Monday, August 30, 2010

Agur Marijaia. Agur Aste Nagusia.

Last night was the end of Aste Nagusia, the 9-day long festival in Bilbao. The festival celebrates the Basque culture and the end of summer. It was an amazing festival and I’m so happy that I got to witness some of it. The traditional attire for the festival is to wear a blue handkerchief around your neck.

The mascot of the festival is Marijaia (her name roughly translates to "Lady of the Party"). She was designed to look like traditional Basque women, complete with rural clothing and a handkerchief (though her face is suppose to look comical). She comes complete with her own song, “Badator Marijaia” Here’s her song (also comes with some video from the festival):

Marijaia parades through the festival, stopping at different points so that people can dance to her song. Here’s her parade (Courtesy of Michelle Morris):

The festival ends with Marijaia floating on a barge down the river, shooting off fireworks as she passes. They also play this very somber music that really tugs at your heartstrings. A couple of my pictures of her floating down the river:

She stops near the Town hall and that’s when the people of Bilbao say goodbye to her. Then they light her on fire. Here’s video highlighting the ceremony:

But alas don’t worry, next year there will be a new Marijaia to preside over the festival!

There’s also a spectacular fireworks show after Marijaia is burned to a crisp (video couldn't upload b/c of bad internet connection, check back in a few days!)

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, there was a lot of traditional Basque dancing during the festival and here's 2 videos (Both courtesy of Michelle Morris):

The Professional Basque Dancers (courtesy of Michelle Morris):

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Domingo a Sábado: My First Full Week in Spain

So you may be wondering “Sean, what did you do in your first full week in Spain?”

Well I’ll tell you!

On Sunday, the four of us (Arantza, Maren, Michelle and I) went to the festival in Bilbao (Aste Nagusia). We stopped to watch an interesting group that combines traditional Basque music with flamenco. The group used a Txalaparta (a wooden xylophone-like percussion instrument for two players) and a Txistu, which kind of looks like a recorder. They would play Basque music for a while, and then they would switch over to the flamenco dancers. After stopping at a bar to enjoy a glass of wine, we went to la Plaza Nueva to watch traditional Basque dancing. There was this big circle of people in the Plaza and they would dance a different jig depending on the tune of the pipe and the beat of the drums. Then, we stopped at bar in the corner of the plaza to eat a sandwich and drink some more wine before the fireworks show and let me tell you, the fireworks were absolutely spectacular. That whole night was so much fun and it’s definitely something that I will remember forever.

On Tuesday, Michelle and I got up early to go to the Guggenheim Museum, a museum for modern art. The architecture of the museum is absolutely stunning. It was designed to look like a ship and the titanium sides are meant to represent the scales of a fish, both paying homage to this important port city. Personally, I liked the outside better than the artwork on the inside (see my post below this one). My favorite part of the Guggenheim is the giant dog statue made of flowers, which is near the entrance of the museum; the people of Bilbao affectionately call it “el puppy”. After lunch, Aranzta and Maren took us to the little fishing village of Plentzia, which is about 5-6 miles away from Getxo. It was just this sleepy little town on the coast of the Bay of Biscay and it was absolutely gorgeous. My pictures from the town are linked on the side of this page, and I’m going to go back this week to take more (or you can just click here to see them).

On Wednesday, Michelle and I went back to Aste Nagusia at night to see an Irish band that she likes. The group’s name is “Altan” and I would strongly suggest checking them out if you like traditional Irish music (here). On Thursday we were back in Bilbao, but this time to see the musical “Chicago” at the Teatro Arriaga. Before the musical, we checked out some more traditional Basque dancing in front of the theatre. This time, it was professional dancers dressed in all white with a black hat and a green cloth wrapped around their waist. They had these sticks that they hit in sync with each other as they twist and turned. Oh yeah, and “Chicago” was of course a lot of fun.

Michelle left on Saturday, so now I guess it’s really time to sink or swim (I affectionately called her my lifejacket). Now I have to speak Spanish to her host family without her help or assistance. So far I’m doing pretty well, I can string a sentence together without a problem, but I struggle with trying to tell a story or when I have to switch verb tenses. I’m not beating myself up over this, cause I’ve only been in the country for 11 days now; I just need to practice more. As my parents would say “what’s the key to learning anything?” Práctica, práctica y más práctica.

On Saturday, we also went to the Vizcaya Bridge, which is the oldest transport bridge in the world and a site protected by UNESCO. We went on the elevator that took us up to the top on the bridge so we could walk it; it was very cool. We had such a great view of the bay, of Getxo and Portugalete (another town near Bilbao). After spending some time in Portugalete, we got on the suspension part and crossed the river back to Getxo.

