The Unbridled Pragmatist
smart enough to know how dumb we are

No Bull

Recently a friend was dreaming up plans of a European vacation.  In conversation I mentioned my backpacking trip to Europe the summer after I graduated from college, specifically Spain.  I realize reminiscing is the lowest form of conversation, but I have been accused of much worse. 

Spain is an incredible country, with a lifestyle and pace I could easily adapt to.  The summer is drenched with sun and the Mediterranean Coast provides clear blue waters.  The notion of siesta, a long afternoon nap where stores and offices close down, took a little getting used to but after a few days was embraced.  Late dinners were the norm, with young children in restaurants well after midnight a common sight.  And nightlife, wow.  Bars, clubs, partying on the street.  Spain was a combination of Vegas, New Orleans though the key ingredient is only found on the Iberian Peninsula.   

We arrived in Barcelona off an overnight train from Milan, a little weary but anxious to see the city we had heard so much about.  We went to museums, walked the Rambla, hung out in Gaudi Park.  I almost got my wallet stolen and STILL loved the city, surely that must say something.  The beach scene in Barcelona is permanently ingrained in my brain; a combination of orange creamsicles, topless women, and a live band playing in the distance.  A city I would love to return, especially not on a $13 a day budget.  Lavishness and extravagance seem to be embraced in Barcelona, though cheap beer and street food was all the luxury I needed in this dramatic city. 

The next port of call in Spain was a small town on the Atlantic coast near the French border, San Sebastian.  The city has been immortalized in Hemingway’s classic The Sun Also Rises.  San Sebastian is in the heart of Basque country; a movement I am not too familiar with though powerful in the city.  We stayed in an apartment way nicer than 5 American 21 year old dudes deserved, although did our best to keep it nice(nothing broke anyway).  The beach town is a maze of cobblestone streets with a grand plaza in the center.  One night we simply sat in the plaza for hours enjoying wine, bread and cheese and watched the townspeople and tourists linger.  Easily the highlight was a particularly drunk American girl staggering about, only to literally fall on top of a buddy of mine.  In a serendipitous turn, the fall worked to his advantage as they quickly became close friends on a nearby beach.   

During the day we enjoyed the beach, swam out to the old fort on the island in the middle of the harbor and celebrated the 4th of July without fireworks or Lady Liberty.  At night we walked the archaic town streets, stumbling from bar to bar, and even got involved in some break dance fighting (sadly, or happily, I’m not much of a break dance fighter).  Authentic tapas and sangria dominated the menu, I still consider myself a tapas snob from my time spent in San Sebastian (you can cancel my invitation to weak Stateside tapas imitations).   

As our days in San Sebastian dwindled, there was an oncoming anxiety amongst the group.  The anxiety stemmed from our next stop, Pamplona and the festival of San Fermin.  For the uninformed, the Running of the Bulls.  The course is tricky, a few 90 degree turns all on narrow cobblestone streets.  What I didn’t know until I was there is that bulls are HUGE and FAST.   I will never forget the sound of the bulls pounding down the street, the powerful bass of there hooves hitting the stone reverberating against the walls.  My heart was beating as loud and as furious as the bulls were running, the adrenaline running through the veins of my body like no football game or fist fight ever before generated.  Then the time to run, to borrow a phrase from Pink Floyd, Run Like Hell.  We sprinted up the hill and when it crested we saw our target; we were running into the bullring where our hunters would eventually meet there demise. 

At the top of the hill we thought we were done, only to hear the noise again.  Here we were celebrating, hugging like Marines on VJ Day, and then that noise.  The hooves.  The echo.  Before we could realize some of the bulls had been separated, that there were in fact three more bulls behind us, we were running again.  Sprinting.  Down into the arena, onto the sand of the bull ring.  Some bulls were in the ring already, others were streaming down the hill into the arena.  Fans in the stands shouting, bullfighters clamoring, while hordes of runners clawing there way out of the ring, out of the way of angry bulls, angry horns.  As I got into the arena I immediately went left to exit, to find the wall separating the ring from the spectators packed with other runners.  I had no choice but to dive onto the mass of bodies, every man for himself.  I fought my way over the wall and realized I was done.  I let out a primal scream, did my best MJ impression after the shot over Ehlo.  Only later I realized I caught a nice shiner in the melee getting over the wall. 

Prior to running my buddies and I devised a meeting spot after the run, knowing full well we would all be separated.  When I got to the meeting spot 4 of us were there, one missing.  After a minute or two we went into a panic mode, looking, yelling, asking.  Seconds seemed like minutes, there was real physical risk involved, minutes seemed like eternity.  Finally our beleaguered buddy arrived; a story of being tripped, rolling under the guard rails flanking the course and not making it into the ring was told.  For a few minutes we stood there in awe of everything, the old town, the old tradition.  A vendor passed selling champagne, we popped the cork and I took the sweetest sip I ever tasted.

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