Bilbao, Spain

A perfect day in front of the Guggenheim.

A perfect day in front of the Guggenheim.

I realized I haven’t given any updates about where I’m heading in two months, but there are several!

As I mentioned before, I was accepted to be an English Language Assistant (Auxiliar de Conversación)  through the Spanish Ministry of Education, back in May. About a month later I found out my exact placement would be in a middle school in my first-choice city, Bilbao! The city doesn’t ring a bell for many people the way Madrid or Barcelona does (although with the addition of the Guggenheim Museum, it’s becoming more well-known), but Bilbao is actually the biggest city in all of Basque Country. It’s funny: my Lonely Planet guidebook of Spain writes, “Bilbao had a tough upbringing. Growing up in an environment of heavy industry and industrial wastelands, it was abused for years by those in power and had to work hard to get anywhere. . . . at heart it remains a hard-working and, physically, rather ugly town, but it’s one that has real character.” Not quite the ringing endorsement! No wonder it doesn’t enjoy the same tourist throngs as Granada or Sevilla. But in my three-hour visit last year, there was something about Bilbao that stole my heart, and I was lucky enough to be given the chance to explore all its “industrial character” more this coming year.

Here’s the thing, though: Basque Country is a bilingual region. The two official languages there are Spanish and Basque (Euskera). Euskera looks absolutely nothing like Spanish, and in fact, is thought to be unrelated to any other language alive today (and also thought to be the very first language in Europe). Having studied Linguistics, I should be thrilled at the chance to immerse myself in Euskera, but in reality I’m experiencing more of a give me a break, full-of-dread attitude. I thought I’d finally be able to hit the ground running being fluent in Spanish, but once again I’ll be lost in a new language. Of course I knew this before I applied to live in Basque Country, and most everyone there will still speak to me in Spanish, but still–sort of discouraging.

I emailed the school and got a response from the director, Tontxu (yes, that’s Euskera–try pronouncing it). He seemed so warm and welcoming, telling me that their middle school is small and simple, and–wait for it–almost all the students have chosen to study in Euskera, not Spanish. (Students have a choice in Basque Country, and most actually opt for Spanish, since it’s clearly the smart economic choice–I guess these kids are real mavericks). “I’m sure you’ll be learning a bit of Euskera this year!” he delights in telling me. My God, I can’t wait–such a useful language, spoken by an entire handful of people in one tiny pocket of the globe. But maybe I can return to the U.S. and get a job in the State Department, since they probably don’t have many applicants from bilingual English-Basque speakers.

But my apprehension of the language pales in comparison to my excitement (mixed with some nerves!) Last time I moved to Spain, I went with one of my best friends, as well as 50 other Californians. We stayed in dorms for a month as we acclimated to our new surroundings. This time, though, I’ll just be thrown into the mix–which is equal parts terrifying and thrilling. I’ll need to find an apartment in the first couple days I’m there, and maybe beg some poor, unsuspecting university students to be my friends. But I have a feeling I’ll have more support than I think: Tontxu tells me that his oldest daughter has offered to meet with me and help with an apartment search one day, and that Tontxu himself will greet me when I arrive and explain everything from how to get a bus pass (heart melting), to when and where to show up on the first day of work. When I ask about a dress code for teachers, he tells me, “Dress however you like. There are practically no rules here–for us, or the students.” My favorite part of his emails are his closings, in which he signs off with “un abrazo” (a hug). The warmth just emanates from the screen, and makes me feel that somehow–even though I’ll know no one, have nowhere to stay, be lost in the language and have no idea how to make English sound engaging to a room full of restless middle-schoolers–I’ll be able to make it work.