It was Friday night and we all packed into the back room of a restaurant for one final meal together. Three weeks ago at this time we were all strangers to one another. We took a chance, and all decided to fly to a foreign country in order to expand our horizons. Now we are joined around the dinner table as friends, nearly at the end of our adventure. Over the course of the last three weeks I have been able to take part in a plethora of new experiences which all culminated in this dinner. I was able to taste some of the best cuisine in Europe through a Pintxo tasting tour. I got to participate in a cooking class at a local gastronomic society, where we were welcomed in and treated like regulars. I got to witness a jai alai match in the neighboring town of Hondarribia. I was also able to venture into France and witness some ancient witches caves.

Now as we sit around this table and share one last example of culinary excellence, it’s time to digest not only our food, but also what this trip meant to us. This time of reflection allowed me to recognize several major takeaways. The first thing I realized is that despite coming from different countries, speaking different languages, and having different cultures, people are fundamentally very similar. It was astonishing to me just how much I was able to understand what people were saying to me even though I understood little to no Spanish. For instance, our host mother Maritxu was a sweet old basque woman who graciously opened up her home to us. She did not speak any English and we spoke limited Spanish. When I first discovered this I was slightly panicked and thought that it would be a difficult 3 weeks. However, my initial worries were quickly put to rest once we actually met Maritxu. She seemed very happy to have us in her house and cook for us. We were also able to decipher almost everything she told us after a good while of gesticulation and slow speaking. Also everyone we met at Lacunza was very friendly and eager to share stories with us. Through this process I was shocked to discover just how similar we were to college students from all over the world.

As the farewell dinner carried on, and we devoured 5 giant steaks, another aspect of the trip dawned on me. This was the idea that exploration and immersion truly are the best ways to learn. We have only been in San Sebastián for 3 weeks, but I can confidently say that I have begun to feel a sense of belonging in the city. During the first few days we would wander the streets and get lost down the alleyways of the old town. However, by the end of our trip we were navigating the streets and neighborhoods like locals without a second thought. We would walk into a few of our favorite pintxo bars and the bartenders would already know our order. I also found myself explaining much of what I learned to the other students we met at Lacunza. This deep level of understanding would be borderline impossible without physically traveling to the city, and getting lost in the culture.

By this time in the feast we were all stuffed, and exhausted. To end the dinner we were all served a traditional basque dessert which was very good and oddly reminded me of popcorn. Then Julian gave us some parting words to wrap up the trip and that was it. I don’t think anyone fully accepted that the trip was over until the walk home. I walked back through Gros, crossed the canal, and went along the boulevard back to Maritxu’s apartment. The walk home was almost as if I was able to relive the trip as we passed each location that we visited and the memories came flooding in there was a certain stillness to the city. It was a strange sensation of joy and sadness. When we returned to Maritxu’s house we went up to the roof and took in the city for one last time.

The next day we woke up, made our beds, gave Maritxu a hug, thanked her for her incredible hospitality, and were sent on our way with one of Maritxu’s infamous peaches. Rob and I silently walked to the bus station eating our peaches and knew that it was time to wake up from the dream that was San Sebastián. Although I am uncertain weather or not I will be able to return to this city in the future. I do believe that we have made memories here that will last a lifetime. This adventure has allowed me to experience something profound, and for that I am eternally grateful.

I Don’t Want to See the World

Waking up on a Saturday morning is a hard task on its own. When my alarm clock went off at 9am the first thought on my mind was: “Why am I going sight seeing right now?” Nevertheless, we all showed up on time and filled in the bus, ready to go. The destination that we had in mind were the Witches’ Caves. The bus ride including stops for sight seeing and stopping for food took probably around 4 hours. My energy was at an all-time low. I thought my body was going to fail me. But it didn’t, when I saw the Caves and the beauty of the naturally formed rocks and the water that flows and drips to create a background noise that could only have been described as serene, I only felt amazement. When Professor Z told us that we were then going to hike for 15 minutes to see a lookout of the surrounding area I was excited. The same person who was slumped in his seat was ready to trek up a mountain to see the countryside. Looking back at it now I’m still surprised I wasn’t dreading the Saturday morning hike.

I had never been out of the country before going on this trip, so I had just assumed that it would be like any other family vacation. I would be dragged to places that I wouldn’t want to go and I would deal with the obligatory tourist destinations in exchange for the time off from responsibilities. I first realized that this would not be the case when we drove to the city and we were driving through valleys and mountain ranges, me staring in awe.

