The Basque Country from Ten Thousand Feet

Inspired by this article in The Atlantic, where they showed parts of the world in chunks of seven square miles, I scoured Google Earth for images of the Basque Country from 10,000 feet (a few are from a bit higher), to show some of the natural and human diversity of the Basque Country.

I’m sure I missed lots of cool places. If anyone has any others, please share.

The Basque Dragon

There aren’t too many references to the Basques in popular culture, particularly for kids. So, when I saw The Basque Dragon, part of The Unicorn Rescue Society series of books by Adam Gidwitz, Jesse Casey, and Hatem Aly, I jumped on the chance and got it for my daughter. The premise of the series, as a whole, is to explore rare mythological creatures and protect them from two menacing corporate brothers. In this particular case, the heroes — two kids named Elliot and Uchenna and their mentor/teacher Professor Fauna — must travel to the Basque Country to save a herensuge — a Basque dragon.

My daughter and I read this together. Let me start with my daughter’s thoughts:

This book is about  two kids, Elliot and Uchenna, that get invited to join a secret organization by Professor Fauna, a teacher at their school. The society is called  The Unicorn Rescue Society. They travel to the Basque Country in order to help one of the professor’s many friends, Mitxel Mendizabal, find his lost herensuge (dragon). With the help of Jersey (a Jersey Devil), they discover that the Schmoke brothers, a dreaded enemy of the professor’s, have taken the herensuge. In order to save the herensuge, they have to venture into a deep cave with a dragon on the loose. Is The Unicorn Rescue Society up to the task?

I enjoyed this book, it was full  of adventure. I also liked learning some Basque words while I read. I also learned about some mythical creatures, like a Jersey devil — I didn’t know what that was. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes “mythical” creatures. Would you dare enter a dragon’s cave? Save a Sasquatch? Or talk to a Sphinx? If so, then you belong in The Unicorn Rescue Society.

This was a quick read with nice illustrations to capture the imagination. The characters, for such as short book, are fleshed out nicely with their own personalities. For me, the best part was listening to my daughter as she discovered various aspects of the Basque Country: some of the words (kaixo, baserri, pintxos, herensuge), the places, and names (Mitxel Mendizabal) gave the book enough of a Basque flavor to make it feel special. My daughter quickly grabbed a notepad and started making her own Basque word list based on all of the words she encountered in the story, including a phonetic spelling. She was excited to see something about the Basque culture in a book aimed towards her. I was excited to see her so excited. I also learned something. I didn’t know the herensuge had the powers described in the story. I’ll have to check it out and learn more.

The authors aren’t Basque themselves, but, judging by the notes, they consulted heavily with the Basque community of Boise to get the details right and to help add some extra sense of Basqueness to the story. For such a short story, they do a nice job of capturing that feel. In the Basque Country, the story focuses on a rural setting, so while the big city is mentioned, it isn’t where the action takes place. 

Overall, the story is still about the kids and their adventures, which just happen to take place in the Basque Country, so the story isn’t dominated by Basque culture and references, but it still has enough to give some Basque flavor and, maybe, pique my daughter’s interest in exploring the Basque culture more. That is, it isn’t a heavy-handed, in your face exposition on Basque culture, but is rather a subtle but nice introduction to some aspects of the Basque Country. I like that the authors chose a little-known corner of the world to focus this story on. Clearly, the series is meant to capture the imagination of world folklore and mythology and the authors hope to have many books in a long series. That they quickly visit the Basque Country instead of the heavy-weights of mythology speaks to their interest in exploring diversity. 

Orbea, the Basque bike company

Our daughter is growing up fast and it was time to upgrade her bike. We stopped at the local bike shop (Sirius Cycles, owned by this great guy from Panama who is one of the few people I have met that has known a Blas…) They are a small shop, but with a lot of bikes, most hanging from the ceiling. We’ve been in there before and my eye is always attracted to the bright orange ones, the ones with “ORBEA” splashed across the frame. But, the adult bikes are beyond the price I want to pay, especially considering how little I ride. So, it was a pleasant surprise when he had a child’s model, from last year, that was discounted to a reasonable price. My wife and I jumped on the chance. We now have an Orbea in the family!

