Life, and Death in the Afternoon

This past weekend was truly a celebration of life and death.

On Saturday night, I invited everyone from the program to join me at a Tapas restaurant in the neighborhood of Triana. Besides the fact that the host was flabbergasted when I told him I would like reservations for twenty…everything was set up perfectly when we arrived.  The table was long, filled with bread, and wine glasses abundant.  When most had arrived, I ordered white wine and (the most delicious) sangria for the table and perused the menu.  I had already spent about 30 minutes before leaving consulting the online menu and looking in my food dictionary so I wouldn’t be clueless when I arrived.  No one seemed to have a strong preference for what they wanted to eat so I picked about 5 tapas dishes in the hopes that we would try a few and go from there.  When I ordered the waiter said something about the number of dishes per group of five and the next thing I knew, I had ordered for the table!  Out came five cheese and tomato dishes, five spinach and pine nut croquette platters, five shrimp dishes, five lemon fish dishes, and five chicken dishes.  As you can imagine it was an overwhelming amount of food, but varied and delicious!  I only had one misunderstanding.  I ordered “daditos” anticipating a dish including dates (which I’d hoped were wrapped in bacon).  Instead these small strange fried fish pieces came out.  I called the waiter over and politely told him that I did not order that fish.  He pointed to his notepad and reassured me that yes I had asked for “daditos”.  Sure enough it was written down.  Note to self: The Spanish word for dates is “datiles.”  One day at a time..

Shortly after our party arrived in came a bachelor party and a dinner party.  They made the atmosphere out of this world.  They were singing and shouting and waving their napkins in the air.  I soon as they heard someone wish me a “feliz cumpleanos” they burst into rowdy song!  Turns out I had chosen a very authentic restaurant…no tourists to be found only Spanish people celebrating life’s milestones: birthdays, marriages, anniversaries!  Besides the lively singing and shouting, I loved when they brought out my dessert.  The restaurant turned off ALL of the lights and brought out a piece of some banana/flan/cake thing with a single candle, and everyone sang feliz cumple again, as if the first two times weren’t enough.  All and all it was a pretty perfect dinner.  Afterwards we sat by the river and shared a bottle of wine, making friends with Spainards and celebrating the night away until 4 AM.  This was life.

We slept late on Sunday until I met some friends at a cafe.  Shortly after, I met everyone at the Plaza del Toros for our first bullfight. I purposely did not read any information prior to going because I didn’t want to have any preconceived notions or feelings.  When we found our cheap seats in the sun, I admired the beauty of the plaza itself with its rich yellow coloring and classic archways.  I sat there naively with not a single reservation about my decision to experience this Spanish tradition on my birthday.

What followed was a confusing mix of music, tradition, and disbelief.  The basic layout of the fight occurs in three acts.  First the bull is released as several novice matadores taunt and tire him with their pink and yellow capes.  Each time he rushes you can observe the way his breathing becomes labored and his tongue begins to hang from his mouth.  In the second act, a padded horse enters the ring.  On top of the horse sits a ornately decorated usually fatter man with a long picador, or a long stick with a pointed end.  The novice matadores lure the bull closer and closer to the horse so that he gets the urge to charge it.  I did not understand this at first until I realized that they wanted the bull to charge so that they could poke him with the long picador.  To remove him from the horse the man on the horse will repeatedly poke him in the strong and sensitive neck muscles, which weakens his charge, lowers his head, and his overall force as an animal.  During this time, the novice matadores run at the bull in order to pierce him with theses ornately decorated barbed sticks.  The object is to run at the bull, plunge the two sticks into his neck muscles, and escape unharmed.  As a result the sticks dangle from the bull’s wound, weakening him even further and causing him to bleed.  This is very difficult to watch.  This large wounded angry animal is now taunted over and over while heavy hook shaped sticks dangle from its bloody wound.  At this point the animal has blood running down its sides, matting its thick coat.  In the final act the professional matador, who has a more beautiful and expensive uniform, performs with the bull, testing his limits of bravery.  He is essentially trying to see how many times he can get the bull to run past him, and how close he can get to the bull without harm.  It’s scary to watch.  I never knew what to expect from the bull or the matador.  The final act ends with killing of the bull, by spearing him with a long sword in his neck muscles.  There is more I could write about the “final kill” but I honestly don’t want to revisit it.

The worst part of this “art form” was watching two novice men get gored by two different bulls.  During the third bull of the night, the novice didn’t see what was coming to him as the bull charged…trampling him and eventually spearing him with his horn in what looked like his neck/side.  For what seemed like an eternity this bull carried this poor novice around by his horn until his fellow novices diverted the bulls attention.  When the bull hey finally dropped the man, his peers seemingly glided across the yellow sand, lifted him into their arms, and rushed his limp body out of the ring.   When it first happened my heart started racing and tears filled my eyes.  I was not prepared for such an action packed too close for comfort afternoon.  I swear my heart wouldn’t stop pounding.

As if that was bad enough the fourth bull was larger and angrier.  That’s why none of us were really surprised when it charged another matador as follows: taunting the bull with your cape, bull rushes at the target, novice attempts to step out of the way, misjudges, bull lowers its head and dives its horn right into the leg of the novice who is then thrusted into the air and falls to the ground.  He then proceeds to get up and run for a few seconds until his peers once again come gliding in to whisk him off to safety.  Warning: this was very gory.  The bull had created a very large hole in his thigh area, piercing his femoral artery so that blood was literally squirting out of his leg.  Did I say squirting?  It was more like pouring.  His eyes were literally rolling back into his head.  I can only imagine the pain.  Plaza De Toros in Sevilla has one of the best hospitals in all of Spain, which luckily saved his life because he lost many many liters of blood.

After that I was sure my nerves couldn’t take anymore.  I didn’t stay for the last bull.  When I returned home my senora said that what I had seen was an unusually bloody and violent sunday.  Tell me about it.  I couldn’t sleep that night because I couldn’t seem to calm my heart down.  The next morning I eagerly watched the news and checked the paper for the inside scoop.  All reports called the second injury “surprising” and “very grave” so I knew I wasn’t just imagining it.  Hemingway had it spot on.  I find myself contemplating the morality of this art form, sport and entertainment.  There is no better way to describe it, I bore witness to Death in the Afternoon.


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