Like most people, when I thought of Spain, my mind instantly jumped to images of flamenco dancers, matadors, tapas, siestas, and the Running of the Bulls. However, after living just one week here, I know that Spain has so much more to offer.
For years I had been reading blogs, travel guides, and articles about Spain, even following stories from El País and other Spanish newspapers, yet I can easily say I have learned more about this country in one day here than in all my studies beforehand. Nothing could have prepared me for how intense and unique the culture actually is.
I’m studying abroad at la Universidad of Deusto in Bilbao, the largest city in País Vasco, in the very north of Spain. Both the university and the city itself are absolutely beautiful. The blend of modern and traditional architecture all throughout Bilbao is stunning. I constantly find myself staring up at the buildings when I’m walking around. I haven’t discovered an ugly street in the city!
Life in Bilbao is nowhere near life back in the States! Before arriving here I knew that the Basque language was still spoken and used, but not to such a large extent. In Bilbao, almost every sign on the streets is in both Castilian Spanish and Basque. I hear commercials, songs, and people talking in Basque regularly. And, many names of businesses, foods, and streets are all in the language as well. It is an isolated language like no other in the world, so for me, there is no way of figuring out what everything means. It looks and sounds so foreign! Also, the regional pride of being Basque is much stronger than I had anticipated. Immediately when I arrived in Bilbao, I was told that I was in Basque Country, and that it’s “¡Viva País Vasco!” and not “¡Viva España!”. All over the city I have seen the Basque flag flying and have yet to see the Spanish national flag anywhere. The regional identity definitely overshadows the national one. Nonetheless, everyone still speaks Spanish, so I’ve had no problems communicating with people.
Besides my never-ending confusion with Basque, the biggest “culture shock” has been eating in Spain. I felt like I was starving my first couple days here because I could not figure out dining and grocery shopping. First, lunch is the main meal of the day, having two, three, or even four courses. It’s also eaten much later than in US, starting usually around 2pm. Restaurants feature a “Menú del día” that includes the options for the courses and dessert for that day. All throughout the day, restaurants and bars have selections of different pintxos (the Basque version of tapas), Spanish tortilla, and assorted little sandwiches sitting on top of the bar. These are bought as afternoon snacks with your café con leche or later for dinner with a glass of wine. I’m still getting used to knowing that the food sits out in the open air, but that’s just part of it! Now, I will say, everything I have tried so far has been absolutely delicious! I don’t think I’m ever going to be skipping dessert!
Eating had been such a challenge for me because everything here has strange hours. I still haven’t figured out what times the market across the street from my flat is open! Generally most businesses, stores, and restaurants are closed from 3:30/4:00 to 6:00pm. Only the bars stay open! It’s not technically a “siesta”, but it basically serves as one. I think the US should to adopt this tradition. I love having the down-time to rest or do homework.
That covers the biggest “shocks” I’ve encountered. But each day brings a new adventure with new discoveries. Even though I’ve had to adjust to some things, I’m wholeheartedly enjoying every minute of living in Spain. It is such an amazing experience.
So, I’ve only spent a week here in Spain, but already when I think of the country now, my mind jumps to too many images to process. All its different traditions, languages, foods, regions, etc. make it such a vivid place. There is so much rich, interesting, and diverse culture that you truly have to see to believe. So come see Spain for yourself, because it’s absolutely incredible.