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Haz el bien, y no mires a quién. -Spanish Proverb


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the basque factor

This week, NPR’s All Things Considered did this story on the Basque Country, highlighting the region’s ability to stay economically stable while the rest of Spain suffers unprecedented financial crisis. I encourage you to read (or listen to) the whole story, but I’ll summarize it and make some comments here.

The first thing I want to say is that it was refreshing to see an article out of the US that actually had a positive spin on the Basque Country. This is unusual. Just the other day, I was reading some articles from US news sources about the regional elections that took place here and in Galicia, another Spanish state, last weekend. Every single article, when mentioning the Basque Country, made some comment about it being a “troubled” or “turbulent” region. I’ve lived here for almost two whole years now and I can tell you that this place is anything but turbulent. Yes, the Basque separatist terrorist group ETA has caused a lot of problems in the past, but this has unfairly given this entire region a bad name, when the reality is that it is a peaceful and progressive place. Furthermore, it’s statistically one of the safest places in all of Europe. Check out this post I wrote in 2010 for more info about what living in the Basque Country is really like.

So as I said, it was really great to see a report out of the US speaking positively about the Basque Country. Other than a brief mentioning of ETA in the opening line, the report was a praise of the Basque Country’s economy and industry. While Spain’s economy is in the dumps, with unemployment at record highs and an seemingly inevitable bailout on the horizon, the Basque Country is doing quite alright.  As the report says, unemployment in the Basque Country is at 12%, which is just above the average of Europe as a whole and less than half Spain’s national unemployment of 25%. Signs of “el crisis” are everywhere in Spain, but much, much less prevalent here.

So how do they do it? How does the Basque Country manage to keep it’s head above water when the rest of Spain can’t? For one, the Basque Country is rich in natural resources like steel and has booming agriculture and manufacturing industries. Bilbao is home to world energy leader Iberdrola which serves 30 million customers in 40 different countries around the world.

The Iberdrola Tower, Bilbao’s only skyscraper

The report also attributes the Basque Country’s financial stability in part to its fiscal autonomy from Madrid. This region has it’s own government and own way of doing things, and although they still have responsibilities to the Spanish government, their way of doing things seems to be working quite well for them. Basque people are known for being hard workers, and this attribute is something they rightfully take a lot of pride in. Most people of Basque heritage don’t really consider themselves to be “Spanish” at all, and though it may seem trivial or silly to outsiders, I can understand why they feel that way. Apart from the obvious historical differences between Spanish and Basque people,  they consider themselves to be different because they really are culturally quite different. These differences, their very “basque-ness”, might just be the factor that has kept the region afloat amidst this economic crisis.

At the end of the article, Basque engineer Aitor Galarza half-jokingly says that the productivity of the Basque people might just be the fact that this region gets an average of 200 days of rain each year so workers have nothing better to do than to stay inside and work. As I sit inside writing a blog post on a Saturday night, the rain pouring hard outside my window, I can’t help but think he might be onto something…

The rain in Spain falls mainly in…Bilbao!

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surfing couches and things of that nature

One of the greatest things about living (and traveling) in the age of the Internet is the existence of such organizations as CouchSurfing.org. Couch Surfing is an international organization that connects travelers world-wide in a variety of ways. As the name suggests, by joining, you can list an available “couch” (or bed, floor space, etc.) in your home to accommodate travelers passing through.

Apart from the accommodation aspect, Couch Surfing (CS) provides fabulous opportunities to connect with people from all over the world within your own local community. There are specialized sub-groups within each city for connecting people with similar interests, like photography, cycling and cooking. I joined CS Bilbao’s Hiking and Rural excursion group back in November, and it has been one of the best things about my time here thus far. It’s a priceless chance to practice my Spanish and learn more about the Basque Country while making friends with like-minded, active people. A wonderful fusion!

Last week on Saturday, the group organized a trip to Orduña, a small town nestled in the mountains about 25 miles southwest of Bilbao. It was a great international mix of Bilbao-based Couch Surfers: a lot of Spaniards and Basques, a couple Germans, a Costa Rican and three Americans.

We arrived in Orduña and headed straight for Belatz Gorri, a tavern known for it’s national award-winning tortilla española (one of my fave foods in the world too…bonus!) It would seem more logical to wait until after the hike to treat ourselves, but we were forewarned that, especially on a Saturday, there might not be any left if we didn’t get it right away.

"Yeeeeah, we're gonna need 23 orders of your finest tortilla española, por favor!"

