All posts by kquine

To My Tar Heels, We’re Still ‘Not Done Yet’

During big moments, it feels like it always comes down to seconds. The last 4.7 of yesterday’s game were the hardest to stomach; buzzer beaters have not been friendly to my Heels or my heart. Those 4.7 seconds are going to stick in the minds of many when they think back to the 2016 championship game. But I’m choosing to remember the 5.2 ticks on the clock before that, when an off-balance Marcus Paige made that unbelievable three-pointer, tying a game when everything was on the line and there was still so much to prove.

If you’ve been a student at UNC in the past five years, it sometimes feels like all we’ve done is try to prove ourselves. Our predecessors made egregious decisions that shouldn’t go unnoticed, but I’d argue that current students and younger alumni have been dealt the hardest blows for poor choices that are not our own. These blows manifest themselves in simple ways. The bossman sitting across from you at a job interview jokes about paper classes, asking if you took any. Fans of rival teams scrawl “Go to class, Carolina” on giant poster boards, used as vitriolic props at games. It hurts. Just like those last 4.7 seconds did. It hurts because you know in your heart that snide remarks, just as with seconds on the shot clock, shouldn’t wholly define UNC, what it has been, or what it is.

That’s why I wanted the 2016 Tar Heels to win so badly. We all did. Of course you always want your team to win, but of any Carolina roster I’ve personally witnessed, these guys deserved it most. I’d say this loss hurt more than 2012, The Year of What Could’ve Been, when I was still at UNC.

We’ve faced scrutiny as students these past few years, but our basketball players have faced more. Here’s the thing, though: This team stuck it out. They dominated the glass, did their duty in the paint, and in plays that mattered most — like Paige’s last waltz in the big dance — they found ways to make their threes.

But it’s the character of this team that strikes me the most. Paige’s eloquence. Johnson’s passion. James’ silliness. Their strength was consistently doubted throughout the season, but they carried themselves with dignity while making us fall head over heels for their on-court charisma and press conference antics (Looking at you, Pinson). This team was one to root for. As Roy Williams said a couple of weeks back, “Nice guys want to win, too.”

In some ways, a championship win would’ve felt like a new chapter, one unmarred by criticism and the past, if only for One Shining Moment as streamers would cascade from the ceiling and each player would ascend the ladder to cut down the nets. But that’s a lot of pressure to put on a group of five guys who are all at least two years your junior — as freakish as their jump shots might be. Woe is the two-years-removed alumna who can’t let go despite having no athletic talent herself. But sometimes we have to let go.

Our lives are ruled by seconds and what we do with them. Unfortunately, try as we might, those seconds don’t always shake out in our favor. It stings. It really, really does. But to my dear boys in blue: If the way you’ve carried yourselves this season is any indiction of what’s ahead — regardless of where you might be heading — you’re still not done yet. We’re not done yet. Far from it.

In travels, strangers’ love can mean the world

When you’re traveling alone, it’s the chance interactions you share with others that keep you going. A tiny glimmer of a smile. A slight nod. Small talk about where you’re from or where you’re heading. At home, these moments seem trivial, easily unnoticed as we move about our busy, insular lives.

But when that’s all you have, these tiny moments, you’re only left with yourself. While time alone can be reinvigorating, it’s equally terrifying and overwhelming. You’re forced to reckon with a myriad of thoughts and emotions, some of which can be uncomfortable.

Life is being lived all around, except now you’re merely an observer to an unfamiliar world spinning madly in front of you. It’s quiet, really quiet. The silence that comes with traveling alone will make you love yourself at some points and dislike yourself at others.

One moment you’re stupidly proud of yourself for lugging a 30-pound backpack around for miles in search of a hostel. And when you find that secret, little corner booth at a cozy café far from where tourists have set afoot, you feel like a conqueror.

In these moments, it’s as though we’re invincible. The alluring lights of an unfamiliar city, no matter how big or how small, tend to have that effect. It’s rather silly. There are thousands of streets, thousands of people, but you feel like everyone knows your name.

But no one does. As darkness falls, we each head back to our little rooms in remote pockets of these metropolises alone. That is when the emotional reckoning happens.

One question weighs heavier than most: Am I significant? Sit there pondering long enough, and it will tear you up.

Thankfully, you have these random strangers to pull you back up again even though they owe you nothing. After all, our days are all fragmented and numbered.

Strangers have no idea where you’ve been. They don’t know your proudest moment or your biggest regret. They’re not required to care.

To truly get an idea of what strangers are like as people, ride among them on any form of public transportation. You’ll uncomfortably shift in your seat, pitifully grasping for human connection, however brief, as friends still lie sleeping in faraway time zones.

There will be the people who cut through your shy smile with callous turns of the head in the opposite direction. But just as you sorely resign to isolation, there will people who miraculously smile back.

