I woke up yesterday morning and began my day like most weekdays in San Sebastián: with Spanish Class. We learned about different clothing items and what they were called, and we practiced the different tenses of we had learned so far: el futuro, el presente, y el gerundio. While I was more looking forward to what was coming after class, I still enjoyed it, and gained from it new tools to use in communicating in a place where the language is not my own.
During our visit to Gernika on Saturday (July 30), Julian had recommended that I check out some “radical” bars on a street called Juan de Bilbao, in the old-town of the city. I feel that radical is a bit of a strong word however, since the cause that they mainly support is really (in my opinion) an issue of human rights.
Until recently, Basque Country was plagued by terrorism from a separatist group called ETA. The Basques are still trying to gain independence from Spain, but are now doing so through political means. However, the most contentious issue currently is the treatment of prisoners from ETA, in that the Spanish Government has dispersed them all over Spain to prevent them from communicating with one another. This goes against the Spanish Constitution, which states that criminals should be imprisoned in near their homes so that their family can visit them easily for the purpose of rehabilitation. The cause that many people in Basque Country now support is that of bringing the prisoners home, or “etxera”. Since the culture of San Sebastián is largely based around socialization, and since much of that socialization happens at bars and taverns, many bartenders have adopted the cause of etxera, sporting symbols, flags, and even pictures of prisoners, so that people can go and support the cause by buying drinks or donating. I decided that I wanted to explore this movement by visiting some of these bars, and that I wanted to flex my Euskara muscles by trying to speak in Euskara to the bartenders when ordering. So when class was finished I walked through the city to Juan de Bilbao.
One of my favorite things to do in San Sebastián is to simply walk around and take in the city, because in doing so it is impossible to remember anything that might have been bothering or worrying me. Even when the sun isn´t shining, one cannot help but feel bathed in jubilance at the sight of hundreds of people simply walking around and enjoying the day. Back home, I often felt like I was in a rut, constrained to mundane mandatory tasks to go through the motions of being a normal person with a job and a car. Here, it is the polar opposite. People walk instead of driving. They do not go about their day for the purpose of working or doing chores, but instead relax and live in the moment. They enjoy the food from local restaurants and bars, and they are almost never rushing, and never walking alone. I have never seen so much contentment in one place, and in simply walking around the city and enjoying the pintxos, bars, sites, and street performers, I feel I too have learned that it is good to simply saunter through and enjoy what I feel is the closest thing I´ve seen to a tropical paradise. I felt this, as I had countless times before in walking through the city, as I made my way to Juan de Bilbao.
I was a bit saddened to see that most of the bars in Juan de Bilbao were closed, save for two. The first was more of a music bar than one that espoused etxera. There were records on the walls and ceilings, and vibrant jazz music filled the room. I ordered my zurito (a small amount of beer that goes good with pintxos), and my tortilla (which is basically a piece omelete pie with potatoes and spices inside), and enjoyed the music for a few minutes before leaving. This pattern continued for about five different bars in the surrounding area, all with good music, and even better pintxos. I did get to see one bar with a lot of etxera symbolism on display, including a banner and pins for sale, napkins with the etxera symbol on them, and a picture of a hand shackled to a prison bar window with smaller pictures of political prisoners surrounding it. I wasn’t sure how to show that I supported the cause, but the bartender seemed jubilant when I ordered my drink in Euskara and bought one of the pins he was selling. He even informed me the price of my drink in Euskara: Bat eta hamar, or literally “one and ten”. I went back later that evening and received the same warm service.
This point must be emphasized, for it shows that the Basque culture is one of pride, but also one of acceptance. If you are a tourist in Basque country, you will find no hostility towards you from those living here. In fact, if you make an honest effort to speak their language, enjoy their traditions, and socialize, you will find that they will welcome you with open arms. Not once during my stay here have I felt unwelcome anywhere in the city. Everyone, Spanish and Basque alike, has been happy to see us, whether it be for making friends or buying drinks. That being said, as a tourist I am reminded a lot, mostly by posters and graffiti, that I am not in Spain, but that I am in Basque Country. It is in this way that cultural pride mixes with acceptance of outsiders to form one of the most unique and kind cultures I have ever experienced.
