Friday, July 10, 2009

Memories of San Sebastian-The Beginning gored by a bull was preferable to spending another minute in the car with Lady Brett.  Or in Pamplona.


I used to love Hemingway until he made me to go to the Festival of San Fermin (aka The Running of the Bulls) in Pamplona.  “Papa,” I would shout out, in the middle of the night, awake in a cheap Parisian pension, starving student that I was, the dirty sheets drenched in my sweat and me, still drunk from the evening’s bar crawl, my copy of “The Sun Also Rises" open to a meaningful passage  on the cheap wooden nightstand.  “I cannot rest until I too visit the Festival.”  “You are my soulmate.”  “I cannot write again, until I write like you.”  “I’m going to name my granddaughter Margaux too.”   Unfortunately, I could not convince my benefactor (aka, my own “papa”) to finance the trip and let me stay in Europe beyond the end of June (the festival was in July) and I was forced to return to Baltimore, where I spent the summer as working an usher in the train station, calling out trains to Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Newark, New York, and beyond, all the while knowing I belonged way beyond.  I belonged in Pamplona.  When I returned to college in the fall, I put my festival dreams on hold.  For twenty years.

And so it came to pass that I finally visited…no, that I finally PARTICIPATED IN, The Festival of San Fermin.  I arrived at the airport in Madrid to meet my cast of characters, with whom I would spend the next 10 days.  I, of course, was Jake Barnes, the impotent soldier who was hopelessly in love with Lady Brett Ashley.  The lady herself was actually my best friend’s wife, a southern belle from Kentucky.  And Robert Cohn, the Jewish outsider, was  a gentile dentist from Tennessee.  My best friend was Pedro Romero, the young bullfighter involved in a love affair with Brett.

Dysfunction reigned from the very beginning.  As the only Spanish speaker with a few previous trips to Spain under my belt., I was elected to navigate and communicate and fornicate (no, just kidding… I’m impotent, remember).  Pedro was driving the rental car and we stop to ask a truck driver parked on the side of the road for directions.  When I return to the car, I report that the truck driver had told me to "fuck the road" to Segovia, which I assume to mean don't take it (later, I figure out that the term we use in Mexico for the "f" word is used in Spain to mean "get on" or "grab").   For some reason, probably to make my life miserable, Lady Brett had gone off her meds before the trip, and was completely OCD, telling me what an idiot I was for not being able to figure out where we were or understand the language.  We did manage to make it as far as Segovia on the first day, although not via the highway, where Cohn and I passed out on the lawn of the parador, after finishing several bottles of pacharan.  Brett and Pedro went into town for sucking pig and woke us up when they returned.  Because the hotel restaurant was long closed, Cohn and I dined on a tin of tuna fish and saltines along with several bottles of cheap wine before passing out again.  It kind of felt like Papa was there, watching us.

We made it to Pamplona the next day, late, after a long day in the car, where Brett's OCD had kicked in to the max; me on the receiving end of it, which I guess was a welcome break for Pedro.  I lost count of the number of times she referred to me as an "f''ing nimrod" after I don't know how many wrong turns...and all I was trying to do was read a map and street signs.  We checked into what was supposed to be the best hotel in town and which I can only describe as pretty nasty, and where I had a single room with worn green carpet and a hard bed.   Unfortunately, I was still able to hear Brett in the next room through the too thin walls ragging on Pedro about it, after thinking I was finally free of her for a while.  I ponder the wisdom of going to a drugstore to bribe the pharmacist for some Atavan with which to spike her wine, but think better of it.  In Mexico I wouldn't have thought twice about it, but I didn't want to end up in jail and miss the festival...better to just put up with her.

We go to drink in a cafe and note that the crowd in town seems a bit, well...trashy. Pedro and Brett retire to the hotel and Cohn and I drink until we pass out.  The next morning we are up at dawn, dressed in white, ready for the most magnificent event ever.  And then my lifelong dream came crashing down and the Hemingway fantasy ended.  Brutally.

I don't know exactly what Papa saw but what I saw was, as Brett described it, a "cluster f*&$ing nightmare."  I discover in short order that I am not really a bull person.  They are big, scary and nasty, especially when they are loose on the street.  They SNORT.  I never particularly liked them in bullrings but I thought when I saw them running free it would be different.  I was right.  They were totally terrifying.  But nowhere near as much as the crowd was.  

For the festival, the town had turned into what I can only describe as an Eastern European refuge camp, with the bulk of participants in the festival young and dirty kids, who slept in tents or on the streets, drank until they threw up on their white clothes, and wore the stains with pride.  The casual sex and bohemian vibe of papa's time had turned into a Euro-trailer trash saddam and gomorrah recently risen from the depths of hell.  There was screwing in the streets.  There was vomiting in the streets.  There was pissing in the streets.  It was so appalling, so deeply depressing and disturbing, there was only one thing for me, Cohn, Brett and Pedro to do.  Drink.  It was the only way were gonna get through it.

And so it came to pass that the next few days dissolved into a drunken haze of early mornings spent watching the bulls running through the streets while even drunker idiots tried to run with them, eating and drinking until we passed out, waking up for the bullfights at night where the bulls who ran through the streets in the morning were brutally slaughtered in the bullring, then eating and drinking until we passed out again.  It was insane.

It was also exhausting and we were only on Day 3, with 3 more to go, when Brett, as she was want to do in Papa's book, made the casual comment that perhaps we should adjourn to San Sebastian for some R&R.  Cohn, Pedro and I refused to admit defeat.  We were there for the festival and we were staying for the festival.  All of it.  Weren't we?

We weren't.  There was no hiding it.  The Hemingway dream was turning into full on disaster and to make it even worse, we weren't enjoying ourselves at all.  Not the food, not the festival, not the people and not even the wine, which we drank to get through the misery.  On Day 4, I woke up early as usual for the running of the bulls and noticed something nasty on the tacky green carpet.  What was it?  Was it....baccalao?  I try to think back to the night before.  Didn't I have baccalao for dinner?  The phone rang.  It was Pedro.  "We're out of here," is all he said.  I breathed a sigh of relief, put my pounding head back on the pillow, and slept until noon.   

We were quiet on the drive to San Sebastian and even Brett didn't speak.  Shell-shocked, I guess.  We had no idea what to expect, but whatever was in store, it couldn't have been as bad as Pamplona.  We arrived into San Sebastian and I instantly felt at east.  It was lovely, there were no drunken crowds, and the hotel was great.  My room overlooked the river, the tide coming was coming in from the Bay of Biscay, and I filled my lungs with fresh air and breathed a long sigh of relief.  I felt like I was home. 

I used to love Hemingway until he made me go to the Festival of San Fermin.  

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