The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 106

The trip to the baserri was uneventful. Marina guided Kepa through dark tunnels until they came to a fork. There she handed Kepa off to another woman, dressed in the same dark robes as the men and women he had met earlier. 

“Don’t worry,” Marina said as she left down the left fork. “It is best to split up for the time being, to throw them off our tracks. Latxe will take you from here.”

Kepa gave a numb nod, not really caring where he went at this point. All he could do was think about Maite.

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

Latxe led Kepa down the right fork. While she was hidden behind her robes, her voice was soft and gentle as she spoke. “Everything will be alright. Olatz has kept us safe so far.”

“Not all of us,” mumbled Kepa.

Latxe stopped, putting her hand on Kepa’s shoulder. “I know this is hard. I lost someone back there too. But we’ll get them back. And it will all be worth it.”

“What will be worth it?” replied Kepa. “What are we trying to do?”

“Change the system. Preserve our freedoms.”

“I only just got here,” said Kepa, “but it seems to me everyone up there -” he pointed to the ceiling, indicating the masses of people he imagined swarming around on the ground above them “- are happy. Do they want change?”

Latxe glanced up, as if she could see those people. “Sometimes, people don’t know what is best for themselves.”

“But you do?” asked Kepa.

Latxe turned back to look at Kepa. She pulled off her hood. Kepa was shocked to see that her face was covered with a jagged scar that ran down from her forehead, down the bridge of her nose, and across her left cheek until it stopped at her lip. Her brown eyes trembled with emotion. 

“I don’t, to be honest. But what I do know is that things can’t stay the way they are. Any voice that speaks out, that dares questions the way things are, is violently silenced.” Latxe ran a finger along her scar. “I got this during a raid on my parents’ apartment, when I was barely a teen. My parents were advocates for change, for the freedom to question the way things were. They wrote articles and even appeared on the feed a few times. But, they got too big, I guess. The government burst in and took them, leaving this as a reminder when I tried to get in the way. I haven’t seen them since.”

Kepa just stammered. “I’m so… sorry.”

Latxe sighed. “All I’m saying is that, while the people think they are happy, it’s only because they follow the lanes set by the government. Any time anyone questions what lane they are in, or what direction they are going, the government is there to stop them. And, if that power gets in the wrong hands…”

“Zalazar,” whispered Kepa.

Latxe nodded. “In the wrong hands, it could get so much worse.”

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write if you want to get in touch with me.

Basque Fact of the Week: Basque Refugee Children in the UK

During the Spanish Civil War, particularly the years of 1936-1937, thousands of women and children, many of the latter without their parents, were evacuated from the Basque Country to a variety of countries, including the Soviet Union, France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Denmark. I’ll write about some of these others in the future. However, a key destination for many of these children was the United Kingdom.

Basque refugee children on the SS Habana as it arrived in Southampton. Photo from BBC News, by Getty Images.
  • On May 21, 1937, the ship SS Habana left the Basque port of Santurce with some 4,000 children, headed for the British city of Southampton. They stayed in the Stoneham camp, consisting of some 250 tents, organized by the Basque Children’s Committee. The evacuation to Britain was not without controversy, as some in the British government viewed it as a breach of the non-interventionist policy and others argued it would prolong the war by reducing the number of “mouths… that don’t have to be fed” by the Basque government.
  • The children were placed all across the country in what were called colonies. For example, about 60 children were placed at Beach House, in Worthing. The government provided no support – rather, the hosting families and other volunteers raised the necessary funds and clothing to support the children. In fact, the government demanded that the Basque Children’s Committee guarantee 10 shillings per week per child to pay for the care and education. The children stayed there for a few years before most returned to the Basque Country. A plaque was recently placed on the Beach House by the Basque Children of ’37 Association to commemorate their role in aiding these children.
  • While most children eventually returned home to the Basque Country – by 1940 only about 500 remained in the UK – others made new lives in their adopted countries. Sabino Barinaga and Raimundo Perez Lezama, two of the 4,000 children to arrive in 1937, became professional soccer players. 14 years old when they arrived in the UK, they honed their soccer skills on British fields before returning to Spain. Barinaga played for Real Madrid while Lezama was a goalkeeper for Athletic Bilbao. They met in the 1943 Spanish Cup final where Lezama’s Athletic Bilbao team beat Real Madrid 1-0. Other refugee children also made careers in soccer following their encampment in the UK.
  • Another 230 children were sent to Wales. The Basque Country and Wales have a long history of interchange, with Basques working in Welsh industrial cities in the 1880s and Welsh workers doing the same in the early 1900s. 56 of these children made it to Caerleon and soccer was again a distraction from the harsh realities of being so far from home in the middle of a war. They formed a team, called by some “The Basque Wonder Team” and “The Basque Unbeatables,” that became somewhat of a sensation in southern Wales. One of the boys, Enrique Garatea Bello, became a professional goalie back in Spain after returning home.

