Oct 30 2015

A Final Bow

I’m almost too busy to grieve. I say almost, because when you’re busy, you still grieve, it’s just pushed underground. If you don’t make time and space for the grief, it takes its own, and never at a good time or with enough space to permit you to delve in. Grief doesn’t fit itself neatly into the daily juggle of life and kids and work and an airplane to catch. Grief commands you to stop and pay attention. If you don’t, or you can’t – or think you can’t – you’ll find out too late, you should have bowed to its call.
tendido_sign
I’ve just said goodbye to a friend. We knew each other for only ten years, but in that time he showed me great kindness. He was older, leaning toward the end of his life even when I met him, yet he cultivated friendships with younger minds and spirits. Part of this was denial; he would not see himself as aged. Part of this was delight. He could never truly hide his amusement while he feigned surprise or mild disdain for the words and acts of the younger generation around him. He kept himself young by keeping such company.

He was just shy of eighty when he died, with years of achievement and adventure behind him. A hero of sorts among a special crowd, my San Fermín friends, he was known for his courage as a runner, back in the day, and for his chivalry and generosity until the end. He was the last man standing on the longest of fiesta nights, even at his ripe age, signaling a strong heart that could have kept him going for another decade, surely, but for his liver which he’d taxed too much, and his mind, which, like all of ours, wasn’t what it used to be.

I was too far away when he died to join the community of mourners at his memorial service. I got the news while at a meeting of 300 people. I stuffed the feelings down – the show must go on – until it could seep out later on a transatlantic redeye, the high altitude cabin pressure no doubt attributing to the release of emotion, my teary sniffles muffled by the constant hum of the jet engine. I made it home, tired, with puffy eyes and a heavy heart.

Winston met me at the door, his paws and long snout bobbing at me. One of the great things about having a dog is this enthusiastic welcome no matterteary_eye how long you’ve been absent. After a week away, he was especially excited to see me. I knelt down to scratch behind his ears and Short-pants came around behind me and placed her hand gently on my shoulder, her calm intention distinct from the peripatetic affection of the dog.

“I’m sorry you lost your friend,” she said to me. I pulled Winston closer, wincing to keep from crying again.

“It’s okay to be sad,” she said, stroking my back.

~ ~ ~

Grieving is messy business. I think you rarely grieve for only one person. Saying a permanent goodbye to someone you’ve known and loved triggers a memory of all the others you’ve lost. It’s like they’re all called out on the stage again, taking their place in line, holding hands, the full cast of the beloved, stepping forward for their encore bows a second, third, and fourth time. Side by side, the line splits in the center to make space for the newly departed, and together dipping their heads, skipping forward, their farewell bows perfectly synchronized. There you are in the audience, clutching a tissue and fighting back tears for each and every one of them, all over again.

Buddy-roo danced around the living room, throwing words at me I wasn’t prepared to take in. The test she thought she was ready for (but wasn’t), a misunderstanding with a girlfriend, the stuff of every day life that she likes me to know about. It made me think about coming home to them just after my mother died. I’d been gone three weeks, accompanying her through hospice. The girls had been desperate to reconnect with me, to catch up, to tell me of their lives, needing me to know, to respond. And I, jet-lagged and grief-stricken, listened half-heartedly, distracted by an internal conversation of my own, wondering how it would be for them when it was me who was gone for good.

This is the part that’s (mostly) unspoken: When we grieve all the others, there’s the hint of grief at our own demise. Each time there is a death around me, I know that contigo_torosomeday it will be my turn. What will happen to me is a mystery. I don’t know what to believe about any existence of my consciousness after death. But I know what it will be like for the girls, and if I could take that heartache away from them I would. But just as Short-pants says, it’s okay to be sad. Mourning is as much a part of life as laughing or loving or any of the experiences we covet.

I’d seen my friend just over a month ago. I walked him down a long corridor to surgery, a surgery he recovered from but extenuating circumstances numbered his days and took his life. His departure is a reminder that all things have a beginning, a middle and an end. And that it’s the people we love who keep the memory of our existence alive, albeit with their heartache, calling us back on stage to take yet another final bow.


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.


