Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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San Sebastian, Spain

Posted on 10/15/03

I’m finally back in the land of sangria and siestas! Huhuhuhuhuhuh! I was very excited to get back to Spain for two reasons. First, I could resume practicing my Frankenstein Spanish skills, but more importantly my first stop was a city that I have visited twice before and loved dearly, San Sebastian. Situated on the north central coast of Spain, San Sebastian is small, beautiful and the tapas capital of the free world. Tapas are small, tasty, bite sized little snacks that are served in most bars in Spain. Plates and plates of tapas are laid out right in front of you, covering the bar (pictured), so you can help yourself whenever you get the munchies. In most parts of Spain, tapas are very basic. A pathetic, dry, little piece of baguette bread with some ham and cheese on it might be the most complex tapa you run across until you hit San Sebastian. In San Sebastian, tapas preparation is an art form. Colorful, mouth watering morsels of food, just begging to be eaten. Ignoring these tapas is like ignoring a heart attack. They’re all around, stretching off to the very end of the bar and totally irresistible when you’re standing there with a glass of the best sangria in the world. The sangria in San Sebastian is also charmingly tasty and it will turn you into a sangria elitist after just a few sips. Instead of plunking in a few ice cubes and splashing the ready-made sangria into a glass from a tin can, they take pride in their sangria, making it from scratch right in front of you when you order it. Red wine, some kind of fizzy fruit drink, vodka and sliced fruit are the basic ingredients, but most people add their own little flare by throwing in extras like rum, various fruit juices and/or spoonfuls of sugar. It’s booty-kicking potent stuff and the scary part is that it goes down easier than Kool-Aid. An unintentional sangria binge can sneak up and conquer you in the span of about an hour if you’re not careful. I managed to control myself for 12, nail-biting, jittery hours before my self-control collapsed and I let nature take its course. It took two consecutive evenings of jabbering inebriation, but I eventually got the sangria drunk out of my system.

Back in 1994, I made a half-assed effort to get a job teaching English in San Sebastian. I wanted to live in Spain for a year or two, polishing my Spanish skills while working on my tan and dating as many Spanish women as decency would allow before returning to the States to get a job doing bilingual something-or-other. Unfortunately, the unemployment rate in Spain at the time was over 15% and the bureaucracy for an unprepared American to get a job was insurmountable, unless I wanted to take a spirit-crushing, under-the-table, cash-in-hand job in a bar/restaurant. After working at a pizza place for three traumatizing months in college, I have since had a lifelong aversion to working in the food service industry, so I was forced to abandoned all plans to work in Spain and turned the trip into a now legendary wine-soaked four month vacation. Eventually, I returned to the States where parental pressure compounded with the lure of health insurance and paid vacations roped me into an unexpected career at the Federal Reserve. Nine years later, I’m back and it feels great!

The trip from Porto was unnecessarily painful. For some baffling reason, there were no buses or trains that went directly from Porto to San Sebastian. I suspected that there might be some kind of mutual loathing between the two cities, undoubtedly due to some sports related animosity like Minneapolis and Green Bay. Anyway, this diplomatic break-down resulted in me having to take a train 100 kilometers south, before changing trains in some Podunk, back-alley Portuguese town, then heading back north and east on an over-night train to San Sebastian. Despite the train ride being infinitely smoother and more spacious than the bus and having two luxurious seats to myself, I was not able to sleep more than 30 minutes during the nine hour journey. This was mostly due to a strange Californian that was sharing the cabin with me whose nervous and peculiar behavior kept me wide-eyed and on guard for most of the night. Thus, I was dropped off in San Sebastian before dawn, dazed and zombified, where I jumped into the first available cab and proceeded to my hostel.

