A change of scale

San Sebastián is technically a city – it has a cathedral, its own local government and a self-sustaining economy. But in terms of scale, it is more like a small town, having neither the large distances, nor the anonymity of London, my previous city.

Detail of a door, artist Naiara Palacios

Human beings and even dogs, who accompany their owners day and night, are distinct figures here. As you walk about the city, you’ll see a person once, notice them the second time and by the third, their face and habits, will become clear in your mind. As a result, the streets are filled with characters, rather than an animate blur. Things and people enter your consciousness in the singular – the jazz club of Donosti; the other Greek girl in Donosti; the Mick Jagger of Donosti. Logically, you know that there’s likely to be more than one other Greek girl in town, but when two different people have mentioned the same girl to you, she seems like the only one you could speak your mother tongue with. Similarly, there could be 19, 119, even 1119 guys in San Sebastián with a Jaggerish way of getting through women, but the place is small enough to give the one you know a reputation. The same epithet wouldn’t work in London, not least because the real Mick Jagger lives there.

Did I mention that you’re always meeting people you know here? It’s not like London, where your friends are far and you’re losing people as soon as you find them. When you’re new in town, the frequency of spontaneous meetings makes it easier to build on connections. Plans change as a result of these meetings: let’s do something now, or in an hour? But planning for next week? Forget it. Who knows what everyone will be in the mood for so far into the future?

Whether you like it or not

But there are downsides to Donosti’s human scale, like passing the local busybody or the guerrilla grammar corrector (she exists!) when you’re in a rush or just not feeling up to it.  For these occasions, it helps to master the travelling Kaixo (hello). I’ve been told that a skateboard helps with this, but if you don’t have one, you can adopt the posture of a skateboarder: snap your head around long enough to deliver the greeting, but keep your feet angled forward and most importantly, moving, to signal that you are not stopping to chat.

Donosti’s not a great place to make enemies. It’s not like in London, where once you cut ties with the arsehole, they get sucked into another orbit and there’s a good chance you won’t see them until three years later, when you’ve both forgotten. No – here you should expect to bump into that person at any time, including the worst time. Be prepared to meet that guy who you blocked, to look him in the face and tell him that you don’t want to receive his desperate messages anymore. And your ex? They’re not just a painful figment in your head, but a three-dimensional being, who passes through the same few streets as you, moves on right before your eyes. Still, as in all cities, people here go out of  their way to lower the probability of meeting their ex; they stop going to certain parts of town, sometimes depriving themselves of the only X/Y/Z in Donosti. One man knew that his ex’s movements were limited to the road between home and work. By avoiding that street, he managed to turn the city into a place that didn’t include her. When an ex’s routine is less predictable, though, you have to rely on the travelling Kaixo – see above. 

It helps if your ex’s movements are as routine as Lola Flores’

London may be a fashion capital, but there’s less pressure to look good when you’re not constantly running into people you know, or even people who recognise you as a distinct character. As you are seen, so are you judged – this is especially true in towns where people actually see each other. I wonder if this is why pharmacy shelves are loaded down with expensive hair products and everyone looks presentable most of the time, even on occasions where you wouldn’t think it was necessary.  I’ve always seen beaches as carefree, let-loose places – the wind will do what it likes with your hair, so why bother styling it anyway?  But walking on La Concha boulevard on a Sunday, is a singularly old-fashioned experience – congregations of black, Basque berets, fur coats and glaring shades of lipstick come your way. It’s the kind of scene I’d only previously witnessed in early twentieth-century fashion plates; an attitude that you make yourself beautiful for the Belle Époque surroundings and the people who have to look at you.

After 6 months in San Sebastián, my own sense of scale has changed. Being able to walk everywhere and seeing people I know in the streets, has become a habit. Tomorrow I’m moving to a house in Antiguo, a place I think of as the Monaco of Donosti, for its nearby mountain, wildish beach and grand, witchy buildings. The distance from the centre is about that between Big Ben and London Bridge; in other words, walkable for a relatively fit person. But my feeling is that I’m going very far.

Between me and civilisation