This feeling of wanting to explore and see everything is completely new to me. If I spend any time in my host mother’s house, it feels wrong. Not because she is a bad host mother, she is great by the way, but because I have the freedom and opportunity to see something new everyday.

Which brings me back to the Caves. I knew what was in the Caves before I left for the trip, I saw pictures and even voted to go there at a pre-trip meeting. This simplification of traveling by myself I think has been limiting me. I saw the Caves in the photos, but I didn’t experience the Caves. You smell the humidity, you feel the smooth rocks that have been eroded by water, and the most defining image, the light creeping in from the mouth of the cave illuminating the stream that runs through it.

I’ve been thinking, and I’ve come the conclusion that the difference between this trip and the ones that I’ve gone on previously is independence. When I’m going on a trip with my family, I never have time to breathe. I never really have time to really take in what is happening. This trip has opened my eyes to what travel is meant to be.

People always say they want to “See the World” but I think that’s wrong, you should want to “Experience the World.” I have been seeing the world for my entire life leading up to this and what do I have to show for it? I can say “I’ve been to this city,” but what does that do for me more than just being another notch on the belt. I would say San Sebastián is the first city that I have truly lived in besides my home town. I know how to walk around this city better than Boston, and I’ve been here for 2 weeks while I’ve been going into Boston for my entire life. I’ll tell people here that I’m from Boston to make explaining where I’m from easier, but this trip has made me think about the meaning of what I’m saying. This trip has made me want to go back to all the cities I’ve visited over the years. I want to experience those cities rather than just go through the motions.

This trip has given me something that no other city or place has been able to for all my nineteen years, an appreciation for the world’s places and the different things and culture you’ll see in it.

A Conversation With Marti Buckley

Marti Buckley is an American author best known for her cookbook Basque Country: A Culinary Journey Through a Food Lover’s Paradise, which was released September 2018. We had the opportunity to sit down with her one on one and listen to her story. To be honest, I did not know much about her or her writing prior to this conversation other than having heard Professor Zabalbeascoa’s previous praise and recommendation of her book. However, I didn’t give it too much thought because how interesting could a cookbook really be? My opinion changed drastically after listening to her speak. 

Buckley began her story by establishing a connection between us and herself. She explained how her affinity to Basque culture began when she was just 21 years old studying abroad in Pamplona which is only an hour drive from where we are in San Sebastián. She also made it clear that the Basque Country was not her top choice to study abroad at since her heart was set on Madrid. Looking back she could not even remember why she wanted to be in Madrid so badly, since she instantly fell in love with the Basque way of life. It goes to show that everything happens for a reason considering this trip essentially paved the road for the rest of her life. When she got back to her ordinary life in America, she went through many jobs including various writing gigs, but what stood out the most was that she actually got hands on experience in the kitchen for some time. She learned the hard way about the stress that goes on behind the scenes at a top notch restaurant and she had scars on her arms to prove it. This experience allowed her to gain a new mentor and insight in the kitchen. However, after being fascinated with the Basque Country in college, she always felt the urge to go back, so when the opportunity arose to return to Spain years later, she took it in a heartbeat. Her one year trip eventually became her new life here in the Basque Country.

Along with her tips on the best pintxo bars and sit down restaurants in San Sebastián, Buckley offered some more valuable life advice. She emphasized that we should let the flow guide us and not rush the process it takes to get to wherever our final destination may be. Although the Basque Country accounts for only a small portion of Spain and France, Buckley realized that she still had so much to learn about this small area before she could write her book. Similarly, back home we get so caught up in the difficulties of the semester that we fail to appreciate the beauty of getting an education. However, this past week and a half in San Sebastián has been a different sort of experience. Each day I have been able to absorb so much of the Basque culture that would not have been possible without physically being here exploring the city and interacting with the locals. It was not until this experience that I realized how big the rest of the world is. I grew up in the same small city of Revere for 20 years and though I have travelled within the US, this is my first time in Europe. Buckley as well the international students I have met in my Spanish class at Lacunza have inspired me to travel beyond this trip.

