Tag Archives: bilbao

Bilbao: Casco Viejo Top Picks

Here’s a selection of images from my favourite bars in the Casco Viejo.

Mellila y Fez (Calle Ituribide)

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Morocan kebabs. The best tortilla I’ve ever eaten in Spain. Music. Welcoming staff. This is my favourite bar EVER. And it’s very affordable.


Gatz (Calle Santa Maria or Andra Maria Kalea)

Award winning pintxos. Never fails to please and really affordably priced.

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Motrikes (Calle Somera)

There are a lot of bars in Bilbao that are famous for their grilled mushrooms, but Motrikes beats the competition. According to urban legend, the recipe is a closely kept secret, and is worth a vast amount of money. All I know is that I love me some mushrooms fresh from the griddle!

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It’s Almost Impossible to be Unhappy in Bilbao

I cried on the plane to Bilbao again today, knowing that I won’t be back in the UK for a while now. Home isn’t perfect, but it’s so…. normal. You know what to expect. You know roughly when stuff opens, and what time it closes. You count the money without thinking about it. Your brain doesn’t get exhausted by speaking a foreign language, trying to interpret signs that are make zero sense to you.

As soon as I got back to the flat, I lay down on the sofa and had a good old cry. My mum is 100% dead, incinerated, soon to be scattered. Her house is empty. I worked really hard over the summer, emptying the garage and cupboard after cupboard, giving things of no sentimental value to charity (which is where they came from), and my sister did the final clear out of Mum’s clothes this week. Don’t ask me where she got the mental energy. I just sat there, feeling waves of sadness hit me and trying not to get in her way.

I peeled myself off the sofa as there was no food in the house, and I put on my “walking in Spain face”, which tries to be neutral, yet with a hint of “I take no shit”. I’ve been working on softening it in the year since I left Madrid, but it’s still pretty sharp.

The lift in my building arrived. There was a young couple already in there. I got in. The lift didn’t move. “Your backpack” they said, smiling. Anther person got in. They all chatted.

I went to the supermarket, got my stuff, and then waited in the queue. Someone who worked there actually bothered to tell me I was in the 5 items or less queue, smiling, while his other coworkers consoled a crying child who had mislaid it’s mother, feeding her chocolate. When I was ready to pay, the cashier leant over conspiratorially, and told me that I was really missing out by not having the store card. She called over her manager to sign me up, and I dictated to him my details, while a lady behind me remarked “I learn English my whole life and look, she’s learning Spanish and she speaks so well. Where are you from?”.

Back in the lift of my apartment, I stopped to hold a door open for the person entering behind me. She started chatting to me about how cold it was (in Britain it’s 10 degrees colder right now,  but no one likes this to be pointed out). I smiled and nodded, agreeing about the “cold”, while thinking “You know nothing Jon Snow”. As I left the lift she called after me “Happy New Year!”.

I suppose that people are generally happier and friendlier during the holidays, but Bilbao is just such a happy and friendly place in general. It’s the complete polar opposite to Madrid. I wish wish WISH I had moved to the Basque Country earlier, but I always remind myself that if I hadn’t lived in Madrid for 3 horrible years then I wouldn’t have met my lovely partner.

I’m so glad I live here now. Basque people are so lovely and kind,  so polite, so positive, so gracious and welcoming to foreigners. I hope people treat them really well when they are in the UK.

Urban Legend: Santutxu is “the most populated”/Leyanda Urbana: Santutxu “es lo más poblado”

I keep on hearing this phrase:

“Santutxu is the most densely populated neighbourhood in Europe”

and this article is going to be about my quest to improve my knowledge of stats and verifying internet info.

According to the Wikipedia article:

Santutxu is the most densely populated neighbourhood of Bilbao and Europe, at 41,430 hab/km2.

A reference is given to a random PDF, of unknown origin, with lists of statistics purporting to be from 2006. However, in this PDF, there are several neighbourhoods that have a higher population density than Santutxu, such as:

Uribarri 42.981

Iturrialde 50.108
Solokoetxe 53.055

San Frantzisko/San Francisco 43.200

I love the freedom of information the internet affords, but I feel like it leaves me with more questions about knowledge than answers. How can one verify information on the internet? What is a reliable source? How can I learn to understand statistics and their manipulation without falling asleep?


Escucho la siguiente frase de vez en cuando:

“Santutxu es el barrio más poblado de Europa”

y este artículo es sobre mi camino para mejorar mi conocimiento de estadística y averiguar información sur la red.

Según este artículo de Wikipedia:

Santutxu is the most densely populated neighbourhood of Bilbao and Europe, at 41,430 hab/km2.