Sometimes, actually, they’ll smile at you first. They’ll stir up random conversations about the stupidest things, like your shoes. Curiously enough, you feel your blood flowing through you again in these moments.

It happens when two guys notice you sitting alone on top of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and invite you on a wild hiking adventure.

It’s when a woman offers to walk 30 minutes with you to the bus station in Seville because she figures you could use the company.

And it’ll happen when a teenager with wild piercings in Amsterdam makes you stop listening to your iPod just so he can introduce himself and ask if you’re enjoying your time there.

The love of family and friends is wonderful, but familiar love can be messy. Expectations, motives, conditions and stipulations can sometimes complicate an otherwise beautiful thing.

But with strangers’ love, there’s no pretense. They have just overcome a great struggle to say hello, wondering if it’s OK to stir up a conversation with you.

“Is it the right time? Is it the right place? Will she think I’m weird?” After all, we’re warned not to talk to strangers.

But these people smile, wave and say your shoes are neat anyway. Why? Because they don’t see you as just anybody  they see you as somebody.

They don’t know your past, your future or even your name, but they appreciate your existence.

Every now and then, we find ourselves walking alone in this world. We wonder if we’re worth loving. We need strangers to teach us that we are. We so are.

Strangers like me: Meet me, yes me, Katie

Hey y’all! Happy Thursday! It’s time for another installment of “The Strangers Like Me.” This week’s edition is going to be a bit different because HEY, I’m done with staying in hostels. After a rousing round of bed bugs and creepy men at my last hostel in Brussels, I’m thankful to be staying in Airbnb rooms for the two weeks (!!!) I have left of traveling.

Since I’ve put so many strangers on the spot, asking them some of the most existential questions ever about happiness and fulfillment, I figured it’s only fair I ask myself the same tough questions. This post will serve as a conclusion to “The Strangers Like Me” for this trip to Europe. No worries though, it’ll take on new life once I’m back home in the good ol’ USA. Also, be on the lookout for tons of new posts I have coming your way the next couple of weeks. With my time here quickly coming to an end, let’s just say I have a lot of feels worth exploring. 

Katie Quine

Meet Katie from Charlotte, N.C.

Where’d I meet me? 
The details are a little fuzzy, but it was probably the first time I looked in a mirror.

Why am I traveling? 
I’m on an international quest to meet someone weirder than me, so UNC gave me a scholarship to essentially do just that. Jury’s still out as to whether I’ve actually found the person.

Where else would I like to go?
After meeting so many fun-loving folks from Australia, I’ve recently made a resolution to live every day like I’m Australian. It’d be pretty neat to go that glorious, sun-basked, snake-ridden continent. But as for an option that’s friendlier to my wallet, I’d love to make a roadtrip up the East Coast now that I’ve got some friends who have moved up north.

What was the happiest day of my life? 
Dear Lord, why did I ask people this expecting one clear answer? I guess the first one that comes to mind is the day I auditioned for “American Idol” as a joke in 2011. The whole experience was totally ridiculous.

Basically, producers, not celebrity judges, handle the first round of auditions, sorting through a crowd of thousands of show hopefuls. If they believe someone is TV-worthy — which can mean this person is either phenomenally good or incredibly awful — they hand out a golden ticket and send him or her through the winners’ exit to the next round of auditions. Knowing I’m a bit out of pitch, I was afraid I’d be handed a golden ticket confirming that I’m actually the worst singer ever, which the whole world would soon know.

When I was belting out Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved” for the judges, I totally faked the confidence thing, shaking my hand around in the sky, acting like I was a regular Beyoncé. I was still sent through the losers’ exit, proving my mediocrity. The camera man hiding behind the door was hoping to catch me in a post-audition, You’ll-be-sorry tantrum but was quite confused to see me smiling. I didn’t win a gold ticket. It was the first time in my life I was so excited to just be average.

What’s on my bucket list? 
Well, my bucket list has 120 items on it. As for what I’m most eager to cross off next? Bungee-jumping. Then? Publishing a book. Maybe it’d make sense to reverse those in case I don’t survive …

What are my thoughts on the United States, which is ranked 17th in the United Nation’s 2013 World Happiness Report?
We definitely prioritize happiness as a culture, which is great, but I think we sometimes go about trying to achieve it in the wrong ways. The “pursuit of happiness” has come to mean having our happiness and ultimately our lives validated by others. “How many ‘Likes’ can I get on the Instagram picture of me blowing out the candles on my birthday?” “There’s no way I can eat dinner out by myself.” The fun of the moment can sometimes be spoiled when someone needs to be there to bear witness to it. It’s OK to be alone and still smile like an idiot. That’s what this trip has taught me. But of course, having friends around is wonderful, too, and I can’t wait to return to my American ones soon.

