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.


Jul 16 2012

Toro Suelto

Every fiesta morning at eight o’clock, a rocket fires and six bulls are released into the streets of Pamplona to run toward the bullring. They do not run alone. They are accompanied by a pack of steers, whose docile influence hopefully keeps the bulls running close together. Also running beside them are thousands of people who’ve been waiting in the street for the chance to run with the bulls even for just a few moments. This is the encierro.

I have been to the Fiesta San Fermín nine times and have never ever considered running with the bulls. It is a dangerous tradition that I respect, from our balcony. I’m told it started when the shopkeepers along the route, having closed their doors while the bulls run by, decided to join in, with the permission of the pastores who herd the pack of animals to the bullring. It grew into a local ritual. Hemingway made the fiesta popular among foreigners, who joined the party and the run. I’m privileged enough to be friends with some of the foreigners who are loved and respected by the local bull runners, for whom the encierro is an art and a serious sport. These are men easily distinguished from the drunken college students who show up and know nothing about the bulls or the run and whose presence in the street is often the greatest danger of all.

A good encierro is a fast run. It can take less than three minutes to cover the 800-meter distance. It’s a good run if the pack of bulls and steers stick together, if the bulls remain focused on running forward and pay little attention to the throngs of people running beside them, trying to maneuver their way to the plum running spot, just ahead of one of the horns. It’s not such a good run when a bull gets separated from the pack because he falls behind or literally falls down, and when he gets up he’s lost his mates. The toro suelto, a loose bull, stops and spins around, charging at any runner who happens to be in front of him. Usually a green-shirted pastore will appear with his long herding stick, a stick sometimes used to whack idiot runners, and redirects the bull forward to join the others at the end of the run. Sometimes it’s up to a courageous bull runner – the experienced ones know how and will dare – to turn the bull around and provoke it forward, before getting out of the way.

The entire encierro is broadcast, so the parts I cannot view from my balcony on the calle Estafeta I can see on television. It’s something to see the toro suelto stopped and spun around, confused. The bulls are so beautiful and noble; it’s perplexing to see them out of sorts.

~ ~ ~

Each and every fiesta I have my own suelto moment. The week starts out bright and convivial, with champagne and cheer and old friends greeting, music and dancing in the street, a whole week of unscheduled wildness ahead. But midway through the fiesta there’s a dip, from lack of sleep, too much drink, getting fed up with the gray sludge in the streets and the constant press of people. I always have one restless night when my mind won’t shut down and my train of thought is only of the dark side. I become convinced that everyone I know, in Pamplona and elsewhere, merely indulges me and that I’m a terrible mother abandoning my family to come to this sloppy party. It’s a lonely moment, laying in the dark, unable to sleep, the dull roar of constant revelers in the street audible even with the best of earplugs. It’s the moment I feel out of the pack, and turned around, but fortunately, too tired to charge.

It’s remarkable to me that even in the company of so many fun-loving, open-hearted fiesta-thriving people – anyone you meet in the street will nod and smile at you – that such a lonely moment can prevail. The only thing to do is ride it out; the mid-fiesta plunge always passes and with the rising of the sun, the spirited alegria of the fiesta returns.

~ ~ ~

Another always: how I leave Pamplona before the fiesta ends. Two days of incessant partying remain, but I never finish with my friends. There have been years when I lamented my early departure. Other years, like this one, I felt ready to leave. My farewell breakfast included some beautiful jotas, a reprise of singing attention from Puchero, hugs and kisses and goodbyes, followed by the sound of suitcase wheels rolling along the pavement to my last bar in town, where the taxi meets me. It’s just over an hour’s ride to the train that takes me to France and to my family. I always keep my pañuelo and my faja on for the entire ride. I’m the only one in white and red, the suelto amongst a train full of people dressed in blue jeans and regular colors.

