Viva San Fermín

The matador bends his knees slightly as he slowly raises his sword. He stands in the center of the plaza, a thousand drunken fools looking down at him. The bull is directly in front of him, huffing in all the air his massive body can hold to keep up with the blood flowing out from between his shoulder blades. They’ve been dancing for quite a while now, spinning and spinning by nothing but the flash of a red cape. And for these few glorious seconds, the drums stop pounding, the bottles of sangria stop swinging, and the whole arena is watching the two lovers.

This is how Pamplona was the few quiet days before San Fermín officially began. The whole city was preparing for the blow. We sat at a restaurant and watched bus after bus unload visitors, all coming to town for the fiesta. The local restaurant owners rented out their spaces, the families packed their bags and headed out for a week-long vacation, and then there was me – caught somewhere in between a local and a visitor. Sure, with some patchy Spanish I could tell you how to find the cathedral, where the bulls ran, where Hemingway stayed…but I was just pretending. And I loved every second.

San Fermín officially begins on July 6th, and this year that was a Thursday. I was to meet my friend Laura at the entrance of the pool at 9:30 am, and I was to not be late…oh geez. So at 9:30, I am jogging to the bus station, a little worried about time because I didn’t have my phone, and there is a bus outside of the pool so I get on. After the bus pulls away, I realize Laura and her friends are not on it, so at the next bus stop I get off and jog back to the pool. She’s not there, so I jog through Zizur, trying to find a bus station on the other side where maybe she will be, and at all costs not miss the bus on its loop around the neighborhood. The bus and I find the station at the same time, so I load on to the crowded bus, sure she must be somewhere on it. The bus starts to move, and we are on our way downtown. I felt pretty good, I didn’t miss the bus or anything – but then I see Laura. She is waiting at the last bus station out of Zizur. She’s alone and the bus doesn’t stop. I felt so insanely bad. I couldn’t believe she had waited for me. So we unload in Pamplona, and I run into some other girls I know. They say Laura will be on the next bus, and so I waited there…for an hour. It turns out later that she had gotten off at a different bus stop than me.

So here I am, alone, in a crowd of one million people, hopelessly searching the crowds for a familiar face. But the clock is ticking, and the streets are getting tighter and tighter – so I head to the heart of the Chupinazo in front of the town hall. The streets were so crowded that even the Plaza de Castillo, where people just watch the Chupinazo on a projector was full of people. However, I had an advantage. I was alone, with no tailing friends or even a bottle bumping against people, just me. I wove my way through the crowds, following behind the broad-shouldered German or slipping alongside the edges of buildings. Soon I look up and I’m in the middle of the madness. We sing, we jump, we drink (or if you’re me you just get sangria squirted in your eyes) – and at twelve o’clock we untie the red bandanas from our wrist and raise them to the sky. We go on like this for a while, all the while swaying as one massive crowd. One second I was falling into the arms of an Australian man, the next I was pressed so tightly against someone who only spoke French. Hemingway was right – the fiesta didn’t just start, it exploded.
I followed my Chupinazo star-crossed lover out of the crowd and we went walking through the streets – taking in the fiesta. Men poured buckets of water from the balconies on to the eager crowd, and the parades began.

A shower and change of clothes later, I went back out to the fiesta. After the typical Heath struggle to find her friends – I found them in the Plaza de Castillo. There was a group playing music in the gazebo and we all jumped in to dance. Day was turning to night, bodies were moving freer, and we all spun around to the tune of the happy flute. The best part was the little girls dressed in their red and white – nothing but their curls and shoulders bouncing up and down as they tried to copy the flick of their mothers’ feet. Eventually, we fell out of the crowd and headed to buy bocadillas (my favorite is the tortilla patata – so so good). We sat in the grass waiting for the fireworks and told bilingual jokes – seeing if the other could understand. They asked me how the fireworks compared to the ones on the Fourth of July.

At night, we danced until the bulls ran through the streets. Every day of the fiesta ends or finishes (depending on your age/tolerance) with the encierro. At about 5 am, everyone heads to mark their spot. You can either watch in the street or the Plaza de Torros where they have somewhat of a show following the encierro. The first morning, I went here with my friends where we watched the arena fill with men, shortly followed by six massive bulls. They corral the bulls, and then release smaller bulls with dull horns to toss some guys around in the dirt. The crowd cheers for the bull, and the locals yell at the occasional guy that tries to conquer the bull – pulling its head to the ground or yanking on its tail. That’s the special part about San Fermín that I think a lot of people don’t see. Yes, they kill the bull, but they also highly respect them. The matadors spend years in the Basque countryside, working with the bulls and learning how to turn what otherwise would be a slab of meat into the art of bullfighting. We catch the bus and head back to Zizur to dream about the next day of San Fermín.