Jun 18 2013

High Tea, Sloe Berry

Some mothers are really good at birthday parties. They effortlessly host a dozen screeching kids and don’t seem to mind the pack of them running around and trashing the house. They make props and invent games that fill an entire afternoon. They bake elaborate cakes with towers and flags and multi-colors of frosting topped with decorative elements you can eat. They seem to enjoy the party as much as the birthday boy or girl.
balloons_in_air
I’m not one of those mothers.

I still make a big fuss all day long, and there are cards and presents and colored streamers hanging from the ceiling. A cake gets baked and decorated. But it’s usually just a family affair, with maybe a friend or a neighbor included. I’m not a complete grinch: we’ve thrown the occasional gang-of-kids party, but we’ve successfully minimized that sort of hullabaloo, generally keeping birthdays small and quiet.

Inventiveness is still required. Last fall, I tracked down Buddy-roo’s favorite busker, and invited him over for our family party. She was entirely surprised. He gave a little concert, including a live acoustic guitar version of happy birthday as she blew out the candles. He stayed for cake. She was over the moon.

When one of my sweetest friend, the Pastry Ace, was hired to start up the new Rose Bakery Tea Room at the Bon Marché department store, it clicked that this could be the perfect place to pay homage to Short-pants’ birthday this year, once again avoiding an elaborate in-house production. I presented to her the idea of high tea at a chic address, and she bit. We did an advance trip in early May. All the pieces fit.

~ ~ ~

When I weaned Short-pants, just after her first birthday, I left town to make it easier on the both of us. I escaped with my girlfriends to the hills of Navarra, the culture of the Basques and their local drink, patxaran. Because I was no longer breast feeding, I imbibed with abandon, and fell in love with the deep red liqueur. It’s reminiscent of cough syrup, but without the medicinal aftertaste. A little bit of fire water, patxaran is an elixir that aides digestion, revs up your libido and leaves you with a syrupy smile.
the_elixir
That trip turned out to be an amuse-bouche for the north of Spain. Soon after, a pilgrimage to Pamplona was incorporated into my every-summer routine. Each year, I replenish my patxaran supply, bringing several bottles home to Paris to last until the following July. I mentioned to the Fiesta Nazi that I really wanted to get my own endrina bush – this is the Spanish name for the berries that produce patxaran – so I could brew my own. All the lovely Basque men I’ve met brag about their mother-in-law’s home-made patxaran. I see myself as the kind of woman who makes hooch for her beloved son-in-law. But I need some practice before the girls come of marrying age.

We asked every respectable (and frankly, non-respectable) Spanish person we knew in Pamplona about where might I get my hands on an endrina bush. It became apparent that it’s not something you go and buy at a nursery and plant in your garden. It was impossible to get a specific answer about where to find it or even what it looked like. The response was always something like, “It’s just…you find it…around.” Then I realized the endrina is a weed.

Last summer, the Pastry Ace visited us at the country house. It was the end of August and a string of warm, sunny, dry days inspired us to pull our mattresses out to the back terrace so we could sleep out – all of us together – under the stars. She made us cakes and pies and one night cooked up a mean ratatouille; her talents stretch beyond things pastry and chocolate. We’d go for long morning walks and she’d point out the different trees and herbs and organic goodies that a chef perpetually looking for ingredients can’t help but see and that I had missed altogether, though I walk these same roads and trails every summer. She discovered a mirabelle tree, covered with fruit, on the other side of our barn. We’ve owned this house for seven years, and we’d never harvested its fruit. We didn’t even know it existed.
endrina_landscape
One afternoon, Pastry Ace walked into the kitchen with a smug smile on her face and some blueish berries in her hand. She knew of my hunt for endrinas, and was even able to help me name them in English: sloe berries. She’d found them growing wild by the side of a nearby dirt road. She’s also found some growing in a hedge, on the edge of our property. Can you imagine my bliss? Endrina bushes growing on my land.

The berries were immediately harvested and transported back to Paris, where I scoured the Internet for tips on making patxaran, and wrote to my Spanish Facebook friends for advice. I once visited a patxaran factory, I remembered this detail from that tour: mix the berries with good alcohol, don’t use the cheap stuff. I stocked up on some quality anís to mix with my precious endrinas, which means my home-made brew has nothing to do with saving money by making it yourself, but everything to do with the craft of distillation and the pride of its provenance.