Orbea is a bike manufacture centered in Mallabia, in the heart of Bizkaia (my dad’s sister-in-law lives there). Mallabia can’t be bigger than a few thousand people (Wikipedia says 1,135). And yet, out of this small town has arisen a world-famous bike company that sells bikes all over the world. And, that isn’t the most interesting thing about the company.

Orbea began in 1840 in a nearby town, Eibar, as a gun company. Started by three brothers, they sold handguns to governments that were emblazoned with the slogan “Orbea Hermanos.” However, after World War I, the demand for guns in Europe dropped, a consequence of the fatigue from war. Orbea had huge institutional expertise and experience making steel tubing for guns and, adapting with the times, they shifted focus. What else could be made with steel tubing? In 1930, they abandoned the gun business and shifted towards other products, including baby carriages, though their focus was bicycles. They gained notoriety when Mariano Cañardo, riding an Orbea bike, won a stage in the Tour de France.

Yet, even this transformation is not the end of the story. Orbea underwent a second massive transformation, not in what they made, but in how they were operated. The Basque Country is famous for the Mondragon Corporation, a group of worker-owned companies centered in the Basque city of Mondragon. Near the end of the 1960s, with the Spanish economy in dire straights, Orbea followed suit. The workers came together and purchased the company, making it a worker-owned cooperative as well.

Since then, they have diversified from road bikes — the kinds that are featured in races such as the Tour de France — to mountain bikes and now even electric bikes. Their global presence is highlighted by the fact that the mountain bikes are designed in the United States and built in Asia. Today, their bikes are used by riders all over the world. Their riders have won stages in the Tour de France, medals at the Olympics, and championships at the Ironman Hawaii triathlon. 

The Orbea website says “The road of the cyclist has climbs, descents, plains, false flats, endless routes, unexpected curves.” The same could be said of Orbea itself, its curved and tortuous path through history. Shifting dramatically in both mission and ownership, Orbea has weathered the storm and come out stronger than ever. Maybe I’m biased (just a little), but the story of Orbea is one of perseverance in an ever-changing global market. They are a role model for how a company can and must adapt to an evolving world economy. There are lessons to be learned by other companies, by other parts of the world, where the old business models simply don’t work any more. Companies, like people, like cyclists, must adapt to the curves in the road. Orbea has been extremely successful in doing just that.

Some day, maybe if I can get off my butt and start getting some more exercise, I’ll find the justification for getting myself an Orbea. For now, I’ll live vicariously through my daughter’s bike. I’d certainly like to visit the Orbea headquarters in Mallabia, to check out their design and fabrication process. Maybe next time I visit my aunt… 

Basque Nuclear

Last week, while visiting the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, for a kick-off meeting for a new project, we visited the Department of Nuclear Engineering. Nuclear Engineering is housed in Etcheverry Hall, clearly named after a Basque. It turns out that Bernard A. Etcheverry was a professor of irrigation and drainage during 1915-1951. So, he himself had nothing to do with nuclear engineering, though the building did house a research reactor from about 1966 to 1987. There are Basque connections everywhere.

Seeing Etcheverry’s name on that building reminded me of the Lemoniz Nuclear Reactor. Did you know there was a nuclear reactor built in the Basque Country, not too far from the now world-famous San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, where Game of Thrones has filmed? During a visit to the Basque Country a few years ago (back in 2014), I dragged my family to see the site. I am pro-nuclear energy, as, in my view, it is one of the few proven CO2-free energy sources and one of the most critical ways for us to reduce green house emissions and counter climate change. My research is focused on understanding the fundamental interactions between radiation in reactors and materials, with the goal of ultimately designing materials that make reactors and nuclear energy both safer and more efficient.

In any case, as I was saying, during a drive along the Bizkaian coast, I asked my family if they would mind going a little out of the way to see the reactor site.  It is on the coast of the Basque Country, only about 30 kilometers from the heart of Bilbao. Construction on the Lemoniz Nuclear Power Plant began in the 1970s but was officially cancelled in 1983. It was the subject of heavy anti-nuclear protest and attacks by ETA, which resulted in at least 5 deaths. One of these involved the kidnapping and later execution of the lead engineer on the project, which resulted in the first anti-ETA demonstrations in the Basque Country.

Today, the site sits more or less abandoned, but still protected by a large fence. We could only see the site through the fence and from above, from an overlook. When we pulled up to the front gate to get as close of a look as I could, a security guy drove up, wondering what we were doing there. I was nervous for a moment, as I clearly didn’t belong there, but he only asked what I was doing and didn’t really stop me. I snapped a few pictures and then left. 

