Plain Sailing

It’s getting away from it all, while at the same time, being in the centre of everything.

The tide is low. The black and snot-green walls of the riverbanks slide by. Above the riverbanks, the hotels, apartments and businesses of Portugalete and Getxo look down upon us from either side. You would think that all those buildings would generate more noise, but no, they just observe us with a thousand eyes. The only sound is the chug of the boat’s engine.

We are on board the Happy Thought. Aritz, el capitán, is on the roof removing the covers from the sail. Liam is nervously manning the tiller. I’m sipping a beer. It tastes good. Aritz finishes with the sail and ducks into the cabin to fix the toilet.

I smile and wave at the other boats.

‘It’s a bit like I’m the owner and you two are my lackeys,’ I say to Liam.

Liam fails to smile.

‘Here do you wanna, take the… the reins?’

‘Na. You are doing a fine job. And it’s a tiller.’

‘Well you do it then, fucking Brendan the Navigator. I wanna roll a ciggy.’

‘Smoking’s bad for ya.’

This is bad for me…for us. I haven’t a clue what I’m doing.’

‘Aritz would tell you if anything was wrong.’

Liam makes a face.

Once we get closer to the mouth of the Nervion, Aritz cuts the engine. The wind picks up and we pull extra jumpers out of our backpacks. There’s an eerie silence. The engine was like the constant murmur of a reassuring mother, but now it’s gone.

Aritz positions himself next to a crank and starts winding. The sail rises up the pole. The sheet flaps about at first but once he’s done winding it puffs its chest out proudly. The wind pulls the boat to one side. I feel my stomach lift. I clutch onto the rail. The boat is nearly on its side. If I let go I’ll be tipped out. Eventually, the wind subsides and the boat settles.

‘I don’t want to steer this anymore,’ Liam says, ashen faced.

He leaves the tiller go. I look to Aritz. He shrugs. I drain my can and take the tiller. The vessel and the lives within are now in my hands.

Aritz goes back to the toilet. Liam attempts to roll a cigarette with trembling fingers.

‘I have no idea what I’m doing here,’ I say once Aritz resurfaces.

‘You are doing Grrrreat!’

‘I dunno man. I don’t feel safe in a boat that has me in charge.’

‘To go right, push it left. To go left push it right. When wind is straight: 25 degrees either side,’ Aritz instructs and then he ducks into the cabin again.

He makes it sound easy but it’s not like I have the river to myself. There are canoes, trawlers, big sail boats and tiny sail-boats. There’s also the wind and its whims.

Liam stands up, lights his cigarette and takes a long, slow pull. I’m straining on the tiller. Suddenly, the arm of the main sail swings violently. Liam bends backwards to avoid getting his head taken off.

‘Jesus!’ he says, crouching towards the bench.

‘I did say smoking is bad for ya.’

‘Well…’ is all Liam can say. He sits there shaking his head.

‘Some reflexes on ya though. That was like something outta the Matrix.’

It all seems a bit dangerous but every time Aritz resurfaces from the cabin he smiles an ‘Aint life grand’ smile. I decide not to panic unless I see him panicking. I pick a red building on the docks as a yardstick. After twenty minutes, we still haven’t moved passed it. I hope no one else has noticed.

‘This trip is like my relationship; A lot of effort but essentially going nowhere,’ Liam says.

‘This wind is like a girlfriend; one minute she’s your friend, then suddenly, and for no apparent reason, she turns on you,’ I offer.

Liam emits a mirthless chuckle.

Finally Aritz emerges and takes the tiller. I sit down next to Liam.

‘How are things with Emma?’

‘Ah we are fighting a lot. To be honest I-’

Suddenly, Aritz is roaring. I look ahead and see a forty foot sail boat heading our direction. It’s going to hit us. The captain of the forty-footer is moving frantically on deck. But surely it’s too late. I brace myself for the cold water. As the huge sail looms over us I close my eyes.

It hits us on the port side. Miraculously we remain afloat. With both captains pulling the tillers the boats veer away from each other.

We stand. We are staring at the captain of the forty footer. He’s staring right back. A combination of language barrier and shock renders us dumb.

‘All that water and you two are hitting into one another!’ bellows a fisherman on land.

