Food, Fun and New Friends in the Basque Country

To me, friendship is the key to a happy life. Growing up, I have always had a close group of friends with whom I spend the majority of my free time. I rarely ever made an effort to meet new people or build strong relationships with strangers. Traveling to San Sebastian for a summer study abroad program has given me a lot of opportunities to step out of my comfort zone, and also to take part in experiences I never would have known.

With knowing only one of my classmates prior to departure for Spain, I was very anxious for these three weeks. Upon my arrival to the airport on Friday July 16th, I realized that immersing myself into a totally new culture with no family or friends around would force me to rely on making new friends if I wanted to enjoy this experience ahead of me. Sitting alone in the airport, I decided that it was time for me to grow up and to come out of my shell socially. Never did I expect the results of overcoming my fears to be so fruitful.

Whether I keep in touch with my new friends once I return home or not, the relationships that I have built with my classmates on this trip will be ones that I will forever cherish when reflecting on my time in Spain. As a result of my decision to challenge myself socially, I was also fortunate enough to form friendships with people outside of my classes of all ages and from all over the world, including Switzerland, Germany, Columbia and more. The friendships that I have made with my classmates and others have led to some of my favorite memories from my trip including pickup basketball games, beach days, late nights, hikes, and ultimately the pinnacle of my trip to date—a meal at a traditional Basque gastronomic society.

About a week ago, I met my host and her mother at a cafe to have lunch. When I arrived, I was surprised to see some unfamiliar faces in chairs next to my host. I hesitated before walking over, a little intimidated by the unfamiliar people, but decided it was an opportunity to practice Spanish and to meet new people. My host introduced me to her two best friends, Cristina and Juan Carlos. I took a seat next to the man and he immediately struck a conversation with me. The conversation lasted for the majority of a three hour lunch and ended with an invitation to cook and eat a meal with him at his society on Friday July 29th.

Gastronomic societies are very selective all-male cooking clubs that can only be found in the Basque Country. The Basque gastronomic societies are places where the male members come together to prepare food and to socialize with one another, followed by joining the women guests for the delicious meal. These meals can last for hours as much socializing occurs, even some singing and dancing. A unique feature of the basque gastronomic societies is their exclusivity. Becoming a member is very difficult, as most societies have a maximum membership capacity and memberships are life long. Outsiders can only experience the camaraderie and the culinary creations of a society if they are invited by a member and women are prohibited from stepping foot in the kitchen.

My friend Sean and I showed up to the society on Friday and rang the doorbell. Juan Carlos greeted us with a handshake and a smile. He proceeded to take us downstairs to where the society gathers. Juan Carlos explained the basics of Basque societies to us while taking us through a quick tour of the kitchen and dining area. We set the table, working together to get everything ready for the women that would be joining us shortly. We had a beer before making our way into the kitchen to prepare the Marmitako, a famous Basque dish consisting of tuna, tomatoes, potatoes and peppers. Sean and I worked on the easy tasks, like washing vegetables, peeling potatoes and salting the food, while Juan Carlos flew through the kitchen. We shared drinks, laughs, and stories while the fish cooked. When the girls arrived, we served the food and enjoyed the meal that we worked so hard to prepare.



As I enjoyed the evening with Sean and Juan Carlos, I realized what a special opportunity I was given. Because of the exclusive nature of Basque gastronomic societies, it is considered an honor to be invited to partake in the tradition. This realization showed me the importance of my decision to put myself out there in an effort to make new friendships. Had I not made that promise to myself while sitting alone in the airport, my trip to San Sebastian would not be anywhere close to as amazing and memorable as it has turned out to be. As Juan Carlos said to me while saying bye for the night, “Just remember, Grant, you’ll always have friends in the Basque Country.”