Category Archives: History

Keeping Euskara Alive and My Own Adventure in Learning Euskara

In 1991, I traveled, for the first time, to the Basque Country. Though my dad was born there, and my mom’s grandparents as well, we’d never made a family trek as it simply was beyond our resources. My dad himself only went back a handful of times during the first 30 years he was in the United States. However, I was determined to learn Euskara, the language of my ancestors, the language of my dad. Because my mom doesn’t speak Euskara, and the fact that my dad was on the road a lot, we didn’t learn any at home. My dad would speak it when he was with friends. He didn’t have to choose to be Basque, he simply was and that showed itself whenever he was with his friends, bullshitting in Basque with the very frequent Spanish tacos thrown in. For me, though, it was a conscious choice to try to learn a bit of this language, to make my own connection to my heritage.

I did this even though my mom’s dad, who, though born in the US, was fluent in Euskara, having been raised by two native Basques, and even my own dad suggested that concentrating on Spanish would be of greater value as more people in the world spoke Spanish. Basque was only useful in a very remote corner of the world and, even there, not always. For me, though, it wasn’t about practicality. It was about connection, about immersing myself into their world, into the way that they thought. Language shapes how we view the world, and I wanted at least a glimpse into theirs.

don_bay_b.jpgI went to Donostia as part of the University Studies Abroad Consortium, which had an intensive Basque language course for students with no knowledge of Basque. There were three of us — myself, a woman from Idaho who was trying to make the same connections to her heritage that I was, and a woman from England, who had no connection to anything Basque beyond an interest in the people and culture. Our teacher, Nekane, was an Euskaldun Berri, a new Basque speaker, who had learned Basque as an adult and decided to become part of the effort to ensure Euskara’s survival. She was an extremely pleasant and patient teacher, especially to a student of science like myself who questioned the why of everything, in particular the logic of the language (why this construct as opposed to this one). Little did I recognize, at the time, that my own language of English has so little logic behind it!

During the weekends, I would travel to visit my dad’s family in Bizkaia. This proved somewhat frustrating in that they all spoke a different dialect of Euskara. I was learning Batua in Donostia, but in Bizkaia they spoke the Bizkaian dialect, which was different enough that I struggled to communicate. Even my rudimentary Spanish, learned in high school, was a better communication tool. Compounded by the fact that I spent many evenings not with locals but with fellow Americans, playing foosball, drinking beer and cider, and, critically, speaking English, my Euskara never got very good.

negu-gorriak-lehenbiziko-balaI have some basic understanding of the grammar, but a relatively horrible vocabulary. I can’t carry on any real conversation and have a hard time even with pleasantries. That said, I certainly take some pride in understanding the opening of Negu Gorriak’s song Lehenbiziko Bala:

BASERRIAN JAIO NINTZEN
ARBASO ZAHARREN ETXEAN.
UDABERRIA AURREAN.
NEGU GORRIA ATZEAN.

I do wish I had better command of the language. However, beyond that intensive year in Donostia, I have not really devoted significant time to learning Euskara any further. Other priorities have taken precedent. I still have dreams, but I’m not sure when or if I will make the time to realize them.

espe-alegria-291x300Of course, I’m not alone in this desire, this drive, to learn the language of my ancestors. Many people have done the same, and those in the diaspora have had a particularly important role in ensuring the health of the language. Especially during Franco’s time, when speaking the language was forbidden, efforts in places like Idaho helped in promoting the language. In particular, she describes a radio program in Idaho by Espy Alegria that was famous because she was speaking a language, Euskara, that was outlawed in Spain. Now, modern technology, which at the same time threatens to homogenize our world, plays its own part in keeping the language alive. In a very interesting article on the Blue Review, Kattalina Berriochoa describes the role that both the diaspora and technology have had in contributing to the survival of Euskara.

