Thursday, September 30, 2010


Thanks to my Basque amiga, Osane for the following correction...

I appear to have made a mistake on the transcription of a Spanish saying:

It's not "El que no pide no mama" it's "El que no llora no mama."

In English, that would be he who doesn't cry, doesn't breast feed...

Not sure how I feel about crying in order to breast feed, but in either case I am still happy to be in San Sebastian. 

I stand corrected.

So, as they say thanks in Basque,

Eskerrik asko, Osane!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Search for the Perfect Apartment

This year I am looking for the Perfect Apartment. 

Last year’s living situation fell short of the mark – I arrived in Arevalo with few choices and no choice but to live with four random guys, two of whom left within the first month, another who never showed up (he lived in another city) and the last of whom rarely talked to me until he moved out in March, leaving me alone in Arevalo.

This year is going to be different.  I’ve been here for a week, using Olga’s Place as a temporary base of operations (highly recommended hostel).  While all the other hostel guests are passing through San Sebastian on vacation, I am spending my days checking out apartments in every side of San Sebastian. 

Last year my crumby apartment was sandwiched between farmland, a boarding school for Madrid’s banished miscreant youth, and a mental institution.  This year I want better neighbors. 

A year ago I saw my apartment as little more than a hostel bed – a cheap place to leave your things while you embark upon other adventures.  Nine months later, I’d learned that with whom and where you live is one of the largest determinants of happiness. 

My ideal living situation will be a mixture of people from around Europe with all of us speaking Spanish.  Have you seen the hilarious Spanish/French film L'Augberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment)?  It's about a French college student who goes to Barcelona for a year abroad and moves into a wild apartment filled with people from every culture in Europe.  The multitude of cultures multures mix, clash, and ultimately enrich the lives of each of the roommates.  Check the movie out and you will see what I mean. 

I want to live in the Centro area so I can be close to anything, ideally next to the Plaza de Guipuzcoa.  I’m looking for an old building with character, lower rent, and a balcony of some type.

But after a week of sifting through the classifieds, I’m realizing this Perfect Apartment is more elusive than I thought. 

El Que No Pide, No Mama

Actually, I didn’t chose to live here – it was luck of the draw.  I’m working here through a scholarship called Auxiliares de Conversación, and applicants are not allowed to specify their choice city.  They are, however, allowed to rank their three top provinces in Spain – I chose the Basque Country. 
Basque Coastline

It was not an easy decision to make.  I almost chose Andalusia.  I couldn’t decide between these cold, Basque-speaking hills on the French border or the gypsy-scented flamenco lands near the deserts of
Moroccoan Africa.  In all of Spain there are not two lands more different in culture, language, climate, cuisine, landscape or ambiance. 
Andalusia (Sevilla, Feria de Abril)
The Andalusians are the quintessential Spaniards of the South – warm, boisterous, social people who seem to carry an endless rhythmic melody with them across Spain.  Meanwhile, the Basques are seen as the colder, serious products of a cryptic and impenetrable culture united by their arcane language.  Few of my friends in Arevalo understood my fondness for the latter. 

Certainly most foreigners prefer the iconic culture of Andalusia.  I wanted something different.  I saw great potential in a year amongst the Basques, perhaps even a challenge to unravel the mysteries that lie folded within these valleys and coves. 

But to get here, I had to ask for it.  As the Spanish say – el que no pide no mama – literally, he who does not ask does not breast-feed.  Perhaps a better English translation would be ask and thou shalt receive. 
More Basque Coastline

So in my application letter for the scholarship, I all but named where I wanted to live.  I explained that after a year in the heart of Spain, I wanted to live on its northern fringe – specifically, in a place near the beach with culture, young people, nightlife and surf.  My wish was granted – two months later I landed a job in one of San Sebastian’s high schools. 

After six years away from the beach and the last year in near isolation, I could not be more appreciative.  I pinch myself each time I walk past the beach, the film festival, or the nightlife of the Parte Vieja.  I see a great year rolling out before me, perhaps the greatest yet.  As I wonder if I will ever leave here, I remember the old Spanish saying,

 El que no pide no mama.

Maybe I’m just lucky, but I’m sure glad I asked.   

Thoughts on - City Size

What is the perfect size of a city for you?
For me, San Sebastian feels just right.  Weighing in at 180,000, San Sebastian feels like an overgrown seaside village – a gorgeous, vibrant, and extremely cultured village, that is. 

It’s small enough to know most people but big enough to attract world-class cultural events, such as the 58th San Sebastian International Film Festival that’s going on right now. 

I’ve braved the 405 to work in LA, I survived the Mumbai local trains to my internship, and last year I stuck out nine months of isolation in small town Spain. 

After tasting cities of all sizes and styles I’ve chosen San Sebastian. 

I'm happy with my choice...

Friends in San Sebastian

I’m lucky to have good friends with me from the start. 

Nick Ivarsson will be at my side, a friend of mine from Coronado in San Diego.  Nick is going to be taking language courses here and surfing and I am excited to spend a year together. 

Nick introduced me to his friend, Kevin Zimmerman, who was his classmate at UCI.  Kevin is also taking language courses and, despite having almost identical wardrobes, I think we will have a great time this year. 

Through Kevin I have been introduced to some other foreigners in town, Femke and Stephi, both from Holland.  Femke works at a hostel and Stephi works at the language school and they are both really cool girls.  We’ve spent the first week together hanging at the beach, swimming across the bay to the island in the center, and going out at night. 

