I opened my jet-lagged eyes and gazed out the long window on the opposite side of the train at a long field of grapevines in front of large dark-grey mountains. The train was slowing, and I looked up front toward the screen displaying the next stop and time of day, to estimate how much longer remained until my arrival in Pamplona. The screen displayed the name “CALATAYUD,” a region that had become recently familiar to me, with a big push at work to sell a Garnacha imported from there. I looked out again, trying to take in the sight as best I could with my hazy vision. I wonder if there will be any time to visit a producer, I thought.
My inclination to walk along those grapevines was not met in Spain, but I instead walked amongst something more lively and intriguing during Pamplona’s historical San Fermín Festival: a culture of wine drinkers. I arrived and got the key to the apartment where I would be staying the next few nights, then immediately went out to explore the active night-life along Estafeta.
Most of the bars had large entryways and few chairs, and people congregated for a couple glasses of wine or beer, some bites of creative bar food heated in the microwave, then moved to another bar. All wines were local, from directly in Navarra or just outside in the Rioja region.
After the first day of festival bull-runs, all the party-planning had tired many of my friends out, and they took advantage of siesta by napping. I instead borrowed a camera and took it to the streets to document iconic images of art and daytime bar-goers outside the main drag where the runs, parades, and daily activities occurred. As I stopped and took candid photographs of groups enjoying the weather with open bottles, they happily posed, asked me to take pictures with their own cameras, and even invited me to share a couple glasses over conversation and some pintxos of jamón ibérico and gambas.
As I was snapping a photo of four ladies witting inside an open window, they noticed I was the same person who had taken their picture earlier in a different location with their iPhone. They handed me the same iPhone and I took another picture of them, and they then invited me to join them.
“Is it your first time in Pamplona,” the blonde lady asked me in Spanish, as another one handed me a glass of Chardonnay.
“Yes,” I responded. “First time in Spain.”
“Oh, where else have you been?” another one asked.
“Just Pamplona. Are you all from Pamplona?”
“No we’re from Madrid. We’re going here for a day and then to Barcelona.”
“Qué bueno. Wish I could go to Barcelona on this trip. I’m helping a friend here with his business.”
“What do you think of San Fermín?”
“I’ve never seen anything like it.”
I give the same advice to everyone who seeks my insight about traveling and the apprehensions that come with encountering foreign languages. “Drink with the locals,” I say. “You’ll learn everything you couldn’t learn in school, and feel less inhibited and thus more willing to practice and hone your language skills.” As with any place, language is a product of its environment, and it no doubt makes me more at ease to stand outside with a full wine glass in my hand with the sun shining.
While the mood was celebratory by default during my time in Pamplona, casual conversation over wine felt like an everyday occurrence, a break from the fiesta in many ways. I want to wrap my head around what gave rise to this life at ease, and how wine is such an essential characteristic to it. The answer eludes me, and makes me want another glass of Navarran Chardonnay.