Some may say that the Basques have a hesitancy to try new things mainly due to the fact that they had to fight to defend their land and language for so long. But, as Buckley, said a huge factor which makes Basque cuisine so unique is the simplicity of it. That is what I am enjoying the most about this experience. Almost every street we walk through has a small market offering fresh produce. There is also an abundance of fresh seafood markets with a wider selection of products that I have ever seen. People here take their time walking through the streets — really appreciating and taking in the area around them. The atmosphere is so different from back home where it feels as though everyone is racing to get through life. It is this simplistic way of life which I hope sticks with me upon returning home. I have learned here that there is no direct path in life. We will encounter detours that will help shape who we are for better or worse. And who knows, I might even move to Spain in the future.

Kaixo from San Sebastián!

Euskaraz badakizu? Ez? (Do you speak Euskera? No?) It’s okay, neither do I, and only around 700,000 people do. Euskera, the Basque language, is unlike any other in the world. It has no relation to any other language, and no known origin, and it also happens to be the oldest living language in Europe. Despite its mysterious history, Euskera is a vital aspect of the Basque culture. Encompassing parts of Northern Spain and Southwestern France, the Basque Country has a unique history of its own involving conflicts between culture and politics resulting in attempts at eradicating the language. Luckily the Basques held strong, and Euskara recovered to the point where it is considered a co-official language of the Basque Country along with Spanish.

The boat rocked back and forth like a roller coaster as we approached the little island in the bay. Although less than 10 minutes in duration, the boat ride offered picturesque views of San Sebastián’s coast line. The clear, blue water was vast in comparison to our little boat, and even in the bay, sheltered from open water, the waves were rough. The wind swept through our hair as we took in the panorama— La Concha spanned off to our left, filled with people basking in the sun and playing in the water and Mount Urgull stood behind, displaying the giant statue of Jesus looming at its peak. Around us, paddle-boarders, kayakers, and sailers moved up and down with the waves, our boat careful not to get in their way as we rode along.

Once safely docked and onshore, we climbed up Santa Clara Island to a patch of grass overlooking the water where we began our discussion on the novel Homeland by Fernando Aramburu. Examining various parts of Basque history and culture through the context of the book, we were given a deeper understanding of the importance of the language, creating a lead-in to the main event— the Basque Language class. Stuart, our Euskera instructor, had us enthralled with his copious amounts of jokes and accents in an attempt for us to retain the information. We read aloud words in a circle, trying our best to pronounce the foreign words and sounds before learning their meanings. In the span of 45 minutes we had been given just a taste of the difficulty of Euskera. Starting with basic greetings, we quickly moved on to numbers and simple questions like zein (who), non (where), and zergatik (why). The class concluded with common Basque names, and nature vocabulary terms before attempting short role-playing conversations. As I write this blog the day after the class, I can confidently say I only remember about 5 words because of the difficulty and irregularity of the language.

In the US, we take language for granted.  Some travel around the world with the assumption that wherever they go there will be people who can speak English—this is certainly not always the case, but people who speak other languages don’t have this same thought process. As English-speaking Americans, we forget how much of an impact language has on culture until we come into a head-on collision with a language barrier. Not only have I encountered Spanish and Basque on this trip, but Russian and Thai (from other students living with my host family), Dutch and French (from students in Spanish class at Lacunza) and so many more as well. The list of languages I have encountered while here goes on and on, but the way that they all interact together is a thing of beauty.

Stuart leading the class

 I took Spanish in middle school and high school and wasn’t thrilled by it, becoming frustrated with the various conjugations and vocabulary, but here in Spain, I couldn’t be more fascinated by it. Actively learning Spanish and immediately using it in the real world outside of the classroom offers another perspective, emphasizing the importance of communication. What has also become apparent is how many languages Europeans are taught in schools, a stark contrast with the American school system in which I was raised. The students in our Spanish classes in general are more or less fluent in around three different languages, having been taught in school from a very young age. Whereas most of us on this study abroad trip are in the most basic levels of Spanish.

Because the Basque language is specific to the Basque Country, preserving it is paramount, so much so that some children are taught strictly in Euskera until a certain age in which Spanish is slowly integrated as well. I am in awe of those that can bounce back and forth between the two even in the same conversation, and I now try to listen for Basque as I walk around this beautiful city that I have come to call home for this past week and a half. So, to all my friends and family back in the US: laster arte (see you soon). Adventure awaits.