At the other end of the train ride, De-facto – donned in white pants and T-shirt and a thin red pañuelo bearing the name of a cheapest brand of patxaran, something I must have left behind after a previous fiesta return – swept me into the car and on winding roads through villages, fields and forests to our country house. Short-pants, Buddy-roo and my mother-in-love cheered my arrival and sang a song they’d rehearsed for my return. There were fierce hugs from my not-as-little people, both of whom had grown taller since I last saw them. Dinner was waiting on the table. Ten days of stories were flying at me from every direction. I looked around, stunned, not unhappy to be in their presence, but somehow not quite in sync, not yet facing their direction. Like the toro suelto, I’d been somewhere else, out of the pack, loose and turned around.

~ ~ ~

A few days pass and I am back in step with my herd. Little by little I take up the routines that we follow here: writing in the morning, a run to the store before midday, pruning grapevines and rose bushes and attempting to keep up with the laundry. My dirty white clothes, soaked for two days in a mix of Coca-cola and bleach before they were washed – a secret recipe for removing the gray sludge – are now draped across every clothesline, drying in the sun. Long, thick nights of sleep, deeper because of the country quiet, restore my energy and return my attention to my family. I was away from them for three weeks to walk the Camino, and another ten days before and during the fiesta. I’ve had plenty of time away from my pack. But that’s something I need, that time away, and it’s exactly what makes it feels so good to be back, running side-by-side with them now.


Jul 5 2012

All that Bull

As promised, just after eleven o’clock, they arrived. I heard the signature barking-dog alert, and looked up from my barstool to see a round, blue bull pedaling by on a vélib’, the rentable bicycles in Paris. A few moments later, the Fiesta Nazi arrived with the robust bull at her side, and a small crew from Kukuxumusu, who’d come to film her because she’s been designated as this year’s Guiri del Año of San Fermĺn. It’s been thirty years that she’s been going to Pamplona, and it’s fitting that this honor, bestowed each year upon a favorite fiesta foreigner would go to her.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo and my mother-in-love, all donning red pañuelos, came to the café, along with a gang of other friends, to await their arrival. The Fiesta Nazi habitually avoids publicity, so assembling a familiar crowd at the bar helped keep it silly rather than serious. Not that a Disney-character-styled blue bull is that serious, but we showed up to make it feel like a party rather than an interview. The girls loved the bull, aka Mister Testis, and hugged him him like a long lost friend. When he finally de-costumed, they took turns trying on his head and poking each other with his horns.

De-facto had some errands to run, but showed up after the interview to say hello. He could not contain his curiosity about the bull costume, which was crumpled on the floor like a passed-out drunk after an all-night binge. He wanted to try it on. The Kukuxumusu guys did not protest at all, helping him slip his long skinny legs into the suit that was measured for someone not quite so tall as he, and turning him and zipping him up into the costume.

I looked on with admiration as De-facto appropriated the costume and ran out of the café to interact with people in the street. He has never been to the fiesta San Fermĺn. It has always been my annual week-away-with-my-girlfriends, and when I first started going, I needed that week away. Now it is not as critical to my sanity but the rituals have been put in place and he does not complain about the arrangements I make to go there. In recent years, I have more than hinted that he should come to Pamplona, too, even if just for a few days. So far, he’s opted to let it be mine, apart from the family. That he can leave the fiesta to me, and yet celebrate some of its foolishness when it happens to come close to home; this is just another reason to appreciate his role as my partner, and the long leash that I enjoy.

Buddy-roo, however, wasn’t delighted as I was by his willingness to try out the bull’s suit for a jaunt in the neighborhood. She burst into angry tears.

“No Papa, don’t!” She screeched at him and stomped her feet. “You look ridiculous!”

De-facto bolted out into the street, skipping down the sidewalk in the bulky blue suit, nodding at strangers, enchanting the passers-by who gawked and laughed, and taunting those who pretended not to notice that there was a foolish blue bull dancing down the street toward them.

