Sunday, October 09, 2005

Seeing red...

I don´t know what kind of reaction you have when you think about bullfighting in Spain, but I had all sorts of thoughts swirling around my head on the subject.

Brian really wanted to go see a bullfight since it was such a part of Spanish tradition and the kind of cultural taste we try to get. (And as one of his friends who had lived in Madrid for awhile put it to him, the bulls are going to turned into hamburger whether you go or not). We especially wanted to see this cultural event since our luck and timing have been so bad trying to catch football (soccer) matches. We keep being either a day late or a day early etc. in the cities we visit so that so far the only live football we've seen is the C-Level game Brian wrote about in Cesky Krumlov. I was pretty reluctant to go to a bullfight at first, having little desire to see the blood, but while we were in Toledo I decided that I ought to be willing to see one at least before I made up my mind about them.

So, after arriving in Madrid and finding our hotel, we grabbed a snack and then headed out to the Plaza del Toros for the evening's event. Brian and I had bought the tickets online, and had fun trying to decipher the multi-variable calculus based seating and pricing system. You had seats in the sun and seats in the shade and seats in the sun and shade. You had box seats and reserved seats and all kinds of other seats. The prices ranged from 7 euros to over 100 euros, depending on the sun/shade and how close to the action you were. Not really knowing much about the seats, we found some in the shade (pretty much a requirement for Mom and me) for a price we were willing to pay and crossed our fingers.

The Plaza de Toros is a striking red brick arena with a Moorish architectural feel and a nice plaza around it, where you could bet on the bulls and buy souvenirs and snacks. It´s also very easy to get to, as it is the last stop on the number two subway line. When we arrived Sunday night, we had to push our way through crowds of people to find the automated machines that very efficiently printed out our internet-purchased tics (I recommend this to anyone wanting to check out the bullfights. It saved us standing in a long line and was really easy.).

The crowd in attendance immediately banished one of the concerns about the bullfight that I had had. I hate "cultural" displays that are put on for tourists in all forms (native dances, etc.), and can't imagine anything more distasteful than one that involved the bulls' deaths as well. However it was immediately apparent that at least for now, these are still first and foremost events for the Spaniards themselves. Tourists were in a very small minority in the crowd. Most of the people clutching tickets were locals, between 40 and 60, and dressed to the nines. (Being the first of many many times in Madrid when we would feel woefully under-dressed). It was a fantastic look at a cross section of Madrid society.

We pushed our way in with the crowds and were very unsuccessfully looking for any seating sign that matched what was on our ticket. Finally I gave up and walked over to a group of local gentlemen in their 60's who looked like this was a regular outing for them. After a good deal of gesturing we figured out which corridors and stairs we needed to take. On the way we passed a gentlemen renting seat cushions, and Mom and I stopped to pick some up. We eventually found our way to the correct hallway and saw all these closed doors to sections with ushers/security folks outside them.

Once we convinced them to let us in we found ourselves in a steep, small box area with great views in between what looked like a corporate outing (complete with open bar and food) and the Presidential and Officials box. Not too shabby. Not only that, but unlike the plain cement benches down below, ours were padded/upholstered and had backs. We felt pretty silly carrying our seat cushions into this area (silly tourists), but were at least confident that our rears would not get sore. :-)

It was fascinating to watch the pomp and circumstance of the event, and to appreciate all the contradictions inherent in it. It is a sport just dripping with masochism, yet where the heroes wear twinkly sequins and bright pink socks. It is a sport that wants a 'fair fight' and a clean death for the bull but cheers for the wounds the the banderillos and picadors inflict and don't flinch when the bull is stumbling as its muscles fail it.

Since we were sitting right next to the officials, we were able to watch the interplay between them and the torerors and the way that they controlled the flow of the event with their white handkerchiefs. By the second half of the evening, we were starting to get things figured out, though since the section of our guidebook that explained the ins and outs of a bullfight had unfortunately been left over in the States, we were (and still are, to some degree) a little in the dark to the subtleties. if you're interested, you can see the set of pictures from each stage of the evening.

My reaction to the bullfight itself was complex. I appreciated the pageantry, I appreciated the very strict choreography and tradition of each phase, I appreciated that one of the bulls that showed great courage and fight was granted a reprieve and sent off with the hero cows (to fight another day?), I appreciated that the crowd was very knowledgeable and was looking for skill and precision from the matador, energy and passion from the bull, and a 'fair fight' for them both. I also was able to see how with very skilled bullfighters the 'cruelty' argument could be minimized as the strikes would be clean, quick, and efficient.

Unfortunately, we did not appear to be in the presence of very skilled bullfighters. This was ironic, as one of the reasons we had not gone to the earlier fight that day (which was much less expensive) is that it was the Novice Championships and we thought that these matadors would be better and more experienced. I had already looked away in tears when they killed the first bull (I was ok, though not necessarily loving it up to that point in the fight, but the increasingly weak and bloody bull got to me), but it just got a little ridiculous as the evening went on. Banderillos were missing with both of their banderillas, matadors were missing repeatedly on their kill strikes, and then the couple of times that a toreror was sent in to finish off the bull (because the matador had lost his chance for that honor due to repeated misses), they were taking a bunch of times to get it right too. The crowd was jeering and whistling and was most displeased about it and the matadors walked away with their heads slumped in shame. All in all, everyone involved would have been happier with a better display of skill.

In the end, I'm really glad I went and appreciate Brian pushing us to go, though I don't know that I would go to one again. It was a great cultural experience, just from watching the crowd, let alone the bullfight, and I felt like I learned a lot. Plus, having actually attended a bullfight I feel like I can make a more educated decision about what I think about the controversy surrounding the events instead of just making assumptions.

However for my next cultural event I´ll stick with butterflies and puppy dogs, please. :-)


(Brian´s two cents: I enjoyed the cultural aspect of the bullfights the most. Unfortunately as Becca said the actual skill of the bullfighters was poor at best. It's like taking your friend from a foreign country to a baseball game only it's an Independent League game. Cool environment but the actual talent level is bad. My original plan was to write this up much like the CK football match but it got so bad by the end I decided it wasn't worth it. Some lasting images though: the first time you see the blood flowing down the bull's front, a particularly good member of the matador's team getting some ole´'s from the crowd, the anger on the faces from some of the crowd towards the officials for not giving the bull a fair chance, etc. Certainly a memorable experience. I'd go again but only if I had some sort of guarantee as to a higher level of talent amongst the fighters. Really did take a lot of the entertainment value out of the evening in the end. Still worth going though and I highly recommend it to anyone who makes the trip to España.)

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