It was good to get back on the road again after a two week trip home to Galway to recharge the batteries, catch up with friends and family, sort out a few financial woes, and get things in order for the next stage of my gap year.
Highlights of the trip home included a visit to my 96 year old granny in Caltra, seeing my two and a half year old niece Sofia dancing to live salsa music in the heart of Galway, and a good old fashioned night out with the boys outside Ti Neachtain.
But enough of Quay Street! It felt really strange to be home for such a short period, without a car or job, or even a TV, and to find that my house has been taken over by a cat called Lucy, who could not work out whether I was a friend or foe. I can have Galway anytime.
The nation’s current economic woes were encapsulated by a meeting with John Lillis from Salthill. He’s moving back to San Francisco with his Irish wife, who he met in the States, and young child because work has dried up in Ireland. So much for coming home to settle down! But, then again, he blames the Irish climate for his wanderlust too. I can relate to that, but it’s sad to see people leave in droves again, like they did in the 1980s and early 1990s.
It was sunny leaving Dublin. I happened upon a ‘chancer’ of a taxi driver who was poaching customers from the Dublin Bus rank at Heuston Station and transferring them to the airport for the same price. Totally unethical, but a sign of the times.
It was extremely cloudy and drizzly in the Basque Country when I arrived into Bilbao Airport. The keys to my apartment were left next door to an Irish bar, which I visited a few hours later to cheer on the USA against the English in the World Cup. I hadn’t intended to roar on the Yanks, but a group of extremely loud Brits brought out the Irish rebel in me over the 90 minutes.
In San Sebastian, however, the World Cup hardly matters. The Basques cannot really make up their minds whether or not they support the national team, even though it features local boy Xabi Alonso. Here, the big story of my first weekend in the city was Real Sociedad’s last home game of the season, against Celta Viga.
Real have just endured three painful years in the Second Division, which is a real blow for a club with such an illustrious history going back to 1909. I’ve kind of followed them ever since John Aldridge moved from Liverpool way back in 1989, and have even attended three of their home games since first discovering the joys of San Sebastian before my sister’s wedding in 2006.
So, along with half the province, I made my way to Anoeta on the Sunday, a good two hours before the game. It seems the Basques jump on bandwagons as much as the Irish do, because tickets were impossible to come by. One year earlier, almost to the day, when they weren’t going so well, I just walked to the ground and bought a ticket for the last home game, against Levante, less than an hour before.
There was a huge screen just outside the ground and it soon dawned on me that all 10,000 fans gathered in front of it were in the same predicament as me. When two ‘fans’ offered me precious ‘entradas’ for €140 each, it soon became clear that a change of plan was required. So I made my way to a bar to see Real win 2-0 on TV, before heading back to the stadium to join the massive celebrations. There must have been 50,000 fans around the ground, spilling out of the stadium and all the bars.
Throughout that night, and all of the following evening, football fans took over the city. The celebrations were infectious and I joined the throngs outside the Town Hall for a wonderful communal party on the Monday evening. World Cup? What World Cup?
Earlier, I began my first day of school at Lacunza. I was pleasantly surprised by the maturity and desire to learn of my fellow students, who all seem to be at about the same level, even if the weather in the first week (drizzle and grey skies) took away some of the novelty of living in such a beautiful city.
But I was determined to get out and about, joining an organised walk up to the statue on Monte Urgull, in which I befriended some of the more ‘mature’ students such as fellow journalist Tony and English teacher Amanda, who were both from London, and Mellisa from Scotland. And so began devious plans for nights out in the Old Town, plus long walks along the city’s glorious promenade.
Living with a Spanish woman has not been easy, I’ve never met anyone so anal about cleanliness in my life, but I guess it’s all about learning for me this year. My class is great, I’m getting on great with my fellow students, and the only downside is having a flat-mate who worries about where you leave the drinks in the fridge or how much washing powder you use in the machine.
After talking to a couple of Irish girls at the school, it seems I’m not the only one to have to put up with such pettiness. A pity the flat share has become a pain, because I had asked to live with a fellow ‘mature’ student from overseas in the first place.
But the sun came out for all of my second week, which has included a glorious day out on Isla Santa Clara, via a boat, in the middle of La Concha bay; an evening of traditional Basque rowing races in the bay; the midsummer celebrations for St. Jean in the heart of the city; and a massive surf festival which, amazingly, has suffered because of a lack of wind.
Midsummer saw a group of us attend a traditional Basque celebration in Plaza de la Constitucion. I was amazed by how similar the music and costumes were to those back in Ireland. Then they burned a tree and a scrum ensued to collect pieces of the bark which would bring good luck for the coming year. Not quite as much fun as the Thai New Year celebrations in April, when I picked up enough good luck (I think) from so many soakings during the water fights on Koh Lanta.
Midsummer is the start of the ‘fiesta’ season and there seem to be an incredible amount of things going on around the Basque Country over the next few weeks. Indeed, there are two large ‘fiestas’ within 30 minutes of Donostia (as the locals call the city) this weekend.
I made my way out the suburbs for a good old ‘Sunday session’ with my brother in law’s brother in law, if that makes sense! Clemente might not have any English, but it’s amazing how well you can keep the conversation going for five hours when you’re hopping from bar to bar . . . or enjoying Basque handball on TV!
My decision to spend a full month learning Spanish in a Basque city really seems to be paying off in terms of how much of the language I’m picking up and there is also the running of the bulls in Pamplona to look forward to before I leave this part of the world. Trips to Peniscola and Valencia await me, too, so plans to return home for certain Galway festivals or GAA matches have been abandoned so far.
It’s really hard not to like the Basques, their love of music, wine, cider, food, bars, nights out, and general ‘craic’ makes San Sebastian an unbeatable location for a Celt to visit; they love the Irish, and I certainly wouldn’t mind swapping GAA convetions with red necks in Athenry for a few years of covering Real’s games against Barca and Valencia, and the despised Real Madrid and Atletico Bilbao, at Anoeta. The stuff of fantasies!
Living here has been completely different to my five months training and working as a Divemaster in Thailand. But, yes, I am having the time of my life .... and it was 25 degrees down at the best beach I’ve ever come across in a European city today. It was glorious down by the aquarium when I watched the Basque rowing crews battle it out over a gruelling course. Beats covering a club hurling match in Athenry or Loughrea on a Saturday evening, that’s for sure!
I’ve also covered that the Irish pub in the centre, the Auld Dubliner, doubles up as the Argentinians’ home for the World Cup in Sen Sebastian. First the English lose 4-1 and then the place goes crazy for the victory over Mexico. With flags, bunting, etc., it seems to be the place to hang out for the soccer ... and the views!
Agur! That’s the Basque for goodbye. Part of the problem of living here is that I’m picking up Basque as well. With the smattering of Thai from the start of the year, I’ll probably be conversing in ‘mumbo jumbo’ by the end of the year!
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