Jul 21 2014

That Big Fiesta

“Wait!” Buddy-roo screamed from the upstairs window of the country house as I walked to the car. “I want to give her another hug goodbye!”

I heard her pound down the stairs before she rushed out the door and took a hold of That Big Doll. tbd_hug_goodbye

“You’re sure?” I was afraid of the answer. For years I’ve been trying to remove this freaky nearly life-size doll from our lives. I managed to exile her to the country house, where she was tucked away in a back room, in a corner nearly out of sight beside a wardrobe. But when De-facto cleared out the room to lay a new floor, she ended up in plain sight again, standing by the fireplace in the main room.

When the Fiesta Nazi first encountered That Big Doll she got that nasty twinkle in her eye that I find especially endearing and suggested in a conspiratorial tone that it might be a humorous series of moments I’d we were to drag her along on an afternoon bar crawl at the fiesta in Pamplona. One could imagine instantly the clever (at least to us) stunts we might pull off, with our primary objective, of course, the free drinks we might secure with her in tow. But every time I brought this up, Buddy-roo would hear none of it. She stomped her feet and pounded the table, no, no, no. If I pursued the idea further, there were tears.

This year, as every year, I asked – a throwaway comment with expectation of the usual resistance – and I was surprised by her response.

“Sure,” she said, all cool I-don’t-care-like, “it’s time to let her go.”

I hadn’t asked if she was sure about it, afraid she might change her mind. Which is why when I blurted it out as she gave That Big Doll an extra goodbye hug I wished I hadn’t said it. What if she changed her mind now, so close to the getaway?

No need to be concerned. After the embrace, she handed me the doll so I could put it in the trunk. The knees don’t bend so it’s hard to put her in a seat, her legs only spread out in a suggestive V-shape – and we drove off to the promise of her next adventure.

~ ~ ~

When you carry a nearly life-sized plastic doll around under your arm, you have to be nonchalant about it. I channelled my father, remembering how he once took a three-foot long Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum box with him to meet my brother at the airport. In the ’70s, an advertising campaign featured wrigleys_flavorpeople walking around with huge boxes of Wrigley’s gum under their arms, signifying its big, long-lasting flavor. My sister’s boyfriend worked as a stock boy at the local five-and-dime store and when the Wrigley’s display was dismantled, gave the box to my sister after extracting her promise to carry it through the school cafeteria during lunch period, which she did without the embarrassment he’d intended. After that, she kept the box on display on top of a chest of drawers in her bedroom.

In those days you could pass through airport security without a ticket, to meet an arriving passenger as they got off the plane. My father trooped through the terminal toward the gate with this huge cardboard box under his arm. People turned their heads and stared. A woman – an enthusiastic stranger – came up to him.

“Where did you get that big Wrigley’s Gum box?”

“Shut up lady,” my father said, out of the side of his mouth, “You’re ruining the commercial.”

I carried That Big Doll through three train stations. I acted as if this were the most natural thing in the world, but couldn’t help but notice people’s reactions. They either laughed at me or, in an amusing stance of denial, pretended not to notice. I know my father would have approved: when I boarded my last train, toting a fairly large suitcase in one hand and That Big Doll in the other, a man seated nearby offered to help. He reached for my valise, intending to lift it to the overhead rack. I thrust the giant doll in to his arms for him to hold while and heaved the suitcase up myself.

~ ~ ~

Of course we dressed her in the fiesta whites. The red faja had to be wrapped three times around her tiny, not-at-all-proportional waist in order on_the_fence2 to hang properly. A red panuelo tied at the neck put her in full fiesta uniform, and it must be said she didn’t look quite as wanton once she was wearing the traditional white and red.

She spent most of the week standing at the window of our apartment, waving out the window. I had to wait to be in the right mood to take her out. Part of the joy of the fiesta is being unencumbered with responsibilities; there’s an agreement among my cuadrilla that there are no obligations, or that if you take on any kind of obligation, the others are not required to participate. It’s one week a year, for me, that I have nothing I absolutely have to do. I can follow the rituals of the fiesta or wander away to something else, on a whim, if I choose. Having a plastic doll to watch out for, even though I intended to leave behind, felt counter-intuitive.

