Making sense of the bulls in Pamplona

Bruegel has an internal weekly newsletter brilliantly crafted by my colleague Ioana Leu. One of the sections, called staffATbruegelDOTorg, invites coworkers to write short pieces with something personal about themselves. Of course, I had to write about Pamplona and the running of the bulls:

It takes a few years for every New Yorker to dare mingling with tourists by visiting the top of the Empire State Building. Or to actually visit the Statue of Liberty. Similarly, it takes something like a lifetime for the typical Pamplona citizen to take part in the yearly running of the bulls. Like most of the people I know, I have never run in the most touristy activity of the most famous festival in Northern Spain. However, missing the San Fermín festival in itself is a serious issue. A tragedy in the life of every Pamplonés that I luckily only had to suffer three times. But why this attachment to something that seems like just-another-reason-to-party?

The magic of San Fermín can only be compared to Matilda’s feeling for the magic of Christmas. And it has little to do with the bulls. From one day to another, the city changes its appearance, mood, and even smell on every 6th July. One day, you are wearing your casual jeans and your neighbor is in a fancy suit; but the day after, the entire city is dressed in white and red. From early morning and every day for the next 9 days, people set up tables in the streets to have early lunches with their cuadrillas, the typical group of 10-20 friends that you’ve known since… well, forever. You drink sangria or pacharán, eat relleno or txistorra, and get ready for the chupinazo. This is the official beginning of the celebration, which consists of a firework being launched from the City Hall in a tiny square that for 20 stifling minutes gathers hundreds of people jumping and singing.

Boom! The party starts. And every convention about normal city life halts. The streets get crowded with bands playing traditional music, water is thrown from balconies to refresh passer-bys, and groups of guiris, or silly tourists, head to do “fuenting.” Fuenting? Yes. A variety of bungee jumping  carried out from a fountain in the city center. It is as lame as it sounds, and it is by no means a real tradition. Locals have grown to hate it so badly, that they created the “shoot the guiri” strategy. An activity that, paying tribute to the stereotype of Northern Spaniards being brute, consists of throwing objects at the people trying to leap.

But not everything is so frenetic. After all, San Fermín is a religious festival. Families and quieter people enjoy the procession that carries the 15th century statue of the Saint through the old part of town. Every morning, kids enjoy a parade of “giants and big-heads.” Giants are a group of 4-metre-tall statues representing four pairs of queens and kings of four different races. Big-heads are satirical figures carried as helmets that chase kids to hit them with a foam truncheon. Every night, the crazy partiers and the quieter locals get together to enjoy a firework spectacle seated around the grass of the Citadel.

And there’s more. Because even politics have a place in San Fermín. Ideology is hard to put aside in all mass gatherings, but specially in Spain and near the Basque country. Every day, in the bullfight arena, gastronomic clubs that during the year meet for cultural activities put out banners with cartoons critizicing local and regional politics. And until some years ago, every 6th of July, when the city council was meant to go in a chapel for an official mass, citizens danced a waltz trying to block the council’s way in a festive manner.

Pamplona is not New York, but the levels of craziness and diversity are somewhat comparable during the 9 days that San Fermín lasts. And just like there is more to NYC than the Empire State, there is more to Pamplona than the bulls. Ongi etorri (welcome)!

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