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Oare Wurden

2017-05-27 16:55 —

Basque Babylon

Gerard de Jong

For the Other Words project I was allowed to go to the Basque Country, because my mother tongue is our beautiful, special Bildts. And I got to go here specifically because the Basques speak their own minority language. The many meetings here largely revolve around identity and the language that colours our hearts, that connects us in this diabolically beautiful project. Connected in diversity.

But the great paradox, the wall we run into frequently, is: we only wholly understand each other when we speak English. The Basque obviously don’t know Dutch – let alone Bildts. I speak some Spanish, but even after three weeks my Basque doesn’t go beyond the usual politeness. It’s a terribly difficult language. So English is a compromise, with the lack of something better.

Finding words to engage in a meaningful way therefore is a daunting task. Making contact alone is quite difficult. You could have an ‘Elfstedentocht’ here annually, it’s that difficult to break the ice. Of course, it differs on the person, but most Basques are rather reserved at the beginning. People don’t look you in the eye when you’re walking down the street, ever. Their focus either straight ahead or turned inwards. Not the eye contact we’re so used to in the Netherlands, as I’ve really become aware of here.

My predecessor here, the Frisian writer Bart Kingma, had already told me about it. In my naivety I still nurtured the illusion that it wouldn’t be a big deal. Undoubtedly to Bart’s pleasure I will admit he was right. Yesterday, three people walked me by in this medieval village. Father, mother, daughter, that was obvious. When we crossed in the narrow street, the girl actually looked at me. Direct, in my eyes no less. They weren’t five meters behind me when I heard one of them saying: ‘This building is beautiful as well’. In Dutch. They were Dutch.

The Basques are a bit reserved at first. But it’s only like that in the beginning. Once the ice has been broken – or here, rather: melted – it’s all water under the bridge. Are the Basque people without exception warm, open, generous, helpful and interested. And then it shows we understand more about each other than you’d think at first. With each our own minority language difficult to express, but having in common an intrinsic understanding about having your own small language, an understanding that needs not be spoken of out loud.

Yesterday I was in a ‘taberna’ with Iñigo, a Basque poet and journalist at Berria. Iñigo is also the presenter of what they call ‘The Big One’ of my stay here, the biggest activity: a forum discussion in front of an audience with fellow journalists, about language, idiosyncrasy and identity. We were in agreement: it irks that we’re so busy with our minority language, but can only communicate in English.

Iñigo will translate a couple of my poems for a poetry night. I wrote them in Bildts, translated them into English myself, and he will transform them into Basque. I don’t think there’s a single person in the world who has mastered both Bildts and Basque in such a way that he or she could judge the poetic quality in both languages. I will trust that at least some of the Bildts soul will shine through in the Basque poems, despite the multitude of translations. Knowing that in this Babylon, the beautiful Basque Country where all these languages are coming together now, we are connected in diversity. Even without words. As long as the ice is broken first.