~ ~ ~

The TGV from Paris to Hendaye is one of my favorite train trips. It’s the first leg of the voyage to Pamplona, slicing through the French countryside to the Spanish border. The days leading up to get on this train are never easy, I wind myself up getting the family packed and on the road to the country house, and my compulsion to get everything else in my life in order before I go doesn’t help. But the moment that my suitcases are stowed in the luggage rack, and I plop down in the crushed-velvet seat and heave a huge sigh of relief, then I know there’s only fun and fiesta ahead.

It’s always good to start the five hour trip with a nap, but eventually the legs need a stretching and there really isn’t any place to walk other than to the bar car. The train is divided into two sections, Zen and Zap; when you book your ticket you choose an ambiance. The Fiesta Nazi and I usually book a seat in Zen, because you can always get a little Zap by strolling to the bar car, though I must say we found it to be a bit too quiet for our mood. A little rosé later, we persuaded the barman to plug my iPod into the speaker on the bar, and raised the volume on a playlist of our Pamplona favorites. There were a few other people in the bar car, pretending not to notice that we had started dancing. Soon they left, but we kept dancing, because the music is the kind of music that compels you to dance and we were, after all, ramping up to go to one of the best dance parties in the world.

The barmen, amused by our impromptu party but unwilling to participate, went about their business cashing out the register, cleaning and clearing the bar of its inventory as we approached the last stop. We raised the volume and kept on dancing. This was of great interest to two pre-teenaged girls who’d come to the bar car for a soda and found instead a disco. They stood at a distance, watching us as if were from another planet. I danced my way over to them.

“This is what joy looks like,” I said to them.

It was then, dancing in the TGV bar car, the Fiesta Nazi and I turning and twisting and laughing at each other and not even caring what anybody thought, that I understood exactly why De-facto is so accommodating about my trips to to Pamplona. He knows that something happens to me while I’m dancing like a fool with my fiesta friends, something that makes me feel especially alive. He knows I need it, and he knows why. He gets it, and I will never take that for granted.

Moments later, the two girls returned to the bar car, holding their smart phones as if to be texting, but I suspected they were snapping photos or videos. I danced back over to where they were standing, which was as far away from us as possible.

“You can take all the photos you want,” I said, “but promise me that when you’re my age – and I’m fifty – you’ll let yourself dance in a train someday, just like this.”

They nodded their heads, agreeing. What else could they do?

~ ~ ~

Such foolishness will continue for days. In Pamplona, at noon on the sixth of July, the rocket will go off and church bells will ring and champagne corks will pop and the days and nights of the next week will be filled with more laughter and foolishness than most people get in a whole year. There is joy to be had – at the fiesta it’s called alegria – and nobody gives it to you or does it for you, and it probably won’t happen unless you’re willing to be foolish. And much to Buddy-roo’s chagrin, both her parents are absolutely willing, and that’s no bull.


Jul 10 2011

Silent Sunday


Jul 3 2010

Fiesta

My suitcase is stuffed with everything white. White pants and skirts. White T-shirts and tank tops. White jean jackets (I have two) and several pair of white sneakers. Where I’m going, it’s all about wearing white and just a splash of red. A red pañuelo around the neck and a red sash at the belt. This is the uniform of San Fermín.

The fiesta San Fermín in Pamplona has become my ritualized get-away with the girls. Not my two little girls, Short-pants and Buddy-roo, but two older girls, my wanderlusting girlfriends, otherwise known, during the coming week especially, as Fiesta Nazi and Mother Theresa. (I’m called Whim of Iron.) Every year we meet up in Pamplona for one of the wildest parties in the world, the fiesta that Hemingway made famous in The Sun Also Rises.

I think the post I wrote last year on the eve of my departure, The Mom Also Rises, pretty much sums up perfectly why I go to Pamplona every year. If you’re ever going to dig into my archives, this is a good one to read.

