Europe, Travel

What’s It Like to Live in the Basque Country As a Foreigner?

Have You Seen the Movie Chocolat?

It’s about a woman and her daughter who move into a random town in France and open up a chocolaterie. But because they are so different from the rest of the people in town, they get a lot different reactions.

Some people are fascinated by them, some are cautious of them, and a few outwardly disapprove of them. Life in the Basque Country is a little bit like that for me.

How the Basque Perceive Foreigners

In general, Basque people are very welcoming with tourists. They are proud of their culture and they want to share it with the world. However, since the Basque Country isn’t the destination for most first time travelers to Spain, most of the tourists here are either from other parts of Spain or Europe although that is slowly changing.

On the other hand, there is a large immigrant neighborhood in Bilbao consisting of people from East and West Africa, the Middle East, South America, and Asia. Most of them either own small businesses or came here to look for work or to start a new life. And many of them work in the food, customer service, or elderly care industry but they all contribute to the economy here in some way. Thus, the Basque seem to be are quite accepting of the immigrant community.

But What About in a Small Town?

To preface, I live in a small town of about 7000 people but during the winter, it can feel more like 100. And here, things are a little different.

When I first moved here, I noticed people kept staring at me. Never in a hostile way but I could tell people were not used to seeing an Asian person walking around. Also, since my town is famous for its beaches, most people just assumed I was a tourist at first but once peak season ended, they were probably confused about what I was still doing here.

Nonetheless, I got used to the stares and as time went on, people stopped staring as much because they realized I’m just another person working and living here.

Does it bother me? To tell you the truth, sometimes it does but I also know that people are simply curious so I just shrug it off or say hi (that always surprises them).

Why Did I Choose to Move to a Small Town?

When I first moved to the Basque Country, I could’ve chosen to live in Bilbao but instead, I decided to live here because it was much closer to where I work and I really wanted to experience something new.

Bilbao is a fantastic city by all means, but it is a city at the end of the day, and it reminded me too much of home. Plus, when I saw the town that I live in now, it wasn’t hard to convince me to stay. Just look!

As an added bonus, this town is “super Basque.” It’s one of the few towns in the region that still speak Basque as their primary language and everywhere you look, you’ll see hundred-year-old houses, cobblestone streets, and farms with sheep and horses. Even the locals here call it “Vasco profundo” which means deep Basque Country.

Talk about cultural immersion!

The Locals

Whenever I tell a local person where I’m from and what I’m doing here, they’ll usually respond with “New York City?? What are you doing here???” And then they’ll proceed to ask me about my family, my home in NYC, 9/11, and yes, Trump.

Due to the language barrier, it’s a bit difficult to make friends here but I’ve developed quite a few acquaintances. My bus driver and I, for instance, see each other all the time and run into each at the bar often. So we’ll always say hello and make small conversations about anything. It’s been a great way to learn about how Basque people see themselves in the world and practice new languages.

Basque people, I’ve noticed, tend to be more on the reserved side but if you talk to them, they’re always more than happy to talk back and help you with anything you need.

My Work

I work in the smallest school in the entire Basque region. I have 25 students. In total.

The teachers here show their affection openly and greet the students with hugs and kisses. Classes start at 9:30 AM and every morning, one of my colleagues drives me to school.

All the classes here are taught in Basque or “Euskara” as they call it, except Spanish, English, and science for the older kids. The younger ones focus on Basque, then Spanish and English.

The teachers, students, and parents are all extremely nice to me but sometimes, I find it difficult to keep up with everything in Basque and I’m not sure how to participate. I’m trying to learn Basque as I go but in addition to Spanish, sometimes my head feels like it’s going to explode.

Where Am I?

Even though I’ve been in the Basque Country for six months now, almost every day, I still have to remind myself that I’m here because when I look outside and see those big beautiful mountains, I can’t believe I live here! And sometimes, when I’m walking around, I almost feel guilty for being here and doing what I love.

But just like with anything, there are pros and cons to this life. The ups are easy: nature, food, and people. The downs are sticking out when I don’t really want to, being far from friends and family, and not wanting to do work because it’s too beautiful outside.

But maybe that’s precisely why I was brought here: to learn to enjoy life.

About Living the Free Way

LTFW is a travel blog that emphasizes giving ourselves permission to do the things we love and stepping outside or our comfort zones. You can learn more about the author on the 'About' page.
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