Pesadilla. /pe.sa.ˈði.ʎa/ n. Language: Spanish. Meaning: Nightmare. Like being outrun by an ax-murderer, or 27 consecutive days of rain in November.
I’m not going to sugar coat it here. I didn’t fall head over heels with Bilbao the way I did for Granada when I studied abroad. Part of that was I was working, not merely “studying” (er, if you can call it that). Part of that was that Bilbao is tougher on foreigners, in my opinion, because its a tight-knit community that doesn’t see a whole lot of outsiders. Here is the worst of Bilbao, though with silver linings, because who needs more depressing reads? (See: Global Warming Offs Another Polar Cub.)
Before the haters come out here, please reference my previous post, the Best of Bilbao!
Worst of Bilbao
This is not my opinion. This is fact. THE very worst of Bilbao, and northern Spain in general, is its unrelenting rain. How do people live like this? I got seasonal affect disorder two months in! November through April sort of went like this:
Let’s all hike on Sunday! In cascading mud.
Picnic in the park after work? Nope, lawns are drenched.
I’d love to bike to work today! Except I’d skid out.
Friday night bar-hopping? Only if rainboots are acceptable disco-wear.
As a California native, I know I have a weather handicap anywhere else in the world. It’s my skewed, twisted fate, punishment for the privilege of growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. But seriously, Basque Country might have well been Scotland. Actually, even my Scottish friends were on the verge of tears in November….
(Silver lining: All that rain means incredible greenery. Also, when the sun does come out, you get out of the apartment NO MATTER WHAT. When the sun is out in California, it’s sort of like, what else is new? Back to watching Amy Poehler interviews on Youtube.)
So you applied to be an Auxiliar de Conversación with the hope of practicing your Spanish? Here’s a little secret: they speak Euskera (Basque) in Basque Country. It’s not ubiquitous—there’s hope for you yet—but it’s definitely present and unavoidable. You’ll see it on signs, you’ll hear students speaking it (hopefully not behind your back), and your colleagues in the break room will be cracking up over some hilarious story that you won’t understand. Not to mention you’ll trash important documents when your school computer’s menu options are all in Basque. Better study up on your basics!
(Silver lining: Being exposed to another language is an additional peek into a unique culture. Hooray for linguistic diversity!)
3. Difficult Social Scene
There’s a (very true) stereotype of Basques: They’re hard to get close to, but once you do, you’ll be friends for life.
Through my travels, I’ve become incredibly close, and stayed in touch, with people I met for two days. In Bilbao, however, where I spent 9 months and had a high level of Spanish, I couldn’t crack ‘em. The (in)famous cuadrillas, or tight-knit social groups, are nearly impenetrable.
This isn’t to say that Basques are unfriendly or antisocial. I met plenty of people who were extremely outgoing and willing to chat. But the thing is, after meeting them and spending hours mingling with Basque friend groups, it was rare to ever hear from them again. It’s just an entirely different social structure than I’m used to.
And as a gregarious extravert always eager to make new friends, I wasn’t in to it.
As an added kick to the face, there’s another (true) stereotype: Basques don’t flirt. Even the Basques know this one and laugh about it, acknowledging there’s some truth to it. What’s a girl gotta do to meet a guy in that place?? (Join Tinder, apparently.)
(Silver lining: I guess once you’re in, you’re in for life. BUT WHEN DO YOU GET “IN???”)
Bilbao and San Sebastian are right up there with Madrid and Barcelona for cost of living. Rent is sky-high for Spain standards. Pintxos are bite-sized and 2 euros a pop—which, to fill up, would be rather expensive. Remember that posh elegance I mentioned in the list of Best of Bilbao? Ya, you pay for that. A breakfast is nearly twice as expensive as it was in Granada. (Here’s my Budget Breakdown for Bilbao.)
Are we talking insurmountable prices? No, it’s still Spain. Compared to San Francisco, France, or—I shudder to think of it—London, Bilbao is nearly free. I’m just saying, spend some time in Galicia or Andalucia, and coming up to Basque Country can be a rude awakening.
(Silver lining: More expensive cost of living—and a more affluent populace—means you can charge more for private English lessons. And public transportation and wine—two very necessary things—are still comparable to the rest of Spain.)
5. Geographic Isolation
Basque Country is in the extreme north of Spain, and while it’s neat that it’s close to France, it’s not a huge central transportation hub like Madrid or Barcelona. It does, fortunately, have an international airport (where you can keep your shoes and liquids intact while passing through security!) but flight prices are higher, with fewer destinations. And due to being so far north, it will take you longer to bus or train to other parts of Spain.
(Silver lining: It’s easier to explore the gorgeous northern coast of Spain, since you’re already IN the north—now there’s a shocker!)
Bilbao is a wonderful city in Spain. But like the best box of chocolates, or a damn good cocktail, it’s bittersweet at times.
Have you been to Bilbao? What did you NOT like about it? And if you’re feeling a bit down after this post, head on over to the Best of Bilbao :)