Thursday, March 21, 2013

Bilbao, Spain: Where the Modern Art Museum IS Art

On my return journey from France back into Spain, I stopped off for a few days in the Basque provinces in north-central Spain. In the short time I had to spend there, I fell in love with the coastal city of San Sebastián and decided to make a day-trip to nearby Bilbao, one hour to the west. Pronounced “beel-BAH-oe” [bil'βa.o], its name in the native Basque language is actually Bilbo—yes, spelled the same way as the protagonist from Tolkien’s Hobbit, yes indeed.

Bilbao, Spain
Riverfront apartments in Bilbao’s old town
Nerd freak-out moment aside, Bilbao is a large city that stretches out between the hills and the Nervión River, a few kilometers inland from the coast. Although a lovely place to visit, its industrial, workaday heritage still shows through today. After all, Bilbao—along with the rest of the Basque Country—led the way in bringing the Industrial Revolution to Spain a couple hundred years ago. Blessed with large iron ore deposits and a strong population, the region quickly transformed itself over the span of a century in much the same way England did. This industrial past has often made tourists shun the city for the beaches of San Sebastián or the bullfighting culture in Pamplona, but Bilbao is still worth a visit if you’re passing through the region.

Short on time because of the disaster that was my New Years’ in strike-ridden southwestern France, I could only spend half a day in Bilbao, yet I still enjoyed the little I got to see.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

San Sebastián, Spain: Coastal Gem of the Basque Country

Returning to Spain from a little over a week in northern France, I decided to pass through the Spanish Basque Country situated around the western corner of the Pyrenees mountains. This would complete the loop around France I wanted to make, having entered via Barcelona and the eastern Pyreness on the other side. Green, beach-blessed San Sebastián was stop number one, just outside the French border on the Atlantic coast. It was love at first sight.

San Sebastián, Spain
San Sebastián, seen from Mount Urgull

But who are the Basques? Before I got interested in Spain or Spanish history, I had never heard of this people group before, but, come to find out, they’ve been interacting with Europe and the world since before the time of the Romans.

In short, the defining feature of the Basque people is that they speak, well, Basque—a language with no discernible link to any other European language that has resisted competition from Latin, French, and Spanish for thousands of years. The Basques straddle the western edge of the Pyrenees around the Bay of Biscay and have fiercely guarded their independence throughout history…with mixed success. As of late, however, they have had better luck in gaining autonomy and preserving their mother tongue.

Back to San Sebastián. Called Donostia in Basque, this city re-introduced me to Spain after Christmas in France. There couldn’t have been a better welcome mat for the country possible.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

7 Things You DON’T Have To Do as a Language Assistant in Spain

As a language assistant in Spain, you’ll be expected to show up to your school (or schools) and work in 12 hours of classes every week, helping your assigned teacher in bilingual courses. In return, you’ll receive 700 €, health insurance, and time off on national holidays (think Christmas and Easter). This is the bare minimum of what is required of you to spend two-thirds of a year living and traveling abroad, but I think many assistants, myself included, often worry that we don’t live up to certain expectations of what an “ideal” language assistant should look like, whether that’s how they should work or what they should do in their spare time. I’d like to shoot down some common misconceptions people have about the program, many of which I once thought should have been true of myself until I wrote this post.

Barcelona, Spain
Street in Barcelona

1) You don’t have to travel every weekend, month, or break

There’s this big pressure on participants in the program to take trips all the time, mainly because we’re so close to dozens upon dozens of amazing destinations, but also because of expectations from past study abroad experiences or language assistant bloggers (myself included). I think a lot of people get the impression from these blogs that traveling is all we do…when really, travel is just the easiest thing to blog about.

Valencia, Spain
Plaza de la Virgen, Valencia
But this isn’t something you have to do as often as possible. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to travel at least occasionally, but there’s no rule that says you have to always have your backpack ready to go for Thursday afternoon after work. For cryin’ out loud, there’s only so much you can do with 700 € a month!

I was talking about this with a fellow language assistant in town yesterday and she told me she wasn’t planning on traveling over Semana Santa (a sort of spring break the week leading up to Easter), and this is completely fine! I’m actually a little disappointed I’m peace-ing out for Morocco next week because I’m going to miss out on all but one of the Semana Santa processions in Úbeda, and southern Spain is supposed to be the place to experience Easter in the country. My friend, however, will get to experience this cultural treasure by staying in town. There’s something to be said for really getting to know a place instead of dashing away every chance you get.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Festival de Música Antigua: Úbeda and Baeza’s Classical Music Festival

Way back in November it was a pleasant surprise for me to learn that my adopted hometown of Úbeda (along with neighboring Baeza) would be hosting a classical music festival spanning the next couple of weeks. Ever since I was young, I have always had a big place in my heart for classical music, from listening to WRR 101.1 FM in Texas growing up, attending as many concerts, performances, and recitals as possible in college, and singing in choirs throughout my “formative” years. So I was naturally delighted when I found out this little-visited corner of Spain would be home to a series of concerts centered on just that—classical music. 

Festival de Música Antigua de Úbeda y Baeza
Informative booklet about the festival

The Festival de Música Antigua is a month-long celebration of “ancient” music that is often forgotten in the classical music world, mainly medieval- and Renaissance-era works. Organized by the regional department of culture of Andalucía, the provincial government of Jaén, the town councils of Úbeda and Baeza, and the universities in Baeza and Jaén, the festival goes on from the middle of November to the middle of December in settings across the province of Jaén, but mainly the cities of Úbeda and Baeza.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Day in the Life of a Language Assistant in Spain

Since most of the posts on this blog have been mainly travel-oriented lately, I thought I’d whip up a post about what living abroad really looks like, about how I live in between exciting (but once monthly) weekend travels. If you don’t already know, I’m currently working as a North American Language and Culture Assistant (auxiliar de conversación in Spanish) in an elementary school in a small village called Villanueva del Arzobispo, which is in the south of the country. The gig is good for the better part of one school year (October 2012 through May 2013), and I work 12 hours or so a week for 700 € a month, health insurance, and 3 weeks of vacation (at Christmas and Easter).

Úbeda, Spain
Úbeda, the town where I live

Although travel is a strong passion of mine, I’m a pretty big introvert and homebody, so my Instagram and Twitter feeds probably aren’t always the most accurate representation of what life as a language assistant is really like. I hope this post brings things a little closer down to earth and gives prospective language assistants a peek into what they’re getting themselves into for a year.
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