Highlights from Bilbao

December 12, 2017

This post comes to us from Blanche Froelich who is currently studying abroad in Bilbao, Spain. Blanche is a Visual Arts major at Bowdoin College. 

It has now been one month since I arrived in Spain. How strange it is that an entire month, a ninth of my, and nearly a quarter of most of my American classmates´, time here is over. It puts into perspective how short a semester of college is. Measuring time here with numbers is a little frightening; we have so few months and the clock is unforgiving. (I may have had one too many teaspoons of existential crisis with my café con leche this morning). The math condenses things, simplifies them, reduces experience down to something that flies by with the flipping of calendar pages.  I’m don’t really consider myself to be a math person. And to say that time is flying by would be inaccurate. In reality, the idea that everything I’ve seen and done so far has been in encapsulated in only four weeks is absurd; it doesn’t seem possible that in only four Monday mornings, four unhurried Wednesday afternoons, and five Friday nights, I could have met the people I have, had so many moments of joy, made so many mistakes, and learned so much. In this sense, time here seems to go on and on. It makes the fact that my stay here is so short in numbers feel less bitter, less frightening.

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and author who researches human senses and the way we perceive reality. According to some of his articles about the human perception of time (or if we’re being honest, his TED Talks I’ve watched while being a queen of procrastination), our experience of time has a lot more to do with our mental engagement with our surroundings than the ticking of any clock. It’s something we’re all familiar with, how the familiar drive home can seem to drag on in the moment but leave almost no trace in our memories. It’s because as we grow accustomed to our surroundings, we stop seeing them; our memories become less detailed, and time seems to compress. But of course, the opposite is also true. When even the walk to the metro is full of novelty, our memories of the day will seem to stretch on forever.

This phenomenon has been responsible for the magic that has been this first month. My time has not only been punctuated by the big events, the “highlights”,  so to speak, but the quiet and secret moments of discovery, the wonderful and soft background of just being in someplace new. But when things at every turn seem noteworthy, it can be hard to know what to share.  Here are some of the highlights, and just a few of the plain old lights that have colored my first month in Spain.

The API Bilbao program has a four-day orientation in Madrid before heading to el País Vasco by bus. Although I was still recovering from jetlag for most of this, it was a great few days. Our first afternoon the other art student and I started walking down the narrow streets, following our feet, exploring without agenda. I loved this part of Madrid. The energy and vibrancy of being in a bustling city blended seamlessly with the sense of age and charm. I think what sticks out most clearly in my memory of that first day are the sounds. There were musicians playing accordions and guitars on seemingly every other bench and street corner. It made walking through the parks feel like a scene from the very cheesiest of movies. Were those musicians pandering to my very predictable and touristy desire to feel like a cheesy movie? Sure, but I’m not above falling for a little pandering. I finished the night in the Plaza Mayor, sharing some tapas with two of my new friends. We talked about what had drawn us to Spain, and why we’d chosen Bilbao. It was the first of many discussions with those two people, and it holds a special place in my heart as the beginning of friendships that now mean a great deal to me.  That night in the hotel,  unable to sleep on my new schedule, I listened to opera singers and sounds of the parties going on in the streets below until the morning.

Hall, Courtyard, and  one of the numerous ceiling frescos in the Royal Palace in Madrid

API does a great job of balancing group trips and activities with leaving space for independent adventures and rest. Our Madrid orientation included trips to the Prado Museum and the Royal Palace. The Prado is such a tremendous museum and we really only skimmed the surface, but my first trip did not leave me disappointed. I’m a museum person and have loved art history my entire life, so any day I get to see works of El Greco, Velázquez, Hieronymus Bosch (El Bosco), and Goya in person qualifies as a good day. The Royal Palace was a fascinating look at historical royal life, and the lavishness was overwhelming. Equally interesting was the Royal Armory, located in one of the side wings of the palace. It featured a fabulous collection of weapons and armor from Spanish monarchs dating back to the 13th century.

We also took a day of orientation to travel to Toledo,  a city with over 2000 years of history. There we visited el Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes, Santa Maria la Blanca, (an important synagogue with an amazing history that captures the collision of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity that is at the heart of Toledo) and checked out “El entierro del señor de Orgaz” (a painting by El Greco with the power to make any student of art history drool). As wonderful as our time in Madrid and Toledo was, nothing felt better than making the journey to Bilbao, watching the landscape change from the dry, and sunny plains around Madrid to the rolling, green hills of Basque Country. We drove into the city where we were met by our host families and whisked away to our new homes.

Left: Cloister Garden at el Monasterio de San Juan

Fully unpacking a suitcase you’ve been living out of for a month, knowing you’re finally going to be staying a while, must be one of the greatest pleasures of life.

The first few days were fairly relaxed, but figuring out the rhythm of daily life here took some time. Of course, I’ve been putting together my own new routines, but more challenging than that has been adjusting to the Spanish pace of life. Not that I’m complaining. Activity here, in general, is shifted to later in the day than what I’m accustomed to in the States; it’s not unusual to walk out to an empty and silent street 9:30 on a Saturday morning or to see entire families together enjoying a drink at 11:00pm on a Thursday. And the famous Spanish siesta is no joke. Although everyone may not actually nap between 2:00 and 5:00 pm, the vast majority of shops close, and life slows down. To the uninitiated, this can be a little disconcerting, but I’ve quickly come to appreciate the time to breathe and rest that is so inherent in the Spanish day.

Although I’ve enjoyed some languorous days, I’ve been keeping busy. API organized activities in the city have been great, (our paella cooking class and the bike tour especially) but the quieter afternoons with a friend or two have really become what I look forward to most. The Guggenheim, the Fine Arts Museum, and the Basque Museum are all terrific and definitely going to be frequent haunts.  Even when I start the day without a clear agenda, I never seem to have trouble finding entertainment. Last weekend we discovered the beautiful flower market along the river in Casco Viejo and learned that many of the old factories are now home to little flea markets and cafés. And I couldn’t summarize this month without mentioning the trips to the ciné; they may be a bit of a splurge, but I justify it by considering it language practice. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I can understand at most of the films.

Casco Viejo´s wonderful Sunday flower market

In addition to all of the organized and accidental things we´ve done in the city, we´ve made several trips as a group to nearby sites and towns. We spent a morning ziplining outside of Santander and lounge around on the beautiful Playa Mataleñas for the rest of the day. I wasn´t planning to spend so much time on beaches when I chose Basque Country, but the sunny afternoons I´ve spent gazing out at the sea have been some of the best.

Last weekend, we took a tour of Gernika, where we discussed the history of Basque government, and visited an air raid shelter, a somber reminder of the legacy of the Spanish Civil War and the bombing that made Gernika famous around the world.  We finished that excursion with a hike to San Juan Gaztelugatxe, a 10th-century hermitage dedicated to John the Baptist. Famous for its natural beauty and long history, this site was also the filming location for parts of the seventh season of “Game of Thrones.” All in all, I’ve loved our group excursions; they’ve helped to put my experience into a broader and richer context, and they’ve been so much fun.

Of course, as this is a study abroad program, I’ve obviously spent a fair amount of my time in classes, but I’ve opted to save discussing them at length for another post. For now, it’s sufficient to say that the joy of getting my hands on clay for the first time in months was great, and I´m excited to walk into school each morning.

Sometimes, I´m unsure if my fascination with Bilbao comes more from the fact I´m in Spain or that I´ve never lived in a city before. Either way, the novelty I’ve been presented with thus far has been enough to both make my time here seem endless and make me wish for more.  lt is obvious I´ll have plenty to explore in the coming months, and I’m looking forward to all the adventures to come.


You May Also Like…