Three Weeks in San Sebastian

It is sad to say that our journey at the San Sebastian study abroad program has finally ended. There are no exact words to describe the entire experience. This trip has brought so many mixed emotions. From feeling home sick, to getting use to the routine, and not wanting to leave. Choosing the Spanish and Basque Cultural Immersive study abroad program was the best decision. This program gave me the opportunity to immerse myself into the Basque culture and put Spanish into use.

Before coming to San Sebastian, I was not sure what to expect really. It was my first study abroad program. There were a mixture of excitement and anxiousness. I was traveling by myself with ten other strangers. Not knowing weather, I will get along or make any friends with the group made me slowly regret my decision.

The first week being in San Sebastian was a bit rough. When we arrived, we did not know where to start. We would roam around looking for food not knowing that the kitchen for restaurants and bars was closed. Our first meal as a group was pizza. Which was decent. Running with little to no sleeping and having a hard time to find any food as bars were packed with people, I was constantly feeling home sick. Being put into a new country with different standards and culture was overwhelming. We did not know how to navigate the area. We would constantly get lost. We were not sure what places were good to eat at. Throughout the week we would eat at bars which only serve pintxos. It was surprisingly how fresh the food was, but it was not enough to fill me up. I would feel hungry most of the time. Although it was rough, the view was spectacular. They days were long and there were so much you can do in one day. It was hard to grasp the idea that I was in Spain, that this was real. It felt like I was living in a dream.

In the second week, I began to pick up the routine. I was getting used to going to Spanish class every morning and having the free day to ourselves. As I began to feel less homesick, I realized I was in Spain. I enjoyed riding the bike by the beach and taking in the scenery. I can still picture the breeze brushing against my face while I rode my bike and the sense of peace and happiness I felt. I would constantly question my lifestyle, wondering, “Why can’t my life be like this.” Everything seems different. The people at San Sebastian are very sociable and friendly. The streets here are clean and the people genuinely seem happier. The second week was fascinating. We went on hike on Mount Urgell as a class enjoying the view and discussing about the book “All that Followed.” That same week we took a ferry to Santa Clara Island where we discussed and learn about the economy and politics in San Sebastian. Also we got the opportunity to visit Madrid where visited the palace and parks.

In the third week, we spent our last days welcoming and showing some students in session two around. As I got close and comfortable with the people in session two, it made it harder to leave. We spend out last day doing to France as a class, took a Basque language class and met Marti Buckley. These three week was amazing. Our last day in San Sebastian we enjoyed our last dinner together as a group. We got to reminiscence our days in San Sebastian and talked about our favorite moments while being there. I did not want to leave. I am going to miss the beach, the freedom, how clean the streets are, how safe it is and the people in my class.

I am so grateful for this experience and the opportunity I took. Looking back now I do not regret a thing. I am glad to spend my time at San Sebastian with an amazing group that were first known as strangers that are now my friends. This trip allowed me to open more and meet different people. These past week I learned to love the culture, the food and the language. There was great sadness as we spent our last time together on the airport floor. San Sebastian will always have a special place in our hearts and is an experience we will never forget.

Meeting Marti Buckley!

It’s no exaggeration to say that San Sebastian is one of the food capitals of the world. Filled with endless pintxo bars and restaurants (of which eight have earned at least one Michelin star), the city is known for its unique Basque cuisine soaked in rich culture. However, in spite of this fact, only a few works exist that truly examine the culinary history behind each pintxo plate that sits behind the glass case at the bar. In comes Marti Buckley, an Alabama native who has been living in San Sebastian for the last twelve years. In 2018, her book Basque Country was published, bridging the gap between Basque cooking and the American audience.

Marti Buckley introducing herself in Cristina Enea Park

While sitting on the ground of Cristina Enea Park, we were able to hear Buckley’s story first-hand, from how she fell in love with the Spain, took a chance, and succeeded in establishing San Sebastian as her home. She then delved into the three-year writing process that took place before her book’s publication, where it was explained as to how determined she was to accurately represent the seven provinces of the Basque Country. From interviewing local chef, noting each dishes different preparations, to countlessly trialing her recipes to perfection, we truly learned the lengths of Buckley’s research. 

