Christine Bender: Perils and Hardships Unimaginable

A historian’s greatest challenge is to convey the excitement and drama of history.  This is especially true for more obscure subjects, as the reader doesn’t already come with some emotional attachment.  But this is exactly where Christine Bender excels.  By using fiction as her vehicle to explore historical events, Christine is able to delve into the hearts and minds of her subjects, imagining how they thought and felt during some of history’s most exciting and crucial times.  Using her own Basque heritage as inspiration, she focuses on the adventures of Basques during the Age of Discovery, when the world was being explored to extents previously unheard of.  Her most recent book, The Whaler’s Forge, examines that time when Basques first found the North American coast in their search for new hunting grounds.

In this interview, Christine describes how she chooses her subjects and how she puts herself into their shoes to explore both their character and the world around them, and she even gives us a glimpse of the subject of her next novel.

Eskerrik asko, Christine!


Anyone who has visited the Basque Country, or even attended a Basque celebration in the US, knows the central role that food occupies in the culture.  Today, the Basque Country is famous for its “new Basque cuisine,” which I did have an opportunity to try at a restaurant in Donosti (and, it was very good).  However, for the average person, what really stands out are the pintxos!

donosti-bar1Enter any bar, in any town, and you will be confronted with a bevy of food just sitting on the bar.  Usually something delectable pinned to a piece of bread by a toothpick, pintxos are uniquely Basque.  In the rest of Spain you can find tapas, small dishes that are prepared to order and are what most tapas places in the US serve (this was how a woman from Valencia described it to me).  Pintxos are defined by the bread and the toothpick — the word pintxo means spike in Spanish.  And they are central to the bar-going experience in the Basque Country.  As you wander La Parte Vieja of Donosti, the Casco Viejo of Bilbo, or even the plaza of any small town, you stop at each bar, having a small glass of wine or beer, and maybe a pintxo.  They are part of the social txikiteo of Euskal Herria.

donosti-bar2When I was visiting just a few weeks ago, a good friend of mine who I met in Seattle and who now lives in Donosti, Gonzalo Aranguren, took me to a couple of the best pintxo bars in La Parte Vieja (though, I’m sure, this being the Basque Country, there is a lot of debate over which pintxo bars are the best).  We stopped first at Gandarias. This place was full of people, even on a Thursday night, both tourists and locals.  In fact, we ran into one of the men who used to be the head of the Basque governments relations with the diaspora.  We had one of their signature pintxos, solomillo.  It was awesome!  We then headed to another bar, Goiz Argi, one that Gontzal’s uncle always demands to go to whenever he visits. There we had a skewer of shrimp, not the wimpy shrimp you find on salads in the US, but prawns, grilled to order and served again on bread.  I’m not a huge seafood fan, but the prawns found in Euskal Herria are near the top of my list of favorite foods (though, certainly below jamon serrano!).  Combined with some zuritos — small glasses of beer — or kalimotxos, this is a great lead-up to dinner or even a substitute for a regular meal.

herriko-pintxos-allDonosti is well known for their pintxo bars, but even the smallest of towns has great food.  The Herriko Taberna of Munitibar, which is run by my aunt and uncle, is a great example.  As they prepared for a busy day of people coming to town for an anniversary mass, they went all out and filled the bar with pintxos.  They had the standard tortilla, both with and without chorizo, and jamon serrano with white asparagus, mayo, and hard-boiledherriko-pintxos2 egg, but also more exotic varieties including beef tongue with green pepper, breaded zucchini on a bed of, if I recall correctly, scrambled eggs and mushrooms, and baby eels with garlic and red peppers.  I didn’t get to try all of them, especially considering that they were meant for the paying customers, but it was an awesome display.  My dad’s two sisters, helping their brother and sister-in-law on busy days, along with that sister-in-law were mad women, preparing food that served, along with the drink, as the center around which the entire social interactions of the afternoon revolved.  The food and drink, which facilitate the social life of the Basque Country, are such an integral part of that life that it is impossible to imagine a Basque Country without it.

I had a lot of other great culinary experiences during my week visit besides the pintxos.  As I mentioned, I got to try a herriko-pintxos1great restaurant specializing in new Basque cuisine in Doherriko-pintxos3nosti, very near the University on Avenida de Zumalacerregui (I wish I could remember the name).  I don’t remember many of the dishes now, but there was one that was on a bed of rice, almost a risotto, and it was great.  One night for dinner, when my cousin and her boyfriend came over as well, my aunt made octopus galician-style.  I’m not a big fan of octopus, especially the texture, but it was very tasty and not at all rubbery.  And the desserts!  I have to admit, I have a huge sweet tooth and gain 5-10 pounds every time I visit, probably because I cannot resist the desserts.  Natillas, arroz con leche, cuajada (mamia in Euskara) — all are simply awesome.

