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Archive for Sunday, July 15, 2001

Rules don’t apply in Pamplona

July 15, 2001

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— As the San Fermin fiesta neared its climax, huge crowds in red and white happily fulfilled their appointed tasks: reckless endangerment, public drunkenness, mass littering.

Bulls aside, the centuries-old ritual that Hemingway made famous long ago now enters a new millennium as an icon for those few places left where a good party is still more important than a bunch of laws.

"St. Fermin watches over us," Mayor Yolanda Barcina says, on the ornate Town Hall balcony, watching with amusement as people from Tokyo to Toronto stagger down narrow cobblestone streets clutching open containers.

Spain has a drinking age 16 but the few police in sight seem in no mood to check IDs. People live and love in the street, dancing until they drop, then cuddling in quiet corners. Snoozing bodies are everywhere.

Way past midnight, old women walk hand in hand, smiling indulgently at uninhibited antics of their normally staid neighbors. Each morning, crews hose down reeking gutters and haul off tons of broken bottles.

By the time thoroughly wrecked revelers sang the traditional "Pobre de Mi" "Poor Me" at midnight Saturday, the mayor figures, a million and a half visitors will have come for the eight-day party.

Despite all the foreigners, she adds, the spirit is very much as it was when almost no one beyond the Basque hills came to take part: a giant local celebration of the bullring, the church and the taverns.

True enough, rave parties now last until dawn in the parks and plazas. Every kind of music from good salsa to bad techno blasts from the bars.

The main feature of San Fermin, as it always was, is the 825-yard mass scramble through narrow streets along with six 3/4-ton bulls bred to look for a fight at every contact with humans.

Each afternoon, the focus moves to the plaza de toros, the bullring, where three matadors act out Spain's old national ritual, a close encounter between man and beast from which the latter comes out dead.

Around the clock, parades and impromptu concerts keep packed streets alive. Fireworks are at 11 p.m., before the restaurants jam. After the bulls run at 8 a.m., people stop for cafe con leche and then party on.

Pamplona people treasure San Fermin, not only for the annual good times and the business they bring but also for the identity they feel as a community bound by treasured traditions in a globalized world.

No one forgets the festival can be deadly serious. Jennifer Smith, a young tourist from New Jersey, remains at Navarra Hospital with head injuries after a bull gored her in the thigh and knocked her over as she watched from a wooden barrier.

Since Hemingway's day in the 1920s, 13 people have died at the horns of bulls during the eight morning runs through ancient streets. Uncounted thousands have suffered injury.

At the same time, Pamplona people say, that it is the point of San Fermin. This is an encounter with life as it is, with its extremes of joy and pain.

Alvaro Gomez, a photographer and poet who parties with the best of them, believes San Fermin roots people to the past while allowing them to deal with ever more complex parts of a different sort of world.

"This is a vital catharsis for us," he said. "All year long, we put up with everything we have to do to survive, to compete, to make a living. But here, for nine days, we can be human beings."

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