Once we sit back down Liam and I feel the need to recount the story from our own perspectives. We are agreed that the other boat was at fault. A calm descends. Aritz is in charge. Liam and I are just sipping cans and looking about. The boat slowly progresses towards the bay.

‘I guess it’s plain sailing from here on in,’ I say.

‘Yeah,’ Liam agrees, ‘Boring, isn’t it?’


Something Similar? Bilbao Metro 4am

Something Different? Cans on the Bench




Airport/Groceries on the Dancefloor


London Gatwick. I find the boards and scan with tired eyes. My flight doesn’t jump out at me and I feel momentarily vexed. Has it all been one big mistake? Wrong date? Wrong time? (In airports I always feel like I’m on the brink of a huge blunder). Then I see it. Bilbao. VY7293 19:55. Boarding gate will be announced at 19:05. Grand.

I head towards Departures, negotiating the wheelie bags and fond farewells. I queue. The guys at security have an impatient air and seem perpetually mystified at the hesitancy coupled with stupidity that comes over the passengers. Every day the same. I take out my laptop and place it in a tray. I pull out another tray and drop my bag into it. I remove my jacket and stuff it alongside my bag. I stick my wallet and belt in the sides. I dig my hands into my pockets and feel for loose coins. None. Grand.

I pass through the metal detector without a beep. I meet my bag on the other side and refill my pockets, slip on my belt, place the laptop back in the bag and heave it onto my back. Passport, wallet, ticket, phone, keys, boarding pass. Grand.

Shiny shops in a busy thoroughfare. I find the food hall. The stench of coffee greets and entices me. I pay for an overpriced coffee and sandwich. The coffee feels good. The contents of the sandwich conspire to create zero flavour whatsoever.

I go down to the seating area. People are reading or pushing buttons on their phones while intermittently checking the boards. It seems a numbness has come over us all. We are in-between, waiting for our lives to start again.

Portugalete, Bilbao

I drop my bag in my room, splash water on my face, reapply some deodorant and go outside. I tackle the hill with purpose. It’s been a long numbing day of travel (3 hour bus journey, airport, flight, airport, flight and car ride) so my energy surprises me. I guess my legs are relieved to be finally set free out of doors.

It’s a big night here in Bilbao. The bars are heaving. Jessica and her friends are in the ‘Why not?’ I’m excited to see Jessica as we’ve been apart over Christmas. I’m also a little nervous as I’m about to meet her friends for the first time.

The bouncer nods at me. The bar behind him seems like a busy cave of activity. He pulls the door open and I step inside, and inadvertently, into a group of eight or so people standing in a crescent formation. They all seem to be looking at me. They must be Jessica’s friends. Meekly I scan the group but I can’t see her anywhere. Then I see her sister Andrea. I smile, kiss her cheeks and wish her a happy new year. This confirms to the group that I am him, Jessica’s new fella. I feel the eyes switch from curiosity to appraisal.

Finally Jessica appears at my side. We kiss, hug and say a few words. A drink is handed to me.People from the group step forward to introduce themselves.  Marie Luis, Alvaro, Luis, Martha, Mirren. We speak in Spanglish. We have to lean into one another to be heard above the Reggathon blasting out of the speakers. Everybody’s nice. Everyone makes an effort. Nervousness has me tilting back my glass with speed.  Aritz, Akine and Ane. After a whirlwind of introductions I’m relieved to be back standing next to Jessica. Another drink is handed to me.

‘I’ll get the next,’ I promise.

I spot a plastic bag on the floor. It’s filled with a box of breakfast cereal, a litre of milk, eggs, apples, bananas and mandarins. How curious it looks! It seems as though  it has been transplanted from somebody’s kitchen of a dreary Tuesday morning to this limitless Friday night of disco balls and lights.

‘It’s for you,’ Jessica says following my gaze.

My face clouds with puzzlement.

‘Tomorrow is a holiday and all the shops are closed,’ she explains. ‘Seen as you were arriving late I thought I’d get you a few things.’

I smile at the bag of shopping and then at Jessica. My fondness for her deepens.



Something Similar? What is she like?

