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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Remembering the Bulls I Never Saw in Pamplona . . .

It's that time of year, when I think about my youth in Spain. I think especially about my great adventure in Pamplona, running from the . . . well, it wasn't exactly, the bulls.

Anyhow a repost from the past: July 7, 2013, to be exact . . .

OK, Hemingway fans. You all know what today is. Yes, it is July 7, the first day of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, or Iruña if you're a Basque nationalist, in Navarra, or Nafarroa if you're a Basque nationalist, and which, again depending on whether you're a Basque nationalist, is in Spain or in Euskadi. The condemned bulls that run towards the bullring and death don't care about that stuff, nor do the thousands of drunk foreigners who descend on the place destroying its charm, and risking death at the hooves and horns of huge beasts with nothing to lose.

Despite my deep admiration for British history, philosophers, actors, scientists, writers, book stores and museums, much of my life has revolved around Spain, or Euskadi, depending on whether you're a . . . never mind, you know the drill. My mother was a Spaniard, as is my wife--well, Basque if . . . ---and two of my kids were born in Euskadi or Spain. I love Spanish food (best in the world), art, literature, and history, this although my father's ancestors got thrown out of Illescas (Toledo Province) in the fifteenth century for refusing to convert and ended up as dhimmis in Morocco. My late grandmother kept a box holding the supposed keys to "our" house in Illescas for when we "returned." I told her that the house probably now lay under a shopping mall; she died in Morocco refusing to believe that. Being a callow person, however, for a good paella or crab dish (I will kill for txangurro) I forgive past injustices--I, however, do not vote Democrat as I have some standards.  

Back in July 1978, having not yet joined the Foreign Service--did that the following month--I was visiting my then-girlfriend and now wife in San Sebastian (Donostia, if you're . . . ) We decided to join her cousin and her soon-to-be husband on a road trip to Pamplona. We had to promise the girls' parents on pain of death that we would stay with relatives, and that men and women would sleep in separate rooms for the overnight in Pamplona. They piled themselves and their supplies into their SEAT 850, and we did likewise with my soon-to-be father-in-law's ten-year-old SEAT 600 (see below).

A good car when you're going to run from the bulls
The driving distance to Pamplona was not great, probably some 110 kms, about 65 or 70 miles. This, however, was before the freeway that now connects the two cities. It was a grueling mountain drive for our little and heavily laden cars. The 850 overheated several times and we had to stop--and had some great sandwiches and wine, yes, wine is recommended for mountain driving. I hardly got the 600 out of second gear and rarely exceeded 30-35 mph, and there was a minor CO vent into the car. That tiny, noisy SEAT, however, never quit. We arrived over three hours later, dizzy, deaf, tired, and cramped, but alive.

Those were tumultuous times in Spain. The Great Dictator had died some thirty months previous after nearly four decades of rule. The succession to power in Madrid was not at all clear. Long buried themes from Spain's amazingly complex history had come bursting to the surface. Among those, of course, was the issue of separatism, in particular Basque and Catalan claims to their own national identity apart from the five centuries of Castillian domination. Backed by the USSR, the GDR, Libya, Cuba, and Basques in Idaho, the ETA, a terrorist organization modeled on the much older IRA, was conducting violent urban warfare against the traditional symbols of Castillian power, e.g., Spanish banks, the telephone company, the national railroad, Madrid-named governors, pro-Spain Basque politicians, and, of course, the Guardia Civil and the Polícia Nacional. Pamplona and Navarra were caught in the middle. Both Pamplona and its province had long been claimed by Basque nationalists as part of the historical Basque homeland. Even if one accepted some dubious historical interpretations by these Basques, Navarra and Pamplona had undergone major demographic shifts over the decades and centuries. One could no longer consider the population of Navarra and Pamplona as predominantly Basque, either culturally or "racially." ETA and the Basque nationalists, however, could not accept that.