Two Basque History Lessons: Anaiak Danok and Refugee Children in Bristol

Here are two articles that provide some interesting Basque history, both outside of the Basque Country.

anaiokThe first, an article at the Blue Review by Kyle Eidson and Dave Lachiondo, describes an interesting period in the history of the Basque diaspora in Boise. During the middle of the 1950s, when new Basques were immigrating to the United States from Franco’s Spain, there was much more political awareness of what was occurring back in Spain than had been true of the previous generations. Many of these Basques had experienced life under Franco’s rule, and were interested in what they could do against it. This lead to the formation of the group Anaiak Denok (All Brothers), which brought together like-minded Basques who discussed these issues. The most prominent member, Pete Cenarrusa, was of course also heavily involved in Idaho politics, and his two passions often overlapped. Dave and Kyle describe how, in the end, it was different views of ETA that ultimately lead to the end of the group.

bristol-refugeeAlso related to the after-effects of the Spanish Civil War, the second article, published on the Bristol Post’s website, delves into the role that the city of Bristol played in adopting 4000 Basque refugee children escaping the ravages of the War. These children, ranging in age from 5-15 years old, were originally expected to spend only about 3 months in the UK before being returned to the Basque Country. Things didn’t turn out quite like that.

There is a funny little anecdote that the children misunderstood and thought that the straw that was being used for their bedding was what they were meant to eat for dinner.

 

A Fairytale Visit to Butron Castle

butron castle-mapRoughly about 20 years ago, during my second visit to the Basque Country, a friend of mine, Xabier Ormaetxea, who has been a frequent contributor to these pages particularly with the Basque surname research he used to do for visitors, took me to Butron Castle (Butroi in Basque). Not far from Bilbao, in the heart of Bizkaia, el Castillo Butron was pretty magnificent, especially to an American who is not used to seeing castles around every corner. The castle was all decorated inside, with people in period costume, trying to recreate the feel of ancient times. I remember Xabier lamenting the fact that everything had to be Disneyfied, that a castle couldn’t simply be, it had to be made into some sort of spectacle.butron-2014-1

Last month, my wife, daughter and I were in the Basque Country visiting my dad’s family and I thought Butron would be a nice place to take them. My wife hadn’t seen it and I thought that my daughter, being a young girl who is into princesses (how do they know every Disney princess without ever watching the movies?) and castles (one of our favorite activities together it to draw castles and fill them with dragons, knights and, of course, princesses), would really enjoy seeing her first castle.

Bbutron-2014-2utron is a real castle, with towers, arrowslits, and a large front gate. It took us a while to find it since, though there are signs pointing in the general direction, they aren’t very clear. We ended up going down a dirt road along side a river, having turned just a little too early, passing by various gated houses until we ended up at a dead end. We eventually found the castle, and maybe understood why it was so hard to find.

The spectacle that bothered Xabier was certainly no longer an issue. In fact, the castle is closed. No one is there. When we pulled up (by-passing the parking lot because, well, no one was there), there was one other car of tourists taking their picture in front of the castle. While we were there, a bicyclists and a woman on a horse rode by, but that was the extent of the people we saw.

But, no matter. It was still a magnificent sight! My daughter was very excited, peaking into any hole she could find, wondering if a princess might have looked down from this tower or that tower. We speculated which hole might be a window into the dungeon and if there had been a lot of bad guys kept there. My wife and I enjoyed watching our daughter fantasize about what must be inside the castle as we also did our best to peak in wherever we could, circling the castle, looking for any better view of the interior.

I butron-2014-3t turns out (you gotta love Wikipedia) that while the castle is old, the current structure was built in the late 1800s. It was remodeled to mimic the castles of Bavaria. It is now the largest existing medieval castle in the world (according to Wikipedia). When I visited, it had beenrenovated and opened to the public, but it failed to generate enough revenue to keep up operations and has since been closed to visitors. In 2005, a group purchased the building, but have yet to do anything with it. It was a pity we couldn’t tour the inside, but my daughter still loved her first visit to a real castle.

And she isn’t the only one who fantasizes about Butron. Again according to Wikipedia, it seems Kate Middleton (yes that one) dreamed of being married in this castle. I guess she found an even fancier one to get married in.

Priest of Pirates by Guillermo Zubiaga

Azalak2The third and final installment of Guillermo Zubiaga’s epic about Basque whaling, Joanes or the Basque Whaler: Priest of Pirates, follows the final exploits of Guillermo’s hero, Joanes. This graphic novel, based on historical documents of Basque derring-do on the high seas, culminates the grand adventures of Joanes and his crew as they encounter deadly pirates, an even deadlier monster whale, and mythical creatures from Basque myth.

