The Travails of Travel

How I Survived My Pilgrimage to Pamplona

There is a simple strategy for managing the bulls

Walter Bowne
Apr 7 · 10 min read
The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Link.

“The Hemingway Experience Excursion Package”

For our second honeymoon in 1996, my wife and I took “The Hemingway Experience Excursion Package” that started in Paris and then a train to Spain — and then back to Paris.

As a travel coordinator for The Cultural Heritage Alliance that organized trips abroad with teachers and students, I knew the business well. With my colleague and friend, Jim, we were in charge of the France and England tours. It sounds sexy, right, but mostly it was cold calling and dealing with irate parents who refused to pay the “late fee” for the application.

This was before 9/11 decimated the student-travel industry. And long before COVID-19 did the industry even worse.

The company liked to hire teachers who had experience with travel. I had just graduated with a Master’s degree in English and had been teaching at four different colleges. I loved hearing the word “professor,” but I cried when the meager paychecks arrived. Was this any way to raise a family, Professor Bowne?

On the weekends, I worked as a waiter. “Professor Bowne, can you top off my coffee?”

“Sure — and can I sit down and discuss Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn?”

By Halloween in 1997, our first daughter, Madeline would arrive — and so my delusions of grandeur of Ivory Tower Academia would have to be locked away in the dungeon.

But one of the perks of my job was deeply discounted train tickets and airline tickets. My manager Bob hooked me up!

Bowne and Bargains go together!

I arranged the tour myself. I had studied abroad in England and had traveled extensively throughout Europe. This would have been my third time in Paris — and I felt I knew Paris as well as my own Philadelphia — with the notable exception of having no confidence whatsoever in the Language of Flaubert.

My favorite expression or most used expression was “Je suis désolé” — I am sorry.

My wife Mary Jane had long dreamed of Paris

My wife Mary Jane on the Left Bank in Paris — 1996. Photo by author

She took French in school. She took two weeks off as a dietitian at Temple Hospital. I was a Hemingway aficionado. Papa Hemingway had long been my literary father — so much so that a professor called me out once for totally stealing his plot and a bit of dialogue. Papa was in my bloodstream. I read all of his stories and novels — and even his nonfiction — like Death in the Afternoon.

Some of my friends called me either “Papa” or “Hemingway.”

I asked Mary Jane, “Hey baby, can you call me Papa — Papa Love?”

Then she made a fist and said, “Can I punch you in the dick?”

Would Laldy Brett Ashley talk like that? Well, she didn’t punch men in the dick, but let us count how many dicks and Lady Brett go together in The Sun Also Rises — Cohn, Michael, maybe the Count, and Pedro Romeo — and Jake — but he’s impotent — so he counts as half. Ouch. He ain’t rising, poor chap.

Lady Ashley was based on the real-life Lady Duff Twysden — who Hemingway called an alcoholic nymphomaniac. In a photo from the time period, he’s sitting next to her, of course, while his dear wife, Hadley is in the back.

Papa could be a jerk, right?

In Paris, my wife and I could stay in the Latin Quarter, drink champagne on the tip of Île Saint-Louis, and enjoy the monogamous cafe lifestyle of The Lost Generation. For some reason, my wife did not read the fifteen books I gave her as a “reading list.”

She also did not read my list for our first honeymoon in 1995 when we went to England and Wales. Could it have been that she was tired after working — and didn’t enjoy the luxury of downtime as the adjunct professor-waiter-boy?

Actually, by now she thought I’d be teaching high school — but I never told her I never signed up or took my Praxis exams. It would not be until 1999 that I actually started teaching full time.

Walter Bowne can be a real jerk, right?

The Spanish portion would also contain the Papa experience — Pamplona and San Sebastian — and I threw in Barcelona for the beaches and the culture and seeing Mary Jane on the beach — all under that gorgeous Meditteranean sun.

Ooh! La La — mon petit chou!

Walter Bowne can be such a jerk, right?

Mary Jane cried when we exited the Metro with our backpacks

Mary Jane “experiences” Paris for the first time. Photo by author.

She’s a mature adult with a real job — and Walter Bowne is having her backpack like she’s 20 years old. But when she discovered herself amidst the ambiance of Rue St. Michael, she just cried. I was so glad I was able to get my “Lady” to the City of Love and Lights.

My wife was not too happy on the way to Spain. Lack of food can do that. Photo by terrified husband.

The Starving Time

A few days later, however, I starved her on the overnight train to Barcelona. We had to rush to the train — run is the better verb — with backpacks — because one of the Metro lines was down, and I was too cheap to pay for a taxi. I was actually scared to death to speak French to a French cab driver.

All we had to eat was old smelly bread and some jam. Not even a day-old baguette! That’s why in this picture she still wants to punch me in the dick. I am usually the one who always wants to eat — except when I’m traveling — I’m just thrilled with the rush and the excitement.

But I also forgot that I was now married at 27— and no longer a kid. When we arrived in Barcelona late — Mary Jane immediately found a McDonalds, ordered a burger and fries and a Coke — and to my culinary horror — I protected my nuts and said, “You’re starving! It’s fine! Tomorrow, we’ll have squid in its own ink and paella and bean soup and sangrias and tapas!”

Walter Bowne can be such a jerk!

Barcelona was fun — and even though we stayed in the rather ‘seedy” side of Las Ramblas — you know — where the prostitutes linger. We had a fine time. Then, the Great Adventure — and what you’ve been all waiting for —

“How to Survive Pamplona Without Even Trying”

Café Iruña in Pamplona, Spain. Photo by author.

I was so excited!