Hostel Alai was referred to me by some drunken Aussie companions in Lagos. It was reputed to be cheap, friendly (run by an Irish guy, who judging from my prior experience with the Irish, was probably going to turn out to be the nicest guy ever) and conveniently located right in the heart of the Old City, where the ratio of people to tapas bars is about five to one. Thanks to the unpleasant hour that I was dropped off in San Sebastian, I was on the door-step of Hostel Alai at 7:00AM and buzzing the intercom without a moment’s consideration to the possibility that the staff (read: the one Irish guy) would still be asleep. A voice that was so groggy that I couldn’t tell what language he was speaking answered the intercom and let me in. After I made the exhausting ascent to the second floor with my baggage, I was met by the robed and bed headed Irish guy. My heart sank. There’s nothing like getting off on the wrong foot with the hostel boss, especially at the uncivilized hour of 7:00AM. However, reinforcing my stereotype of the disarmingly pleasant Irish demeanor, David was understanding and amiable. Once he found his voice, he graciously introduced himself and after filling me in on the hostel details he gave me a set of keys and retreated back to bed. I had four hours to kill until the people occupying my eventual bed would vacate the room and I could collapse into a generous siesta, so I set out for a breakfast of pastries and the famous Spanish fresh squeezed orange juice.

In typical Spanish fashion, aside from the scant early morning cafés, San Sebastian doesn’t really get going until about 10:00AM. Consequently, once I devoured my delicious breakfast I had nothing to do other than head back to the hostel and try to stay upright for three more hours. I walked into the community kitchen to make myself comfortable and try to put a dent in my new book, “Another Day in Paradise,” by Eddie Little. As I entered the kitchen, I encountered another early morning arrival. I was extending my hand to greet him when I saw something that paused me like a VCR and made me yelp involuntarily. The tiny TV balancing on one of the food shelves was playing the Simpsons! In fricking English! I was still leaning across the table, hand half extended, mouth hanging open, stuck in mid-sentence when my eyes strayed to the pile of VHS tapes next to TV only to see several of them labeled “The Simpsons.” This wasn’t just a coincidental encounter with satellite TV. There were #$%^&* tapes of the Simpsons in this #$%^&* hostel! Sweet merciful crap! Having all but forgotten about the other person in the room, I eased my ass down onto a stool and stayed glued to the TV until 11:30 when the impending brain damage from sleeplessness forced me to retire to my bed. I had found my home away from home.

My mid-day nap was full of dreams where I spoke Spanish to various members of the Simpsons’ cast of characters. I was once told years ago that if you can speak another language in your dreams, you have reached a stage of respectable fluency. I don’t know if that’s true. In the dreams, I was ripping through Spanish faster than that guy that reads the disclaimers at the end of radio commercials. The only other instances that I have spoken Spanish that well – or rather thought I was speaking Spanish that well - was after at least five cocktails. Nevertheless, I relished in the indication that my Spanish had reached a stage of fluency that spurred bilingual dreams.

After shaking off the nap hangover I hit the streets. I noticed immediately that I had some readjusting to do. I tore through the streets at Portuguese speed for a couple of blocks before I noticed that the San Sebastian people appeared to walk even slower than the people in southern Spain. I eased up on the pace and cruised the Old City in search of an all-tapas lunch.

The Basque activists had been busy the night before. There was fresh spray paint and banners of dissident propaganda everywhere written in the indecipherable Basque dialect that dates back 10,000 years, older than any other language in Europe. According to David, the Basque supporters usually get out and graffiti the city once or twice a week (pictured), thus building cleaners and sand-blasting companies are booming industries in San Sebastian. They have to be called out constantly to clean the handiwork of the separatists, while trash collectors move through the area, pulling down banners and signs. Being one of the larger cities in the disputed Basque region, San Sebastian is a popular target for protests. While violent episodes are few and far between these days, the Basque are nevertheless still very active. The authorities raid the Basque heavy neighborhood in San Sebastian on a semi-regular basis, but this these measures seem to have little effect. Despite these regular displays of discontent, the Basque goal to secede into a separate nation doesn’t seem to have come very far in the nine years since my last visit.

Translation: "More than 30 Detainees!  Are you next?  Garzon (big wig Spainsh judge) fascist, you are the violent!"

The weather continued to cool down in San Sebastian, which was both a relief and a little depressing. It was a relief in that for the first time in months I was finally able to sleep through the night without waking up sweating in a suffocating hostel room. It was depressing in that beach season had without a doubt concluded (pictured). Other than some crazy old guys taking a freezing swim in the ocean, San Sebastian’s beautiful beaches were deserted all week. The wind in San Sebastian made the already cool weather seem even more harsh. In a wonderful burst of good luck, as I was sitting in the kitchen of Hostel Alai during one of my numerous Simpsons marathons and bitching about having to purchase warmer clothes as I headed north, Debra – an Aussie doing temp work at the hostel – bestowed upon me a wonderful, practically brand new “Columbia” Gortex jacket that someone had left behind. It was blue, one of my favorite colors and it had about seven pockets which was a huge bonus. In the winter months, my jacket is like my purse. I typically carry enough stuff in my jacket pockets to supply a two month hiking expedition to the South Pole. When you haul around this much crap, the more pockets you have to distribute the weight of your loot, the better. That jacket would have easily cost me upwards of 80 Euros if I had bought it brand new, so it’s safe to assume that whoever left it behind was super pissed.