A dish could be prepared in a multitude of ways, with each chef having their own take of what’s best. Not only that, dishes could wildly differ depending on the province they’re prepared in. After years of research and test runs in the kitchen, Buckley was able to curate a set of recipes that is accessible to home cooks, with an American audience specifically in mind. The reasoning being, she explains, was because even when she herself was a student, there lacked publications about the Basque Country in general and so she wasn’t really able to know what to fully expect during her time abroad. Determined to express the experiences she came across, along with her background as a cook and writer and with her years of living in San Sebastian, Buckley had taken on the challenge to be the one to spread more knowledge of Basque cuisine. 

Example of how diverse pintxos are (from the restaurant Bare-Bare)

The discussion with Buckley was eye-opening as I found it fascinating in how the events in her life have shaped it to what it is today. Her cultural comparisons brought new perspectives, with the one standing out to me the most being the differences in table customs between San Sebastian and the United States.

For example, Buckley emphasises the contrasting views in how the Basque view food. In Spain, food is appreciated and savoured slowly, with it being common to spend hours at a restaurant for a single meal. Food is cherished for what it is, with the time and effort behind each bite is easily recognized. Bonding over food while sitting at the table with others also promotes togetherness and a stronger sense of community, raising appreciation of living in the moment. On the contrary, in the U.S. it is fairly common to rush through a meal as food is simply viewed as a means to gain energy. Buckley brought up the point that in American restaurants, she would often overhear people complaining of all the ways they would have to burn off the food later; whereas in the Basque Country, the word “calorie” is hardly mentioned in general.

During that conversation, I realised that I’ve been subconsciously noting similar experiences while exploring San Sebastian. Reflecting back, I’ve come to value Basque food culture for its relaxed nature, more so in comparison to the clinical view Americans seem to hold in regards to their food. However, I recognize that each respective food culture also matches well with the country it originates from. For example, in the U.S. there’s a more fast-paced lifestyle, with many priorities being to maximize efficiency; whereas from what I’ve interpreted in San Sebastian, life is best enjoyed more slowly and greater emphasis is placed on living in the moment. 

Buckley signing my copy of her book!

Overall, meeting Marti Buckley was an amazing opportunity as it gave insight to her experiences and writing journey behind her book. The discussion was thought-provoking and allowed for deeper understanding of Basque food culture in general. It also served as a reminder to take a moment and appreciate differences in culture, and make changes to your own lives now that you’ve seen a new perspective. Given the opportunity, definitely pick up a copy of Basque Country as it’s the perfect introduction to the historical cuisine found in San Sebastian!

Learning About Basque Culture Through Their Language

Not much is known about the origins of the Basque language, however it is believed that the language emerged roughly three thousand years ago in the North-Eastern region of the Iberian Peninsula and South-Western France. The language is entirely unique and isolated within the Basque region, which differentiates it from all other European languages that are derived from older Indo-European languages, most notably Latin. Basque speakers have faced harsh oppression and discrimination throughout their history by the harsh and unaccepting Spanish governments of the twentieth century. Francisco Franco, a brutal nationalistic Spanish dictator of the time period made attempts to eradicate the language by making it illegal to speak in public in order to “unite” Spain under a common Spanish language. The preservation of the language can be credited to family households that were only able to speak it in their homes, which led to minor changes in pronunciations throughout the districts of the Basque Country. The people of the region are proud of their heritage, taking pride in the strength, perseverance, and beauty that is represented through their speech. In fact, someone who does not descend from the area can actually be considered ethnically Basque if they are able to speak the language.