~ ~ ~

Every July I rush back from the fiesta in time for Short-pants’ birthday party, though I’m not necessarily in the best of shape, usually recovering from many consecutive days of patxaran consumption. This year, she asked if we could have an early party in June, too, so she could include a few school mates. Last Saturday we made another excursion to the Rose Bakery Tea Room, this time with friends, and her sister, in tow.
tea_service
Because we were VIP guests of the chef, we were received like royalty, seated at the best table, coddled and catered to. The girls ordered white hot chocolate and it came with an extra pot of whipped cream on the side. Short-pants licked the little bowl clean. The tea service trays were presented with aplomb, stacked with savory finger sandwiches, bite-sized scones with clotted cream, tasty cakes, pastries and custards. Everyone started with wide eyes and finished with sticky fingers.

Short-pants beamed the entire time. She’s always a good sport about the the fact that her birthday parties are rather modest, and perhaps because of that, she appreciated the fuss of this tea party that much more. I enjoyed it too, especially when the elaborately ornamented chocolate birthday cake was placed in front of her, and I hadn’t been required to bake it.

~ ~ ~

The collection of hermetically sealed glass jars were wrapped in opaque plastic bags and stowed in the back of my closet. I’d learned that when endrinas are transforming into patxaran, light is an inhibitor, so I kept them stashed in the dark. Every week, I’d pull the jars out and turn them upside down for a minute, re-mixing the contents gently, before setting them upright back in their dark corner. Some people talk to their plants; I’d talk to my berries, encouraging them through their cocoon phase.

The distilling was sufficiently completed in March, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I found the right moment to filter and bottle my home brew. bottling_patxaran Short-pants was reading on the couch when I stripped the black plastic from around the jars, revealing the rose-colored liquid. Maneuvering the 3-liter glass container over the sieve required more than two hands, so I called her over.

“Honey, can you help your mama make her hooch over here?”

She sprang up and ran to help. I gave her the metal strainer and she held it steady, catching the berries as I poured the liquid through it. The smell of the alcohol was strong; the aroma of fermented berries filled the kitchen. There we stood, mother and daughter together, stirring up a concoction that in any other kitchen would have been a batch of cookies, or a birthday cake. Instead, I was teaching my daughter how to make moonshine, because, well, I’m one of those kinds of mothers.


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.


Jun 11 2012

Not in a Rush

When you slow down, a window opens and you see things you couldn’t see before. When you take your time, you sense things, because you’re not rushing through life facing forward, you’re ambling along, receptive to what’s around you. When you give yourself time, you think things through, following a string of thoughts from one thing to the next and then further. Unlike the one-thing-to-another we experience while surfing the web or multi-tasking through a busy day, staccato and mercurial, the thought process that accompanies a long walk in the country is calming and fluid, like waves of water rolling forward and back and forward again. It doesn’t take very long for the chatter to cease, the chirping in the back of your head quiets and the mind is filled with simpler thoughts. There is space for bigger thoughts, or the smaller thoughts have room around them to echo. You start to really see what’s inside you and around you, and notice things that you don’t notice when you’re in a rush.

~ ~ ~

Walking through Pamplona, one of the early stops along the Camino – this was in the beginning of May – I couldn’t help but be reminded of the rituals we enact there every July during the fiesta. It was odd to walk through that city without people and music spilling out into the streets. I walked down the empty Calle Merced, where in two months time, to the day, there’d be long tables set up end-to-end in the street, and friends would be assembling for a breakfast of greasy eggs and chorizo or pochas and red wine. I love those breakfasts, especially when the jota singers among the group stand up and sing their beautiful Navarran ballads. A man named Puchero is a force behind this, his voice bold and full, like his body. When he sings, his mouth stretches wide with each vibratoed note, his eyes bore into you, tearing sometimes because he is singing with such force. If he sings to you, the only thing to do is look right back at him with the biggest smile ever, and stay present to fully receive the song, sung in Spanish and if it is later translated, you are moved by the choice of words and their meaning.

For a minute, I wondered if the Fiesta Nazi, in a fit of generous mischief, would make some arrangement for Puchero to show up at my party and surprise me with a birthday jota. It would be only an hour’s drive for him, and not unthinkable for her to orchestrate something like this. At the same time, it was pretty far-fetched and highly unlikely. Still, I permitted my imagination to hold this image for a few minutes, just for the pleasure of the fantasy, picturing him singing to me and giving my assembled friends this taste of the Navarran culture. A little Walter Mitty moment during my walk.

