2017-07-06 14:45 —
Last Sunday I was a guest at Dala and Antxon’s, who live down the only street of Pasaia San Juan, Donibane. Present too were Imanol and Eskarne, also a couple from this old fishing town. All four of them showed an interest in me, Bildts and het Bildt ever since I arrived here. I’ve never doubted the sincerity of it, though I did wonder if it was a ‘let’s give the stranger a good welcome here’-interest or if it went beyond that. It turned out to most certainly be the latter.
They’d invited me over for lunch. By now I know all too well that that means having a lunch for half a day. Lunch –especially in the weekend– can easily last from 14.00 till 18.00 o’clock. Especially if you’re in good company, if there’s a connection. The table rich with all sorts of pintxos, salad, fish, chicken out of the oven, and a chocolate cake for afters. Add some fine Basque wine to it and time passes quickly.
Dala isn’t Basque, but American. In the seventies she was travelling through Europe. In the train from Barcelona to San Sebastián she happened to meet Antxon, son of a fishermen’s family. ‘He was such a hippe back then, I immediately took to him’, she said. Se traded in the States for Donibane, and nearly 45 years later they still live here, in the place where Antxon grew up.
During lunch Dala receives an app-message from a friend from Catalunia. We see tanks on a photograph. At first I think it’s a photo of a parade, like we have in the Netherlands. But that’s not the case. Every now and then the Spanish show their tanks in autonomous regions like Catalunia and the Basque Country. “To show the people who’s boss,” I hear to my bewilderment.
Grandfathers, grandmothers, uncles, aunts, mum and dad: all four of them have stories about how their family had to flee the Franco regime. Maybe this is why Imanol and Eskarne travel so much, I think. They’ve been to India, Kurdistan, Georgia, and are going to Armenia next. Those places pull at their heart strings. You don’t have to have studied history to realize why. “Oh,” all four will admit, “it’s so much better here now than it was. ETA handed over their weapons. Life has gotten a lot better.” Yet I can’t stop thinking about that app-message.
Tuesday I was on the road all day with four other Basques. The younger generation. It was a day out, courtesy of the Oare Wurde/Other Words project. Idoia Noble, my tireless, enthusiastic contact person, and three Basque writers/poets who have also been abroad for the project, or are yet to go.
We headed to Bermeo, an idyllic seaside town that’s in abundance here, though no two are the same. Ekaitz was the pioneer, the first Basque in the Other Words project. He went to Slovenia, is winning major Basque prizes with his writing, works in a small bar overlooking the ocean, and in between works on new material. Yoseba: he went to Dublin, Ireland, for Other Words. Because of deep budget cuts during the crisis years he quit his job in academia and started teaching, and writes. And Beatriz: she only heard last week she will be going to Maribor, Slovenia in the next round of Other Words. She’s a poet, only 26 years old but since 16 has already seen more of the world than I will ever see. China, London, Italy. She calls herself a nomad, and with good reason. “Every time when I am home in Basque Country for a short while, I learn so much more about it, and at the same time realize I know so little about it.”
We’d not been in the car for an hour, or we were already discussing the big, important themes of life. Identity, language, politics. It’s always this way here, also with the younger generation. They aren’t really taught about the Franco years, I learn. It’s more or less swept under the rug, while it defines the Basques. Young and old.
I tell them about the app-message, the photo of the tanks, and ask them if this is unusual. It’s like opening Pandora’s box. Stories about simple street brawls, after going out, where a Basque for hitting someone in the head gets a seventeen year in jail charge. Because “terrorism”. While a Spaniard for the same violation only has to pay a fine. The ‘Guardia Civil’, the military organized police, patrols here regularly. Shows itself. Shows: don’t toy with us, Basques. They’ll stop Basques in their tracks for hours. Hassling them. It’s the Spanish government saying: we’re in charge here, don’t get any ideas. I have to think about the tanks again.
Even all these younger Basques, just like the older generation, say: “It’s much better now than it was, much better!” All the intimidation would enrage me, make me livid. But I’m beginning to understand that to them ‘much better’ means not having dozens of Basques arrested every week. That they’re not in a state of war any more. Which is progress. Even though they have an unrelenting desire for independence, ‘Independentzia’, and they spit on the government in Madrid, remnants of the Franco-era.
Their optimism catches me off-guard at times. But then I have a closer look at these people: working very hard to be able to write prose or poetry in their own language, travelling around the world out of a burning desire to understand it, to mirror their own fate with those of others. Or simply because you met the love of your life on a train journey. Following your passion, no matter what. Love is the law; that, I understand completely.