Learning Basque in el Parque de Cristina Enea

Stuart, our Basque language teacher for the day, is a hilarious, lively, and crude man who was very enjoyable to learn from. His charisma, strong Scottish accent, and knowledge of the Basque language made him a one of a kind human being who I will never forget. He has lived in the Basque country for roughly thirty years and has been learning the language ever since. He admits to not being an “expert,” however he has developed an understanding that is more than enough to allow him to live comfortably and be accepted by the community. At the end of our lesson, Stuart said that “learning a new language is learning a new way to think about life,” which is absolutely true. By learning foreign languages, you are introduced to new concepts that give you an understanding of the culture. It opens up unexplored ways of thinking that simply do not exist within your native language. As he is fluent in English, Spanish, and Basque, his mind has been expanded to better interpret and enjoy the world around him.

From an outside perspective, the Basque language is a daunting and long road to learn. One may assume it to be close to Spanish or French due to the location of the Basque Country, but it could not be more different. It incorporates sounds that are completely new and feel unnatural to produce and letter patterns that look as if they just should not be next to each other. For example, a “tx” yields a “ch” sound as in the word Pintxo, which are small, simple portions of food traditionally served on a skewer with beer, wine, or hard cider. Also, there are multiple words that can mean the same thing but change due to the context. The word “aizpa” and “arreba” both mean sister, but the first refers to a sister of a man and the ladder indicated a sister of a woman. Numbers only go up to forty, so to say larger numbers you have to do a little math. To say sixty, you say “berrogei eta hogei” which directly translates to “forty and twenty.” There were some words that we learned that I know I have heard on the streets or in bars and it was a cool feeling to recognize and realize what they meant. “Kaixo” and “epa” are common greetings and “agur” and “aio” are used to say goodbye. 
Successful Lesson

During our three weeks in the Basque Country, my eyes have opened up to a whole new way of living. A lot of the problems that we see in America do not occur here or happen at a substantially lower rate. Things that I just accepted as normal back home have legitimate alternatives that the Basques seem to have gotten just right. The people here live in such harmony and do not look for problems that do not exist. They put funding into the right things such as excellent free healthcare, a feeling of genuine safety, and a lifestyle that best supports its people mentally and physically. Many of the values in America like an unfulfillable need for excessive wealth, wanting to be perceived as perfect, and a lack of patience form problems that could be avoided with better systems in place. I will be taking home with me this knowledge and applying it to my life. 

Adventures outside of San Sebastian

Friday morning most of the group woke up before the sun to catch the 5 am train into Madrid city because we had a 3 day weekend. Others decided to stay in Madrid and do some day trips to local towns nearby like Hondarribia. The group of us that went to Madrid took a taxi to the train station and arrived 30 minutes before the train came as we weren’t sure exactly where we were going. Unfortunately we had to wait as the station wasn’t even open when we got there. While some of us took a nap on the train I was unable to as I found the seat uncomfortable. Luckily I was able to get a window seat so I waited for the sun to come up and watched as we went through various towns and open areas of land. The sunrise on the train was amazing to watch.

Once we got into Madrid we got off the train and headed to the metro to figure out the best line to take to get closest to our hotel. We then took the subway and got off at Principe Pio which is a station close to the center of Madrid. Once we got off the subway we walked around the city for a little while before finding a tapas bar for lunch because none of us had eaten and we were all starving. After lunch we walked through the Plaza de España in Madrid which houses the Monument to Miguel de Cervantes which was commissioned by King Alfonso XIII in 1915.

After exploring the plaza and the nearby park we headed to our hotel as we wanted to drop off our bags, which was very close to the Royal Palace and checked in. After checking in we relaxed in our rooms a bit as many of us were exhausted from the train ride and getting up so early. We then headed to explore some nearby shops. After shopping a tad we went to get dinner at a restaurant that we had passed that looked amazing. We then decided to walk around Madrid city and passed by the royal palace. 