Primary sources: Arrien Berrojaechevarría, Gregorio. NIÑO, NIÑA (NIÑOS EN LA GUERRA). Auñamendi Encyclopedia, 2022. Available at:

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 105

Kepa sat in a dark room, huddled with several others who had made their way from the control room to this safe room. Olatz, or Marina – Kepa still wasn’t quite sure how he should think about her – was on the other side of the room, conferring with what Kepa assumed were her lieutenants; Argia was among them. He could hear them arguing and see them gesticulating, but he really didn’t care. All he could do was think about Maite, beating himself up for leaving her behind. He wondered where she was.

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

Olatz stood, turning to the crowd in front of her. 

“The control room is gone,” she said. “We destroyed everything before we left, so they shouldn’t be able to trace us, but we’re going to have to rebuild before we can restart our operations. You should all disperse back home, according to our protocols, to ensure you aren’t conspicuous and traced back here. Those of us with no home to go to -” was she looking at Kepa? “- we’ll regroup at the baserri in twenty-four hours. It is imperative that you aren’t followed. Better to not show up than to let the enemy find us, again.”

A murmur rippled through the crowd as they began talking amongst one another. A few stood, embraced, and then disappeared through one of the doorways that exited the room. Over the course of the next few hours, people slowly trickled out until all that were left were Olatz, some of her lieutenants, and Kepa.

Argia sat down next to Kepa.

“Sentitzen dut,” she said. 

Kepa looked up. “Huh?”

“I’m sorry, about Maite.”

Kepa just nodded absentmindedly. 

“I’ve lost a number of friends during the course of this… revolution,” continued Argia. “It never gets easier, but eventually you sort of get numb.”

Kepa’s eyes flashed, a spark of anger coursing through him, but he let it pass before he said anything. “I never want to become numb to losing those important to me.”

Olatz – Marina – walked over to them and squatted down in front of Kepa. “We’ll find her, I promise.”

Looking up at her, Kepa asked “How do you even know she’s alive?”

“De Lancre – Zalazar – wouldn’t kill her, I can promise you that.”

“Your promises seem somewhat… hollow.”

Marina brushed aside the slight, instead opting to change the topic. “We need to get to the baserri.” She stood and offered a hand to Kepa. “Time to go.”

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write if you want to get in touch with me.

Remembering Dad by Telling His Stories

Today is my dad’s birthday. He would have turned 78. I miss you dad.

My dad had a bit of a temper, especially when I was younger. My brothers and I were on the receiving end of more than one spanking. And dad certainly mellowed as he (or we…?) got older. But the times I remember most aren’t when he got mad at me for some stupid thing I did, but the times when he didn’t.

One time, we were at a friend’s house, loading wood into dad’s pickup truck. It was a Ford F-250, if I remember right. Dual tone, purple and white or grey. Dad really used that thing, towing his tractor and, once, even his loaded hay truck. Anyways, dad and his friend were cutting up a tree and we – my brothers and I – were loading the pieces into the bed of the truck. I didn’t want to be there. I don’t remember how old I was, maybe early teen, but I guess I had better things to do. I was grumpy and I was carelessly tossing the logs into the back when one of them bounced just wrong and went through the sliding window on the back of the cab. I was so sure I was going to get chewed out or worse, but dad just asked if it was an accident. When I said yes, he sort of shrugged and went back to work.

But the most surprising time happened when I was even younger. I didn’t have my driver’s license yet, so this was before I was fourteen (Idaho has a young driving age). It was cold out, sometime in the winter, and dad asked me to start the pickup – that same F-250, I think, but he had a few different ones over the years so I’m not sure – to warm it up. I climbed into the cab and, just like he had taught me and I’d seen him do a hundred times, I turned the key and gave the engine a little gas to get it flowing. The pickup suddenly lurched forward, smashing through the garage door and all the way through the garage until it hit the chest freezer in the back, where it finally came to a stop. Mom still has that chest freezer, with a big dent in it.

The whole thing took literally seconds and I don’t think I realized what had happened for a few minutes. When everyone came out, dad asked why I hadn’t put in the clutch before starting it. I stammered, telling him I didn’t know about the clutch, that I did what he had always done and what he told me. It turns out that he had parked it in gear, which I’m sure he always did but I never realized. I’m sure I was in a state of shock. He was sure upset, but not mad like I might have expected.

