12/08/18 to 14/08/18
A cool two and a half months have passed since I last wrote (on this blog, I did manage to scrawl some entries in my physical journal), my exchange semester has ended, and many things (and people) have been left behind. I’m back in Melbourne, for better or for worse, and I’ve decided that now is as good a time as ever to resume my reflections on what was perhaps the most eventful half-year of my life. I may be on the other side of the world, but back to Europe we go.
The decidedly subpar experience I endured at Stansted Airport landed me in Biarritz, which was one of two ways I could easily reach my first destination, San Sebastián. I’m pleased to report that the flight itself was uneventful (one of the few instances where you’d be pleased by such a description), the legroom was sufficient, and I didn’t even mind the blatant advertisements they had on the back of the headrests.
Upon arrival, I was hit by something I hadn’t quite experienced in London: heat. It was humid, the sun was beating down, and I was rather disoriented. After heaving my backpack off the baggage carousel, nervously glancing at the families reunited around me and reminded that I was very alone, I trudged out of the airport towards the bus terminal.
« Est-ce que ce bus va a San Sebastián ? »
« Ouais. »
« Et ça coûte combien ? »
And just comme ça, I had successfully navigated my first transfer of many.
I’d completely forgotten that France and Spain were part of the Schengen Area, meaning you can pass between borders without any inkling that you’ve just entered a country with a completely different language, culture, and way of life. As such, it was only when I glanced down at my phone after having spent the good part of an hour peering at the rolling hills of France (or were we already in Spain?) that I realised we’d gone international. A text from RateAdvice informed me of this, with a cordial ‘Welcome to Spain’ preceding a list of numbers and slashes that I paid little attention to.
I found my hostel with little difficulty (Google Maps has my gratitude), and after carefully arranging my ‘important documents’ in an unnumbered locker, I set off to explore. Without any specific landmarks in mind, I chose a direction instead: head towards the beach, and then across the river that splits the city in two.
On the way to my unspecified and unknown destination, I stumbled across an art gallery staging an Andy Warhol exhibit.
There’s something about art galleries that comforts me – the clicking of shoes across wooden floors, the lowered voices that people adopt when faced with art, the silent observation of gallery staff. It’s my universal safe space, and perhaps that was what drew me to it in the first place: when confronted with the unknown, seek the familiar. It also helped that the exhibition texts were written in English, as I’d been feeling quite alien when confronted by the abundance of Basque signs and menus in the city. The woman at the cash register asked me if ‘hablas castellano’ when I was purchasing a tote bag. I did speak some, technically, but my poor knowledge of Spanish political history meant that I was thrown by the word ‘castellano’. I’d never come across it before in class, because of course, it’s more widely referred to as ‘español’. I’d failed to realise that in the country of España, formed of disparate kingdoms each with their own distinct culture, ‘español’ is perhaps not the best name for the language. So, she ended up speaking to me in English.
The rest of my stroll proceeded as I’d wished it to: in a leisurely manner, and against the soundtrack of my ‘español’ playlist. For those interested, this largely consists of reggaeton, with sprinklings of the acoustic croonings of the likes of Pablo Alborán (‘Solamente Tú’ may just be my favourite Spanish song de todos los tiempos). Despite my having only been in Spain for a few hours, I felt myself being lulled into the slowness of their way of life – with nowhere to go and nowhere to be, I had all the time in the world.
I had two nights here, and only one full day, so I’d planned to head up Monte Igueldo via the funicular the next morning. Unfortunately, the meteorological gods weren’t in accordance with this plan, and they decided to do this:
Which was lovely and considerate of them. As a result, my pictures from the top – ones which my sister had replicated (well, not quite) when she’d visited two years prior, look quite ominous. Nothing like the sunny oasis suggested when you Google Image the city.
I should also note that there was what appeared to be a theme park up the top of the mountain, albeit a rather sad one. There were so few people that the workers outnumbered the guests, and I spent some time watching the rollercoaster rumble sadly out of sight to the mix of reggaeton and American music blasting from the radio. The entire situation felt a bit surreal, and I decided it would be best for me to seek shelter before the skies opened up.