Two weeks later, when the pit crew kidnapped me to go to my party, I found myself back in Navarra. The day before the big celebration – on my actual birthday – we decided to drive by St. Jean Pied de Port to see where I’d started the Camino. My credentials were getting full – I collected stamps not only from where I slept each night, but from the churches I visited and many of the cafe-bars I stopped at along the way – in St. Jean I could stop by the Camino office and get an extra pilgrim passport to use when my original one got filled up.

It was lunchtime in France – only a few miles away, over the border in Spain, lunch was still something to look forward to – and we decided to eat in St. Jean, installing ourselves at a table on a restaurant terrace along the street. We’d barely clinked glasses when a squat, thick man charged up to our table, trailed by about a dozen other people.

“I know those two girls,” he said between a string of colorful curses. We knew him, too. It was Puchero. By chance, he happened to be visiting St. Jean Pied de Port with a group from Pamplona and just happened to walk down the street where we just happened to be seated. We were as surprised to see him as he was to see us. The Fiesta Nazi didn’t miss a beat. “It’s her birthday,” she said, pointing at me, “sing her a jota!”

Without hesitating even a second, he launched into song, his robust voice belting out a wailing call. His face right away red, the veins in his temple squeezed as he forced every cubic inch of air out of his lungs before a new breath and a new phrase. He literally stopped all activity on the street. Every passerby, every diner on the terrace, every waitress, every shopkeeper, craned their necks to watch and listen to Puchero as he sang me my birthday jota.

It was framed slightly differently than my fantasy of weeks before, but nonetheless, the same elements were there. But this had not been organized in advance, it happened by chance, that Puchero was there and we were too. Had I experienced some kind of premonition? Or had my little fantasy sent out a request that was answered? Or was it all just a coincidence?

~ ~ ~

The first time I had the dream was in Estella, five days into the Camino. I guess you could call it a pilgrim-stress dream, in which I walked to the next town only to realize I’d left my walking poles in the previous night’s hotel. I woke up, relieved to see those familiar bastóns leaning against the chair, that I hadn’t left and walked an entire day’s stage without them. I had the dream again, the next night, waking to check that my poles were still there beside my bed.

A few days later, I lingered in a room I’d shared with five others, letting them all finish their morning ablutions first so that I might have a more leisurely and private departure. (This was prior to the hot meseta after Burgos, when my timing changed and a just-at-dawn departure was required to make tracks before the midday sun.) On my way out, I set my poles against the table by the door, stopping to take advantage of the wifi signal in the lobby to send a word of love to De-facto before heading out for the day’s walk. The door closed behind me, and I walked three blocks before realizing I’d left my poles at the albergue. When I returned, the door was locked and when I knocked, nobody answered. I sat on the stoop wondering how long I’d have to wait to get my poles, when I remembered I’d called the proprietor the day before, his number was in my phone memory. A quick call and he was there in 5 minutes, unlocking the door so I could reach in and retrieve my walking sticks.

Hold on to those poles, I told myself.

~ ~ ~

He stood to the side of the path and beckoned to me, holding out a small bag. “Would you like an olive?” he said, “I just opened them.”

Always accept small gifts on the Camino, I’d been told. So I reached in and pulled one of the plump green olives from the package, trying not to put my sweaty fingers in the juice that preserved them.

“I’m Mark from Michigan,” he said. I hadn’t met that many Americans along the way, he reminded me how exuberant my countrymen can be. He thrust the small bag toward me again. “Have another olive.”

I’d been singing to myself all day, a kind of stream-of-consciousness name-that-tune, when one simple word could provoke an entire medley of songs. I took another olive, but held it in my hand while I sang to him one part of a song from Godspell, which includes the lyrics,Your wife is sighing, crying, and your olive tree is dying.

The song is actually a duet I used to sing, in spontaneous moments, with a good friend Dilts – we called each other by our last names as a form of endearment – his part fast and syncopated and my part slow and melodic. The last line of my part: When you go to heaven you’ll be blessed, oh yes, it’s all for the best.

Mark from Michigan looked me straight in the eye, just the way I’d looked at Puchero when he sang to me, for the entire song, which I did not rush through, but rather sang to him very deliberately, emphasizing especially the word olive, to nod my head at the cause for this melody.