I won’t spoil the story, but suffice it to say it takes Joanes and his crew to the depths of the ocean, to the coasts of New Foundland, and through glacial fields. Along the way, Joanes and the crew encounter a monster killer whale, a lamiak, various Native American tribes, and British and Danish pirates. It is a roller coaster ride that is fast paced and covers a lot of ground and time. Compared to the previous volumes, it felt both grander in scope and thus a bit less action oriented (though there is plenty of action).

As with the previous volumes, there are so many references to history and myth that I really found myself wishing to know more. Guillermo opens the volume with a little bit of background, particularly regarding the skull chalice that graces the cover. I understand that Guillermo is working on collecting the three volumes into one graphic novel (which provides him with an opportunity to correct some mistakes that crept in). I sincerely hope that it is annotated to provide that historical and mythological context the story and art are based upon.

The story is a rowdy jaunt through Basque history that is delightful, both for the art and for the cultural references. I highly recommend it and look forward to the collected volume!

Zorionak Guillermo!

Some food and wine to get you through

I ran across a few articles dealing with food and wine in the Basque Country that I thought were particularly interesting.

pintxo-passportFirst, in this article at Financial Times, Paul Richardson describes his adventures in San Sebastián’s Old Town, the Parte Vieja. The interesting spin here is a so-called pintxos passport. A company, San Sebastián Food, run by Englishman Jon Warren, provides, for the cost of €75, a “passport” pointing to a selection of pintxo bars in the Parte Vieja and wooden tokens that can be used to pay for the pintxos. The passport not only points you to the bars, but gives a write up both of the bar and the pintxos they recommend you order. You get your pintxo, hand over your token, and move on your merry way. It seems that drink is included in this. This might not be the most adventurous way of experiencing the Parte Vieja and the pintxo scene in Donostia, but it might give the solitary tourist enough motivation to explore what might otherwise prove a daunting facet of the Basque culture.

ancient-vineyard-617x416Next, archeologists in the Basque Country have excavated what appears to be a 10th century vineyard in the now-deserted village of Zaballa (incidentally, the surname of my grandmother, though it is a pretty common Basque surname). These two articles describe the discovery. The research was published in the journal Quaternary International. The study author, Juan Antonio Quirós-Castillo, describes the importance of this, and a related finding, in terms of the socio-economic history of the region. In particular, he says that understanding how the peasants of the region responded to regional economic changes provides a better understanding of the history of the region. It further sheds light into the economic conditions of the time, which have tended to be viewed as rather simple. These findings suggest that significant economic development, by way of vineyards and cereal fields, were occurring during this time. Because of their historical importance, the researchers are pushing for this and the sister-site to be named World Heritage Sites.

Sons of the Dawn: A Basque Odyssey by Hank Nuwer

sonsofthedawnwebMy dad has mentioned stories about how sheep herders were treated in cow country. My dad was posted in the hills surrounding Malheur County in Oregon and Owyhee County in Idaho, particularly around Silver City, and while he hasn’t gone into any great detail, there certainly were tensions between cattle folk and sheep folk. And it seems the Basques were somehow in the middle of it.

Hank Nuwer takes these types of historical incidents and builds his novel, Sons of the Dawn, around them. Inspired by newspaper accounts of Basque herders being attacked by cowboys or buckaroos, Nuwer’s novel focuses on that time in the late 1800s when hostilities between the two were particularly tense. Nuwer has an unique perspective on the situation as he is a national expert on hazing and bullying, and his story is reflected through that lens.

Sons of the Dawn is inspired both by newspaper accounts and by Nuwer’s own experiences working with Basque herders, as well as his visit to the Gernika Peace Museum. I haven’t read it yet, but it is high on my reading list. Anyone who has read it, let me know what you thought!

For a few interviews with Hank Nuwer about his novel and the road that lead him to writing it (including an interlude with famous Basque-American author Robert Laxalt), see this article at Nuvo.net and this one at IndyStar.com. The book can be purchased at Amazon.com.