Searching online travel spots for my first international exploration, I landed on Bruce Springsteen’s tour announcement. I scanned the list of show cities.
A week later, I presented two tickets to the Boss’s Oakland concert to my sons, big Springsteen fans like myself.
“Mom! You’re taking us to see the Boss? Awesome!”
“Not quite. I’m not going with you guys. You’re going on your own.”
“What? You’re his biggest fan. What are you talking about?”
I laughed. “Oh, I’ll be seeing him. I’ll be seeing him in Bilbao, Spain.”
Just before Thanksgiving, I flew off in a plane full of people to l’Aeropuerto de Bilbao.
On arrival, I grabbed a handful of local currency from the airport ATM before making my way into Bilbao’s sunny crisp air. A cab was waiting to take me straight into one of Bilbao’s many town squares.
With my Spanish-English dictionary in hand, I approached the little kiosk on the square.
“Perdón? Por favor, dos ‘batteries?” I asked the clerk.
“Miss. I speak English. What would you like?”
I laughed at myself.
Bundled up in the winter air, I stepped across plazas, alleyways, and tiny shops built into the base of massive stone buildings. Shop doors stood open where shopkeepers invited me in, curious to know where I called home. With bits of English and Española, we managed to bridge the communication gap. I was afraid my face would break from smiling.
On the one rainy day of my trip, I visited the bright, shiny, and modern Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, strolling through the timely “Special Exhibition of American Artists.”
Later that day, I visited the Spanish Art Museum. Subdued and quiet, full of antiquities and local art, it was the opposite of the Guggenheim. Along the way, I bought a beautiful cashmere chapeau, which I left on a train somewhere before I ever made it out of Spain.
I decided to take a few days to visit Donostia, aka San Sebastian, on Spain’s north coast. I boarded a near-empty Bilbao to Donostia train, confirming with the man sitting behind me that I was on the correct train. With a smile as big as his face, he nodded and held out to me a tiny individually wrapped triangle of soft Swiss cheese.
A young man, about my eldest son’s age and appearance, left his seat a few rows ahead of me. As our eyes caught, he walked toward me to sit in the empty seat facing me.
“Excuse me, miss. Do you speak English?” he asked.
“Si, I speak English. Me llamo Kathleen. It is Spanish that is my weakness.”
“You are American! My premier English conversation with American,” he replied, telling me he’d talked with many English people, but never an American.
His name was Ferdinand. He was “pleased to enjoy practicing English” with me. We talked about the booming economy. This was 2007. I’d seen very few beggars or homeless people. He explained anyone who wanted a job could have one. “That’s how many jobs there are.”
Ferdinand worked as a caregiver in an Old Folks Home, playing piano for the residents and teaching art. The portrait he sketched of me is one of my most endearing memories. He expressed surprise, like many I met, that a nurse on holiday would be traveling alone. Clearly enunciating our words, we meandered along mountains and valleys, farmhouses and big concrete apartment buildings, all just a whistle from the train, as we chatted non-stop. I discovered not only does Ferdinand look like my son — they share the same birth date.
He shared a very personal, and sad to hear, piece of his life.
“I will tell you, Kathleen — I am a gay man. My parents cannot accept me, even knowing for five years. I am leaving my family today to make a life with my partner.”
The brief time spent with Ferdinand on the Euskotren was much too short. Our goodbyes lingered in a fine mix of melancholy adióses when we separated at the end of the line.
The following Sunday, in an understated historic stone church, stained glass overhead, I was spellbound by a priest singing Latin Mass with truly, the voice of an angel. It was the start of a beautiful day in courtyards, cathedrals, and tossing coins into the tip basket of a blue-face-painted female mime beside the seashore.
I walked from my hostel each morning to nibble on fresh pastries and sip espresso from a delicate porcelain cup and saucer, complete with demitasse spoon. No paper cup takeout coffee for me. When I later showed my friend a picture of the bakery, she exclaimed it was the same one in which she’d enjoyed her own pastries 30 years earlier.
I can’t tell you how many scrumptious tapas I sampled in most any bar, café, or restaurant I walked into. Ordering from menu la Español, I was at times laughingly surprised when my meal arrived. Always tasty and never sent back.
One early evening, along the Donostia pier, I stumbled upon a quaint, and empty, seaside restaurant. By our standards, people eat late in Spain. I met Frank at the front desk. The enthusiastic owner was excited to meet someone from San Francisco, his “favorite American city.”
I sat at the window as I spent a glass of malbec watching fishermen work the docks. Breaking me from my reverie, dinner arrived. A tantalizing black ink squid rested on a bright ball of white rice, served up by an attentive English-speaking waitress courtesy of Frank.
Oh, and I went to a concert. After 10 days of eating and exploring, I had an appointment with the Boss.
The train to the concert was awfully quiet. Too quiet. I realized I was on the wrong side of the Nervión River, on the wrong train. I jumped off at the next stop. With the help of two fur-wrapped señoras in a mix of English and Español, I was soon enough packed into the concert bound jam-packed train full of raucous fans and Springsteen tunes winding through crowded hot air.
Off the train, we laughed, danced, sang, and snapped photos all the way to the gate.
Cigarette smoke filled the arena lobby. First stop, the bar.
“Hola. Por favor, una margarita. Si. Grande.”
I met Kasa, a seemingly timid mid-40’s English speaking Japanese businessman when I arrived at my seat. We had a good time getting to know each other while we shared the Springsteen experience. He told me he owns several Eric Clapton guitars, all courtesy of charity auctions. He’d also attended every Springsteen show on the tour up to that point.
In front of us, wild fans were jumping and screaming with the music. It was all I had hoped for — and I was on my feet with the best of them.
The show opened with ‘Radio Nowhere.’ The Boss and his guitar covered the stage. I turned to Kasa, grinning ear to ear, who was tapping his fingers to the rhythm, wrists bouncing at the base of his thumbs, his brown eyes twinkling with delight.
The crowd roared — “B R U C E !”