As they say, there’s no better shelter than a shopping centre, so to the nearest shopping centre I went. Disinterested in the chain stores that populated every floor but the basement, I went down to the supermarket for my first true exploration of the day.
Visiting supermarkets is something of a hobby for me, because they vary so widely from country to country, and even between different chains within the same country. I like looking at the items they stock, how much of each item they stock (as this reflects what residents typically consume), the brands they have, the kinds of items they sell home-brand, where the items are placed in the store, and so forth. It’s really a lot of fun if you go into it with an open mind. As for what I learnt about the residents of San Sebastián – not to stereotype, but there really were fuckloads of olives. They also had these cool ‘weigh it yourself’ machines that I’d previously seen in Lyon, where you press the number code associated with whatever produce you’d picked out, and it prints a label with the according price to be stuck to your bag and scanned at the register.
After this, I resumed my stroll, having decided that the threatening skies wouldn’t act on whatever it was they were threatening. I walked past the cathedral (one of many that I would walk past and decide not to enter), and back in the direction of the hostel in search of some carbohydrates. After a quick text consultation with my sister and the use of some questionable (but workable) Spanish, I was rewarded with this:
Revived and rejuvenated, I headed back towards what seemed to be the city centre, where I stumbled upon some celebrations for La Semana Grande. This was a festival I was unaware of prior to landing in Biarritz, where I was enthusiastically informed of its occurrence by passport control staff when they learned where I was heading. I’m not going to pretend I know what was being celebrated, although knowing the Spanish it was probably nothing at all (I was told that Spanish people will find any excuse to have a party. Not my words). I was, however, quite bewildered by what I saw, which was men (or women) in full head masks chasing children down the street, and hitting them with what appeared to be large, slightly deflated balloons. If anyone knows what the rationale behind this is, I’m all ears.
I later found myself in front of a fountain at the end of a pedestrianised street, shielded by trees from a sky that was now clearing. An elderly woman came and sat on the opposite end of my bench, and I got the sense that she wanted to talk. Not wanting to be rude, but also feeling insecure about my conversational Spanish skills, I glanced over at her to acknowledge her presence. She said something which I didn’t quite understand, but which I assumed was about the beauty of the fountain. ‘¿Es muy bella, no?’ I said, and she seemed content with my response. After a few minutes, the fountain abruptly stopped spouting water. The woman looked at me and said what I presume was Spanish for ‘finished’, before smiling and hobbling away.
I continued bumbling around the streets in the area, stopping to take in a Mariachi band and starting to recognise stores and squares I’d walked past before. What I learnt from my time in San Sebastián is how much you can do and see when you travel on your own – with no one else to consider but yourself, you have complete and utter control of how you spend your day. Admittedly, this is somewhat helped by the fact that I walk very quickly (as verified by frustrated friends and family), but I stand by the efficiency of the solo traveller. Looking back on pictures I took of that day, I’m really quite amazed at what I managed to fit in, and how familiar the city was already beginning to feel.
That night, I found myself in cordoned off area, waiting for the fireworks to start. The International Firework Competition is an integral part of La Semana Grande, the festival whose object of celebration remains elusive. While we (myself and other disgruntled tourists) were waiting, the sky decided to act on its earlier threats of rain, complementing it with claps of thunder and flashes of lightning. I stayed for the fireworks because I’m not a quitter, but I booked it back to the hostel as soon as the last spark fell from the sky.
The next morning I marched to the underground bus terminal, direction Barcelona. My time in San Sebastián was spent largely alone (I didn’t find my hostel particularly social, and a solo traveller I met later in Barcelona shared this sentiment) and marred by bad weather, but I don’t regret my time there. That said, hostels were more expensive than what I’d found in other regions of Spain, which is something to bear in mind if cost is a deciding factor for your travels. I wouldn’t spend more than two nights there as I didn’t find a wealth of activities to do, although this obviously depends on how you like to pace your own travels. I also imagine that a slower pace would be likely if you were travelling with others, meaning more nights might be needed.
Ultimately, San Sebastián was a pleasant (if not rather grey) introduction to the Basque region, and of my trip in its entirety.
Until next time,