What were your first impressions of Pamplona? Were you surprised at how big it was?
Actually no, I wasn't surprised at the size, because I had done a little bit of preparation. I had heard that there would be uncounted millions of people. I have to say that I was surprised that it wasn't more obnoxious than it was.
You were expecting the Ugly American?
Well not just Americans. The Australians and the New Zealanders and the Germans and the English—it's pretty hard to pick a champion when it comes to large amounts of drinking and acting stupid, unfortunately. But what surprised me was that there was a lot of care taken on the part of the organizers to keep things pretty much under control. I thought it was going to be total chaos, and in fact I was really dreading it the first time I went a few years ago. I was reporting on another project, and I thought well, I'm only going for a couple of days so I'll just bite down hard and get through it. But I found that the drunk and crazy people were less intrusive, because by the time the sun comes up, they're comatose. So if you're a day person you can escape that.
Before you went that first time, were you thinking it would be at all like The Sun Also Rises?
No, I didn't think it would be anything like the 1920s, when Hemingway was there. Nothing in the world is like that anymore. You go to the mountains of New Guinea and people are wearing U2 T-shirts. My expectation was that it was going to be inexpressibly horrible, not just because of the crowds and the drinking, but because of the commercialism. But I discovered more positive aspects than I had expected. I didn't end up in The Sun Also Rises, but I didn't end up in Lord of the Flies either, which is kind of what I was anticipating. Since I wasn't going to drink and dance in the street, I wasn't sure where I was going to end up in the mix. But there was room for me too. There was room for the little old grannies; there was room for everybody. So it was great.
You mentioned that a lot of the town is Basque. Did you sense any tension over the Basque separatist movement?
No, I sensed a lot of pride in being Basque, but I didn't sense any tension. I was trying to be aware of that, and I think things have eased up in a day-to-day way. They have Basque newspapers and Basque radio broadcasts, and they don’t seem to feel like an oppressed minority. I don't want to put myself forward as an expert in the Basque situation, but my sense, from talking to Basques in Pamplona, is that the ETA terrorist movement and it's supporters are a very tiny percentage of the Basque people. Most Basques are happy with the way things are. I hesitate to start making pronouncements, but it's not a poor region. This is a political cause that has its own reasons, but it doesn't represent people who are actually undergoing hardship, and it's hard to get many adherents if things are mostly okay. That's at least my take on the subject, because I did bring it up and people were very frank. The atmosphere was very relaxed.
Have you been to other Catholic saints' festivals? How does Pamplona compare?
I've been to Italian and Austrian festivals. Pamplona is far beyond any other festival I can think of except maybe the New York Marathon or Woodstock, or maybe New Year's Eve at Times Square. It's really hard to think of things that would compare with it, in terms of size. What also increases the impact is that most festivals are just a couple of days. Nine days is fairly unusual. Also, at most festivals I've gone to, the main event is the religious thing, and then the other elements are added onto it. Here the religious event is overwhelmed in the avalanche of everything else that goes on.
Are there other festivals that you found particularly exciting?
The first thing that comes to my mind is what they call the "Corsa dei Ceri" in Gubbio, Italy. on May 15. It's something that goes way back into antiquity. It's still very much felt by the locals, and it's very intense, physically as well as emotionally, very affecting and very authentic. It's only one day, but people love it and it's important to them from an early age, so it really isn't just that one day, it's something that, as with San Fermin in Pamplona, is on their mind for the whole year. In the United States, I don't think we could say that the Fourth of July or Christmas is always in our mind. But there are certain places in the world where certain events remain in people's minds all year long.
Is that because these festivals are so local?
Yes, you see this in towns that are basically still very small. Pamplona has gotten bigger, but it still feels like a small town, and most of the people who live there have always lived there. Pamplona is part of their DNA. My friend Edurne Arrizibita, who was born there, said on the last night of the festival, "You know, it's something we need, in a way. It's a very small city and very traditional, and it gives us a chance to—" and then she didn't say anything but she made this flapping around gesture with her hands to indicate "go wild." They love their festival, and they're happy to have everyone else enjoying it. My strongest impression was how really beautiful the people of Pamplona have remained, despite everything that's changed over the years.