An outsider’s glimpse of the Basque cause [Part III: Being Basque in Basque Country]

As has been true for this series so far, when speaking about Basque Country and people I am referring to that land and people found within the borders of Spain. My time in French Basque Country has confirmed that the atmosphere and the way that Basque identity is expressed is very different in the two countries. Whereas in Basque Country in Spain it is taken for granted that you are in and surrounded by Basqueness, in Basque Country in France the word “Basque”, its symbols such as the basque beret, emblem, and flag are splashed across signs, shops, brochures and pamphlets…. So many neat Basque tourist activities you can take part in! So many cute Basque accoutrements to be had! Sell sell sell sell…

Being Basque in Basque Country

To boil it down it seemed to me that being Basque in Basque Country meant being proud of the fact and demonstrating it in some way.

Is being socially conscious and engaged in activism inevitable? Does someone demonstrate their pride because they are Basque and can’t help it; or do they do so in order to prove that they are truly Basque?

Let’s start at the extreme end of the scale. It is not an uncommon thought that extremist groups exist because they attract the extremists amongst us, those with latent sociopathic tendancies, an inherent taste for weapons and things that go boom. In this day and age it might even be suggested that there are genetic predispositions to fanaticism, after all innate criminality has already been declared to exist in the form of a genetically-driven excess of testosterone. Or else we’re happy to cast the net wider, for example I’ve many a time heard the opinion that middle-eastern people are much more primed for acts of terrorism because of the acceptability of aggressive self-expression in their culture. (Their singular culture?)

What has happened in at least some cases in Donostia has been described to me in much more banal, common sense terms; what they describe is a tactic that is age-old. Basically, these groups know where to look. They target adolescents who are noticeably shy, unsure of themselves, and who generally appear to be drifting a little apart from their peer group. These activist groups, whether violence-oriented or not, provide the adolescents with a purpose in life and a family. And probably a sense of not being totally passive and helpless in the world. So in some ways the exchange is positive, after all it can provide the encouragement the teenagers needed to grow in confidence and belief in themselves. But in others it is clearly negative, because in the end they have been selected precisely for their suitability as manipulable and expendable human bodies; and because they in turn use their impressive new identity to badger, heckle and belittle their own friends for not being as dedicated and useful to the cause as they are.

Naturally pride in being Basque is also expressed and lived in ways other than explicit activism, such as in supporting artistic and educational initiatives. This includes: exhibiting the artworks of Basque artists; learning Euskera if you don’t know it, teaching it to the younger generation if you do; actively participating in and thereby keeping alive the tradition of the gastronomical society*; working at the television programmes and channels that operate in Euskera and showcase young talent. For me, one major way that Basque people assert themselves is through their frequent musical outbursts, the ease with which they share music with friends and the general public alike.

Even having selected alternative means of living your pride and belief in a unique Basque Country, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be able to live completely outside of the sphere of the activists. What do you do when a friend comes knocking on your door in the middle of the night, asking for shelter for some few hours as the police is at theirs’? You’ve made your own choice not to work in a way that legitimises taking the lives of others; at the same time, your friend is a life too and what’s more, you know things beyond the “terrorism” that made you feel good with them and want them around in the first place. Who wins in Person vs. Principle? I have a suspicion that a lot of guilt and doubt would still linger even if you did do the most principled thing according to the average moral textbook. Especially if you have known other people who have been held and abused indefinitely by the police.

Of course it would be inaccurate to claim that all Basque people actively engage in the growth of their culture. One foreigner who was living and working in Donostia told me that out of the 9 Basque friends that he had, 8 couldn’t speak the language. Now, it’s hard to know what this means. I think part of the point of saying this was to defend himself for not having learnt any Euskera – surprise had probably hitched onto my voice after I discovered that he had made no attempts to learn it after a handful of years of living there. In saying this I gather he was pointing out that it wasn’t altogether necessary to speak Euskera in Basque Country, especially when the majority of Basque people he knew must not have considered it relevant even for them. But I don’t know what their reasons are – if they are choosing not to; if they would like to learn it but are avoiding feelings of embarrassment for not already speaking it and for having to be reminded of how they are foreigners to their own culture; or if they think it’s too late but could conceivably have their kids learn it.

To my eyes and ears Euskera was widely spoken around Donostia and in Basque Country, so I’m guessing that the way things have worked out here follows how it often goes in societies trying to push ahead out of one phase of history but still bound by hierarchy, habit and loyalties. How involved you are and how socially aware you are is probably greatly influenced by the school you went to, the circles your family runs in, the neighbourhood you live in – all these relating to the friendships you’re most likely to develop and the type of attitudes it is most acceptable for you to express. And of course, by your own personality – that ultimate wildcard, mutation device, the switch flicked to incline you agree or disagree with the numerous little life facts others try to teach you.

No formula for being Basque then. Only the certainty that being Basque entails more than the modern-day connotations of that well-used term, “Basque separatist”.

On occasion I am needlessly ballsy, and during one such moment asked an older Basque man who I had been chatting with on the Euskotren whether he wanted independence for Basque Country as well. Immediately he turned his head in quick little movements left-to-right-to-left-to-right…-to-left, and kept this up for some time, as if he was checking the environment for untrustworthy eavedroppers. Then, turning back closer inwards and dipping his head he said that he loves his land and that things are much better now than they used to be. But the last part of his answer was that even though things have improved a lot (he emphasised this), they are not all the way there yet. Which I’m not sure if anyone else sees it differently but I read as a “yes”. But what I really wonder about is… was the looking around to check for anti-independence or pro-independence spies? Or both? Was he worried about the government or about unequivocal independence supporters? Could something have really happened to him for speaking honestly with a tourist on the train? That kind of pressure must be horrible to live with. Whether it’s Spain or Basque Country, it won’t ever be a real state without freedom of speech. I know I sound naive, but I think there are countries that are countries only in title; and then there are countries that are real because they possess a breath which is the collective, conflicted will of their people.

*To be part of a gastronomical society means to be a member of a club (the society). A family will be a member and one member of the family will be in possession of keys to the club building. This building will contain a dining hall and perhaps some smaller dining areas with long wooden tables and banks for eating at, and a well-equipped professional kitchen with the stainless steel cooking areas and large pots and pans you would need to cook for a group of people. The idea then is that you invite a group of friends to the building, buy all the food yourself, cook this food with your small team of helpers, consume this food, and at the end of the night you split the cost of your groceries among the group of friends. Important points to note are that you cannot bring in alcohol, you must drink from the selection that is kept at the building (which is usually wide and usually impressive) and that included in the price that each person ends up paying is a small amount (some cents) to go towards the cost of the whiteware washing, electricity and general building maintenance costs. I was fortunate enough to enjoy an evening at one of these, and I think they’re a great idea. A more personal way of eating together than going to a restaurant, and less stressful than having a dinner party at home because you have all the tools and space you need at the society, you have help from other people for the cooking, and you all share in the cost at the end.*

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