Tonight, I’m going to Bilbao for the end of Aste Nagusia; it supposedly ends with Marijaia in flames (!) and a spectacular fireworks show.

Up next for this week: Going back to Plentzia on Monday (I need to take more pictures!), a blog post about cultural differences on Wednesday, my first Youtube video with panoramic views of Gexto on Thursday and my last day in the Basque Country on Friday.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Making Modern Art

Yesterday, Michelle and I were at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and we stopped by the Anish Kapoor exhibition. One of his works was a wall and part of the floor covered in red wax. While we were looking at it, he comes out and adds more wax to his work...with a canon. And then he walked away without saying a word. Apparently it's art?

Don't get me wrong, I like modern art. The psychologist in me loves to stare at the paintings and try to understand the artist and what his/her message is. I've studied a little bit of Picasso, Dalí and Miró during my junior year in high school and the Universitat Pompeu Fabra offers a class in modern Spanish art that I want to take. But seriously, I don't get why this is art?

Iberia by Robert Motherwell. (No, the webpage has already loaded, that's the painting. It's a totally black canvas with a little bit of white in the corner.)

Oh well. You win some, lose some.

Anyway, here's the video of the red wax cannon:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Is Spain a Unified Nation?

I feel like I need to dedicate a post to a brief introduction on a very important topic: Regional Nationalism/Politics in Spain.

Spain is made up 17 autonomous regions, which are somewhat to similar to states in the US. Some of these autonomous regions, principally the Basque Country and Catalonia, are historically different from Spain. For example, between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries Catalonia was an economically and politically powerful region that rivaled the Moorish and Castilian kingdoms. The Basque Country has traditionally ruled parts of Northern Spain and Southeastern France and their language is not a Romance language, unlike everything else on the Iberian Peninsula. So, both regions have their own language, their own cuisine, and their own culture, which is completely different from Spain; therefore, they are considered nationalities (just like Spanish/French/American ect.)

In my post about the festival in Bilbao, I told you about the tent with the flags of all the “oppressed nations.” I also observed some other nationalistic feelings during the festival. During the Marijaia parade, there was this guy walking in front of her with a Basque flag, with the word “independence” written on it. We were also walking in el Casco Viejo and this group of middle age guys were talking very loudly. One suddenly yells “español” (Spanish) to which another one replied “vasco” (Basque). I didn’t need to hear the rest of the conversation to know that they were talking about whether they considered themselves to be Spanish or Basque.

Now, this reminds me of something that came up a few days earlier in the apartment. I was watching the news with Arantza and something about Basque politics came up. After explaining the situation to me, Arantza stated that she doesn't consider herself to be Spanish; she’s Basque and Basque only. Think about that for a minute. She has stronger ties to her autonomous region than she does to the national state. She considers herself to be a citizen of her region but not a citizen of the country she lives in. That would be like me saying: “I live in the United States, but I am not an American. I'm Ohioan.”

Today, there are strong movements in both Catalonia and the Basque Country for the independence of their region from Spain. The Basque Country has it’s own nationalist terrorist group (The ETA) that uses violence to advance this cause while Catalonia keeps on trying to push for more autonomy and for more rights. A lot of people in both regions feel as if they are “a nation without a state."

(A sign in Plentzia, a fishing village in the Basque Country. It says "This is not Spain")

Now you may ask, “why is there so much animosity between Catalonia/Basque Country and Spain?” Long story short: Franco. General Franco’s side won the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and with that he installed himself as the fascist dictator of Spain. While in power, Franco ruled with an iron fist and tried to shove the idea of “national Spanish unity” down the throats of everyone in Spain. His view of an “ideal” Spain was absolute obedience to the Catholic Church and to the national State, women were to remain at home, and Spanish was to be the only language of the country. As a result, he outlawed the use of the Catalan and Basque languages. So, during Franco’s dictatorship the Catalonian and Basque people could not speak their native languages in public for fear of Franco’s henchmen; essentially, they were forced to speak Spanish. This is why, here in Spain, if you want to ask someone “do you speak Spanish?” you say “¿Hablas castellano?” and not¿Hablas español?Español implies that there is one, unified language here in Spain, while castellano (Castilian) makes it sound like it’s on more equal footing with the other languages of Spain.