But the day before I left (it was now or never) the spirit moved me and we slipped on her manoletinas and took her out to the street. The fact that she has a strange adult body but is only as tall as a little girl shocked and then amused the people she met. She made friends. She was held, carried, danced around and dipped. She was put into strange poses at café tables and bar stools. She did planks and push-ups in the street. She posed with anyone who asked, and some who didn’t. She applauded a band of mariachis and found herself wearing a sombrero. She was thrown under a bus (while it was stopped at a light) and if only I could have gotten my camera out in time to capture the bus driver in hysterical fits of laughter. She was good fun, in the daytime.

At night something changed. The mood on the street was different. Instead of being the quirky doll-dressed-in-white, her plastic shapeliness took on a different connotation. The pranks and stunts ceased to be clever, and started to feel not-so-funny. She wasn’t received with amusement, but instead with lascivious grins or looks of disdain. Given that there was also a campaign to raise awareness about violence against women at this year’s fiesta, That Big Doll – who on her own is just wrong – felt even more wrong. We took her back to the apartment, and left her at her window perch.

It was my intention to leave her in the back of some bar, or in a random doorway, tbd_runninghappy to be rid of her for good. But I couldn’t do it. Even Fiesta Nazi agreed, it was hard to leave her. That Big Doll had grown on us, being such a good sport at the fiesta. Instead of leaving her to be spoiled in the street, we left her in a closet to surprise our landlord. And she’ll be there next year, if the spirit moves us, to take her out again.

That Big Doll absolutely had the big adventure I’d hoped for. And Buddy-roo was tickled by the pictures of her antics; check out her Tumblr if you want to see for yourself how she survived that big fiesta.


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 15 2011

Ages Away

We arrived on Day 5. The fiesta of San Fermin is not arranged by the day of the week; people don’t say Thursday or Monday; they speak of calendar days. It starts on Day 6 and ends at midnight on Day 14. This is how the bullfight tickets are numbered, it’s how we talk about when we’ve arrived and when we’ll depart. When you have a reservation at a restaurant, you have a compromiso for lunch at 2:30 on Day 11. That is, if you even dare to make a plan because inevitably the moment you must go in order to keep an appointment, you are in the middle of some other spontaneous moment you don’t want to leave.

Our habit is to arrive the day before the fiesta begins. We meet our landlord in a favorite bar across the street from our piso and buy him a drink. While sipping this first glass of rosado, we keep an eye out for a couple of strapping Aussies to entice to haul our bags up to the sixth floor in exchange for an invitation to return one morning later in the week to watch the encierro from our balcony. We’ve made a few friends that way, and given a few first-time-at-the-fiesta-boys a chance to see the run before they try. Most important, we’ve preserved our backs for the days of bar-standing and wild-dancing ahead.

There is a bullfight the night before the fiesta starts: the novillada for young matadors just coming of age. Our gang of early-arrivers gathers and greet and go to the bullring. It’s odd to see each other in regular colored clothing; it’s not until the next day at noon, during the opening Chupinazo, when the gun goes off that an entire city dressed in white ties red pañuelos around their necks, raises a glass or a bottle and the fiesta begins. The back balcony of the opening party we usually attend looks out at a cathedral with an enormous bell that rings only a few occasions during the year, this being one of them. After the noon gun, we race back to the back balcony to hear it toll. The sun is high in the sky, the Navarran hills peak in the distance, the fiesta has started but all of it is still before me: days of dance, drink and delight.