I don’t remember what we did next – I guess removed the remains of that garage door and got the truck back out. I don’t recall if dad ever made it to wherever he was going. Mom and dad couldn’t afford a new garage door, so dad simply put up a couple of sheets of plywood on hinges to create a huge swinging double door. The garage sort of became his own Txoko – a place where he could do his thing, hang with his friends. He’d sit in there often, cleaning and braiding his garlic, sometimes with a few buddies and a bottle of wine, a six-pack of beer, or whiskey. His salt box, where he cured his hams, was in there too, and he’d often have a leg out that he’d slice off pieces of ham for him and his friends. They played more than one game of mus in there. Dad took the box of lemons I gave him and made some awesome lemonade.

Blas and his father, Pedro.

It wasn’t until many years later, long after I’d gone to college and graduated, that mom and dad finally replaced those sheets of plywood with a regular garage door.

Ok, there is one time I remember when he got really mad at me. I don’t remember the context, but we were all at our house, and mom and dad had some friends over. We were all supposed to do something, something exciting that I couldn’t wait for. I want to say it might have been Christmas, and maybe we had to do something before we could open presents. I’m not sure. Anyways, dad was sitting in his recliner, talking with his friends in Basque. I kept trying to get his attention, because I really wanted to do whatever it was we were going to do. And we had to wait for him and his friends. Over and over, I kept saying “dad,” “come on,” “let’s go,” but he was engrossed with his friends and ignoring me. So, I decided to get his attention. I hit him in the balls. That sure got his attention! Dad got really mad. Mom said something like “He didn’t know what he was doing.” Dad shook his head, his face red in anger, and said “He knew exactly what he was doing.” I got a spanking right there and then. But, dad was right, I knew what I was doing. I was getting his attention!

Thanks to Lisa Van De Graaff for encouraging me to record dad and his stories when I could.

Fighting Basques: Joseph Etcheverry and Helene Santana, a Century of Basque Legacy on American Soil

This article originally appeared in Basque and Spanish at on January 13, 2022.

Born Basque in Argentina, Helene returned to Arrosa, the home of her parents. There she met Joseph. They emigrated to settle in Battle Mountain.

On this Memorial Day, we bring you the story of Joseph Etcheverry and Helena (Santana) Etcheverry, a story of our diaspora that, like many others, unites and connects origins in Euskal Herria — in this case Ortzaize and Arrosa, in Nafarroa Beherea — with trajectories that take us through the Basque communities in the world, in this case Ayacucho, in Argentina, and Battle Mountain, in Nevada, where the couple formed a home and raised their family. Joseph Etcheverry, who participated in the European stage of WWII, died in 1988, and Helene followed him on October 2, 2021, just after turned 100 years old.

“Echoes of two wars, 1936-1945” aims to disseminate the stories of those Basques and Navarrese who participated in two of the warfare events that defined the future of much of the 20th century. With this blog, the intention of the Sancho de Beurko Association is to rescue from anonymity the thousands of people who constitute the backbone of the historical memory of the Basque and Navarre communities, on both sides of the Pyrenees, and their diasporas of emigrants and descendants, with a primary emphasis on the United States, during the period from 1936 to 1945.

Guillermo Tabernilla
is a researcher and founder of the Sancho de Beurko Association, a non-profit organization that studies the history of the Basques and Navarrese from both sides of the Pyrenees in the Spanish Civil War and in World War II. He is currently their secretary and community manager. He is also editor of the digital magazine Saibigain. Between 2008 and 2016 he directed the catalog of the “Iron Belt” for the Heritage Directorate of the Basque Government and is, together with Pedro J. Oiarzabal, principal investigator of the Fighting Basques Project, a memory project on the Basques and Navarrese in the Second World War in collaboration with the federation of Basque Organizations of North America.

Pedro J. Oiarzabal is a Doctor in Political Science-Basque Studies, granted by the University of Nevada, Reno (USA). For two decades, his work has focused on research and consulting on public policies (citizenship abroad and return), diasporas and new technologies, and social and historical memory (oral history, migration and exile), with special emphasis on the Basque case. He is the author of more than twenty publications. He has authored the blog “Basque Identity 2.0” by EITB and “Diaspora Bizia” by On Twitter @Oiarzabal.

Josu M. Aguirregabiria is a researcher and founder of the Sancho de Beurko Association and is currently its president. A specialist in the Civil War in Álava, he is the author of several publications related to this topic, among which “La batalla de Villarreal de Álava” (2015) y “Seis días de guerra en el frente de Álava. Comienza la ofensiva de Mola” (2018) stand out.

Throughout 1929, a new generation of young Basques arrived in the United States of America. On April 3, at the age of 17, Joseph Etcheverry Oxoteguy, a native of the Nafarroa Beherea town of Ortzaitze, made that journey. Along with him, a group of compatriots in their twenties arrived at the port of New York aboard the ocean liner Paris; among them Jean Bastanchury, Jean Elgart, and Jean Ernaga, all three from Urepele, Jean Bidegaray, from Mendibe, Pierre Duhalde, from Biarritz, and Germain Elissondo, from Bithiriña. They all joined the sheep industry in the American West as sheep herders, pursuing the dream of a better life that many of their ancestors had conquered.