La referencia para esta información es un pdf cualquiera, de origin anónima, que dice que es estadística de 2006. Sin embargo, en este mismo PDF, hay bastantes estadísticas que dicen que hay barrios más poblados de Bilbao. Por ejemplo:

Uribarri 42.981

Iturrialde 50.108
Solokoetxe 53.055

San Frantzisko/San Francisco 43.200

Me encanta la libertad de información de internet, pero a veces me siento que me deja con más preguntas que respuestas. ¿Cómo puedo averiguar información de internet? ¿Qué es una fuente fiable? ¿Cómo puedo aprender a entender estatística y su manipulación sin quedarme dormida?

Impressions of New York

While I was in San Francisco for a week in January, I was offered a 4 week job in New York, travel and accommodation included, to facilitate some fundraising events. It was an opportunity too good to miss, so I spent between February and April teaching English “intensives” in my house to make ends meet, then off I went to New York, jokingly warning my boyfriend: “Maybe it will be so great I won’t come back!”

As I sat on the train from the airport into Manhattan, I listened to people around me talking, and it suddenly hit me: I was in New York, surrounded by New Yorkers. It was a surreal moment!

I arrived in the East Village, where I was staying. I loved the winding streets, the dark red bricks of the buildings, the crisp air, the people and their dogs, the hipsters and their cool clothes. I loved the quiet diner where the waitress called everyone “baby” in a loud, sing song, nasal voice.

During my month of work I had plenty of time to see various parts of the city. My first general impressions was of the crowds, and of a strong sense of order and things running like clockwork. For example, any medium sized supermarket you went into would be FULL of people, but the line ended with a screen that had a number on it, telling you which cashier to go to (“39, blue”), and this process moved really quickly. Coffee shops were full of people in their own little bubble worlds, staring at their phone/tablet/laptop. Manhattan had a real, urban feel to it, and any green space, big or small, was densely populated with people trying to take a restful moment.

I suppose people love New York for two reasons. Firstly, the city itself feels generally familiar, as so many series and films are set there. Secondly, if you like the “new, hottest” trends in fashion, theatre, film, and art in general, it’s a place you might love to visit or call home. Casually walking down the street, you might see properly famous people. But for me, there was one major problem.

In some ways I love the states. America has always seemed to me to have this “get up and go” quality about it. People seem to be more positive, to reach for the sky, to start their own businesses… An American doesn’t have a sporting hobby. They regard themselves as proper athletes. Look into their eyes, and you’ll see that the sky is the limit.

However, what happens to the people who don’t get a good start in life? The children whose families don’t have the means to send them to private school?

A friend of mine mentioned how they almost never took the subway. I started to see why. Putting aside the alien feel of the maps and signs, the clammy humidity of the dank tunnels was pretty off putting. Then you have the dirty trains themselves. But worst of all is the homelessness. I realised that I had never been in a city before where the contrast between rich and poor was so incredibly stark to me. One night I went to a party at a 5 story town house near 5th Avenue that had an original Toulouse-Latrec on the wall, rooms that had appeared in interior design magazines, and a Philipino family that lived and worked there as permanent domestic assistants. Then I walked home, streets full of piled rubbish, trash encased in black bags, vulnerable members of society under blankets to keep warm.

Just as people were everywhere, so the homeless were to me, seemingly everywhere. Some were clearly suffering from mental illness, others were just suffering. It was a constant reminder to me of a by product of capitalism; this idea that we have what we have because we “worked” for it, implying that *they* somehow didn’t, are in some way undeserving. I think back to my own childhood, where we couldn’t afford to heat our house in winter, where money was an ever present stress and worry, where I started to clean hotel rooms at the age of 13 years old, and I think: “What would have happened to a child like me, growing up in the states, where education and healthcare are businesses to be bought? Would I have slipped through the cracks and become homeless?”.

I was reminded of the Mommas and the Poppas song “I used to live in New York City. Everything there was dark and dirty”. Those lyrics suddenly slid into focus for me. Here was a city that was the capital of capitalism, where the rich lived in the city during the week and then drove to their second house in the country at the weekend to relax. I realised that I would never earn the kind of money to be happy in New York, and I didn’t want to.

One thing that surprised me was how polite and friendly people were. They see you doubting which way to go coming out of the subway, and they ask if you need directions. My friend who grew up there told me that that was a “post 9/11” thing, as if that event had rocked the collective consciousness of that city.

I missed Bilbao. I missed the trees. I missed the hills. I missed the slower pace of life. I missed walking to where I needed to go in the city. I missed the cultural centres. I missed the free bike system. I missed the kind Basque people, gracious and welcoming and quietly proud that a foreigner might come to their city. I missed wearing my hiking boots to go out for a drink and no one batting an eyelid.


Integration is a word that was on my periphery when I lived in my home country. People would often mention how certain groups of immigrants all lived in one area of a city, and maybe “kept to themselves”, or “didn’t learn English”. As the issue didn’t apply to me, I ignored it, as was my privilege as being part of the majority.

