Word of the day
A pale colour between yellow and green, named after the French liqueur (and David Hirtz’s favourite alcoholic beverage) Chartreuse
The internet has agreed that there are approximately 2 million new blog posts written every day. Ridiculous. Let’s assume they’re all written in English, averaging 500 words each (totally made up number): that’s a billion words a day.
Since I never read more than a few thousand blog words in a day, some of which are my own, I am unqualified to judge the calibre of the blogging masses. I imagine every blog has at least one dedicated and delighted reader (its creator), but considering the amount of dross in the media, penned by people who are paid to write words, I can’t help but compare this high volume of blog output to the notorious ‘long drop’ toilets at Glastonbury. While many festival-goers drop something useful, namely toilet paper, into the gruesome cesspits and occasionally something really valuable is dropped, like a beloved piece of jewellery, they’re mostly just big piles of shit.
As 21st centurions we are lucky to have the knowledge and understanding of humanity accessible online, but with so much ‘content’ and so little time (even when travelling) we need to be more selective than ever about what we choose to read.
Whether you think my blog roll is full of crap or that I’m churning out nuggets of a different colour, my intention has always been to post only when I have something to say, rather than just blogging for the sake of it.
After a disappointing 24 hours in the Basque Country’s most populous city, with just a few hours of daylight remaining before an early morning departure, I had already decided not to write about Bilbao as I had nothing much to say.
Yes, the Guggenheim museum is an architectural masterpiece and there were a couple of decent Picassos knocking about elsewhere, but I’m no art critic and, after an extremely underwhelming hostel experience, I chose not to threaten anyone’s time or good mood with a negative post.
Then an Albanian man called Vissi offered me a satsuma and it all changed.
Before we get to Vissi I need to sketch out my first day in Bilbao’s Pil Pil Hostel, starting with its 12 bed, men-only dorm. When empty, the room had the aesthetic of a psychiatric ward. When full, it developed the fetid stench of a post-match locker room.
Its inhabitants seemed to be suffering from a variety of ailments: snifflers and sneezers gave way to loud snorers and sleep-talkers as the lights eventually went off – there was no way I was getting my 8 hours and I hardly slept at all.
During a silent breakfast the following morning the assembled zombies munched on cereal and avoided eye contact. I realised how lucky I had been in Biarritz and San Sebastián, internally declaring my hostelling love affair to be over. Cause of death: sleep deprivation and smelly feet. RIP, which is what I hoped to be doing in my private Airbnb bedroom in Madrid.
With a couple of drunk guys talking and slamming locker doors at 2am the noise was really bothering me and one group of lads in particular was getting on my tits. Ever-present in the hostel, cooking and talking loudly in a language I couldn’t pinpoint, they came across as brash and mildly obnoxious. This hostile assessment was all about my lack of sleep and nothing to do with them.
Until mid-afternoon I stayed in the communal area reading, dreading my second night in the battery farm and wishing these lads would be quiet. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and, as I sat there minding my own business, one of them smiled and offered me a satsuma.
I gratefully accepted, ate it (and another two), exchanged names with Vissi then remembered I had a couple of beers in the fridge as we embarked on a silent game of bilingual Chinese Whispers using Google Translate. One of my opening gambits was intended as a mildly humorous compliment:
“You’re a good cook – that pork you made yesterday looked tastier than my pot noodle”
Whether it was the choice of words or the technology, this rapidly escalated into what I thought was a decision to cook together later that day.
I told Vissi I was going out but would be back in time for food, depending on when he wanted to eat. That message clearly didn’t get across as intended, he asked if I was hungry (answer: yes) and suggested that we go to the supermarket together.
I held the basket and Vissi led the charge, navigating the aisles instinctively. The first of our three arguments came at the checkout: he insisted on paying but I ripped away his banknote, replacing it with my own in the hand of the perplexed cashier. Fifteen love.
The second disagreement regarded who would carry the shopping. Vissi demanded that I give the bag to him, I initially declined, but he insisted and I gave way. Fifteen all.
This scene unfolded entirely through body language with smiles, frowns, head-shakes and finger-points serving our communicative purposes.
It wasn’t until we got back to the hostel and Vissi had carefully prepared the meal that I realised what was going on: he had already eaten lunch and was cooking just for me. What an absolute dreamboat.
Vissi wasn’t travelling alone and desperate to make friends – he was staying in the hostel with his cousin Gazmend. He was just being nice.
Our third dispute was over the washing up. This time I refused to back down. While the argument battle ended 2-1 in my favour it was a Pyhhric victory as Vissi had already won the war.
We cooked another delicious meal as a three for dinner and communicated later that night in the universal language of Oktoberfest. I was sceptical at first but no one in Bilbao gave una mierda that it was November, the German four piece band absolutely smashed it and we had a brilliant night.
I learnt a few things in the day I hung out with Vissi.
The first is cheesy but worth saying: whether it’s a pizza slice in Biarritz or a satsuma in Bilbao, small acts of kindness open doors and start friendships.
Vissi’s kindness and generosity were palpable in every movement he made, from the way he interacted with the supermarket checkout lady to sharing his last bit of pork chop at the dinner table. While language helps us to communicate, I learnt from Vissi that you can be a great lad without saying a word.
In an effort to bridge a language gap as wide as the Grand Canyon I also learnt a couple of Albanian words, namely faleminderit (thank you) and, of course, gëzuar (cheers).
I learnt that avocados, a brunch staple in New York and London, clearly haven’t made it to Albania yet, as Vissi and Gazmend prodded the creamy, chartreuse flesh with a mixture of curiosity and disgust.
The final, and by far most entertaining, thing that I learnt was that Vissi cannot do the YMCA. We were a few beers down and my one-handed directions clearly weren’t helping but it was so funny and endearing, the three of us watched it repeatedly that night and it gets better every time.
Despite all the beautiful holiday destinations in the world, for me it is nearly always the people you meet, rather than just the places themselves, that make experiences memorable. For that reason I will always remember Bilbao as Bilbania, and Vissi as its King.
Next stop: Madrid
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