As fantastic as my new jacket was, I was not ready to put it to use just yet. The polar bear Minnesotan in me was attracting undue attention during my wanderings through San Sebastian. The cool weather had spurred the pansy-assed Spanish to break out their jackets and scarves while I was still walking around looking like a lunatic tourist, but nonetheless comfortable and carefree in just jeans and a t-shirt. I drew continual looks of disbelief and concern by the locals as I traipsed through the city in this state. I felt justified in waiting to add more layers until I could walk three blocks without breaking a sweat, which wasn’t going to be any time soon with the way my metabolism had shifted into overdrive in recent months. My natural body heat was revving so high that I would sweat while eating ice cream. At least I wasn’t swimming in the goddamn ocean like some goofballs.

Speaking of sweating, I was a total mess by the time I reached the top of Mount Urgull, the best scenic hike that San Sebastian has to offer. The mountain sits right on the edge of one of San Sebastian’s small peninsulas, boarding the Old City and is covered with several medieval ruins, a cemetery and public gardens. It also affords the best high view of the city. I vividly remembered seeing hoards of tiny, gecko-like lizards living all over the mountain when I last climbed it in ’94, but I didn’t see a single lizard this time. Perhaps they were all migrating south. Boy, wouldn’t that be a sight? Just imagine sitting at a bus stop in a calm, peaceful town somewhere in central Spain and all of a sudden you hear this quiet, but noticeable pitter patter sound and as you are scratching your head and looking around for the source of the noise, a herd of thousands of tiny lizards suddenly appear out of nowhere and scamper through town, terrorizing everyone one in their path while they dash south toward Gibraltar. Screw running with the bulls, let’s see the Pamplonans run with the goddamn lizards!

More Basque graffiti


Back in reality, down at sea level, the ocean was getting riled up. Huge waves were crashing against the coastal breakers, sending plumes of foamy water 30 to 40 feet straight up into the air and occasionally splashing down onto the walkway, drenching strolling tourists. After walking the entire length of the beach to take pictures of some seaside sculptures, I stumbled onto this strange area where little exhaust holes cut into the ground violently shot out air and mists of ocean water each time the waves crashed into the caves below the walkway. Some of the explosions of air that were blasting out of the exhaust holes were so powerful that they could knock you down if you weren’t prepared for them. Seeing the potential for a little entertainment, I took a seat and watched several unsuspecting people get the bejesus scared out of ‘em and a few skirts go flying up as the crashing waves and their crossing over the holes coincided. It was great fun.

San Sebastian is crawling with foreigners and it’s one of the few non-resort cities in Spain where you are just as likely to hear English while walking down the street as Spanish or Basque. Aside from the bulging tourist presence, the city has numerous, non-Spanish permanent and semi-permanent residents with the enviable privilege of living and/or studying in its beautiful surroundings. Several residents passing through Hostel Alai were just starting long stints in San Sebastian and were only staying at the hostel until they found permanent accommodations. The city caters to these people by having an impressive number of bars, restaurants and shops where most, if not all of the staff speak passable English. This was great for the non-Spanish speakers, but it was annoying for me. I wanted to work on my non-slumbering Spanish skills and the locals tended to greet me in English or throw an English version of the menu at me as soon as they caught a glimpse of my fading tan and sun-bleached blond hair.

Eventually I had to face facts and keep moving. I really didn’t want to leave San Sebastian (and the tapas and the sangria and the Simpsons), but duty called. San Sebastian is very alluring and the temptation to drop everything and settle there is exceptionally tempting. However, on two separate occasions I have not gone to Italy because I was having such a great time in Spain and there was no way I was going to let that happen again. After sharing some goodbye wine with David and Debra, I climbed onto the night bus destined for Barcelona.

Go to Barcelona

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©Leif Pettersen 2012