Becoming One with the Basque Culture

Here in San Sebastián our days have been nothing short of full. There are so many different activities done on each day that the days are morphed together and it’s hard to believe something that felt so long ago was indeed just done a few hours ago, or that we have only been here a week. The excursions here in San Sebastián have been diverse. From an aquarium trip, going to the beach, walking tours of the city, Spanish language classes in the mornings, pintxo tastings around the city, or visiting a near by winery to see the process, we are really trying to experience all that San Sebastián has to offer in our three weeks in this beautiful city. Each thing that we do on a given day is just as important to our experience as anything else that we have done thus far.
The main reason I came on this trip was to emerge into the basque culture; a completely different culture than I have ever known before. I had never taken a Spanish Spanish class, tried a pintxo, or had to live with someone who did not speak the same language as me. I wanted to be apart of something completely different than lifestyle of my small town in Massachusetts, and see the way of life across the Atlantic Ocean and what better of a place than the beautiful and quaint city of San Sebastián.
Today in class we went to a nearby winery located in Zarautz, a nearby town of San Sebastián. A small family run company in its 4th generation, they create about 100,000 bottles a year focused solely on quality rather than quality. We were walked through the process of creating a perfect bottle of Talai Berri Txokoli, a white wine native to the basque region. There were many specific steps that went into creating a wine that meets the high standards. From hand picking each of the grapes to drinking the wine within a year of it bottling, there are so many crucial steps to make the Txokoli wine.

This excursion reminded me a lot about our time here in San Sebastián. Each thing that we do is crucial to becoming unified with the basque culture. My own personal battle has been the native food. Being a picky eater, the pintxo tasting was not exactly my favorite thing on the trip so far. When I saw a dish of anchovies, olives, and peppers on a dish in front of me I immediately cringed. I thought, I’ve ever eaten a single thing on that plate. That is how the pintxo tasting went for me. Most of the things put in front of me were things I thought I would never even think about eating. From that day, however, I have been trying to taste the things I could never imagine myself eating before. I have come to the conclusion that eating the native food is crucial to emerging into the culture. Just like how the Talai Berri winery examines every single grape to make every bottle of Txokoli of the highest quality, I must take risks I could never imagine myself taking to make the most out of my three short weeks here in San Sebastián, Spain.
Thank you Talai Berri winery for showing me that everything is a process and everything in that process is important to the end result.  Having a positive attitude and being completely committed to this lifestyle while trying everything will make for the best possible experience here in San Sebastián.

Gotta Get Down on Friday

Back at home, time flies by. Doing the same thing everyday is boring, not memorable. Here in  Spain, every day is different and worth remembering- at least for now, while we’re still fresh to the lifestyle. Most days have had planned trips for us so far, so our free time on those days were more limited, but today, Friday of our first week is the first time the class has no scheduled excursions.

I spent the past couple of days thinking, “How do I keep this day from flying by? What can I do that’s new?” Luckily I already had a good idea of what I wanted, and it was music. The Jazzaldia Festival was being hosted this week on Zurriola beach and tonight one of my favorite jazz-funk bands were performing, Snarky Puppy. They were scheduled to play a free show at midnight, and it’s something I’ve been looking forward to for weeks.

But that still left me 12 hours- from getting out of class until then- to kill. Luckily I have my guitarra and am in city where busking is commonplace.

Spanish Buskers

Busking is great fun for two reasons, you get to perform for people and you get tipped for performing. A lot of the time the people passing don’t give you much attention, but there’s the occasional mother who’ll let her child stare, or middle aged couple who wants to hear to the end of this Beatles song, and it feels good to play for them because you know they want to hear it. Also they tend to be the ones who tip.

The first time I got paid today was during my practicing of Norwegian Wood, by the Beatles. I say practicing instead of performing because it was exactly that, I kept my case closed because I didn’t want to imply I was looking for money as I practiced my music. I was a little embarrassed to be playing out here because with an open case, that’s exactly what I’d be doing. I chose a low traffic corner in La Parte Vieja and just played guitar for me. But in the middle of it all some guy ran up, placed a euro on my case, and as I protested, simply said “para la cerveza”, for beer. After that I opened my case and made a (very) little more, and then treated myself to la cerveza, courtesy of the people of Donostia.

