The fiesta of San Fermín (one of Pamplona, Spain’s patron saints) runs from July 6 through July 14. Consequently, around this time of the year we hear stories of people being injured or killed when running with the bulls. We’ve all seen the photos of many thousands of people, a sea of white and red, running in front of bulls along the streets of old town Pamplona. Such brave adventurers.
Except not. Not most of them, anyway, because running with the bulls is not as dangerous as the runners would like you to believe. At the end of C2’s junior year of high school in Pamplona, I met her there. She stayed a couple of weeks beyond the end of her program so that we could be in Pamplona for San Fermín. Her first host family (here, A and V, and their daughter, L) hosted us for about a week, so I was lucky enough to experience the beginning of San Fermín more as a local and less as a tourist. My free room in their lovely apartment would have cost many hundreds of dollars a night, and reservations more than a year in advance, if I’d been a tourist.
A few misconceptions about San Fermín and bull running:
Very few runners are in danger from the bulls because they run either way ahead of the bulls, or don’t file in until after the bulls have gone by.
The locals in Pamplona spoke of the rowdy Americans. A lot. They were the ones jumping from the tops of fountains, pissing against walls, passed out under tables. If you’re not around native speakers of a particular language, it is often hard to identify accents, and the Spaniards assumed that everyone speaking English was American. But there were, by far, many more Australian accents than American accents. Americans get undeserved credit for being the hardest partiers. Americans do, however, deserve second place.
During San Fermín you don’t sleep so much as pass out. Running on wet, centuries-old cobblestones while drunk, hungover, and sleep-deprived is never a good idea, bulls or not.
Because everyone is drunk during San Fermín, everyone who runs with the bulls is drunk. People running while drunk fall down and get hurt, bulls or not.
Because people are drunk, they do stupid things like run in sandals and baggy, urine- and alcohol-soaked pants. With running bulls.
As drunk as everyone was, I always felt safe, even at 3:45 AM walking down a crowded narrow alley toward the apartment. The atmosphere was overwhelmingly happy, cheerful, and full of good will. Parents weren’t yelling at children. Children were not whining. Drunks weren’t fighting.
Something not always mentioned: The bulls that run every morning are the bulls that fight that night. They can’t run the next morning because they are all dead from last night’s bull fights.
More details about San Fermín in what I wrote then:
What about the bulls?
For several days I’ve been asking about seeing the bulls run. What time do you have to get there to see them? “Oh, is impossible. Too many people.” Right, so what time? “Impossible. People line up for hours.” Uh huh, what time? “Doesn’t matter. See that fence? Too many people and then police in front block the view.” Yep, what time? because I don’t live here and might not be back for a while and it’s all new to me and this is a spectacle of world-class proportion (they write literature about it, dammit!) and I want to see the fucking bulls run. Por favor.
At 6:15 AM we leave the house (the girls had gotten home at 5:45) and, as usual because I don’t speak Spanish, I’m not sure what is going on. We run downstairs to the parking garage. Hmm. Driving in town during the fiesta is lunacy so surely we aren’t going to where the bulls run? But I want to see the bulls! Then V pulls up in their car (I didn’t know he wasn’t at home – he’d already been to work). But I want to see the bulls! We pile in, drive to town after all, we all get out (except V, who goes back to work) and run to keep up with A who is running to I don’t-know-where.
This is the first day the bulls run because they don’t do it on the opening day when the fiesta starts at noon. The streets are jammed with white and red and there are a few spots where we have to literally push people out of our way to make any sort of forward progress, again to where I don’t know. So the girls and I hold hands as we snake through the crowd to . . . the narrow cobblestone street where the bulls run. Am I going to see the bulls after all? There is too much running and too much crowd noise and too much Spanish for me to ask. Still we’re running until A stops at a heavy, dark door, looks around as if she’s not sure this is the place, and rings a buzzer. The door pops and then we’re in an enclosed stairway. But not before a couple of American girls squeeze through before the door shuts so they can follow us up. A tells them, essentially, no way in Hell: “Oh, please? We have beer! C’mooooonnn. Pleeeeze?” This sort of behavior does not impress A.
We walk upstairs to a tiny apartment with a balcony overlooking the street where the bulls run. A’s two aunts (the only two people in Pamplona not wearing white and red) happen to be in town today and happen to be visiting a friend who happens to live three floors above where the bulls will be running in about an hour. A is nervous because she doesn’t know the woman who owns the apartment and she doesn’t want to intrude or take advantage. We are told to say gracias a lot. We do.
On the balcony
Those are all posers (poseurs gives them too much credit) down there in front of the gate. The gate is opened after the bulls leave the pen a ways back and these people run before the bulls get to them. But they get into the bullring for free because they’ve been running in the vicinity of the bulls. The people on the right toward the top of the photo are behind (and on top of) a couple of sturdy fences that are fixed to the street. Twenty minutes earlier this street looked like the road from a liquor store to a garbage dump after a hurricane. Any time other than when the bulls run this street is full of cars and pedestrians.
