Thursday, June 28, 2012

ON THE AVENUES: Red scarf, white shirt and San Miguel beer.

Red scarf, white shirt and San Miguel beer.

A version of this column originally
was published in 2009

In my travels, I've been lucky to witness a May Day parade in Vienna, frenetic all-night Greek political rallies, Munich's fabled Oktoberfest, U2 live on stage in Ireland, selected soccer matches and small snippets of the Tour de France. The fall of the Berlin Wall in ’89 was a epochal one-time celebration, requiring three decades of preparation and packing a visceral punch, but I missed that one, just barely.

To me, the top Euro-fest is the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain, which runs from July 6 through July 14 each year. My last visit was in 2000, and I miss it very much.

Pamplona’s festival is a multi-hued hybrid. Spectacular public displays of orgiastic, besotted and scatological indecency occur alongside proud and dignified demonstrations of traditional values extending too far back in time to be consciously felt.

San Fermin is a primitive, almost mythological outburst balancing seemingly disparate elements. Confrontations between man and bull, gatherings of grandparents and grandchildren sharing hot chocolate, feasting and contrition, outpourings of religious and political conviction, incessant musical cacophony and extraordinary alcoholic lubrication all suffice as snapshots of the grandeur and debauchery.

I’m so glad that Papa “discovered” Pamplona.


During the Roaring Twenties, an adventurous native of Oak Park, Illinois chose a dusty Spanish market town and its unknown local religious festival as the setting for a novel that made him famous. He was Ernest Hemingway, and his book was “The Sun Also Rises.”

In it, Hemingway offered an enduring behavioral framework for self-aware but intelligent Anglo expatriates. At his San Fermin, foreigners respectful of local color and tradition are contrasted with others who’ve cross the sea for all the wrong reasons, unable to grasp why Pamplona is not Peoria.

Hemingway also established drinking norms for several generations of travelers. Imagine the effect on contemporary readers encumbered by the orthodoxies of Prohibition-era America to read about incessant aperitifs, teeming sidewalk cafes and sweaty pitchers of cool lager beer in the hot Iberian sun.

Eight decades after the novel’s publication and a half-century following Hemingway’s death, San Fermin remains intact, affording the opportunity to walk, talk and drink like Papa.

And there’s nothing at all wrong with that.


As Hemingway undoubtedly would agree, the greatest two minutes in sports do not take place at Churchill Downs each May.

Each morning during San Fermin, muscular beasts and eager humans take to the streets of Pamplona to memorialize the death of the festival's namesake patron saint. The ritual is known as the "Running of the Bulls," as the six bulls scheduled to appear in the coming evening's bullfight (along with six heifers) are released into narrow, barricaded streets and driven 900 meters -- a little more than half a mile -- to the bull ring.

In the path of these bulls are thousands of thrill-seeking festival-goers, roughly divided into two groups.

A tiny minority of sober true believers makes the run each morning in quasi-mystical ecstasy, metaphorically reliving the primitive fears and urges buried in mankind’s collective subconscious, and now brought jarringly to the surface. These native purists and foreign aficionados genuinely want to run WITH the bulls -- to run near them, just ahead of the powerful animals, or alongside them.

Most other “runners” quite frankly are unconscious, having been consumed, digested and expelled by the singular intensity and alcoholic promiscuity of a festival that never sleeps. They desire nothing more than to tell their friends that they "ran with the bulls," and as accommodation, masses of humanity are advanced to starting positions near the end of the course, permitting most to jog a few drunken yards into the bull ring, declare victory, and begin drinking all over again.

At 8:00 a.m. a rocket explodes, signaling the release of the bulls from their pens. A second rocket indicates that all of them are out and running, driven by expert native runners who wield canes and use them -- not on the bulls, but to lash humans who attempt to create problems that might lead to the animals becoming separated.

That’s important, because as long as the bulls stay together, chances are the only injuries will come as a result of humans falling over each other. If a bull becomes separated from the others, he becomes annoyed and may begin flicking his massive head, ramming, goring and tossing people across the street with ease.

Indeed, someone is killed every now and then, and yet running with the bulls is surely less dangerous than bicycling in New Albany, where know-nothings texting, eating Rallyburgers and applying lipstick while simultaneously failing to properly navigate a vehicle prove far more deadly than a half-ton of rampaging meat on the hoof .

The run ends inside the bull ring, where the bulls are driven into their pens. A crowd of triumphant “runners” awaits charging heifers, their horns padded, which are sent into the ring to wreak havoc among the drunkards. Meanwhile, the true aficionados are absent, having already adjourned to bars like the Txoko on the Plaza de Castillo for post-run champagne and lengthy analysis.

Me? I’ve never run with the bulls, and neither did Hemingway, or so I’m told. There are three very good reasons why I haven’t done it.

First, I’d surely spill my drink, and that’s blasphemy.

Second, I couldn’t run 900 meters drunk, sober or anywhere in between.

Third, I’m a coward.

I’ve no idea what Papa’s excuses were, but in his stead again this year, I’ll spend a week in July remembering the good times and wonderful people in Pamplona, all the while craving a bowl of fresh toro stew, a glass of addictive Pacheran liqueur, and a sizeable Cuban cigar – street legal in Spain, and recommended for smoking during that special bull run voyeur's afterglow.

No comments: