Grin and Bear it!

Trip Start Sep 30, 2005
Trip End Jun 04, 2006

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Pamplona lies in the Kingdom of Navarra, at the southern edge of the land of the Basques and almost where the plains of Castilian Spain begin. At its centre still lies the ancient citadel and for 8 days every July the town goes crazy for the Fiesta of San Fermin, which I can confirm from personal experience is a non-stop party of the most dedicated yet friendly sort. The only exception is the vaguely ordered chaos of the morning Encierro. I can also confirm from personal experience that once the tourists have gone home, the locals party all night all year round anyway. It is a favourite city of mine for this and many other reasons, not least of which is that my good friend Carlos lives there with his wife Elena.

I met Carlos during a year at university in France when he fitted in as well as anybody else with the local culture, and was totally at home in the multinational band of friends we shared. He still travels with work and on holiday, but the amazing thing about him from my point of view, apart from his ability to speak second languages faster than anybody else I know (he speaks English more quickly than I do), is that he is so closely drawn to and identified with his home town. When everyone else was at university and planning their futures we all knew Carlos would be back in Pamplona. Having visited several times and seen the quality of life and the close knit community he enjoys there it's easy to see why.

I first visited Pamplona 10 years ago and hung out, drank and partied with a bunch of young guys in their first jobs or just out of university. They'd been to secondary and some of them primary school together and most still lived at home. On subsequent visits to the Pamplona, I've noticed the signs of age and maturity in the gang, they drink a little less, faces acquire lines, waistlines expand, political ragings about Euskal Heria have calmed and been left to a younger generation, clothes are smarter, homes have been bought, and wives and girlfriends join them. However, they're still all together come Friday night, meeting in the local bars of their home estate. It's easy to imagine how they will grow old together and still be meeting wearing the coloured woollen jackets favoured by the older Spanish male to bemoan the wrongs of 2030. What they have is something very precious and few if any of my friends elsewhere enjoy the same kind of bonds and friendships that will run all the way through their lives. Whether it's Spain, Navarra, Pamplona, or just my friend who is like this I don't know, but it strikes me as a very happy, healthy and comfortable way to live.

The Friday night is St Patrick's Day. It is celebrated with as much zeal here as anywhere else I've seen. The handful of Irish theme pubs do a roaring trade and set the tone rolling for the whole town who file out to their preferred watering holes come midnight. At times it's a problem to find people through the forest of green and black three-pointed hats donated by the kind folk at Guinness if you consume their produce. The other thing that's nice here is that people always seem to want more people to come into the bar where they're having a party. It's amazing how many people can fit into a narrow bar where there is seemingly no space, nor is there any end to the nooks and crannies that exist to settle in once you're inside. I certainly can't imagine being 3 back from the bar and having my beers ordered for by the guy at the bar in London. It's all so friendly, but then I should also remember that half the town seems to know the guys I'm drinking with. Is that notoriety a bad sign? It's all so friendly.

Saturday is the final day of the 6 Nations Rugby and it so happens that I'm visiting, in their words, "the only 3 Spaniards in Pamplona who are interested in rugby." Even with slightly bleary eyes from going to bed in the not so small hours of the morning, I'm quite happy to be taken to yet another Irish bar with no less than BBC coverage of the afternoon's game. England are playing Ireland and the barmaid laughs and gives me a gentle ribbing as I order the first beer. The Scots barman does the same with the second. We exchange a few words joking with a French guy screaming with despair as his team do their best to throw away the game against Wales. It's funny how you come away from home and the mutual understanding and common interest lets the same old jokes and humour be shared.

I wish everyone was like this. Unfortunately the day is rather spoiled by some rather stupid Irishmen. I have nothing against the Irish, just these eejits. Whenever people go abroad, they become more aware and demonstrative of their nationality, but these guys are the wrong side of the line. "Kill the f******g English c**t" and "look at all those rich English w*****s at Twickenham" don't have anything to do with sport and least of all rugby where the friendly interaction between fans is legendary. This isn't witty banter amongst friends either, and even those who don't join in find it entertaining. I don't know how much of this goes over the head of my Spanish friends who probably see some enthusiastic people ranting at the TV. It's a cracking game and Ireland just about deservedly win with a last gasp try, but I'd have loved England to win just to put a finger in the eye of these fools. It should be time to smile and have a laugh and a pint with the Irish fans. All I can do it is grin and bear it and suggest we move on.

This is one experience, but it's not the only time I've felt seriously uncomfortable as an Englishman abroad. For hundreds of years the English have been far from angels pillaging the world, but the fun of my forebears is in my and my contemporaries account at the bank of international goodwill. The saying goes, that you reap what you sow, but as often as not you reap what someone else sowed and for an Englishman that sometimes means grinning and bearing it. Perhaps there's a message in here for the powers of the modern World?

Anyway, despite this little bit of crap that set me musing, my weekend in Pamplona was still great fun. I wonder what it will look like when I next visit?
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