Getting A “Taste” of an Exclusive Basque Society

To the regular tourist, the seemingly ordinary set of stairs we walked down looked as though they led to the kitchen of a restaurant. When walking by, many tourists do not know that they are passing by one of the third oldest gastronomical societies in San Sebastián, Spain. This specific gastronomical society was called Ur- Zaleak, and it was established in 1926. Upon entering the underground society, we were greeted by two men, one a volunteer in the society, and the other known as “the president.”  A gastronomical society consists of a group of members who come together to cook, socialize, eat, and drink.  

Staircase down to the gastronomical society

Historically, the Basque culture is extremely matriarchal, and women run the household, doing the majority of the cooking and cleaning.  A few hundred years ago, Basque men began to grow frustrated that their homes weren’t necessarily their spaces, because the women had the final say. Therefore, Basque men created these gastronomical societies, known in Spain as “sociedades.” Initially, women were not even allowed to enter the societies, let alone become a member. These societies were the escape places for men, because they were able to have time away from their wives and families and be able to share good food and drink that they proudly made.  To this day, women are still not allowed to become members, however they are allowed to come and eat the food that men prepare, and children are allowed to come as well.  Women are still not allowed to cook or clean the dishes, they just solely come to eat, drink, and socialize. 

In order to be allowed inside a gastronomical society if you are a non-member, you have to be invited in, so it was pretty amazing that our group was allowed to take part in this experience. In order to become a member, there are a few rules. First and foremost: women are not allowed. Secondly, if either your father or grandfather was previously in the society, you are allowed to become a member. If neither your father nor grandfather was apart of the society, then a person who wants to join has to know two people in the society, and those two people have to sign papers verifying the character of the person applying to the society. Once a person becomes a member, they are given an electronic key to the club, which grants them access to the club 24 hours a day, every single day of the year, and the club is always stocked with loads of food and drink. If a person who joined the club stole all of the food and drink one night, the two people who signed on that person’s behalf would have to pay the club back for their losses. This is a way to ensure that only people who truly want to be in the society and can be trusted are allowed in.  The two men from the society who led our cooking class explained to us that in all of the years this society has been running, not a single person has stolen anything. 

Currently there are 144 members of the society that we visited. The members of the club purchase the food and drink from the city, and bring it to the club where they prepare all the meals. At the society, members are charged for drinks, more than the price they are purchased for, as a way for the club to make money.  What I found extremely interesting was the fact that the members do not keep any of the money they make, as they are an official non-profit company.  Every cent of their profit either goes back to the club to help purchase ingredients, or it goes back into the community.  Members volunteer their time in the community, and organize charity events. The founders of the club did not want the society to turn into a business. Therefore, in the society’s laws, it states that if the members want to sell the building, all of the money that is made in the transaction is to go to charity, not to the members, as a way to preserve the society.  

Going into the event, I was worried that some members were going to be arrogant since they are apart of an elite society, but all of the members were so relaxed, kind, and inclusive and we shared so many laughs. I was expecting the society to have a very modern kitchen, as they cook such complex dishes. However, the kitchen looks as though it hasn’t been updated too much since it’s creation in 1926, and I really liked that aspect of the society, which preserves the past. There truly is no need for a glamorous kitchen, when the purpose of the society is just to share good food, socialize with great people, and give back to the community. 

After introducing ourselves to the two members who led our cooking class, we all dove right in. We put our aprons on and immediately began cooking. We started by preparing the three pintxos (small appetizers). The first pintxo we made consisted of tuna, onions, and homemade mayonnaise. The second consisted of mushrooms stuffed with ham, garlic, and cheese. And the third pintxo we made, which was the first pintxo ever created, consisted of an anchovy, a Basque pepper, and two olives. (All of which we’re extremely delicious!) We ate these pintxos while we were preparing the main dish, which was a tuna and potato soup.  For the main dish, we set the table and all gathered around to share a hearty meal. The dish was centered around fish, as the Basques are known for being fishermen. After dinner, we made dessert, which was similar to French toast, and it was called tarrija. 

Tuna Pintxo
First pintxo ever created (anchovies, olives, and peppers)
Mushroom Pintxo
Main dish: tuna soup!
Desert (tarrija)…. yum!

During the evening, it was so great to see everyone laughing, cooking a meal that we would share together, sharing good food and drink, and learning about the Basque traditions. Food is very much a part of the Basque culture, so it was truly an honor to be allowed in the kitchen to learn how to prepare these dishes. 