Waiting for the bulls
More posers, but with a police barricade instead of a gate. Most of these people will line up against the buildings when the rocket signaling the release of the bulls is fired. As soon as the bulls pass they file in behind them and follow them into the bullring. The only danger is if the bulls get confused and do anything other than run straight ahead. And then it’s not such a good place to be because there is nowhere to hide – it’s you, the bulls, and the building fronts.
Fellow balcony dwellers. At this point we’re all watching the rubbish removers. In just a bit there will be more people (but not all of the balconies are full), many of them dressed in amusing combinations of pajamas and yesterday’s clothes.
I got to see the bulls! My whining pays off, even though most of it was internal (I’d never whine to my hosts). We wait on the balcony of the tiny apartment for about an hour, watching the purpose-built street sweepers and the crews manning high-pressure hoses spraying the street with water and bleach. It’s a bit chilly and C2 and L haven’t slept yet (their choice, and they didn’t complain). I’m offered a cookie, and take a bite as I lean slightly over the railing, and a small piece falls down to the street, past the people on the balconies below us. My mistake was in continuing to hold the evidence of my transgression over the railing instead of stuffing it all into my mouth. The streets of Pamplona are full of mountains of glass, wadded up plastic shopping bags, cups containing alcoholic backwash, torn newspapers, and assorted bits of clothing and I’m chastised for a couple of cookie crumbs. The bald guy below should have been wearing a hat.
L is telling me that first they send the lesser bulls and then release the big bulls, the ones that are going to lose their lives in the evening’s bullfights. The implication is that I needn’t have my camera ready until after the smaller bulls run by. I’m not taking any chances, though, so am prepared when the first wave ran through. Good thing – it was the only wave and all of the bulls ran together. It wasn’t the only inaccurate information from a local that I received concerning San Fermín. I have no photos of bulls running because I was taking a video.
To prepare for this trip I read a lot about San Fermín and many first-person accounts of watching the bulls run. I’m afraid my first-person account is neither as thrilling nor as colorful. I’ve read of thundering hooves. Not so, at least not from twenty-five feet directly above them, not even thunderous echoes. I was, in fact, surprised at how quiet it was. Photos indicate that the street is a tangled knot of white, red, and bulls. Yes, lots of runners but there was room for many more. I was lead to believe that running with the bulls is an extremely dangerous thing to do. Only for a handful of the hundreds of runners. Most of them stay out of harm’s way by running quite a ways before or file in after the bulls pass.
On this run there is a commotion after the bulls run through: it is another bull, alone, which I don’t quite understand. After it passes by we go inside to watch on the tiny TV what we’d just watched from the balcony. We see that the lone bull pulling up the rear had slipped at a corner and slid into the wood fence bordering the street, then just lay there, not moving. We wondered if he had broken his neck, then realized that his horn was stuck under the fence. Finally, a runner grabbed both of his horns and pulled the bull’s head free, after which the bull jumped up and continued to run. Freeing that bull was a much more dangerous act than running alongside him. We learned later that the bull broke the tip of his horn and so he didn’t fight that night and I never heard what happened to him. I’ve decided that he got a disability dispensation and is now living happily on a farm somewhere, telling young bulls, “It’s easy, see. All you have to do is slip, sacrifice a bit of horn, and then you’re out of the bullfight business.”
A small sitting room with an alcove for a bed is the only part of the small apartment that we see. The bed is in front of the door to the balcony and we are warned by A to not sit on the bed with the white satin spread, so the only place to sit while watching the running-of-the-bulls (encierro) replay on TV is on a small couch or the floor.
There are about twenty people crowded into the apartment and I’m guessing that the woman who lives there doesn’t know most of them because everyone but the two aunts who were our entrance ticket are much younger than she is. She is a tiny thing, probably in her seventies but with the smoker’s face of a woman much older, with the long-term smoker’s voice that sounds as if she’s spent a lifetime eating gravel for breakfast. Everyone, of course, is speaking Spanish so I have no idea what is going on, but her happy chattering indicates that she is enjoying the crowd crammed into her tiny apartment.
In the midst of all the noise and excitement of the encierro there is a guy, probably about 35, sitting upright in his red-wine stained white clothes on the small couch, sound asleep. The cheering, the gossiping, the bulls running below, the TV replaying the event, and the crowd’s commentary on the replay all fail to get even a flinch out of him. The woman who owns the apartment is talking and laughing through the cigarette clenched between her lips as she gets her wind-up alarm clock from beside her bed. She couldn’t have been having more fun as she sets it off and holds it about a foot from his head. Nothing. She laughs louder as she moves it closer until it’s touching and clanging directly into his ear. Still nothing, even though we’re all laughing along with her. A few minutes later he finally opens his eyes, looks around, smiles, and then goes back to sleep. It is all very amusing, but the scary thing is that a lot of people in the same condition as him had been down below running with the bulls.
