Getting to Know Bilbao

February 16, 2018

This post comes from Emma Herdman who is currently studying in Bilbao, Spain from Tufts University.

I have been in Greater Bilbao Area for about two weeks (crazy that it’s only been that long) and it’s already hard to narrow down what to share. I am slowly having to accept that the time has passed for me to blame jetlag for my lack of understanding Spanish and general confusion, but being immersed in another language and culture is definitely tiring at times. For instance, as I am sitting and writing this in a cafe sipping my 0,70€ coffee, a man with a walkman just came in. I haven’t seen one of those babies since my Nanci Griffith phase of 2004 ¡que guay!

I’m going to refer to my location as the Greater Bilbao Area (or as I like to call it GBA) because I actually live about 15km (or around 10 miles) outside of Bilbao. My campus, the Leioa campus of Universidad del País Vasco, is also outside of Bilbao itself. It takes about a 30-40 minute commute to get into Bilbao for me, so to say I live in Bilbao would be like someone from Wilmington Delaware saying that they live in Philly, or, to make a more relatable reference: like someone in Hoboken New Jersey saying that they live in New York City- it’s an easy reference for tourists but now that I’m a ~local~ I know what’s up. The commute is definitely something to get used to, but the reverse side is that I live within a half mile of two beautiful beaches where I someday might surf (or more likely will watch friends surf) and can currently go on on lovely runs along the coast. The GBA is also super mountainous so all in all the landscape has been a huge joy.

View from a running path in la Playa de Arrigunaga

I am definitely learning a lot: first of all that it is spelled “Bilbao” and not “Bilboa”, and second of all, that being immersed in Spanish for real is way more intense than taking language classes in school (yeah yeah this one is obvious but let me express my truth). For the sake of conciseness, I am going to break down my past couple of weeks using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: physiological, safety, social belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

Physiological Needs: I guess this one is self-explanatory, there is an ample supply of clean air and water here in Bilbao, so I am in great shape on that front. I am staying with a “host mom” which has been a wonderful experience so far. My host mom is super sweet and we actually share a fair amount of the same interests, she’s is an alternative energy therapist who is into yoga and the power of crystals which makes her probably the most compatible roommate I’ve had thus far in life (sorry to my roommates at home).

The food: Basque country is known for having amazing food, and at the expense of being “that person” it is a little bit harder to navigate if you don’t eat meat. Luckily my host mom is also a vegetarian so I have at least one ally so far; however, because Bilbao is right on the water there is tons of great seafood… stay tuned I may dabble in fish later in my travels.

Some local street art/ probably the universe’s way of telling me to eat seafood/ shoutout to all the Pisces

Safety: The city of Bilbao is really easy to navigate and so far I feel very comfortable going places by myself. The main danger here is that street signs and metro stops tend to be in Euskera which is the Basque language (and the oldest language in Europe) so there is no chance that I can pronounce the names of most of the locations I am trying to reach.I highly recommend the app for traveling without a data plan. It allows you to access maps without data and save locations of the places you need to travel between so you can easily find them again.

Social belonging and Esteem: These two kind of go hand-in-hand. So far I have had almost entirely positive interactions with the people I have met. A cool thing about being directly enrolled at Leioa is that I am usually one of the few (if not only) students from the US in my classes, which forces me to get out of my comfort zone and talk to other people in Spanish. However, there are ample opportunities to meet other international students too through groups like ERASMUS, which can be a fun social safety net. I would say the biggest hurdle I have faced on this front is my [lack of] style. At home, a flannel and leggings usually work as an outfit but here I definitely lack the suave European aesthetic. Luckily, painting in smocks is a great equalizer.

Self Actualization: We are getting there, baby! It is so great to be enrolled in the school of Fine Arts here in the GBA. I guess we will have to touch on academics a little more in future posts, but in general, there is a wonderful mix of independence and instruction in my classes which I am really enjoying and definitely will continue to explore as I ~grow as an artist~ this semester. I am for sure still adjusting to my life here, but it has been fun acclimating and taking time to discover my surroundings independently and with other international students.


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