I love the fiesta. I love the encierro, though I’ll never be among those who run with the bulls; I watch from a balcony above the route. I love the party that goes on day and night and the cast of characters I meet up with every year. I love the perpetual music in the streets, and the parade of peñas making their way toward the bullring every afternoon at 6:00. I love the corrida, for the drama of the bullfight as much as the sandwich after the third bull. And what’s not to love about the rear view of the matador and his cuadrilla?

What I love most about the fiesta is the feeling of being lost in the present moment. It is the perfect place to be here now, to move through the crowds in the street without any particular direction, to be drawn into a bar because the musicians who’ve taken it over call you in, and after a few laughs, some dancing and a cold caña, moving on to the next impromptu party around the next corner, at another bar, the back room of an eating club, in the park, at a long table set-up in the street, with strangers waiting outside the bullring – anywhere you turn there is a spirited party in progress. Pamplona, for me, means no duties and no to-do list, only the spontaneous delight of following my whim of iron, wherever it takes me.

(Photo Credit: The matador shot is by Jim Hollander, 2009. It’s worth noting that Jimmy’s published a beautiful book of his fiesta photographs, but for a long time has contemplated producing one called “Bull Butts” with more pictures like this. Don’t you think he should?)


Jul 16 2009

Red Right Return

They poured me into the taxi. Waved goodbye, wistfully, as they do every year – my gang of fiesta friends – chagrined that I must leave when there are still two more days of San Fermin to go. But I have never stayed until the pobre de mi at midnight on the 14th of July. It’s not that I have to rush across the border to celebrate the French national holiday, it’s that Short-pants’ birthday is the 13th of July, and this is an occasion I choose not to miss.

I had good long cry as Juan-Jose, my annual driver, navigated the taxi out of Pamplona, consoling me, “Don’t cry, next year will come quick!” My Spanish isn’t sufficient to explain to him the complexity of my tears; a mix of sadness and utter exhaustion, but also gratitude and joy. “They are not all bad tears,” I told him, “es alegria.” He threw his head back and smiled; now he understood.
panuelo
Alegria is a Spanish word that, like many words between languages, doesn’t have an exact translation. The best I can offer, my personal interpretation, is a moment of feeling unfettered bliss.

Later in the TGV train hurtling through the French countryside, I reluctantly removed from my neck my red pañuelo, the uniform of the fiesta, and tucked it in my bag. I nodded in and out of sleep, hoping to recover as much as I could before the reunion with my family. One year I booked my departure for the morning of the 13th, figuring at least I wouldn’t miss her whole birthday; I’d get home in time for a dinner celebration. I was barely awake for the meal and collapsed into a sweaty, detoxifying sleep immediately after cake and presents. Since then, I’ve made it a practice to leave Pamplona on the day prior to the famous birthday.

As the train approached Angouleme — the stop closest to our country house where I would meet up with my peeps — I heard the conductor’s announcement forbidding anyone to depart from the train. I rushed through the corridor, car by car, to find him. “But you have purchased a round-trip ticket to Paris,” he scolded me, “why would you want to get off here?” I tried to explain that I didn’t think it would a problem just to get off the train early. “But in order to take advantage of your inexpensive ticket, you may not change your destination. It’s not permitted.”

If I played by his rules, I’d have two more hot, sticky hours on the train to Paris, with slim chances of making a U-turn on a train back to Angouleme the same night. The actual birthday wasn’t until the next day, but after leaving the fiesta early, damn it, I wasn’t planning to miss even a minute of her celebration.

“But I have to be there for my daughter’s birthday. I cannot miss it.” The tears that came now, no longer the result of alegria, but of exasperation – and admittedly, some artistry. The conductor, a peculiarly precise man, reviewed my ticket, shook his head from side-to-side more than once, but finally agreed to let me off the train if I paid a penalty fee, for which he even gave me a receipt. He accompanied me to the door and used a special key to unlock it and let me off the train. He did, at least, help me with my luggage.