On Saturday part of the group went sightseeing. I went and had a guided tour inside the royal palace where we got to see the kings and queens apartments which are separate, and learn a little of the history of the palace. It was amazing to walk through and see all the furniture and decorations in each room and how there were no two rooms that were the same. Then I headed to the Plaza Mayor and walked around seeing other amazing sites along the way like the Cathedral de Santa Maria. Madrid is so big and there is so much to do it is impossible to hit all the major landmarks in one weekend. A few people went to the Reign of Sofia museum to view some artwork. Afterwards we regrouped for a late lunch before going to take in an amazing flamenco dance show just a few minutes from the hotel. The flamenco show was more than just dancing which was very fun. We got to listen to someone play the guitar for a little as well as listen to a great singer in between dance routines. I can’t believe how fast their feet moved and wonder sometimes how long it took to learn the art of flamenco dancing. 

Sunday we woke up and checked out of our hotel before heading to Calle de Cava Baja which has many good tapas restaurants. After a nice lunch we made our way back to the train station where we were going to catch the train back to San Sebastián. In Madrid if you are taking a train out of the city you have to go through security where they check your bags before getting on the train. We almost got on the wrong train as there were two trains on the same exact platform. The train ride back was nice as we got to see more as the sun was up and we went through the mountains. 

We all had fun in Madrid but by the time Sunday came around we were excited to head back to San Sebastián. I missed San Sebastián because it isn’t as hot as in Madrid and we know our way around town.

When we got back we went to Olarain, our dorms to drop off our bags before meeting up with some people from the new session that had just arrived to go get dinner and of course gelato. 

Ferry Ride to Santa Clara Island

In San Sebastián, every day feels like the most amazing day of your life, but surprisingly , it only gets better. We had plans to meet at 5:50 and take a ferry to the island at 6. Of course, the boat waited for us as we sprinted through the streets so that we did not miss this adventure. It was a beautiful day outside, the salty air blew our hair as we were on our way to Santa Clara Island. We arrived around 10 minutes later, and began our way up the island .This was the view as we were on our way up the steep hills to enjoy the wonderful scenery. The nature here is like nothing I have ever seen before. you will not see a spec of trash, or any sort of litter, but your eyes will be stuck to the beauty around you. Even the air feels better and I felt as if I could breathe better. I wish I could have taken a picture everywhere I looked.

Here is one of the stunning photos of the view we had during our group discussion. The Water glistened, while we listened to the birds chirping, the sound of the waves, and watched the other people enjoy Santa Clara. Smiles are everywhere here in San Sebastián! There was a bar at the top of this Island. There is never a place you will go where you will not find at least one bar. From on top of this Island you are able to look at San Sebastian from a far. You can see the beautiful city, along with beach in front of it, crowded with people. The Hill was very steep, but one hundred percent was worth the walk. I felt as if I was in a dream come true! There were so many birds surrounding us, while we sat on our towels in the hot sun.

We all sat down and took in the sun. For the first time ever, not one person complained about class. Professor Z. asked us how we felt to be half way through our trip and multiple people responded with ”I dont want to leave”, or ”I never want to go home.” We reflected on our trip so far and talked about what we expected vs. the reality. A lot of us were shocked about how safe and comfortable we feel here, as if we are at home. Also, how many people are in love here. So many couples are vividly so happy and in love with each other, themselves, and life. The people here have an amazing social life and value their time to enjoy each other a lot. We went over our favorite foods so far, mine being all of the helado. Most others loving the Pinxto bars in ”El Parte Vieja”. Sitting here and reflecting made me feel extremely lucky, grateful, and thankful to be able to share such an eye opening experience with amazing people around me. It does not feel real at all, almost as if it is too good to be true!It feels like we arrived just a day or two ago, but yet we are half way through our three weeks here. Professor Z. talked a lot about the economy and politics here in San Sebastian. I was surprised by two things. One being that the Basque country has its own rules and policies separate from Spain. The Spanish police are not allowed to enter the Basque country. Also, that the highest person in a work force is only allowed to be paid no more than 4 times the amount of the lowest paid person. This allows for all of the people to enjoy the life, and no one more than another to an extreme. We then went over our plans for the rest of our trip. Some of us are headed to Barcelona tomorrow, and other to Madrid. On our bucket lists, we want to surf, paddle board, go to the aquarium, and maybe take a sunset cruise. After about an hour we wrapped up our discussion, took our last photos, and headed back down.

