When I want to give my five-year-old son a treat, I take him to dinner at El Brillante here in Madrid. You can’t get more traditional than El Brillante–an old-school cafeteria/bar that hasn’t had a remodel since forever, with hefty waiters who scream your order back to the kitchen. All the traditional dishes are on offer, and people throw their napkins on the floor. This may sound gross, but it’s more hygienic than putting your chorizo-grease-stained napkins on the same surface as the plates. Adapting to a new culture involves lots of little shifts in perception.
We walked in the other night and a bullfight was on the television. My son was immediately transfixed, not because of the program but because he got to see a TV. We don’t own one. Spanish TV is as dumb as American TV, and with fewer channels.
I hesitated, wondering whether we should stay. I don’t like bullfights but I also don’t like breaking promises to my kid, and this is one of his favorite places to eat.Then I began to think. Bullfights are controversial here in Spain. Last year the region of Catalonia banned bullfights and many Spaniards see them as a national embarrassment, my wife included. They’re still popular, though, and get lots of coverage. If he hasn’t seen a bullfight already, he’s bound to see one on TV sooner or later–at his grandmother’s house, another restaurant, or a friend’s place. I’d rather he saw it with me than someone whose judgment I may or may not trust. So we sat down and ordered.
Is five too young to see a bullfight? Yes and no. I’m his father. My job isn’t to shelter him from the ugliness of the world, my job is to prepare him for the ugliness of the world. Bullfighting is part of Spanish culture and we’re both going to have to deal with it. He sees bad stuff every day, like the homeless guys drinking themselves to death in the park. There are limits to what I’ll let him see, though. When the news showed the carnage of a suicide bombing in Pakistan, I covered his eyes. I should have covered mine too.
While a bullfight is a needless display of cruelty, there are at least two sides to every issue. After it’s killed the bull is eaten. Bulls live a free-range and well-fed existence, unlike the factory cows penned into stalls so tiny they can’t even turn around. I’ve always been amused by people who get righteously indignant about bullfights and then go eat a hamburger.
A bull has a pleasant life until the last fifteen minutes, when it suffers pain and terror before being killed and eaten. In other words, it has much the same life it would have in the natural world. If I was to be reborn as a bovine, I’d choose a bull’s life hands down.
We ordered our food and my son perched on his stool and watched TV. The last time we were here he was equally entranced by a reality show about a 73 year-old man learning how to cook. But this was no cooking show. As usual, the bull had to be goaded into a killing frenzy. Horsemen called picadores speared the bull, and three banderilleros run out with pairs of spikes and jabbed them into its back. Bloodied, weakened, and enraged, the bull was ready to meet torero or matador. A young man in an elaborate suit walks towards the animals wielding a cape and sword.
“Do you know why he carries a sword?” I asked my son.
“Because he’s going to kill the bull.”
He turned to me with surprise. “Really?”
“But sometimes the bull kills the torero,” he said.
He turned back to watch. I wondered again whether this was a good idea. Farm kids see animals killed, as do children in the developing world, so really it’s our urban, First World culture that’s in the minority with this.
The torero had a tough time. After making a few impressive passes, the bull got wise and stopped just in front of the cape and sideswiped the torero. The guy retreated behind a barrier while two assistants distracted the bull. After a minute he summoned enough courage to go back out. He’d lost his confidence, though, and only made the bull do a few passes before using his sword to finish it off. It was a pointless spectacle, not nearly as entertaining as most bloodless sports. I get the impression that in another generation bullfighting will die. The average age of the spectators almost guarantees it.
By this time my son wasn’t so entranced. He was paying more attention to his salchicas del pais con pimientos and was treating the slaughter on the screen with very Spanish indifference. Being Canadian, I could never be that indifferent to a bullfight.
“So what do you think of bullfighting?” I asked.
“It’s OK,” he shrugged. “Not as good as football, though.”
And by football, of course, he means soccer. Chalk up another difference between him and his old man.
[Image courtesy Marcus Obal]