Traveling and Studying

April 16, 2018

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

Hola folx and welcome to my third blog post aka the censored (or if you prefer: polished) version of my journal where I talk about my thoughts and feelings and barely have time reveal all of the things I have been doing because there is just Too. Much. To. Cover. Ah time, how she flies. I am having a really hard time wrapping my brain around the fact that I am halfway through my semester at University of the Basque Country here in Bilbao. In some ways I feel like I just got here because there are so many things I still just do not know- like how to use my university email address, or what to do when your laundry has been hanging out to dry for 5 consecutive rainy days. At the same time I definitely feel settled into a routine. I have my classes, I am slowly making friends that are on the level that their contacts in my phone are more than just “*insert first name* Bilbao”. There is less pressure to go out all the time and I feel more… normal in general. I guess I am now that my Transitional Crisis has kind of passed I have a lot more mental capacity to worry about all of the things I want to do with my remaining time here! A girl loves to existential crisis hop.

This whole studying abroad concept was such a long-anticipated life event that I’ve realized I tend to think about it still in theory- either as being far away on the horizon or already in the past. There is a lot of pressure to do a million things and hop between dozens of countries as an American student studying in Europe (in my social circles at least) and for me, the constant planning and anticipation sometimes make it hard to experience my life on a day-to-day basis. Whew! Doing a ton of self-discovery! At this point in my time here I have done some international and local traveling, and I have also spent a fair amount of time just getting to know Bilbao on my own and with friends. It is a hard balance to strike because in some ways it feels like the whole world is at my fingertips now that I can take a one or two-hour flight to a totally different country basically whenever I want. But then I remember I am not made of euros and it’s ecologically irresponsible to take that many flights so maybe I should relax. More importantly, I am realizing now more than ever that a weekend is only two (2) short days which is surprisingly really not enough time to imbibe the essence of a new country and culture and immerse oneself in the rich history of their surroundings.

Some colorful Apartments in Casco Viejo, Bilbao

Now that all of that reflective stuff is out of the way, I would like to talk about my amazing 48 hours in Amsterdam during St. Patrick’s Day weekend! Man, what I cool place! I can’t believe I just uhhh have access to a country 10 degrees north of New England where everything is so different and whimsical. I don’t know if you have ever been immersed in the ambient noise of the Dutch language but I highly recommend it. It sounds kind of like english’s quirky cousin. “Hello” is just “hallo!” Very cheerful. The craziest part of all was that I ran into a huge handful of people that I had no idea were also in amsterdam! The world is just a teensy tiny little place, huh? While walking to meet up with a friend for dinner I completely unexpectedly saw another friend who lives in Ireland as she biked by. Turns out she’s studying abroad in Amsterdam for the year, I guess our it was our irish St. Paddy’s day luck that brought us together completely coincidentally. Almost immediately after that I stopped into a cheese shop to escape the cold and ran into 5 friends from my university in the US! They were also just dropping by for the weekend unbeknownst to moi. I do not really know what this good fortune means but I assume it’s a cosmic message about the warm and inviting city that Amsterdam is and that we should all return to see the flowers in the spring. I also got the chance to go to the Van Gogh and Moco museums which were both incredible. We all know Van Gogh, but seeing his paintings in person, all of those wild and obsessive brushstrokes, was a pretty surreal experience for me. The Moco was exhibiting work from Banksy, a sexy and mysterious street artist whose work (like all artwork) is very political and scrutinizing, as well as the iconic pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. There was a lot of yellow in the weekend’s palette which is really more than I could have ever asked for.

Lots of yellow: Aoife and I finding each other in Amsterdam (I am apparently playing it cool but this was a very exciting moment I promise)

But, of course, I have also had my share of travel woes. This definitely comes along with the sheer amount of transit I have been a part of over the last two months. Things happen, like missing both a flight and a bus in one weekend, or just generally having to figure out stressful logistics like an adult, which is not my strong point. However, I think I am slowly becoming a better planner and also realizing stuff like maybe I don’t need to be jet setting at all times and instead spend some more relaxing weekends in Basque country, which is reallllly not a bad place to be.

Roy Lichtenstein Pop Art

By the time I got to the Amsterdam airport I was (pretty) ready to return to sweet Bilbao. After some travel anxiety with finding my way to the airport, I was comforted to know I was in sitting at the right gate because everyone there had weird hair and at least one facial piercing.

One of my favorite days so far in Bilbao was a couple of weeks ago when I friend and I went to Zorrotzaurre Art Work in Progress (ZAWP) which is an artist market/ community space open every Sunday. Since Bilbao is a just recently transitioning from a very industrial city into more of a global, hip, young one, the architecture of the city is in flux. There are parts with a ton of new development and modern buildings (notably the iconic Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry) but there are also parts of the city that are pretty much desolate and filled with vacant warehouses. This obviously makes for a lot of raw space to work with and artists and community members have been creating popups and just generally doing culture in it. ZAWP is continuing the social, economic and cultural revitalization of the neighborhood “through creation, intervention, and enhancement of the memory.” Here people can gather to make art, eat food, dance, host workshops, and any number of fun things.

Sunny Seating area outside of a ZAWP studio space

Something thing that is definitely still weird to me is the complete 180 difference in academics here in Bilbao versus at home in the States. Part of the difference comes from being in a fine arts program in Bilbao- my classes are all project based which means I do not have exams or papers for the most part, which also means I am being confronted with the realization that I tend to assign value to “classes” and “learning” based on “productivity” which is pretty much a self-constructed metric that I am having to reimagine in a new educational environment. While another large part of the difference comes from the general pace of academics and the difference in expectations I have in my classes here. With art projects, it’s slightly harder for me to define my productivity which makes me nervous. Sometimes I think to myself “hm it’s crazy I am allowed to spend all day just painting for school” but then I am like, “hey, guy, let’s examine where that idea is coming from” and then I realize I have been conditioned to value a specific kind of academic practice which glorifies tangible results and grades and drawing concrete-ish conclusions within strict deadlines when maybe it would be better if we just took some time to live in the process of things and experiment and maybe get some skills along the way?? And then I am like oh boy I have to apply for internships, huh?

I guess that is all to say that I am learning that even learning itself can be a learning experience. And also that if anyone knows of any jobs in Boston for when I get back, please comment below.

I will close this post with a quote from an essay by Joan Didion a friend recently sent to me. The essay is called “Goodbye to All That” and it is a reflection on the author’s time as a young woman in New York. At one point she writes “that was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”

So yeah it’s official, we’re all developing the very fibers of our being moment to moment! Joan makes a good point. If you can believe it, which I can’t, the things that are happening are all important. It all counts! Even artmaking! And with that, I am currently on spring break so I am off to jet set some more but hopefully this time with some more intentionality.


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