A Song for My Dad

My dad was Basque through and through. He didn’t have the typical trappings — he never did any folk dance and I never saw him wear a txapala. While when he got older he played mus and made chorizo and jamon, he didn’t do these things when I was a kid. However, whenever he got together with his friends, whether at our house, at a Basque festival, or just standing around a pickup truck along some dusty dirt road, the air would be filled with the harsh tx and k sounds of Euskara.

The only times I heard him sing in Basque were when we poked and prodded him to sing something to my daughter. Something in Basque from his childhood. (He didn’t grow up with the modern stuff and, whenever he heard me play Negu Gorriak in the car, he just shook his head.) Almost invariably, the song he would end up singing was Txalopin Txalo

I thought it would be great if my daughter, who is learning to play the piano, could learn to play Txalopin Txalo. I searched for a piano score and, luckily, found a book at the University of Wisconsin that had one. A friend of mine (thanks Izabela!) sent me a scan of the score and my daughter’s piano teacher tweaked it for piano (thanks Kirsten!). So, mission accomplished: I had found the song and now my daughter could learn this song her aitxitxe would sing to her.

Or so I thought. My daughter’s school holds what they call a “Coffee House,” or talent show, every few months where the kids show case all kinds of things they practice, from piano and violin songs to skits they write to martial arts demos. My wife and I brought up the idea to my daughter that it would be great if she played Txalopin Txalo at one of these. And, she enthusiastically agreed, with one condition: I would have to sing with her.

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t sing. I’m embarrassed to sing in front of my wife and daughter (though they might say that is partially because of the music I listen to). I haven’t sung in public since the by-gone days of being an alter boy. Well, minus a few times in a semi-drunken stupor at some fiesta in Euskal Herria, but those don’t count.

In any case, my daughter, with a lot of support and encouragement from my wife, practiced hard and mastered the song. And, on Friday, we performed it in front of her school. My daughter began with a little introduction:

My aitxitxe, or grandfather, was from the Basque Country, in Spain, where they speak a language, Basque, that is not related to any other language in the world.

Whenever we asked him to sing me a song in Basque, he would sing this lullaby, called Txalopin Txalo.

It is about a cat that is playing on a mirror and hiding in shoes.

My aita, or dad, said that if I learned to play it on the piano, he would sing it with me at Coffee House.

This is for you, dad!


A Magical View of the Basque Country

In 2001 or so, the Basque television company ETB aired a series of videos about the Basque Country entitled Lau Haizeetara in Euskara and La Mirada Magica in Spanish. These videos, led by first Iñaki Pangua and later Edu Llorente, explored the land of the Basque Country from helicopter. From what I can tell (my Spanish is not so great), Iñaki and two others died in a helicopter crash during filming and that is when Edu took over.

In any case, these videos explore the Basque Country from a bird’s eye view. The camera follows the coast, zooms through the mountains, and hovers over cities as the narrator delves into the history and beauty of the Basque Country. Narration is in both Spanish and Euskara.

I first discovered these randomly maybe 10-15 years ago. As I mentioned, my Spanish isn’t good enough to really follow the narration in depth, so I haven’t gone through all of them. But simply as a visual feast, these videos are great. That said, I’ve always thought it would be awesome to have these dubbed into English. Given that there are no actors, one isn’t dubbing dialog, but narration, and it seems that wouldn’t be so hard. And these videos would be an excellent introduction to the wonders and majesty of the Basque Country. I can’t imagine I’m alone in wanting an English version of these. 

In the end, there were 10 chapters, each containing 3 episodes, that explored different parts of the Basque Country. Here are Youtube links to them. Enjoy!

1×01 El Hierro Y El Mar: Costa occidental de Bizkaia / The Iron and the Sea: The Western Coast of Bizkaia

1×02 Una Proa Al Mar: Costa norte de Bizkaia / A Bow to the Sea: The Northern Coast of Bizkaia

1×03 Costa oriental de Bizkaia / The Eastern Coast of Bizkaia

2×01 Costa occidental de Gipuzkoa / The Western Coast of Gipuzkoa

2×02 Costa Oriental Gipuzkoa / The Eastern Coast of Gipuzkoa

2×03 Costa Labortana / The Coast of Lapurdi

3×01 Entre El Cielo y La Tierra / Between the Sky and the Earth

3×02 La Ciudad Del Mar, San Sebastián / The City of the Sea, San Sebastián

3×03 La Ciudad De Los Anillos, Vitoria-Gasteiz / The City of the Two Rings, Vitoria-Gasteiz

4×01 Entre El Agua Y El Vino, Ribera Del Ebro / Between the Water and the Wine, the Bank of the Ebro

4×02 La Vieja Ciudad, Pamplona / The Old City, Pamplona

4×03 Campos Y Fortalezas, Navarra Sur / Fields and Fortresses, Southern Nafarroa

5×01 La Montaña Habitada, Pirineo Atlántico / The Inhabited Mountains, the Atlantic Pyrenees

5×02 La Roca Y El Agua, Alto Pirineo / The Rock and the Water, the High Pyrenees

5×03 A Los Pies Del Orhi, Pirineo Central / At the Feet of Orhi, the Central Pyrenees

6×01 Vientos De Invierno / Winds of Winter

6×02 Los Valles Profundos, Elba y El Urola / The Deep Valleys, Elba and El Urola

6×03 Zuberoa, El Paraíso Escondido / Zuberoa, the Hidden Paradise

7×01 Bizkaia, Valles Orientales / The Eastern Valleys of Bizkaia

7×02 Bizkaia, Valles Occidentales / The Western Valleys of Bizkaia

7×03 El Corazón De Bizkaia / The Heart of Bizkaia

8×01 Ría Adentro, El Gran Bilbao / Following the River, the Great Bilbao

8×02 Las Tierras Frías, Álava: Valles Occidentales / The Cold Lands, the Western Valleys of Araba

