Letters to Strabo — Bilbao: Meeting Françoise

Letters to Strabo

Book III Part I – The Iberian Peninsula

“The first division of this continent towards the west is Iberia, as we before stated. The greater part of this country is but little fitted for habitation; consisting chiefly of mountains, woods, and plains covered with a light meagre soil, the irrigation of which is likewise uncertain. The part next the north, which borders on the ocean, is extremely cold, and besides its rugged character, has no communication or intercourse with other [countries], and thus to dwell there is attended with peculiar hardship.” Strabo, Geography Book III, Chapter I

Bilbao at that time was not the most obvious destination for a young guy in search of adventure; but it was the one place I’d been offered on that exchange program. The center of the Basque region, the city was depressed; shipyards and steelworks struggling to compete with the Far East. There was an anarchic despair to the place deepened by the local team’s catastrophic defeat by Juventus that summer. Although Bilbao was not as unfit for habitation as Strabo’s text implied, it was still a relief every time the sun lit up its gray Atlantic walls.
I’d arrived in Spain less than two years after Franco’s death; a period of great political change. There were crucial elections that June which gave folk hope of a second, hopefully democratic, revolution. But there was also a strong local separatist movement. That cocktail was exciting enough for a young man in search of adventure. I experienced it first-hand when the riot-police fired gas on a crowd I was drinking with.
I met Françoise during a visit to the local Gallery Lazarus. A young artist called Mikel Díez Alaba was exhibiting his Japanese-inspired paintings and causing quite a stir in the local press. I’d been recommended to see the exhibit by my Spanish friends. Reluctantly I did. As I’ve said, I was somewhat stunned when that gorgeous woman accepted my cheesy pick-up line. I panicked about where to take her. But luckily she knew…

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