Spain & Second Impressions

Emily Bowman  is a student at University of Denver and is an ISA Classmates Connecting Cultures  blogger corresponding with the World Affairs Council of Houston. Emily is currently studying in Bilbao, Spain on a Fall 2 Program.

The past few days have been hectic, but in the best possible way. You know that feeling that everything is shifting, moving, changing, and you’re just rolling along with the current? I love that.

I’ve been in Santander for over a month now, and lately I started to feel like I’d set down some durable roots in Spain. This was, after all, the city where I got my first taste of Spain. While Santander is only one short hour by bus from Bilbao, my current locale, I can’t help but feel like my entire outlook on Spain has been altered somewhere in the shift.


I should mention that, as far as some Spaniards are concerned, the two cities are worlds apart. There exists a considerable rivalry between Santander and Bilbao. I have yet to discover exactly where it has its base.

When I first arrived in Santander, it didn’t take long before I revealed to some of my acquaintances there that I would, in fact, be studying in Spain for much longer than the summer term at the Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo. I would also be studying at the Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao through the fall semester. To my surprise, some of my acquaintances wrinkled their brows (or their noses) and wanted to know exactly why I planned on studying abroad – studying Spanish, no less – in Bilbao.

I asked my professor, Javier (who is a native of Cantabria, the region of which Santander is the capital), why the people I met in Santander were so put-off by the fact that I would be studying abroad in Bilbao. He told me that there was a big rivalry between the two cities’ futbol teams. While plausible, I don’t buy it, mostly because whenever I’ve spoken with a person from Santander about their futbol team, they have always laughed and informed me that they always lose. I just never got the impression that the people of Santander were ready to get up in arms over their futbol team or their rivals.

The disregard is not one-sided. The very first night I found myself in Bilbao, I was sitting at the table in my host mother’s kitchen chatting with her and her friend who lives in the apartment on the first floor of our building. Her friend commented that I looked a bit tan, so I informed her that I had spent the last month in Santander, a popular beach town on the northern coast. To this, she told me a phrase sometimes heard here in Bilbao: “A Santander, cagar y volver,” which roughly translates to, “Santander, sh•t and return”. Well, then.


What does all of this signify? While I am physically barely 100 km away from the little slice of Spain that I have experienced these last five weeks, in many ways, I realize that I have entered into an entirely new side of the country. Isn’t it always just the way that once you feel like you know something, it changes? I love that. It only means that there’s more in store to discover.

This is a reason why I chose to study abroad in Bilbao. I wanted to become acquainted with a little-known corner of Spain, something else than the bullfights and flamenco dancers. Obviously, if the reactions I have witnessed from the people I have met in both Santander and Bilbao are anything to go by, then I’ve hit the mark. For all those considered, Bilbao is something different, alright.

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