There’s a lot more to San Fermín than bulls
I don’t remember exactly what Hemingway said about the bulls, or if he mentioned the rest of the fiesta, but there is a lot going on the other 23.5 hours of each day of the fiesta. The first day starts at noon, with the firing of a rocket in the town square. No, that’s not right: The first day starts long before, with the laying in of supplies and the conditioning required to be prepare for nine consecutive days of drinking. But the first official signal of the beginning of the fiesta begins with the rocket at noon on July 6.
This is before the firing of the rocket. I’m not sure if the plastering of one another with various categories of food products is official or not. Lots of people were carrying these two-liter Coke bottles full of red wine and just enough Coke to make the mixture more brown than red. Also lots of people lugging five-liter jugs of the same stuff. For the past couple of days we’ve seen many groups of mostly younger people carrying overloaded shopping bags full of clanking glass.
Often at community festivals in the US there are certain colors that signify the event and maybe even a costume of sorts. But to wear it out in public you’d feel kind of like a school-spirit dork or like an intruder if you weren’t a resident. Not so here. If you don’t wear white and red you’re going to feel like an anti-school spirit dork. Everyone – everyone – is in mostly white pants, white shirt, red scarf, and red belt or sash. Many of the older women wear other combinations of white and red, but they don’t leave the house without those colors.
There was some talk this morning about who was doing what. The rocket signaling the beginning of San Fermín fires at noon in the square in front of an old government building. C2 was going to stay with A and me so I wouldn’t be alone with people I can’t communicate with, but everyone insisted that C2 would have no fun with us (beginning to bode not-so-well for me) and should go with L and their friends. She did, and they left at 10:00. A told L to not get dirty. C2 asked for five euros so she wouldn’t have to worry about carrying a bigger bill.
A and I walked silently to the center of town (after stopping to pick up her friends who speak English) and waited to hear the rocket. We couldn’t get near the square because “is impossible with so many people. Whuh – dirty, dirty. You must be young to go down that street.” Especially when you don’t leave until 11:15 with a half-hour walk ahead of you. We seem to have different ideas of how to celebrate the fiesta, the difference between civilized people who go through this every year (if they don’t leave town first) and a gawking tourist who probably won’t be back and isn’t interested in staying clean and hearing that we’re not young enough to go down that street or to this square where most of the action seems to be. I had no idea where C2 was, but I was guessing that she wasn’t staying neat and clean and away from the riff-raff who were spraying champagne, throwing red wine, eggs, and flour, and squirting ketchup, mustard, and canned whipped cream. Kids caked with that mess where walking all around.
This is the square yesterday, the day before the beginning of San Fermín.
And this is the crowd in the square today, waiting for the rocket to go off. The red scarves don’t go around your neck until after the rocket is fired. We listened to the rocket, cheered, tied our scarves around our necks, stayed clean, and I kept checking my watch to see how long until 1:00 when C2 and L were supposed to meet us.
A few minutes before 1:00 they appeared – covered in mustard, ketchup, wine, champagne, flour, whipped cream, and eggs. Completely covered from the top of their heads to the soles of their shoes, and a fair amount inside their clothes, too. Just then, C2’s third host family walked by so they got to see her in true San Fermín fashion. I saw the mom give a look of surprise, then shake her finger at C2, then give her a huge smile and a thumbs up. C2 said she laughed as she said, “Don’t you touch me!” For the rest of the walk home, when they’d see older family friends, the friends would laugh, hold out their arms, and do the kiss kiss from about three feet away, and this is a nation of close-talkers. This morning immediately after L’s mom told her to not get dirty, she and C2 went to the store and bought the supplies: eggs, ketchup, mustard, whipped cream, and flour. Five euros well spent.
The eggs, by the way, are now illegal. The store clerk told the girls that the police were confiscating them, but they weren’t doing a very good job. I can’t figure out why because there are piles of trash, broken bottles, papers, and who knows what else littering every inch of every street. An egg or 10,000 isn’t going to begin to put a dent in the garbage. One of the English speakers told me that there are hundreds of people who clean the streets every morning for hours. One of the points the anti-bullfighting proponents use is that every morning the streets are hosed down to make them slippery so the bulls will have a harder time running and fall down more. If they didn’t hose the streets down, the bulls and the runners would be wading through ankle-deep piles of broken glass, shopping bags, cigarette butts, discarded clothing, and sticky fluids I’d rather not have to identify.
If I ever go back, I will be running with the bulls. Well, maybe not with, but on the same street as the bulls, around the same time they run. But I will tell you that I ran with the bulls.