Story and photos by Kate Wessels
In April 2022 I made the decision to begin my Northeastern journey abroad. Seven months later I found myself walking through my new home, Bilbao, Spain, the cultural capital of the Basque Country. It was the same day that Spain would play Costa Rica in the World Cup, yet not a single person in the city was wearing a jersey. I thought to myself, “the game is today, right?” Whenever Bilbao’s soccer team, Athletic Club, played, the streets were a sea of red, white and green — the colors of the Basque flag. And yet, on the day of a very important match for Spain, no support was shown. In fact, I always spotted more Basque flags than Spanish ones flying in the city.
This is just one example of how many people in the region feel more Basque than Spanish. In fact, hundreds of years ago, the Basques had their own sacred laws and legislative body. On a day-trip to Guernica, I stood under the very oak tree where Basque leaders would meet to discuss political matters. I also learned that in their language the word for Basque is Euskaldun, which translates to “a person who speaks Basque.” This shows how integral the language is in the makeup of Basque identity. Not only is it the oldest language in Europe, but Basque also has six dialects and no relation to any other living language. Even when outlawed during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, the people preserved the language through secretly teaching it in their homes. Basque is now one of the five official languages of Spain. While today Castellano, or Spanish, is the dominant language in the region, I always saw Basque written on street signs, in airports, in grocery stores, at my university and heard locals on the street greet each other in Basque.
The Basque people survived dictatorships and threats to their language, so they are proud of the culture they have protected for generations. During my time as a visitor, I really tried to appreciate and pay attention to my surroundings. In Guernica we saw a replica of Picasso’s famous work of the same name, which depicts the tragic bombing of the city in 1937 under Franco’s orders. I remember staring at the painting for a long time; the Basque people never forgot about what happened — I won’t either.
Lying on the beautiful beaches of San Sebastian, I discovered another reason why the Basques are so proud of their home. Their serene beaches are fantastic and the perfect places to disconnect for a few hours. The Basque people truly know how to enjoy life; it was through creating small daily moments of joy, like my trip to San Sebastian, that I remained motivated in my work throughout the semester. In Bilbao I studied at the University of Deusto, which sits across from the world-famous Guggenheim museum. Passing the large titanium building to and from class every day, I realized that it was the sole reason I was in the city, as the museum’s arrival in the late 90’s put Bilbao on the map. However, flooding money into tourism was slightly controversial at the time. I often wondered if I was an unwanted guest in the eyes of locals, who didn’t encounter Americans as often as people in Madrid or Barcelona, yet most of my interactions proved otherwise.
I remember grabbing pintxos, or the tapas of Northern Spain, with my friend at our favorite place, Bar Ikatz. As I ordered tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelet), I found myself in a conversation with a couple seated at the counter. In Spanish, we talked about where I was from, where I was studying and how I was enjoying Bilbao. When I sat down at a table to eat, the woman turned around and said, “On egin.” Bon appetit. I smiled and decided to whip out one of the few Basque phrases I knew, responding with, “Eskerrik asko.” Thank you. Despite being a visitor to the region, I, too, was able to contribute to the small conversations that kept the Basque language alive. Although spoken regularly in smaller towns, the usage of Basque has experienced a slight decline in urban areas like Bilbao. After we finished eating, the couple bid us farewell with the usual “Agur.” Then, to our surprise, they flashed surfer hand signs. I may not be a surfer from California, but it seems they were trying just as hard to connect to our American culture as I was to theirs.
I frequently experienced kindnesses similar to this, especially in my neighborhood, Sarriko. I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t greeted with a smile at a restaurant, and in cafes people always brought their plates up to the counter to save the workers from having to clear tables. At the grocery store, I noticed how the cashiers truly valued their regular, local customers. They were very patient and accommodating, and would help customers load their groceries into a cart to make the walk home easier. If I ever dropped something on the ground or tripped, the people around me would immediately hand me my item or ask if I was okay. Although I never attempted this, I even felt Bilbao was safe enough for me to walk home alone at night. These things may seem like common courtesy, but I believe you don’t experience this kind of neighborhood trust and helpfulness in a lot of American cities.
I am forever grateful for the time I spent in Bilbao. Living in a city with fewer tourists than other parts of Spain, I was forced to step out of my comfort zone by speaking Spanish in all of my daily interactions, and became used to not having many American amenities or foods. Most importantly, I got to know the industrious, proud and resilient Basque people, and the beautiful region they call home.
The story is featured in VOL 7 ISSUE 2 SPRING 2023 (Print Edition)