Later that evening, if we’re privileged enough to have a ticket to the bullfight, we migrate with the masses toward the corrida. There is kind of an electric buzz as everyone enters the arena, their white clothes still clean and pressed as hugs and kisses are passed around, warm salutations for those seated in the nearby seats, fiesta friends not seen since this time last year. The habitual questions: When did you arrive? When will you leave? Some people surprised that I can stay so long, until Day 12. Others, more seasoned, dismayed that I must leave before the fiesta is finished. Each year it pains me to leave early, but Short-pants celebrates her birthday on Day 13, and I refuse to dampen her party by not appearing. But now is not the time to think of my departure. I scan the bullring, a marvel of white and red, I think about the week ahead, a stretch of six days and nights with revelry and music and laughing still in front of me, it seems like plenty of time, the end of the fiesta for me is ages away.

The days of the fiesta pass. Some rituals are strictly observed and others spontaneously abandoned. Many fiesta friends, it seems, were celebrating milestone anniversaries this year. Mother Theresa, close friend and part of the cuadrilla I run with fêted her 10th year of attending the fiesta. A good friend was honored several times because this was his 50th consecutive year at San Fermín. Another counted this as his 40th anniversary. Then there were new friends who joined the debauchery this year for the first time, falling into our circle and marking (hopefully) the first of what might turn into their long run of fiestas.

Each day of the fiesta is intense, living a week’s worth of emotions in 24 hours, the highs and lows like a giant sine wave. I had moments of pure alegria: listening to those cathedral bells ring with friends on that back balcony after the opening gun; one afternoon happening upon a few people lying in the grass with their feet raised in the air against a fence, joining them and then, surprised to hear their voices raise together in Basque folksongs; dancing wildly until 3 am, or all the night and sleeping through breakfast; doubling in hysterics at jokes I didn’t even understand – something about the Bronze Age – just because the laughter of my friends was too contagious not to join them. The lows, of course, as crushing as the highs were exhilarating: a misunderstanding with a friend, a missed lunch invitation, a wave of fatigue so fierce that leaving the fun of the fiesta to sleep for a while is the only recourse.

Before I know it, it’s Day 12. At breakfast, I look up and down the table of friends and consider that soon I will have to leave them. All that nonsense about ages to go before my departure vanishes, in what feels like the single wave of a matador’s capote, the week has flashed by and I’m already saying my goodbyes. Polite nods to neighbors at the bullring, hugs across the bar to barmen who’ve served me well all week, tears and long embraces with friends I won’t see for another year. The sound of my suitcase wheels on the stones as I roll it down the street away from the fiesta while it rages behind me – this is the saddest ballad I sing every year.

A taxi ride to the frontier and a train ride to France is just long enough for two catnaps that allow a reasonably cheerful arrival. De-facto, who’s survived two weeks as a single parent, folds me into his arms. I get the run-and-hug-and-cling welcome from my daughters, who seem notably taller than when I saw them last. I return to the quiet of the country house, lingering morning cuddles in bed with the girls, the smell of a baking birthday cake in the oven. The boom-boom-boom of the fiesta seems far away, and it is, I suppose, until next year, when those six days will once again stretch ahead of me with all their promise, and the end of the fiesta will feel, once again, ages away.


Jul 10 2011

Silent Sunday


Jul 3 2011

Get out of Town

It’s never easy. The last days before leaving for a trip always get ugly. No matter how I try to plan ahead, think ahead, and even pack ahead, there is no avoiding the inevitable frenzy and departure stress. Finishing up work projects so the hanging threads are at least minimized. Getting De-facto and the girls packed in the car and on their way to the country house. Setting in order the details of the household: bills paid, last minute errands, picking up dry cleaning, running by the post to drop some birthday cards in the mail, baskets of white clothes to be washed and ironed, suitcase packed. Get that last invoice out, answer those emails sulking in the bottom of the inbox. Stop by the bank to get cash for the trip, find a moment to shop for a new pair of cheap shoes for trudging through the gray silt of the upcoming Pamplona party. The list would not end, and the series of bullet-pointed colored Post-it notes plastered over the kitchen island seemed to multiply despite the fact that I plowed through the list industriously, barely stopping to eat or sleep, let alone to put my feet up.