8×03 De La Llanada A La Montaña: Álava, Valles Orientales / From the Plains to the Mountains: The Eastern Valleys of Araba

9×01 La Navarra verde / Nafarroa the Green

9×02 La Navarra Del Norte / Nafarroa of the North

9×03 La Isla Interior, El Goierri y Sus Cimas / The Interior Island, The Goierri and its Peaks

10×01 Bilbao, la ciudad / Bilbao, the City

10×02 Baiona y Lapurdi / Baiona and Lapurdi

10×03 Viaje a la tierra de los vascos / Trip to the Lands of the Basques

The Changing Taste of Basque-American Cuisine

When I first started this site, one of the first things I added was Charley Shaffer’s list of Basque restaurants in the US. Charley simply loved Basque-American food, particularly the family style dining that was typical of restaurants in the US west. As he describes in his introduction to his list:

Meals are typically served family style. Occasionally you may be seated at a long table with others; this is most likely to occur at the historic hotels. Dinner will be delivered in courses: soup and bread, salad, beans, french fries, and a meat entree. Lamb is popular, but so are beef, pork, and chicken, and occasionally seafood is available. Sometimes you will have a choice among two or three entrees, but everything else will just arrive at your table. A dessert of ice cream will probably be included.

There will be plenty of food; this is not a light meal. 

The family-style Basque restaurant was once a common feature of the American landscape. But, over the years since Charley first sent me his list, I’ve gotten a steady stream of emails notifying me that, one by one, these restaurants have closed. The latest note was about the historic Winnemucca Hotel, which, while having stopped being a Basque restaurant for a number of years, is slated to be torn down. While stalwarts such as Noriega’s and Epi’s are still thriving, as a whole, these restaurants are certainly in decline.

At the same time, my news feed brings a constant stream of reports about new Basque restaurants. These new restaurants, seemingly inspired by the new and internationally recognized cuisine and the pintxo culture in the Basque Country itself, are, in contrast to the family-style restaurants characteristic of the American west, more uniformly spread out across the country. Some recent examples include Anxo Cidery & Pintxos Bar in DC and La Cuchara in Baltimore. These newer restaurants seem to be targeting a different clientele, one the is maybe more metropolitan and less connected to Basque-American roots. 

It doesn’t seem to me that these two changes are necessarily related. The decline in the traditional Basque-American restaurants is, at least in part, due to the aging sheepherding generation. Many of these restaurants were connected to boarding houses and directly served the Basque sheepherding community and, by extension, their families. As those original immigrants have aged, with no one to continue the tradition, their restaurants have closed their doors. At the same time, the culinary reputation of the Basque Country has increased — San Sebastian has more Michelin stars per square meter than any other city in the world except Kyoto, Japan — and that has spurred a wider interest in Basque cuisine. These seem like parallel but independent developments.

I’d love to hear about people’s memories dining in some of these historic places. 

Chef John Maxwell Looking for Basque Recipes

I got this request and am sharing it in the hopes that people can help:

Please help. I am trying to assemble Basque recipes for a cookbook. All recipes submitted to me will be credited to the donor. Send any to bacalaoconspiracy@gmail.com and visit my websites at http://chefjohnmaxwell.com/ or http://bacalaoconspiracy.com/ When the cookbook is published every one who’s recipe is included will get a signed copy from me at no charge.

Chef John Maxwell

A Basque refugee

Eighty years ago, Spain was mired in a civil war that pitted the Republican government and its allies against the Nationalist forces of Franco. As Franco’s forces gained ground in the Basque Country, thousands of people, mostly children, fled to other lands, becoming refugees. Britain alone took nearly 4000 children. This is the story of one of them, Maria Patchett (nee Incera).

Some free online Basque resources

Those of us that are the sons and daughters of Basque immigrants that came in the early or middle 1900s often have a somewhat romantic and, maybe, antiquated view of the Basque Country. While traditional pursuits such as folk dance are still very prevalent in the Basque Country, they aren’t as pervasive as a typical Basque festival in the United States might imply. The Basque Country is a vibrant and modern locale, combining past traditions such as dance but also folk instruments and rural sports, with the most modern of social trends, including heavy metal music, state-of-the-art research and development, and avant-garde cuisine.

To provide some perspective on the Basque Country of today, here are some free online resources. These would be ideal for someone just discovering their Basque roots and wanting to learn more about the home of their ancestors or for a friend who wants to learn more about this Basque place you are always talking about. 

The first is The Basque Country: Insight into its culture, history, society and institutions. This PDF, produced by Eusko Jaurlaritza, or the Basque Government, provides a brief but sprawling and all-encompassing overview of not only Euskadi — the three provinces comprising the Basque Autonomous Community — but also Euskal Herria, the traditional Basque Country that includes Nafarroa and Iparralde. It touches on a wide range of topics, from the history and politics of the Basque Country to the current economic situation to cultural points, including gastronomy, music, art, and architecture. This would be an excellent place to start a journey into the modern Basque Country.

The second set of resources comes from the University of Nevada, Reno, home of The William A. Douglass Center for Basque Studies. Over the years, they have put together a number of textbooks and hosted a number of conferences that touch on a range of topics, including Basque cinema and cyberculture to the impact of the Guggenheim museum to Basque gender studies. Many of these are now offered as free PDFs, available for download and use under a creative commons license. The wealth of information is staggering and provides deep insight into various aspects of modern Basque life.

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