The water was high tide, overflowing up onto the cement with each wave. Behind the pier is the fourth beach here. Its named ”The Ghost Beach” becomes it comes and goes with the tide. It was full of happy families, groups of friends, lots of children, and couples. Everyone enjoyed themselves while looking at the view of San Sebastián, and swimming in the refreshing water. All of us walked down to the end of the peer and jumped off into the ocean. The water feels soft on your skin, and is a perfect temperature. It is so clear, we saw a fish from above swimming beneath the water. We swam for a while, and then got back up to jump again! Some of us flipped and others screamed. This was one of my favorite parts of this trip so far. I felt pure happiness, and freedom. I could have stayed there for days. I cant believe the life I am living. I wish I could stay here in San Sebastian forever!

Our Mount Urgell hike

When I first got my acceptance email into the San Sebastián program, the first thing I did was a deep search for the city on Google images. Once I found the most beautiful pictures I could find to text to my family, (in hopes I would convince them for me to go) I became ecstatic for my trip. The picture that stood out to me was taken from a satellite which had showed the bright blue bay that surrounded Santa Clara island, and La Concha beach. It also is directly diagonal from Mount Urgell, the hike we made today as a class. 

Our hike took place on our eight day of the trip and for the first time, it didn’t rain one bit. With the prior weeks forecast being a mix of cloudy and showers, I could feel the overall morale of the town spark. There were thousands of people spread across the beach, embracing the basque sun and heat. The other part of the population who wasn’t lounging in the sand was lined up on the sides of the street, waiting for the Tour de France race contestants to pedal through the central town streets. The beating sun holds the ability to show off the oceans vibrant blue water in a way I’ve never seen before. Among seeing the countless hands holding gelato, I heard laugher and I could feel an overall sense of joy.

The hike of Mount Urgell was one activities planned for our class that I was looking forward to the most. Personally, I love heights and will take any opportunity to hike in new places. Our class started our hike off with a set of extremely steep stairs off of Mari Kalea, which featured the direct gleaming sun. Fortunately this was nothing like the rest of the hike and our group was able to complete it with much more ease. 

At the end of the steps, awaited a smooth paved trail for us to walk on. Professor Zabalbeascoa directed us towards the hiking route with a shortcut, which only took us a group about 15 minutes to complete. The image from the Google search I made months prior to this journey was the motivation that got me through the leg pain. “Ooooo”, “beautiful” and many more compliments was expressed from my peers and I when we reached it. Experiencing the beauty of the Basque land on the ground level was one thing, but standing on top of Mount Urgell heartily called for instant admiration for this trip and country as a whole. 

The view showed the three different aspects of San Sebestian; the sea, the city and the countryside. The longer I looked at the contrast between the three areas, I began to realize how truly versatile the land of San Sebestian is. Looking inward towards the city I traced my bike route to school with my eyes; which involves many twists and turns. The memories of riding my bike through the chaos of the city is something I am confident I will never forget. Having a new perspective of land from a high place has always had the capability to cultivate a feeling of calmness within me. All of the bikes and cars seem to move in slow motion while you watch them from a high place. 

Our group also made our way towards the other side of the mountain that faced the sea. Past the Santa Clara island, as far as the human eye can see, there was nothing but the water of the Atlantic and two sailboats. The sun reflecting off of the water looked heavenly and the mountains in the far distance really added to the scenery’s beauty. The mountain also has the monument of the Sacred Heart, a figure that reaches 12.5 meters and towers over the mountain. 

There were a few hidden gems of this attraction includes the museum and outdoor bar. Our group just barely made it in the museum with just fifteen minutes until closing time. It was unexpectedly spacious and even had a movie theater. We shuffled through the museum and made our way up to the roof, where the Sacred Heart monument was. The view even more windy and higher than before. 