So I have some good friends from the start.  I also know a lot of other people around Spain who are teaching English, most of whom I knew last year.  From Bilbao to Leon to Sevilla, I have a strong network of good friends. 

Most notable addition to the mix goes to my brother, Alex, who will be living in Pontevedra, Galicia, teaching English.  We will certainly do a lot of surf trips and travel together as much as possible. 

The year is off to a good start.  Now all I gotta do is make friends with some local people! 

A Dream Come True

It still feels odd when I tell people I’m living in San Sebastian.

It’s a dream come true.   In my opinion this beachside town is the best in Spain, the elegant jewel of Spain’s verdant northern Atlantic coast. 

I have everything I need here.  Two exquisite beaches in the center of town, a great surfing beach, the charm of the fishing port and narrow warren of bars and restaurants in the old town, and a youthful population living aside the vanguards of arguably the oldest culture in Europe.  France is 30 minutes away, the Pyrenees are no farther, and a rugged coastline stretching from here to Portugal beckons me to explore her shores on a year's worth of surf trips. 

Still there is more here than meets the eye.  Nominally, this city is in Spain and nearby Biarritz is in France.  But these lands are disputed territories, home to a nationless people called the Basques.  I am fascinated by Basque culture - speakers of an ancient language unrelated to any other on earth, at once outward-looking explorers and innovators with a cloistered, conservative streak running through the hinterlands.  The Basques' desire for autonomy and independence has deteriorated into a terrorist war against the Spanish and French central governments, sadly overshadowing the rich culture for which they fight. 

I hope to use this blog both to chronicle my adventures and showcase the beauty I see in the Basque culture. 

Such beauty is often self-evident - look at the background picture of this blog.  Yesterday I walked up to this hill, one of two that guards the crescent-shaped beach, and beheld my new home.  From where I stood the sheltered bay stretched out before me, named Bahia de la Concha for it’s shell-like shape.  Its golden beach arced from there to a narrow peninsula where the Old Town huddles against the steep, fortified mountain at its tip.  Beyond this bay lies the surf beach, Gros and the northern foothills of the Pyrenees.  In the distant horizon I can see Biarritz, France.  To my left stormed the capricious Atlantic throwing waves and wind against the cliffs, ports, and beaches of the Basque Country.  Sea, wind, and the hills – this landscape lies at the heart of the Basques. 

It is in this landscape that I will make my home for the next year.  One year in this seaport, tucked between France, Spain and the Pyrnees.  A year in Basqueland.  

I came back to the moment and watched the sunset splash purple waves across the bay and the lights come on in the Old Town. For a moment I could see in the reflection in the water all the experiences waiting for me in the coming months.  I could not help but smile. 

It’s going to be a great year. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

San Sebastian

Tomorrow I leave California and return to Spain for a second year.

I am blessed to have secured a job in San Sebastian, in the Spanish Basque Country.  It is the ideal location: a gorgeous city built around the most beautiful bay in northern Spain, cosmopolitan, multi-lingual, beaches, surf, close to France and the Pyrenees, and full of culture and life.  My favorite facts about San Sebastian - it has the most Michelan-starred restaurants per capita and the most bars per square meter in the world.  I have a huge smile on my face right now...

Tonight I will lie on my bed restlessly dreaming of the year ahead.  I've spent the last month in San Diego, catching up with family and friends and taking a pause between adventures.  Now my mind is filling with the inevitible questions about the future: What will happen to me?  Who will I meet?  What adventures will I embark upon?  What disasters will befall me?  Where will I be in a year?  

This is not the first time I've jumped into the unknown, but tonight I'm doing the same thing I always do before I take a leap of faith.  I'm looking into my own eyes in the mirror, reminding myself of my goals, my purpose and - above all - my ability to adapt to whatever comes in my path. 

One can only spend so much time thinking about the future.  For now I'm focused on the moment.  See you in a few days, once I get settled down in Spain.  Wish me luck!

What's in a Name? Significance of Una Idea Peregrina

It's about time I explained what "Una Idea Peregrina" means.

I first heard this expression when I told some collegues my plans for the future - educating myself by the book of the world, drinking deeply from the stream of life and traveling for the foreseeable future.  As I explained in my first blog, I wanted to walk El Camino de Santiago, move to France, learn how to speak Spanish and French, play the Spanish guitar, learn how to write and then sail back home across the Atlantic! 

"Esta es una idea peregrina" was their response - That's 'a pilgrim's idea,' meaning it's a hopelessly idealistic and unrealistic plan.  This phrase dates back to the middle ages, when pilgrims (peregrinos) would embark on the pilgrimage to the tomb of Santiago (St. James) in northwestern Spain.  The trail was full of bandits, unforeseen dangers and shifty foreigners that only a fool would risk so much for an ideal.

But I have accomplished most of what I told my colleagues I would do.  Apart from sailing across the Atlantic, I think I've done it all.  My Spanish is not perfect, but I've got another year in Spain to work on it.  I started writing for a travel magazine and moved to Paris to take creative writing classes.  I even learned a smattering of French, which I will improve this year.  And above all I walked 500 miles of the pilgrimage to Santiago.  This peregrino's idea wasn't so unattainable after all. 

The challenge of each passing year is keeping my spark of madness alive.  I watch my friends further progressing into their successful careers and I need to remind myself that I have chosen my own path, one that is perhaps riskier, initally less fruitful but hopefully more fulfilling in the end.  As for my pilgrim's dreams, they are still alive.  My backpack is waiting under my bed, ready for the next hitchhiking adventure, that eventual trip to the port of Gibraltar to pick up a ride across the Atlantic.  This peregrino keeps on dreaming.