Bilbao Metro 4am

I turn the corner and look up. Sure enough, there is a tall pole with the lit red symbol atop. It’s a welcome sight. I walk towards it. I go down a flight of stairs, down a steep escalator, then down another steep escalator. It’s hot. Anymore feckin’ escalators and we’d be at the earth’s core. A train screeches up the track. I quicken my pace and slip my card out of my wallet. I hope it has credit. I see the roof of the train by the platform below. The doors open. A beeping sound warns people to get their asses inside quickly. I run. I swipe my card. The gates open. I take the stairs, sidestepping as fast as I can. But, as I arrive on the platform the train moves off. It screeches in a kind of sneering manner, which I appreciate none-too-much.

The train is like a sideways parting curtain that slowly reveals the other platform and there, casually waiting, are the Bilbao folk that have it sussed. I didn’t miss the train. I’m on the wrong bloody platform. Dumb luck. Anyway, why was I rushing? Even if I had missed the right train there’d be another along in ten minutes. It’s not like I haven’t time to spare; I’ve just wiled away hours drinking in bars.

It’s not the same atmosphere of waiting you get during the day; voices are raised and every now and then someone bursts out laughing. I scan the crowd. Gangs crowd around benches. Well, groups. Gangs sound intimidating. Guys and girls. More guys than girls. There’s one woman who stands alone. It looks like there’s a uniform under her cardigan. A cleaner maybe, mid-fifties on her way home. Her thin lips give her an impatient expression. Two good-looking girls come down the steps and stand in front of an advertisement for an English Academy. Tight jeans and leather jackets.  I consider walking over and striking up a conversation, you know, to practise my Spanish. In the last bar I pushed myself to approach a girl and say ‘Hola. Que tal?’ She rolled her eyes and walked away. I was left standing there like a dick. Thankfully, the lads didn’t see it ( although I could feel some fella in some corner laughing at me). Anyway, I decide not to talk to the two pretty girls on the platform. Well I don’t really decide anything. I just stand there near the bottom of the stairs, waiting like everyone else.

A breeze blows through the station. I look down the tunnel and see a huge square can rattling up the track. People stand and survey the carriages sliding by. There’s a gasp and a screech as the train settles. The doors open. We inch inside, disperse, and find a place to park ours bums. Those already seated gather themselves. I sit on one of the flip down chairs near the door. The cleaner sits on the seat opposite, her two hands clasping the strap of her handbag, her back erect and her eyes alert. She’s primed to bolt at a moment’s notice. The two pretty girls find a space halfway down the carriage, sit down and busy their thumbs with their mobile phones. The train moves on. As we enter the tunnel the engine screeches like a banshee.

I can taste the alcohol in my mouth. I try to figure out how much I had. I lose count after six and conclude that it’s enough to secure a hangover, but also enough to engender the current mood of insouciance. I look at my phone for something to do. I go on Facebook. Photos, videos and comments slide by. If I have time for this it’s a lie to say I don’t have time. I feel an aching dissatisfaction slowly rising. I slip my phone away.

A couple of stops later the cleaning lady leaves and a drunk guy staggers on. It’s like the changing of scenes in an unscripted play. He sits where the lady was and instantly falls asleep; head tilted, mouth open and Adam’s apple protruding. As the train gathers speed his head moves side to side slightly. As it slows again he inches forward. When the doors beep he awakes. Confused, he looks around. His eyes meet mine and narrow in suspicion, as if he’s woken up in some hellish nightmare and I’m to blame. I look away. Eventually he gets his bearings and repositions himself in his chair. People let themselves out, people let themselves in.

The drunk guy keeps himself awake by telling himself a story that seems to both amuse and surprise him. He staggers away at Barakaldo.

‘I have no idea how I got home,’ he will tell his friend’s tomorrow.

The train pushes on. There are now just a few people scattered around the carriage. Everyone’s quiet and tired. On the way in we were nicely presented and curious to see what Saturday night had in store. Now, that curiosity has been spent. I wonder if we’re one step closer to, or one step further away from where we wanna be. Neither, I suppose. Saturday night is more a necessary side-step.