So why do I feel like this is an important topic that you all should be aware of? Well, besides staying in the Basque Country for the two and a half weeks before my program starts, I’m going to be studying in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia. Most likely, I’m going to have stories about the tension between Spain and Catalonia when I finally get to Barcelona, whether it be a million man march for Catalonian independence in the streets of Barcelona or my host mom describing to me what it was like to live under Franco.

Also, I just find it fascinating.

P.S. If this topic is interesting to you, here’s a good article that talks about Catalonia: Barcelona: Leading a stateless nation

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Yesterday, Michelle and I ventured to downtown Bilbao for the annual weeklong festival of Aste Nagusia. It’s pretty much a festival celebrating the Basque culture, the city of Bilbao and the end of summer. They close down parts of the city and pretty much party all night long.

Michelle and I left the apartment at around 6:30pm to take el metro (subway) downtown. It was very crowded getting out of the subway and we walked through the massive crowd of people, just enjoying the festive atmosphere.

We first stopped at a bridge, which was next to Bilbao’s town hall. There was a guy there who was telling what appeared to be a riveting story as two other people tied him up. We thought he was going to try to escape but he kept on talking and talking and, since we couldn’t understand what he was saying (it was very loud and we were away from the speakers), we left to go see other things.

We walked a little bit further down the bridge when we came across a tent set up on the other side that displayed flags of some “oppressed nations”: the Basque Country, Catalonia (the region where I’m going to be studying), Scotland, Ireland and Palestine. It was interesting to see this because it seems like some of the Basque people feel a special connection to other “politically oppressed” regions (more about this is a separate post).

We then walked down el Casco Viejo, which is the older part of the city. This is what I think of when I think of Spain: the narrow streets, the stone sidewalks and the grand plazas. We stopped at la Plaza Nueva, and watched a pretty cool band play. After that, we went back out where most of the people were gathered and we stopped to watch a group of guys break dance.

Then, we saw the mascot of Aste Nagusia, Marijaia. She is one of the two symbols of the city, the other one being el puppy (the giant dog made out of flowers in front of the Guggenheim). Marijaia leads a little parade around the festival, complete with a marching band (!). At different points she stops and her song comes on while people begin to sing and dance with their hands in the air. It was pretty neat to see it, as this is one of the many traditions of Bilbao. A picture of what she looks like is above this post (courtesy of google images)

After Marijaia left, we strolled down by the river, eating ice cream on the way. We stopped by the Guggenheim museum for a bit before we continued our stroll. At about 11:30 the fireworks started and they were absolutely magnificence. It’s funny, the only time I got to see fireworks this summer was in Spain at a local festival. After the grand finale we boarded el metro and went home for the night.

Up next for this week: A stroll down the coast of the Bay of Biscay, The Guggenheim Museum, A Basque History Museum, and going back to Aste Nagusia to see an Irish band that Michelle likes.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

"Eres familia"

So yesterday was my first day in Spain and it was absolutely amazing. Getting there was long, boring and tedious. Our flights were from Detroit to Philly to Brussels to Bilbao; in total the trip was about 20 hours, 11 hours of flying time and 9 hours for layovers. I barely slept on any of the flights, maybe a half hour here or there, which for me was pretty good considering I can’t sleep on planes.

But finally we ended up in Spain. The whole family came out to greet us: her host mom and dad (Arantza and Maren), Arantza’s two daughters, the daughter’s husbands and their kids too. They took us to a nice little restaurant up in the hills away from the city and we all just sat down and talked for a while. They are perhaps one of the nicest families I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. They asked us if they were talking too fast for us and they helped me with vocab (tomar vs. coger, la pierna is a human’s leg while la pata is an animal’s leg). Michelle, as a gift, gave each family a photography book of places and things in Ohio. She helped her host mom translate some of the picture captions and I helped one of the daughters, Eider. After that, the restaurant called our ticket number, and the guys went to get the food. The meal was absolutely amazing, it consisted of typical Spanish cuisine: ham, croquetas (a lightly deep-fried roll filled with either meat, cheese or potatoes), chicken, tortilla (it’s like an omelet, not a Mexican corn tortilla), salad, chorizo (a spicy sausage), beer and wine.

After lunch we went up to a nice bar up on a hill that overlooks the Bay of Biscay. We got drinks and went outside to enjoy the beautiful weather (sunny, in the 70’s and with a nice breeze). We talked a little bit about Barcelona and about the host mom I’m going to be living with. Then, they said something that made me speechless. They said that if the thing in Barcelona didn’t work out I would have a place to stay with them because I am family. I just met these people and they already consider me part of the family, how amazing is that?

