If you are a fan of Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, you probably know very well about the “Running of the Bulls” tradition in Pamplona, Spain. If you have not read the book or have no idea what I am talking about, the bulls get a chance to run amok through streets filled with tourists who purposely put themselves in the paths of the bulls. Now doesn’t that sound like the perfect vacation activity for you and the family?
This tradition connected with the San Fermin Festival that occurs in early July every year was well documented in Hemingway’s famous book. Now people still put on the red scarves and let themselves in on all the fun of getting close to a seething two thousand pound animal with horns that are ready to perforate limbs and other parts of the anatomy (they seem to somehow know how to find a male’s private parts too).
I visited Pamplona in July of 1989, and I can honestly say that I went nowhere near the bulls. I stayed a good distance from the action and sat in a cafe as several people I knew went out to meet their “destiny with the bulls.” One acquaintance of mine from Australia had knocked back a few beers and turned to me saying, “Bulls have no balls,” quoting Mike Campbell from Hemingway’s book. About two hours later he came back to the table a mess of sweat and blood with torn clothing. I asked if a bull got him and he said, “No, it’s the people – they’re all mad!”
We were only there two days and then left for Madrid, but I saw enough of the insanity that went on in that town. The restaurants and bars were overflowing with people, there were parades of saints, concerts in the squares, and people living la vida loca everywhere I turned. It certainly was a great time, and we saw guys all over the place with red badges of courage wrapped around their arms, legs, and heads (certainly some of these “gored” fellows were probably not hurt by any of the bulls).
I remember riding on the train down to Madrid and meeting a fellow named Carlos who wore a white suit, hat, and skinny black tie. My Australian friend complained to him that Pamplona wasn’t as great as in Hemingway’s book, and Carlos nodded and said nothing. When my friend fell asleep he looked at me and said, “That book didn’t get it right.”
I said, “Well, I don’t know; that was a long time ago.” It was 1923 to be exact when Hemingway visited the place.
Carlos nodded, folded his hands on his lap, and stared out the window. “I still say the book didn’t get it right. It’s much better and much worse than Hemingway told it.”
He closed his eyes and our conversation ended there. All these years later I remembered what Carlos said as I saw the bulls running in those streets again on CNN. After all this time I am not sure if Hemingway got it right or if Carlos was right, but the people are still flocking to that small town in the Basque country and running with those bulls. Blame it on Hemingway, or San Fermin, whatever or whomever else, but it still does not make sense to me. What would make perfectly healthy and sane people stand in the way of a two thousand pound bull?
Maybe it is just the thrill or the legend or the honor of being able to say “I did it.” I’m sure wherever Hemingway is now he is wearing a red scarf, drinking some wine, and watching all the action with a smile on his face. I can’t be sure, but isn’t it pretty to think so?
Photo Credit: AP