I have now been in Bilbao for over three weeks! Part of that seems crazy to me; it feels like I only just spent a night in front of the Eifel Tower with Link, but on the other hand, I am really starting to get into a groove here. I have a feel for all of my classes (and am wishing they were more challenging!), I can find my way around large sections of Bilbao without a map, and I have found a comfortable friend group. Not that everything is suddenly easy! Culture shock is definitively closing in, but more on that later in the post.
Things at my homestay have continued to grow more interesting as I now have a new host brother to interact with. His name is Danny, a 28 year old law student from Leon, Spain, who my host mom agreed to host during his first year of study at the University of Deusto law school. As far as I can tell, he has never lived away from home before (it is common in Spain for children to live with their parents until their 30s, even if they are married!), so he is undergoing his own culture shock even as I am. On the whole though, he seems like a nice guy, and it is great to have yet another person to practice Spanish with and to hear his opinions on and experiences of Spanish life and culture. We’ll see how this goes!
To mix things up and help us bond, last weekend 33 students from my program were swept away from Bilbao along with 3 chaperones/tour guides for a three day, two night excursion to Madrid and Toledo. Coordinating such a large group is inevitably challenging, and it was by necessity a very different trip from those I am used to, I prefer traveling solo or with a very small, close-knit group. So I frequently was very frustrated by the pace of the trip (slow to get from place to place, rushed through sights where I wanted to linger, too much background info on things I found boring, etc.) and by how tightly our movements were controlled by the group leaders. Still, I am very grateful to have made it out to these two famous and fabulous cities.
In Madrid, we took tours of the Palacio Real (the King’s old 19-20th century digs, nothing on my trip to Versailles, but still plenty to appreciate) and the Prado Museum (I wish we could have lingered longer!), and had a walking tour of old Madrid. While Madrid is certainly bustling and exciting, on the whole it didn’t feel particularly special to me in terms of having a distinctive character; it kind of felt like just another big city.
That said, I had a great time wandering around on our free Saturday evening with a few friends, window shopping (playing like silly tourists with traditional Madrid wooden fans!) and enjoying street performers. Our highlight by far was the Flamenco music and dance show we stumbled across, complete with free sangria. The performance was enrapturing, performed by a troupe of three musicians and two dancers on a small stage in a traditional brick basement, often seemingly improvised and collaborated on the spot. It didn’t seem at all to be a show purely for the enjoyment of tourists, but simply an outlet for these five passionate individuals to joyfully showcase their art. I never wanted the 45-minute show to end.
Toledo made much more of an impression as an “old world” city, with a very distinctive charm and a sense of adventure around every corner. We took a bus tour of the city’s exterior ramparts before exploring the old city and Jewish district on foot. Toledo is famous for its sword forges, and we made a touristy but still very cool stop at one of them. Nerd as I am, I know that all of the important swords for the Lord of the Rings movies were crafted in Toledo, and I bought myself an official mini replica of Bilbo Baggins’ sword, Sting. The other most famous traditional product of Toledo is its marzipan. I have never been a huge fan of the almond paste sweet, but my mind was changed by the delicate, bread-shaped pieces of marzipan we sampled, hand made in small batches by local nuns. Yum!
We next took a lengthy tour through Toledo’s gothic cathedral, which was stunning, but crowded as it was being prepared for a Mozart concert the next night which was to be attended by the Spanish Queen Mother. While we only spent a total of maybe five hours in Toledo, I could have spent many days exploring its cobblestone streets or walking along the mountains and rivers surrounding the town. I would love to go back some day for an extended trip!
Since we got back from the excursion, I’ve actually begun to find ways to keep myself busier. I have taken a job tutoring 11-year-old twin girls in English for three hours a week–a fun challenge and a welcome source of income. Next week I will start volunteer work and hopefully join a choir to keep my days even more full and exciting.
On top of all of that, it is finally starting to cool down and feel like fall, which makes me far more eager to go exploring and aimlessly wandering, since I can do so without sweating my butt off. Bilbao may be tiny, but it has a multitude of distinctive neighborhoods and several nearby hiking paths, and I am eager to traverse as many of them as possible before December.
Still, classes don’t take up very much time at all, and I have next to no homework. When I do find long stretches of time with absolutely nothing on my agenda, or alternatively have a long list of things to do but find them much harder to achieve than I think they should be, it is easy to become blue, getting sucked in by that unwelcome traveling companion, Culture Shock.
It’s funny, coming into this semester of study abroad I had harbored illusions about how this time, I would be immune to the negative effects of culture shock. I’ve traveled before, and no way could Spain affect me like Cambodia did! Well, of course this is not the case. I am just as susceptible to culture shock as anyone else, but I do have the potential benefit of increased self-awareness. After the initial lovely honeymoon period of loving Europe as a whole and specifically the lovely city of Bilbao, I find myself starting to get cranky and mildly homesick from time to time. But now, because of my previous travel experience, an irritating little bug goes off in my head, usually in a condescending and reprimanding British accent, to remind me that, “No no, you don’t actually think Spain is stupid because of its lack of coffee shop culture or DIY pharmacies, you are merely experiencing ‘culture shock,’ so go find something new and exciting to appreciate, and perhaps get over yourself.” While in the moment I might argue back a bit with my apparently British “judgey but wiser” inner guide, convinced that my struggle is, in fact, ‘real,’ it is ultimately comforting to recognize that while I am inevitably going to encounter frustrations and negativity due to culture shock, they will be temporary. I will adapt, find my niche, and fall back into love with Bilbao before my time comes to depart. This makes the difficult moments easier to process emotionally, and helps them from building up into a seemingly impossible cultural barrier that I have to cross.
True, I still am on the lookout for places to chill and do homework other than bars or the ominously silent library, and I deeply wish that I could go buy contact lens solution without having to endure a difficult conversation in Spanish with a pharmacist, but with my self knowledge and confidence that culture shock will be temporary, it is easier to turn these struggles into comedic adventures knowing that I will overcome self-deprecation with a laugh at myself rather than a curse at Spain and a sense of despair. In the meantime, since comforts like favorite foods, familiar ways to accomplish chores, and ease of communication are lost to me, I allow myself comfort books and have been re-reading the entire Harry Potter series to help cheer myself up on days when the culture shock starts to try to get me down. Maybe that’s why my inner traveler’s voice of reason is British.
By the time I post this, I will have had a busy weekend at an international film festival in the nearby beach town of San Sebastian and a romp through a Spanish renaissance faire in another neighboring town, Vittoria. Who has time to let culture shock get you down when there is so much to explore?! My dad recently reminded me, “The ‘ordinary’ is just a filter.” We each have a daily choice to find the beauty, love, and adventure in all that we encounter, grand or small. It may be hard sometimes, but that’s what this type of experience is all about! I hope you see something spectacular in the “ordinary” today, but if you find unexpected drudgery getting you down, feel free to give my inner British travel companion a call, and we’ll sort you out in no time!