Something Different? Bilbao Metro 4am


It gets off to a bad start…

Portugalete train station. 927am Sunday. The platform is empty. I look up the track – nothing. I listen for a toot or a chug – nothing. The screen is a blur of red letters, but I don’t need it spelt out for me; I’ve misread the timetable and there’s no train coming. Fuck. I exit the train station and start running towards the taxi rank. The clouds are heavy and low and it’s humid. I picture what will happen if I don’t get to San Mames on time; frantic messaging, my friends annoyed faces, hasty rearrangements. I run faster. I feel sweat teasing through my skin. My bag bounces on my back.

The taxi gets me to San Mames bus station on time. My mistake costs €22.

I’m relieved to find that Paul and Bren are also hungover. Their faces are shiny with sweat and there’s a wiff of stale beer.

I throw my bag into the luggage compartment. We board the bus.

Then it gets worse…

Paul spends the journey with his head in his hands, saying very little, except ‘I wanna die.’ Then he announces that he needs a plastic bag. Bren says he has one. Perhaps Bren has forgotten that the moments before puking, with the cold sweats and the stomach’s rising bitter soup, are awful. He seems in no rush at all.

‘Now, which bag do you want? I have a BM bag and an Eroski back. Mind you the Eroski bag has my runners inside. They’re a little smelly so maybe we’ll go for the…oh wait, I have another bag here…’

Paul drops his bottle of water to the floor and pokes his hand through the gap in the seats. Bren gets the hint and provides the asking hand with a bag.

I try to ignore it. I stare straight ahead. I hear the retching and the plopping as the bag fills with the contents of Paul’s troubled stomach. I feel a new film of sweat forming on my skin. I feel my chest tighten. I take deep breaths and hoover in the sickly aroma from the plastic bag. I feel like I’m gonna have a panic attack or something. When we arrive in San Sebastian I hurry off the bus.

I stand against a cool wall and calm myself.  The bus to Biarritz is in thirty minutes.  I’m coming round. I pat down my pockets; passport, wallet, phone, raincoat. Bag?

‘Fuck. My bag!’

I run out to the bus bays but the bus has gone.  On the way to Biarritz, I feel jolts of regret every time I think of something in my bag.

‘No! My new shorts.’

‘Nooo! My swimming togs.’

‘Noooo! My glasses.’

Then it gets a little better…

We stalk the streets of Biarritz like vampires, seeking out shade and wincing in the sun.

‘This is France for God sakes, there must be a good place to eat.’

‘Well, you say that, but I haven’t seen one McDonald’s yet.’

Eventually we settle for a burger bar near the beach.

‘Fuck me,’ Bren says with a mouth full of burger.


‘There are so many hot women.’

Our eyes follow another arse down the street.

‘Yeah. Fuck.’

Fed, we go for beers. Bren is extremely positive.

‘It’s great to get away’

‘I can’t wait for this festival in Bayonne.’

‘These beers are going down nicely.’

The beer and Bren’s positivity steer us out of the hangover towards good times.

Then it gets better again…

Bayonne. The streets are full. Machine gun carrying soldiers walk by in twos and threes. There are snipers silhouetted on the rooftop of the town hall.

We are appropriately attired with white t-shirts and red handkerchiefs. We swagger up to a stall and order a pitcher of beer. The bar man explains that they are about to close so we can have two pitchers of cider for the price of the plastic pitchers; €2. He becomes our new favourite person in the world. We tell him he’s wonderful, Bayonne is wonderful, France is wonderful, the French language is wonderful. He reacts by crinkling his forehead, pouting his lips, shrugging slightly and rocking his head, slightly. He is nonplussed.

Next, a firework display. Its awesomeness shoots energy to our bones. As soon as it finishes the DJ takes the party by the reins. Everyone dances. Everyone sings. The sniper watches over us.

We hold our red handkerchiefs aloft like defiant football fans.


Bayonne 2.jpg
Bayonne festival (Fetes de Bayonne)


And then it gets a bit mental…

The party veers away from the town hall towards the back streets. Bren hooks his arm around a passing girl, swings her in close and plants a kiss on her lips. She pulls back in shock, appraises him, then tilts her head in for more.

