By: Darielle Hill
During my first week in Vitoria-Gasteiz, I was an unhappy, wet cat trudging to and from my classes in the rain and crying in my hotel room during all my spare hours. It was cold and rainy and I always felt soggy, from both the weather and my mood. Thus began my semester in Spain.
El Pais Vasco (aka Euskal Herria, aka Basque Country) is situated in the northeast corner of Spain, bordering with France, and is home to the autonomous community of the Basque people. Little is known about the origin of the people and their language, Euskera, which, when spoken, sounds like Spanish nonsense, and when written, looks like Greek nonsense. There are a few theories about the beginning of the Basque people and their language, the most intriguing being that they descended from aliens. I would have believed it at the time, too, although only because of how afraid I was of everyone. I spoke hardly any Spanish and no Euskera, and as a naturally introverted person, it was hard to make friends. The culture shock, as they say, was real.
Of course, once I moved into Isabel’s house, things started to improve. From the street, the front door of her lovely little three-storey townhome with the red tile roof is blocked from view due to the ugliest, most unkempt hedge on the block, which grew thick and wild in the damp climate. Theresia (from Germany), Lore (from Mexico), and Liani (from California) were wonderful roommates whom I rarely talked to. I enjoyed the times when Isabel would travel (she was living the retired divorcee life) because when she was home, she would come up from the basement at 8am, make her breakfast and a mess of the small kitchen, and park herself in front of the TV, watching the local news until late into the night, muttering to herself intermittently, perhaps leaving the house once for a quick bike trip to the Carrefour for some bacalau (salted cod), which she would leave on the counter uncovered for several days at a time. Once, I found a whole carrot in the cutlery drawer. She was completely batty. But that was home for me.
The university campus was about a nine minute walk from Isabel’s place. In the morning, I would make myself an omelette (or, as Isabel would say, “Ah, tortilla francesa! Que rico!”) and some Verona coffee I managed to find at the closest Starbucks (an hour away, in the capital city, Bilbao) and I’d begin my walk. Through the wet grass of an off-leash dog park, across a seniors’ workout park, into the school and down the halls, all the while passing mossy walls covered in endless graffiti about every subject imaginable in Spanish, Euskera, and English. The local favourites were Marxism, feminism, anti-ETA (anti-terrorism), anti-Tranvia (the possible light rail expansion to the campus was angering some residents), and Basque separatism. The last one was the most common, although my favourites were the sexy ones: “Kinky boys crew” and “EAT PUSSY NOT ANIMALS.” Protests and demonstrations were regular occurrences on campus and around the city, rain or shine (and it was usually rain).
Gasteiz, as we estudiantes visitantes lovingly called it in its local tongue, is an ancient city built in the shape of an almond during the 15th century, the northernmost point being the Catedral de Santa Maria. This cathedral (so the tour guide and my Spanish teacher, Iratxe, told me) inspired some of Ken Follett’s books. Ken Follett, by the way, has no less than three busts and statues of himself scattered throughout the city. The vitorianos are grateful for the publicity their incredible cathedral undoubtedly deserves. Of my friends, I lived furthest from the centro, so I would walk north across the slippery cobblestoned city and into the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca, the feature piece of which is a massive tribute statue of the Batalla de Vitoria, where Joseph Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington clashed, eventually leading to the end of the Peninsular War. The Plaza opens into the almond-shaped centro of the city, which features many of the bars the students flock to for pintxopote on Thursdays, as well as the beloved Txapeldun, the chosen bar for beer pong on Wednesdays for the international students. Patrons there are allowed to smoke, and the ground is always sticky with spills of kalimotxo, the preferred drink of the young Basque sweet-tooths: half Coca-Cola, half red wine, garnished with an orange slice.
I still felt homesick sometimes. There were days that the cloudiness made me wish for the bitterly dry and cold winters of Alberta, because at least the sun would shine regularly. I missed seeing the horizon. Inside old European cities, you can only see the sky if you look straight up. Even on those sad cloudy days, though, when I would go for a run south of my house and into the Olarizu botanical garden, the buildings disappeared and I could see a distant cousin of the beloved Rockies of my home – rolling green hills and the beautiful Andia mountain range in the distance.