With sunshine on our faces and tortilla in our bellies, we began our ascent of the mountains surrounding the village. We took a break to take in the breathtaking views of the canyon and waterfall:

Panoramic view of the Orduña valley

Panoramic view of the Orduña valley

El Salto del Nervión

We stopped for some lunch on the balcony at the canyon’s edge:

…and then had an impromptu magic show performed by the very talented and hilarious Asier:

We got side-tracked by a slack-lining sesh on our way back down:

Anja, slack-lining like a boss

It was a day full of great conversation and laughter in the great outdoors. And that is my kind of day.


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país vasco: the land of endless photogenic potential

Another weekend of blessedly beautiful weather; another hike with impossibly beautiful views.

This weekend, we hopped a bus to Bakio, got off and walked along the highway until we got a tiny island called Gaztelugatxe (gahz-tell-oo-gotch-ay), one of the coolest things to see in all of País Vasco. Then we hiked down the cliff and up the hundreds of stairs to the beautiful 10th century church atop the tiny, rocky island.

We finished the hike by continuing east along the highway down into the quaint town of Bermeo, and treated ourselves to some hard-earned vino and pintxos.

Bermeo

The hike totaled over 10 miles, a lot of which was up and down steep hills over rocky terrain, but it was more than worth it. This compilation of video that I shot showcases some of its awesomeness:

Hasta pronto!


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smörgåsbord

I was just reviewing my  “to do” list for the week in Evernote (an application you should download immediately if you haven’t already). One of the bullet points, “update blog” has been copied and pasted from one day’s list to another for a week now; something for which I have no good excuse. I’ve had the last five days off of work, after all! I have posts on a handful of topics that are still in the works, but I can’t seem to wrap any of them up tonight so I thought I’d try something new. I have lots to say about things that have nothing to do with each other, so I’ve decided to organize this smörgåsbord of topics in a bullet-point format, inspired by my ever-growing “to do” list 🙂

So here are some updates on my life, in no particular order:

  • As I mentioned, I’m coming off of a 5-day break from work. I always have Fridays off, and then we all had Monday and Tuesday off for something called a “puente.” This word literally means “bridge,” but in this case it refers to the general consensus in Spain that if a holiday falls awkwardly in the middle of the week (today is All Saints Day), they will also make the day before or after it a day off as well in order to “bridge” it to the weekend. I am in full support of this custom.
  • Speaking of holidays, happy belated Halloween! Several other Americans and I had our share of Halloween fun despite the fact that it’s not widely recognized here. We had Halloween “potlucks” on both Saturday AND Monday nights, complete with dirt cupcakes and candlelight. Then we took to the streets to call even more attention than usual to our costume-donned American selves! :-p
  • We have yet to have internet installed in our apartment. Such things run on what we like to call “Spain time,” which is a very different timetable than the “giveittomeNOW” ideal so dear to our American hearts. I’ve been spending a lot of time at WiFi bars, and at home I’m tethering internet from my mobile phone which has gotten me through, but it is r-e-e-e-e-a-l-l-y  s-l-o-o-o-o-o-w. Imagine waiting 10 minutes for a simple YouTube video to load and/or just time out. Dial-up, anyone? The Euskaltel dude is supposed to come give us The Internets by Monday at the latest. w00t!
  • I’m ashamed to confess that I’ve consumed Ramen noodles (the Spanish version of them, anyway) on a couple of desperate occasions recently. The grocery store had a couple flavors that piqued my curiosity (i.e. curry and shrimp) so I went for it. In related news, I saw a commercial today for two new flavors of Lays potato chips that have hit the Spanish market: shrimp and KEBAB. I can’t make this up.
  • I have watched more episodes of Friends in the last two weeks than I had in my entire life up to that point. It is on almost 24/7, and our fancy TV usually lets us change the audio to English. Treat!
  • I went to Gernika yesterday and it was pure insanity. Every Monday is “market day” in Gernika, but the last Monday of October is the biggest one of the year. Farmers bring in the best and last of their fall harvest, and the streets of Gernika become one giant Basque party. I had heard this was a big deal, but I greeeeatly underestimated just how big this deal would be. The line for buses to Gernika from downtown Bilbao was down the street and around the corner. I finally got to Gernika at 1pm, and the streets were already packed to the gills and littered with bottles of sidra (hard cider). The main streets were lined with vendors selling everything from gourmet cheese to handmade toys to, of course, mouth-wateringly fresh produce. There was lots of live music, lots of laughing, and lots of broken glass. Not having braced for such intense fiesta so early in the day, I left after being there just a few hours. I definitely appreciated the cultural experience, but a total immersion would have been a bit much for me at that point 😉

empty sidra bottles. lots of them.

