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


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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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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!


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Where is “home?”

I failed to complete a blog post in my finals days in Spain amidst the craziness of wrapping things up and saying goodbye, but after only a few days back home I am still mostly in the mourning phase of leaving my former stomping grounds. “Are you glad to be back?” That is the million dollar question I have gotten over and over in recent days. The short and sweet, but complicated answer is “Sort of, but not really.” The comforts of home are great, and I’ve been soaking them in to the max. I’ve been pounding Diet Coke (Coca Cola Light is far from the same, trust me), enjoying how crisp my clothes are after drying  in a dryer, taking in some American television, zipping around in my car and catching up with friends I haven’t seen in months. But at this point, all of those things can hardly make up for what I am missing about Spain.

One of my last sunsets in Getxo

Me at Sopelana beach, where I took surf lessons and spent many sunny afternoons

I miss the beach, tortilla de patata, fabulous red wine, cafes on every block…I miss our crazy USAC group and the constant action and excitement we created each and every day. I am quickly realizing some even deeper things I miss too, like certain aspects of the lifestyle there: the great importance of social interactions among family and friends that is so evident in their day-to-day lives, the more laid-back way of life, the active lifestyles of the people that spans all generations. I’m sure that this list will only grow as the days go by. I’m not trying to hate on “home”, but it’s tough leaving such a wondrous place and returning to reality.

If only I could work and go to school and do the things I need to do here, but efficiently transport myself to Spain in my free time. To solve this problem, I think I may dedicate my life to the science of teleportation. Wish me luck with that…


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What’s for dinner?

I love food. My family even jokes that I must have a separate “dessert stomach” due to the fact that no matter how stuffed I am, I can still manage to put down a dessert. So what have I been filling my dessert (and normal) stomach with here in Spain? I wish I could say that it has been only the finest European cuisine, but the fact remains that I’m a just a poor college kid, and that makes eating “well” very tricky. I do cook a decent amount of food for myself at my apartment, and I attempt to stick to relatively healthy choices that are still cheap such as rice and beans, vegetarian pasta and omelets. What I make for myself at home really isn’t much different from what I make in the States, except that the produce here is a lot more fresh…which reminds me of a story…*sidetrack*

One time, in one of my classes with our beloved teacher Juan, I wanted to say that I’ve noticed that the produce here doesn’t last as many days as the produce I get at home, but that this probably just meant there weren’t as many preservatives in the products. Being the savvy Spanish student that I am, I figured the word for preservatives would be “preservativos.” I mean, wouldn’t you? It turns out that is the word for condoms. So I literally said, “The fruit doesn’t stay fresh as long because it doesn’t have condoms.” Needless to say, I will never forget the word for preservatives (which evidently is “conservantes.”)

I have become increasingly less picky throughout my life, and a large part of that can be attributed to my travels. What is a “normal” or “typical” food to eat can vary greatly depending on the region or country. I have been very open-minded about trying other foods typical of the area that I never would have dreamed of trying in my life. I’ve tried some of the most unique Basque delicacies such as calamares en su tinta (squid in their own ink), baby eels, blood sausage and bacalao al pil-pil (cod in an emulsion of oil and garlic.) These are especially impressive attempts considering I would barely touch seafood just a couple of years ago.

Squid in their own ink

Baby eels

This article would not be complete without a mention of paella. Paella is, hands down, my favorite Spanish dish. On the surface, it seems rather ordinary: rice and seafood mixed in with some vegetables. I think it is the key ingredient, saffron, that makes it so special. The combination of the freshness of the seafood, exploding flavors of pepper and onion, succulent saffron and cooked-to-perfection rice makes for a mouthwatering Spanish specialty. I’m probably going to have to go eat some now.

Mmm...paella

One Spanish food that I simply canNOT get on board with is ham/pork (shh don’t tell the Spaniards!) This is due, in large part, to one fateful night as a child when I bit into a piece of ham to find what I believed to be a pig’s tooth (it was just fat.) My aversion to ham has existed ever since. Pork in Spain is like a god, and it comes in more varieties than I would have ever thought necessary. I have had exactly one pork dish in Spain that I’ve enjoyed, and I don’t expect there to be another.

Probably my favorite part of Spanish cuisine is their beloved beverage: vino tinto. I could drink red wine every single day, and while living here I pretty much have. It’s a huge part of their culture, and some of Europe’s finest vineyards are just down the road from Bilbao in a region called La Rioja. It is a part of virtually every lunch and dinner, and most menus del día include it in the price of the meal. At grocery stores, you can get a bottle of red wine for as little as 75 cents, but a ¨classier¨bottle may cost you around 6 or 7 euros. Oh, how I will miss those prices when I´m back in the US!

¡Buen provecho!