The entire night our whole group was socializing with each other and the members, and having a pretty amazing time. Personally, this was my favorite excursion of the trip so far, because it was something we all played a role in completing and upon seeing the finished products, we were pretty amazed at what we had created.  We not only created many wonderful dishes, but some life-long memories as well. Being able to say that we stepped foot in and cooked in such an elite society is something we will never forget!

The Txakoli Wine Mixer

Up and around the windy road we drove with breathtaking views of the beautiful coastal town Zarautz. We spent the 30 minute drive ooolah-ling while snapping several pictures. The view of the ocean on one side and a view of perfectly green hills on the other, there was just so much to see. But the best view of them all was visible at the top of the mountain at our excursion spot for the day, the Txakolina winery. The hundreds of grape vines running through the green hills resembled an image you would see on the label of a fancy wine bottle selling for a pretty penny. This place was incredible. 

Behind the wooden castle like doors of the winery, we met our tour guide for the day. The women was so passionate about what her family has been producing here for years. The tour offered my classmates and I to get an inside look at how this family of several generations managed to produce these beautiful wines literally in their back yard. The view the winery offered was amazing but every hidden detail behind the process in making each and every bottle was so unique. From the vine to the flower to the fruit to the wine, every inch of production happened right here at the winery. There were different rooms in the winery were the different steps of the process took place. First there was a machine that separated the grapes to get the perfect pieces for the wine. In the next room over, the process continued. Here the wine sat in enormous barrels while it was carbonated. The process shocked us all and it was truly amazing.

The women explained that June was the most important month in the whole wine process, if the weather isn’t exactly right, the year could be a terrible one. When we asked what the best year was for her family’s winery, she couldn’t recall but she could sure remember the worst, 2013. After the Summer months in late September the grapes would be picked and the wine process would begin. In just three short months, the wine would already be in the bottle. The unique process this family used, allowed for the wine to be drank immediately after being put into the bottle. The tour taught us so much and we were all very excited to give the wines a taste! 

Up the spiral wooden stairs we went to a dinning like area where our tasting would take place. On the table was a beautiful spread. There sat two bottles of wine, one white and one rosè next to twelve delicate wine glasses, one for each member of our group. Next to the wine was a cheese platter with a delicious chorizo meat. Both the wines and the spread were amazing, most of the class enjoyed the white wine the best. As we enjoyed the wine and snacks, many of us purchased the wine to bring back home as gifts to their family, to share our the once in a life time experience with the ones back home.

After enjoying the small snacks and wine, as a group, we spent the majority of the rest of the time admiring the scenic view. The view at the winery was unlike any i’ve ever seen before, despite the rain, the pictures we took were unreal. We took several photos of one another, some solo and some with friends. Before arriving, Julian told us that this would be the perfect spot to take a new profile picture for our social media pages and boy was he right. The scenery was picture perfect and the memories and photos taken here will last us all a life time. 

But the winery was so much more then just delicious wines and small snacks with beautiful views, the winery immersed us into the basque culture even more. Being in the hills located in the center of the basque region with a women who was so proud of what her family has accomplished, was quite inspiring. All their dedication put into the wine, has paid off. Their small basque family winery is expanding and are now sending their wine to the States to California!

Thus far, I think the winery was one of the most beautiful locations we visited on our trip and yet we still have two more weeks to soak in so many more! Anyways, cheers to the remainder of our trip in San Sebastián! Adios Amigos!

The Fastest Ball Sport in the World

In an attempt to be independent and adventurous, I decided to travel to the Spanish city of Bilbao for one night a day ahead of the study abroad program in San Sebastián. It was mostly to save money on flights, but additionally I was looking forward to learning more about myself as I travelled solo. While it was a good time, it was also lonely, and I was looking forward to meeting up with the group once everyone arrived in Spain. I could not wait to experience all of the excursions planned for us, and being a sports fan, I was especially excited for the Jai Alai match we would be attending the first week. It was one of the activities that most interested me from the start, and the match turned out to be a great way to experience culture and bond with the other members of our group.

