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Public Domain

Finding inspiration on the side of the road in Spain

By Sarahmarie Specht-BirdPublished 3 years ago Updated 3 years ago 6 min read
Public Domain
Photo by Jared Schwitzke on Unsplash

I mean, were the balls really necessary? They're unmissable. But then again, so is the entire bull.

The black silhouette stands stark against the brown landscape and hazy blue sky. It is utterly visible: its horns rising heavenward, its four hooves planted solidly on the earth, its back perfectly parallel with the ground. And the balls. They didn't skip the balls. Not by any means. The outline is almost comically circular. It's very Spain.

The sun is brutal today. I've only been out of my car for a minute and I can feel sweat beading up on my forehead as the hot rays beat down. Andalucía probably isn't the best place to be in July, I am just now realizing, but it was the only region I hadn't visited yet on my tour of the country. And it also has the most bulls. Bulls. Balls. Battlestar Galactica.

The wind flaps through my hair as I stand here, looking at this gargantuan black bull billboard. I'm pulled over on the side of the road. Cars whip past me. I feel their amused eyes–there's another American tourist taking a picture of another Toro de Osborne–but I don't care. I love these bulls. I love how unapologetic they are. I love how they can be seen from so far away, and they couldn't give less of a shit.

Very much not like me. Very much what I wish I could be.

I'm a comedian. Or, I was a comedian? I can't decide whether to use present or past. Six months wandering around another country will do that to a person.

At what point to you shift to was? As soon as you leave? After a few weeks? When you speak the language passably well? When your seemingly solid relationship crumbles? When you run out of material? When you go viral out of nowhere and you don't know what to do with it, and you get huge gigs that draw thousands, and everyone knows about you, and you start floundering and you completely break down and buy a plane ticket to a country you've always been drawn to, and you say fuck it, I'm going to drive around Spain seeing the sights and maybe, I guess, getting really obsessed with the black bull billboards all over the country?

The line is different for everyone. I'm somewhere between past and present. Between okay and not. Between is and was. On the way to something, looking for bulls.

I started noticing them when I got to Madrid, fresh off the flight in a jetlagged mid-breakdown daze. I wandered around the winding side streets of the Plaza Mayor, littered with overpriced souvenir shops. The bulls were all over: on magnets, on flags. A black silhouette of a bull, always the same bull. Then, driving out of the city, I noticed one on the side of the road. It was huge, a towering figure in the middle of nowhere.

I got curious. I started googling. I learned that what is now a de facto symbol of Spain actually started out as a marketing campaign by the Osborne Sherry Company. In the 1950s, they rolled out a new type of brandy. They marketed it with these bulls, which originally bore the name of the company and their brandy line.

In the 90s, though, Spain started to get finnicky about public advertising of alcohol, and the signs were going to be removed. But by then, the bulls had become a beloved part of the national psyche. They couldn't take the toros away! It wouldn't be Spain without them! There was a lot of public pushback. The words were removed, but the bulls remained. They had entered the landscape. They were public domain.

I think that's what I love about them. What began as an advertisement for alcohol lost its original connection and entered the public's hands. The bull no longer belonged to the company. It belonged to itself. It belonged to the people.

I can't stop myself from looking at them. They're just so huge, so obvious. They're like the Spanish version of Roadside Americana. Weird USA. Weird Spain. It's a love that goes deep. I grew up in a road trip family. My father did everything in his power to avoid highways whenever possible, because, and I quote, "You can't see shit on the highway, Maureen!" Maureen being my mom. She loves the highway and dislikes the word "shit."

One time we found a tree full of shoes in Indiana. Then there was the Kaskaskia Dragon in Illinois. For one dollar, you can walk across the street to the liquor store and buy a token. If you insert the token into the metal dragon–constructed one winter by some bored townsfolk–the creature breathes fire for a few seconds. The token says it gives you good luck.

I always want to stop to see things like this, the roadside attractions, the strange landmarks—especially the weird ones. The weirder the better. It always drove Jared crazy. "I don't want to see a statue made of hubcaps," he said once. "Jesus, Lizzie, can we just get to Chicago?" I should have known then that he would leave me one day.

I think he liked my sudden fame more than I did. Or maybe he liked everything that came along with it: the traveling, the hotels, the huge gigs with so many people there to watch me make jokes.

At first, I liked it too. I felt so energized knowing that so many thousands, millions of people knew who I was and heard my voice. They watched videos of me on the internet. They shared them on social media. The power of that was intoxicating. I hardly slept, I was so excited. I workshopped over and over. I saw my face on posters at venues. I didn't recognize myself: brown hair falling in wildly perfect waves around my face, caught in mid-laugh, green lipstick, mascara. Mascara? I never wore makeup before I became famous. I looked so good. Finally, I had what every creative hopes for: an audience. People who listened.

Or at least, people who listened for a while. For one brief precious snowflake of time, people listened, and they liked what they heard. And then, it disappeared. Melted into the ether.

It's unbelievable what people will say on the internet. It's even more unbelievable what they will say to your face. What they will threaten to do to you. Or what they will actually do. Do you know how much that can crush a person's spirit? Do you know what it is like to be a woman in the spotlight?

It is hollow. A void. Blacker than the paint job on an Osborne bull. The foundation came out from under me out of nowhere. I had two choices: buy a plane ticket, or fall in.

91 bulls remain, scattered across the countryside of Spain. Here I am at one of them: On the road somewhere near Sevilla, baking in the sun, thinking about my life. Thinking about the bulls, which belong to everyone, and do not fall.

Where is the line between private and public? When does a thing, a person, cross over into public domain, and what does it mean when they do? Where do I go from here, if I am not my own?

The hot wind buffets me. I feel it pressing against my back. I feel its power, its ability to pull apart, hear it whipping against the metal of the billboard. We stand there, the bull and I. We do not rip. We do not come down. In the Spanish sun, sweat dripping down my forehead, probably getting sunburned, I stand facing the bull. He doesn't know who I am. I'm not sure I do, either. I'm not sure how to marry the parts of myself: the before and the after. Past and present. I'm not sure I can figure out how to handle it all. I'm just not sure.

But maybe that's not a bad thing. Maybe it's manageable. It seems like there are a hell of a lot of jokes I could write about Spain.

I think I'll stick with present tense, then. I am a comedian. I think maybe I'll start looking for flights home. But not now. Not yet. There are still so many bulls to find.

Short Story

About the Creator

Sarahmarie Specht-Bird

A writer, teacher, traveler, and long-distance hiker in pursuit of a life that blends them all. Read trail dispatches and adventure stories at my website.

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