auxiliar program, reflection, spain

Looking Back: Bilbao

Exactly 7 years ago, I landed in Spain to start a new life. It’s hard to believe that the exact same amount of time has passed that I lived in San Francisco. It’s gone much faster and I’ve been to a lot more places in these 7 years! Work wise, it’s been fairly stable as far as what I’ve been doing. I started teaching in 2013 and have continued to do education-related things all this time, with the exception of my job in Madrid last year.

I really haven’t taken that much time to reflect in the last few years. I’ve been moving around, adjusting to new cities, traveling, or working. So now, taking a walk down memory lane (aka, browsing my Google photos from 2013) I see people and places that left a lasting impression. Here are some highlights.

Living in Casco Viejo

Moving to Bilbao was fairly simple. An administrator at my school had a friend who was renting out a room, so I contacted that friend (Cristina) and decided to live there. I arrived to discover I’d be living on the main street of the Casco Viejo (old town) – a beautiful and well-preserved cobblestone street lined with shops, a library and a church. The apartment itself had hardwood floors and lovely furniture. The main downside of living in Casco Viejo was the constant accordion music coming from the street downstairs. It’s great when you’re walking past it, but it stops being great after the 47th time you hear the same song. Every day in my free time I would take long walks around the neighborhood, along the river, to the market, winding my way down narrow alleys.

Working as an auxiliar de conversación for the first time

This new job, a 12 hour per week gig, was among the hardest jobs I’ve ever adjusted to. Obviously when you go from years working in quiet offices full of adults to a concrete building full of rambunctious 12 to 18 year olds, there are going to be some differences. I also had no clue what I was going to be expected to do, as the auxiliar orientation was a bit vague. I found that each teacher ran things in a certain way and would ask me to prepare activities related to the grammar topic. Some teachers communicated much more clearly than others. I had a really difficult time with one teacher who rarely showed up to class on time and occasionally left me for half the class with a bunch of screaming 12 year olds with no prior instruction.

The students themselves were eager and extremely interested (nosy?) in me and my life, especially the younger ones. I liked them as people and made efforts to remember their names and chat with them whenever possible. As far as being their assistant teacher, it wasn’t easy to get their respect because I didn’t present myself with a lot of authority. I got tougher as the year went on and started sending misbehaving students out in the hall, trying to be consistent with discipline.

Working for the Eusko Jaurlaritza (Basque government) meant getting paid every 3 months. Even though I had come with savings and lived on a budget, it was tough to adjust to that pay cycle.

Private classes

I had a handful of private lessons in the afternoons, which were easy to find. Some were through word of mouth, another one was at an academy. I had a mixture of kids and adults and charged 12 euros per hour  (or maybe it was 15?), helping me get through the 3-month pay cycles. I always went to the students’ homes or to an academy to give the lessons. I really enjoyed the one-on-one or small group settings.

Things to do around Bilbao

As the public transport in Bilbao is fantastic, you can get to pretty much anywhere either on the metro, a bus or a train. I spent a lot of weekends taking the metro out to the beaches north of town, walking for miles along the coast. I also went on several hikes with new people I met through online meetups. I even went hiking to a castle (Castillo de Butrón). Another favorite area I visited was San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Bermeo and Mundaka. SJdG, the monastery built on a rock in the sea, got famous on Game of Thrones and now it’s massive tourist attraction. *eyeroll*


Traveling outside Bilbao and Spain was also easy from the Bilbao airport. I went to Sevilla, London, Barcelona, Prague, Canary Islands and Wales during that year. I guess that’s where all my savings went. 🙂

Changing houses

I ended up moving halfway through the year to an apartment with people closer to my age and closer to my school, in the town of Getxo. I lived walking distance from a cliff overlooking the ocean and spent a lot of time there. It was also near the language exchange where I had started making friends, so it was nice to feel connected. I mean, I move a lot, so this wasn’t really a big deal – especially since I had only come to Spain with 2 suitcases!

Final verdict

Ultimately, I decided I didn’t want to continue working in the Basque country, mostly because of the pay cycle and also because I didn’t want to spend another year in the same school, particularly with the teacher who left me on my own so often. I do think I forged a connection with many of my students by the end of the year, which left me feeling torn about leaving. I opted to switch to Cantabria, the next province over, and it was definitely a good choice.

Would I have done anything differently?

I probably would’ve tried to learn more Basque by enrolling in some classes. I definitely would have spent more time making friendship connections with Basques – not easy, but worth it! I wouldn’t have signed up for a year of gym membership! I thought I was getting a good deal, and when I originally got to Spain, I expected to be staying longer term in Bilbao. I wasn’t able to get out of the year-long contract, so I lost some money there. Maybe I would’ve looked for an apartment with people my age from the beginning, but living in Casco Viejo was an unforgettable experience. I definitely would do it all over again given the chance!

What do I miss about Bilbao?

I actually reminisce a lot about this place. It will always hold a special place in my heart as it was where I landed first and where I made a lot of discoveries about Spain and myself. I miss walking along the river – you can walk for miles – and seeing all the different neighborhoods and bridges. I miss the little two-line metro in which it was easy to run into people I knew pretty frequently while heading from the city to the outlying towns and beaches. I miss the pintxos, the elaborate snacks created by each bar. I miss things like pimiento relleno de txangurrogildas, things with anchovies and sardines (they’re good!), and tortilla de patata topped with tuna and mayo. I miss the old town, the Casco Viejo, with all its different smells and sounds. And of course I miss all the people I met there and grew close to.