After some thought, I decided I need to insert a small disclaimer about the bullfight. But what to say? I’m not a spokesman for anything. This is a memoir story. If you know me, you are aware that I care for and respect virtually all living things, including spiders, snakes, and scorpions. (I’m not particularly fond of mosquitoes and rats.) I’ve had meaningful conversations with cats & dogs, houseplants, horses & cows, llamas, hummingbirds, and one time even a large pig. If it were up to me, there would be no bullfights. Nor wars, bombing of civilians, or the everyday violence that defines our so-called “society.” But I’m not in charge of much of anything. And, as you will soon see, I viewed the bullfight we attended through the same lens I pretty much see everything. That said, please remember: During a bullfight, a bull is generally killed.
When I parked our rental car at our Madrid hotel, a man came out to help with our luggage. I smiled and told him (in perfect Spanish) that I’d carry my suitcase. The guy looked puzzled and walked away.
“You just told him that you’re going to eat your suitcase,” Sharon said. I sighed.
As Alexander Pope famously said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” (Pope also said, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” but was 230 years too early when it came to cashing in on the royalties for the song.)
I’d never visited Europe before, although Sharon had been to England as well as to Copenhagen, where her sister had lived for many years.
Since we’d been to Mexico and “had some Spanish,” Spain made sense, and that’s where we decided to go on my maiden voyage. The guidebook suggested we do the “Ring around Madrid,” and visit a number of cities and towns that would allow us to fly into Madrid and drive from one place to another.
A few days (and numerous adventures en español) later, we were in Sevilla. After walking around the city for a while, I told Sharon I’d like to see a bullfight at the Plaza de Toros, described as one of the city’s “most emblematic monuments.”
The only thing I knew about the bullfight was what I’d seen in cartoons growing up and in the movie Around the World in 80 Days. I also knew there was a kids’ book about Ferdinand the Bull, but I don’t think he died at the end. (The Story of Ferdinand was so popular in the US that in 1938 it outsold Gone With the Wind. Soon after publication, it was banned in Spain and Germany, and many copies were burned in the latter city.)
When you arrive at the Plaza de Toros the first thing you do is make a seating decision: do you want to sit in the shade (sombra), do you want the sun (sol), or do you want “partial shade and sun.” The prices for these sections are different. It was a sunny day, and frankly I can’t remember which section we chose. Honestly, all the sections looked the same to me—in the sun.
It was like being in the Oakland Coliseum for an Oakland Athletics game. But different. The sights and sounds were different from anything that I’d seen before.
The arena itself was circular, or nearly so, and we walked around a corridor until we saw the sign for our section, then walked up some steps and found our area. All the seats were cement bleachers. People who knew what they were doing had brought cushions or stadium seats to sit on, but we had no idea what we were doing. A decent-sized crowd had shown up.
As with many public events, there was music. When the action started, I was immediately drawn to the bandstand, which was situated not far from where we were sitting.
The musicians formed a tight group. They wore costumes—uniforms, you might call them—similar to what Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass wore, including really cool sombreros. Beyond trumpets, maybe an alto horn or trombone or two, I don’t remember the makeup of the band. There was probably at least one drummer. All the instruments looked shiny and new, and the musicians were good. So far this was the best part of the bullfight.
Then the mood changed. It turned out there was yet another band: the bull’s band. Obviously, Toro did not have as big a budget for music as his adversary. I swear to God, the whole band appeared drunk. Compared to the first band, these guys were dressed in rags. And their instruments looked like they’d been individually and collectively run over by a truck. I’m not making this up.
The music was so miserable it was not even comical—it was just pitiful. I felt bad for the bull! Then I thought, “What difference does it make? He’s going to die anyway.” (I leaned over and whispered to Sharon, “At my funeral, make sure there’s a good band.” As always, she humored me.)
The first event of the day was, well, uneventful, other than the inevitable. As soon as the bull was dispatched, a gate opened and a team of horses was quickly led across the bullring to where Toro lay, chains were attached to his body in some manner, and he was unceremoniously dragged across the arena to some open gates which were then closed behind him. Some spectators stood in respect. I liked that.