There’s a guy dancing on top of a barrel. He’s topless and his trousers are down around his ankles. A girl stands under him, arms aloft in praise of the fucks he is not giving. Suddenly, she jumps up, grabs his jocks and tugs. The jocks get stuck around his thighs so he works them down. The crowd respond with a mixture of bemused cheers, laughter and shock at the sight of his penis that hangs there like the trunk of a shy animal. The French girl next to me indicates with a thumb and index finger that she is not impressed with the size of his penis.

There are loads of hands supporting me. They take my weight. My feet leave the ground. I am hoisted up. My feet feel the top of a barrel. The hands leave me. I stand shakily, not quite trusting the barrel. It’s secure. Naked guy is on my left. I give him the thumbs up because I admire his balls. Bren is on my right. I give him the thumbs up because he is making it okay to be here with your trousers still on. Jackson 5 I want you back chimes out of the speakers. I howl approval. The street howls back.


Three buses and a metro join the dots between Bayonne and Portugalete. When I get to my room I close the door, drop my bag on the floor and sigh. How else was it going to end?

Something similar? The Karaoke Delusion Something different? Glimpses into Classrooms

A Post-Holiday Whatsapp Crisis

Four people in a car, returning home after the Easter holidays. Trouble is, everyone else is too. There are traffic jams all over Spain. The same songs we heard on the way down, soundtrack the return journey. We don’t talk much. We sigh. 

I look through my photos.  We had a busy weekend of eating, drinking, sightseeing, hiking, eating and drinking. It was our first holiday together. We bonded well, but now we crave solitude.

I go into my whatsapp. A girl I’m dating was last online five minutes ago. She wasn’t texting me. On the journey to Salamanca I dispatched a little text reassuring her that my life was fantastic. She replied appropriately. Since then though, nothing. I don’t know what to say now. I feel far from fantastic.

It’s not just the end of a holiday, it’s the return of the hamster to its worry treadmill. At the start of the holiday there was no room for the bastard amongst the positive vibes created by getting outta town, breaking the routine and anticipating a weekend brimming with potential. The hamster was left behind on the motorway somewhere between Valladolid and Salamanca. The treadmill was blissfully still for a few days. But, the crafty little bastard was waiting for me on the return journey.

‘Wha’s wrong?’ D asks me.


‘You keep sighing.’

‘Oh. It’s just I’m trying to send a text .’

‘To who? Paula?’

I look at her

‘You told me last night.’


‘So. What’s the problem?’

‘It’s just – I’m not sure. Maybe I should leave it. I’m always texting her first.’

‘Text her. It’s nice. Let her know you are thinking of her.’

‘But surely she would understand that without me having to text it.’

‘Well I don’t know. How many times have you met?’

‘A few.’

‘It’s a nice thing to do,’ D says shrugging.

‘Maybe I should play it cool, you know.’

‘Ah – don’t play games. Besides, she probably knows you’ve been on whatsapp and maybe she’s wondering why you haven’t texted.’

‘But she’s been on whatsapp! Why hasn’t she texted me?’

 ‘You may as well just do it now, you’ve been thinking about it so much.’

‘Right. I will.’

I start typing.

Hi Paula!!

I delete one exclamation mark.  I don’t wanna appear too excited. Then I change my mind and put it back to two exclamation marks because what’s wrong with being excited? Then, I check to see how many exclamation marks she uses in her messages. One. Right, one it is. I start typing.

Hi Paula! How are you??

Then I delete one question mark.

‘For fuck sake.’

‘What?’ D asks.

 ‘Fucking…I’m 33, you know?I should be beyond this shit.’

I contemplate tossing my phone out the window. Then again, phones are what brought us together. And she’s nice.

 ‘I know. I’ll just send her a friend request on Facebook. That’s a good idea, isn’t it?’

‘Sure,’ D says.

‘She won’t think it’s weird, will she? That I wanna be friends, just so I can check up on her?’

D sighs.

‘If she thinks you’re nice, she’ll think it’s nice. If she thinks you’re weird, she’ll think it’s creepy.’

‘Creepy? Really…Well we’ve met a few times now, so she must think I’m nice, mustn’t she? I mean it’s weird that we are not friends when you think about it.’


‘If I can be friends with some lad I met on a stag and chatted to in a bar for five minutes, I can be friends with someone I’ve had sex with, right?’