Strangers like me: Meet 60-year-old Andries

It’s time for another weekly installment of “The Strangers Like Me.” Hostels are a funny thing, you know. For reasons unexplainable, you find yourself talking to a random person in a random city on this random night. You think to yourself, “What could I possibly have in common with this person?” But you both came from somewhere and you’re both going somewhere. They might be strangers. But then you realize they’re strangers … like me.

Andries

Meet Andries from Oostburg, Netherlands

Where’d I meet him? 
Bruges, Belgium

Why is he traveling? 
He likes to make a trip to Bruges once a week to visit its library.

What was the happiest time of his life? 
“I bought a $50 car. I started near Boston, and in the beginning I had no breaks. The door would fall down, so I would use the other door. Some of the tires were not round and already (worn down to) iron. I drove so many thousands of miles with it, and then I bought some secondhand tires and stuff. I’m sleeping in Yellowstone secretly at night. What was nice for me, I drove over the San Francisco bridge. I said, ‘Yeahhh, I made it.'”

What’s on his bucket list? 
“No, no special things. You see I lost my job a lot of times, so I feel OK with the life I have now. I can survive with a little bit of social money. I don’t have big expectations. If I can, I drink a coffee. I can read a book. I’m not bothered by people.”

Why does he value wisdom? 
“I’ve met a lot of kind people and good people and clever people, but really wise? Not so much. A lot of people tell stories, but it is not the real thing.”

“Whats the wisest thing anyone has ever said to you?”

“A guy, he was the father of my best friend, said, ‘The truth? You don’t want to hear it.'”

What are his thoughts on his country, the Netherlands, which is ranked fourth in the United Nation’s 2013 World Happiness Report?
“The people have a feeling of working together. In the 15th century, there was not a very big difference between the noble people and the lower people … Of course, we have a long coastline. Fishermen have small boats, so when you work in the boat, you have to work together. You have to work. If not, you die.”

Robin Williams healed many in their dark days

This blog post is three years in the making. It’s taken me three years for me to find the right words  or just the best words I can. Why am I finally posting it? Because an actor, rather a person, whom I admire with every inch of my heart has died by apparent suicide, and I owe every bit of gratitude to him for helping me put myself back together when I was once so, so broken.

I never met Robin Williams, but I feel as if I did. Reading condolences on social media sites, I’m amazed at how one man can inspire many people to say the same. But when you’re Robin Williams, I suppose it’s not hard for people to take notice.

His batty improvisational skills and gusto-packed impressions in films like “Patch Adams” and “Aladdin” are mesmerizing. Williams has long been a welcomed guest in the homes of so many.

It only takes 90 minutes and one of his classic mischievous half-smiles for Williams to take families to a different world, an escape from the present one that offers up some hearty laughs.

When I was about 4 years old, it was always the 1993 hit “Mrs. Doubtfire” that did it for my family. Williams plays a father who crafts up some cross-dressing antics in an attempt to reconnect with his children in response to a bitter divorce and custody suit.

The film inspired many animated evenings at home with my own father.

On more than one occasion, my dad would channel his inner Williams by squeezing into my mom’s old dress, throwing on high heels and puckering up to a tube of gaudy red lipstick. With my little palm in one of his hands and a broom in his other, we’d take to the living room floor blasting Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like A Lady)” and dancing like fools.

Robin Williams
Courtesy: 20th Century Fox

The childhood memories those nights created remain at the forefront of my mind as some of my life’s happiest, still vivid to this day.

Had it been any other actor who played the role of Mrs. Doubtfire and not the ridiculously charismatic Williams, I’m not quite sure this wacky father-daughter ritual would’ve ever come into fruition.

Now, flash forward from the happiest moments of my life to the saddest. Not even a week into my senior year of high school, I was slapped with the abrupt news that my own parents were separating after 19 years of marriage.

I sobbed hysterically in a secluded corner of my high school each morning before class, that is, if I even made it to class. I had perfect attendance in school from seventh grade through 11th grade, but nowhere could be far enough from campus then.

I shunned my dad for two months and could only bring myself to yell at my mom.

One of my brothers became essentially mute. My other brother couldn’t keep his grades from slipping.

By the time June 2010 rolled around, we were all still a mess. Graduation was one of the worst days of my life. Instead of celebrating with classmates, I was more preoccupied with insuring one side of my extended family kept their distance from the other. We couldn’t even eat out as a family to celebrate the occasion.

It hurt too much to talk about it, so I didn’t. Here we are five years later, and I don’t tell even my closest friends that my parents are divorced unless they ask me outright.

I wouldn’t have admitted it then, but looking back on the whole thing now, I was depressed. At one point I felt as though nothing would ever lift my spirits again.

After a grueling two years of domestic purgatory, my parents ultimately decided to go through with the divorce in 2011.

