Day 53 – The King of Bilbania 

Word of the day

Chartreuse

A pale colour between yellow and green, named after the French liqueur (and David Hirtz’s favourite alcoholic beverage) Chartreuse


Blog roll

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.

glasto-long drop

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.


Bilbao

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.

Guggenheim

Then an Albanian man called Vissi offered me a satsuma and it all changed.


Albania 

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.

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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.

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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.

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Bilbania

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

What is The Gump Method

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Day 50 – San Sebastián

Whether Chaucer or someone else coined it, the proverb Time and tide wait for no man has been around for hundreds of years. Raising my bat to celebrate a shunemployed half century I now understand it better than ever.

Managing a travel day, like managing a workday, is all about prioritisation. The difference is that at work there is usually a clear winner for what you should be doing.  There is no “should” when travelling; there is only “do and do not” (thanks Yoda) and options are limitless.

While I’m enjoying my freedom it’s easy to get sidetracked; time is only on your side if you force it to be. After 4 days of pancake-flat water at a renowned surf spot I’ve realised there’s not much I can do about the tide.


Time 

Shunning the structure of the working week I anticipated an abundance of ‘me time;’ I would be gaining 40 plus hours each week, surely resulting in time aplenty for my stated travel objectives and other favoured but neglected pastimes such as reading, sitting and Netflix.

That assumption proved naive:

  1. A pleasant but unforeseen effect of publicising my shunemployment was a succession of coffees, lunches and nights out. It was brilliant catching up with so many friends, some of which I hadn’t seen in years, but it’s no surprise that retirees wonder how they ever had time to work.
  2. Time evaporates when travelling. Days not filled with activities are spent researching destinations, arranging transport and accommodation. Personal time can be hard to come by, especially when sharing a bedroom with 11 people.
  3. To top if off I’ve been writing this blog which takes forever. I just hope someone out there appreciates the lack of spelling misteaks.

As a result my first 50 days have whizzed by, I’m still only 71% of the way through Sapiens and haven’t watched a single minute of Stranger Things 2.


Tide

With the Biarritz surf scene approaching its annual low tide I made the short trip across the border to San Sebastián, or Donostia to the Basque Country locals. Famed for its culinary scene, San Seb boasts more Michelin stars per capita than any other European city, an almost unmatched selection of pintxo (tapas) bars and a surf season that extends a couple of weeks beyond its French neighbour.

I rocked up at the Etxea Surf Hostel next to San Seb’s premier surf spot, Zurriola Beach, increasingly conscious of the need to spend my time on things I actually want to do, like surfing. In the lounge area an American guy was freestyling on the guitar. He was a strong musician but a dubious lyricist:

I smoked a bunch of joints, in the morning and the night,

I smoked so many joints, most I’d had in my life. 

Listening to Johnny Hash did not feature anywhere on my to do list so, in line with my new views on time management, I left him to it.

The hostel turned out to be incredibly social with a great atmosphere. While this photo taken on night one by a local bike saddle suggests I was escorting my nieces and nephews to the nearest skate park, the age range in the hostel turned out to be quite broad.

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Despite a few travellers in their 30’s I was clearly the oldest guest until the perfectly named and excellent human being Jerry Valentine spared me that honour.

Jerry is a very young 55 year old retiree from New Jersey who spends his time either chasing waves or saving lives at Avalon beach on America’s Jersey Shore. Give him a high five from me if you see him next summer.

Avalon swimmers will feel extra safe with Crawford, who lifeguards at the same beach, on duty. Stacked like shelves, the de facto fourth Hemsworth brother combines with Jerry, 35 years his senior, to form an unlikely but perfectly balanced travel partnership.

Last but not least is Sebastien – Chile’s answer to Steve Stifler and my first official new BFF – a surfer, skateboarder and future Warren Buffett. Being hilarious in a second language is a skill I do not possess but value highly and the Stifmeister has it in abundance.

I’ll let you guess who is who in the photos below.

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Rather than maximising personal time I took the opportunity to hang out with this crew, which swelled and ebbed as others rolled in and out of town. We were not collecting Michelin stars but enjoyed the rest of what San Sebastián has to offer.

We walked everywhere, taking in the beautiful scenery both in the city and its surrounding hills. We drank Spanish wine, local cider and monster G&Ts. We think we enjoyed but don’t really remember a couple of 5am finishes at the entertaining but creepy dabadaba.

Dabadaba

One thing we did not do a lot of was surfing. One surfable day out of five was a poor return but I was encouraged to catch a couple of clean waves; a glimmer of hope.

Not surfing freed up plenty of time to live like locals, eating delicious and reasonably priced pintxos. To contextualise the brilliance of this city may I introduce Bar Sport.

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If you were to put Bar Sport on Old Street roundabout in London it would contain a selection of strippers and people wanting to knock you out. In San Seb it’s a fine culinary establishment serving exquisite pintxos while Real Madrid entertain on TV.

(Vegans please look away now)

Goat cheese with jamon and chutney, crabmeat vol-au-vent, pig trotter and mushroom fritter, sirloin steak with piquito peppers, foie gras on toast, king prawns on a stick, squid stuffed with crab and two glasses of Rioja for €25.

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It was absolutely banging; I can only imagine the culinary wonders available in this city for those willing to spend serious euros.

Despite the lack of surf in San Seb there was plenty to do (and eat) over 5 days and I would highly recommend a visit. Whether you have time and cash to burn or just want to escape for the weekend on a tight budget, a trip to San Sebastián is both time and money well spent.


Next stop: Bilbao

What is The Gump Method

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