I’m smoking a Davidoff, watching the empty beach, and suddenly the rain stops and a rainbow appears. I have never heard waves actually crash before. All I can think to myself is, “This is bullshit.”
|Davidoff reminds me why I smoke.|
Even in freezing rain, La Concha bay is breathtaking. Tourists come here in the summer, it’s considered one of the world's great surfing beaches. In January, the cold kills off all the tourists. All except one, this year.
I have always enjoyed empty beaches. They are my zen gardens. I’m trying to think of why they make me so happy. Maybe it’s the same reason I like empty restaurants: there is something serene about an empty place that’s supposed to be full of people.
It’s not just a loose metaphor: a restaurant full of people means I’m working, it means I’m on stage. An empty restaurant is the place I can relax the most, more than my own apartment. When I go home I see all the chores I have neglected. When I’m in the restaurant after everyone has left, that is probably the most peaceful place I can imagine.
Maybe I never said it explicitly; maybe it was just something people could read on my face. But being on stage for a long time warps your mind. Even when we’re not in the restaurant, it is there in the back of our minds. Nagging. When you’ve forgotten about it for a split second, that is when someone walks up to you, and asks you how work is going.
I spend so much emotional capital in the course of my job, that oftentimes I’m discombobulated on my days off. I’m unable to make real or lasting connections with the people around me. Sometimes I’m manipulating my own feelings so closely, I forget how to react to things organically.
I’m standing on the beach, which is deserted. I can hear people speaking in the distance. They’re speaking Basque (a language with no concretely known origins). It’s a beautiful language that is completely indecipherable to me. This was what I needed to regain my sanity for the long term: a date with a language barrier. I needed to disappear to a place where I can communicate in only the most basic ways.
Days would pass where I spoke only two to three sentences. I had never spoken so little in my entire life. Talking is my job. It is a source of entertainment, a means of comfort, and a defense mechanism. I could never choose to stop talking- I had to be forced. I’m so glad I was.
|The empty dining room at Rekondo.|
Because I was still operating on my American eating timeframes, I ate a lot of meals in empty restaurants. I would show up at 1PM, a late lunch for me, and find out that the restaurant wasn’t even open for lunch yet. At Extebarri, Rekondo, and Elkano, I ate the majority of my meals in solitude. Other diners would begin trickling in as I was eating my mignardises.
|The empty dining room at Elkano.|
One of the longest conversations I had during my entire trip was at about 5AM at La Cuchara de San Telmo, one of the best pinxto bars in the city. It’s the fever pitch of the Tamboradda, and the kitchen has long since closed, and the cooks have set up a microphone. They are singing karaoke, still in the kitchen. There’s a disco ball lighting up the bar, and its standing room only.
There’s a group of three girls and a guy staring at me. They’re speaking quietly and pointing. I suppose I stick out like a sore thumb, about a foot taller than everyone in the bar. The guy walks up and says one word, a question:
I used a lot of hand gestures to communicate here. Whenever I ask for the check, I use the hand-across-the-neck gesture with “la cuenta por favor”. I decided this gesture would also work to say “not gay”. Even on the other side of the world, I’m still setting off false positives on peoples gaydar.
He’s disappointed, and one of the girls jabs him playfully, to say told you so. Two of the girls walk up to me, they’re speaking Basque, which sounds even better coming from attractive ladies. They tell a joke, and they laugh. Because I can’t tell even a fraction of what was said, I fall back on a technique: pretend to be stifling laughter, then laugh really hard. Crinkle the sides of my eyes, a real laugh. I feel like I’m performing brain surgery here, and my trick works, they seem put at ease. But now they’re asking me a question, and I still can’t understand. I decide to stand up straight, and confess in my native tongue.
“I don’t speak Basque.” I decide to throw in a “Barkatu” to show that I was at least trying.
Without missing a beat they switch to English. “Where are you from?” Boy do I feel like a loser for not being bilingual. But I’m also grateful I speak the language of globalization. The cooks are singing AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds”, and the whole bar is singing along, in English.
I have to think about this for a second. America? Texas? Houston? Houston is the ideal answer, but I turn it back a notch, “I’m from Texas.”
“Oh! You are from Texas?” She is making a hand gesture like she’s swinging a lasso, and pronouncing it Tayk-sass. I hold my right hand up in the shape of a gun and confirm, “Pow pow, bai, Texas.”
I’m still holding my right hand up, and her friend puts her hand on my shoulder. I’m terrible at flirting; I’m almost incapable of detecting it when a lady is actually flirting with me. When I think I AM being flirted with, I’m consistently wrong. It’s pretty magical. However I think that’s what’s happening here. Her hand smells like gin, and she has really pretty hazel eyes. “What are you doing here in San Sebastian?”