The fiesta continues like this for six more nights and seven more days. Each day I fall more and more in love with San Fermín and the city of Pamplona. Somewhere along the way, my friend Sophia from Barcelona joins the fiesta, a gypsy steals my phone on Calle de San Nicolás, and I lose my friends from 3 am to 4 am. Every day we go to run with the Toro de Fuego, a bull with fireworks attached at the top chasing kids down the street, we watch the fuegos artificiales at the park, and my white clothes get more brown/purple every day.

On Friday, July 14th the fiesta is coming to an end. My friends and I spend the last encierro watching from the street. We see the men warming up and bouncing on their toes, waiting for the bulls. At 7:58 am they chant to the statue of San Fermín in the wall with their rolled-up newspapers, “Viva San Fermín…¡Viva! Gora San Fermin…¡Gora!” Then, at 8 am, a firework symbols the unleashing of the bulls – and wow… they are massive. They trample towards the already moving crowd, bowing their heads to the ground and raising their horns to sky. We hop in the street behind them, crowding into a bar to watch the injuries that follow. A couple of concussions, the occasional gore…my friends and I laugh over the fact that most of the injured are Americans as we head to get churros. They also laugh at my inability to roll my r’s without sounding French, while I am trying over and over again to say “churro” or “perro” correctly. The churros were amazing by the way – served hot with rich, melted chocolate to dip them in.

The last night of San Fermín is a bittersweet time. We are all happy – it is a Friday night, the firework show was good, and the town is still bustling. However, we know the end is coming and no one wants the fiesta to end. The lovers of San Fermín head to the Ayuntamiento for the Pobre de Mí celebration. The gypsies sell wax candles for a euro and we group together in front of the stage. The crowd sways, the candles are lit, and we sing, “Pobre de Mí, Pobre de Mí, que se han acabado las fiestas, de San Fermín” (Poor me, poor me, for the fiesta of San Fermín has come to a close). Then at midnight, the fiesta is over with a firework, and we move our red bandanas from our necks back to our wrists. The aficionados are crying.

Viva San Fermín. Gora San Fermin

Vienna, Austria // the city of music

Vienna is the most charming town I have ever been to. You can feel how happy the people of Vienna are, and how much they love their city. People walk around with a lightness in their step, they sit and drink coffee or an afternoon glass of wine for hours, they dress up in gowns to go to ballets and operas…it’s such a happy place to be. Our first day, we walked around the whole city, and saw everything you would want to see, the cathedrals, the Opera House, etc. because it’s all in a ring, only 2.5 miles long. There were also parks surrounding the city, with beautiful walk ways, palaces, and cafes. Then, whenever you got hungry you could get a Käsekrainer, a hot dog with cheese inside, from any of the several street vendors for no more than 4 euro. Later that night, we went to dinner at Figlmüller, where they are known for the wiener schnitzel (so good..) and met a group of students from the University of Miami (Ohio). The next day we went to the Hundertwasserhaus where the famous artist, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, painted abstract art on the sides of buildings many years ago. Then, we took the subway to the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere where we found Gustav Klint, Claude Monet, and Van Gogh and I got to see “Der Kuss” which has been hanging above my mothers desk for as long as I remember. Later that night, we went to see Swan Lake at the Vienna State Opera House. This was probably my favorite part of the trip so far. We paid 3 euro, and had standing seats at the top, but we could see the whole production and orchestra. Both aspects were equally impressive, and the overall show was the prettiest thing I had ever seen. The ballerinas were so elegant, the men so gracious and strong, the music resounded from the pit so powerfully…all to leave the audience in tears and on their feet for at least ten minutes applauding, shouting, and throwing bouquets of roses onto the stage. The way the Viennese incorporate the ballets, operas, and orchestras into their life is equally as beautiful. Young boys dress in suits, the women wear full body gowns, and the whole family comes out for the occasion. The best part is they didn’t all come to their seats until 10 minutes before the show but they filled in uniformly, as if they had been going to those seats their whole life. I fell in love with the show, but most importantly I fell in love with the Viennese people and their values. This two day taste was not enough, but I’m so glad I came upon this wonderful city.

Until next time, Austria.

