Running with the bulls

Andrew Taber impetuously decides to try a local tradition -- running with the bulls -- during a summer stay in southern France.

By Andrew Taber
Published April 20, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In the sweltering heat of a summer in southern France, sangria flows, the gypsy kings sing and bulls rule the streets. Every town sponsors its own annual "fjte," and big bulls are the guests of honor. In Nnmes and Arles they are paraded and taunted in Roman arenas, until either the bull or the toreador is put down. And in neighboring villages they jam around the streets in "controlled" situations as the young and often inebriated try to catch them by the horns.

My French host brother pulled me into this dubious sporting affair when I was lodged at his home during a semester-abroad program in Nnmes. Our group of globe-trotters, all from the University of California at Santa Cruz, was made up of people with names like Rain and Hope. Several held vigils for the victims of pbti, and we all played hacky-sack during our breaks from French class, our Tevas slapping at the little air-borne ball.

The program both ended and culminated with the Feria, a week of revelry that erupts in Nnmes in early June and draws hoards from Paris and the Spanish border. At night the bars spew onto the sidewalks to accommodate bands and raucous crowds, and during the day games involving bulls fill the streets.

My French brother was a bull fanatic. Like most of his modern-day brethren, he despised the "artful" killing condoned by the corrida, but would eagerly chase a bull through the streets, smack it on the ass and then try to avoid getting skewered by its horns.

The non-corrida-bound bovines lead a tranquil life, he explained to me. They spend their days dinking around the wetlands of the nearby Camargue and are hustled in for a week of good-natured torment before being returned to pasture. According to him, my French experience would be for naught if I didn't run with (or from) a bull. Naturally, I agreed, and on day No. 3 of the Feria, we were ready to play.

A 300-meter circuit had been roped off in the ancient maze of Nîmes'
downtown, and at every feasible outlet a barricade or flatbed truck had been
stationed to create a tight, isolated ring into which the bulls would soon be

We idled with the throngs on the safe side of the fence as a few sangria-laden
men paced about on the course. Suddenly, a gunshot was fired from the trailer that
housed the beasts, the crowd cheered and a lone bull loped down the ramp. As is traditional, this one would get things going and the French cowboys
monitoring the festivities would send out more at varying intervals, until a
total of six would be churning through the streets.

The lead-off bull looked around and deftly swatted a fly with its tail before
a man screamed and leapt at its head, grabbing for its horns. The bull,
startled, skipped to its right and charged down the road as spectators flung
flour in its eyes to piss it off.

I wasn't particularly wooed by the sight of drunken men in bermudas and old
Adidas with no socks whooping after a frightened bull, but my brother
apparently was, and, as three more bulls were added to the mix, we squeezed
through the fence.

An important thing to remember when you're bull-chasing is that if a bull is brought
to a standstill and you're not part of the lucky bunch restraining it by the
horns and tail, you should run. Run as if your life depends on it. Because once the bull breaks free, it will charge in a
terrified rage in whatever direction it is pointed, shattering store windows
and denting fire hydrants. A liquor-lubricated woman had already been mowed down on the first day of the Feria, caught by a bucking horn that had cut her femur
in three.

My brother and I waited in giddy terror. Unbeknownst to us, the lead-off bull,
now thoroughly exhausted, had been halted on the far side of the course. So,
as we fled from the three bulls slipping around the corner to our right, we
immediately encountered Old Lead-off himself charging in a deranged panic from the left.
We slammed ourselves into a narrow doorway and the bulls and their lunatic
stalkers streamed past. My brother, his eyes shining with the frothy vigor of
a rabid man, hollered something and ran into the street to join the masses,
his bermudas billowing about his legs.

I just ran. I found the spot we had entered from and tried to exit, but got pushed back in by a
very uncouth individual. The bulls were coming. I tried again, got pushed back
in again, and huddled back into the tiny refuge provided by the doorway.

This time two perplexed bulls stopped right in front of me, their harried,
puffing breaths adding to the sweat leaking from my palms. "Nice bulls," I
said as they looked from right to left and then back at me. I peeked at them,
and just before their would-be captors swarmed onto the scene, they gave me
what I interpreted to be a pleading look and bolted in opposite directions.

I sidled back to the fence, beat past Mr. Uncouth and tried to shove him out
on the course. He whimpered and I let him go, then sprawled myself out in a much
larger and safer doorway, wondering just what the hell I had been thinking in
the first place.

Eventually my brother rolled in, all gritty and happy. He gushed about
how my greatest of French experiences was now complete and how proud he was to be my host brother. I told him to shut up and forced him into the nearest
sangria-serving bodega, where he, of course, would be buying.

Andrew Taber

Andrew Taber is a producer at New York Today, the arts and entertainment Web site of the New York Times.

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