When I moved to Spain to teach English and learn Spanish, I didn’t know ANY Spanish (or similar languages), which made me a target for xenophobia at the school where I worked. I absorbed the abuse like a sponge; it was my fault they hated me, if I spoke better Spanish they would treat me better, etc. I got it in to my head that “intensive” courses would help me, so I signed up to all of the Spanish classes that I could, and I struggled and struggled and struggled. I allowed my Spanish coworkers to make me feel guilty for not knowing their language, as if not having had the opportunity to study Spanish made me a “bad” person. They were insecure about their English so they took it out on me, trying to get me to pronounce words in Spanish and laughing at my attempts. The idea of being one of those “güiris” who just hung around with other English speakers and didn’t “make any effort” repulsed me, so I spent all of my time outside of work with Spanish people, at different types of events; parties, drawing clubs, dance classes, picnics, gigs, volunteering.

I spent two years miserable, and mostly alone. At best, Spanish people patronised me, gloating about how “¡internacional!” they were to have a token foreigner at their party. At worst, people screamed in my face for being different, pushing in front of me in waiting lines, full of resentment that I was “Erasmus”* (which I wasn’t. I had a degree, I had a job, I was working, I was paying my own rent), while they were unable to get a job within their own country, as if I had control over the political and economic situation.

(*Erasmus is a scholarship in Europe for people to spend a semester or full year studying at a university abroad. As with many scholarships, students use it to party their stresses away with the free wine money the government has given them. For Spanish students, who don’t leave home to study abroad, this might be the first time they have rented their own apartment, hence the nickname “orgasmus”)

And always, always, the bilingual coordinator at school spoke of “integration”. We had a meeting about it once a month, where we were chastised for “speaking English” in the dining room (when our Spanish English-speaking coworkers wanted to practice with us), but this was an atmosphere where I sat down and people (grown adults) would abruptly get up to sit somewhere else because they didn’t want to sit next to me, or people wouldn’t say “Hello” to you in the corridor (which is customary here). From these experiences, it became clear that “integration” was something that we did, while other people were allowed to use us as psychological punch bags. We had to eat fruit with knives and forks, as it was “the Spanish way”. We were told to “stop eating all the food”, as whenever the breakfast buffet ran out of something, it was our fault. When we were sick, we didn’t have a cold, we were hungover, because that was our stereotype and stereotypes are always correct. We were told to “integrate”, but we weren’t given a “way in”. Our Spanish coworkers formed a tight, sealed circle, with only one or two breaking ranks to show interest in their new, temporary colleagues, mostly motivated by practicing English with us, which made their coworkers despise us even more.

I still hear my friends in Britain, all monolingual, saying mildly xenophobic things, like commenting that someone “had lived in the UK 30 years and still didn’t speak English”, pronounced in that tone of disgust, as if “speaking English”, or any language for that matter, were an easy thing, accessible to all. If an immigrant doesn’t have a job in the native language, they don’t have an opportunity to speak it on a daily basis, because making friends is hard, especially factoring in different cultural norms.

Last week, someone chastised me for having English speaking friends. I explained to the person that without a job in Spanish, making friends here is hard, seeing as this region has a “cuadrilla” system, meaning that you make friends in primary school, and you keep that group of friends for life. My boyfriend’s cuadrilla have made it clear that they are not interested in being friends with me. They don’t bother to remember my name, they ask me no questions or show no interest in me whatsoever, they talk about me within earshot as if I can’t understand them, they criticise my Spanish, my pale skin, my choice of music, they assume that I don’t know how to play poker and suggest that I should share cards with my partner,. In short, they don’t treat me with kindness or respect, and I don’t feel comfortable with them or like spending time with them, which is a huge source of disappointment for me. I had hoped that my boyfriend’s friends could be my friends too, but I am coming to terms with the fact that that is not possible. Even after explaining all that, the person continued to imply that I “wasn’t trying hard enough”. I wanted to say: “I’ve lived in Spain almost 5 years. I’ve made one friend who is Spanish/Basque. How much harder do I need to try? I’m done with trying”.

My boyfriend is French, and is happy living here. I am now learning French, and I can see that about 40% of their language is the same as Spanish. Nouns, verbs, expressions, grammatical concepts like masculine and feminine as well as the subjunctive. They even use bread to eat dinner in the same way, tearing it off in a chunk, and using it to push food onto their fork. Integrating is easier the closer your native language and customs are to the target culture.

I’m not integrated here, because if integrating means being Spanish, or Basque, or something else, then that’s not me, and it never will be. I can’t eat my dinner with a fork in one hand and a piece of bread in the other, and I don’t want to. I drink PG Tips in the morning. I dunk biscuits in it. When I eat soup, I dunk a sandwich in it. These are things that I like to do, tiny things that go back to my earliest childhood.

I’m me. I’m from where I’m from. That’s not better, that’s not worse, it’s just different. If people here or anywhere else don’t want to accept me for that, then that is their problem, not mine.