 ‘Portugalete’ announces the electronic voice. People stand and gather by the door. We exit the train and ascend the two flights of stairs and escalator.  A few people grimace as the early morning Autumn chill hits them at the exit.

After five seconds the crowd have vanished. I’m alone on a quiet street surrounded by tall buildings. It’s just a matter of getting to bed. Sleep awaits me there.


Something Similar; It gets off to a bad start…

Something Different; A Black Star on the last Day of School




5 Things I Hate about Bilbao

We watch our fresh pints settle.

‘And your hates of Bilbao?’ Arantxa asks.

‘Shit,’ I say.


‘We did it all wrong.’


‘We should have done the hates first, then the loves, so we finish on a good note.’

‘I guess…Anyway, tell me.’

‘Okay, but don’t get mad.’

‘We’ll see.’

I sip my pint.

‘Well first thing,’ I begin, ‘ is the rain here. It’s really bad.’

‘But you are from Ireland!’

‘Yeah but when it rains here, it really rains. The last two weekends it has rained non-stop.’

‘It is true. But in Ireland it is the same, no?’

‘The rain is worse here. I mean I was living in Ireland for thirty two years and I never owned an umbrella.’

‘En serio?’

‘Yes. And I bought my first umbrella after two months here.’

Arantxa isn’t quite happy but moves the conversation along anyway.

‘What else?’

‘Eh…well…it can be quite grim and industrial here. When I get the train into Ametzola all I see are spray painted walls, cheerless buildings, cranes eternally waiting to swing into action and empty platforms with posters advertising films that were out long ago. And on the hills-’

‘You said you loved the hills.’

‘I do but it’s a pity that there are these huge telephone masts on top of them.’

‘You should have seen Bilbao in the early nineties because it was a lot worse. Now we have the Guggenheim, the metro and beautiful riverside walkways. I think you say this because of where you live. In the city around Casco Viejo and Abando it is very beautiful, no?’

‘It’s nice.’

Casco Viejo, Bilbao

‘There are parts of every city that are not beautiful but you do not see this because you are not there long.’

Aranxta sips her pint.

I take out my wallet and produce a flimsy green card and show it to her. She nods. It’s my NIE, a card that basically says; Hello. I’m a foreigner. I live and work here. You need to have one if you are working in Spain.

‘Okay. This is my next hate; bureaucracy. Getting into the mafia is probably easier than obtaining this flimsy card. I was passed back and forth from the Police Headquarters in Bilbao to social services in Santurtzui, to the bank. Each office gave me a form to fill, then sent me back to the last place. I hadn’t a clue what was going on. I’d just take a ticket, get in line and, when my turn came, spill my mounting paper work onto the desk, only to be told I was missing some form and sent back to the last place.’

‘Yes. Well, we hate it too. What else?’

‘It’s a bit of a cultural thing but I don’t like how late you guys eat. Eating dinner at 9 and 10 o’clock at night isn’t healthy. It is too late and when it’s time for going to bed I’m wide awake.  And everybody gets up early here. When the fuck do you guys sleep?’

‘During the day – siesta.’

‘Did you take a siesta today?’


‘I’m beginning to think this is the most sleep deprived country in Europe.’

‘Yes but when I was in Ireland everyone had dinner at 6 o’clock. Then at 10’clock you eat again because you are hungry again. I put on weight when I was in Ireland.’

Arantxa counts it out.

‘The rain, industrial appearance or whatever, bureaucracy, eating late; that’s four.’

‘Okay; last thing is that the Supermarkets are always closed on Sunday. Again, it’s just something I have to get used to, but it annoys me when I wake up on Sunday with no food in the fridge and then I remember the supermarket is closed.’

‘The Chinese shops are open on Sundays.’

‘Well why can’t the supermarkets open too?’

‘They let the Chinese shops open as they are trying to encourage foreign investment. Some Supermarket chains are pushing for Sunday opening but it’s against the law at the moment.’

‘Does it bother you?’

‘We should be able to survive one day without a supermarket, no?’

‘True. Anyway – they’re the five things I hate about Bilbao; but, hate is a strong word.’

‘Yes. Too strong.’


We sip our pints.


5 Things I Love about Bilbao