The Basque Country: A Cultural History by Paddy Woodworth

Few and far between are the “popular” books on the Basque Country that give an overview of the people, the land, and the culture of Euskal Herria.  The Basque Histroy of the World, by Mark Kurlansky, is probably the most well-known.  Now, Paddy Woodworth, author of Dirty Wars, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL, and Spanish Democracy (an excellent book, by the way, that I highly recommend), enters into this area with his The Basque Country: A Cultural History.

We read The Basque Country as part of the book club my wife, Lisa, has organized for our Basque club, the New Mexico Euskal Etxea.  It has been a long time since I read Kurlansky’s book, so I may misremember some of the details.

For the most part, I really enjoyed The Basque Country.  I think Woodworth took a fairly balanced view of the Basque Country, looking past the “glossy” surface of things and examining the “nitty-gritty” if you will, the politics that infuse everything that is Basque.  At times, I think he went a bit too far.  Especially in the first half of the book, it felt like he couldn’t say anything positive about the Basques without a corresponding negative spin.  FOr me, this was epitomized by his comments on the company AZTI, which is trying to respond to, for example, declines in fish populations due to overfishing and finding alternatives for the future.  They have developed an unmanned drone to scour the seas and find schools of fish.  Woodworth couldn’t leave it at that, and essentially chastises the company for developing what could become a tool of war.  This seemed too much to me, especially after all the negative spin he had done before.

Woodworth is definitely not a friend of the nationalists.  His most negative comments are often reserved for them and their policies.  He criticizes them for using the traditional symbols of the Basque people — the basseri, the dancing, the music — for political purposes, for not letting the country evolve past those symbols, for keeping the country stuck in the past in some sense.  This is an interesting dichotomy in the Basque Country.  The image of the country is strongly tied to these traditional images, but the Basque Country is nothing if not dynamic, always pushing their resources to be at the leading edge of industry and technology.  In the past, this was exemplified by their mining and steel production, which lead to some of the modern conflict between traditional Basque culture and a more modern, urban populace, as many of the people who worked in the mining industry were immigrants from other parts of Spain.  Today, the Basques are at the forefront of several more modern technologies in the information technology areas.  It will be interesting to see how these efforts further modify the Basque cultural landscape.

Even if Woodworth was negative towards nationalist policies, I still felt he was more balanced than Kurlansky’s effort.  Reality may lie somehwere between the two, and a more balanced perspective might be found by reading both books and “averaging” what the two authors say.  Kurlansky definitely glorifies Basque traditions much more than Woodworth, though Woodworth finds his most exhuberant descriptions of the Basques when he is in the small villages experiencing traditional festivals.

And, Woodworth is not immune to the mystique of the traditional Basque life.  Much of his book is spent wandering the villages of Nafarroa and Iparralde, describing their history and their ancient traditions.  While this gives a nice introduction of some lesser seen parts of Euskal Herria, at the same time I felt that what I might call the “modern” Basque Country, the intersection between the urban and rural, the modern and traditional, was neglected as a result.  The traditional values and practices are certainly an important part of the Basque Country and its identity.  However, in my mind, it will be how those traditions are incorporated into a modern and vibrant country that will determine the future of the country.  If the Basque Country is to become a modern nation where Euskara can thrive in a modern setting, the language and traditions can’t be relegated to the rural, traditional villages.  It has to become part of the urban setting, has to be a language in which science, politics, and technology can be discussed.  In that sense, I would have preferred to see more of that intersection between modern and traditional.  That is, in my opinion, where the real struggle for the future of the language and the cultural will occur.

I am definitely interested in what you thought about the book.  Did you feel differently?  Did you love or hate the book?  Please share your thoughts with the rest of us.

Understanding Guernica

It was one of the most horrific events in modern warfare.  During the Spanish Civil War, at the behest of Franco, the German Luftwaffe bombed the Basque town of Gernika, on a Monday, the traditional market day for the town.  They also bombed Durango and, I have read, the town where my dad is from, Gerrikaitz (though I have not found any details about that).  Gernika was one of the first examples of aerial bombardment of a city to provoke terror in its citizens.  Since then, there have been many other examples.  See this Wikipedia article for more information about the bombing.

At about the same time, Picasso was asked to paint a large mural for Spain’s contribution to the World’s Fair to be held in Paris.  Picasso ended up chosing the bombing of Gernika as his subject and painted his now famous and iconic Guernica.  It is an impressive painting, currently hanging in the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid.  It is huge, encompassing an entire wall in the museum.  As with most works of art of this magnitude and importance, the meanings of the various elements — the bull, the horse, the various people — have been debated almost since Picasso first displayed the piece.

Author and Picasso expert Gijs van Hensbergen has recently written a new book about his interpretation of the meanings of those symbols, entitled Guernica: The Biography of a 20th Century Icon. In this BBC article, he describes what he believes the most significant elements of the painting mean.

