A STORY WITH A LOSS OF ZEAL IN ZARAGOZA, SPAIN
The atmosphere in the bullring was intoxicating, the crowd jeered and cheered. The pre-match entertainment ended and it was time for the real show to begin. Sitting high up in the oval theatre, looking down on the golden sand floor of the arena, Michael saw a gate open on the opposite side of the stadium. From it charged a huge black bull. Even from his elevated position, Michael thought it the most magnificent creature he had ever seen. The power in those compact muscles, the ferocity of its movement, leaping and spinning, and the lethal points of the huge horns brought the crowd to their feet in appreciation. The locals knew a good bull when they saw one. The cheer that greeted the matador was even louder. From the smattering of Spanish Michael could pick up he gathered this was a local matador and something of a superstar and crowd favourite.
The Fiestas del Pilar had started the previous week on the twelfth of October in Zaragoza. Bull fighting was just one part of the festival that included many religious ceremonies, a beer festival, a fun fair, concerts and the comparsa de gigantes y cabezudos, a procession of giant papier-mâché figures that paraded around the streets of the town all week.
But what Michael had come to Zaragoza to see mainly was the bullfighting. He had summoned up the courage to run with the bulls through the streets that morning, a terrifying mad stampede that was for him cut short by falling and taking evasive action after only a few hundred metres. Still, he had done it, and from his safe vantage point he had seen and heard and smelt the awesome bulls fly past him, charging towards the bullring. He had heard reports of a couple of gorings, but no fatalities that morning.
The crowd roared with approval as the matador performed a few swishes and spins of his cape, at this stage assessing the bull, assisted by his banderilleros on horseback. Satisfied, the matador left the arena and his team went to work. Michael thought of Hemingway, watching as he was, a hundred years earlier. It was no wonder he had fallen in love with the spectacle, the ultimate test of masculinity.
Now the picadors took over. They each had a lance, a sharp stick. Their job was to teach the bull to behave correctly for the final showdown with the matador. As the bull charged the horses the picador would reach over the horns and stab the bull behind the shoulders. The first picador missed his mark, prompting jeers from the audience. The second attempt was successful. Michael saw the sheen of red coat the back of the bull’s black hide.
And at that moment something happened to Michael. Instead of the elation of those all around him, instead of the admiration mixed with sadness that he had read about in Hemingway, Michael felt only sorrow.
For the next ten minutes the picadors continued, weakening the beast, teaching it submission. Only now did the matador re-enter the arena, again to an ovation. With just his cape and sword it was he alone against the bull. They danced, the matador performing a series of exquisite passes, the bull coming terrifyingly close to him. Michael watched the desperate animal being toyed with.
As he did so his mind wandered away from the spectacle. Suddenly, he was aware that he did not belong here, among these people and their love for blood thirsty sport. And he thought on wider issues. Should he really be enamoured by a country that was still run like it had been in the days of Franco’s Republic? Pictures of armed police brutally silencing the independence movement in Catalonia had spread around the world last year.
The matador was ready to make his final kill, the estocada. He drew the bull into its final charge. As it passed he swivelled, jumped, reached over the top of those magnificent horns and planted the blade squarely between the shoulder blades. For a good clean kill the sword must pass between the bones and pierce the heart of the bull. The matador, true to reputation, achieved it on his first attempt. The crowd roared and waved white handkerchiefs to show their pleasure. The President agreed and awarded the matador the ear of the bull.
Michael felt the blow to his heart too. There was much to love about the continent he had travelled through for the last year. But there was also much to dislike. His father had pulled some strings and his place at the London School of Economics would be held open until the end of the year. Michael knew in that moment that he would return to London and his studies. The dream of Europe had died for him, yet he still loved it so. The people he had met, the places he had seen. For all its weaknesses he was in no doubt that Britain removing itself from the Union was a retrograde step, because what he had also discovered was that the Union was only as strong as the will of the people and the politicians to work and exist in peace together, and turning their back on this left the dangerous possibility that the conflicts that had shaped these ancient places before could be repeated in the future.
The crowd roared as the next bull was released into the ring. There was an entire afternoon schedule to be completed. Michael had seen enough. He rose from his seat and walked up the stairs, turning his back on the culture that seemed so foreign to him, on the possibility of ever understanding the bullfight, because in the end, he didn’t wish to know.
Should he leave, quit because he didn’t fully understand or like everything about another culture or country?
Michael paused at the exit.
Written as part of The A to Z Challenge 2018. Click HERE for more details of the challenge.
And so ends the tour of the 28 countries in the European Union in 26 stories – with a trip to Zaragoza in Spain, and a British citizen on the precipice, deciding whether to turn his back on his European neighbours, or not.
I hope you have enjoyed reading all the short stories as much as I did writing them, and thank you to anyone and everyone who took the time to read any, or all, of them, and especially those who left comments and likes through the month. It saddens me to think of Britain turning its back on this varied and rich continent, and I sincerely hope we do not end up regretting the decision in the years to come, but I fear that we will. As the stories have shown, much of Europe is shaped by past conflict and divisions, and breaking up the EU can only be seen as weakening the bonds that have resulted in the sustained period of relative peace we have been fortunate to live through.
I have met some fantastic bloggers this month, alongside some familiar faces, and I hope to read more from you all in the future. And who knows, maybe we’ll all be here again for the A – Z Challenge 2019.
For a full list of stories this year, visit here: THE A TO Z CHALLENGE 2018.