A few weeks after my parents signed the papers, I heard a knock on my bedroom door. My dad walked into my room, tears rolling down his face. He held a laptop in his hands and silently pushed it towards me. On the screen was a queued up YouTube video, a scene from an old favorite of ours, “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

The scene features Williams dressed up as Mrs. Doubtfire. He sits in a chair reading a letter from a girl named Katie who is afraid she’s lost her family after her mom and dad decided to separate two months earlier. Or at least, that’s what her brother told her, who shares the same name as my brother, Andrew.

“Oh, my dear Katie. You know, some parents, when they’re angry, they get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time, and they can become better people, and much better mummies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear. And if they don’t, don’t blame yourself. Just because they don’t love each other anymore, doesn’t mean that they don’t love you. There are all sorts of different families, Katie … But if there’s love dear, those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart, forever. All my love to you, poppet. You’re going to be all right. Bye-bye.”

Some might say the scene’s relatability is just a product of good screenwriting and mere coincidence that the girl who wrote the letter shares my name. I see it differently: Behind Williams’ delivery was pure soul, and it was speaking directly to mine.

It was then my dad apologized for all the hurt I had endured those past few years. “We’re still a family, we’re still a family,” he repeatedly murmured into my ear as I breathed deeply into his shoulder. I felt as though a massive boulder had been lifted off my back.

And though the situation didn’t magically become better in that one moment, Williams was correct when he said I was going to be all right.

Though my parents aren’t together, we all still laugh together and talk together. Sometimes my whole family will go out to dinner, both parents included. When my dad was in a car accident in February, my mom was the one who drove him to the hospital to get his head checked out for a concussion.

We’re unconventional in every way imaginable, but we’re making it work.

I wish I had been there to tell Williams everything was going to be all right when he needed it Monday night  just as he was there for me. When depression torments someone for so long as it did Williams, it’s difficult to say if my words would’ve helped, but I’d like to hope they would.

I can’t compare the grief I endured to that of Williams’, but I think I can understand how much it must have hurt to keep all that pain bottled up inside for so long. Sometimes the toughest battles are fought behind the biggest smiles.

Williams spent his life lifting up the spirits of others, and his death teaches us that no one should feel like they need to keep pain a secret. That’s why I’m finally publishing this blog post now, three years after creating an initial draft.

Though Tuesday and today have been steeped in sadness, writing this has made me feel just a little bit better. Thank you, Mr. Williams, for once again shedding light upon my life. I just wish you had stuck around so I could thank you in person.

Thrill seekers converge at Running of the Bulls

The smell of sangria and cigarette smoke clings to the 7:30 a.m. air. It’s persistent, much like the lively crowd of revelers, adorned head to toe in white and red, vying for the best seats in the arena.

If their shirts splattered with the red Spanish cocktail are of any fortuitous and symbolic indication, there will be blood — just how much and whose, there’s no telling.

It’s July 10 and just as in the past eight centuries, hundreds of people will risk their lives for the thrill of feeling six bulls’ hot breath against their backs — and some ridiculous bragging rights.

The Fiesta de San Fermín is best known for its gory morning spectacle, El Encierro or Running of the Bulls. The event takes place every year from July 6 to 14 in Pamplona, Spain.

Though a long-established local tradition, it was author Ernest Hemingway who helped the festival gain international recognition with his depiction of the event in his book “The Sun Also Rises.” He wrote that he enjoyed watching two wild animals running together at once, one with two legs, the other on four.

To run with the bulls is the ultimate bucket list item that few are brave enough — or reckless, depending on your take — to cross off.

July 9

Of all the festivals I’m attending this summer, Fiesta de San Fermín has received the most hype.

Mom says our health insurance plan doesn’t cover stupidity. If the bulls don’t kill me, she will. Dad says he’d join me for a brisk, little run in northern Spain if he had the time and money.

As someone who has auditioned for “American Idol” on a dare and gotten into a pit with a 13-foot alligator, I am my thrill-junkie father’s daughter. But then again, I’m in Pamplona by myself with no one nearby who loves me enough to drop off a “Get well soon” balloon. That’s kind of sad.

My mind is telling me no, but my feet, my feet, are telling me “yes.” (Read to the tune of R. Kelly’s “Bump ‘N Grind” as that it is how it was written. You’re welcome.)

While on the bus to the campsite I’ll be staying at during the festivities, a tour guide has a few sobering words of warning.

“It’s not a matter of being heroes. It’s a matter of getting in the stadium and just finishing it,” he says.

This, of course, comes from a man who has run once himself. But no one who makes a pilgrimage to Pamplona simply goes for the heck of it. Ask anyone around here, local or tourist, and they’ve at least toyed with the idea.

For some, those who have dived off cliffs and swum with sharks, the decision is as natural as deciding what cereal to eat for breakfast.

