That's all for now.
Hallowe’en. There’s no trick-or-treating here. But we do have ‘huesos de santo’ ('bones of the saints'), delicious marzipan biscuits in the shape of bones made to commemorate All Saints and All Souls Days (Nov 1st and 2nd) – just like the similar Ossi di Morti in Italy. Some of them even have an icing ‘bone marrow’ in the middle. Here are some we bought today:
All Saints Day (‘Todos Los Santos’, Nov 1st) tomorrow is a national holiday (yes, another one!). Apparently, most people finish work early today (Oct 31st) in order to travel to their place of birth to visit the family graves the next day. So the cemeteries will be packed throughout Spain, and, here in Bilbao, I suppose the Railway of the Dead (see last post) will come into its own.
That's all for now.
So what does Pietro do each day here?
Well, each morning he takes a 'Euskotren' train from the Casco Viejo station, five minutes’ walk away from our flat:
From Bilbao, the railway chugs up to and down from the tunnel through the Artxanda hill and into the Zamudio valley. It is apparently known as ‘The Railway of the Dead’ because Bilbao’s main cemetery is next to the railway station in the town of Derio, near Zamudio, and corpses were once taken there by train...
After twenty minutes, he gets off at Zamudio, a village in a valley a few miles outside Bilbao, which is where the Biscay Technology Park (Parque Tecnologico de Bizkaia) is situated. The technology park is the Basque Country’s ‘Silicon Valley’, and is home to many hi-tech companies and institutes, and some exceptional contemporary architecture (www.bilbaointernational.com/en/bizkaia-technology-park).
So, Pietro works at the Basque Country's Centre for Cooperative Research in Biosciences (Centro de Investigacion Cooperativa en Biociencias) or ‘CIC Biogune’ for short (www.cicbiogune.es ). The institute is not that big – but represents the Basque Country’s ambitions to participate in scientific research at the highest level.
His current research project, in the Structural Biology unit of the institute (www.cicbiogune.es/secciones/investigacion/lista_laboratorios.php?idioma=en&unidad=5&subseccion=miembros) is investigating the biology of the Hepatitis C virus. He works with a small group of just 4 people (one Italian, one Polish, one Catalan, one Spanish). You can read more about their work here: http://www.cicbiogune.es/secciones/investigacion/ficha_laboratorio.php?idioma=en&unidad=5&subgrupo=51&subseccion=unidades_investigacion.
For anyone who’s a bit vague about what exactly Pietro does – he’s a structural biologist, which means that he investigates the structures of molecules, especially proteins. One of the ways he does this is by using x-ray crystallography. He crystallises proteins, then shines X-rays on them and studies the diffraction patterns this makes in order to deduce their molecular structures. One of the main functions of this work is to work out how drugs can react effectively with proteins to provide cures for or alleviate symptoms, of disease, but crystallography more broadly is also crucial to understanding life (genomics etc).
Working hours are generally more regular than they were back in Oxford (when it wasn’t unusual for him to come home from the lab at midnight, or stay there most of the night.) However, even here occasional evening or weekend trips to the lab are required to tend to various experiments. (This cartoon will make sense to anyone with a scientist partner:)
On one evening trip to tend to some particularly smelly experiment, I went along to the lab with Pietro, and caught a rather wonderful sunset:
Time for bed, said Zebedee.
It’s a 7.30 am start most weekdays here. Pietro leaves for work at 8.15 (more on that in a later post...). Meanwhile, after my run – which I do if I haven’t damaged any body parts (various back, knee and ankle injuries stopped me running for a couple of years until this summer) – I settle down to work for the day, sometimes accompanied by Radio 4. (Sometimes, like today, I’ll distract myself by writing this blog – but usually I leave that for evenings or weekends.) This being a sabbatical, I am looking forward to some time shortly when I don’t have any work to do – but that hasn’t happened yet! I’m hoping that in late November, I’ll have time to start an intensive Spanish course, with classes each morning for a month or so.
The buzz of old town life goes on in the street outside, and occasionally I’ll have a look-out on the balcony and see what’s going on below.
Having a balcony is a novelty, and fortunately my vertigo can just about cope with one on the first floor. City life here (as in most of Europe!) is high-rise. Everyone lives in flats and there are virtually no gardens; most buildings are at least 5 or 6 storeys high. But I’ve realised that I have virtually no experience of living or working - or being - in buildings with more than 2 or 3 floors! The last couple of days we’ve been looking at one or two flats in nearby streets (as we’re possibly thinking of moving - another story), some of which have been on the fourth and fifth floor with vertiginous drops from narrow balconies. One fourth floor flat had an enclosed balcony with open-able thin glass windows right down to the floor... That freaked me out. (You can see the kind of thing I mean in the picture below).