But then I start thinking about my Facebook photos and I change my mind. Back to whatsapp.

Hi Paula! How are you? Would you like to meet up this week?

I press send and put my phone into my pocket. Done. One minute elapses before I check it again. Two blue ticks confirm she has seen my text. I put my phone away and try not to think about it.

A glorious beep. D looks at me. I can’t stop a grin. But it’s only a message from my Mom. I reply. I put the phone away. Why hasn’t she- It beeps again. It’s her!

Hola! Yes sounds goods. Maybe Tuesday night?’

I smile. Whatsapp suddenly seems more bearable. Same for the traffic.


A Boozy afternoon in a Portuguese Village

A Trip to Quirky Salamanca

A Bit of Romance


A Boozy afternoon in a Portuguese Village

La Bouza is a village in Spain, just 5km from the Portuguese boarder. This charming place, nestled in the hills, consists of a church, a bar and houses for its forty permanent residents. There are no shops, so vans come daily from neighbouring villages honking their horns. There’s the cheese van, the bread van and the fruit van. During holidays the population swells to about 80 persons as relatives flee from the cities to spend time with loved ones. None of this explains why I, a person with no Spanish relatives, was there. Well, our kind friend Arkaitz invited me and two others to spend time in ‘his village’ for Semana Santa (Holy Week). Most Spanish families live in an apartment but also have a house in their village – the place where their parents are from.

We were warmly greeted in the family home by Arkaitz’s parents, Aunts and uncles. The men were small, sturdy and quiet. The women; kind, quick and chatty. Arkaitz’s mother is not unlike the Irish Mammy – attentive and insistent that you eat, eat, eat. It seems she will have failed in her duties as a host if you have not gained 5lbs during your stay.

On our first day in our adopted rural abode we woke early for a breakfast of coffee and biscuits. Afterwards, we went hiking in the nearby hills, accompanied by Arkaitz’s uncle. He kept his distance always walking ten or so metres ahead.

‘Look! I swear those bastards are following us,’ said Paul, pointing skywards at the circling vultures. We first spotted the scavengers a day before on the road from Bilbao to Salamanca.

La Bouza.png
La Bouza, Spain


It was a beautiful morning. We strayed off-road. We tramped downhill, poked about huts, drank fresh water from our cupped hands, lay on rocks listening to the sound of the river and spotted a turtle family inching along the river bed.

The tranquillity was broken by a roar. We looked at each other, confused.

‘It is my uncle. He is calling us,’ Arkaitz explained. Nobody had noticed him slip away as we dozed on the rocks.

We hiked back to the road and got into his uncle’s car. He steered the vehicle around quiet country roads. We weren’t sure where we were going. When we passed the Welcome to Portugal sign we  exchanged excited glances in the back. It’s nice to be able to slip into another country without planes, passports and travel stress.

‘What did you do this afternoon?’

‘Oh, nothing much; just popped over to Portugal.’

We came to the sleepy village of Almofala at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The sun was shining and the streets were empty. The car pulled up next to a water pump. Arkaitz and his uncle got out, so we did too. Arkaitz started playing with the water pump. Is this why we were here; to look at this water-pump?

  Suddenly two men appeared- one in his forties, the other in his sixties. They wore tattered oil stained clothes and smiles. They ambled towards us and shook our hands. Arkaitz’s uncle introduced us as Scottish (although we were two Irish and an Englishman).

‘I love Scotland!! William Wallace!’ one of the men said. We smiled and nodded. They beckoned us to follow them down a garden path to a garage door. The door was pulled up and sunlight filled the room. There was a tractor in the centre of the garage. Horse saddles, stirrups, satchels, rifles and traps from a bygone era hung from the walls. The place had a certain rough-hewn charm but again that question raised its head; what were we doing there? In the corner there was a metal vat.

Our younger host crouched to the tap at the bottom of the vat and began filling up cups. They were passed around. They wanted us to taste their homemade wine. We sipped and nodded approvingly. A vigilant eye was kept on our cups. As soon as they were emptied they were taken from us and refilled.

After a pleasant time at the makeshift winery we said goodbye to our hosts and walked through the cobbled streets of the village.  We went to a couple of bars and drank Port and Superbock beers. €1 each. Arkaitz’s uncle got chatting to a couple of local men. There was an animated exchange in Spanish/Portuguese, after which we were told to drain our beers, head back to the car and follow the car in front.  