There was a pedicure – a must before any summer trip and of course the visit to the beauty nurse to deal with the hair you don’t want, but then to the coiffeur to deal with the hair you do want. If only there’d been time for a facial. De-facto laughs at me when I run around at pre-voyage pace, stressed about my to-do list, on which a third of the items are beauty treatments, which he considers lavish. But I’m telling you this not a luxury; at my age, it’s called maintenance.

My usual start-of-summer departure stress was compounded this year by the necessary packing or purging of all bottles, boxes, tubes and personal toiletry items on every shelf of our bathroom and our w.c. We have arranged for both to be gutted and renovated during our absence, which meant a last-minute consultation with the contractor, some dashing about to pick up the new shower fixture and special-order lamps which meant I completely spaced out about a conference call I was supposed to join.

I’d turned the corner from frenzied to flakey.

But wait, there’s more: I knew this was not the ideal moment to wipe out my hard-drive and upgrade to a new operating system, however my recently-sluggish computer decided to freeze, upgrading this task from would-be-nice-if-you-get-to-it to the must-do-it-now status. The installation was more complicated than it should have been, requiring a manual reassembly of my document files, photos, browser preferences and email accounts. The good news is I had a fresh backup from which to work. The bad news: it still took hours. I was up restructuring my library files until three a.m.

It would help if I wasn’t so hell-bent on leaving home with everything in order. I cannot leave the house with perishable food in the fridge. The laundry needs to be put away and the tables cleared and chairs pushed in, the dishwasher emptied. I want beds made and the shoes put away, papers and books and things put away and out of sight. I like to leave the house in such a way that it’s a relief to come home. This adds a number of possibly superfluous tasks to my cluster of Post-it notes, but it does pay off. The return home is always smoother for this painful frenzy of preparation.

Keep your eye on the prize. This is the mantra I kept repeating to myself all week. Soon I’d be in the green of the hills of the Basque country at a favorite little hotel, sipping rosé and eating asparagus de Navarra. Just a few days later, I’ll be clinking champagne flutes in a room full of friends dressed in white (with a splash of red) in the middle of an entire city full of people dressed in white (with a splash of red) where for exactly one week I will be lost in the revelry and reverie that is the fiesta of San Fermín. The days ahead are days I dream of all year long: when I am beholden to nobody, when there is no end-of-day-deadline because I have to pick up the kids, no promises to keep, no paperwork to submit, no phone call to forget. These are the days spent wandering with purposeful abandon in an non-stop-impromptu parade with a posse of good friends, days where I am free to float, un-tethered and in the moment, subject only to my own whim of iron. These are the days I’ve been waiting for all year, and oh yes, they’re just ahead – if I can just get out of town.


Dec 26 2010

Picturing Endrina

I used to keep photo albums. Once or twice a year I’d sort through the pictures, pulling them out of a tall stack of black cardboard envelopes, each one with two or three-dozen pictures that had been developed after a trip or a holiday or a gathering of friends. I’d put the photographs in some kind of narrative order and, with immense satisfaction, glue them into the albums. I kept at it during Short-pants’ earliest years, and even managed an album or two for Buddy-roo, not wanting her to suffer from second-child-with-hardly-any-photographs syndrome. But sometime around Buddy-roo’s second birthday, I stopped adding albums to the cupboard. Partly because life got really busy, partly because I stopped using film, partly because a dozen different digital options for storing and sharing photographs popped up on the web, changing they way everyone keeps their photographs, including me.

In a way it’s unfortunate. There’s something about a hand-made album that carries a warmth that an on-line slide-show cannot duplicate, even with a music track. The mother-in-love just sent De-facto two beautiful photograph albums she’d made for him for Christmas, pictures of him and his family from childhood and adolescence. You could smell the love on the pages, with every turn. But life is digital now, and time is scarce. I suppose I’ve opted to blog instead of keeping scrapbooks and photo albums.

A provocation to select a photograph, from all those taken in the last year, that captures something essential about who I am (or want to be) inspired yesterday’s thorough review of the haphazardly-organized 2010 picture file. This retrospective reminded me that the last year was an up and down journey, with spikes of grief and bliss in rapid succession. But the choice was easy. You may not think so because I’ve chosen two, but they go together, they were snapped within twenty seconds of each other. They both capture me in my favorite condition of alegría, a Spanish word that means joy or jubilation, but within the context of the fiesta San Fermin, its meaning has an exponential quality.

