Thursday, January 19, 2012

Just Another Religious Festival

“OK”.  And with that one word, my 15 year marriage ended.  We had both given up so there were no fights or last hurrahs to save our union.  I wanted our son.  Done.  He wanted his pension.  OK.  We actually negotiated the division of property at Starbucks over lattes.  Dutch treat!
It doesn’t get any better than that for a friendly divorce.
However, I had spent the previous 15 years as an ice hockey mom and school teacher for at-risk teens.  For this 70s throwback of peace, love, rock and roll, violence didn’t fit with my belief system; however, circumstances dropped it into my lap daily both at home and at school.  Along the way I disappeared while serving the needs of everyone else.  I couldn’t even remember what I enjoyed doing and I didn’t know where to start in creating Cheryl Version 2.0, middle aged edition.
Slowly I experienced rebirth, dabbled in online dating (just don’t!), raised an amazing son and developed deep interests in yoga, reading and writing. My regular haunts included Starbucks, yoga studios and bookstores.  Not exactly the life of a thrill-seeker but joy appeared in subtle ways through the perfect backbend or a well written novel devoured over a latte and cookie.   I was restless though.  After so many years living in ice rinks and never taking a vacation I had to blow off some steam and this lovely life I had created did not include adventure.
Three weeks.  That became my gift of time and for once in my adult life, I had freedom.  Throw caution to the wind, this was a childless adventure.  My friends thought I’d head to the shore with a stack of books when I shared the news of a getaway.  Not this time. 
The Festival of San Fermin!  That’s where I chose to go so I planned a vacation around that religious holiday. Traveling to the major cities of Spain introduced me to centuries old neighborhoods, gothic cathedrals, and fabulous museums.  I soaked it all in while spending siesta time sitting in plazas drinking cava.  Three weeks.  Time for me.  And for kicks, I went alone and did not activate international cell phone service.   No one to tell me when to get up, what to eat for dinner, or how to spend the days. 
I enjoyed 2 glorious weeks traveling throughout Spain with my camera in hand.  I wandered through street markets, toured museums and palaces and chose to view only masterpieces at the Prado.  I even crashed a wedding reception.  Why not?  No one really knew what I was doing but me.  I enjoyed freedom for the first time.
Did I mention that the Festival of San Fermin is more commonly called the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona? 
I didn’t tell too many people from home either.  I certainly didn’t tell my mother what adventure awaited me.  My guess was that wouldn’t go over too well.
A train ride later, I entered the tiny village of Pamplona.  The annual kickoff food fight had fortunately already ended by the time I settled into my hotel but the partying had just begun.  I began to realize that my standard glass of wine was not going to be the norm for the next few days.
Mardi Gras looked tame compared to Pamplona during the festival.  Dressed in obligatory whites with red sash and scarf, I elbowed my way through the crowds to enter the streets.  Once there, African conga drums played, strangers pulled me into their arms to dance in the street and mimes entertained all.  Music poured forth from stores and vendors filled the streets selling t-shirts and flags. The streets provided sensory overload but once I got into a rhythm, the crowds became invisible.   Callemucho .  The drink of San Fermin poured freely usually by flask or 2 gallon jug.
After a night of partying and no sleep, the actual festival began.  Fueled with over a decade of pent up energy, I  chanted “let ‘em loose”  in my mind.  Catch me if you can.  But I’m not quite as foolhardy as it appears.
First, most of the people running had imbibed for at least 24 hours.  I chose to toss back just one flask of Callemucho (cheap wine and soda).  Juts for courage I thought but my balance remained rock solid.  Next, a plan.  I wasn’t about to run on a cobblestone street the width of a standard American alley full of drunks without knowing the lay of the land.  I watched the first day, safely ensconced on a balcony two stories above bull level. 
Day 2 however I joined the crowd in the street.  My earlier reconnaissance showed that the end of the run was safer as there were fewer people (still packed shoulder to shoulder), a bit more space on the street and a fence to leap over should the need arise.  So that’s where I planned the start of my run.
 I heard the shot indicating that the bulls had left their pens, waited my 17 seconds for them to arrive, and then hit the street.  There they were, 10 agitated, magnificent 2000 pound beasts and me soaking wet at 115 pounds.  This sister ran fast, smelled their musky odor as they swept by and breathed a sigh of relief as I choked on their dust when they roared past.  My 2 seconds of glory.  Not trampled, not hurt and only a slight glow of perspiration on my brow.   I ran with the bulls.  Feel my power now people!
This single mom can do anything these days.   When life gets tough or when I’m feeling a bit beaten up, I don my red sash from Pamplona, look at the photos I took of the bulls on my desk and smile.  I found my inner courage again.  I’m getting to know myself too.  Life’s not so bad as Version 2.0.

Cheryl Stahle, memoirist, author and founder of Your Best Writing Group lives in Doylestown, PA with her son.  Cheryl consults with aspiring authors to guide them in telling their life stories.  She has a special interest in working with adoptive families as an adoptive parent herself.


  1. Cheryl - Hello, you totally transport the reader with this vignette. While attending this festival isn't on my travel list your writing made me want to read it to the end & I did, with joy - brava!

    1. You made my day.....heading off to Costa Rica this month. Let's see what trouble I can get into there.