De-facto shaved during my 10-day absence, so it was like being greeted by a young, new lover. Without his goatée, his smile seemed wider, broader. Another man might be grumpy about his girl going solo to the world’s greatest party. But he’s not another man. And he managed to get a few days biking with a friend, courtesy of a well-timed visit by his mother.

A hundred questions on the drive home. How were the girls? Good. How were the bulls? Good. We took turns telling stories about our week apart. Did I tone my tales down, not to sound like I was having too much fun?
table_setMaybe a little. But I also didn’t tell him about the hard part: that lonely wave that hits me every year, mid-fiesta, where in a fit of excess and fatigue, I lay in bed too drunk and too tired to sleep and in that moment I’m sure that I have forsaken my family for this fiesta and nobody in Pamplona likes me either. The boom-boom-boom that goes all night in the street makes quieting this discourse impossible. I’ve come to learn that it’s just a passage; in the morning, in the sunlight, I’m greeted at the Bar Txoko or at breakfast on the Calle de la Merced by one of many friends – old and new – who remind me that I am not alone in this world.

When my daughters heard the car pull up in front of our old run-down stone farmhouse, they ran toward it at full speed, laughing and screaming, jubilantly, “Mama, Mama! You’re home! We missed you!” I was pummeled with kisses and hugs, all of which helped to remind me that the San Fermin fiesta is not the only source of alegria.


Jul 3 2009

The Mom Also Rises

Every day I deal with consequences. My life is filled with them. Having little people to look after creates a profound sense of responsibility. There are always things to be done – dinner, laundry, getting them to school, coaxing them into the bath, writing notes to the teacher, buying the present for one of a dozen birthday parties – the list feels endless. But who else will help them accomplish these tasks? As much as I dream of being a slacker, knowing that those two creatures count on me makes it hard for me to be anything but responsible.

But not this week. This week, I get a break. This week, I am accountable to no one. I am responsible only for myself.

Each year, in early July, I join a couple of my favorite gal pals and make the trek to Spain, to Pamplona, for the Fiesta San Fermin. It’s become a tradition; this year will be my sixth consecutive appearance. The friend who introduced me to the bulls – we call her the Fiesta Nazi – hasn’t missed a fiesta in more than 25 years. Another friend, affectionately nicknamed Mother Theresa, has been going for 10 years. (My fiesta nickname, by the way, is Whim of Iron.)

De-facto is a total sport about letting me escape. He knows that I occasionally need a week of unencumbered spontaneity. And that’s exactly what I get in Pamplona.

No, I do not run with the bulls. Yes, I will go to the bullfight. No, it’s not cruel; it’s noble. Yes, I will be exhausted at the end of the week. And I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

During the fiesta, in any given moment, I may do whatever I please. I may wake up with my friends and watch the encierro – the running of the bulls – or I can hide my head under the pillow and sleep in. If I choose, I’ll go to eat greasy eggs and listen to jota ballads with the gang at the breakfast club, or I can disappear with a good friend and take a quiet walk to the plaza de toros to watch them sort the bulls for that afternoon’s bullfight. There are people I meet up with every year in Pamplona, and with them I can meander the streets, hopping from one bar to another, sampling tapas at each one, or I can skip the hot afternoon sun, find my way back to the apartment, shut the curtains and take a much-needed nap. I can stay out all night dancing, I can have “just one more drink,” or I can navigate the smelly, crowded streets and make my way home early.

I don’t need to call anyone. I don’t need to negotiate when I go out or when I come home. I don’t need to stop the fun I’m having to pick up some small person or respond to a client request. I am about to go into joyful oblivion. And I can’t wait. It is the craziest, freest, most festive, tolerant, joyous party on earth. Hemingway described it famously:

The fiesta was really started. It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during the fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.

It’s my week away. For one week, I am beholden to nobody – not even the Fiesta Nazi and Mother Theresa. Even though I know there are people at home waiting for me, missing me, wondering about me. Even though I’ll be missing them like crazy. I will pretend, for my own amusement – at least for just this week – that there are no consequences.

That’s the fiesta.