The mood in Pamplona had become ugly, especially in the wake of arrests in previous days of several Basque militants. We arrived in the midst of this darkening political scene in our smoky SEATS with our sandwiches, wine, and sausages. We had to park on the outskirts of town in a raw and only partially developed industrial area. We, however, were young, and away from parents, so a bit of a walk into the center of town didn't bother us. Although the drunk and partying foreigners seemed oblivious to their surroundings, as we got into town those of us a bit more tuned in noticed right away that things were not cheery. We saw fist fights between pro- and anti-ETA youths. The riot police presence was visibly growing with every passing hour. We saw lots of very nasty pro and anti Spain graffiti in Spanish and Euskera. Since we had arrived late, we decided not to check in with my future wife's relatives, and headed straight to the bullring to try to get tickets for that day or the next. We walked down the streets where the wooden barricades had been erected for the running of the bulls. We found it impossible to get to the bullring's ticket booth. A large and increasingly boisterous crowd blocked the entrances and filled the plaza in front of the arena. The bullfight for that day was about to begin.

We heard a "Pop!" My wife, the "expert" on bulls, shouted, "Oh my God! They fired the warning rocket! That means the bulls will be charging down this street!" She then did a move that would have made Fosbury proud; she made it over the wooden barricades in record time. I move slower, and remember saying, "The bulls don't run in the afternoon." Another "Pop!" Then more in rapid succession. Lots of yelling and screaming, horns honking, a police siren, a panicked mob pushing down the street where I stood--that's much scarier than bulls. I climbed up the barricade. I saw some people with blood streaming down their faces. More "Pop!" "Pop!" coming from the bullring. I jumped down to where my wife stood and said, "Somebody is shooting!"

Somebody was indeed shooting. The unpopular governor of Navarra had arrived at the bullring to officiate the event. The crowd went wild, booing, stamping their feet, shouting in Spanish and Basque for him to get out, "¡Fuera! ¡Fuera!" They hurled comments about his mother's membership in the world's oldest profession, and her marital status at the time of his birth--nobody can beat Spaniards when it comes to colorful insults. The idiot governor, later assassinated by ETA, sent several members of the Guardia Civil into the center of the arena to announce with bullhorns (appropriate) that the bullfight would get canceled unless order and decorum returned. Mistake. First, never cede the physical high ground to an opponent; second, don't threaten him with a consequence he doesn't care about. The crowd launched a shower of seat cushions, bottles, shoes, chairs, anything throwable onto the cops. One Guardia got hit in the head by a full wine bottle. His colleagues did what panicky cops have done since time immemorial. They began firing. They fired pistols and automatic weapons into the stands and the crowd. A human stampede ensued, not to mention fatalities and many injuries.

To make a long story only slightly less long, the bulls got a reprieve that day. The city of Pamplona, however, exploded. Within a couple of hours or so the telephone company building was ablaze. Running battles between armed and shooting cops and groups of bottle and molotov cocktail throwing youths raged all over town. I told the future Diplowife, "We might want to leave right about now." For once she did not disagree, and with her cousins we walked back to our cars. We were starting them up, when some Guardias approached and asked what we were doing. "We want to leave," we whined. "Not allowed. The city is closed to all traffic, in and out." This made no sense, but they had the guns.

We had never checked in with my almost wife's relatives; her parents and those of her cousins were almost certainly learning about the mayhem on TV and radio and knew nothing of our fate; the phone company building was a pile of smoldering rubble; and all this, of course, was before cellphones: we were cut off from the outside world. In such a situation, what do you do? You party. My wife's cousin had heard of a fair or carny not too far from where we had parked. Away from the center of town, it offered the promise and hope of fun and safety. Off we went.

Her intel proved accurate. We found a fair with rides and other attractions, and food. We ate sandwiches, drank beer and coffee, and won stuffed animals, appropriately enough, at a shooting booth. By now, it had gotten dark; we could see the glow of the fires in Pamplona and hear police, fire, and ambulance sirens. We would have to sleep in our cars and hope the siege ended by morning. We decided to take a final ride on the merry-go-round. No sooner had we mounted our wooden steeds and begun our slow pointless orbit, a frantic crowd came charging through the fairground. They were fleeing cops who let fly rounds here and there. "Pop!" "Pop!" The herd surged around our merry-go-round, cops in pursuit, and then all vanished. We remained astride our bobbing ponies; the only sound being the jaunty music coming from that merry-go-round. I thought this could prove a ridiculous way to die. We jumped off the moving carousel, its operator had disappeared, and made our way in the gloom back to the cars. We sat in those tiny SEATs until daybreak, and then slowly drove them past the Guardias who finally had decided to allow people out.

I let Hemingway down. I never saw a single bull, but if I had, I would have run from it. Promise.