“That’s beautiful,” he said, when I finished. “If I go to heaven, I’ll wait for you there.” I ate my olive, thanked him again, and walked on.

Singing that song had conjured up images of my friend Dilts, his wry smile and his dry wit. He died eight years ago, cancer took him before he could turn fifty. I carried him with me for several kilometers, vacillating between missing him fiercely but also laughing out loud at things I remember him saying and doing. A lasting image of him, still in my mind now: his smart-ass smile, one eyebrow raised and jubilant fist in the air. I had Mark from Michigan to thank for conjuring up that string of memories, all from one single olive.

~ ~ ~

I made it to León, after 20 days of walking, covering 450 kilometers. The very last leg, by bus, as I didn’t want the lingering memory of this stretch of the Camino to be the industrial suburbs of the city. I figure the day I walked on the Camino Baztanés from Urdax to Elizondo is like extra credit, and makes up for the sage decision to avoid the plight of an urban pilgrim. A friend, an avid hiker, had joined me for these last two days of walking. Even she agreed this was a better choice than to march through truck fumes and under highway on-ramps. I could see much of the Camino route from the window, so I followed the trail with my heart, even though my feet were on the bus.

We took a train from León to San Sebastian, and in the rush of getting off the train, I neglected to pick up my poles, which I’d meant to strap to my backpack, but hadn’t gotten around to it, as they were useful until the last moment getting on the train. I’d put them on the overhead shelf and when I pulled down my pack, I somehow didn’t think to grab them. In fact, I didn’t realize they were missing until we’d walked ten blocks through San Sebastian in search of our hotel.

I didn’t get upset, even though they’d carried me so many miles, even though they’d become an extension of my arms, and probably a savior of my back, even though I loved the little feet I’d bought to cover the noisy metal tips. I let them go. Not that I gave up: once we checked into the hotel, the proprietor was very happy to help me call the RENFE and register the loss in their records, just in case. The next day I visited the lost and found at the terminus, the same station where we’d board our train to Paris. There was no sign of them. They are in someone else’s hands now, but hopefully helping them to walk as well as they guided me.

I wasn’t paying attention. That’s when you miss things. But hadn’t I seen that coming?

~ ~ ~

Word passes on the Camino without texts or emails. The weaving that happens as you walk puts you in touch with different people over the course of a day. You might walk with someone for fifteen minutes and then pull ahead, only to run into them again a few hours later when you’d stopped for a rest at a village cafe. Or someone you hadn’t seen for days would somehow get in step with you again. In the meantime, they’ve walked and talked with others, and if there is news to share, it gets passed along. After Burgos, there was a rumor about someone who’d gone to sleep in the albergue there and hadn’t woken up. This wasn’t the first death I’d heard about during my walk: a 65-year old man had a heart attack on his very first day, going over the Pyrenees. The story told was his wife had died the year before, his Camino was meant to help him sort through it. Nobody I spoke with felt too terrible about it. “Perhaps he’d joined her,” they said, or “it’s not a bad way to go, walking the Camino.”

The amazing night I stayed in the Ermita de San Nicolas, after our feet were washed and our dinner was finished, my friend from Romania turned to me and asked if I’d heard about the man who died in Burgos. “You knew him,” she said, “I saw you talking to him.” She described him, but I couldn’t place him. She kept saying his name, but it didn’t register. “Yes, you knew him,” she insisted, “Mark, Mark from Michigan.”

I fell silent then, thinking about the lyrics in the song I’d sung to him, remembering our very brief exchange. Did I see that coming? Was it just another coincidence? That day, the day I shared his olives, I must have been paying attention to something.

If there is a heaven – and I’m not always sure of it – but if there is, I hope he’s there. I hope he’s met up with Dilts, who can sing him the other half of the duet. And if he is waiting for me there, well, I hope he knows I’m not in a rush.


Aug 14 2011

The Cloning

I hesitated to put Flat Stanley in her bag, he was supposed to accompany Buddy-roo so we could snap photos of him adventuring with us during our vacation. He’d been an end-of-school project for the English section, and the notice that came with him stated very clearly: DO NOT LOSE FLAT STANLEY, there will be a ‘part two’ to this project in the fall. Her summer assignment: to keep a journal of all that Flat Stanley does with us while on we’re on vacation.