  • Is it really November? Because we’re still hitting the 70s on a regular basis here. I grew up in a place where Halloween costumes were altered to include winter coats, hats and sometimes even snow pants, so this temperate climate thing is a new concept for me. The temps in the 70s won’t last, but I’m pretty sure I can handle the upper 40s/lower 50s that will be the “winter” here. It’s a pretty nice upgrade for a North Dakota girl.
  • I finally hung pictures in my room of all my family and friends, and it made me miss everyone back home so much. I love you guys! Come visit!
That’s all for now, folks! Hasta luego!
🙂


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a “family” reunion

Yesterday, I was fortunate to be reunited with my study abroad family: the directors of USAC Bilbao. I went along with them and the current USACers on a day long excursión to Gernika and Lekeitio, two little towns here in the Basque Country.

First we went to Gernika (Guernica), a town that is a symbol of Basque culture and is of great significance due to the bombing that occurred there during the Spanish Civil War, causing widespread death and destruction. The bombing, which was ordered by the former Spanish dictator Franco, is widely viewed as an example of terror bombing, inspired by Franco’s hatred for the Basque people and culture. The fact that many of the victims were innocent civilians has made the bombing a significant anti-war symbol, and was even the subject of Picasso’s famous anti-war painting, Guernica.

There was a large oak tree in the center of town under which Basque officials would assemble for meetings. Astoundingly, it was not destroyed in the bombing and is now viewed as a symbol of Basque freedom.

Ibon and I in front of the newest Tree of Gernika

The original Tree of Gernika

After visiting Gernika, we traveled to a txakoli (Basque white wine) vineyard up in the mountains overlooking the vast Atlantic. Our adorable tour guide, Ángel, was also the vineyard owner. Listen to him here as he explains why their wine received a 91/100 Robert Parker rating in 2010:

Lys (current USACer) and myself (USAC alum), both of ND!

Beeeeautiful view!

Txakoli tasting time!

We finished up the day with a traditional 3-course Basque meal and brief tour of Lekeitio, a quaint but gorgeous coastal village. We took a somewhat treacherous hike through a hillside forest up to a lookout. The view was worth it!

An bird's eye view of Lekeitio

My Basque "mom", Arantxa!

I was so happy to be reunited with the people that made my last experience in the Basque Country so special.

Here’s to many more memories with the USAC crew!


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some people’s kids!

I’ve barely scratched the surface of my experience with teaching English, but I wanted to share a little bit based on my initial impressions with the kids. All I’ve done so far is give an introduction Powerpoint with some basics about myself to each class, and afterwards they practice their English by asking me questions about other things they want to know about me or the United States in general. The questions have ranged from basic to cute to entirely inappropriate. I will give you some of the more entertaining examples, in order from the most frequent to a few oddball questions that I’ve only gotten once:

Have you got a boyfriend? This has come up in every single class, even after I tell them that I’m 23, making me 5-10 years older than all of them depending on the class. Upon seeing a photo of my family, one girl even asked me how old my brother is. I kindly informed her that he is 13 years her senior; not to mention the fact that he is married and is now a father. See, even North Dakotans are considered exotic in some parts of the world :-p

Do you have Facebook and Tuenti (like a Spanish Facebook)? This question has luckily only ONCE been followed by “What is your surname?” (there’s that darn British English they’ve all learned) and none of them have tried to add me on Facebook…yet.

Do you like Justin Bieber? A couple of them have even asked whether I’ve seen him “in the street.” Yeah, all the time. He just walks around in the Midwest in his freetime.

Found this a block from my apartment. Very standard Bieber Fever graffiti.

Does everyone in the US own their own gun? Heck yes, we live in AMURIKA!

Do you go to London a lot? This question clearly demonstrates their general lack of geographical knowledge. I’m sure my geography wasn’t stellar at that age either. I mean, maybe I thought London was in the USA too. They ask me a lot where I’ve traveled, and mostly they want to know if I’ve been to NYC, LA, and Miami. One girl, however, asked if I’ve been to Mississippi. That one threw me off.

When they ask about the weather, their eyes about pop out of their heads when I tell them it regularly reaches -40 degrees in North Dakota in the winter. Then the question is whether that is in Celcius or Farenheit. Curiously, the two actually intersect at that exact point. For simplicity’s sake (and to not seem like a total nerd) I just tell them “Celcius.”