Regardless of one’s views on nuclear energy, it seems to me a big waste to let this site just sit there. These massive reactor buildings are now collecting moss and show other signs of decay. You can tell from the pictures that the site has been overgrown with plants. It seems that they could make a great night club or concert venue. The reactors were never operated, so I don’t expect there is any issue with radioactivity. Why not use the site for something interesting? It isn’t being used for anything. Wouldn’t it make for a cool science museum?

Paisley Lauburuak

The other day, I had an epiphany. Staring at some designs, I realized that the patterns that are in paisleys look like the leafs of lauburus — the traditional Basque “four-headed” symbol that decorates ancient headstones and now is the de facto symbol of the Basques, appearing everywhere.

So, I had to play a bit and make some lauburus from some online paisley patterns. 

When I told my wife about my epiphany, she gave me a look that said “Duh!” and said something to the effect of “You just now realized that?”

Just because I had an epiphany doesn’t mean others haven’t had it thousands of times already…

The original paisley art is from these sites: Vectors by and Designed by Freepik.

Buber’s Basque Mix

One of the most striking things for me when I first visited the Basque Country was the music. In jukeboxes in the bars where we played foosball, there were bands I had never heard. While the rest of the US was enraptured by Nirvana, I was discovering the Basque music scene. Negu Gorriak. Kortatu. Su Ta Gar. These bands, literally, rocked my world. Growing up, I had only known trikitixa and the other types of songs played at Basque dances. I’d never heard this modern, edgy and, frankly, angry music that seemed to surround me in the Basque Country.

To me, the music of the Basque County seemed to reflect some kind of odd dichotomy of the the place itself. On the one had, there was the folk music. The accordion, the melodic singing, the tambourine. The traditional old ways that defined the nostalgic view of the Basque Country. On the other, there was this rebellious punk and metal music. Loud guitars, angry voices, fast tempos. The modern music that represented the future, the way that the Basque Country didn’t stay static, but constantly evolved. There seemed to be little in between. (Of course, now I know there there is a whole spectrum, but back then it seemed so binary to me.) The music seemed to represent the country as a whole: urban versus rural, tradition versus modernization, folk versus punk. And, for someone who, at the time, really didn’t like the dancing and the folk elements so much, the modern punk and rock music really resonated. I came home with tapes of Negu Gorriak, Kortatu, and Su Ta Gar.

Bringing this kind of music home led to a weird connection with my dad. I’d “force” him to play bands like Negu Gorriak in the family car when we went places. My other music, the loud, obnoxious American bands, never bothered him much, probably because he never understood the words. With these bands, he understood the words, of course, at least most of them. He would give me looks, and say “what the hell is this?” I would enthusiastically respond “Basque music!” Later, to try to bridge the gap, I got him some Basque folk music, stuff he knew from his childhood but which he never listened to at home. It turned out that, to him, there was music from Bizkaia and there was everything else. Negu Gorriak, folk songs from Gipuzkoa, these might as well all been that obnoxious American stuff his kid listened to that just sounded like noise.

Later, I began appreciating some of the other forms of Basque music. I really got into txalaparta, it being so distinctive and primitive. I even like some of the more traditional music. Some of the songs by Oskorri really resonate. And, as demonstrated by my admittedly less than glamorous foray into singing (fortunately, my daughter more than salvages that performance), I like some of the folk songs that resonated with my dad. 

Once in a while, I discover a new band that is just great. A few years ago, while visiting my uncle and hanging out in his bar, I heard what I thought was an awesome song on the radio. After a little searching on the internet, I discovered Buitraker, who I think is simply amazing. They even have a song about me, of sorts (did you know that Burt and Ernie, in Spain, are Blas and Epi?) I even convinced a friend to stock her Spanish import store with a bunch of Basque music. Unfortunately, I think I’m the only one who liked the modern stuff, but I discovered Nok that way. 

All of this is to say that I’ve created a Youtube list of some of my favorite Basque music: Buber’s Basque Mix. It’s a mix of folk and modern, loud and melodic, traditional and not-so-much. Putting this together, I’ve discovered some new-to-me bands, such as Vendetta. While most people probably won’t like everything here, it’s all stuff I like and I hope that many of you will too.

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