For others, myself included, there are much weightier questions to consider: Do overpronated feet excuse me from the Running of the Bulls like it once excluded men from military service during World War II? Is risking my life worth the street cred? Do I want to be buried or cremated? Have I ever heard of the Book of Mormon? Do I know where I’ll spend eternity?

No matter how acquainted you are with the half-mile course, which starts near the river and ends in the center of the city at the bullfighting arena, there’s no guarantee you’ll walk away from the mad dash unscathed.

Upon arrival to the campground, word gets around that an American man who co-wrote the book “Fiesta: How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona” was gored today — a slicing bit of irony. Bill Hillmann has long been seen as one of the best young American runners. Another man’s trachea was pierced in the same run.

“It’s not a matter of being heroes. It’s a matter of getting in the stadium and just finishing it.”

Maybe I’ll run after I watch it once from the barricaded sidelines or on the big screens of the bullfighting arena. Yeah, yeah, you know, I can pick up on the best techniques that way.

July 10

I’ve determined that to wait would be the best game plan as I head into the arena for the fourth day of the Encierro, which is my first. After all, I have two more opportunities to run if not today.

In the moments leading up to the run, participants can be seen engaging in a warm-up stretches and rituals. Many jog and jump in place. Some cross their chests and look up to the sky. One man draws a long puff from a cigar.

First-time spectators quickly learn that the run is a sport, one that you must take seriously — or the seasoned attendees will have your hide.

Before the run even begins, two men and a woman run into the arena early and are pelted with trash as the crowd chants “tonto, tonto,” meaning “stupid” in Spanish. To the crowd, those who only pretend like they’ve just ran for their lives are better off gored.

Stadium crowd
More than a million people are estimated to attend the festival every July, but the city isn’t that large. It’s home to just under 200,000 people.

After the unfashionably early are escorted out by police, pictures of the six bulls that will be taking part in the day’s festivities flash up on the big screen along with their weights. The cheers getting louder as the size of the bull increases.

Soon, hundreds of red scarves appear in the air as the run is about to start.

“A San Fermín pedimos, por ser nuestro patrón, nos guíe en el encierro dándonos su bendición,” the runners sing, asking the saint for his blessing.

The festival actually has surprisingly religious ties. San Fermín, the patron saint of the Spanish region of Navarra, was beheaded after becoming Pamplona’s first Christian bishop. The red scarves, or pañuelos, are said to represent his blood and sacrifice, while the white outfits are symbolic of his holiness.

It doesn’t take long for the first shot to be fired, signaling the release of six bulls and six  steers from the pin, but few of the runners move. They wait for the bulls to barrel at them before they start to run. If you’re going to cheat death, make sure you cheat it right.

Before officials even get the chance to shoot off the second rocket, signaling the bulls’ contact with the runners, a man is flipped upside down by a bull that’s run astray 21 seconds in. That’s one man down out of dozens who are generally injured each year.

Some runners carry rolled-up newspapers to divert the attention and ultimately the horns of the color-blind bulls. I wonder if they’ve bothered to read about the previous day’s injuries on the front page.

Maybe it’s not print that’s dying but those who don’t read it, those who don’t head its warnings.

Runners come flooding in the stadium and bulls barrel closely behind them. Thunder erupts from the hooves of the horned animals galloping triumphantly against the arena’s sand, embracing their believed victory. But with bull fights scheduled each night of the festival, all bulls will ultimately lose the battle.

Human participants celebrate by whipping out their GoPros and smartphones for post-run “selfies,” making me wonder what compelled people to run before their still-in-tact guts could be glorified with 200 “Likes” on Facebook.

Post-run selfie
Many runners take selfies once the run is over, but doing so during the run could mean harsh penalties to the tune of about $2,050.

To the first-time viewer, any run is gawked at as a gory and violent one. But it could be worse. Thankfully, no one died on the race’s course today, and no one has since 2009. There have been 15 recorded deaths since 1924.

Perhaps the odds of surviving are quite good given that there are thousands of people who run every year.

For now, the few brave souls who ran earlier in the morning — some of whom were inspired by a bit of last night’s liquid courage — stare blankly ahead pondering at their accomplishment in wonderment, the adrenaline still pulsating through their shaking fingers and legs.

They collectively agree that it was the most thrilling moment of their lives but one not worth repeating. It’s a good day to be alive.

Maybe I’ll be missing out if I don’t feel this thrill for myself. Perhaps I’ll run tomorrow.

July 11, the run

I decide to catch the earliest ride out in the morning to see if I still have a shot securing a good spot to watch the run. Though I’m on the fence, everyone else on board is running.

Much to the dismay of their girlfriends, Darren Stone and Anthony Mogridge are among them.

They’re two of the many Australians I befriended this week, convincing me that once you can get past a continent’s deadly pythons, dingoes and sharks, nothing truly phases you anymore. If there’s one concrete lesson I’ve taken away from my time in Pamplona, it’s this: Live every day like you’re Australian.

