Hemingway Never Drank Here
For the first time since their civil war, Spain has cancelled the Festival of San Fermin for a second year. In honor of the running that wasn't, something from the archives.
Spain in a state of unbridled euphoria really is something to see. The National Team had, for the first time in 2010, won the FIFA World Cup. To put this into terms a state-bound American can understand: Imagine if the New Orleans Saints had won the 2010 Super Bowl the night before Mardi Gras.
Pamplona, like New Orleans, is a very old city known primarily for a convulsing quasi-religious party that defies both common sense and piety. Running down the old city center today isn’t much different from the experience Ernest Hemingway made famous in 1925: same routes, buildings and ankle wrenching cobblestone streets. The whole thing buoyed in a river of cheap red wine.
Outside the old city that the world loves and thinks it knows, the rest of Pamplona’s architectural style is Neuvo Low-bid Disposable. The architecture hardly matters when a culture known for its passion really turns inside out. The euphoria was hard to describe. Spain exploded with national pride despite the fact that the game had been called at an aquarium in Germany; Paul the Psychic Octopus had predicted the outcome of the all the German matches, including their loss to Spain. Then Paul predicted Spain’s victory over the Netherlands.
Around half-time of the final game — with the score tied 0–0, I was having a luke-warm Spanish beer with a pair of Americans, Larry and Stephen. It was one of those places you picture a young Hemingway taking it all in. Except for the sign at the door that read, in English, “Hemingway Never Ate Here.” We were eating tapas that was a octopus in pie-crust. Which shows you how much faith the Spanish put in psychic octopods. Later that summer the Germans reported that Paul had died of natural causes. FIFA is planning a memorial.
There was television set up in the central plaza that wasn’t much smaller than a soccer pitch where the packed crowd was gripped by every movement in a really long and mostly scoreless game. A 1–0 victory in overtime is hardly a blood bath. But you’d never know that from the sudden release of energy in the massive crowd at the final whistle. This was more than the Super Bowl, it was the Olympics with all the gold on the line — there is a national pride infused into the glory. Unlike countries rich-enough to be cavalier about their patriotism, the Spanish are rabid about theirs. And as they are about to get an expensive bailout from the Germans, they need to hold onto all the pride they can.
Within minutes of the victory, everything from hotel balconies to ancient statues of people only the locals had ever heard of were draped with the Spanish flag. All this Spanish nationalism was unexpected in a city that is the capital of Navarre, one of those disputed Basque provinces always trying to secede from Spain. For once they shut up about independence. Everyone, even the Basque, loves a winner.
Eventually this sense of national pride stirred something inside me, it overwhelmed me. I realized that I was an American and don’t care about soccer. I went back to the hotel.
The cheering and chanting from the street was still going strong when I came downstairs the next morning. It had never really stopped. I skipped breakfast. The entire course from the pen to the ring, the “running of the bulls”, isn’t but about half a mile of well-motivated sprint. You don’t need to bulk up on carbs; terrified doses of adrenalin achieve the same result. What you need is to be very nimble. Or at least as nimble as a fairly sedentary forty-year old man who is overly fond of cocktail hour can be.
What was going on around me wasn’t “cocktails.” It may have been in honor of the town’s patron saint, but it was just a gigantic drunken mêlée. Still, the festival organizers in Pamplona are fairly strict about the dress code: White shirt, white pants, red sash at the waist, red kerchief around the neck. For a much more eloquent description go dust of your copy of The Sun Also Rises. It hasn’t changed. A note on the shoes: white. You’d think that running shoes would be the best choice but you’d be wrong. It doesn’t matter how in shape you are, or hi-tech your shoes may be, you aren’t outrunning a bull. The trick is to be able to get out of the way at the right time. You are really better off with basketball shoes.
Larry was telling me this while we were stretching before the run. While I was bending over to touch the toes of my Saucony running shoes, actually. Stephen was up in the hotel room, practicing his post-goring phone call to Mrs. Larry. We weren’t the only ones doing stretches, but we were in the minority. Simon, an Australian, was jogging in place. Ricardo, a kid who’d sloshed beer on me last night, had a different approach. He was throwing up in an alley and wiping his mouth with the Spanish flag he was wearing as a cape. About thirty foreigners were surrounded by every university student in Europe, all of who had been drinking for about twenty consecutive hours. These were the people who had been in the square tailgating before the World Cup final, the ones who had exploded into a fury of nationalism and championship zeal afterwards, the ones who’d kept me up all night. Just good folks.
The crowd from last night wasn’t doing anything we’d call stretching, but the awkwardness of changing clothes in the street while completely drunk was something to watch. These people were plenty liquid. Thanks to the time-honored miracle of the street vendor, none of these patriotic sports fans actually went home to change into the appropriate get-up. For about €10 you can buy the whole kit on the street. While I’m not certain what the open container, public intoxication or nudity laws are in Spain, if the establishment turns a blind eye for San Fermin, they completely ignore the mayhem for a World Cup victory.