In case you don’t know Flat Stanley, he’s the protagonist in the book that bears his name in which large bulletin board falls off his wall while he’s sleeping and flattens him. He manages to survive without any injury, except that he’s flat-as-a-pancake. But in this condition, he has all sorts of adventures: saving his mother’s prized ring after it falls down a grate, being flown like a kite, traveling via the postal service to visit a friend in California. It so happens that Flat Stanley and I go way back: Short-pants already had her own summer holiday adventures to orchestrate with him and we’ve been the recipient of a few of our friends’ Flat Stanleys who wanted to travel around the world. Paris is, of course, a place Stanley loves to visit.

I remember rushing around that morning, the mother-in-love was packing a lunch for their drive to the country house, while I put the girls’ pillows, blankets, colored pens, books and papers in little bags and backpacks, keeping with my father’s car-packing rule of nothing without a handle. I thought better of slipping Flat Stanley into one of those bags. My children are not so skilled at holding on to things. Shortpants’ eyeglasses go missing at least once a week, I’m constantly finding Buddy-roo’s most cherished possessions in places where if I didn’t know better, I’d throw them out and they’d be lost forever. (Sometimes, alas, this happens.) De-facto has many talents, but remembering where he has put something isn’t his strong suit. Not that I’m without my memory lapses, but when it comes to locating whatever-it-is-that’s-missing-around-here, I still manage to have the best radar.

I contemplated taking Flat Stanley to Pamplona with me. I’d keep him safe in my suitcase and we could start his journal mid-July when I rejoined the family at the country house. Or I could let him have a little fiesta fun, and snap a picture of him at the bullfight, or leaning over our balcony watching the encierro, or dancing with us at the Ham Bar. That’d spice up his summer adventures. But Flat Stanley is her project after all, and I knew he probably should go to the country house in her care. Since he’s used to traveling in envelopes, I found a big white one and wrote Flat Stanley on it and slid his wafer-thin laminated figure into it.

“You won’t want to lose Flat Stanley.”
I attempted my stern-but-tender voice. “Each time you’re done playing with him, you should put him back in this envelope and then back into your back-pack and then you’ll always know where to find him.”

Buddy-roo agreed readily but I knew the chances of that kind of organization were slimmer than Flat Stanley himself. I looked over at my mother-in-love and gave her a pleading you-know-what-I-mean look. She reciprocated with a sympathetic I-know-what-you-mean look and I knew Flat Stanley would be safe, at least for the duration of her visit, which unfortunately was only for a few more days.

~ ~ ~

“He’s not in the envelope?” Buddy-roo looked up at me tearful and confused, “But I always put him back!” I’d returned from Pamplona and inquired about Flat Stanley’s whereabouts. She’d cavalierly produced the envelope, and we’d left it on a shelf, agreeing to take a walk and snap some photos that afternoon. I peeked in it later, and discovered that the envelope was empty. Despite a full search of every corner of the country house, Stanley was M-I-A. Trying to get Buddy-roo to remember when she’d last seen or played with him was like an investigation at a congressional hearing. She had no clear recollection.

Days went by with fruitless searching, scrupulous cleaning of closets and shelves and yet there was no sign of our flat friend. Subsequent detective work revealed that after my mother-in-love left, Flat Stanley made a long drive to Germany to see De-facto’s brother and had been accidentally left behind. One would think, then, that he could simply be returned via his favorite mode of travel, the post. Except De-facto’s brother is moving his family, coincidentally, to California, and Flat Stanley somehow ended up in boxes that are, at this moment, in a container traversing the ocean. The chances of him being returned in time to do her summer assignment, once again: slim.

Buddy-roo’s tears had more to do with losing her paper-doll friend than getting behind on her assignment, but I wasn’t about to give her any excuse to slack off on her summer homework. I found a picture we’d snapped of Flat Stanley before his disappearance – he’s totally visible except for his left foot – and with a little Photoshop magic, his image was successfully cropped, enlarged, enhanced, sharpened, and printed, so it could be cut-out and laminated, looking just like his old self.

Flat Stanley has been cloned.

Just in time. We have but a few weeks of summer adventures left to document, and this time, Buddy-roo vows she won’t lose sight of her Flat Stanley. But just in case (and don’t tell her) I printed a few extra copies. This has me thinking about part two of the assignment, in the fall, when she’ll probably have to send him in the mail to visit a friend or relative far away. We just might find that Flat Stanley really gets around.


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.