If you are interested in trying your own hand at pintxos, a great site that includes lots of recipies is Todo Pintxos.

Hirurogeita Lau (64)

Florence Destin wrote to tell me about the clothing company 64.  64 is the region number of the Atlantic Pyrenees department in southwest France.  Their clothing features designs that emphasize those values traditionally associated with the Basques — food, sports, and more.  The brand is well known within France, but the company is hoping to expand to other markets.  Hence, Ms. Destin, who is responsible for e-marketing for the company, contacted me.  They have some particularly cute items for kids.

Link Dump: Pelota, Picon, and Pipes

Here are a few links I’ve run across that I thought were worth sharing.

Pelota is immensely popular in Euskal Herria.  Most evenings I was there, a match was being shown on the TVs of most bars.  Even though cesta punta — jai alai to the rest of the world — is the most flashy version of pelota, the most popular within the Basque Country is pelota mano — hand ball.  Every match I saw on TV was mano.  It is amazing to think about the punishment these guys do to their hands.  In any case, Fronton is a site that is trying to bring “a game with centuries of traditions to a new millenuim.” They have news, rankings, videos, forums, and more.  If you are a pelota junky, or just want to learn more about the sport, this is the site for you.

I’m not one for hard alcohol — simply just don’t like the taste — so I have never tried a Picon punch.  However, this article in The Atlantic uses Picon punch as the context to describe a bit of Basque history and the Basque way of life in the western US.  According to the article, Picon punch isn’t what it used to be, mostly because the Amer Picon from which it was made is no longer available in the US.

Finally, this site describes a woodcut purchased by the website developer of a scene depicting Basques working on their catch after a whale hunt.  What really caught the eye of the writer, however, is the presence of a bagpipe player.  The Basques are known for lots of things, but playing the bagpipes is not necessarily one of them.  The bagpipes, within Iberia, are typically associated with the Gallegos.  But, the woodcut is from the late 1500s and the author is speculating that maybe the Basques did play the bagpipes.  Does anyone know?

A Community Coming Together

gerrikaitz-crossAs I mentioned earlier, a couple of weeks ago, I spent a week in Munitibar, the town my dad grew up in and where his brother runs the Herriko Taberna.

During that week, something like three people died, including the oldest resident of the town (who was 98).  Of course, for each, there was a mass.  There was also an anniversary mass for maybe another couple of people who had died the year before (I wasn’t quite clear how many people the anniversary mass was for and how many had died that week).

In any case, to me, the most interesting part wasn’t the mass, but the aftershock, if ymunitibar-cemetaryou will.  The town has maybe 500 residents (though, with the sudden boom in apartments, that is maybe growing).  For the last mass, the anniversary mass, maybe 300 people attended.  The other masses also drew large numbers of people.  What was most interesting was the life in the plaza, in the bars, afterwards.  The funerals brought everyone together, some who hadn’t seen each other in quite some time, family who had moved to the big city.  They used the opportunity for family reunions, big lunches in the plazamunitibar-church, time to catch up with everyone.  They wandered the town, txikiteando, just soaking in life. The way of life simply lends itself to this type of celebration, with the numerous bars and the habit of going from one to the other, having just a small drink at each, chatting with whomever you find.

From the death of their neighbors, their family members, they came together to celebrate life.  It was amazing to watch the entire town simply be a community, be there for one another.  In some sense, the funerals were more than a goodbye to the people who died, they were also an opportunity for the town to be a community.

Great Basque Football Player Dies

Ok, maybe not quite what you think.  The Aug 30 edition of The Gazette reported on the death of Sam Etcheverry, one of the greatest quarterbacks of the Montreal Alouettes and the Canadian Football League (CFL).  He also coached the Alouettes to a championship of the CFL.

Sam was born in Carlsbad, NM.  What the article doesn’t say (but David Cox shared with me) is that his dad was a Basque sheepherder.  He played college ball at the Univeristy of Denver and besides his time in the CFL, he played a few years for the NFL’s St Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers.

Blogging about Basques in America

Koldo San Sebastian is a journalist and writer who has spent his career working in various media on themes of Basque history, including a television documentary on the Spanish Civil War in Euskadi, a book on the history of the Basque Nationalist Party, and another on the Basque exile in America.

