Living Slowly

March 22, 2018

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

A lot has happened in my first month or so of living in Spain. I am again realizing that I won’t be able to capture all of it (or even most of it) but the goal is to at least create a real-life highlights reel without overly ~romanticizing my abroad experience~. At this point I definitely feel more settled into my life in Bilbao, it has been helpful to hear from other friends who are abroad and learn that it is a pretty universal experience to feel out of whack to some degree for a little while when beginning a semester in a new country. In some ways I feel like I am a first-semester freshman again except everyone is speaking a different language. Luckily I have made some wonderful friends and have gotten the chance to explore the city and cook some meals with people from tons of different places and languages. A few highlights of things that have happened since my last blog are as follows:

  • I moved! I am now living in the actual city of Bilbao!
  • My program, API, took a trip to London. I saw a lot of art and some friends from home it was a lovely time.
  • Went on my first date with a local. It was all the weird parts of first dates except with conversation on a kindergarten level in Spanish
  • Got a gym membership, got a card a local thrift chain
  • Saw a lot of cathedrals
  • It snowed in Bilbao for the first time in 33 years
  • I aged a year

Scenes from the snow day even though all of the snow melted by the afternoon. These are my friends Isa, Elena, and Teyuna.

The biggest adjustment is the general pace of life. Some things are way slower here- like when you order a coffee in the morning when you have 5 minutes to class you might watch the barista talk to someone in line for 5 mins, help another customer, and go take a smoke break before getting to you. Also, people walk slowly. One of my main personality traits (if you can call this a personality trait) is my penchant for brisk-walking in city streets. A girl loves jostling and being jostled, the pure, fabricated rush of it all. It reminds me of the ephemerality of life and how important the things I am going to do are. Here I am pretty much always trapped at a strolling pace behind people happily walking arm in arm and enjoying the scenery. It’s so annoying.

Other things are so fast paced that I pretty much miss them happening at all. Most of the local bars are standing only. People go, order a drink or a pintxo, and move on to the next place (another thing I should touch on is that the drinking culture here is wildly different than back home. When I go to get coffee at 11 am and most other people are sipping a glass of wine). Currently, I am writing this in one of the few cafes with space for sitting and working. I am the only one here. Everyone else got their coffees and bounced ASAP.

The fitness culture is seemingly recently taking off here. In some ways, Bilbao reminds me of how I imagine the US was during the 80’s. People have mullets and facial piercings and listen to a lot of US pop hits from that era. I get the feeling that 80’s fitness icons like Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons would fit in amazingly well here. Yesterday I went to the weirdest spinning class at my university’s gym. Imagine being in a room with 30-40 people in super serious cycling outfits while what I can only describe as house reggaeton BLARES from the speakers and a highlights reel of CrossFit competitions is projected onto the wall. The instructor was wearing a cycling… onesie? And periodically pausing the music to yell things like “focus on the beat! Go to the rhythm! Up! Down! Up! Down! Up up up! DOWN! FEEL THE BEAT” and whistling at us to signal when the beat was going to drop. The music was switching between sandstorm and various remixed reggaeton songs for a full hour.Luckily we have had some days of sun and warmth so I have gotten to run and generally be outside more.

A sunny day in Algorta

I am slowly adjusting to the new pace of life too. Sometimes I miss my bus because I let myself spend a few more cozy minutes in bed (and then I make a full 3-course breakfast) (and then walk at a leisurely pace to the bus stop). Sometimes I lose my deodorant on the bus and don’t replace it for 3 weeks. Many times I go out to meet friends for a quick meal and don’t get home until 5 am. I am also just learning about living in a completely new country. I kind of keep re-realizing that things are different here. Notable examples include:

  • It’s considered “male” to shave any body part- “female” people are more likely to wax. This doesn’t apply to me since I have decided to self-actualize into someone who doesn’t remove so much body hair but I did find it weird that shaving is a gendered activity.
  • Everyone wears slippers indoors- it’s considered kind of rude or at least offputting to be barefoot. I don’t have slippers so I have just been wearing the same wool socks to walk around my house for weeks which is definitely less cleanly than my bare feet would be.

Basque autonomous country signage in a coffee shop

I feel like I need to quickly touch on my classes before wrapping this baby up. I have been working on a lot pretty wide range of projects this semester. All three of my studio art classes are project-based and heavily rooted in the process of artmaking (as opposed to the technical approach I am used to). I am in one design class called “art and function” and our first project is to make a “representational object out of wood. That was the only explanation we received. I asked the professor for tips because I have never done any woodworking/ carpentry and he said: “oh that’s fine just use whichever medium you are comfortable with.” I decided to try and use wood anyway so I can finally live out my dreams of being a craftsman and learn how to use heavy machinery. So far I have mostly just measured stuff and let my professor use the heavy machinery but being an apprentice is better than nothing! It has been liberating but also frustrating to have such blank canvas to work from but it is challenging me to think of my artwork as something with an actual purpose. That is cool but I also struggle with feeling like I am taking myself too seriously. But whatever being abroad is about challenging yourself and growing!


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