“Before God was God and boulders were boulders, Basques were already Basques.”
A merry little trip to the Basque Country, an autonomous utopia containing a bit of both France and Spain is like trying to find the original site of the Garden of Eden, which Basques claim might be hidden in their unrecognized “country”: Euskadi!
Inching along in your rented Renault time machine on the high mountain passes through the Pyrenees, which curve like Basque hai a’lai mallets, you marvel at how man was able to cut such an impossible road out of the mountainside with no real rhyme or reason.
Granted, yes, at least every turnoff leads somewhere—even if it is only a small neo-Medieval town full of suspicious villagers brandishing pitchforks who pretty much live a semi-feudal life of self-sufficiency. In a land of agrarian seclusion, rare to find in Western Europe, you are going way out of your way to try to find someplace unequivocally “novel” and “secret” in a demesne that may not cotton to strangers.
You are peradventure on a real bildungsroman journey not only through the unique geography of die Welt but of the sociopolitical mind.
You are too scared to look down from the driver’s-side window at the generous lack of railings and the sheer drops below into hidden valleys full of shadow and death—and wildflowers. Newsprint stories from the past plague you with doubts as to the safety of independent travel in the region: the Basque separatist group ETA was responsible for a number of egregious terrorist bombs on the Continent, even though lately they have been lying low. . . .
Despite officially sanctioned wars across the world, there is something so horrifying about “terrorism” that it can scare off and shut down an entire country’s tourism industry. It boils down to this: the real evil of terrorism is that it involves targeting innocent people.
When you pull into a small village, there is no fanfare for a solo traveler from the United States. You emerge from the car sporting your authentic beret (a Basque invention), which you picked up on the French side in gay St. Jean de Something. Feeling like a bit player from an unpublished Hemingway short story, you make your way to the only café and order an Orangina. You try to make out the signage—but it is in a language you’ve never seen before: a misapplied chemistry equation, an alien alphabet!
The Basque language (“Euskara”) is the only non-Indo-European tongue on the Continent. Some ethnological scholars think it might be proto-European–what everybody spoke in Western Europe until a series of barbarian incursions from all points of the compass brought us Babel. It is so difficult to learn–even for Basques who all speak both French and Spanish, too–that local folklore claims the Devil Himself studied it for seven years and gave up.
At least, these proud exclusionary separatists, who almost lost their national identity during the suppression of the Franco years in Spain—have preserved their Medieval alphabet through mountain-redoubt isolation. They have a better claim than most at being a possible location for the biblical paradise: Eden!
At the almost empty phantom café, you notice sitting next to you a tall gaunt man with chiseled features sipping Rioja wine from a regular water glass. He has a Roman-style aquiline nose, black beady eyes, and a small scrubby beard. You wonder what he does for a living. Perhaps nothing. In sum, he resembles those scary striking Spanish carvings of “Inri” (Christ), to be found in churches around such pilgrim points as the honorary Basque capital: San Sebastian.
Unlike Renaissance France, “Inquisitional” Spanish religious art (especially wood and stone statuary) is more shocking and angular—Jesus is in the too-realistic throes of real agony rather than infinite sadness, hanging there wide-eyed and bloody with his face weirdly contorted on the Cross that changed civilization and made history worth saving. All Basques are Roman Catholic, yet many of them really believe their lands were once populated by giants (jentillak), with whom they coexisted until the coming of Christ, who somehow shooed them all away via armies of adherents who began arriving in the Pyrenees in the 4th century. (The conversion wasn’t complete until the 12th century!)
The dark-haired waitress with the lonely eyes pours you a small shotglass from a bottle whose label is printed with too many clashing consonants to remember the name–with an unrecognizable green liqueur in it. It is a Basque specialty made by monks from herbs which tastes a little like Chartreuse. “Gratis!” she says with a sly smile of conspiracy, looking for a second quite kind, even lustful.
“Thanks. Merci. Gracias.” Now, now, don’t overdo it.
“Bai,” she says.
“Bye,” you respond.
In French, she says something like: “That means ‘yes’ in our language.” She adds, “You are English, though, and I only know how to say, ‘Hello!’”
“Je suis American!” you say, pointing at yourself energetically like a bad rapper singing “You Can’t Touch This.” “Bai, bai, bai, bai! Yes, yes, yes, yes!” you practice like an imbecilic spastic.
She laughs, then leaves abruptly.
You don’t even know the name of this small mountain village, but with the Basque-made fuel coursing through your veins, you feel like you are sitting at a café on the edge of time. You feel like a fool, though, for tipping over 40 percent. Next time, “servis compris”!
Back on the road, you finally fearfully fudge it to the other side of the gleaming snow-capped Pyrenees, so you set course for San Sebastian, which is (conveniently) built right on a decent Atlantic beach reminiscent of posh Biarritz up north. There in the center of Basqueness, you hope to get to the bottom of the Basque’s mysteriously antisocial Weltanschaung.
The Basques (“mountain people”) derive their name from the ancient tribe of Vascones, mentioned in the works of the Greek geographer Strabo and Pliny. They were the laughingstocks of the Roman Empire. Centurions often joked about these sadsacks, whom they grouped with “Spaniards.” Here is one popular pun: “Blessed are (the Basques) for whom living is drinking!” Indeed, they spent most of their history indolently under the yoke of foreign powers. Then in the 19th century, a Basque rabble-rouser named Sabino Arana posited a root for the real name of their “country,” Euskadi, which meant “of the sun”—and referred to their ancient pagan religion, solar based and obeisant to a goddess named Mari
Thus, Basque nationalism was born. Even though it is very unlikely that either France or Spain will ever cede them the land to form a real independent nation, separatist sentiments run high among the autonomous region’s 3 million inhabitants, who make a mean bouillabaise.
Arriving in charmed San Sebastian, you feel that everything is new to you, including the nearly deserted streets of the siesta. Before this trip the only Basque you had ever met was the Franco-Iberian American poet Frank Bidart, a former student of your father’s at UCR Riverside in California, who is now recognized to be one of America’s greatest poets.
Once, a long time ago, one of your babysitters got a sinister phonecall from somebody she thought was calling himself “Frank the Dart” (obviously an underworld crony of Mack the Knife)—which became a family joke for decades. What this has to do with wandering the cobblestone streets of an enchanting Spanish city after ten o’clock, looking for tapas (specifically quail’s eggs: a regional specialty), you really don’t know. When you travel abroad alone, name-dropping goes a long way. Part of the so-called Basque Diaspora, Frank, if he arrived here for a reading, would cause a small sensation.
Reading in your guidebook about a national Basque dance called the “Katcha-Ranka,” you laugh out loud. During the dance, some poor slob (supposedly St. Peter) is carried down to the waterfront in a coffin where he is summarily beaten up! Then they all go fishing, assured of getting a good catch. But, hey now, what’s this?
And you are suddenly confronted by a square full of happenstance and serendipity. You join in on an impromptu fiesta (festival), complete with waving banners and wild drinking, cheering, and singing. You have no idea what it is all about, but everybody seems to be having a grand old time. But are those popping sounds fireworks or gunshots?
Then the heavily armed Spanish police arrive with riot gear, and the revelers all run off—no one faster than yours truly. Later you find out that you had inadvertently taken part in a Basque separatist rally!
But now with the rapid rise of the European Union, joined by a common currency if not language, culture, and tradition, the various ethnic groups of Hidden Europe must take note. We’ve checked. The DNA says you’re all Europeans, or, even better, “Eurasians.” Now more than ever the old adage rings true: “Be careful what you wish for!” Otherwise, all of our dreams may one day be recycled, our moribund opinions buried in bundled newsprint.