Fahrenheit Celsius Kelvin
212 100 373.15 water boils
32 0 273.15 water freezes
-40 -40 233.15 Fahrenheit equals Celsius
-320.42 -195.79 77.36 liquid nitrogen boils
-452.11 -268.95 4.2 liquid helium boils
-459.67 -273.15 0 absolute zero

I had a fun time explaining to them what “auto-start” is the other day. They could hardly believe it existed, let alone the fact that a majority of people where I come from have it installed in their cars.

As a general rule, the secondary school (middle and high school) students in Spain are far less well-behaved and disciplined than students in the United States. That may seem an ambitious claim to make given my small sample size together with the enormous size of the “secondary school” population in the US, but I still don’t think it’s an incorrect assumption. The teachers here told me this would be the case right from the start. “The newspapers all over are saying it,” they say, “the kids here are loud and disrespectful when compared to their peers in other countries.” I have to say, I agree very much. There is a good handful of them that are very polite and eager to learn. For the rest, school is just another facet of their social life, and they do what they can to see to it that it is not hindered by silly rules and lessons. I feel like I’m shouting over them about 70% of the time, and for the rest of the time there is almost always at least one or two students talking amongst themselves that I have to compete with. This simply wouldn’t have flown in my middle or high school. One class I attended on Monday was completely out of control. They maybe paid attention for five minutes, but I spent the rest of the class watching their main teacher yell at them in Basque and Spanish as he unsuccessfully tried to bring order to the chaos.

Some kids practicing handball right outside my school

The tavern/bar on campus where teachers (and some older students!) hang out during coffee and lunch breaks

Speaking of Basque, the school I teach at is VERY Basque—as in, every sign in the school is in Basque. At first, I wasn’t even sure which bathroom I should enter. There is almost no Spanish. Anywhere. The teachers speak to the kids in Basque in almost every class, meaning I have no freaking clue what’s going on except for when I occasionally hear them say my name, or when we finally switch over to English. From my standpoint, it goes something like this:

“Kaixo, klase! Hona hemen Megan da! Blahblahblahblahblah…eta…blah bat blah blahblahblah? Bai. Bat blah blah blaaaah blah. Bat blah. Blah blah MEGAN blah…blah blah…BAI? Okay class, now we are going to speak in English!”

The English that these kids have been learning in school all their lives is, as mentioned before, of the British variety. It’s adorable most the time, but frustrating at times too. The differences seem subtle when you’re a native English speaker, but they become quickly problematic when you’re teaching someone who has learned a different type of English than the one you normally speak. I’m sure they’ll soon adjust to my less proper, American English 🙂

My experience at IES Urritxe BHI has just begun, and I’m sure I’ll soon have lots more fun stories to share. If you have any questions about things I’ve discussed in this post, or if you’re also an ESL teacher and can share in my sentiments, please feel free to write in the comments section below!

Thanks for reading. ¡Que tengas un buen fin de semana!


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Dondequiera que vayas, allí estás.

So…I’ve been in Spain for almost a week now? Whaaaa? It still feels very much like a dream. That’s so cliché, but it really seems that way more than any other time I’ve traveled. I think it’s because my surroundings are so familiar, and I’ve dreamed of them often since I left here last May, so it’s hard to believe that I’m actually physically here again. Add to that sleep deprivation and jet lag and what do you get? Life in La-La Land.

I rather loathe the very journal-esque stlye of this post, but I felt it was best just this once in order to fill ya’ll in on things. I’ve split it up by subject so you can read about whatever interests you.

Livin´la vida vasca:

I spent my first few days here truly living the life of the Bilbao natives as I’ve been staying with my friend Xandra and her mother, both Bilbao natives themselves. We go for coffee at 7, pintxos at 8 and maybe dinner at 9 or 10; all the while visiting with their friends and family in the streets. Never in a hurry. Always enjoying the moment.

I’ve been so lucky to be staying in a home until I find my own place. Xandra and her mother are so helpful and caring. My first day here, Xandra’s mom made me tortilla española immediately upon hearing it’s one of my favorite foods. It was easily the best I’ve ever had. On Sunday, she whipped up some patatas en salsa verde con merluza (a fish commonly served here) which was magnífico.

I spent Saturday buzzing around my old haunts in Getxo and taking in the late-summer sun on the beach. On Sunday, I went to Sopelana with the sole purpose of watching the sunset on one of my favorite beaches in the world. It was completely worth the trip.