Little could these young immigrants imagine that a few months after their arrival, on October 29, the New York Stock Exchange would collapse, initiating one of the largest economic recessions in US history. The so-called Great Depression began and lasted until 1933. If at the beginning of 1929 unemployment stood at 4%, in 1930 it became 9%. In 1933, it reached 25%. The 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, made into a film by John Ford in 1940, perfectly reflects the horrors of the consequences of the recession and the deep despair of those who, at one point, saw their own Promised Land in America.

Joseph Enlists in Nevada

Joseph was headed to Battle Mountain, a town in central Nevada, on the way between Reno and Salt Lake City, Utah. His cousin Pierre “Peter” Oxoteguy, who had entered the country three years earlier when he had just turned 17, lived in this small, predominantly mining town in Lander County. From his arrival until his enlistment into the United States Army in October 1942, Joseph worked as a shepherd. At the time of his enlistment, he was working for the Eureka Land and Stock Co., living in the small rural town of Eureka – about 140 miles south of Battle Mountain – popularly known as the friendliest town on the loneliest highway in the country. He was 30 years old.

His family tells us that Joseph was aware of the invasion and brutal occupation of his native country by Nazi Germany in 1940. Two years later he had the opportunity to enlist and he did not hesitate to take advantage of it, although he was not even a US citizen, like tens of thousands of other immigrants who fought in World War II under the banner of the stars and stripes. In fact, despite his sacrifice and loyalty to his host country, Joseph would not achieve American citizenship until June 19, 1950.

In the European Theater of Operations

Joseph was assigned to the 485th Air Service Squadron, 9th Service Group, which would be mobilized and deployed to the European Theater of Operations. The 9th Service Group was based at Andover Aerodrome, in Hampshire, England. It was part of the 70th and 71st Fighter Wings (composed of P-47 Thunderbolt and P-38 Lightning fighter-bombers) of the Ninth Air Force, which was the tactical combat component of the United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe and fought enemy forces in Normandy (D-Day), France, the Netherlands, and in Nazi Germany.

​Helene Santana and Joseph Etcheverry – in US Army uniform – pose sitting on the rocks of a hillside in front of Helene’s farmhouse in the town of Arrosa in Lower Navarre, 1946. (Courtesy of the Etcheverry-Santana family).

According to his daughter, Bernadette Etcheverry, Joseph participated in the Normandy invasion in June 1944. “I have a photo,” Bernadette relates, “of a big wedding that took place just after the Normandy invasion, in which the couple were so pleased with what had just happened that they asked the troop commander if a couple of men could take part in a photo with the wedding attendees. My father was one of the men.”

On January 10, 1946, Joseph was honorably discharged with the rank of Private First Class in Namur, Belgium. At the time he was assigned to the 473rd Air Service Group Headquarters and Base Service Squadron. Joseph was awarded the Bronze Service Star (attached to his Europe, Africa, and Middle East campaign ribbon) for his unit’s participation in the Northern France campaign (July 25, 1944 – September 14, 1944) which liberated most of France and Belgium.

From Belgium, Joseph headed for Ortzaitze to visit his family. It had been 17 years since he had left. There he met Eléna or Helene Santana Anchartechahar, a young woman from the neighboring town of Arrosa, with whom he fell in love at first sight, marrying on February 27, 1946.

Helene was born on August 6, 1921 in Ayacucho, in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where her parents had immigrated after marrying in 1911, hoping to start a new life. Three other daughters of the couple (Marie, Catherine, and Stephanie) were born in Argentina and a fifth (Marie Angel) would be born in Arrosa after the family returned to the Basque Country to take care of the maternal farmhouse, “Gerechitenia,” at the request of the family. While, in theory, Helene’s maternal uncle should have taken over the farm, he had died in the Great War. Helene was about two years old when she undertook what would be her first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.

The French identity card of Joseph Etcheverry, dated in Arrosa on February 15, 1946, has the singularity of having included a photo in which Joseph combines the txapela and the uniform of the US Army. (Courtesy of the Etcheverry-Santana family).

Born in Ayacucho, Return to Arrosa

Helene and her sisters grew up in the Arrosa farmhouse. The family tells us how “life on the farm wasn’t always easy, but Helene loved working in the fields with her father and taking care of the animals.” “On Sundays she spent the afternoons with the nuns learning to do different sewing tasks.” The Great American Depression dragged down much of Europe’s financial and economic system. France also succumbed to the effects of the crisis, especially starting in 1931. Unemployment and poverty were a constant. Helene survived both the Great Depression and the subsequent Nazi occupation of Iparralde between 1940 and 1944, which “helped her deal with extreme hardship throughout her life.”