The stocky man who has effortlessly thrust me into the air, much to my surprise, is fondly referred to by his friends as Puchero. He is a force, blunt and direct, with a crass sense of humor. But when he sings the jota ballads – and during San Fermín he does so every morning at our breakfast table – his robust energy, directed through the poetic words of these songs, is beautiful and often tear-inducing.

In these photographs I am a bit surprised – I did not expect Puchero’s abrupt dance moves – but a good surprise is followed by fun, and it’s clear I am having a good time. I am in a state of pure joy. I feel as free and alive as I will feel all year long. I am who I know myself to be, without the labels of a profession or a family. I’m just me, experiencing alegría.

I am Endrina.

The Reverb10 prompt about changing my name for a day, at first, didn’t particularly inspire me. But as I was writing about these choice photographs of the year, I realized that if I could call myself by a different name, it would be Endrina. This is the small, dark berry that is pressed to make my favorite elixir, patxaran. This is also the name I offer when, at the fiesta, I want to be friendly without giving my real name to a stranger who’s asked. (I’ve also been Flora, with my sister Fauna, but that’s another story.) Endrina is who I am when I am taking a brief vacation from the responsibilities and the consequences of my life. She is who I am when I’m experiencing, fully, alegría.

Photo credit: Guillermo Navarro is the photographer who captured Endrina (and Puchero) in rare form. See more of his photos here.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to two prompts. One is from Tracey Clark: Photo – a present to yourself. Sift through all the photos of you from the past year. Choose one that best captures you; either who you are, or who you strive to be. Find the shot of you that is worth a thousand words. Share the image, who shot it, where, and what it best reveals about you. The second is from Becca Wilcott: New name. Let’s meet again, for the first time. If you could introduce yourself to strangers by another name for just one day, what would it be and why?


Dec 16 2010

The Posse

Over the years, gradually, it’s grown – this gang of girls. We share in common an extraordinary event, the best party of the year, every July, and although the duration of our stay in Pamplona varies depending on finances and family or work commitments, that moment – when the gun goes off and the champagne flows and the cathedral bells ring – is a precious moment when we are reunited and ready for anything to happen. Others start their new year on the first of January or in September with the new school season. The PPP (the Pamplona Pussy Posse) starts its year on July 6th at noon o’clock, and with a bang.

Dressed in white with red sashes and panuelos, we have our daily rituals, borrowed or invented over the years. We all know the general schedule (the Fiesta Nazi has done her best to train us) so if for some reason you don’t make it home or if you get distracted and pulled off to lunch with other friends, or you need a nap, or to put your feet up, you still know where to go, and at what time, in order to rejoin the posse. We are predictable that way, and yet within our rhythm there is deviation and surprise: a new favorite barman, a newly discovered out-of-the-way restaurant, a place to better view the fireworks.

The founding members of the posse are, though we don’t dwell on it, on the other side of forty. The younger members of the PPP are in their twenties and there’s a thirty-something amongst us, too. Together, we represent a range of the feminine experience. Young, daring, sexy things becoming thoughtful beauties and turning into witty, wiser (and still rather wanton) women. I’d like to think that when we’re out and about, we blend together. I know I’ve got a few more wrinkles and lot less stamina, but every one of us is laughing loud from the belly, dancing deep from the heart. These days, the younger ones get more attention, but I don’t mind as long as somebody buys us a drink while they’re flirting with our younger friends.

The posse experiences the fiesta fully. We watch the encierro every morning, vigilant for our friends who are running. At the corrida we bite our knuckles, shedding tears and/or applauding if it’s beautifully fought. We dance anyplace where there is music to dance (which is everyplace), turning strangers into friends at each stop. We befriend barmen, street cleaners and pastores. But there’s something that happens between us, in the middle of the non-stop revelry, when we look around and recognize how absolutely privileged we are to be here in the midst of it this madness, and to be in each other’s wild company.