As a group, we travelled to the small coastal town of Hondarribia to watch the Jai Alai match, a sport that is unlike any other. The town has amazing architecture with clear French influences that reminds you of your proximity to France, which is just on the other side of a nearby river. Being in the city takes you back in time, a century other than our own. All of the buildings seem to have a purpose in the landscape, making the city picturesque and timeless. Visiting encourages you to think about the past and about all those who have come before. What really drew me in is how old everything is, and how it all still looks beautiful. The United States has incredible history, but nothing compares to the examples of ancient history that exist here in Spain and all over Europe. A building in Hondarribia is still standing from the year 958, a fact that displays the intelligence of humans then. Exploring the town, even for a short amount of time, was a window into the past that will stay with me forever.

The gorgeous Basque region has many incredible things to offer, but the one that has most surprised me so far has been the sport of Jai Alai, the fastest ball sport in the world. Because of how fast the ball moves, it requires great athleticism, skill and bravery to be an accomplished player. The athletes are working extremely hard and it is easy to see how difficult the sport is. Watching the game is an event, one that entertains and excites, and any viewer can see the amount of perseverance that it takes to become talented in the sport. Even though we went in without any knowledge of the rules or the way the game is played, we were able to catch on and enjoy alongside diehard fans.

The energy of the match is incredible. The fans are passionate, which creates an environment that is fun to be a part of. It is obvious that Jai Alai is an integral part of the culture. It is unique to the Basque people, just one of the many ways they continue to celebrate their history today and continue their cultural traditions into the future. I feel truly lucky to have gone to the match alongside so many excited Basque fans who seem to find a good time anywhere. Their energy is infectious, and I hope that I can bring it home to experience life joyfully.

Being able to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience was unforgettable. I not only loved the cultural experience, but also being around the new friends that I never would have met had it not been for this trip. It was a great way to be immersed into another aspect of Basque culture and to get involved in an event that so many people love. Seeing the fans enjoy the sport was a peek into what Basque life is like, and it was a demonstration of a life lived for happiness. Being social and present in the moment are two things that are valued here in the Basque Country, and I am learning to not always look ahead to what is happening next, but to live in the now. Being surrounded by Basques reminded me to appreciate the little things in life and not to get too caught up in the stress and uncertainty. There is a lot to be learned from the Basques, and I am so glad I am able to be their student, even if it is just for three weeks. 

The city of Hondarribia

Parte Vieja Pintxo Tasting Tour

Our class embarked on a cultural journey through San Sebastián. I learned that in the Basque culture, food might possibly be the most essential aspect which connects everyone. Visiting all the pintxo bars opened my eyes to a whole other aspect of the Basque country just by simply observing people conversing with extraordinary food. Pintxo’s are a respectable way of socializing in San Sebastián for locals and tourists at any age and anytime. 

In America, we typically serve large portions and a full plate of food at each meal. I feel like this resembles the American mindset of “living large” and it’s what we are accustomed to. Being in the basque country I’ve had much time to appreciate the little aspects of life and I say this quite literally because pintxo’s are little cuisines. However, the term “little” should not be taken lightly. It allows us to explore flavor, simplicity, and deliciousness all in one bite with the satisfaction of feeling full. Pintxo’s are made up of any number of food combinations that would not necessarily be found in America. That being said, even though it might be a strange combination to Americans, it’s part of life for the Basques and it’s recommended to give everything a try. The best aspect of pintxo’s, in my opinion, are the smallest ingredients that can easily go unidentified but add much more flavor. There were many I tried that I couldn’t tell one ingredient from another but it was still delicious. It’s important to keep an open mind when trying these delicate finger foods because it can be difficult to know exactly what has gone into it. 

Each time we went to a new pintxo bar, I was amazed with the food over and over again. There was no single pintxo that tasted or resembled the one before it. Even though there are many kinds with different ingredients, there wasn’t a single one that I didn’t enjoy. Every pintxo was unique and had a story behind its creation. While hoping from pintxo bar to pintxo bar, it’s easy to get lost or just get absorbed in the everyday life of San Sebastián because this phenomenon of food is embedded in their culture. I noticed that each bar we visited had different characteristics but they were all beautiful in their own way no matter how busy or loud they were.

At the bars, Professor Zabalbeascoa would order our pintxo’s for us and typically pay when we were finished but once in a while it’s required to pay beforehand. We would all gather around a table or anywhere we could find space to try these delicious foods. Then we would discuss what we tried and how we liked it. Some of the dishes were classics such as the gilda or something unique to that one bar. It’s amazing how fast news can spread through word of mouth around the locals because if one bar doesn’t live up to Basque expectations, it will be completely empty. One tradition of the pintxo bars is napkin throwing on the floor to show that it serves great food and has a welcoming atmosphere. So on your next visit to San Sebastián, be sure to stop at the bars with the most napkins on the floor!

