It’s paradise – if you can stand it

Posted: January 11, 2012 in Basques, History, People, Place
Tags: , , ,

A sense of place in the Basque Country

In 1929 the poet, writer and historian Robert Graves moved to the sleepy and forgotten Majorcan village of Deià. Having been badly wounded in the First World War, and wanting to put troubled marriage behind him, Graves was ready to say Good -Bye to All That – the title of his autobiography. It was the American writer Gertrude Stein who first enticed Graves to go to Majorca. When he asked her what Deià was like, Stein replied: ‘It’s paradise – if you can stand it.’ He settled there anyway and, except for a break during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, he remained in Majorca until his death in 1985. Thinking of this story brings a wry smile to my face – I think I know what Gertrude Stein meant.

Robert Graves was an extraordinarily well-educated and accomplished man; through his mother he was also related to the great German historian Leopold von Ranke – in fact his full name was Robert von Ranke Graves. Coming from such a background, he never would and never could become a real ‘local’ in Majorca – he was far too intellectual and Bohemian for that. This was a small, remote community where people still followed the rhythms of the seasons and where intrusions from outside were rare – things have changed out of all recognition since! Yet Graves did find a certain ‘sense of place’ in Deià. It was a place where he could concentrate on his writing and his female muses – which he did to great effect for fifty years.

On the slopes of Artzamendi – Mountain of the Bears

Now I would never dream of comparing myself with a man as talented and prolific as Graves. But roughly seventy-five years after Graves moved to Majorca I moved with my family to a small Basque village nestling beside a river in the foothills of the ‘French’ Pyrenees. In some ways I also wanted to say ‘Good-Bye to All That’. Ever since I have felt that this place was a type of paradise – if only I could stand it.

A considerable portion of my childhood was spent ‘in the country’. But by the time I arrived here I had been living a cosmopolitan life for nearly thirty years; travelling the world for my work and living in the wonderful cities of London, New York, Frankfurt and Prague. Settling in the Basque Country, a place populated by one of the most rooted people in Europe, was thus refreshing but it was also a shock. Where were the bookshops, where was the intellectual and political buzz and, most importantly, where were the Indian restaurants?

The Basques are an ancient people; they speak the only indigenous non-Indo-European language in Europe – Euskara. The French say that ‘the devil himself couldn’t learn Basque’ – it’s not true but Basque is certainly not an easy language. Where the Basques might originally have come from is still unclear; nobody knows for sure. Quite a bit of genetic and other evidence suggests that they could be the descendants of the pre-historic Ice Age cave dwellers of South West France and northern Spain. And that would mean that they have been settled in these parts not just for thousands but for tens of thousands of years. If so it is ‘their’ wonderful wall and ceiling paintings that can still be seen at such places as Altamira and Lascaux. Whatever the truth of their origins, the Basques have managed to retain their unique identity, customs and language – despite periodic bouts of brutal repression.

Even today, and especially inland from the coastal towns and beaches, the Basques remain deeply attached to and rooted in their ‘place’. They call this place Euskal Herria. This is usually translated as The Basque Country but The Basque Land better captures its meaning. In Euskara the word for house is Etxe (pronounced and sometimes spelt Etche). The house isn’t just a place to live, it is the concrete symbol of the family, the place where a family comes from and where it belongs. Until recently Basque law and custom prohibited any Basque from selling the family Etxe to someone outside the family. While this practice is not as strictly applied today, people will still go to great lengths to keep their houses in the family. I haven’t done a linguistic survey but I’m sure it’s true to say that the vast majority of Basque family names derive either from their family house or from a very precise geographic or topographic location. Take for example: Etxeberri (new house), Etchepare (house opposite), Goyenetche (high house) or even Elizondo (near the church), Ithurria (the spring) and Mendoza (long mountain). There are hundreds more.

