a few things over the ten years that I have been going to Pamplona for their fiesta. I think there are some interesting facts to consider before dismissing it as cruel or unfair to the bulls.

1. The running of the bulls is an athletic tradition. The local runners train all year to be fit enough to run for even a few moments in the primo spot, just ahead of the horns of the bull, as it runs from the corral at the edge of the city to the bullring in the center. A number of foreigners join them, runners who come every year to do so, and they, too, take the activity seriously. These are people who, prior to running, took the time to talk to seasoned runners and to watch and learn how to do it well. They consider it a privilege to take part in the encierro, and try to do so safely and with respect to the local tradition. The drunk idiot backpackers who roll into town and drink all night and never bother to learn the cultural and safety codes of the event, they are not what the run is about. In fact, their ignorance of it is dangerous, and puts every runner, experienced or novice, at risk.
bull_mat
2. The bullfight is not a sport, it’s an art. As the Fiesta Nazi puts it, “it’s a tragic opera with three acts, and the hero has to die.” I have attended many corridas, and there is always blood and death; sometimes it is too much for me and I am compelled to look away. But when it is a good bullfight, when each player in the ring does his part with grace and accuracy, when the rapport between matador and bull is palatable, it is a beautiful dance. I have wept at a bullfight because it was so moving. When a torero can transmit this kind of emotion to the crowd, thousands of people in the ring share the awe of a poignant life and death moment. That’s what makes it opera, not a sport.

3. In a good bullfight, the bull does not know he is losing until the very end. The bull is provoked, he gets angry, and he’s celebrated for his fighting spirit. Again to quote the Fiesta Nazi, “in a bar fight, the guy that’s swinging isn’t saying ouch, don’t do that.”

4. For every bullfight there is a time limit. If the matador is unable to finish the fight within the given time, the bull will be removed from the ring and shot so that it does not endure an unnecessary and prolonged suffering. There are rules to protect the animals.

5. The bull leads the best life of any animal that is bred in captivity. They live in the open pastures and are treated as noble creatures. They are bred specifically to be aggressive and fierce. A bull breeder wants his bulls to do well in the fight, so these bulls, usually between four and six years old when they are ultimately led to the bullring, enjoy an existence that surpasses any animal that is raised (usually one year) for slaughter to become food on our tables. If you know even a little about the cruelty to animals in the meat industry and yet still eat meat, then a prejudice against the bullfight is a bit hypocritical. The bulls live a long, ideal life, and they are revered until the last moment of it.
bulls_confronting
In Spain – except Catalonia where it was banned – and in Latin America, the bullfight is a cultural tradition that has been practiced for centuries. That’s not necessarily the reason for it to continue. Female genital mutilation is a cultural tradition in some African countries as is the Muslim custom of hiding women behind a full body burqa, and I see good reasons to protest both. I can understand how it would seem to animal rights activists that the bullfight is a cruel tradition that should be protested.

But I like going to the bullfight. I like being in the corrida packed with expectant spectators, watching a 1000 pound muscled animal break out of the holding pen and run into and around the ring. I like the bright colors of the toreros’ traje de luces, their pink and yellow capote capes waving above the dusty floor of the ring, the elegant bursts of music from the corrida brass band and the roar of the crowd, the sandwich after the third bull, and in Pamplona, the costumes and antics of the peñas, the local drinking clubs, juxtaposing a sarcastic irreverence with the tense drama of the corrida. The bullfight may or may not seem ethical to some people, and sometimes I do find it troubling. But I go every chance I get.

Not long ago Short-pants drew a map of her ideal town. She named the streets and avenues after her best friends and favorite aunts. She imagined places for all her preferred activities: a theater, a knitting center, a library. Her map also included large, circular bull ring, which she named after the Fiesta Nazi. She showed it to some dinner guests one night, inspiring them to ask me about what it’s like to go to a bullfight. She listened to my response and chimed in before I could finish. “The bulls live the best life,” she said, “and they are loved by everyone in the ring before they die.”
kids_in_street
I suppose this is how cultural traditions, and prejudices, are passed on. The imprint of our own opinions on our children is powerful. If they are educated to think on their own, they may reject our stances, for, against or neutral. If we limit their exposure to critical thinking, they are likely to parrot what we they have heard us say about what we believe. I don’t mind that Short-pants knows a few facts about bulls, even though she’s never been to a corrida, but I will never insist that she share my view. Someday I hope she and her sister will accompany me to a Pamplona, or elsewhere in Spain, to experience it all for themselves, so they can make up their own minds about the right or wrong of the bullfight.

But for now it’s still my escape, the running of the mom, away from children and the household responsibilities and into a week of delirious fun and oblivion, dancing, laughing, drinking, and yes, the running of the bulls.