Wedding photograph of Joseph Etcheverry and Helene Santana on February 27, 1946. (Courtesy of the Etcheverry-Santana family).

Joseph returned to Nevada shortly after their wedding, where he again worked as a sheep herder for the W.T. Jenkins Sheep Company. Joseph would never return to Euskal Herria. In 1947, Louise Jenkins Marvel, a great friend of the Basques, sponsored the visa of Helene and that of her son Alexander “Alex,” who was born on October 11, 1946 in Arrosa (Alex would die on November 6, 1965 near Reno, in a highway accident).

Helene and her baby flew from Orly Airport, Paris to La Guardia Airport, New York on Air France, arriving on July 13, 1947. Helene was 25 years old and Alex was 9 months old. They later boarded a train that took them to Reno, traversing most of the country. Her daughter Bernadette Etcheverry points out that “with her on her journey there were several Basques who helped her along the way, something for which she was always grateful.” Among them were two young men from her husband’s hometown, Joseph Oilamburu and Jean Lekumberry. The latter would later become the owner of the famous Gardnerville Basque bar and restaurant, Nevada JT Basque Bar and Dining Room. The emigration story of Helene’s parents was thus repeated a generation later with her and her son. They had crossed the Atlantic again in search of a new beginning. Joseph met his son for the first time, and he and Helene were back together.

Basque, the First Language of the Etcheverrys in Nevada

Louise Jenkins set them up at the Martin Ranch, a small cabin within the Jenkins’ main ranch. “The first few years were difficult for Helene,” says Bernadette. “But she went ahead with her plans to create a home for her growing family” in Nevada. Alex was joined by John, Raymond, and Bernadette. Her daughter remembers how Helene used to tell them that she “cried every day for the first two years of living in Nevada, but the dry, dusty heat finally made it hard to produce tears.” When Helene arrived in the country, she did not speak English and was self-taught, learning the language by reading books. At her house they only spoke Basque and this was the only language that her three oldest children learned at home. By interacting and playing with other children they began to learn some words in English. Only when they started school did they learn to communicate in English.

Helene Santana poses with her children: Raymond on her lap, John in the middle, and Alex. The photograph was taken in 1950 in Natomas. (Courtesy of the Etcheverry-Santana family).

Sometime in 1948, Joseph began working in the mines in Natomas, a mining district about 20 miles south of Battle Mountain. The family moved into housing provided by the mining company. They remained there until 1956, the year in which they moved to Battle Mountain. Joseph got a job as a butcher at the town grocery store. He also built fences part-time for the Artistic Fence Company in Reno, Nevada, which later led him to building guardrails along the highway from the Wendover state line on the Nevada-Utah border. Utah, to the California state line, on the Nevada-California border. Joseph was getting older and finally took a job with the Lander County Water District, from which he retired when he couldn’t work anymore.

Joseph Etcheverry with his son Alex leaning against a pickup truck outside their Natomas home in 1948. (Courtesy Etcheverry-Santana family).

In 1985, after 37 years in the country, at the age of 63, Helene finally fulfilled her dream of becoming a US citizen. “She loved America and was always grateful for its help during the war, and for the kindness she received when she came as a stranger to a country she couldn’t even speak the language of,” confesses her daughter Bernadette Etcheverry. “Her greatest joy,” she continues, “was seeing the American flag fluttering in the breeze, and she couldn’t listen to the Star-Spangled Banner without tears coming to her eyes.” “She was Basque-American and she loved this country. And she still had a part of her heart that was 100% Basque.” Helene returned to her homeland for the first time to see her family in 1989, after 42 years, and she did so again in 1998, both times in the company of her daughter.

‘Oberenak,’ the Legacy in Nevada…

The story of Joseph and Helene follows paths similar to those pursued by many other families and generations of Basques. Euskal Herria is only understood in its entirety when the stories of those who for one reason or another had to leave its geographical confines are included. The country’s emigrant sons and daughters largely reflect the society they left behind. Joseph died in 1988 at the age of 75, at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Reno. Helene passed away only last year, on October 2, 2021, just two months after celebrating her 100th birthday.

Bernadette tells us that Helene celebrated her 100th birthday “with a parade full of balloons, flowers… and lots of well wishes from friends, family, and community members. Helene experienced the celebration and dance with joy in her heart. She sang along with music in Basque. At the end of the day,” her daughter emphasizes, “Helene mastered more than five languages, which is not bad for a girl born in Argentina in 1921, who she says she did not pass the fifth grade. Yes, she built a house in another place, but she worked hard to keep the memory of the house that her family came out of long ago. That day, her home came back to her.” Helene was one of the founding members of the Battle Mountain Basque association “Oberenak,” created in 1997. A lauburu and the words “Eskualdun-Fededun”, engraved on their tombstones summarize a Basque legacy in the United States that Helene and Joseph passed on to their four children, 14 grandchildren, 29 great-grandchildren, and 13 great-great-grandchildren.

