Thursday, May 26, 2011

what will you miss?

with my friends Thomas and Bryan at the Hanging Bridge in Portugalete
(photo credit: Bryan Alfano

with my friend Esmeralda in Vitoria-Gasteiz

My friends here in Bilbao and I have been playing this game lately: answering the questions "what will you miss? What won't you miss?" about life here. Most of them are staying here for another year, while I'm flying home this Saturday. It's getting truly strange and bittersweet - of course there are things I can't leave behind fast enough, but I'm also realizing that I'm leaving a pretty significant part of my heart behind here.

So I thought I'd share some of the biggest things I will and won't miss about life here. First up:

Things I Will Not Miss At All About Life In Bilbao

Not belonging. It's thrilling at first, but after nine months standing out it becomes exhausting.

Little things - people walking 4 deep on a sidewalk and not moving, forcing you onto the street; staring being totally A-OK; strangers yelling at me "HELLO!" on the sidewalk because I look foreign (as a side note, if American kids did this to a lady from, say, Mexico, how yelled at would they get by their parents?! So yelled at).

Living in a monoculture. Being as isolated (at least in many ways) from other peoples as Basque country has been for this long makes xenophobia almost a given. Specifying in an ad what ethnicities are and aren't welcome to come check out your room for rent is considered totally acceptable. "Oh, hey, Civil Rights Movement, we didn't see you there. We were too busy recovering from a dictatorship by making films about the crazy stuff we weren't allowed to make films about before."

Not smiling. I've compared notes with other Americans (North and Latin), and the verdict is that people here don't smile nearly as much as we do. Even children - it's pretty standard to see kids playing in a park together with serious little faces, no smiles.

Teaching. If there's anything I don't enjoy, it's teaching people who don't want to learn. It's like, if you don't want to learn English, then don't. If you want to limit your horizons to working in a hardware shop in Alava or something, who am I to stop you?

Things I Will Miss Like Crazy About Life In Bilbao

Living in a monoculture. The flipside of this is that the culture is more condensed, so you get to experience it closer to what it was like hundreds of years ago. There's not so much figuring out what Basque culture is exactly, and the little things that are special about this place stand out more. It's pretty straightforward, you experience it, and you love it.

That incredible travel high that comes from being accepted in a different culture. To everyone who made me feel welcome, accepted, like I could belong even if just for a minute, thank you. You can't know how much it means to me. Unless you've lived abroad. Then you know.

Specialized food shops. I had a good thing going with my butcher, who knew my favorite cuts for stews, and had found my favorite shop for cheap, amazing fruits and veggies. Goodbye, Fresh Local Produce; hello, Trader Joe's.

Random delightful moments. We had our kitchen window open this evening and while I was cooking, voices singing "Happy Birthday" in Basque from another apartment came breezing in. Moments like that.

Specific people - my housemate from last semester, my church family, and a handful of other incredible people. A lot of people have stepped up and been amazing friends to me here when it came down to it (more on that to come).

Fellow expats: what about y'all? What would you most miss - and be the most glad to leave behind?


  1. On too many occasions it has driven me mad that people find it OK to speak to me in English - even as I speak to them in Spanish. Like you, I think about how it would be in the States - I would never dare talk to someone in Spanish when they clearly speak English. Nope, I wouldn't miss that. I might miss everything else though - particularly the food. Can't live without the food....jamon, manchego cheese, tortilla, croquetas....mmmm.

    Have a safe trip back to the States! Not having the abundance of fresh produce will be a bummer, but I sure miss Trader Joes and Whole Foods!

  2. I miss MEXICAN FOOD! When I do go back (next year) I will also totally NOT miss teaching people who don't want to learn. What a drag.

    On the not smiling note: you need to come down to the sunny south, sister! Get your fanny out of the rainy north and things start to look more cheerful :)

  3. People never speak to me in English. Even my students. Harrumph.

    I will miss: fresh produce, walkability, dando un paseo, my favorite Spanish stores, specialized shops, café con leche, tapas, salchichón, lentejas...that's about it. A lotta food! Ha

  4. All good ones, guys! @Sarah, yeah, I remember a lot more smiling went on in the south. I'm mildly concerned I may have forgotten how to be friendly to strangers on the street.

    @Kaley, really really YES on the walkability front.

    @Erin, yeah the English thing is a top frustration. Especially when whoever's trying to be patronizing has bad enough English that you can't even understand them, haha.