Taking on Pamplona
Cheers to the great group of friends I made from Australia and all the hours we spent laughing over inside jokes about Michael Jordan and Adam’s apples!

A survey conducted this year by the Pamplona City Hall has found that the majority — about 56 percent — of those who now participate in the festival are foreigners.

“It’s starting to rain. Does that make you nervous?” I ask Stone as droplets of rain collect on the bus windows at 6 a.m.

“Now it does,” he replies.

“Dear diary, today I just died,” Mogridge says as a form of greeting when boarding the bus.

Our laughter, though earnest, is uneasy. We’ll laugh harder if the number of people who boarded the bus this morning is the same on the return trip.

“Dear diary, today I just died.”

Upon arriving at Calle Estafeta, the main stretch of the run where I will watch it all unfold, Stone and Mogridge leave me. I tell them I’ll see them later, I hope.

Waiting for the run to begin, I chat with a man who ran the day prior. He said he didn’t let his family or friends know that he was running until after he did so, a common course of action among many participants I spoke with.

Before they’re even out of the gate, today’s bulls already have a reputation for their viciousness — they hail from the notorious Jandilla Ranch. The last time someone was killed in the Running of the Bulls, July 10, 2009, was at the horn of Capuchino, one of the ranch’s bulls.

Aside from a bull and runners losing their footing, particularly around Dead Man’s Corner, a tight bend where Calle Mercaderes meets Calle Estafeta, the run is much calmer and less memorable than the previous day’s.

There are no gorings to report, only seven trauma injuries — not a bad day. But many expert runners say a run is only good when you can feel the bulls’ breath against your back for multiple seconds at a time. Today’s bulls kept their distance.

Waiting on the bus to head back to the campsite, I’m relieved to see Mogridge hop on.

“Hey, you survived,” I exclaim.

“Yeah, I’ve got a bit of sad news, actually,” Mogridge says.

I then become intensely aware that Stone did not return to the bus with him.

“Oh my God, where’s Darren? Is he all right?”

“Oh, he’s fine. I mean that I didn’t get to run. The police saw my GoPro and threw me out,” Mogridge says.

With more phones and cameras floating about than ever before, Pamplona police now has a zero-tolerance policy for technology use among runners in an effort to keep the event, albeit an event where bulls run wild, safe.

July 11, the fight

Stone and the other runners might have been spared a trip to the hospital, but the day won’t be free of carnage. There’s still the evening’s bullfight.

Always a step away from becoming a vegetarian, I was initially hesitant to go to a bullfight. I actually had a nightmare two nights before the event that all the addictingly spicy crawfish I had ever eaten avenged me by taking my life.

But in order to make a remark about a culture, you must first experience it.

The atmosphere inside the bullfighting arena isn’t all that different from what I’ve experienced at any college basketball game or MLB game. Fans are cheering and chanting, but for whom or what, I’m not entirely sure.

Are people cheering for the bull, hoping it’ll give the man seeking to kill it a good scare with its horns? Are they hoping the matador finishes off the bull with one clean strike of his sword? Are they cheering only because so many did the same before them?

Spain’s relationship with its bulls is a complicated and divisive one.

To many, the bull is revered as a strong and beautiful creature. The matador, the man who fights it, is responsible for showing off its strengths before its demise.

Locals who run often rub their hands along the length of the bulls’ backs but will not touch their horns, out of reverence for their power.

The power dynamic can be confusing for just about any non-Spaniard, but even locals grapple with mixed emotions about all the bloody pomp and circumstance.

Bullfighting tradition in Spain is largely associated with the country’s former dictator  Francisco Franco, who ruled from 1939 to 1975.

During his contentious rule, the sport was a state sanctioned activity steeped in patriotism. Disapproval for Franco and bullfighting grew simultaneously in the push for democracy.

Catalonia, an autonomous and relatively progressive region of Spain, drew a line in the bullfighting ring sand when it banned the sport in 2010.

Curious but cautious, I asked Spaniards about their thoughts on the fights, but I find that they only answer me with questions, wanting to know my thoughts on the matter as an American.

Some I speak with say that bullfighting is deeply embedded in Spain’s culture, without it there’d be a gaping hole. Others say it’s senseless violence and sad to watch.

Regardless of our differing stances, we sit among each other in the stands.

With a pretty blue bow tied around its neck, each bull goes into the fight alone. It’s not long after it comes barreling out of the gate that its shoulders are washed with seeping blood.

First come the picadors, the matador’s assistants who ride on armored horses. One delivers the first blow by lancing the back of the bull to make its back muscles weaker.

Then the banderilleros follow. These men are on foot and are responsible for driving several barbed stakes into its back.

With each strike, the bull’s movements become increasingly labored. Now the animal is too weak to furiously ram its head against the barricade.