Thanks to Jose Antonio Alcayaga for pointing me to this article.

Does language shape thought?

There seem to be two camps in linguistic circles on the role language has in shaping how we think.  I’ve read a number of books by Stephen Pinker, who is of the opinion that the particular language we speak doesn’t shape how we think, that there is a meta-language underneath, common to all of us, that really determines how we think.  (I hope I’m interpreting this right, as it is a complex subject and I’m a novice.)

I find Pinker’s arguments very compelling and his writing very clear.  What he says makes a lot of sense to me.  And he seems very analytical in his arguments, relying on the body of evidence to support his thesis in a very convincing way.

Even so, there is the romantic in me who wants to believe the opposite, that the language we speak does change how we think.  Why?  Because it makes the diversity of languages that much more interesting.  It means that each language represents a unique world view.  It means that we should try to save endangered languages since, if they die, a unique perspective of the world around us also dies.  And, I want to believe that each language is something special, especially since I like the idea that Basque is special and should be promoted and protected.  However, Pinker’s arguments are strong and the evidence he cites simply does not support this romantic notion.

On NPR yesterday, however, there was a segment on the work of Lera Boroditsky.  She did a simple experiment, showing German and Spanish speakers a picture of a bridge and asking them what they thought about it.  Both languages have genders, and in German, a bridge is feminine and in Spanish masculine.  This resulted in German speakers using feminine words to describe the bridge, such as beautiful, elegant, and slender, while the Spanish speakers used masculine words such as strong, sturdy and towering.  What does this say?  It implies that German and Spanish speakers, because in their language the noun bridge is either feminine or masculine, view bridges differently, assigning different attributes.  Similar results were found for other nouns.  Boroditsky went even further and invented a language in which nouns were assigned random gender.  Again, people who were exposed to the language used different types of adjectives to describe an object depending on if they were told it was feminine or masculine.

Boroditsky’s work suggests that language does indeed shape how we see the world.  I only speak English fluently, with a smattering of Spanish and just a small vocabulary of Euskara.  I wonder how people who grow up in Euskal Herria with Euskara as one of the primary languages and either Spanish or French as the other view things.  Does the way you view the world change even a little bit depending on which language you are thinking in?  How about the differences between say Spanish and Euskara, where Spanish has gender and Euskara doesn’t?  How do you think of puentes versus zubiak?  I’d love to hear from people on this topic.

It seems that the debate on the role of language in shaping thought is still open.  Boroditsky’s work suggests that language is important in determining how we see the world.  To the extent that this is true, it means that with every language that dies we lose one way of viewing the world, one unique perspective.  It gives extra impetuous to saving these languages.  I hope that the new government of the Basque Autonomous Community doesn’t ignore this fact.

Euskara gehiago… more Euskara

Two more points about Euskara that I wanted to mention.

First, Renee Marticorena sent me a note about UNESCO‘s new classification of Euskara as unsafe.  They have an interactive atlas of languages in danger, which is interesting in its own right, but, with regards to Euskara, shows it to be in an unsafe position in Spain and France.

This is even more troubling in light of the article that Graham Smith pointed me to on‘s site.  That article describes how the new government of the Basque Autonomous Community, formed by a coalition of the PP and PSOE and lead by Patxi Lopez of the PSOE, will reverse some of the language policy of the previous Basque Nationalist Party governments, putting an unsafe language in further jeopardy.

Why is it important to preserve languages? Linguist Christopher Moseley gives his thoughts.

Euskara ikasten… learning Euskara

In 1991, I went to Euskal Herria to learn Euskara.  My dad is from Munitibar, and my mom’s grandparents were from Leikeitio (her grandma) and Mutiloa (her grandpa). While of course my dad was fluent in Euskara, my mom hadn’t had the opportunity to learn.  Her dad, while born and raised in Oregon, also knew Euskara though he had never visited the land of his parents.  Long story short, I didn’t learn any Euskara as a kid, so I thought to go to Euskal Herria and see what I could learn.

I attended the University Studies Abroad Consortium’s program in Donostia, where I took an intensive course in Euskara.  My teacher was Nekane, an euskaldun-berri who did an admirable job of teaching her three students Euskara (though I could be, at times, a difficult student).  (I’ve learned that Nekane passed away a few years ago.)  She taught us Batua and every weekend I went to visit my dad’s family, in Ermua and Munitibar, where they speak Bizkaian.  On evenings I wasn’t with family, struggling to apply my Batua to understand Bizkaian, I spent my time with other Americans in the program, who had gone to learn Spanish, and played foosball in the local bar.

So, I didn’t learn too much.  I got some basics, some words, some phrases, but nothing that got me to the point of being able to hold a conversation.  So, whenever I see any type of online course, I’m at least intrigued, hoping that I can try to improve.  So far, I haven’t done anything yet, but I keep hoping.