After my busking adventure, I dropped my guitar off somewhere safe (a friend’s room in old town, to avoid carrying it for 30 minutes back to Amara) and decided I did need to rest and for the first time this trip, went home early and took a nap. I needed to be awake for Snarky Puppy! After a brief rest, I walked back toward the beach and met with people at a bar. A real bar, not a club, which is what a lot of these bars seem to be trying to mimick. A small drink later, we’re going our separate ways and I’m waiting on the beach for Snarky Puppy to blow my mind.

Snarky Puppy Zurriola

Their songs were long, loud, and syncopated. I was up close and seeing them perform was super fun, seeing the fingers work the instruments is another level of cool. They played all my favorite songs (which are coincidentally their more popular ones) which was fantastic, and their encore was my absolute favorite song which was super awesome. Hearing them start that song was probably the grooviest moment of my life yet. Here’s to hoping it gets groovier.

Man, This Group is Non-Stop!

How is it even possible that so much could happen in one day? I feel like I’m exhausted all the time, because every day here feels like two or three (and trust me that is a good thing!)  Much like Alexander Hamilton, all of us are non-stop as we truly are running out of time in this wonderful city, even though we basically just arrived.

On the morning of the 21st, my (very, very useful) “advanced beginner” Spanish class dragged on as I was so excited for that afternoon’s activity: a pintxo tasting tour in El Parte Gros.  This is the part of the city closer to my homestay that most of us have not explored in favor of spending more time in the more densely packed Parte Vieja.  I was especially excited about this part of the trip as I have an interest in haute cuisine and love being an adventurous eater.  At home, it isn’t uncommon to see me flipping between episodes of Top Chef, Chopped, and my personal favorite, Bizarre Foods.  The culinary arts are beautiful and a wonderful reflection of culture.

Now, when I picked this date for my blog post, I had been expecting to solely focus on the tasting tour in my writing, but so much else happened today and I feel that it would be unfair not to at least mention it!  Before the tour, met up in front of La Playa de Zurriola, which is also the location of a huge jazz festival this weekend.  A Spanish news crew spotted us and interviewed us about the headliner, Gloria Gaynor.  The eight of us sang a few lines of “I Will Survive” for the camera! How surreal is it to go to a foreign country, be on television, and have the chance to see a world-famous singer perform for free on a gorgeous beach? I would think it was a dream, if there was no video evidence of it happening!

After that unexpected experience was the main event of the day: Parte Gros pintxo tasting tour! Like the previous day’s group, the plan was for the first taste to be the original pintxo, La Gilda.  To our surprise, the first bar we went to was completely sold out of the dish!  Instead, we moved onto the next location.

At the next bar, the 10 of us, eight students and two professors, shared three slices of Spanish tortilla and a bottle of txakoli.

Txakoli and a slice of tortilla

Txakoli and a slice of tortilla

Tortilla is a tasty traditional dish comprised of  eggs, potatoes, and onion.  It tells the story of an inventive people that did the best with what they had in sparse conditions.  Txakoli is a white wine specific to this region, I tried it but although I’m not picky with food, I’m not a fan of alcohol!

Over the course of the rest of the afternoon, we made our way to five more pintxo bars and discovered many a diamond on a plate. Absolutely everything we tried was a delight and everyone in the Parte Gros group tried at least a bite of everything.  The third and fourth bars were the absolute stand outs of the afternoon.  

At the third bar Professor Zabalbeascoa ordered five spectacular dishes:

Five awesome dishes

Five spectacular dishes

a piece of foie gras sandwiched between cooked mushroom caps and slathered in an aoli, squid with a garnish made out of its ink, oxtail, a dish similar to a mushroom risotto topped with foie gras, and a tender slice of beef cheek.

The most exciting dish, many of us ordered a the fourth bar.  It was described to us as a “blood pudding volcano” and I was intrigued by the name and was not entirely sure what to expect. A small pile of of blood pudding made up the “volcano” and a raw egg yolk, the lava.  



"Blood pudding volcano"

“Blood pudding volcano”

Everyone was surprised to find something made of blood as delicious as we did! I think the surprise attached to it is was makes it so memorable.

After we stumbled around town with full stomachs for a few hours, the evening ended on a high note with the Gloria Gaynor concert on the beach.  It was crowded, but my small group of friends was far enough back that we had enough room to dance wildly when she finally closed the show with “I Will Survive,” the song which we also started our afternoon and evening of adventures with.