Headstone of Joseph Etcheverry and Helene Santana from the Battle Mountain Cemetery. The inscription “Euskaldun-Fededun” would soon be replaced by another designed by Helene with the motto “Sekulakotz Elgarrekin” (together forever) (Photograph by Marcena Thompson,

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Basque Fact of the Week: Numbers and Counting in Basque

Counting is one of the most elementary human tasks, one of the first things we learn as children, rattling off numbers as we hold up our fingers to record our count. In most of the western world, we count by tens, a natural extension of our ten fingers (and thumbs). Basque is different, with a system based on twenties (this doesn’t mean Basques took off their shoes to get to twenty). However, that is only one of the intriguing aspects of Basque numbers.

The counting system used by millers in Dima, Bizkaia.
  • It is a well known, and often pointed to, fact that the Basque number system is based on 20 rather than 10; that it is vigesimal. The first ten digits (1-10) have their own names, the teens (11-19) are, for the most part, 10+X where X is a single digit, but then comes twenty, hogei in Basque. From then on, to 100, the counting goes as 20+X, where X is a number between 1-19. So, 35 is literally expressed as 20+10+5 (hogeita hamabost).
  • But, that is only the beginning. First, there is the question of where the names for the numbers come from. It’s hard to be certain, and finding etymologies of the names for the Basque digits – bat, bi, hiru, lau, … – requires a lot of linguistic reconstruction, sleuthing, and pure guess work. In their recent paper Reconstruction of the Ancient Numeral System in Basque Language, Gomez-Acedo and Gomez-Acedo provide possible etymologies for the first ten numbers in Basque, relating them to the words eri and ahur, finger and palm, respectively. They come to the conclusion that, for example, bat originally meant something like “there is a finger,” hiru meant “two fingers in the palm” (meaning three are up), and bost meant “see the whole hand.” I’m no linguist, so can’t comment on how solid these proposed etymologies are, but it is an interesting hypothesis.
  • The base-twenty number system was used by Basque sheepherders to count their sheep. As detailed by Araujo in his paper Counting Sheep in Basque, two Basque sheepherders would work together to count the flock. One would hold five stones or nails – or really anything small – in one hand. As he counted, when he hit twenty, he would move one of the stones to his other hand. When all five had been moved, that meant 100 sheep had been counted and he would yell out “ehun!” – one hundred – to the other herder, who would then make a mark on a stick. When they were all done, the total number of sheep would be however many hundreds indicated by the marks on the stick, plus however many twenties represented by the stones moved from one hand to the other, and wherever number between 1-19 the first herder was at when the last sheep went through the gate.
  • While, like much of the world, Basque uses the Arabic numeral system to actually write out numbers, Basque millers had their own system involving a series of lines and circles. The details varied from region to region, but with this system they could easily indicate numbers up to 100 with seemingly complex patterns. They could even account for fractions. The system used in Dima seems to have been based on 40 rather than 20, with 40 having a unique symbol but 20 being essentially two 10s.

Primary sources: Please see the various links in the post.

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 104

“That was… different,” said Maite as she returned to the patio. The robe was gone, replaced with a billowing top that left her midriff bare but extended to her wrists. It was complemented by what she could only call pantaloons. She felt somewhat like a pirate. Her hair was pulled up into a tight bun that was immaculately weaved. She hadn’t felt this refreshed since… well, she couldn’t remember when.

De Lancre chuckled. “I know, right? Think how strange it was for me, a man who grew up using outhouses.”

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

Maite sat back down at her place at the table. “Why am I here?”

De Lancre took a sip of his coffee before answering her. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a long time now.”

“What do you mean? We’ve only met once before.”

De Lancre raised an eyebrow. “Maybe for you. But, for me, we’ve met many times now. You and the boy…”

“Kepa,” interjected Maite sternly.

“Yes, Kepa. We’ve had a number of run-ins that more often than not end violently. I want to stop that.”

“Stop it how?”

“By making a truce.”

“Hold on,” interrupted Maite. “You have to know already that a truce won’t hold. You’ve already said we have numerous violent run-ins in my future. You already know this won’t work.”

“Do I?” asked de Lancre. He shrugged as he looked out over the city. “To be honest, after all of this time, after hopping around from one time to another, I really don’t know how all of this works. Maybe, by talking to you so early in the process, I can change how the rest of this goes.” He returned his gaze to Maite. “At the very least, I wanted to get to know you a bit more. I find you… intriguing.”

Maite cursed herself as she blushed. The last thing she wanted to hear was flattery from this murderer.

“You can hold me captive, but as soon as Kepa finds the zatia, this will all end.”