It wasn’t all fiesta. Spain apparently has the same professional worriers and killjoys as America. There were protestors from organizations like PETA, but in the mêlée drastic measures were taken to not get lost in the crowd. The measure was pockets of women and men wearing plastic horns, buff underpants, and nothing else holding up signs in various languages. The message was universal: “Shame on you!”
They were delightful folks but with one passing glance it was obvious which ones were the true believers and which were the actresses and models on PETA payroll. I don’t want to appear ungrateful, semi-nude is semi-nude, but anyone who has witnessed a protest rally knows that true believers are generally not lookers. That’s why they scream and hold placards, so people will notice them. Really good-looking people rarely have to resort to signage or covering themselves in blood to get attention — they just smile. Really good-looking people are also getting invited to be naked by nearly everyone who can work up the nerve. Unlike the average true believer, they’ve got nudity options.
Actually, that sort of distinction happens with the bulls, too. Mixed in with the dozen or so fearsome wild black bulls were some tame brown ones (who weigh the same). The brown ones, for the record, are not petting zoo candidates. They are trained to run from the pen to the ring and keep the black ones from getting turned around. They are not there to talk their wild brethren down should you run afoul of one.
We’d been told that rockets would signal the start of the run, but perhaps Spain’s financial woes were already starting to pinch. What they called a rocket sounded more like a firecracker or someone dropping a broom. Still, the mob lurched forward and if you missed that you’d get trampled. I wedged myself between Larry the American and Simon the Australian because they seemed sober and limber as opposed to 99% of the crowd who just seemed limber. They were still slinging sangria and beer on each other. It hardly mattered though, this wasn’t a race in any traditional sense: it was forward falling mosh pit.
It’s hard to run full speed for long distances when you are completely blotto, so despite the home crowd’s relative age advantage, we thinned out along the route quickly. I have no idea what kind of carnage was taking place behind me because I wasn’t about to look back. Larry, in better shape than me, was taking the full out run in stride. Then he looked.
The human face is capable of radical transformation: the perfectly pleasant face of an American enjoying a spirited jaunt in a foreign country turned to get a bearing on the stampeding herd behind us. The face that pivoted back was decidedly more business-like. We might even call it pensive.
From behind came a surge of laggards trying to make one last effort to stay ahead of the bulls. Larry and Simon were gone and some caped Spaniard was at my right. When he tried to climb me I decided it was time to change tack and stumbled headlong to a wall. The caped Spaniard fell, knocked over by a guy getting knocked over by a bull. Despite the connectivity, I didn’t feel one with the universe. The only thing to do is flatten yourself and pray for the bubble wrap of drunken Spanish good will.
Once the herd overtakes you, jump back in and keep running to the bullring. There you’ll find yourself in the circle with the angry and confused wild bulls that suddenly realize there is no escape from their predicament. Which common sense tells you is exactly where you don’t want to be.
The true spirit of the festival of San Fermin isn’t about common sense. Runners jolted over to the bulls to touch them a dart away without being gored. The crowd, normal sangria-swilling drunks safe in their seats, love this. The stadium fills with calls of “Tontos!”
“Are they cheering for the bull?” I asked Simon.
“No, Mate, they aren’t screaming Toros, they’re screaming Tontos. Listen!”
They were. Tontos! “What does Tontos mean?” I asked.
“It means dumbass.”
Some poor fool slapped a black bull on its forward flank. Before he could get clear, he was gored in the leg and flung into the air. Shouts of “Tontos!” rolled down from the seats. No one was dead yet, so I decided to quit while I was ahead.
Beneath the ring there is a bullfighting museum. The costumes on display there are as beautiful as coronation robes. The intricacies of the dance between bull and matador would take a lifetime to master. But given the scene I’d just witnessed there was only one question I had to ask: What happens to a bull if it kills someone?
“That is a bad bull.” Said the old man conducting a tour. “They go here.” He waved to the wall hung with a heads of bulls past.
“Wait a minute, some of those are cows.” I said.
“Those are the mothers of homicidal bulls. They breed badly.”
It did make me wonder if we’d have so much crime if we’d hang our criminals and their parents. I don’t want to find out.
Outside, there were still protestors, still drunks milling around. Yet, the streets seemed empty after a frantic eight-minute haul. Hemingway had mixed emotions about bullfighting: blood sport, thing of beauty, or both?
Only one word kept ringing in my head, Tontos, Tontos, Tontos! You can say a lot of things about the Spanish, some good and some bad, but you have to admit that they are perceptive about the human condition.
Originally appeared in Front Street, 2010.