Each week when walking out of the airport, I exit into the unknown. No cell phone, no knowledge of the city — just hopes that someone is waiting for me on the other side of the airport door.
This week a sharply dressed man approaches me asking if I am Lee, upon my confirmation that in fact I am, he gives me a warm welcome to Bilbao. Ibon, a former business man, turned educator, is the resident director of USAC Bilbao. We drive to my new home for the week in Getxo (rhymes with “let go”), an ocean-side town where the students live, neighboring Bilbao. The highway takes us through lush rolling green hills that separate the urban cityscapes making up the metropolitan Bilbao area.
The Basque people of this region managed to pull off something I have only seen in unrealistic looking depictions of the future: a combination of country side and clean, modern city infrastructure. Somehow the urban expansion did not destroy the visual sense of being surrounded by nature. Country side mixed with city, you don’t have to choose one or the other.
The USAC staff placed me with a local family for the week’s lodging. I enjoyed breakfast and dinner over conversation with the mother and her teenage daughters…in Spanish. This was my first opportunity to speak Spanish since I finished studying abroad eight months ago. The family was more than accommodating; they made me feel as if I had lived there all year. Their charismatic grandmother lives in the same apartment building, and as if I were in a T.V. sitcom she would pop in periodically abruptly changing the social dynamics to some comical topic until she left 10 minutes later.
One of the best parts of this job is who I get to meet. In between scheduling logistics and filming, the USAC staff, students, and I are conversing about culture and life while riding metros and walking to the next location. The nature of learning a new language and living in a new culture leads to conversations that your teachers back home may have been unsuccessful to engage you in. Things that were once irrelevant and distant are suddenly interesting. Because of this I think USAC is a magnet for dynamic staff; people who are attracted to the multicultural learning environment created by facilitating studying abroad. The Bilbao staff, Ibon, Arantxa, Mane and María are very proud of their program, and ran me around on a pretty heavy schedule showing off the city, beaches, classes, host families and quality internships available for students.
After Viterbo, Bilbao has been my favorite location on this trip so far. It is a success story of urban renovation. The city was once a dirty industrial mess, but starting with the construction of the Guggenheim museum 14 years ago, the city transformed itself to an attractive business center for the region. The historic buildings have been restored, preserving the rich architecture from the early 20th century and hundreds of years earlier. The new buildings either fit the historic look or boldly contrast the old with extravagant modern architecture; all of them looking good as new. I was shocked by how clean the city was. I imagine massive tax dollars must be poured into armies of street cleaners and landscape maintenance teams…money well spent.
Hop on the metro and in 15 minutes emerge in Getxo’s residential beach side community. Unlike the strip mall culture in much of the U.S., Getxo’s residential apartments are above shopping and restaurants. In the evening simply go down stairs to find the streets, plazas and parks full of families enjoying each other. Bars (here more like cafés) serving tapas (appetizer finger food) line the streets, hosting lunch and evening conversations.
Basque Culture 101: Some interesting things you will be glad I informed you of: You won’t see a Spanish flag here. The local Basque people are fiercely independent, many seeking sovereignty. The strong pride lies in their ancient heritage. The Basque language has no linguistic connection to any other language in the world and is the last surviving pre-Indo-European language. The Basque language was outlawed during the rule of Spain’s early 20th century dictator, Franco. Therefore today the prominent language is Spanish, but Basque still survives and is now mandatory for school children to learn.
Basque Culture in Reno 101: If you’re from Reno or its southern neighbors, you may have eaten at a Basque restaurant owned by descendants of Basque immigrants. Many Basque migrated to the Reno area prompting a formal relationship between it and San Sebastien (near Bilbao) as sister cities. The University of Nevada has a Center for Basque Studies. The founder of USAC (headquartered on Nevada’s campus) is from the Basque region, and USAC’s logo is borrowed from a Basque symbol.
Now during social engagements you can impress people with your knowledge of this otherwise little known topic.