Two things that made me happy:
1. I could pretty much understand everything they were saying. I thought I might have a little bit of trouble understand them but they all spoke at a good pace so I could keep up. The only thing that tripped me up a little bit was some of the vocab (but that will come in time)
2. They complimented me on my pronunciation! Thank you Meghan Armstrong (my Spanish 404 class instructor), you taught me well.

After drinks we went to Arantza’s apartment (un piso) and unpacked. After unpacking, Michelle and I relaxed a little bit while I filled out my journal. After that, Arantza and Maren took us out to the beach and a cliff that over looks the Bay of Biscay. It was absolutely gorgeous, but unfortunately the clouds blocked the sunset. We then had a glass of wine at the beach and then another one at a little restaurant in Gexto. We all were pretty tipsy, so we went back to the piso and went to bed.

Overall it was a great introduction to the Basque country and the Spanish way of life.

Monday, August 16, 2010

How the Blog will Work

Alright, so here's the plan with this blog

1. Weekly Posting: I will post a new blog entry at least once every week, probably on Sunday. However, if something funny, exciting or interesting happens, I'll probably post a little blurb about it here. The weekly Sunday postings will be about what I did that week, basically kind of like an online diary.
2. Facebook photo albums: All my photos from my trip will be on public albums on facebook, so that everyone will be able to see them. Yes, if you don't have a facebook you'll still be able to see my pictures! There will be links in my blog posts (and maybe off the side) that will direct you to them
3. ¡Los Links!: I have links on the sidebar of my facebook and youtube pages. Facebook will have status updates (maybe daily), pretty much just a little tidbit about something I did that day or about something that caught my eye. My youtube page will allow you guys to actually experience what I'm experiencing, i.e. video from a festival, video walking down a street in Barcelona, panoramic views of sites ect.

Hope you enjoy!

Twas the Night Before....

So. This is it.

I leave for Spain tomorrow for an entire semester. I'm nervous, excited, anxious, ecstatic, scared and optimistic; I never knew it was possible for me to feel so many emotions all at once.

I'm all packed and I will double/triple check tonight to make sure everything is there, although as long as I have my laptop, camera, passport and wallet I should be OK.

I still can't believe that this is happening, but over the past week it's slowly sunken in: 4 months in a foreign country.

Things I'm really excited about:
1. My host family: I'm living with a single woman, Rafaela, in a medium sized apartment. She's 65 years old and she owns a clothing store in a local market. According to my program "she loves to talk and loves animals," which is a winning combination in my book.
2. Catalan: Barcelona is located in Catalonia, an autonomous region of Spain. In this region, they have their own language, Catalan, which is the official language along with Spanish. I will never have an opportunity to study this language in the United States, so while I'm in Barcelona I'm going to try to learn as much of it as I can!
3. Bilbao Vacation: I am actually leaving the US before my program starts so I can go over with my friend Michelle to visit her old host family in Bilbao, Spain (northern Spain in the Basque country); I'm staying there for 2 and a half weeks, while she's only staying there a week and a half. I've never been to the Basque country before, so it's going to be really cool to see another part of Spain.
3. Barcelona: From the pictures I've seen, the city is gorgeous. Enough said.
4. Traveling: So far I plan on going to London, Paris, Rome and Berlin. ISA also has excursions planned for us in Spain.
5. Soccer (henceforward referred to as fútbol) games: My apartment is a half mile from Camp Nou, the home of Barcelona FC. Barcelona has arguably one of the best fútbol teams in the world. Oh and they have David Villa.
6. Improving my Spanish: Although I have been studying Spanish for about 7 years now, I'm still not fluent. I can read, write, and understand it, but I still struggle speaking it. This is the big thing I hope to get out of this trip, to be able to come home and say "Yes, I speak Spanish fluently" (and with an accent too :p )

Things I am nervous about:
1. Epic fails while speaking Spanish: Yes, I know that I'm bound to make mistakes while trying to speak Spanish, but I'm afraid that I won't be able to get my point across. I just have this bad image of me trying to say something every which way and the native speaker still isn't able to understand me. Hopefully this will only be a problem for the first month or so...
2. Homesickness: Although I love everyone back home to death, I really hope I don't miss you guys. Don't take it personally, I just need to get out and see the world for myself. If I don't have the time to think about "oh I miss my family and friends" then it's a sure sign that I'm having a blast.
3. Not getting along with people in my program or my Host mom: Though at this point I just think I'm being paranoid.

Well, this is it then. I've been afforded a once in a lifetime opportunity and I plan of making the most of it. I can't wait to share with all of you my experiences, and I hope you guys can't wait.

Until we meet again, farewell.