In the wee morning hours (or else in the high heat of the day after a siesta) we’re splayed on the couch in the one air-conditioned room of our rented apartment, feet up on the table or soaking in a tub of ice-water, telling our stories. Funny stories about what’s happened to us at the fiesta morph into other stories about things in our lives outside the Pamplona party that we share, things that drive us, inspire us, annoy us, or amuse us. I love these talks. You can’t plan them; they happen spontaneously.

I couldn’t plan this, either – I wasn’t even aware of it until I was in the middle of writing this post – what I would gain from being part of this circle of women of disparate ages and life experiences. It’s one thing to be friendly with a few younger women who are at different places in their life, to be a colleague, or a mentor. It’s a whole different ballgame to go through what we go through in Pamplona, the intense highs and lows, moments of elation and disappointment back-to-back, feeling free and wild and strong, and then feeling instantly vulnerable as a result.

Knowing these women this way – and letting them know me – gives me a perspective about the curve of my own life. Who was I when I was at that age and stage? Who will they be, when they are in my place? And who and what are we all becoming? (Besides a little bit too drunk and really overtired.)

Those heart-to-heart late-night talks could happen anywhere, I suppose, but the exchange – and that’s the operative word, exchange – is somehow made more intense by the backdrop of the world’s greatest party, the boom-boom-boom of the music and people living out loud in the street, the constant roar all week long, all-day and all-night, these phenomenal moments when we get to be free, we get to be foolish, we get to be fierce, we get to be with friends, when we get to be the posse.

Photo credit, for the middle shot: Jim Hollander. (I have no idea who took the other two pictures.)


Jul 16 2010

Running Rituals

The alarm goes off, but we have already been awakened by someone on the street buzzing our door to come up for the encierro. Our balcony overlooks Calle Estafeta, where we can see the bulls on the street below as they run by, so we extend invitations to various friends (and occasional strangers) to come up to watch the ritual running of the bulls. Our instructions are precise: come at the last possible moment, minutes before 7:00 when the street is blocked off for cleaning before the run begins at 8:00. The drop key, permanently tied to a long white string, is lowered through the stairwell to allow our guests to pass the locked door at the bottom of the five flights of stairs to our apartment. We usher them out to our balcony so they can watch the street as it’s prepared for the run, and we go back to bed. That extra twenty minutes of sleep can mean everything.

But before 8:00, we, too, must be up, dressed and ready to run. Not with the bulls, but between our living room, where we can see the bull-run on the television, and the balcony, where we charge out as the bulls turn the corner to run up our street. Their broad brown backs rush forward, the bells on the steers that accompany them make the soundtrack to their morning run. On a good day, the bulls are still packed together with the steers as they run toward the corrida, and a few skilled (or lucky) runners sprint ahead of them, just off to the side of their horns.

After the instant replay of the encierro and ensuing TV commentary, we rush our guests out the door and head to the Bar Txoko where many of the runners we know go to swap stories and drink ritual morning drink: Kaiku y Cognac, a sweet vanilla milk mixed with a double-shot of cognac. It so happens that the street cleaners choose that moment to clean the very patch of the Plaza de Castillo where we stand, so we are forever maneuvering our conversations around to accommodate the sweepers and hose-masters who are kindly cleaning up after the previous night’s party, only part of the party that goes on for nine days. These guys are the true heroes of the fiesta, constantly cleaning the streets of the gray goop that is a mixture of beer and wine and urine and puke that accumulates during the week.

A quick drive-by to greet the brothers Carmelo and Fermín at the newsstand where we buy a paper with the photographs of the previous day’s bullrun and bullfight, and then on to our breakfast club, a long table set up in the street where friends meet to eat greasy eggs or pochas or bull stew. Such nourishment can be acquired anywhere, but we always take it here to be in the company of a few very distinctive jota singers who serenade us with traditional Navarran ballads with poignant lyrics (like wishing to be an ivy vine in order to crawl up to your window just to watch you sleep).