It was all beginning to feel like a mystery film with a twist; Protagonists in a strange land where they had no idea what was going on. Instead of elusive villains we had kind hosts. And the tension charged atmosphere was replaced by a warm, relaxed wine buzz.

We were led to a garage in a nearby village where once again, el vino did flow.

A couple of hours later we returned to La Bouza with relaxed smiles and slow saunters. In Arkaitz’s house I found a sunbed on the terrace and decided to lay down for a few minutes. The air held the soothing sounds of the village; a distant dog barking, an engine idling and snatches of conversations where words carried neither hurry nor spite. I drifted off into a late evening Siesta.

A Trip to Quirky Salamanca

A Trip to Quirky Salamanca

Four people in a metal box travelling from Bilbao, Basque Country to Salamanca, Spain. For the first time in my year of living abroad I was going on holiday and I had my three new friends with me.

We were part of a steady procession of cars progressing through tunnels carved out of mountains. After an hour we stopped in a busy café for coffee and sandwiches. Chatter and forks scraping plates filled the air. Napkins and cocktail sticks littered the ground. Ladies queued for toilets. Outside, cars queued for fuel . People were on the move for the Easter weekend. 

Back in the car we chatted, listened to the radio and looked out the window. A strange world slid by; a truck graveyard full of spent vehicles, a squatting trucker taking a shit, vultures circling over fields, trees like deformed hands poking through the grass and numerous roadside strip-clubs. Yeah – strip clubs! In most countries lap dances are to be found in cave like buildings down dark alleys on city streets. In Spain the strip clubs are on the side of the motorway.

I tried to pronounce the names of places we passed through – Mirando de Ebro, Burgos, Palencia, Valladolid…

Eventually we arrived in Salamanca where a huge metal scrapyard glistened in the sunlight. Arkaitz snaked the car through the streets until we arrived in the old town.

Our first stop was the Plaza Mayor where there are lots of plaques commemorating former kings of Spain. Every Spanish city has a plaza and it is said that Plaza Mayor is one of the biggest and most beautiful. Flags adorn the walls and there’s an overall sense of class and sophistication. Surprising then, that it’s also one of the most popular spots for the city’s students to get shitfaced. I wonder if the former Kings would grumble disapprovingly or boisterously join in the revelry.

 The cathedral is huge. As you walk around the outside, neck craned and mouth open, you can’t help but be impressed by the detailed sculptures on the facades. It’s a fine medieval cathedral, but with a twist.  Take a closer look at ‘Puerta de Ramos’ and you notice that during renovations a cheeky sculpture has seamlessly carved a spaceman. It’s a bold and humorous wink from the 20th century that adds charm to a building that was beginning to look like it was taking itself too seriously (you know how cathedrals can be).

Salamanca Spaceman.png
The Cathedral and the cheeky Spaceman


                The University of Salamanca is the oldest university in Spain. It was completed in 1218 but it wasn’t used as a university from the start – I think it was an internet café or something. The anterior wall is busy. You can see Ferdinand and Isabella, a few popes, cardinals and all the people you know and love from that time.  It is said to be good luck if you can find a frog on the intricate façade. We were mad for a bit of luck so we stood there for ages staring at it. Eventually Arkaitz had to point the frog out to us. I felt more annoyed than lucky. It looked nothing like a frog from where I was standing.   

Uni of Sal.png
Good Luck to anyone looking for a frog there!


 The ‘Casa de las Conchas’ (House of the shells)is  a 15th century building that delivers on its promise, in that it contains over 400 shells on its walls. People are divided as to whether the shells are a symbol of love or a symbol of the order of St James. It is now a library. Interestingly, Conchas means shells in Spanish but in South America it has an extra meaning; Vaginas. So if you are chatting to your South American buddies and tell them you visited Casa de las Conchas in Salamanca they might get the impression you had a far better time than you actually had. That said, we had a grand time there.     

House of the shells.png
Casa de las Conchas; not a brothel.


For tips on a nice walking tour of Salamanca I recommend this site;

Like this? You might also enjoy my post;

Camino in December


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