With my son, Eli, in front of the bull ring in Pamplona, 1993
Now, there was a summer--1993. We were living in Germany, Eli had recently graduated from high school. We had tried to reach Pamplona the summer before but a strike by French truckers blocked all the highways between Germany and Spain and we had to turn around, just barely making it back into Switzerland before running out of gas.
But now prospects looked good. No strikes on the horizon, a hot little Opal sedan with a four-on-the-floor and an engine that screamed at 100 mph. We hit the autobahn, crossed the French border in two hours flat, and slipped onto the peage, the French highway system. Down we zoomed, as I recall, Eli behind the wheel, six feet from the car ahead of us, the pedal to the metal. My heart in my throat, I began negotiating and finally, disgusted with my faint heart, he pulled over: "Alright, fine. YOU drive."
Across France, along the Pyrenees, toward San Sebastian, then up and over them and down into Pamplona, that Spanish town of Hemingway's greatest and continuing myth. Where to stay? We planned on camping and now found, a couple of miles outside town, a campground already filled to overflowing with an international cast of characters, prospective bull runners all. They were mostly from New Zealand and Australia, young men--and a few young women--off on "walkabout" for a couple of years.
We set up our tent right outside the men's latrine, under glaring lights that never shut off. Everyone was, of course, drunk and intensely involved in the process of getting drunker. The latrines were unspeakable with vomit and smeared feces. But, in the end, it didn't matter: We didn't come to Pamplona to sleep.
We walked into town and got there just before noon on the day the feria started--let me say, exploded. I went into a bank to get some cash, this being in the days before automatic bank tellers. While I was standing in line, a gun went off outside somewhere. A bank teller raised a glass of champagne, toasted the air, and drank: The party had started.
Once outside, I saw everything had changed. Where before the crowd was just milling around expectantly, everyone was now dancing, forming long conga lines and swaying around the square and along the streets. Music seemed to come from a thousand places, from the air itself. People sang, kissed, hugged, and most of all, drank sangria from glass bottles that, when empty, were simply smashed on the sidewalks or on the cobbles of the town square. Men urinated freely in alleyways and then, at night, anywhere and everywhere until the town was filled with the smell of it all: sangria and old urine and cigarette smoke and, always, always, always, twenty-four hours a day, loud rhythmic Spanish music.
Here's shot of the running I got off the Internet: Thanks, it's a good one.
They run bulls, six of them, every morning at 8:00. They are released from a pen across from a cathedral in downtown Pamplona some distance from the bull ring. A rocket is fired off to announce the opening of the gate and then another to signal the exit of the last bull into the street. You want the rockets close together because that means the bulls are running in a bunch and there is less danger of a single rogue wreaking havoc. You are in a crowd, you have a red bandanna around your neck, you hear the first rocket and the crowd starts to move, walking slowly, raising a rolled up newspaper in the air and chanting, "Ola! Ola! Ola!"
You have been told that the real danger is getting knocked down and stomped on by fellow runners--the danger from the bulls is secondary. This turned out to be true. In those days, though, I was still pretty fast, pretty agile, so when the crowd stopped walking and started running, I was with them, dodging and leaping. As we ran, we looked back over our shoulders for the first sighting of the bulls.
They came in two bunches of three, as I recall. The streets of Pamplona are narrow and so as the first bulls galloped by, I could have easily lunged out with my newspaper and touched one--that's the purpose of the newspaper, to just touch a bull: count coups, display courage. I instead stepped aside into a doorway and watched them pass. Then, back out into the street, running, dodging, leaping until the next three came along.
I managed to get to the bullring in time to get through the gates before they closed them and now found myself in a crowd in the middle of the ring with thousands of people in the seats cheering us on. But what were we supposed to do?
The bulls we had just run were herded out of the ring and another group of younger steers were released into it. Now I understood: We were supposed to touch these steers with our newspapers for the entertainment of the crowd. I had become a bull fighter of sorts.
But anything more than touching a young steer with your newspaper is forbidden. One drunken young Aussie actually leaped astride a steer, went for a short ride, and fell off. When he stood up, a young Spaniard ran up to him and roundhouse punched him in the face, splattering blood and sending the Aussie to his knees; punishment for breaking the rules.
Then it was over. The steers were herded out of the ring and we were too, back out into the streets. It was all a heady experience.
But here are my last thoughts on this great adventure: Later that afternoon I went to the bull fights--I watched the bulls I had run that morning die in the ring. They were literally tortured to death. Stabbed first by mounted picadors, the animals were left to bleed, their neck muscles torn. When they had been sufficiently reduced, the matadors took them on. This was dangerous enough, of course. Though bled out and exhausted, the wounded animals famously take their toll.
I, one of the rabble, found myself seated in the stands among what seemed to me to be royalty--beautiful Spanish people, the young women stunning. They were cheering, applauding, thrilled to be there. I was feeling sick: nauseous, weak, light headed. At first I though it was something I had eaten on the street, but no--it was the shock of slaughter--the blood and the torment that had gotten to me. There is a very short list, it is said, of Americans who have watched two bull fights.
On the way back to Germany, as we drove along the foothills of the Pyrenees, we stopped at Lourdes, the now garish town that caters to faithful Catholics who seek cures for their ailments by anointing themselves with the famous waters. In a line of the hopeful, I walked through the cavern, splashed myself, and asked for a cure for my imagined learning disability. That didn't work out for me. Perhaps I should have asked forgiveness for what I had done in Pamplona.
Hemingway in Pamplona: Royalty and Rabble embracing raw cruelty.