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.