Pietro gets home at about 6.30 or 7pm, usually, and this is one of the best times of day in the Casco Viejo. There are essentially two types of working day here: the European day (9 am till 5 pm with a short lunch break), or the Spanish day (10 am till 8 pm with a three hour siesta). If you work in a shop or café or library, you take the long break in the afternoon; otherwise, you’re most likely to do ‘office hours’, and you’ll be free between 5 and 8, when everyone who’s not working is out shopping, sitting in bars and cafes, or just doing the daily ‘paseo’. So at this time, we usually go out to buy our provisions, have a wander, and sometimes stop in a café for a coffee, watching Bilbao life in progress.
Coffee is a national pastime, as in Italy. People generally drink café con leche (= caffe latte), café solo (= espresso), or cafe cortado (= caffe machiato). As in Italy, too, there’s no American nonsense with different shapes, sizes and flavours, and take-away coffee is virtually unheard of – it comes in proper cups and you sit and drink it in a café, and it’s delicious. One of the great benefits of living here is that we haven’t set eyes on an American Corporate Coffee – or American Corporate Anything Else for that matter – since coming here. And ordinary people actually buy their food and clothes and household goods and books in proper independent shops and markets in their vibrant community streets, rather than the soulless aisles of monopolising corporate stores and supermarkets in otherwise devastated high streets. Living here is a daily reminder of just how much Britain has become a colony of the United States, and how the Anglo-American social model is so different from the European. (That’s not to say, of course that there aren’t supermarkets and big corporations here: there are, but the balance is quite different.)
Anyway, getting back to our early evening coffee: there are plenty of cafes tucked down the old streets of the old town, but the cafés in the cathedral square (Plaza Santiago) are a favourite, partly because the square is the hub of the Casco Viejo. It’s very, very popular with little old ladies, though, who swarm in groups to occupy the tables in the square early on and then don’t budge, so we often have to go elsewhere. (And yes, it is mainly ladies: their husbands are almost certainly in the tabernas drinking beer. There’s a lot more to be said about the differential behaviour of men and women here – for a later blog post!)
The cathedral (the Catedral de Santiago) is a lovely – though small and unassuming – 15th century Gothic building (and, like everywhere in the old town, it’s only 2 minutes walk from our flat.) It’s on the northern (coastal) route of the Camino de Santiago, on the way to Santiago de Compostella, so occasionally one sees pilgrims with backpacks and walking sticks passing through.
The route of the Camino is marked by special stones in the pavement as well as signs displaying maps with the local route.
The main alternative venue for our evening coffee is the Plaza Nueva, a classic Spanish arcaded square (built in 1821), again a great place for Bilbaino-watching. Before the centre of local life moved away to the new town, this square used to be where the Biscay regional government was based. When that moved out, the Basque Language Academy (‘Euskaltzaindia’) moved in. That also moved out recently but the name is still inscribed on the pediment. Otherwise, the square is lined with cafes and bars (under the arcades), and hundreds of people gather here to eat and drink in evenings and at weekends.
Supper is our main meal together (although in general in Spain lunch is considered the main meal). It can happen anytime between 7 and midnight. The Spanish wouldn’t dream of eating until 8.30 pm at the very earliest, and often not till much later. We have to make a decision each day as to whether to be British and eat at 7 or 8, Italian and eat at 9, or Spanish and eat at 10 or 11. (At weekends, the Spanish don’t eat until 10pm at the earliest: last Saturday we tried to eat out at 9.30 and the waiter looked at us as though we’d got off a space-ship. At 10, people had begun to trickle in, and the place was full by 10.30.)
After supper, we often find ourselves working or emailing or doing this blog or generally just sorting stuff out, but we’ve found time for a bit of reading etc. I’ve been reading some books about the Basque Country, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ recent novel ‘The Marriage Plot’, and have a huge pile of books I want to read in the next few months. We have been watching ‘Dr Who’ (sad, I know) and ‘The Thick of It’ on the IPlayer, and there’s always ‘The Guardian’ on the IPad. We’ve also been to the theatre/concerts a couple of times (more on this later…), and one way or another we’ve had visitors here quite a lot too.
If we haven’t had a coffee earlier, we might go and sit in nearby Plaza Unamuno at about 10pm for a few minutes. (The writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, 1864-1936, is Bilbao’s most famous historical figure: see picture of statute below). It was great to sit in the busy square in the long summer evenings, but now the evenings are drawing in, and people are moving inside the cafes. (It gets light late here, about an hour later than Oxford: this morning it was still dark at 8.15 am. And in summer it also gets dark a bit earlier than the UK, of course. But to compensate we’ll have longer days than the UK in the winter.)