This is a long segway to mentioning two new efforts for learning Euskara online.  The first, provided by Gorka Bakero, is an English course he has developed and made into a PDF document.  Gorka has also provided a forum for Euskara students to find one another and practice.  Eskerrik asko Gorka!

The second is is a part of, a resource for Euskara. is an online course of sixty lessons.  The course seems to be in Spanish, though I was unable to register as it asks for my “DNI” number, which makes me wonder if the site is for Spanish citizens only.  I’m not sure.  But if anyone knows more, I’d appreciate hearing about your experiences.

A few other courses (though badly organized) are on the Euskara page.  If anyone else has a favorite online Euskara course, please share!

Edan onak

On egin dizuela janak eta kalterik ez edanak… May the food do you good and the drink do you no harm.

The Basque Country is known for many things, including gastronomy, sports of strength, the Guggenheim, the basseriak, and so on.  But, it is also known for good drink.  Two indegenious beverages are txakoli and sagardoa.

Nothing beats a good hard cider.  My understanding is that, before the invention of refridgeration and the ability to import from long distances, the Basques made their alcohol out of what they had at hand, apples.  There is a lot of mystique surrounding the sagardotegiak, the places where sagardoa — hard cider — is made.  For example, it is said that the txalaparta — the Basque percussion instrument comprised of a few wooden planks on which two players beat out rhythms — was originally used to announce that the current batch of sagardoa was ready for drinking from one valley to the next.  The sagardotegi itself is a very special place.  I visited one just outside of Donostia in 1992.  We all stood at a bar-like table, where we were served steak cut up into bite-sized pieces, among other things.  Every once in a while, someone would shout out a call, and everyone would get in line in front of one of the humongous wooden barrels.  The tap is opened and a stream of cider flows out.  One by one, we went up to the barrel and held our glass under the stream to get a frothy serving of cider.  This happened several times during the night. The stuff is a bit bitter, it isn’t sweet at all, not like the typical “apple cider” most Americans would think of.  It is definitely an acquired taste, but one that is definitely worth acquiring.

The Gipuzkoa Natural Cider Association is trying to promote Basque sagardoa. The site describes the history of sagardoa, the process by which it is made, and the places you can try a nice glass of sagardoa. is a museum dedicated to sagardoa. It includes a guide to enjoying a day of cider.

Another Basque specialty is txakoli, a white, dry wine with a distinct taste.  Unfortunately, while I’ve definitely partaken of txakoli, I never did acquire a taste for wine in general or txakoli in particular.  So, I am not someone to comment on the uniqueness and intricacies of txakoli.  So, instead, I’ll just point you to a few relevant links. is an online txakoli store, featuring txakoli from the three primary associations of bodegas: Getaria, Bizkaia, and Araba, each of which gives information on the bodegas comprising each association and the txakolis that each makes.

Of course, there are other beverages associated with the Basque Country, including patxaran and kalimotxo.

Ahizpak Designs

Ahizpak.  Sisters.  Clearly a good description of Izar and Maite, two sisters who are immensely talented artists.  Ahizpak is also the name of their joint studio, in which they showcase their work.  Including sculpture, paintings, carvings, jewelry and more, they take their inspiration from their Basque heritage, incorporating Basque motifs such as the lauburu, Euskara, and dance.  You will find them at any Basque gathering in Boise or the surrounding areas.  You will also find their work at other events, contributing pieces for fundraisers for local businesses, such as the Basque Christmas tree they did for a hostipal in Boise.

Their website, Ahizpak Designs, showcases several aspects of their work.  You can also subscribe to a newsletter describing what they are up to.  So, take a look, and tell them Buber sent you.

Goian Bego, Aita Tillous

I only met him a few times, in Seattle, in Boise, in Homedale, but he made a lasting impression.  Always with a smile and with his txistu at hand, Aita Martxel Tillous always added something special to any Basque gathering, even if it was a bunch of northwesterners gathered in a hay barn, doing their best to recreate something of the Basque Country in the countryside outside of Seattle.  All who met him always remembered him.

Aita Tillous passed away, sometime in the last day or so.  He had been spending his last days in his home in France, as his illness slowly claimed him, as he described in this letter to the Basque community in the US.

He will be sorely missed.  His absence will be all too conspicuous at the next gathering of Basques.

Update: NABO has posted an eulogy of sorts for Aita Tillous. has a write-up in Euskara, written by Joseba Etxarri, who was often seen at Basque festivals alongside Aita Tillous.  I remember Joseba playing, on the accordian I believe, next to Aita Tillous on the txistu at our annual Basque picnic in Seattle one year.

Update II: Xabier Berrueta sent me a couple more links: an interview of Aita Tillous by Idoya Salaburu Urruty of EuskoSare and an interview of Aita Tillous conducted by the Basque newspaper Berria.

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