Story written by Sarah Goupil.
I knew that I would be spending Fall 2017 in Spain back during my freshman year before I even had chosen my college major. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life or my career, but I knew that I wanted to speak Spanish—a language I’ve spent the better part of a decade learning—with native speakers in it’s home country.
I pictured Barcelona-esque streets with stereotypical Spaniards drinking coffee out on the streets, cheering for Real Madrid, and dancing the flamenco late into the night. That isn’t what I ended up with, however! I find it ironic that I’ve dreamt of Spain for so long, but now I don’t tell people I travelled to Spain. I tell them that I spent the best semester of my life in the Basque Country.
The Basque Country is a place all its own. Even though it is one of Spain’s comunidades autonomas, or provinces, I like to think of it as a country all its own. And it isn’t just me; this area is well known for thinking that they should break free from the Spanish royal family and become independent.
While everyone except for a very few in the distant villages speaks Spanish, almost all of them also speak euskera, their regional language. It’s difficult, jarring and not linguistically related to any other language, but the Basques are very proud of it and the story behind their fight to keep it alive. It has risen and fallen in popularity, almost dying during Dictator Franco’s attempt to wipe out the entire Basque culture in the mid-twentieth century, but now it’s thriving. Schools have to teach both Spanish and euskera, and Bilbao is home to the euskaltzaindia, or the Academy of the Basque Language that regulates the language and ensures that all businesses operate in both languages. While there, I even took a Basque language class so I could pick up a few words. Aupa! Bilbao is the capital of the Basque Country and was my home for four months. Though there is an award-winning public transportation system, the Bilbao way is to walk and I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful city to walk through. There’s a handful of gorgeous bridges, each boasting of a different architectural style, that cross the river and connect the old section of the city to the new.
Crossing over these bridges was like stepping back in time everyday; I lived in the modern area of the city with towering office buildings and shopping centers, but the Universidad de Deusto is in one of the older sections of the city. And Casco Viejo, Bilbao’s oldest neighborhood built around the original seven streets, is the best of both worlds. The streets are small, allowing traffic only in specific alleys, but they hold some of the best restaurants and cafes that could be found. There’s no better afternoon spent in Bilbao than drinking kalimotxo and eating pintxos with some good company. Kalimotxo (Kal-y- mo-cho) is a typical Basque drink consisting of red wine mixed with coca-cola. The balance of sweet and dry makes it a very refreshing drink on a ninety-degree day! And pintxos (peen-chos) are the Basque person’s version of tapas, but with a twist. There are a hundred different types, but the standard pintxos have bread and a type of seafood or meat. While they may appear to be more like a pre-dinner appetizer, the most popular way to eat these small, delicious bites of food is during a crawl! In Bilbao you don’t don’t go hopping around for beer, you try out as many establishments as you can for their selection of pintxos, or you do both together!
This experience taught me that new places will not be at all what I expected. There were so many things I thought I would see or do during my time in Spain, and I ended up doing none of them. On the other hand, I had so many experiences—the chance to go pseudo cliff-diving in the ocean for one example, visiting wild horses in the mountains for another—that I never could have imagined. My time there highlighted how little I knew about Spain beforehand, but now I can gladly say that I’m a proud bilbaoína!