“About that,” began de Lancre. He snapped a finger and another spherical drone floated into the room. This one was slightly bigger. As it hovered in front of de Lancre, he touched something on his wrist and a compartment slid open. A bright light burst forth and Maite could see the zatia inside. “I already have it.”

Maite lunged across the table toward the drone, but de Lancre simply touched his wrist. The compartment slid closed and the drone jumped up out of reach.

De Lancre simply shook his head as Maite lay sprawled on the table in a puddle of coffee. “And you just got cleaned up.”

“Why?” asked Maite as she looked up at de Lancre. “Why haven’t you collected it?”

“I like this time,” replied de Lancre. “Look at me, look at how important I am, how much influence I have.” He shrugged again. “I’m just enjoying myself too much right now.”

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write if you want to get in touch with me.

Basque Fact of the Week: The Black Hunter

“[We] never heard from him again; he never came back. However, ever since, many have heard his dogs whistling, while others have heard their sad barking. Occasionally, on clear nights with a full moon, the silhouettes of the priest, the dogs, and the hare can be clearly seen in their eternal wandering” (from Wiki Mitología Ibérica). Thus is the fate of the Black Hunter, forever condemned to his futile chase of a hare because he forsook his sacred duties.

Mateo Txistu, from Wiki Mitología Ibérica.
  • The Black Hunter goes by many names in the Basque Country, including Ehiztari beltza, Martin or Mateo Txistu, Errege-Xalomon (King Solomon), Joanito or Juaniko Txistularia, Salomon-apaiza (Priest Solomon), Prixki-Joan, and Martin-abade (Abbot Martin).
  • While the myth is wide-spread in the Basque Country, it isn’t unique to the Basques. It appears in much of Europe, under the more general banner of the Wild Hunt. In France, the wild hunt was lead by King Arthur while in England and Germany, the leader was Woden. Other versions exist all over Europe.
  • In the Basque Country, the Black Hunter is almost always a priest who cannot control his passion for hunting. In his story, he is usually giving mass when, in the middle of performing his sacred duties, he sees a hare (some say it was the devil in disguise trying to tempt the priest) pass by the open door of the church. He suddenly abandons mass and, calling his dogs, rushes out in pursuit of the rabbit. He disappears, never to be seen again.
  • While no one ever sees him, his presence is felt. People hear his dogs howling in the distance and hear his whistles as he commands his dogs. Sometimes, people see their shadows ripple through the night. Sudden and violent winds often follow the Black Hunter. When the wind blows, rustling the leaves and shaking the trees, people say An dabiltz eiztarie ta txakurek: there go the hunter and his dogs. Some say his passage leads to fifteen days of wind.

Primary sources: Ehiztari beltza, Wikipedia; Hartsuaga Uranga, Juan Inazio. Mateo-Txistu. Enciclopedia Auñamendi. Available at:; Auñamendi Entziklopedia. Salamon. Available at:

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 103

Maite awoke to find herself encapsulated in some kind of pod. It stood upright, though at a slight angle. It reminded her of a coffin, though the cover was transparent. For a moment, she panicked, a feeling of suffocation taking over her body. As she was about to hit the cover with her fists when it suddenly opened. Maite half-stepped, half-stumbled onto the floor. The tiles were warm on her feet.

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

She looked around. The small room housed the strange pod, a small closet, and little else. She noticed a note on a small stand. Picking it up, she read “Once you are refreshed, please come out through the large red door.”

Maite looked and saw the red door in question. There was another door on the opposite side of the room, smaller and of the same off-white color as the walls. Maite cautiously opened it, discovering a strange little room with gadgets that she couldn’t understand. One had a little cubby that reminded her of science fiction shows. “Ura,” she said tentatively. A glass of water appeared in the cubby. She took a sip. It was chilled to the perfect temperature.

Returning to the first room, Maite opened the closet door. Inside was an array of clothes, from a relatively mundane white athletic suit to a bright turquoise robe. Maite grabbed the robe, a sense of security as she wrapped it around her body. On a shelf were a pair of slippers. She smiled to herself as she grabbed them. 

Maite pushed a button on the red door and it silently slid open. On the other side was a small patio that overlooked the city. In the middle sat a table with two place settings. At one of them sat de Lancre.

“Ah, egun on,” said de Lancre, a smile across his face. “I do hope you slept well.”

Maite tensed, her eyes darting back and forth for some kind of weapon. She remembered Kepa’s ability to summon light and focused on her fingertips, hoping some kind of lightning bolt might erupt from them, but she barely felt a tingle. She backed into the bedroom.

“Please,” continued de Lancre, “I did not mean to frighten you.” He waved toward the empty spot at the table. “I imagine you are famished. Please sit. I promise you no harm.”

Maite warily sat at the table opposite de Lancre, her eyes never leaving his. 

“Would you like some coffee?” asked de Lancre as Maite settled into the cushioned seat.