Now it was time for the next fight, with a new matador and a new bull. It’s all a blur to me. The picadors and other characters rode around throwing brightly decorated lances at the poor bull, and then he was also readily dispatched by the matador, who did indeed have a red cape (capote de brega) as well as a smaller stick with a red cloth hanging from it (muleta). Finally, he used a special sword (estoque) to do what he had to do. (My terminology may not be absolutely correct; sorry.)
And again, the horses dragging the chains came out and the bull was dragged through the quickly-opened gates.
I was now curious about two things:
First: how much of this could I sit through?
And second: What happened to all those poor bulls after the gate closed behind them?
After the fourth or fifth fight of the day the action intensified. It seems that the better matadors—better meaning better-known and/or more adept at killing bulls—were featured. And after each successful dispatch, the matador’s band would stand and play a short refrain. Occasionally, the bull’s band would attempt a feeble offering, but I think they were mostly too drunk to stand. I don’t know whether I felt worse for the dead bulls because they were dead or because they had such a terrible band.
Regardless, each bull did his thing and the matador did his thing, and I was getting bored, when suddenly the crowd around me erupted with a unified shout.
I perked up immediately. ¿Olé? Whoa! Why hadn’t I been expecting that?
The term “¡Olé!” is most commonly used in three situations: during flamenco dance; during football (soccer) games; and at the bullfight. This was the first time I was hearing it in a live situation.
I watched carefully as the matador swung the cape this way and that, and as the bull charged that way and this.
I waited a few moments and then sure enough many in the crowd around me stood and just about everyone in the stadium again shouted, ¡Olé! I was now wide awake and my boredom had departed.
And…I was ready! I waited patiently until I saw the matador do exactly the same thing he’d done previously. Exactly. The. Same. Thing. And I stood and yelled,
The silence of the crowd around me was deafening. Mine had been the only ¡Olé! In the entire arena. And as the two syllables came out of my mouth, hundreds—perhaps a thousand—heads turned and stared at me. I felt an embarrassment stronger than I’d ever felt in my whole life. In fact, as I sat I tried to sink underneath my seat. And I would have had there been anyplace to go; but there wasn’t. It was a cement bench. I did my best to make myself invisible.
To this day, I don’t know why they yelled ¡Olé! And I don’t know what it was that the matador failed to do that did not elicit the cry from anyone but myself. (I’m sure decades later many of those in attendance still remember el gringo estupido who’d shouted ¡Olé! over nothing. Nada.)
After the latest bull met his demise and had been dragged out, we agreed that it was time for us to go. I felt relief once we left the seats. We exited the coliseum walkway in the direction the deceased bulls had been taken.
Eventually we came upon a large area entirely tiled in white. It was obviously the butchery. Hanging from the ceiling were a number of bull’s carcasses that were being dismembered by men with chainsaws. As you might expect, there was evidence of blood on all surfaces and aprons. At the same time, a cleaning crew was hard at work, spraying, wiping, and sweeping.
I had no difficulty identifying the butcher-in-charge. A cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth, he was in the process of cutting off the ears and tail of the most recently deceased, whereupon he put them in a plastic baggie and gave them to a young boy who raced back to the matador’s station to present these gifts to the victor.
As I knew he would, the chief butcher acknowledged our presence by nodding to me.
I approached him, and in my best Spanish (you know how that works) greeted him with the respect due his station. He was gracious. I explained I was an americano and was curioso. I gestured to the torsos hanging from the ceiling.
“What happens to all of this carne?”
He smiled as he smoked his cigarette, then said something that ended with “los pobres.” I understood. It was given to the poor. Then he nodded again and went back to work. (In the movie version of this story, the butcher invites Sharon and me back to his home after the last event and we meet his wife, children, and extended family, and I get to speak more bad Spanish.)
We exited the butcher’s domain and the Plaza de Toros and went back to our hotel.
Maybe los pobres feasted on the meat, or maybe they didn’t. Let’s assume they did. There was certainly a lot of it.