With a 7.30am start each morning on weekdays, bedtime is between 11 pm and midnight for us, but even on a weekday evening many of the ‘tabernas’ outside will be open until the early hours, and there’ll be many people drinking in our street until 2am. Whole families – with small children and sleeping babies – will still be sitting in cafes at midnight. The Spanish seem to have an inexhaustible (and often quite raucous) appetite for public, daily and late-night socialising, and in this they seem quite different from the French and Italians. Many shops don’t open till 10 am next morning to compensate for the national tendency to late nights, but, even so, I do wonder how they manage to eat and drink and talk and go to bed so late and then get up for work next morning.
And so to sleep, with the distant hum of the Spanish indulging their extraordinary capacity for social life in the background….
No I didn't wake up singing 'Stormy Weather' today (see last post), but here's today's weather forecast, It looks as though those blue skies are well and truly over for now. And here's today's map which proves that the rain in Spain really is mainly in Bilbao....
Moon above the Guggenheim, September 2012
I very often wake up with a song or a tune in my head and start singing it. I know most people would find that hard to live with, but Pietro amazingly doesn’t mind. Today it was ‘Blue Skies’ by Irving Berlin, which we ended up listening to (thanks to Spotify and Doris Day) over breakfast.
Perhaps my subconscious turned ‘Blue Skies’ up because of the great weather we’ve had here over the last two months. There has been some rain, and a few very grey days, but not as much as we’d expected, given Bilbao’s reputation for rainfall (50% more on average than in Oxford) – though October to April is when we can expect most rain, apparently.
Last week, the temperatures dipped down to something that felt a bit like it might be approaching autumn (I actually had to put a pullover on one evening at about 11pm!), but currently it’s hot again.
There are, it seems, two kinds of weather in Bilbao: shining blue skies and glowering grey skies, and not much in between. If the sky is blue or grey in the morning, it will almost certainly stay that way for the day. Rain when it comes, is not generally heavy – it’s usually drizzle: they use the lovely word ‘sirimiri’ for it here. But so far, it’s mainly been blue skies, and they are spectacular, set against the green hills and river valley of the city.
The only thing is that I don’t get to see those blue skies that much. The Casco Viejo, where we live, is lovely – atmospheric, full of life, old – but it’s also dark and cold. Narrow, densely built medieval streets with six storey buildings don’t allow the sky much of a look in. This can be a huge advantage when the weather is hot. When it was 40 degrees and blazing hot, you only had to dive into the streets of the Casco Viejo to escape the heat, and our flat was a refuge.
So getting out to explore the city at weekends and in the evenings is when I get to see the skies and be dazzled by light. Bilbao is not a classically beautiful city, but when the river sparkles and the hills and buildings shimmer beside it, the beauty it has is very striking.
The time I most enjoy the Bilbao setting – the skies, the hills, and the river – is when I go for my run in the mornings. This takes me through town along one bank of the river, then back along the other bank, and it’s a really inspiring route, My run in Oxford was also a lovely route along the river – down to Iffley and back again, always with the reward of seeing one of the most beautiful Norman churches in Britain at the half-way point of the run – but this is quite different: a much more urban route, but surrounded by green hills.
I start off by the beautiful 15th century church of San Anton by the river at the bottom of our street, which is where Bilbao began. There was a church here long before Bilbao was founded in 1300, with a small fishing village on the other side of the river. Until the nineteenth century, this was the centre of the town, rather than the outpost that it now is.
I run over the old bridge (originally the only bridge in Bilbao, but now there are about ten in Bilbao itself and two more between Bilbao and the sea), and down the river in front of a handsome group of 19th century buildings (now mostly flats and offices, but I imagine some of them were warehouses originally).
The path strays briefly from the river a little after this, up a little hill where there are nice views of the river and city, to the edge of the slightly dodgy area of town called San Francisco (more on this in a later post!).
Then back down to the river and past the beautiful Art Nouveau station for trains to Santander and the north coast. (In Spain, ‘Art Nouveau’ is confusingly known as ‘Modernisme’, by the way.)
Now, back onto the riverside path, alongside the new tram-line, with an excellent view of the19th century ‘Ayuntamento’ (Town Hall) on the opposite bank.
The bend in the river here takes you into the area known as Abandoibarra (‘Abando Valley’, Abando being the name for the area on which Bilbao was built). Abandoibarra is the riverside port and ship-making area which went into a catastrophic decline in the 70s and 80s. In the 90s, it was levelled and rebuilt with the Guggenheim and other architectural projects (see www.bilbaointernational.com/en/abandoibarra- I’ll write more on this in a later post).