In his brightly colored suit, with its sequins glinting in the setting sun, the matador makes his way to the center of the ring to finish the job.

Matador and the bull
Six bulls are killed each evening. Three matadors take turns fighting them.

He gracefully twirls his cape, taunting the bull to dodge forward. Behind it, he hides his long sword that he’ll use shortly. Again and again, he pulls the cape up as the bull dizzily runs back and forth.

Finally, the matador pulls out the sword, gives it a light toss in his hand and stabs it right through the bull’s back. If he is lucky, he’ll pierce the bull’s heart in one strike and will be met with the adoration of the crowd. The bull in that case will be lucky, too, finally being put out of its misery.

With the animal’s every twitch, I find myself shifting uncomfortably in my seat. As it struggles to breathe, so do I.

The bull takes a mighty bow to his matador before he plummets to the ground, front hooves first.

If it’s a good fight, its ears and tail are cut off to be given to the matador. The carcass is promptly tied up and dragged behind a set of horses for one last circle around the ring.

Then it’s on to the next bull and the one after that and the one after that. As rowdy attendees cheer on from the cheap seats and throw sangria on one another, I sit in silent reverence for the fallen beasts.

I don’t know if I’ll understand the bullfighting, but I do know one time watching is enough for me.

July 12

I board yet another 6 a.m. bus after getting four hours of sleep, the same amount as the two previous nights.

Eyes drooping and patience wearing thin, I begin to wonder how Spaniards have the stamina for partying until dawn days in a row. Not much into nightlife myself, I feel exhausted for them.

Again, I find myself on the sidelines instead of the frontlines of today’s run. It’s raining yet again, which helps me rationalize that it probably isn’t the safest of days for a run. Those darn weather patterns.

Much to my surprise, the run goes pretty smoothly. Just as in Friday’s run, there are no gorings. Only a couple of bulls threatened to charge some runners. You never can tell how the day’s run is going to be until after it’s over.

I guess I’ll stick to risking my self-respect — instead of my life to a bull’s horn — by streaking public places and competing on televised karaoke programs. Yeah, that sounds good. Well, for now anyway. Ask me again next week.

IF YOU GO

Where to watch: There’s a bull run at 8 a.m. each day of the festival. Late-night revelers hyped on sangria extend their party into the morning, snagging all the good vantage points on the sidelines by 6 a.m. If you can’t beat them, join them — or buy a cheap ticket to watch the run unfold from the safe grandstands of the bullfighting arena.

What to eat: La Mañueta, a 140-year-old churrería,  is a rare, authentic find among a dying breed of establishments selling the traditional Spanish breakfast item. Here, churros are fried and hand-sprinkled with sugar right before your eyes. With the long line of people outside, the place is easy to spot. Buy a cup of thick hot chocolate for €2 next door.

When to run: Daredevils be warned. There’s never a truly safe day to run. To lessen your chances of getting gored, run mid-week when festival attendance drops and on a day with nice weather. Rain makes the course’s stones slippery.

Strangers like me: Meet 19-year-old Cristina

It’s time for another weekly installment of “The Strangers Like Me.” Hostels are a funny thing, you know. For reasons unexplainable, you share a random room in a random hostel in a random city with a random person on this random night. You think to yourself, “What could I possibly have in common with this person?” But you both came from somewhere and you’re both going somewhere. They might be strangers. But then you realize they’re strangers … like me. 

Cristina

Meet Cristina from Bern, Switzerland

Where’d I meet her?
Amsterdam, Netherlands

Why is she traveling? 
“After high school, I just started with university, so I never took a gap year, and I never went traveling. I really thought I was missing something,” says Cristina, who is backpacking now for three weeks. “I decided to travel alone because I thought that I’m not so self-confident, and I thought that this would probably help me.”

Where else would she like to go?
Madagascar

What is on her bucket list?
“It’s something really small. I just. One day — I don’t really, I don’t really think it’s something — .”

“Just say it.”

“I want to find a job or something that when I wake up or go to bed that I’ll look forward to waking up the next morning. That’s not really a thing you can put on a list. But I always see so many people complaining about, ‘Ugh, I have to get up tomorrow morning and go to work.’ I want to find something that makes me so happy to work on.”

What makes her happy?
Playing piano, a pastime she shares with her dad.

What are her thoughts on her country, Switzerland, which is ranked third in the United Nation’s 2013 World Happiness Report?
“I think (people there) are not as happy as they could be or should be. We have everything. We have a good educational system. We are a rich country. We’re not in war. I think people should be much happier than they actually are … In Africa for example, I think people enjoy little things more than in Europe, and that makes them happier. You can’t generalize it of course, but I think there are other countries that are happier than Switzerland.”