After bar hopping, I ran into some friends in my group from Umass Lowell relaxing on the steps to one of the cathedrals in old-town. We headed over to the aquarium, where we were scheduled to meet our professors for an excursion. The plan was to climb Urgull, a large hill with a gigantic statue of Jesus at the top, to have a literature discussion, and then to visit the island in the bay of La Concha and Ondarreta beaches.
While the hike up Urgull was somewhat arduous, it was manageable, and the literature discussion was a welcome set of possible answers and discussions about questions we all had about the book “All that Followed”, which details the events up to and after the assasination of a conservative politician by Basque Nationalist militants. In addition, while the urban parts of the city are fun to explore and enjoy, the natural monuments and hiking trails, like that of Urgull offer a nice complement to the vibrance of the city. Hiking in San Sebastián is so satisfying, mainly because at the top of whatever you are climbing you can be sure to find either a bar, a viewpoint, or both. In fact, just a few days earlier some friends and I hiked partway up Urgull ourselves to see what it was like. I was too tired to make it all the way to the top, but I don´t regret it, in part because I´m not sure there is anywhere else in the world that would have drinks being served three fourths of the way up the hill, so that one could sit and enjoy the stunning view with a refreshing soda, water, or beer. The hike for the excursion was no different, and it was a welcoming site to see the very top where Jesus stood, and to see the architecture of the old worshiping sites and battlements.
After twenty minutes of discussion, and some sightseeing, we went back down to catch the five o´clock ferry to the island. Again, the views were absolutely breathtaking on the journey there. I must stress that I have been to Italy, Scotland, Texas, Washington DC, Florida, and California. The only place that can even attempt to rival the views of San Sebastian is Florence, Italy, and I still believe that there is no contest.
When we reached the island, I had a somewhat cathartic experience about my stay here. I realized that this is the last week of my time in San Sebastián. I didn´t want to go home. In that moment, I felt that my family and friends would be better off if I brought them here and had them learn Spanish! I knew this was not true of course, but I feel that the point emphasizes how much of an impact this place has had on me.
I also had what I call a brief experience of “travellers anxiety”. Have I done enough? Did I use my time well? This is my first time away from home in a new land with all the freedom I could possibly want. Am I even doing this right? I spoke to Julian about this, and in doing so, was able to freshly reflect on my experience in San Sebastian. I realized, that it wasn´t about doing it right or wrong, nor was it about using time as if it were a scarce resource in a competetive market. I looked back and thought about all the amazing things that had happened to me on this trip. My friends and I tried to save a sick pigeon with a kind old woman named Maria. I saw some of the most talented jazz performers performing on the street. We sat on the beach at night, just enjoying the view, drinking cider and listening to music. I have tried foods that I wouldn´t dare touch back home, such as anchovies and octopus. I even got to make my own pintxos on one of our excursions. I learned about things that I never even knew existed, like the Tree of Gernika, the language of Euskara, the history of the Basque people, and even simple things like how to properly drink cider, or some of the history behind the most famous pintxo, the Gilda. In that moment, bathed in sunlight atop an island in San Sebastián, I was able to fully realize how formative and inspiring this entire trip had been.
After our discussion, I went down to the base of the island, where I swam for a little while, and relaxed with my friends. I took a 5 foot jump into the ocean, the highest I´ve ever jumped into water before. The ferry ride back was more like a party since “Uptown Funk” and “YMCA” played through the speakers, convincing everyone to dance as we sailed back to the mainland. After a wonderful dinner at our host house (consisting of some of the best hamburgers I´ve ever tasted) I went to the beach, where I drank cider, relaxed, and danced to more music being played through a portable speaker. This is yet another experience I´ll never find anywhere else: dancing on the beach at 1AM like it was my own personal disco. After this, I went home, and after talking to my girlfriend briefly to tell her all about the day, I fell asleep.
So what does all of this add up to? Well, personally, I feel that the day was a wonderful example of how the entire trip has been, in that each day here is a new journey full of new things to do and learn. I feel that I´ve learned important life lessons on this trip, such as how to relax and live in the moment, to be adventurous and always try new things, and to let the wind take me where it may when life happens. In the title of this post, I made the assertion that Thomas Moore is smiling. In doing so, I am not saying that San Sebastian is Utopia, but that I think Moore would be pleased with how close San Sebastián gets to it.