The midday rituals have some variation, but might include a long meander through the city streets in search of the Gigantes, a troupe of eight giant figures that represent the kings and queens of the different continents of the world. This year I saw them no less than a half-dozen times, their towering figures turning side-to-side in an enchanting dance in step to the music of the high pitched txistulari pipers. The Gigantes are at least three times the size of the men who carry and spin them for hours every morning; occasionally you see the figures stop and appear to stand still in the street as the men slip out from under the robes and duck into a nearby bar for a rest and a drink. In the meantime, parents carry their toddlers up close to examine the clumps of pacifiers that dangle from the wrists of the giants. When Pamplonese children are ready to stop using their binkies, they give them up to the Gigantes. This is a ritual I find priceless; I can imagine the conversations between the child and parents as the fiesta approaches, the building up to the ceremonial hand-off of the prized pacifier, tying it to the enormous hand of their chosen Gigante. I had a fine childhood, but if I could do it over, I’d do it in Pamplona.

This is the moment that seems to have become a ritual for me, when I wonder why Short-pants and Buddy-roo and De-facto are not there with me, swallowed by the sea of white and red and music and magic. I have kept the fiesta San Fermín as my annual escape, but each year I wonder, how can I not share this with them? For how long should it remain my getaway with my girlfriends and my “Pamplona friends?”

The fiesta is embedded with rituals, those offered up by the proud Basque culture, the noble Taurino traditions, not to mention those that my friends and I have invented for ourselves in the years we’ve been attending. Like our Hemingwayesque ritual of taking two days in the green Navarran countryside just prior to the start of the fiesta, when my girlfriends and I stay at our favorite B&B. Here we slide into the Basque culture, nibbling our favorite asparagus and drinking homemade Patxaran. We retire early and sleep in, padding the sleep bank before the fiesta quickly depletes it. In the morning, we take over a table to create masterpieces of jewelry we bead together with small plastic bulls that have been borrowed from Tequila bottles from a Mexican Kmart. Our own spontaneous designs that every year we make, wear and give away: the running of the bull-earrings.

Each day in Pamplona, a brief afternoon nap rejuvenates us to make the run for sandwiches and cookies (and a chilled bottle of Rosado) to carry into the corrida for the post third bull snack. The bullfight itself is a remarkable ritual, a 3-act drama of skill, bravery and intimacy. Though I am far from an aficionada, there was one moment this year that moved me to tears: the matador raised his hand to stop his cuadrilla as they came to his aide. He knew he had done his work well, the bull was ready to die, and so he stood back with his hand raised, and waited for the bull to fall. It happened swiftly; a good death, with grace and honor, the kind we all hope for. It made me think of my mother, of course, how nobly she fought during the last year of her life, and the dignity of how she finally let go.

Each year I painfully extract myself from my friends and the festivities and leave to be with Short-pants to celebrate her birthday, which falls the day before the end of the fiesta. I could have gotten a pass this year, I suppose, having done my duty with the big party last month, except that I want to be with her on her birthday. As hard as it is to leave the fiesta early, the return is always a relief. This year was no exception: I was as glad as ever to see De-facto and the girls waiting for me at the train station, waving wildly when they spotted me.

“I missed you so much,” cried Short-pants, throwing her long arms around me. “Where did you get those white shoes?” said Buddy-roo, who notices everything, especially if it has to do with new items of clothing or jewelry.

Over the last few days, the final post-fiesta rituals have been enacted without fail: the detoxification, the redepositing of sleep in the bank; the gradual removal of those haggard circles under my eyes; the return to an exercise regime to address the abnormal number of carbohydrates consumed at the fiesta; the washing of the whites, which requires the special formula of
bleach and Coca-Cola (this tip given to us by a Spanish grandmother we met in the supermarket) to get that gray goop off the bottom of all my white jeans; the telling of stories (only mildly toned down) and the fierce expression of gratitude toward De-facto, who always lets me run just as far as I need.