The other aspect of this attraction was the El Polvorin Bar, a classic Basque-style touch. This was the most amazing and candid looking bar I’ve ever seen. With a wide variety and mix of different cocktails and beverages being served, there were many people, young and old drinking in unison. If there’s one thing I learned about San Sebestian, it’s that the locals and their bars don’t discriminate against their senior citizens. It is known in Basque culture that removing isolation towards the senior population of a community, leads to longevity and a higher quality of life. One of the first things I learned during orientation for the trip was San Sebestians average life expectancy is extraordinarily high, rounding about 81 years for men and 86 years for women.

I’ve already made plans to return to Mount Urgell simply to experience gorgeous scenery once again. 

A Few Hours in Getaria

Stepping off the bus from San Sebastian into Getaria, this town in Spain displayed a unique sense of aura right upon entry. The town was bright and lively, teeming with people who were having conversations, going out for food and drinks, or even simply taking a walk. You could smell the light scent of the beach and the breeze that followed along with it, creating the perfect environment for the day that was planned.

First we all gathered to the famous statue of the Spanish Basque explorer, Juan Sebastian Elkano. It was explained to us that his voyage was very important as it was a continuation of Magallan’s exploration after he passed in the Philippines. Elkano’s voyage was very significant in crossing to the pacific ocean in search of spices in different parts of the world. This statue of him is an important landmark in the town of Getaria.

Statue of Juan Sebastian Elkano.

For our day in Getaria, professor Zabalbeascoa had planned the day out so that we were able to do a wine tasting at a vineyard by the name of Gaintza Txakolina. This vineyard is a family owned business who puts hard work into their products and have even begun to grow in different areas of the world. Before arrival, many of us including myself, have never thought about the intricate and meticulous process that goes into the creation of the wine people drink. We were extremely fortunate to be able to receive a tour of the vineyard and the production system of the wine to be able to see how it is formed. Knowing all of the manual labor it takes to create these delicious drinks gives us all a new perspective. After the tour, we were all able to sit down and try three types of wine that were created from this vineyard. There were three sides (one for each wine), that were each selected to perfectly match each wine that was served. The first wine we tried was paired with anchovies, the second was white tune (my personal favorite) and the last wine was paired with a unique chocolate.

Part of the vineyard overlooking the town.

At this wine tasting, we also were able to see the differences between wine and how factors such as a bit more aging can completely change the taste of it. Being able to learn about the fermentation process and the gas exchange that grapes and fruits go through in order to get these tasty beverages was very fascinating.

After the vineyard, we were able to walk around and grab pintxos and gelato which were very tasty. Walking down the streets of Getaria and getting to explore during our lunch break was amazing. Being able to see the lively culture around us was lovely. People were dancing, celebrating an event, greeting each other and the friendliness of the town was very refreshing to see. There were many restaurants and bars to choose from and you could smell the aromas from outside it was so hard to choose! I ended up getting a pintxo that was chicken with a white sauce and it was delicious.

Before going back into San Sebastian, we were able to visit another famous landmark of Getaria which was the Balenciaga Museum. It was a quick visit considering time escaped us quicker than we thought, but we walked through the museum looking at each piece and trying to analyze what each of these outfits could have been used for. Each piece was extremely unique and it was very captivating as to how clean and sharp all of the clothing was. There were some interesting articles of clothing that left us wondering what the purpose to it was or where someone wore that to. Along with this, there were also sketches on the walls and clothing pieces that were open to see how the inner workings of the clothing worked. This was as if we were seeing the vision of these fashion pieces from the perspective of how and why they were created. It was very fascinating to see the sketches and to also see the pieces come to life in the museum.

Visiting Getaria allowed us to experience more parts of Spain outside of San Sebastian and learn more about the culture and history here in Spain. We were able to genuinely see the inner works of how things are made, first from the vineyard, then from the Balenciaga Museum. It was amazing being able to visit this peaceful, yet lively town. This day trip was something that was eye opening, relaxing and beautiful and is definitely worth seeing to get a glimpse into Basque culture.