Travelogue 10 - Basquing in the Son



May 31

Tours, France



Avi at the keyboard


Ruth's last letter said that we all split up after Barcelona.  She's been in Germany, while Elie and I went other places:


One rainy afternoon in Bayonne, southern France, we ducked into a streetfront Basque advocacy office. The posters read "Euskadi Herreri" which means "Basque Homeland". We kept dry and interested by talking to a local Euskadi (Basque) activist (who speaks good English); She kept referring to "the southern provinces" and the "northern provinces" which it took me a while to realize was what I called "northern Spain" and "southern France".

Certainly my first encounter with Euskara really threw me; I had gotten fairly smug about my ability to decode Catalan which was all around me in Barcelona.  But meeting signs in Euskara gave me very little to go on.  I can tell you that I now know three basic words: "pintxos" which means "tapas", "segano" which means "cider", and "txokolat" which I'll leave you to figure out.


Our first stop was San Sebastian (Donostia in Euskara), which Elie knew had great surfing waves.  We did see some surfing, though that's to the side of the town.

The city's main beach is a lazing-in-the-sun in front of the magnificent 19th century promenade.  San Sebastian is one rich city - in fact it's one of the few I saw in Spain without the ubiquitous underemployed (usually non-whites) who lay out blankets on the sidewalks selling cheap scarves and pirate CDs.  It's also got a bar scene that goes all night.  Good thing Elie ran into some old friends so he had appropriate company, as I certainly wasn't up to the task.



But regional elections were coming up all over Spain, and the old streets of Donostia were sprouting Euskadi banners.  The language has regional official status (as does Catalan in its area) following changes to the Spanish constitution about ten years ago.  That’s one of the major difference to the "northern provinces" (i.e. France) where it has absolutely no status whatsoever and Paris shows no interest in changing that. So there is Euskara taught in the schools, several newspapers and broadcast outlets, Euskara performers, etc.


In fact, the activist in Bayonne was preparing literature for the next demo; The local train station was about to add English and German signs and announcements, but was refusing to put Euskara into public use.  So there we were several days later - two Canadians (one with a strong interest in Quebecois cultural issues) in a rally before the station.




Actually, I was all over the place, taking pictures. Then we marched to the local jail where a very popular local activist had just been arrested (there are hundreds of Basques in French jails for civil disobedience or "vandalism" or even "terrorism". France cooperates with Spain, and Spain wants George Bush to add the ETA for his list of "international terrorists") There is a current campaign underway of different Euskadi cells sneaking into town halls and courtrooms throughout their territory and stealing "Mariannes" - the busts of the spirit of the Republic - and holding them hostage for "the installation of Justice throughout the Republic".  Anyway, he got caught and so he was "visited" by this assembly of marchers together with giant traditional puppets and a duo who were reviving some nearly-lost xylophone-type playing.   It all made for a wonderful playful sight facing the ranks of armed and helmeted police shoulder to shoulder across the street.


We got a better look at the Basque countryside in the next days as Elie and I rented bikes and pedaled among the villages in search of local wine and sheep cheese which we bought at a farmhouse.  Unfortunately I'm not quite in the shape for cycling that both Elie and I hoped I was, but I managed to hang in there for two days until we got back to Bayonne.



The towns are all of houses with red-painted wooden exterior beams and red shutters, and the older ones have the names of the original owners and the date of construction (the oldest I saw was 1510) carved in the stone over the door.




Each town has a fine old stone church, often several tiers of wooden seats climbing the upper walls, and a "fronton".  A fronton is like an open-sided handball court for playing one of the many versions of jai-allai.



One night we stayed in a cheap shelter for pilgrims (we were in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, last town before a mountain pass in the Pyrenees if you're walking to Santiago de Compostela in Spain) but the next night we found a fancy hotel decorated in red peppers (this was pepper-growing country) with a swimming pool in the back.  So after a morning ride I eased my weary body into the pool and then took some time to Basque (sic) in the sun.




One night we hit the Segano festival.  That's where you buy an official cup, and then wander about as the regional cider farms keep refilling you with their product. And you eat pintxos.




But I said I also learned about txokolat  (OK - that's "chocolate" if you haven't figured it out).  And in this, the ancient Euskadi heritage (the language predates anything else in Europe and is related to nothing. The Euskadi claim is that they've simply been here since Cro-Magnon times) crosses paths with my own ancient heritage.  You know how Ruth and I sought out the places in Spain and Portugal where Jews had lived before expulsion. Now I'd found one of the places they'd gone.  Chocolate was introduced into Spain after the conquests in America, but was still unknown in France until the Portuguese Jews brought the recipes with them after their expulsion. Bayonne became the first city in France to have chocolate (they also had a munitions industry that invented a funny knife that sticks on the front of a rifle) and from there it seems to have spread well.  So let me assure you that I have undertaken the sacred task of honouring the art of those long-ago Jews, and in as many forms as I can find.


Much of this trip of the past several months has been an exploration of cultures and their interplay with power. Catalan is doing well after the centuries; Euskara is struggling after the millennia; Judaism keeps morphing. Monuments to the earlier glory of Islam dominate Andalucia.  And I sit tonight in Tours, in the Loire valley, where fabulous chateaux testify to a former power since overthrown.  How do cultures change/survive/die?  How do we keep our identities in the New World Order?  Elie is trying to give his answer - he's in Geneva now as part of the protest camp to the G8.