Euskara, a secret handshake

I was in San Antonio this week for work. The Minerals, Metals and Materials Society, better known as TMS to materials scientists, has an annual meeting that floats around the country, and this year it was in San Antonio. This conference brings together researchers from around the world that are advancing our understanding of materials, from more applied aspects such as how materials corrode to fundamental insights into the nature of grain boundaries — the interface regions between grains that occur in all but the most defect free of materials.

In any case, on Wednesday, my last night in San Antonio, I was returning to my hotel after a dinner on the river walk. (An aside: being from Idaho, I always class California, Texas, and Florida in these bins of “places that are horrible and I never want to visit.” However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Texas and have particularly enjoyed San Antonio the few times I’ve been there.)

Anyways, I was waiting at a crosswalk for the light to turn. A family approached the corner — the parents, a baby in a stroller and a little boy of maybe 5 or so. Suddenly, the crosswalk is going nuts: “wait,” “wait,” “wait,” blared from the speaker over and over. At some point, the parents start yelling at the boy. I suddenly notice that they are yelling at him in Euskara. My Euskara being piss-poor, I understood only a few words (“zikin” being the one that jumped out at me).

As they pulled the boy away from the button, the light changed and we crossed. As we crossed, I asked, in my broken Spanish (which is infinitely better than my piss-poor Euskara), if they were from the Basque Country. They looked at me warily and said “yes,” at which point I told them that my dad had been from there and that I lived for a year in Donosti (learning the little bit of Euskara I do know). They, coincidentally, are from Donosti.

We talked for a minute about their vacation in the Americas (starting from Mexico, going up into Texas, after which they were heading east). It was a brief conversation, lasting only a few minutes, and I never caught their names. But, it struck me how even recognizing Euskara is like being part of a secret club, where people you might not otherwise recognize as being from the Basque Country are instantly recognizable. A few words of Euskara and suddenly there is a connection.

This has happened to me before. I met a couple of guys who were speaking in Basque in a line leaving an airplane in Germany. It’s always cool to make these connections, facilitated by the strange and wonderful language of the Basque Country.

2 thoughts on “Euskara, a secret handshake”

  1. I have one like that!

    I was quickly writing my postcards in the Lisbon airport. I hadn’t wanted to use up even 10 minutes during my visit to the Basque Country, on such a mundane chore. But now I was almost home, and it was my last chance to get, at least, a European postmark.

    I had a bright assortment of beautiful Basque postcards, piling up in my lap, when a well-dressed gentleman motioned for permission to sit next to me on the bench. I smiled and nodded.

    He pointed to my postcards and asked me, in perfect English, if I had enjoyed my trip.

    I doubt he was expecting the torrent of superlatives, as I gushed about meeting my extended family for the first time, and the thrill of sitting in the same Lekeitio cathedral where my great Amuma had once worshipped!

    What wonderful experiences I had enjoyed there: the food, the wine, and the strange, indescribable feeling of immediate love for my homeland.

    When I finally realized that he’d asked me a simple “yes” or “no” question, yet I’d gone the essay route in answering, I got a little embarrassed.

    I asked him if he was coming home from a trip or leaving for one, today. Instead of answering, he broke into the biggest grin! He put his hand out and introduced himself, although sadly, the only thing I retained was that he worked in “Basque Tourism.”

    I wish I’d gotten his name, because we became instant friends! Of course, he was Basque. He seemed genuinely pleased to meet an American Basque. He asked about all aspects of my trip, continually beaming, that it had been such a wonderful adventure.

    When it became time to board planes, we shook hands. But truly, I wanted to hug him because somewhere back in time, we were likely part of the same family. ??

    If anyone wants to start an actual “Secret Handshake,” count me in! Until then, simply listen for Euskara or wave Basque postcards.

    1. That is awesome, Kay! Thanks for sharing. It’s too bad you didn’t catch his name, but maybe he’ll see your story. You never know. 🙂

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