While walking through the streets of Parte Vieja, it occurred to me that even though there were thousands of people “bar hopping”, it still didn’t feel like a city. It felt like a culinary hub shared by people with a similar appreciation for the food of their culture. If this were to occur in Boston, it would feel congested and rambunctious which is just another reason why San Sebastián should take pride in their special traditions. It’s incredibly inspiring how embedded the Basque people are in their culture. I admire their willpower to stick to their ways even throughout all of the change our world endures. Although times are changing, pintxo’s will hopefully always stay true to their originality and flavor. 

At the end of this pintxo experience I found that all of us were fascinated with such delicious food. As a group we plan on continuing to learn about and enjoy more pintxo’s especially during pintxo pote which is a great time traveling from bar to bar on specific days for cheap prices to encourage socialization among tourists and locals. It not only promotes the bar and allows them to recruit new customers, but it encourages us to participate in another culture and practice our Spanish. During the rest of our time here I’m sure we will be consuming many more pintxo’s and experiencing all the local flavor of San Sebastián!

Serendipities in San Sebastián

It would be an understatement to say that I was a nervous wreck in the days leading up to arriving in San Sebastián. Traveling with a group of people I barely knew to another country while equipped with minimal Spanish seemed like a recipe for disaster. As I was boarding my plane on Saturday, each step I took was bringing me further and further from my comfort zone, and I was absolutely terrified. Just five days later, I can already feel myself changing. I’ve discovered new foods and doing things I never would have considered doing before. I’ve always accepted the fact that I’m a Type A kind of person – I like to have a plan and stick to that plan. However, bit by bit San Sebastián is teaching me how to relax and go with the flow. The culture here allows people to lead a totally different lifestyle from the way most people in the Northeast live. People are friendlier, and they’re not afraid to take the time to stop and smell the roses. Perhaps that’s what makes us Americans stick out so much before we even open our mouths – we like to move at a fast pace and are more likely to keep to ourselves (though perhaps that’s generalizing). 

Since July 25th is the Feast of Saint James, most schools and a lot of businesses in the Basque Country are closed, which means we had the day off from our Spanish classes. Myself and a couple other students had planned to go surfing on our day off, so we headed to Zurriola Beach. Upon arriving at the surf shop, we learned that they didn’t have any openings for a lesson for a group of our size that day. This minor inconvenience turned out to be a blessing in disguise because we decided to walk across San Sebastián and go paddle boarding at Playa de Ondarretta instead.

While walking through Parte Vieja towards the beach, we saw people young and old playing music in the streets, and tourists and locals alike enjoying the holiday- there was an energy in the air that was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and it was incredible. We walked past La Concha, admiring the architecture of all the old buildings and local art along the coast, and taking in all of the beauty San Sebastián has to offer. 

We rented paddle boards from a local stand located on Ondarreta Beach called Lo Kayak, and within minutes I found myself yet again pushing myself outside my comfort zone. Before I would have never considered paddling across a bay to an island, I would have been too scared – and yet there I was paddling to Santa Clara Island. It was so peaceful out on the water, and being out in the bay allowed me to see San Sebastián from a different angle that was truly breathtaking. We got to the island and tied our boards to a buoy, deciding to swim to Ghost beach (aptly named due to its disappearance and reappearance depending on the tide). As I floated in the water, it was hard to not acknowledge the fact that it was quite serendipitous that we had ended up having such a fun time paddle boarding when we were originally supposed to go surfing.

Later that day, we were supposed to hike up Mount Urgull and discuss Fernando Aramburu’s novel Homeland as a class. Unfortunately, the weather had different plans in mind. We had made it no further than the first lookout when the heavens opened up and it began to downpour. Luckily, we had had some time to take pictures before the rain became too heavy, but unluckily we were unable to have our original conversation about Homeland because we couldn’t find a quiet place indoors to talk. This turn of events ended up being serendipitous as well though. We were able to have an impromptu tour of Parte Vieja, learning about different pintxo bars, trying battered prawns, and some of us even had the chance to try the world’s best tortilla – you have to sign up on a list to get a piece of the tortilla and they only make two a day!

