A Postcard From Bilbao


Guggenheim Musem Bilbao, Louise Bourgeois sculpture Maman in foreground. [[Photo by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz, Wikimedia Commons]]

Bilbao, Spain

People whose experience of Spain goes back many decades tell me that Bilbao was once a nondescript little steel town on a polluted river, best driven past and avoided on your way to somewhere nicer. But today, as I stroll along the riverfront walk overlooked by the grandeur of the University of Deusto, and watch cormorants dive into the Nervion and come up with fresh white fish (river cleanups cannot be faked), it strikes me as one of the most attractive cities I’ve ever visited. And I think it would be even if Frank Gehry had never made his stunning contribution to it.

Of course, it is mostly his extraordinary wavy, bendy, titanium-clad Guggenheim art museum that has made Bilbao a world-class tourist destination. But the whole city is a delight.

My visit here was made possible by an invitation to give a plenary address at the conference of the Spanish Association of English and American Studies (Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos, Aedean). I don’t think I’ve ever had a smoother arrival: British Airways landed 10 minutes early, disembarkation was swift, passport control took maybe a minute, and five minutes after scheduled touchdown I was in a fast cab heading away from the dramatic airport building and into town.

Aedean has a thousand members, and a quarter of them attended the conference. I had interesting conversations: Spain has some top-flight linguists and English-language specialists.

It’s always a delight to be in Spain. Smooth roads; wonderful food; and a sense of drama and bravado in everything — bridges, buildings, stylishly dressed dark-haired women (not an outnumbered minority in Aedean, by the way; in fact they predominate in the upper echelons of the association’s leadership). And for me as a linguist, another thrill as well.

Bilbao is the largest city of the Basque region of Spain, and every public sign or notice is in three languages: Spanish, English, and the excitingly alien local language, Basque.

The origins of the Basque language are a perennial mystery. What we know is that it has no proven relatives at all. It is not Indo-European, and shows not a flicker of similarity to Indo-European. The form of its verbs and the ergative/absolutive nature of its case-marking system have suggested to some that it might share ancestry with languages of the Caucasus mountains, but nothing of this sort is convincingly supported by etymological evidence. It seems likely that Basque is a survival of a language family that was spread widely across Europe thousands of years ago, before the Indo-Europeans moved in; but for all we can prove it might have come from another galaxy.

So just to be around it, to see it on signs and occasionally hear it spoken in the streets, is a thrill for a linguist. I noticed that it is not immune to the penetration of foreign vocabulary: The unified Basque used for public notices has borrowed Spanish roots for such concepts as “airport,” “center,” “person,” and “reclamation”; but about 98 percent of anything written in Basque shows no hint of anything that might relate it to any other language on earth.

My visit to Bilbao, which is where I still am as I write these words, has been a pleasure as well as a useful engagement with many highly intelligent Spanish colleagues who study the structure of the English language. Don’t envy me too much, though. Air France (the one airline I really hate) cancelled the second leg (Paris to Amsterdam) of the trip taking me to my next speaking engagement, in Utrecht, Holland. So I’m writing this at a table in Bilbao’s tiny airport (12 gates, two urinals, one fast-food café) with seven hours’ waiting ahead of me. If and when KLM gets me to the Netherlands tonight it will be late evening: standard dinner time for Spaniards, but not for the Dutch. This will be a long, hard day. Travel really is work.

Postscript (November 14):  Eventually, late in the day, I made it onto a direct flight from Bilbao to Amsterdam. The 8 p.m. Intercity train from Schiphol sped silently past the cars on the freeway and I was in my hotel in Utrecht within an hour. I ate a light supper alone and retired to bed. If I had boarded the first leg of my trip to Amsterdam without knowing that Air France had cancelled the second, I would probably have been stuck in Paris for the night of Friday, 13 November. As the world now knows, a wave of machine-gun murders and suicide bombings by Daesh fanatics erupted that evening in five locations across the city. About 480 casualties, at least 129 of them killed. At breakfast in Utrecht the next morning even my limited Dutch sufficed for me to understand the front pages of the newspapers: “Terreur in Parijs”; “Het 9/11 van Europa”; “Panik in de straten.” Suddenly I realized what had made my wife (a night-time BBC World Service listener) send a mysterious text message to my phone at midnight: “So glad you are not in Paris tonight.”

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