Budapest, Hungary

Wow, what a fantastic, hidden gem Budapest is. The city is alive with color, music, food, wine, parks…name it and Budapest has it. I am now traveling with my friend Audrey, on our own schedule, pretending to be adults while we google map the whole city and accidentally get charged fees for not validating train tickets. The first night, we went to Cafe Kor, just down the street from our airb&b, where we had a fantastic meal of duck, chicken, a bottle of wine, and a great conversation. Then, just down the street there were thousands of people, young and old, quiet and loud, gathered at the park. It was so intriguing because we kept trying to figure out what was going on. We assumed there must be some kind of festival or concert, right? By the end of the night, we realized that they were simply just enjoying their night with friends and I think this is when we both fell in love with Budapest. The next day, we practically stumbled upon Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion, the Great Synagogue, St. Stephan’s Basilica and the Danube River. For lunch, we went to the Central Market Hall and had goolash and stuffed cabbage rolls. It was a lot of walking, but we had so much fun appreciating the architecture and being engulfed in Hungarian culture. The next day, we went to the Széchenyi thermal baths, which were a little crowded, but we liked going in the 80 degree Celsius sauna then the freezing ice bath. When we got back to our flat, I realized that I had left my absolutely favorite necklace in the locker room. It was a precious gift from my sister, to remind me of the importance of new beginnings in my life. I had given her the same one before when she needed it, and she had replicated the favor for me. So Audrey and I immediately turned around and went to go find my necklace. As soon as we get back to the park and off the subway, we get stopped by a lady asking for our tickets. We willingly handed them over because we bought them from the front desk and were confident we had done the right thing. Before we know it, we’re handing over our passports and being charged 8,000 Fts each for not validating our tickets. Please, please validate your tickets, and if not, run away from the angry short woman before she catches you in her tourist net! Then, to top it all off, I can’t find my necklace, and the Hungarians are wondering why my face is red and wet. However, it’s okay, because there’s really not much I can do at this point, so I accept defeat and we go back to the airb&b. Later that night, we decided to go see the Musical fountain on Margaret Island and the Parliament Building lit up at night. When we’re about forty minutes away from our place, and half way across a bridge over the Danube river, it just starts absolutely pouring. We really couldn’t believe it, so we tuck our leather purses from Florence away the best we can and hop on a random bus, soaking wet, with no idea where it’s really going. Oh, in the opposite direction, perfect! So blah blah blah sob sob sob we make it back to the airb&b. And here is where the best part of the day comes- Audrey flips on a show we used to watch in high school, Gossip Girl, and we split the cheapest, dirtiest meal we could find and half a coke. What this day showed me was that it’s okay to lose things, it’s okay to get drenched in the rain, because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you do- but who you do it with. I didn’t need that necklace anymore, because the life I am living this summer is full of new places, new languages, new cities…new beginnings. What a realization that was.

Our last day, we went to 9Bar for chai tea lattes and baby quiches. We worked on our papers and slowly realized the coffee shop culture is not quiet the same as it is in America, but we felt very content working on our laptops for far too long in public. That night, we decided to get a real dinner, for we had been snacking ever since we lost $30 to the ticket lady. Then, we finally made it to Margaret Island (the fountain is under construction btw) and saw the Parliament Building light up the whole town. Lastly, we made sure to visit the famous “Shoes on the Danube” monument and the legendary ruin bar, Szimpla Kert, where we met four girls from the UK. I had an amazing time in Budapest, and I’d love to revisit this city some day.

Tropea, Italia

After my time with OU was over, I headed down south by train with my friend, Kim. We met my Great Aunt Heath and cousins John and Chris in Parghelia. Parghelia was a really nice change of pace, because for the first time since school started, there was no schedule, nothing I had to do…it was the first real taste of summer. And we soaked it all up. We would wake up to a breakfast bursting with fresh fruit, tea, fresh orange juice, eggs, toast, jam…all ready right outside our doors at the Villanova Eleonora. After soaking in the morning blues, we would head down to the beach just about ten minutes away. These beaches had the clearest water I had ever seen in my life. Kim and I would venture out onto these massive black rocks, yet we could still see the rocks and fish at the bottom of the sea. Kim jumped off something for the first time in her life, we took too many pictures, we got a little pink, and we soaked in everything we could about the Mediterranean Sea. Then, we would head to the same “trattoria” down the street and try all different kinds of seafood, and before we knew it, we had been at dinner for three hours. Overall, it was just what the three of us needed, a nice relaxing trip before my Aunt Heath flew home, Kim started school, and I went on to venture throughout Europe. I love the two of them so much and I’ll cherish that town and those few days with them for as long as I can remember.

Florence, Siena, and Rome

These are all bustling (rightfully so) and amazing cities to visit. From the history, to the strong Italian culture that still resides among the city, they are all great places to work on your bucket list but still enjoy Italy.

In Florence, we visited the duomo, cathedral, and saw Michelangelo’s David. All bold, strong, and monumental. Florence is also known for their leather market which you can got lost in for hours- bartering and negotiating with the shop owners while trying to find the perfect leather piece to take home. Then, at night, the city comes alive with music and lights from the river to the center plaza. One of my favorite nights was spent here, dancing in the plaza to the Italian music with friends.

Siena was also very charming. My favorite part was that the city sits upon a hill, and you can look out from a window at all the tiny streets and houses. Lastly, there is a plaza right in the middle of town, that the whole town congregates to day and night.

In Rome, we did it all- the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, Vatican City, the Sistene Chapel…all incredibly stunning. Rome is special because it’s a fairly modern city, with millions of people, but the city is built on top of an ancient Roman city. This makes it a very crowded, large city, but we can all laugh about it because we know the reason why. Overall, we had a great time wrapping up our time together over family dinners, making those last gelato runs, and at the end, we definitely did not want to say goodbye to our two week sleepover with PLC.