Zorionak Ainhoa!

Just like in ordinary life, sometimes you have to make tough decisions while abroad. I’d been looking forward to the upcoming International Student Farewell Dinner for weeks, just as I’d been looking forward to my friend Ainhoa’s birthday party. I’d submitted photos to the farewell slideshow, RSVPd on Facebook, and bought Ainhoa a birthday present. Then, the day before the dinner, I got a phone call from one of Ainhoa’s friends. The two events were going to be held the same day, the same time.

It wasn’t a fun decision to make, but I knew from the moment I got the phone call what I would decide. Ainhoa had been a great friend to me. Of all the locals I’d met, she’d made the most sincere effort to include me and show me her culture. I couldn’t miss her birthday, not even for a tear-filled slideshow where all the international students would probably sing along to “as we go on, we remember, we will still be, friends forever…” (and really, what else can happen at an event like that?)

So, I went to Ainhoa’s party. I was meant to meet with the girls who lived on my side of town so that we could take the bus to Txantrea together. I arrived at the designated place at the designated time. It was a cold night, and generally arriving right on time in Spain means you will be waiting 10-15 minutes, but I decided to play it safe because I was meeting with Basques (northern Spanish cultures are a bit less relaxed about time), and because it was a surprise birthday party. After several minutes, another girl who was waiting approached me and asked whether I was Miranda. We chatted and laughed at ourselves for arriving ‘early’ until Andrea came out of her apartment at last. By then we had missed two buses, and since they only come every 15 minutes, we were over an hour late to arrive in Txantrea.

On the way from the bus stop, we suddenly heard cowbells sounding through the otherwise quiet night. To my delight, a parade of Basque Joaldunak ran by! These are dancers who wear cones and ribbons on their heads, costumes of bandanas and wool skirts, and, best of all, two enormous cowbells strapped to their backsides. “Why are they here?” I asked. “To scare away evil spirits!” said Andrea. I laughed at that. “Okay. But why here, and right now?” She just smiled and shrugged.

We met up with the rest of the group and headed to a bar. As we approached, I once again heard the clanging of cowbells. The Joaldunak were taking a break and a beer inside! It was a tiny place, with Basque independence posters joining calls to socialism, vegan-ism, and the legalization of marijuana on its walls. I worked up my courage to ask one of the Joaldunak for a picture. He was so excited that I spoke a little bit of Basque, that soon he was teasing me and telling me I could play with his bells. Awkward in a way but way too much fun to resist!

After some time in the bar, we went back to a friend’s place. This was actually my first and only time in a private house in Spain! (Within Pamplona, it’s all apartments.)  We cooked sausages and croquettes to eat with bread and good Navarran cheese. Everyone wanted to play cards, but after a round or two of playing some Spanish game I never really got the hang of, they asked for an American card game. Okay, fine, but they didn’t have what we would call a ‘standard’ deck of cards – only a set of Mus cards, with less royalty than our decks and suits of coins, swords, cups, and wands, like in tarot.

Towards the end of the party, I gave Ainhoa the present I’d put together for her – some large print photos I had taken of her the day we went to the Cantabrian Sea. Ainhoa and her friends had a present for me as well! I had misunderstood a certain Basque political poster, often hung out of people’s windows in Pamplona and elsewhere, to simply mean, “The Basque Country is awesome!” They all thought this was very funny, and bought me one of these flags. Everyone signed it for me as well.

Zorionak, Ainhoa, eta Mesedez!

Happy Birthday, Ainhoa, and Thank You!

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Bilbao – Bigger, Better, Brighter

To think I’d heard such nasty things about Bilbao. In our geography of Spain unit Junior Year, we’d been told nothing more of it than that it was Basque, northern, industrial. Lacking in charm. Even Ana, my landlady, had said, “Go to the Guggenheim. The Guggenheim is beautiful. But don’t bother with the rest of it. Bilbao’s not a pretty city. It’s not so nice.” Perhaps I’d simply had low expectations – I loved it.

From the Old Town, with the winding alleys and pintxos bars I’ve already come to expect from Basque Spain, all the way to the famous Guggenheim, I wasn’t disappointed by an inch of the Bilbao I explored. I suppose it could be said that I was only really ‘impressed’ by Bilbao’s riverside market (the largest covered market in Europe), the pintxos at Bar Irrintzi (amazing), and, yes, the world famous Guggenheim Museum, but the spaces in between held their own charm. Our walk through the center of town took us past dozens of cheerful parks and row after row of elegant buildings, and our stroll alongside the Nervión river revealed fascinating, if puzzling, designs of office buildings, bridges, and modern art statues. A shameless mountain geek, I also loved the way the city is nestled down between two mountain ranges, earning it the nickname El Botxo – “the hole”.

I found Bilbao’s reputation to be quite ill-deserved – it was on the whole bigger, better, and brighter than I had been led to expect, and well worth a day or two of wandering. But if the great majority of the day trippers go straight to the Guggenheim without passing GO, well, that just means more pintxos for me!

Published in: on September 17, 2010 at 22:11  Comments (1)  
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Bilbao’s Mercado de la Ribera

The Mercado from the outside.

Just steps from Bilbao’s old town, you can visit El Mercado de la Ribera, which claims to be the world’s largest covered market. It’s hard to find independent confirmation of this claim, but the Guinness Book of World Records did list it in 1990 as the biggest covered food market in Europe, at 10,000 square meters. Cynthia and I went in for a stroll during our day in Bilbao, but Lea didn’t quite have the stomach for it…

The market is divided into three floors, each with its own theme. To summarize, the basement is for seafood, the main floor meat and pastries, and the upper story fruits, vegetables, and flowers – quite nice, really, as you don’t have to enjoy the aroma of octopus while you pick out your apples or tomatoes!