I cross the river, either on the lovely new pedestrian bridge known as ‘Zubizuri’ (‘White Bridge’), designed by the Spanish architect Calatrava,…
... or on the interesting but less immediately attractive pedestrian bridge down by the Guggenheim, the ‘Puente Pedro Arrupe’,, the latter of which gives excellent views of the museum, and down towards the sea, 10 miles away.
And then back along the other side, below Mount Artxanda (up which one can take a funicular railway for an amazing view of the city – more in a later post). From here, one gets great views of one of Bilbao’s other grands projets of regeneration, the Isozaki Atea. (‘Isozaki’ is the name of the Japanese architect, and ‘Atea’ means ‘Gate’).
The project, built inside the shell of an old 19th century customs building, has at its centre two imposing and rather beautiful skyscrapers which form a gateway from the river and the Zubizuri bridge to the ‘Ensanche’ (new town) behind Abandoibarra. There’s an impressively monumental stone staircase up from the river to the hill behind. At the top of the steps, there’s a sculpture by the Basque Country’s most celebrated artist, Eduardo Chillida. The skyscrapers themselves are interesting in the way they echo the enclosed balconies of 19th century Basque domestic architecture. (We reckon that these balconies must have developed here because there is so much rain.)
My run continues past the town hall and into the ‘Arenal’, between the river and the Casco Viejo, Until the 19th century, the Arenal was an area of sandy ground in the bend of the river. (I hadn’t realised that the original meaning of the word ‘arena’ in Latin was ‘sand’; an ‘arena’ as a place of competition was a ‘sandy place’.) It’s now an elegant tree-filled ‘plaza’ with the church of San Nicolas on one side and an Art Nouveau bandstand by the river – built over a century ago for the Bilbao Municipal Band, and still used by it for Sunday afternoon band concerts (and a superb band it is too.)
The Arriaga Theatre stands grandly at the end of the Arenal. (Arriaga was a 19th century Spanish composer (from Bilbao), one of the few whose music became known internationally.) This is the city’s main theatre, but the space outside is also where the Fiesta is launched, and where public gatherings of various kinds are held.
I run on past the theatre and on to ‘La Ribera’, the recently restored and modernised market building of about 100 years ago. It’s one of the biggest indoor markets in Spain, built on the city’s medieval market place – next to San Anton church, where my run started.
And so back into the tall, dark, atmospheric alleys that make up the ‘Siete Calles’ of the Casco Viejo.
So I was walking down the street ruminating on consonant shifts (like you do).
I had been reflecting on how useful the phrase ‘no hablo espanol’ has been for the last two months (!) when I fell to wondering about this strange verb ‘hablar’, meaning ‘to speak’. Why, like so many Spanish words, is it so unexpectedly different from the Latin, French and Italian (and apparently Catalan too)?
That was when consonant shifts came to mind.
Although ‘no hablo espanol’ is still about the most complex thing I can say in Spanish – (I know it’s pathetic but I’ve had to work all the time apart from weekends and some evenings since I got here (apart from when we were on holiday), and weekends and evenings have been busy, and there just hasn’t been time... but I promise I’ll start going to classes in November) – I have been listening, looking and learning about the language, and it has been fascinating.
I really knew virtually no Spanish at all when I came here – a dozen basic words at most – and, one way or another, I felt much less familiar with the sound and rhythms of Spanish than with French, Italian and German. However, I do now feel much more attuned to it (even though I can’t understand what people are saying to me if they go beyond ‘that will be 3 Euros please’), I do know lots of words (even if I can’t put any of them together), and I have been pondering it.
And one of the things I’ve been pondering is consonant shifts, especially around the letter ‘h’.
For instance, the Spanish word for ice cream is ‘helado’. It took me a while to realise that this is the same as Italian ‘gelato’, but with the ‘g’ becoming ‘h’. Then there’s ‘higado’, which is the Spanish word for ‘fig’. Here it’s the ‘f’ which becomes ‘h’. And ‘hijo’, which is the Spanish word for ‘son’ and is presumably derived from ‘filius’ in Latin – another ‘f’ to ‘h’ change. And another one: ‘horno’, meaning oven, related to ‘furnace’ and ‘forno’ in Italian. And another one: ‘hongo’, meaning mushroom, related to ‘fungus’.
So, going back to the word ‘hablar’ Where does that come from? My first brainwave was that it might be related to ‘gabble’, but that seems unlikely because ‘gabble’ is almost certainly a Germanic word. So then I tried the f - - and what do you get? Fable! Mystery solved.
Ah. I do love etymology - and I am enjoying learning Spanish, the slow way...