The enchanting old part of Getxo

Al atardecer en Sopelana

The new job:

Yesterday morning, I set out to commute to my school for the first time. The school is in a pretty small town right outside Bilbao called Amorebieta. It seems everyone knows where Amorebieta is, but knowing how to get there is another thing. As I’ve said many times, things just don’t tend to be very straight-forward here. There’s a lot of asking random people on the street, backtracking, hurrying and then waiting. I’m lucky though because I’m in contact with the girl who had my job at this school last year, but even with that it’s a bit of a challenge. I walked 20 minutes to where my bus should stop in downtown Bilbao, eventually found it, hopped on and hoped for the best. My directions for finding the school in Amorebieta once I arrive there were this: “stay on the bus until you go through a roundabout with a statue of a giant potato in the middle, then press the stop button. Get off at the next stop, walk straight, turn right and walk up the hill for about 5 minutes, walk across the highway, turn left up another hill and follow the fences all the way around to the front of the school (which is actually the back of the school from the road). Yes, my school is in the boonies. It’s a beautiful area though, really. Pictures to come 🙂

The frightening giant potato statue

Yesterday I just met the teachers I’ll be working with and one class of students. The auxiliaries (my position) are a bit like celebrities to the students, especially in a small town like Amorebieta where I am the only one. They all just stared at me as they passed. Some were saying things like, “Es ella? La americana? Tiene que ser…es rubia!” (Is that her? The American girl? Has to be…she is blonde!) Maybe they thought I couldn’t understand them, but nothing gets past “la rubia” 😉

Today we went to Vitoria, a town south of Bilbao, to the Basque Government headquarters for our official welcoming ceremony. It was less than thrilling, especially since a good portion of the ceremony took place in Euskara, the Basque language that none of us auxiliaries can speak or understand. They redeemed themselves, however, by serving us complimentary pintxos (tapas/small dishes) and wine over the noon hour.

The piso hunt:

The rest of today was spent in the seemingly never-ending search for a good apartment. It’s not that there aren’t apartments available in Bilbao. There are thousands. It’s just difficult to know what you’re getting into when you’re wheelin’ and dealin’ with sometimes manipulative and often cranky landlords that don’t speak a word of English. I’m sure that foreigners get taken advantage of often when it comes to renting apartments in any part of the world, and I was just doing my best to avoid that while also trying to arrange something with people I would get along with and in a place that wouldn’t add much to my already lengthy commute to work. All of these factors added up quickly and caused a lot of stress in these past few days.

Another girl in the program, Hillary, and I have been looking for apartments together since we got here. The hunt for an apartment is a very different thing here than it is in the States, because most people here actually OWN apartments since there are no houses inside the city. Some apartments are still rented though, and they are usually specifically for students and therefore come completely furnished. We scoured Spanish piso-rental websites like EasyPiso.com and Alkila.net for hours and hours. We called and called and called some more, having several awkward, language-barrier-filled conversations with landlords and potential piso-mates. Everything seemed to be a dead end. Discouraged and exhausted, we decided to take the advice of some of the teachers and find an apartment the old-school way: by looking for signs around the city with the little pull-off tabs with phone numbers on them. We took a few and then sat down in a park to make some calls.

The first call was to the only ad that had actually listed the price of the apartment: something we figured was probably a good sign. The landlord answered and was quite friendly. She asked what I was doing in Bilbao, and when I told her I was working for the Basque Government teaching English in Amorebieta, she said “No me digas (no way)….a girl who lived in this apartment last year was doing the same thing!” So, yes. Out of the thousands of apartments in Bilbao, I am ending up in the same one that Stephanie, the girl who had my job in Amorebieta last year, lived in. I immediately called Stephanie to ask more details about the place, and she couldn’t believe the coincidence. Hillary and I went to see the place, and it is huge and just fabulous. And since we had Stephanie’s word that both the apartment and landlord are totally legit, we couldn’t say no. It’s a 3-bedroom, and she offered us a discounted price while we are looking for a third roommate. But when we returned to Hillary’s hotel tonight she had a message from another girl in our program who is looking for a place to live. We called her, and voila, we had our 3rd compañera. We’re all the exact same age AND all grew up in small towns in the Midwest/Central US (ND, CO, MN to be exact). All of those coincidences just make the world seem so small!

The apartment we are moving into tomorrow is in Santutxu, a nice neighborhood in the Bilbao center, right by Casco Viejo, the beautiful old quarter of the city. We’re all so excited to finally get settled into our own place.

Thanks for reading!

Hasta luego, ¡Agur!