The Basques are still wedded to their land. We are now well into the twenty-first century, yet where I live it’s still quite common to meet people who have never taken a holiday outside their region, and even some who, with a certain pride, will tell you that they once visited Paris twenty years ago but that that had been the extent of their travels! Even the more ‘travelled’ Basque will likely take his or her vacation somewhere within a two or three hour driving radius of home. Outside of the Basque homeland the rest of France and Spain are foreign countries. You have to be quite careful with terminology here. When I am talking about the Basque region in Spain I tend to say ‘en Espagne’; you can get into a little trouble for this. It’s not Spain or Espagne you’ll be gently told, but rather, in French, L’autrecôté (the other side).

In my own village of Itsasu, as in all the surrounding villages, people still value their own local produce – even the supermarkets promote it. As well as the ubiquitous Boulangerie and Butcher –ubiquitous here but sadly increasingly rare elsewhere – the local farmers make sheep and goat cheese, milk and honey; they also produce wonderful lamb and they grow cherries and the famous Basque piments. They even make wines called Irouléguy.

Olentzero – The charcoal burning Basque Santa Claus

Myths still find a place here too. Before Christmas the kind-hearted charcoal-burner Olentzero will come down from the mountains and distribute presents to the children – a type of pre-Christian Basque Santa Claus. In the spring school children will make a grotesque effigy of the giant Zanpanzar – which they will then proceed to burn; and with him all the evils committed in the world during the past year.

When we first moved here seven years ago, we attended a Mass in the wonderful seventeenth century church in the village of Itsasu, which goes by the lovely name of Saint- Fructueux. The interior of this white-washed church has three rows of wooden balconies stacked one upon the other and running the length of three sides of the church. As in other parts of the world, in the past men and women were divided in church. Here the men and their older sons would occupy the balconies; usually standing and gripping the wooden railings with their country hands. They would look down on their wives and younger children seated below. The surprising thing is they still do! When I first saw this I couldn’t help squinting my eyes slightly and imagining how, with a slight change of dress, the scene could have come straight from a Breughel painting. Of course I now know a lot of these people personally, and a warmer and more welcoming people it would be difficult to find – even if you happen to have had the misfortune to be born in Paris!

To be sure the Basque Land is not an idyll. It suffers from many of the same problems as the rest of the Western world: unemployment, high house prices and consumerism. I am even told that there is an occasional teenage drug problem in the towns; though I’ve never seen it. But where else in Europe today can you find teenage boys and teenage girls dancing traditional folk dances, unselfconsciously and unashamedly, with their parents, grandparents and younger siblings? And all this while dressed in rather kitschy traditional costumes – at least they appear kitschy to my jaded cosmopolitan eyes! Can you conceive of this in London or New York?

I can’t finish without mentioning the songs. Basques are very much like that other valley people: the Welsh. They love to sing anywhere and at any time. Here’s one of the best-loved and most sung Basque songs. It’s called Txoria txori, which roughly means A Bird is a Bird:

Hegoak ebaki banizkion
nerea izango izango zen,
ez zuen aldegingo,
bainan honela
ez zen gehiago txoria izango,
eta nik txoria nuen maite.

If I had cut its wings
It would have been mine,
It wouldn’t have flown away.
But then
It would have been a bird no longer,
And it was the bird that I loved.

Every weekend you can hear this sung at rugby matches in Biarritz and Bayonne. Can you imagine crowds singing such a sweet song in America or Britain? But then again, after a moment’s reflection, in England rugby crowds do sing Swing low, sweet chariot and, in Wales, Hen Wlad Fy NhadauLand of my fathers. I’d love to know what types of songs are usually sung at American football or baseball games? Perhaps we all need to sing!

Now if there is any point to this story it is this. With Peak Oil, Global Warming and the relentless depletion of the earth’s natural resources, sooner or later humankind will have to find a more sustainable, decentralised, less materialistic and local way to live. As we either willingly move in this direction or are forced to make the transition, perhaps the Basques – in this small place – will find the shift less traumatic than the rest of us?

So yes this corner of the Basque Country is in some ways a little paradise. I hope I’ll be able to stand it for a long time to come.

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