“Vacation! I just had dinner at Arzak, it was crazy.”
She makes a confused face, she hasn’t heard of Arzak. However, her friend has. She leans in to whisper in her ear, “It means he has money.”
I shake my head at her. Not gay, and not rich.
She still has her hand on my shoulder, “So who did you come here with?”
“No girlfriend... no wife?”
She cocks an eyebrow and smiles. I ask her, “What’s your name?”
“Justin. Pleasure to meet you.”
Everything was going so well. She looks down and can see the beginning of a tattoo on my arm. She pulls the sleeve back, and while she doesn’t recognize the image, her friend does, and gasps. “Oh my god”.
Gentlemen? When getting a tattoo of an insane warmongering icon of your homeland, ask yourself: will this scare the shit out of gorgeous women in Europe who would otherwise potentially sleep with you? Know the consequences.
If I had a decent grasp of their language, I could probably have explained that I am not a crazy person, and that the hyperbolic pride Texas has relative to the rest of the America is not unlike the pride the Basque people have relative to the rest of Spain. However, the horrifying violence of Texas independence ended almost two centuries ago. Now it's a nostalgic fridge magnet. A custom license plate.
My favorite part of this song, and the whole bar knows the words.
Isabelle’s friend is whispering into her ear, this time in Basque, and I feel her grip on my shoulder rapidly loosening.
|Now I remember where I saw all these logos: "The Politics of Terrorism"|
A chill runs down my spine, and I think of a series of banners that I saw 30 minutes ago, and I suddenly realized, it was an ETA prisoner amnesty banner. The ETA is the face of the Basque separatist movement. The one definitively labeled as a terrorist organization by the EU and United States. The one that has claimed over 800 lives in the last 50 or so years in the name of Basque independence. The one that declared an allegedly “permanent” ceasefire only two years ago. It has not surrendered its arms or disbanded though, and has broken permanent ceasefires multiple times.
|I saw this more than once.|
Suddenly, I realize, I have seen various logos for a terrorist organization at every bus stop, on every street corner, on every ancient artifact I looked upon. The dark heart of mankind is constantly on my mind, but of all the places I did not expect it to surprise me, it was during my vacation.
Unfortunately, I can now see how these ladies might have been repulsed by my tattoo. I’m not feeling guilty about getting it put on my forearm forever, but I do feel guilt for potentially picking at an emotional scab that is barely healed, if at all. I'm reminded that the Basque people have dealt with lots of real violence in my lifetime, and I worry that my nostalgic reference to the battle for Texas independence might have hit too close to home.
It's also quite possible that they were just repulsed by the notion of Texas in general. But the initial coming out as a Texan didn't freak them out. If they thought I was a hillbilly, I imagine they would have laughed or made fun of me. Maybe they thought I was with the tea party? I'm fairly used to being looked at like what I'm saying or doing is crazy, but at a time when maybe I actually wanted to make a connection with someone, my nonsense traveled halfway around the world to meet me. I cannot help but feel like I had this coming. All I can do is laugh and shake my head at myself.
Or maybe it just scared them out of context. As my roommate rightly observed, “The come and take it flag looks like a fucking gang tattoo.”
She comes in for a hug. “Have a nice vacation.” The pained way she looked at me as we parted ways is a splinter I am still trying to dig out of my mind.
I wave at them as they leave the bar, “Agur, Isabelle.”
“DONE DIRT CHEAP.”
I come back the next day. La Cuchara de San Telmo has amazing kokoxtas, and I’m eating them in the bar, which is empty, because I’m there as soon as they open.
The bartender recognizes me now, “Kaixo, Texas.” He makes a finger-gun at me. Ha.
Against all odds, I had successfully communicated with people on the other side of the world for my first time. It was strangely refreshing, and like my interactions with most people in any language, a dark comedy of errors.
I can hear the waves crashing down the block. Once I’ve stuffed myself silly I’m going to stare at the black water for at least 30 minutes. The waves slam into the rocks with such convincing ferocity, it’s as if every drop of water in the world is acting in conjunction to climb the beach, over the sea wall, and destroy me. I am endlessly soothed by sitting on the wall, and watching the sea come at me (come and take it?).
I have to laugh to myself in the empty pinxto bar, remembering a conversation a guest and I had at the restaurant before I left:
“So you’re going on vacation to Spain? That’s awesome!”
“Yeah, I’m stoked.”
He leans in close, lowering his voice, “Are you going with anyone? Like your girlfriend or wife?”
“No. I’m going by myself. I think I need it. ”
He high fives me, his eyes narrow and his grin widens. “Good for you man. Haha!” He taps me on the arm,
“Why bring sand to the beach?!”