This is euphemistically called a 'bull's egg' - huevo de toro. Yes, it's what you think it is.

Its a lot to take in for an American – I’m used to being quite separated from the bloody reality of animal products. A quick walk on the main floor brought me past a dozen things I’d never seen in America – entire pigs’ heads, brains and tongues, freshly skinned rabbits, even bull testicles. One butcher was graphically hacking open a sheep’s carcass even as we went passed!

Fish says: 😛

"Mira, mira, para un recuerdo!"

The basement was less frightening but stronger smelling – it had all the fragrance of low tide on a hot day. Still, I know it makes me a horrible person, but sometimes fish just look so funny/cute when dead, with their rolling googly eyes and their tongues sticking out! Cynthia and I stopped to take a picture of one group of them, and a boy working at the market became pretty enthusiastic about getting into our photo. “Look, look,” he said, “For a souvenir!”

Published in: on September 17, 2010 at 16:08  Leave a Comment  
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Elements of Pamplona

Since I’ve been here at Pamplona, my experience has sort of splintered into five areas, based on my interests and situation. These are basically the five ‘lives’ I want to lead here, the things I want to explore. Of course, I won’t be fully immersed in any of them if I split up my time, but life is short and I want to taste as many things as possible. 🙂 These are not exactly equal to each other – they vary in terms of my motivation, the time and energy I will put into them, etc, but they’re all things I look forward to experiencing this semester.

1.) The Spanish Experience

Well, I don’t think I could get out of this one if I wanted to – it’s basically my default experience here. And it’s awesome. I’m taking all but one of my classes in Spanish, living with a Spanish woman, and making a few Spanish friends too, so I’m hoping to improve my knowledge of the language and the culture (both with a capital and a lowercase c). I love my province, Navarra, but I’m also very interested in exploring as much as I can of the rest of Spain – I’ve already been to Barcelona, Valencia, and Bilbao, and am going at a bare minimum to Madrid before I leave. Galicia is also on my almost certainly list. I’m also definitely eating as much Spanish food as I can!

Example: Every minute, every day.

2.) The Basque Experience

Yes, Pamplona is most certainly in Spain. But it’s also in Euskal Herria, or, the (greater) Basque Country. Fully half of the people I’ve met who have grown up here speak the language, Euskera, and the political situation is a constantly changing, dynamic thing reflected by graffiti, posters, and protests on the street here. I’m also close enough to Euskadi, or, the (autonomous region of the) Basque Country, that I’m able to explore it as well as I explore Navarra. So far, I’ve visited the three capitals – Bilbao, San Sebastian, and Vittoria – and loved them. With any luck, I’ll rent a car with some friends to head back and see some of the smaller towns. And anyone with a drop of linguistic leaning blood can’t help but be fascinated by Euskera itself.

Example: I signed up for a weekly Euskera course – I couldn’t resist!

3.) The Academic Experience

Yes, it sort of hit me by surprise, too. I may be studying abroad, but I’m still going to need to study – as much or more as I do back home. My classes aren’t just Spanish language, either – I’m studying visual culture, literature and its impact on the modern world, film and literature, linguistics, and the aforementioned Euskera, all in Spanish, with Spanish students. Of course, I can’t claim to love every second of this experience, but it’s a valuable one and fascinating if I let it be. So much of art history, for example, is the same as back home (imagine that) that differences really stand out and shine.

Example: Sitting in a huge classroom and trying to understand abstract lectures about Romanticism, while being unsure whether the processor just said concession, connection, or conception.

4.) The Pyrenean Experience

I love mountains – both for their scenic qualities and the possibilities for fun and exciting activities. Pamplona itself is surrounded by low mountains, and the Pyrenees themselves are just a short trip away. It´s very exciting for a little Missouri girl, and I want to make the most of it!

Example: I plan to go on many of the Club de Montaña excursions, mostly hiking, but this weekend an intense two days of canyon exploration, repelling, etc!

5.) The Erasmus Experience

This one is somewhat controversial among people studying abroad. Some love it and embrace it as a full half of their exchange experience – others feel that mixing too much with the Erasmus students from all over the world will take away from their immersion in the native culture. To be honest, I have mixed feelings about it myself, as I’ve already experienced the craziness and wonder of an international community at Mizzou. I also know that spending time with the Erasmus students means more speaking in English and less practice with my Spanish. But ultimately, I think its an exercise in futility and self-isolation to try to avoid it on principle. Besides, the Erasmus students are my friends, they keep me sane, they’re fun, and, since we’re all (let’s face it) just tourists on speed anyway, its nice to have traveling companions. 🙂

Example: Last night a group of us (from Germany, Portugal, Lithuania, Peru, Austria, Finland, Spain, and Taiwan) had a pancake party together. Not exactly traditionally Spanish… but part of the experience, just the same.

Vitoria of the Bean Eaters

This weekend, I visited Vitoria (Gasteiz in Euskera), the capital of the Basque Country. Like other parts of the region I’ve visited thus far, Vitoria charmed me with its duality – the medieval alongside the strikingly modern, the way children laugh and play in the fountains as police block off plazas for protests, the way everything has two names – in Spanish, and in Basque. The residents of Vitoria can be called Vitorianos, or Gasteiztarras… or Babazorros, which means Bean Eaters. I like that.