Strangers like me: Meet Jeanine and Raph

I’ve had my fair share of travel snafus the past couple of weeks, from sleeping on the street in Pamplona to only having one minute (!!!) to catch my train from Milan to Vienna after my first train had technical problems.

It’s all a part of the grand adventure, but I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been pitying myself for my transportation complications. Leave it to the strangers I meet to help me realize how lucky I truly am in my life. That’s why I hold this week’s edition of “The Strangers Like Me” very closely to my heart.

When Jeanine and Raph, an adorably loving Dutch couple, walked into my hostel room Monday night, they were full smiles, eager to introduce themselves. After Jeanine asked me for directions to the city center, it wasn’t long that she opened up to me about their story. You see, Jeanine and Raph are both deaf, but that’s not stopping them from traveling, something they both love immensely.

It’s phenomenal to me that Jeanine speaks Dutch, French and English despite her disability when I struggle just to speak Spanish as a second language. Sure, sometimes effectively communicating what train I need at the ticket counter is a challenge, but it pales in comparison to the extra effort Jeanine and Raph must apply when doing the same. (They type up potential questions and detailed requests on little sheets of paper to hand to people just in case others don’t understand what they’re saying.) 

Despite their challenges, these two have some of the warmest personalities of anyone I’ve ever met. I just knew I had to feature them in this week’s post. Below, you’ll just find Jeanine’s responses since Raph doesn’t speak much English. At least laughter and hugs know no language barrier. They might have started off as strangers, but then I realized they’re strangers … like me. 

Jeanine and Ralph

Meet Jeanine and Raph from Nijmegen, Netherlands. 

Where’d I meet them? 
Vienna, Austria

Where else would Jeanine like to go?
When her best friend paid a trip to Australia, she was overcome with envy when hearing how amazing the continent is. A go-getter, she’s now planning a trip to the “Land Down Under” for 2016.

What’s on Jeanine’s bucket list? 
She’s sees her bucket list as more of a wish list and wants to go whitewater rafting and buy a house.

What makes her happy? 
“Him,” she points to Raph, laughing.

“Why’s that?”

“In the wintertime, we were on the beach in the Netherlands in the evening. He said, ‘Come on, come swimming with me.’ We were fighting, and then I got a teddy bear from him. I felt very lucky. I got two teddy bears from him  no, three. One said ‘Love you’ and another said ‘Hug me.’ Then two weeks ago, he had something for me, asking ‘What do you think?’ A ring. We will get married, but not now. It’s so early.”

“How long have you been dating?”

“For two years. He was my first boyfriend. I was 22 years old.”

What’s it like to travel with a hearing disability? 
“My ability to communicate is not good. It is not easy traveling alone  or with a friend.”

“But you still think it’s beautiful?”

“Yes.”

Is it hard for her to learn new languages given her disability? 
“French is not easy to speak well. Dutch, I can speak Dutch. It’s easy for me in Germany and Austria.”

Does traveling scare her? 
“When I travel, I feel free. When I’m at home in the Netherlands? No. People see that I’m deaf and walk away. I feel lucky to communicate with people here.”

A single rose floats along the French Riviera

I sit looking out at the Mediterranean lapping playfully before my feet when I spot a single baby pink rose riding its waves. How did it get here?

Logistically speaking, it’s probably from the Marché aux Fleurs, a vibrant market several blocks up from Nice’s beach. But why did it wander several blocks down to the ocean?

Maybe a man finally proposed to his longtime girlfriend, who became so overwhelmed with joy she tossed the delicate flower into the ocean.

Was a lovelorn widow thinking about her husband while making pilgrimage to their favorite vacation spot? Did she place it gingerly in the water out of remembrance, hoping it might find its way to heaven?

Was a teenage couple furiously making out to the French equivalent of John Mayer, rolling around on the rocks? Perhaps they forgot the rose, its petals as alluring and fragile as young love.

Did someone cast the rose aside, swearing off romance and all its tokens?

Perhaps a person placed it there just to make others smile.

If it’s the last of these, it worked. We’ll never know this rose’s origin — just that love and the longing for it will forever have an insurmountable pull as timeless as the sea’s waves. 

Photo Gallery: Falling for Italy all over again

Ask anyone where they would most like to visit in the world. I’d say Italy is at the top of the list for the majority of the people you ask. What’s not to love? It’s a country meant for the senses.

Taste the bubbling, fresh mozzarella that somehow sneaks its way into so many dishes. Feel the cobblestones beneath your feet. Let your nose be overcome with the scent of the abundant roses and sunflowers. It’s no wonder why many find themselves lingering in this beautiful place.

I was so happy I got to visit Italy for a second time. While I went to Venice, Florence and Rome last year, this go-round I stuck to Florence and Cinque Terre. While I found heaven in Cinque Terre’s hikes, paradise can also be discovered in Florence’s markets and gardens. Take a virtual saunter around one of my favorite places in the whole world: