Euskal Herria. Those were among the first words I saw in the Basque region, and it is the name the Basque people give to their land. In these parts of Spain, Basque comes first on the signs, followed by Spanish. Basque (Euskara) is one of the oldest languages in the world; it predates the vast Indo-European family of languages, and is the only non-Indo-European tongue in Western Europe.
When I heard it, though, it wasn't in the context of separatist rebellion (Basque was repressed under the fascist regime that ruled Spain into my lifetime). It was on the radio, a song (or rap) I recognized as "Fight For Your Right (To Party)." I knew it wasn't the Beastie Boys; was it Spanish? No; the rap to which our hosts' baby was happily bopping along was in Basque! This child will grow up, effortlessly, trilingual. Her books won't be burned. How lucky she is.
Bilbo, as the Basques call Bilbao, is the main city of this region, but we immediately left it to go over the misty mountains. There, we found Bakio, not a tourist town but a place where Spanish families rent holiday apartments. A young girl walked a burro towards a pop-up carnival. When I saw "Freedom for the Basque Country" graffitied on a wall, it took a second for me to register it was in English.
Because this was a vacation spot, at the climax of summer vacation, the people around me were relaxed. I can't know therefore if what I observed is true culturally, or just the behavior of Spaniards on vacation. But I loved being on a Spanish beach, or later, on the patio of a restaurant, with people all dressed in costume for the Bakio fiesta. Parents, grandparents, and children could everywhere be found together. Children ran freely; someone would always look out for them. I think I saw one person under 21 on her phone. People were outdoors, relaxing in an old-fashioned way, and thoroughly enjoying themselves.
North Americans know that Europeans behave differently on beaches. I've heard much mockery of the "pickle pouch" that European men supposedly wear for swim trunks (I hardly saw any of these, but nor did I see the cargo pants that pass for shorts with some N. American men). Here on Bakio beach, people were at ease with their bodies. Let me see if I can get this alien concept across:
If your kids want to run around naked, they just do. If a woman wants to take her top off, go for it. If she doesn't, fine. Bikinis are ubiquitous, no matter what the woman's shape. The feeling of freedom is hard to exaggerate. I knew, whether I took my top off or not, no one gave a damn, and that's what's so wonderful about it. There might be some woman in Anglo-American culture who feels good about her own body, but I get the impression that if you're not wanting to lose 10 pounds, you're a traitor to your sex.
As for the children...there is no zone of personal space. Unless and until they physically crash into you, you are fair game. We inadvertently ended up near the goal of a soccer game, played by boys aged 4, 4, 6, 7, and 7. I learned their ages because that's the level of Spanish I understand. Sesame Street again. The kids played for hours, and one 4-year-old in particular crashed horizontally on nearly every play, but he never tired. Throughout our visit I never saw a fat kid, either. Can't imagine why.
Besides swimming in the Bay of Biscay, we managed a couple of activities away from the beach. San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a 10th-century hermitage built out over the sea. The monks must have carried stones to build it all the way up what now purports to be 1,000 steps (I looked it up; there are 241). It is still a pretty challenging hike without stones. The views, though, of the bay and back over to the beach, are gorgeous.
It began to rain on our last afternoon, but not before we had a chance to check out the paella festival just up the road. Fifty-three groups had gathered to cook paellas for their families and friends; then the paellas were judged. T. talked our way into a taste of the 17th-place winner, proudly prepared by teenaged girls. One of them, who spoke with us in fluent English, had spent her junior year of high school in Indiana. There was singing and dancing, accordion and tambourine. Other than homemade paella our main source of food was tapas (Basque pintxos) from a bar...eaten at a much more leisurely hour than mealtimes at home.
The evening of the fiesta was inexplicably centered on an Athletic Bilbao float (the local soccer team) featuring Jesus holding a stuffed lion. A group of people dressed as police officers sang loudly around it. At least I hope they weren't the real cops, as the most popular costume elsewhere seemed to be robbers. Whole families were dressed in silent-film-era robber costumes, holding bags with dollar signs. Someone dressed as a sheikh slugged a beer. From beginning to end of the weekend, kids as young as seven were setting off firecrackers, with seemingly no regard for safety. It was un-British chaos!
Before heading for the airport we had a couple hours in Bilbao. It was raining, so we just looked around the Guggenheim museum, which has put Bilbao on the visitors' map. The building, designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry, is arguably the main attraction; there were temporary exhibits on Jeff Koons and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The latter was put on by the Art Gallery of Ontario. It felt like stepping back to my previous life on McCaul Street.
This was, incredibly, only my second visit to Spain and my first to the mainland. I loved Mallorca, but there I was surrounded by German and English tourists, and didn't hear much Spanish (or Mallorquin). This time I felt like I'd really traveled to a different country, not just a different climate. I definitely want to return to Spain.