Maite nodded slowly.

With a wave of his hand, a cup of steaming coffee materialized on the table in front of Maite. 

Maite took a sip. Cafe con leche with half a packet of sugar, just the way she liked it.

“Where am I?” she asked, finally allowing herself to look out the deck and onto the city below.

“This is my home,” said de Lancre. “The tallest tower in Bilbao. Quite the spectacular view, no?” He took a sip out of his own cup. “Did you sleep well?”

Maite paused for a moment, assessing her physical well being. Her legs, paralyzed during the attack, were working normally. In fact, she felt great. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt so rested and energized.

“I… did,” she said. “What was that thing I was in?”

De Lancre chuckled. “I had thought about getting you a regular bed, but the thing is, they are impossible to find in this time and the system wouldn’t even create one, it being so archaic. Everyone sleeps in these pods, which provide the perfect sleeping environment and administer basic medical treatments while you sleep.”

“Whatever it was, I feel… great.”

De Lancre smiled. “I’m glad.”

Maite paused a moment. “But, I couldn’t figure out how to use the toilet.”

De Lancre chuckled again, and Maite couldn’t help but be struck by his charm. “My sincerest apologies. I remember how confused I was when I first got to this time.” He touched something on his wrist and a spherical drone flew up to the table. 

“The drone will show you how to use things. Rejoin me when you are ready.”

Maite stood up and walked back into her room, the drone hovering just above her shoulder like a strange parrot.

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write if you want to get in touch with me.

Basque Fact of the Week: Zugarramurdi, the Town of Witches

The year is 1609 in a small village at the very northern border of Nafarroa. The Inquisition has just descended on the quiet village, upending it as accusations of witchcraft fly about. Children describe strange rituals that involved Satan, cannibalism, and orgies. Primarily women, some in their eighties, but also men, including priests, are accused of being part of these dark happenings. Maybe these stories grew out of the activities of healers. In any case, the Inquisition interrogates and tortures many during the Basque witch trials, condemning several to death. At the heart of all of this resided the small town of Zugarramurdi.

A modern Akelarre in the Caves of Zugarramurdi, photo from Turismo Verde Navarra.
  • Zugarramurdi is another very small Basque village that has an outsized reputation. In 1800 Zugarramurdi had a population of 413. By 1900, that had grown to 582, but in 1998 had declined again to 239.
  • Zugarramurdi’s recorded history began in 1154, when it was under the lordship of the monastery of San Salvador de Urdax. It continued as essentially a farm associated with Urdax until 1667, when it became an exempt village and began its own development. However, up until 1834, the abbot of Urdax appointed the mayor. It wasn’t until then that Zugarramurdi became independent of their neighbors completely.
  • However, it was in the early 1600s when Zuagarramurdi became infamous. On January 12, 1609, the Inquisition of Logroño received complaints of wizards and witches in Zugarramurdi. Inquisitors were sent to the village, finding nearly 300 people involved in witchcraft. Forty were taken to Logroño to be tried and judged by the Inquisition. Despite the efforts of Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar y Frías, who was an advocate for the accused and doubted the claims of witchcraft, seven of the accused never recanted and were burned at the stake during the auto de fe in November, 1610, while five others died during their imprisonment. Eighteen confessed their guilt and were “reconciled.” The condemned were accused of demonic possession, celebrating black masses, causing storms, cursing fields and animals, and practicing vampirism and necrophagy.
  • Zugarramurdi’s association with witches came, in part, from the caves of Zugarramurdi and a nearby akelarre. Akelarre, literally meaning the pasture of the he-goat, was a place where witches congregated with Satan in the form of a he-goat, the akerbeltz. Akelarre now also means “witches’ Sabbath.”
  • The witches were also said to congregate in the caves, the Sorginen Leizea, or witches’ caves. A stream, named Olabidea but also known as Infernuko Erreka — the Stream of Hell — passes through the middle. The caves hosted pagan celebrations which may have inspired the accusations of witchcraft. Today, on the summer solstice, the town recreates the akelarre, the celebration of the witches.
  • Today, the town has embraced their legacy and association with witches. Thousands of visitors come to visit the “Town of the Witches.” In 2007, the Museum of the Witches opened, highlighting the way of life of those that lived in Zugarramurdi at the time of the Inquisition.
  • In the early 1900s, a number of prehistoric sites were discovered in the area. The Bidartia and the Akelarren-lezea caves contain Neolithic pottery and ceramics while the Lexotoa cave has carved flint dating to the Upper Paleolithic.

Primary sources: Arozamena Ayala, Ainhoa; García Nieto, Fernando. Zugarramurdi. Auñamendi Encyclopedia. Available at:; Cuevas de Zugarramurdi, Wikipedia; Zugarramurdi, Pueblo of the Witches

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