  1. Just personally speaking bear in mind Diplomad Sir but, given what "appears to be happening" all around in the here and now - I'm of the opinion you couldn't have picked a better post to re-post at this here particular time.

    I'll be keeping my musings about the "why just now" strictly to myself.

    Still ...

    Thank you very much Sir.

  2. I had to return. Simply had to.

    If the firearm being reported as the one "Sanctuary" used on the San Francisco pier turns out to have its provenance as rumored ...

    Well then, maybe Federale's new picture (to me, I've not checked in for awhile) makes some weird kinda sense.


  3. Mr. Mad,
    I was in Spain several times in the early 70's, loved that place. Sometime I'll the story of riding the (express) train from St. Jeanne de Luz to Valencia with a train coach filled with nuns and 6 bottles of wine I bought out of the window at a station whose name I no longer remember. I remember the ETA back then. They had a knack of helping government officials park their cars on top of nearby buildings.
    James the Lesser

  4. Let's hope Greece doesn't become like that.

    San Sebastian/Donostia has become a favourite spot for gastronomic weekends for Britons. They don't fear a bit of rain you see.

    1. Yes, I have never met Britons who fear the rain. They seem to ignore it, not even acknowledging its presence . .. I saw this during monsoons in Pakistan & Sri Lanka

  5. Great story! This time as much as the first time I read it! Thank you.

  6. "I love Spanish food (best in the world)..."

    With respect, I think the Italians get the title. The rest of us are vying for second place (not that there is anything wrong with that).

  7. Quite a story. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Great story. Puts my getting whacked by a CND supporter on 4th of July to shame.

  9. sorry.. this is the place where I whine about foreign policy... media trying to provide Obama cover for his 'deal at any cost' with Iran policy..

    There is only *ONE* serious way to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons: Wipe out their oil producing infrastructure. It's never even talked about... all this crap of "if we bomb their nuclear facilities.. they'll just rebuild it... (with their oil money)"

    - reader #1482

  10. Great column Bob, full of nostalgia. You should do more like this, you obviously have a store of great memories you could share. Your comments about the little SEATs made me smile, they're practically indestructible and can be repaired with a hammer and chicken wire, just like FIAT 500s and (gasp) Trabants. The Spanish made great lightweight motorcycles too, perfect bikes for lazy exploring.

  11. Hemingway--GROAN!

    Yes, all through my youth I was told what a wonderful, towering, absolutely stupendous writer he was; the great model of American prose. He was held up as a courageous example of picking out one's own path, blahblahblah. The more adventurous of us found he was also a rebel against a Christian upbringing, and that he ended up blowing his own brains out all over his study.

    When young, I read somewhere that he was the only American author to have his works tolerated in the Soviet Union. I'd already learned a few things about how a dictatorship worked, so that factoid intrigued me. Then, when I was middle-aged, I learned that Hemingway had actually tried to join the NKVD or whatever the Soviets had for a spy agency back then. He also was friendly with Castro and Co. down to the day they confiscated his house. Figures.

    The man was rough on his women, as egotistical as the day is long, a drunkard, and ultimately a suicide. Great role model for us, no?

    Your reminiscences of your grandmother also sound interesting. We don't hear much about the culture and ways of the Sephardim--who often get confused with all the Mizrahim, such as those Mustaribs who never spoke a word of Ladino. I've heard of Muslim families in the Maghreb who kept ancient keys as mementos of their expulsion; but your column was the first time I've heard of such a custom among Jews.

    You wouldn't have any notes on the Ladino language, by any chance, or was it already dying in your day?

    1. I remember reading Hemingway when I was a lad. Bogus! Fake! Or as people say nowadays, inauthentic: I wasn't too surprised to find he'd been a KGB man.

  12. Knew your wife was Spanish, but didn't know your family history. You know the Spanish government has just published the policy granting Spanish citizenship to descendants of expelled Jews (you)?

    I am currently WAEing at Embassy Madrid, a break from the retired life here. It is hotter than Hades....

  13. A well-written vivid memoir, thanks much. I too was in Spain around this time, in Sevilla...I loved it...so full of history and great art and passionate people...for some reason I visited the Giralda a lot...there was a great bookstore across the plaza...walking along the Guadalquivir...day trips to Granada...Italica...Costa del Sol...lots of beer drinking...great memories, thanks for posting my friend...