¡Pintxos Para Todos!

Who doesn’t love food? I am very much a food lover but have always been extremely picky when it comes to what I eat. I am a very visual person who normally would never eat anything that I did not know what it was or if it looked a little odd. Sometimes when I was told what I was eating I would also turn it down because it sounded gross and I was unwilling to even try it. I planned to change this whole attitude once I arrived in San Sebastián and I am happy to report that it was a success.
I came here with the goal of stepping outside my box to try new things, so when I heard that I would be trying a bunch of different pintxos with our professors so early on in the trip I was extremely excited. I knew they wouldn’t steer me wrong and this would give me the confidence to experiment with different pintxos by myself later on in the trip. We started off in a small bar in La Parte Vieja on the corner of two streets to have the original pintxo called La Gilda: an olive, peppers, and an anchovy on a toothpick. To say we were all pretty apprehensive about trying this is a bit of an understatement. But my friends and I all agreed to take the bite on a count of three and down it went.image Our reactions varied but the pictures taken of us as the three of us ate this strange new food are priceless. We washed it down with a glass of wine and off we went to the next bar.
The second bar we went to was inside of a market. This is one of the things I love most about San Sebastián. You truly have to explore the city to find these hidden gems. However, it was the third bar that was my favorite of them all and I was happy to see there was a lot of trash on the floor. Now this may sound strange because who would be happy that there was trash all over the floor in the bar they are in? Well in San Sebastián that is actually an indication of how good the food is. When people use napkins while eating their pintxos, they throw them on the floor when they are done. There are no trash cans in the bars. Our professors told us that this is a very easy way to tell which bars are the most popular because a lot of people have been there and have thrown their napkins on the ground. If a bar has very few napkins then it is likely that the pintxos there are not very good.
Overall I really enjoyed most of the food that was placed in front of me. One of the advantages of choosing to write the blog for this day was I needed to take pictures of all the pintxos before we dug in which meant I always had first dibs on the food. The one pintxo that I will absolutely go back and have a gain before the end of this trip is the risotto from the third bar (and the cheese cake from the last bar but I’m don’t think that really counts as a pintxo). imageThe only one that I had trouble getting down was the squid ink in basically a squid sack. I was one of the very few souls brave enough to try it and while I did not like it, I definitely don’t regret trying it.
I am so thankful for this trip because it is giving me an amazing opportunity to step outside of my box and really grow as a person. While it may have started with just the food, I think this is the first step to me trying a bunch of new and exciting things on this trip. My adventure is only just beginning.

Muy bien, muy bien

According to Maritxu, our sweet, 73 year old host mother, we are guapas, guapissimas – beautiful, gorgeous girls. She pats us on the shoulders and kisses us on the cheeks, serves us delicious meals, and makes sure that we’re enjoying ourselves here. She speaks only Spanish and Basque, but between the three of us staying here we can usually muddle through a conversation. As Maritxu often says, “Muy bien, muy bien” – which is exactly how each day has been going.

Walking out of our perfectly located apartment in the Parte Vieja, you are immediately in the midst of all that San Sebastian has to offer. We’re a few minutes from the beach and a few steps away from the bars. Through our windows, you can hear musicians playing on the street: an odd blend of jazz standards, house music, and carefree improvisation on the guitar. Your feet may slip a little on the slick stone of the plaza, and you may have a little trouble finding enough sand to lay down a towel at La Concha, but I’m pretty sure that’s the worst of the city – which is to say, the city has very little to complain about.

I’ll be honest – learning Spanish is daunting. Basque is even more so. Neither quite roll of the tongue with the ease that American English has for me. The Castilian accent makes it all the more challenging. But despite the challenge of it all, it’s proven worthwhile when I see progress – and I’ve only been here three days now! The bit of concentration it took me to learn to pronounce eskerrik asko was worth the smiles and laughs it brought out from my host family.

Getting over the nervousness of trying to use a new language has been imperative. I’ve realized that trying is the operative word – and that everyone is willing, if not enthusiastic about helping me as well. I’ve started taking everything in stride, and count every awkward interaction as a learning experience.

