Saturday, May 6


Most of Europe [most of the world?] celebrated Labor Day on May 1st, and since this was yet another long weekend, it was a good time to explore another of the regions of Spain that I've been curious to see, the Basque Country.

The Basque region is most famous for the E.T.A. [Euskadi Ta Askatasuna], a terrorist organization who's name translates [from the Basque] to Basque Homeland and Freedom. Their goal was to 'liberate' the Basque regions of Spain and France, and to unite them into a sovereign nation. Still, considering that the majority of the population doesn't support separation, let alone the violent methods of the E.T.A., they've been steadily losing credibility for the past 30 years, ever since Spain became a democracy.

One of the biggest sources of cultural pride for the Basque people is having been the only region in modern-day Spain to have resisted every single Arab invasion from the 8th to the 16th century. It wasn't until Napoleon came along that they were finally conquered.

The Basque language is completely unique, and doesn't belong to any other family of languages in the world. They use the letters k and x several times in most words, which looks funny at first. I learned later that the x is meant to sound like 'ch'.

My first stop was San Sebastian, which is on the northern coast, near France. It's the area with the strongest concentration of Basque nationalism, and is often referred to by it's name in the Basque language, Donostia.

It's a beautiful city, very green, with a mountain fortress overlooking a beach, well-known for it's surfing. The region is easily the wealthiest in the country, as most industry is placed there in order to placate the nationalist movement [other countries have similar situations...]. In general this plan has worked, as public support is usually less than one third of the population. Still, it means that if the region ever does separate, it will substantially hurt the rest of Spain.

Despite the low overall support for separation or violence, tensions are easy to recognize. I'd been told before I went to avoid talking about politics. As an example, both Basque and Spanish are official languages, and all street signs are required to be written in both. Yet the Spanish text is usually spray-painted over...

After leaving San Sebastian, I went a bit south to Pamplona. It's the capital of the region called Navarra, still Basque, but less radical. It's known mostly for their 'Running of the Bulls' festival in early July. This is where they release a dozen or so bulls, which rampage down the streets of the city center, trampling over drunk tourists who are stupid enough to try to outrun them. It's not to say that there are that injuries. Apparently, it's usually less than half a dozen. Still, I don't understand why people are attracted to this sort of thing. The tourist shops were selling postcards with pictures of some of the dumber tourists getting whacked by the bulls as they charge through.

I stayed with Eisi, a friend of Rally, whom I met in Sofia, Bulgaria [Rally is the cousin of one of my very good friends from Montreal, Ivo, who was born in Bulgaria]. He was amazingly nice, doing everything he possibly could to make me as comfortable as possible. Still, I got the impression that he's pretty depressed living in Spain. In fact, he said it straight out. He's looking for a way to move back to Sofia to be close to his son.

Perhaps the most memorable thing that I saw while I was there was a demonstration for a 'Free and Socialist' Basque country, which gathered around 500 people. There were two reasons that I found it so interesting. The first is the use of the word 'free'. The people there didn't seem very oppressed, especially compared to the Franco years [Spanish dictator from the end of the Second World War until his death in 1975]. But of far more significance is that this is exactly the same slogan as that of the E.T.A. and of their political branches. This means that some [or many?] of the people there were at least E.T.A. sympathisers, if not full-fledged members. Keep in mind that the E.T.A. is well known for their brutal execution-style murders [a bullet to the back of the neck], as well as extortion. It's amazing how normal such people can look from a glance...

Still, the vast majority of the people that I met while I was in the area were very nice. I'd been told that the people in the south are more laid back, and that those in the north are more hard working. But in general, the northerners were quieter and seemed happier as well. Their personalities didn't seem to be nearly so loud. Minus the loudness factor, I found the same difference between people in the north and south of France.


This is my last day in Spain. Tomorrow I fly to Belfast. It's been a great experience, but at the same time, it will be good to move on. I've more or less reached my goal of being able to have a simple conversation in Spanish. There is, of course, an enormous amount left to learn.

I'm not sure how or why, but my French has also improved quite a bit since I got here. Odd, considering that I don't get many chances to practice speaking French at all. And when I do, for the first couple of minutes of a conservation, it tends to be mixed with Spanish words. Still, I've gotten much better at remembering words in French, even ones that I've only used once or twice before. My listening comprehension is much higher than it ever was as well. I understand very nearly all of what I hear now.

I'm not sure if I want to come back to Spain again. It's not that I dislike the country. It's just that nothing here really grabs my attention. Then again, not many countries do. The only places that immediately pop to mind are Norway, Latvia, or western Ukraine. And even with those, I can't really imagine living there for the rest of my life. I suppose that in the end, it would come down to the type of job I was offered. Under the right circumstances, I would be happy enough spending a year or two in many northern European countries, such as Germany, Denmark or Sweden.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

So when are you coming back to Canada? And, by the way, did you get my e-mail? I've got a blog now, too :D


3:11 a.m.  
Blogger ian said...

yep, i got your email :) and it's nice that you're back in montreal! i'll keep an eye on your blog to see how things are going back home. i'll be back in canada in a couple of weeks, so we'll get to catch up in person soon.

3:29 p.m.  

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