Koldo is currently writing two blogs on Basques in America.  The first, Amerikanuak, is exactly about that, the Basque experience in America.  Recent postings have been about the first Basque dance group in Idaho, the Basques of Newfoundland, and the emigration from Aldudes, Baja Nafarroa.  These are in depth articles, written by a master historian, that do more than touch the surface, they delve into the heart of the subject.

The second blog is a bit more focused.  Basques of Nevada is an alphabetical list of all those Basques who left Euskal Herria for the state of Nevada.  This project has just started, still going through the surnames beginning with A, but gives a brief blurb, when possible, on each and every emigrant from Euskal Herria.  This seems like a Herculean task, but one that I am sure is invaluable to all of those of Basque descent living in Nevada.

Eskerrik asko, Koldo, for sharing your efforts with all of us!

A Tale of Two Basque Cities

My first visit to Euskal Herria was a year spent in Donosti, trying to learn Euskara Batua and Spanish.  Since then, however, as my dad’s family lives in Bizkaia, my visits have taken me more to Bilbo.

I got a chance to visit both again last week, and both are wonderful cities to visit.  I spent a day in Bilbo, wandering the streets especially of the Casco Viejo, but also along the Nervion from the Teatro Arriaga to the Guggenheim.  Bilbo has definitely changed dramatically over the last few decades.  Once an industrial city, Bilbo has worked hard to clean up the river, the streets, and reinvent itself as a tourist destination.  Of course, the Guggenheim is the pearl in that renovation, though it continues with new apartment buildings, a new metro system, a light rail system, and, just announced, a new stadium for Athletic Bilbao.  The charm, however, remains in the Casco Viejo, with the Siete Calles and all of the shops and bars that line the streets.  It is a maze of winding streets, and I found myself going in circles more than once.  Even though it is the biggest city of Euskal Herria, it is still very walkable.  I parked in the center of the city and walked to the Casco Viejo, back to the Guggenheim along the river walk of the Nervion, and back to the Teatro Arriaga to meet a friend within a half a day.  When I was there, it was very hot, so that damped the experience just a little, but still, it was a great visit to a wonderful, and increasingly beautiful, city.

Later in the week, I spent a couple of days in Donosti, visiting the Donosti International Physics Center.  So, during the days, I was working with the great people at the DIPC.  However, in the evenings, I was able to meet with some old friends from my days in Seattle, Gonzalo and Aitor, and we spent our time wandering Donosti.  My first impression was that, despite all the great improvements Bilbo has made, there is something magical about Donosti, something incomparable.  We wandered along La Concha, just taking in the atmosphere of the place, including a great band that had just set up on the walk.  After a beer, we ended up in La Parte Vieja, which has an incredible number of bars and thus “marcha”.  The second night, we further wandered to Gros.  When I lived there, Gros was the beach that was the most polluted and only surfers tended to go there.  Since then, it has been cleaned up and is now one of the more expensive areas of Donosti.  Of course, there aren’t the tremendous changes that Bilbo has experienced (though, the area around the Cathedral has been made a pedestrian friendly center since the time I was there).  I left via Mount Igueldo, as I had never been up there before, and the vistas are definitely stunning.

To me, these two cities are two sides of a coin.  Donosti is steeped in majesty, a resort by the sea that has been host to royalty.  It’s beauty is timeless.  It represents the grandeur of Euskal Herria.  Bilbo, on the other hand, is a city that is redefining itself and, as such, represents the metamorphosis that is occurring in the entire country.  A city that was once a steel powerhouse is reinventing itself to be modern business center and a tourist destination rivaling Donosti.  It thus has a foot in both the industrial past and the technological future.  Euskal Herria is not one or the other, it is both of these cities and all that they represent.  (The Basque countryside is also an integral aspect of the Basque experience.)  A trip to Euskal Herria would be incomplete without a visit to both of these glorious cities.

Though, I have to admit, for me, there is something special about Donosti.

Tatu lauburuak

Seth Jordan and Dax Arguello have both sent photos of their new tattoos, both of which prominently feature the lauburu.  Seth’s tattoo, of a big lauburu on his forearm, was done at Tattoo Revolution in Meridian, Idaho.  Dax’s, features a lauburu centered in a bigger design, was done at Guru Tattoo in San Jose, California.  Large versions of these photos can be found in the Tattoo Gallery.  Thanks for sharing guys!

PHP woes

As you probably have noticed by now, some of my pages aren’t quite working right, with PHP pages asking if you want to download them.  That is because of a change in server configuration I wasn’t aware of and now my files aren’t parsed quite right.  I’m working on getting that fixed and hope to do so as soon as possible.

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