I knew all about the Festival of San Fermin. I showed Mary Jane the opening of City Slickers from 1991— where Billy Crystal and his two mates, in a mid-life crisis — run with the bulls, and “Mitch” gets a horn up his ass. But the only thing I wanted in my ass was hemorrhoid cream and Preparation H toilette with witch hazel and aloe — you know — for a fresh, clean feel. Oh, and a doctor exam, now and again, with the finger and “turn sideways and cough.”

We would eat and drink at Café Iruña. Drink like expatriates! Drink the local red wine! Ramble through the narrow streets! I would look up the playbills to find out about the toreadors and play Bizet’s Carmen — and watch out for dudes in tight green trousers who wanted to seduce my beautiful wife. Would we be able to stay at the Hotel Montoya — Pamplona’s living room, too?

There was a statue of Hemingway outside of the Plaza del Toros. Along with San Fermin, Hemingway is the Patron Saint of one of the craziest, zaniest parties in Europe. Was my wife afraid of the drunken crowds and her husband getting killed or gored by a beast? Why did she agree to this? I was 27 — I would postpone my mid-life crisis until Covid-19 when I grew my hair out — long and hippie-like — and then turn immediately young and sexy like some 70s Rock God.

The Running of the Bulls takes place the second week of July — like the 6th of July through the 14th. One needs to book well in advance — and be willing to pay exorbitant prices — or just sleep on a bench or in a barn — or on a haystack outside of town. Mary Jane wanted nice accommodations — and I delivered.

And the reason, dear reader?

The author and his literary father outside the Plaza del Toros in Pamplona, Spain. Photo by Mary Jane Murphy.

We were in Pamplona on the third week of July — a week or so after the festival. We had the entire northeastern Spanish town to ourselves — and it was delightful. The British guy at the one pensione was the boyfriend of the Spanish owner — and she was now flush with pesetas — and on holiday in the South of France. He was just holding up there — taking care of the place — and offered us to stay free, too.

I looked at Mary Jane — “Am I the guy or what? Do I know a bargain?”

We had the best seats at the Cafe Iruna bar. We had the best bean soups at the local taverns. My Spanish was also “muy bueno” — despite the fact of a D in Spanish III Honors in high school. I took a refresher course at a community college where I was also a “profesor.”

The city was clean — the booze — the trash — the vomit — the blood — all of that had all been cleaned up. We lounged in the town square and took lovely walks along the perimeter of the town.

Then, I wore the designated regalia of the men who run with the bulls — red kerchief and white shirts — and I started running — and Mary Jane took pictures of me as I avoided the horns and the hooves and the being trambled on my American undergraduates and drunken continentals.

We went to the Plaza del Torros — and Mary Jane took pictures of me with Papa and the Bull Ring.

The drama took place like this:

1. Start with a dramatic and convincing picture of yourself in front of the bullring — The Arena of Testosterone

The author readies himself to run with metaphorical bulls — in regards to safety and sanity. Photo by Mary Jane Murphy.

2. Run as fast as you can by looking backward

Looking good is part of the mystique of manhood here. Photo by Mary Jane Murphy.

3. Keep running fast — avoid walkers, strollers, joggers, dogs, and uneven surfaces — especially those damn cobblestones!

Running and wisdom are two elements to guarantee safety in Pamplona. Photo by Mary Jane Murphy.

4. Know when to hug a wall like a lover when no one is looking in order not to look like an idiot

The author almost gets spotted by a local during his solo Running Away from the Metaphorical Bulls. Photo by Mary Jane Murphy.

The offseason is the way to go

The pensione we had to ourselves — the shower was weird — as it was like — a stall on stilts — outside — but the water was hot — and our room had like three beds. That was very convenient for when I started snoring. Hell, I had two beds to try!

And it was all free, man! And the best thing — I didn’t have to worry about any male competition for Lady Mary Jane. She was rested, well-fed, and had lovely Spanish wine — and I knew the language — mostly.

And that’s how I survived Pamplona — in a way Papa Hemingway would have called me weak and “unmanly” — but he didn’t know that I actually pass out at the sight of blood — even my own blood — and what would have happened if I saw a poor, innocent bull gored with streams of blood?

He would have compared me — like bloody Mike Campbell — with Robert Cohn — a mere steer — and then I would have to go a few rounds with my hero until I knocked him out with my wit and satire and cheap shots of shot glasses to his groin— and then I’d finish him off with a volley of fine Fitzgerald prose — and that would really make my father mad.

But everyone back home was so happy to see how I managed to stay alive during the Running of the Bulls.

“It’s like the time Mary Jane and I did the whole Pamplona thing!” I say. “What an adventure! Crazy times!”

How we survived driving to Roncevaux, exploring the mountains of the Pyrenees, the Basque region, and San Sebastián, and then the overnight train back to Paris at a Greek pension where the smashing of plates kept us up at night — that is another story in the “Ballad of Walter and Mary Jane” (insert John Lennon song here).

My beautiful wife’s hair matched the Spanish sunsets in Pamplona. Photo by Walter Bowne (survivor of the Running of the Bulls).

Thank you for reading! Follow me on Medium at Walter Bowne.


Bootleg Humor. Since 1720.

Walter Bowne

Written by

Walter Bowne writes humor and some serious stuff on family, education, gardening, literature, and craft beer. His work has appeared in over forty publications.


Bootleg Humor Since 1720

Walter Bowne

Written by

Walter Bowne writes humor and some serious stuff on family, education, gardening, literature, and craft beer. His work has appeared in over forty publications.


Bootleg Humor Since 1720

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