There are some people who look forward to their birthdays every year. I am without a doubt not one of those people. Instead, for the longest time, I had this awful habit of spending that day taking stock and coming up short. When it would fall on a weekday, I would be joyful — I could get away without acknowledging it. Each year my birthday wish was to spend it out of town. And after 36 years, I got my wish. It turns out that if you want something, it helps to ask for it! Which is how this vacation to Spain came about. My boyfriend, Mat, would be in London for work in September, and through elaborate Travelocity.com wizardry, he and I would meet in Bilbao, and then for a week eat all the jamon Spain had to offer — that is, plenty.
I’d been in charge of all accommodations, so I took the credit when the hotel I’d chosen put us in the penthouse with the balcony overlooking the river and showcasing Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim. No kidding, it looks like an alien spaceship had touched down. The first day, fighting jet lag, we walked circles around it, trying in vain to capture its beauty and its weirdness. This was all prepwork for Day 2, when we would actually go inside. In the meantime, we walked up and down the riverfront, contemplating how exactly one orders a pintxo (the Basque country’s word for tapas). From all I’d read, the rule of thumb was to approach pintxo bars as though you were on a bar crawl, except instead of beer (though it’s definitely on offer), you order finger foods instead, and then you move on to the next spot. Reliable sources reported that the food in northern Spain was phenomenal, but those same sources didn’t tell me just how intimidating it could be! How precisely to get the pintxo from the top of the counter and into my hands? And how to get past the throngs of people parked at the bar, standing shoulder to shoulder? Every hour seemed like happy hour, and the culture shock was especially shocking for the hungry and jet lagged. Luckily, we’d made reservations at the Guggenheim cafe to try the tasting menu the next day. But before we could eat, we soaked up Jenny Holzer’s Truisms, Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes, and Richard Serra’s staggering steel sculptures. Then we ate. Foolishly, I didn’t take any photos of the food, but suffice it to say, it was art in and of itself.
The following morning, we bussed it to San Sebastián. I knew little going in other than 1.) there was a really nice beach, and 2.) there are more Michelin-star-rated restaurants per capita in San Sebastián than in any other city in the world. Sadly, I can’t report on the second thing, but I (and the steps counter on my iPhone) can attest that the beach is extraordinary. We hadn’t prepared for the 80 degree day it turned out to be, and it took some prodding to get Mat to take off his sneakers, but before long there was sand between my toes. Is there anything better than an unexpected walk along one of the world’s best beaches according to TripAdvisor on your birthday? I don’t think so. It’s a tough act to follow, but eating Ferrero Roche-flavored gelato and people-watching in a plaza wasn’t too shabby either. That night we went out for my birthday dinner. While all the Basque people ate pintxos at the bar, we were tucked away downstairs, where even the waiter was surprised to have sit-down customers ordering raciones—that is, larger plates to be shared, but what I would just call an entree. There’s certainly a part of me that wants to blend in when I’m abroad, adhere to local customs, not call attention to myself, but then there’s the part of me that would much rather be in my comfort zone. And in San Sebastián, that meant sitting down and ordering from a menu. Maybe this is a part of getting older, the part that I’m perhaps most grateful for, where I can let go of the idea of doing what is expected, and feel at peace with doing what feels comfortable to me. It took a few decades, but I got there.
San Sebastian treated us very well, and if I learned one lesson that I’d impart to anyone going there, it was: stay two nights, not just one. But one day there was enough for Mat and I both to come to a natural conclusion: we should move there and open an English-language bookstore. We decided this on a seven-hour train ride to Madrid, the final stop on our trip. I had found us an Airbnb in what the internet promised was the coolest neighborhood: Malasana. Restaurants, thrift stores, boutiques, bookstores -- everything was within walking distance. Even a brunch spot next door to our Airbnb that was jam-packed by 8:30am and offering several types of avocado toast. It reminded me of Williamsburg in the early 2000s, except everyone was dressed like they’d just stepped out of the 90s. I’ve never seen so many fanny packs and Warner Bros. extra-large T-shirts in my life. Tweety Bird, apparently very big in Spain. We both were perplexed, but set those thoughts aside once we were in places like, oh, let’s say, The Prado. I’m more of a modern-art girl myself, but seeing in person the trajectory of Goya’s work, from his early almost-cartoonish tapestries to his late-in-life Black Paintings, was powerful, to say the least. Heavy stuff, without a doubt, so I was grateful that the next stop was Buen Retiro Parque, right behind the Prado and home to more than 400 feral cats (cared for by an organized group of local cat people!). I didn’t see 400, but I met a few -- all of whom wanted nothing to do with me.
We were on our way to the airport and already talking about when we could return. Next time we’d spend more time in San Sebastián, next time I’d bring a bathing suit, next time I’d set my comfort zone aside and belly up to the pintxo bar and finally get my hands on one of those things.
Linda Feldman has worked in publishing for 15 years, editing books till they meet her rigorous standards of perfection. A horoscope once told her that she should strive to have a more relaxed relationship with perfection, and so she takes pottery classes (where she has to give in to the whims of clay and kiln) and practices yoga (where she meets herself where she is).
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