From there, the group ended up going to Pintxo Pote in Gros, and we were able to try several different kinds of pintxos and drinks from restaurants throughout the neighborhood for only €2.50 a pop! It was fun to experience the local culture, and push myself outside of my comfort zone by trying to order only in Spanish.

More than any prior experiences I’ve ever had, San Sebastián has taught me about going with the flow and enjoying the ride while it lasts. I am grateful to be able to immerse myself in such a unique and colorful culture. As Lois McCaster Bujold once said, “It’s a bizarre but wonderful feeling, to arrive dead center of a target you didn’t even know you were aiming for,” and there is no better way to describe the feeling that every experience I’ve had in San Sebastián so far has given me.

Learning Through Flavor

While studying historic events and languages is a great way to learn about various cultures, my favorite would be exploring the cuisine that a culture produce. Food can tell as much of a story about the area as a tour. San Sebastian (or “Donostia” in Basque) is in no shortage of traditional and creative dishes which present the incredible ingredients of the city. The Basque Country is known for their high quality foods. With much of the land along the Atlantic coast, incredibly fresh seafood, such as cod, octopus, and shrimp, is often the star of the dish. Jamón, a cured Spanish ham, is also very popular. Whole pork legs (foot included) can be found in almost every bar hanging from the ceiling. Pintxos are one of the best ways to experience the food here. Made on small plates and in bite-sized portions, they offer an affordable way to experience a true work of culinary art.


Led by our professor, we strolled around the neighborhood of Gros to experience the excitement of pintxos for ourselves. Going into the tour I was preparing myself to try food I have never tasted before. I knew it was almost a guarentee everything would be delicious but regardless of that, I was still a bit nervous to step out of my comfort zone.


Our first stop, Gure Txoko, was where we were presented with a skewer containing a pepper, olive, and anchovy. The thought of all these ingredients was so unappealing to me that I was beginning to regret my previously adventurous attitude. Despite these thoughts, I decided to eat the whole pintxo (all the ingredients are meant to be eaten in one bite) and actually enjoyed it. With the skewer, we each had a glass of Txakoli, a white Basque wine. The bartender dramatically poured the pale liquid very high above the glasses. The drink itself is a dry acidic wine that is very young, ideally consumed within a year of being made. Something I found interesting was the levels of natural carbonation the wines have depending on where it was made. The region our wine was from had the greatest amount of bubbles Txakoli is able to have. The second bite we had was a slider style sandwich with an entire soft- shelled crab in it, which I loved. Afterwards we were instructed to throw our used paper napkins on the ground. The best pintxos bars are known for their floors littered with napkin piles, a sign that their dishes have attracted many customers. These little traditions make going out to eat especially fun.

Soft-shelled crab slider




Something very noticeable was the approach to going out to eat and to service. Getting a meal in San Sebastián is something that one should take their time with, and even when you finish you shouldn’t rush out. It is more of a social experience that service staff respects by leaving customers to sit and enjoy their time. I think this method could teach Americans to stop and take time to appreciate their food and company.  The process of buying pintxos was something very unusual. While not all major tourist restaurants follow this rule, many bars serving pintxos will ask the customer to tell them what they had eaten rather than keeping a list of the foods they ordered. Relying solely on the honor system is rarely seen and shows how much both restaurants and customers respect the process of going out for pintxos.


Our second stop was to try one of the best tortilla de patatas, an omelet dish with potato and onion. This was one of my favorites and can be found across Spain. The best tortillas are a little gooey inside. I would absolutely recommend this dish to introduce anyone to Spanish and Basque cooking. 


The most traditional Basque food on our trip was found at Casa Senra, where we were served a huge spread of oxtail, whole shrimps, salted cod, fried peppers, and cow cheek. Like before, these were not foods I would have ever ordered at home, but were absolutely delicious. The cow cheek in particular was the most flavorful and tender beef I ever had—which I would not know if I did not allow myself to experience something outside of my norm. 


Because I put myself in uncomfortable situations, I was able to take advantage of the spectacular food that is not available in the U.S. and really enjoy my culinary tour. So much of travelling includes pushing past your comfort zone to allow growth. By eating pintxos, I was able to connect to the Basque culture through something they are most proud of (their food) and gain an authentic experience I will always remember. 


Tortilla de patatas


Cow cheek