Beyond the beauty of the people and the city, it was incredible to see some of the history as well. Back home, a building has considerable historic value if it has remained standing for more than a century. The San Telmo Museum’s building has been around since the 1500’s, and many of the artifacts within the museum date back considerably further. It’s simply mind blowing to follow the evolution of the Basque people, all the way up to the present day. I find that learning about the past and history of a culture adds significant value to the understanding of the current culture – and I think seeing so much of the Basque culture’s origins will help me to contextualize the rest of my experiences here in Donostia.

It really is bizarre, that after only a few days, I have come to see the city as a home. I’ve already made friends that are always willing to meet up and go on an adventure. I’ve got a delicious dinner waiting for me every night, and I have a bed to collapse into at the end of the day. Whenever Maritxu asks, “¿Qué tal?”, I always say “Muy bien” – and I always mean it.

Su Lengua es Mi Lengua

The main reason I decided to come to San Sebastián was because I wanted to learn Spanish. Not “taught in a classroom in Massachusetts” Spanish, but real Spanish. I was excited to take classes and learn a language and improve my own skills.

Now. One day in and my goals for the entire trip have already changed. I still want to learn Spanish, but my self centered intentions have shifted immensely. Although language is something you share everyday with every person you speak to, it is also an extremely personal aspect of your life. Finding someone that you can communicate with and share that language creates a bond that not everyone can be part of.

For our first day of class, we were put into groups of two and given a short speaking assignment. The assignment involved introducing ourselves to our partner, and our partner then would introduce you to the class. My partner, a 16 year old from Italy, spoke little English. I speak no Italian, so we were both relying on Spanish, a language neither of us were fluent in, to communicate and connect with each other. This moment resonated with me so strongly because if either of us decided to pursue other interests or sit idly and expect others to adapt to our customs and norms, that relationship, though brief, wouldn’t have been able to exist at all.

I personally believe that the first step in immersing yourself in a new culture is to learn the language. That opens doors to a multitude of other things. For example, you can listen to Spanish music without learning the language and focus purely on the beats and rhythms. But by adding an understanding of the words the artist is singing, you can now begin to understand the meaning of the song, which can snowball into a deeper personal connection with the song and what the artist is trying to convey.

I think studying abroad has already deepened the connection between myself and Spain. Today, a few friends and I stopped into a bakery to grab some lunch. After we ate our “rascacielos” and “estrellas de chocolate” we returned our plates to the counter and on our way out, one of my friends thanked the baker in basque, a language local to San Sebastián (eskerrik asko, for those who are curious). Everyone in the bakery seemed super impressed, and I think that moment alone is the reason it’s necessary to truly invest your time into fully immersing yourself in the culture,and being able to appreciate it.

After class, we were lead through the city and exposed to numerous buildings and monuments with a deep history, and it was clear to see why Basque people are so proud of where they come from. The first site we stopped at was a park across the street from the school. Our tour guide explained that because the king had no children, he gave the park to the city as a gift, under two conditions. The park was to always remain free and open to the public, and must never be reconfigured.

This fact interested me for two reasons. 1. The king was respected enough by the people to obey these laws long after the king passed, and 2. The king valued the people of his city so highly that he passed along a piece of his own property so others can benefit. This highlights two values that San Sebastián holds on to, and the rest of the world (in my opinion) should as well: loyalty and selflessness.

With that, my goals for learning Spanish have become less about benefiting my own life and self improvement, and giving myself the gift of being able to connect with others on a more personal level.


La Concha in San Sebastian, Spain.

La Concha in San Sebastian, Spain.

This course uses the city of San Sebastian, Spain, as its primary text. Chosen as the 2016 European Capital of Culture, San Sebastian offers students the best of both worlds: a modern Europe-an city with an Old Quarter that preserves its rich legacy of history and culture. “Special Topics in Honors: Basque Cultural Immersion” will take learning outside the classroom, exposing students to structured situations and experiences through a Humanities lens.

T.S. Eliot wrote, “[T]he end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” This course’s aim then is to enlarge and enrich the students’ 3 weeks in San Sebastian. This will be accomplished through multiple approaches: field trips and excursions, on-site lectures, an examination of Spanish history, politics, culture, geography, cuisine, literature, cinema, sport, and art; writing assignments that encourage a comparative analysis between Spain’s history and America’s today; and lessons dedicated to learning the craft and art of Immersion Writing. 3 credits.

Apply and learn more.

Read the blog from their 2015 trip.