Monday, September 19, 2011


Next week my Basque classes will start up and I will again be immersed in the complicated language.  As a little refresher, I have been reviewing my notes from last year and along with my two friends from class (Cecilia, left, Monste, right) last year, have just attended a movie all in Basques (subtitles in Spanish, thank God!).  Not only was it a great way to hear the language again and get back into the habit, but this movie, called Bertsolari, gave me a good at the world of bertso that is very important in Basque culture, but something I have not really experienced yet.

In Basque life, bertso (pronounced burr-cho) which kind of translates as 'verse' in Basque, bertsolaritza is the art of rhyming spoken word set to various melodies completely improvising.  Think of a poetry singing contest that takes place live and the singers create thier rhymes on the spot.  Only traceable to the beginning of the 19th century, these spoken verses were mainly sung by very literate people and were quite informal (at a dinner or out drinking with friends).  In the film they note that this type of oral history is of course integral to society, so that although there are not records of bertos from so long ago, that this tradition has lived on for longer than we can imagine.  Be it a very old custom, it is still rich in the Basque Country to this day.

Only in 1935 was the first bertso competition held but quickly after, due to the Spanish Civil War, was put to a stop.  During this period, even speaking Basque was dangerous, so celebrating the language through spoken verse was a big risk.  Despite this fact, bertos were still sung at low-key events and became a way to voice an opinion about politics and news.  The film confronts this bertso survival by explaining that 'Francoism didn't speak Euskera' and seeing as bertso are all about the beauty of the Basque language, it was an uncrackable code.  Not until the 1980s was the next national championship bertsolari competition held.  People came out in droves - over 10,000 people - to hear thier language in this special form.

At a bertsolari txapelketa (bertso competition in Basque), contestants sit on stage in regular street clothes in a simple chair in front of a vast audience of Basque speakers and fans.  They are individually called to the mic and give a subject by the gai-jartzaile (subject setter).  With this subject they have to invent a verse according to the meter and tune are given.  There are many typical categories that they compete within, including some of the following:
- The Initial Greeting (Hasierako Agurra)- the bertsolari can freestyle his intro verse to say hello
- The Prison Verse (Gartzelako Lana)- the bertsolari is given a topic and must compose a verse related to it
- Conversation Verses (Elkarrizketa)- two bertsolaris must take turns dealing with a given subject in verse
- Key Word (Hitza Emanda)- the bertsolari must use a key word in his verse
- Rhyme Words (Oinak Emanda) - the bertsolari is given some rhyming words and must incorporate these into his verse
- Farewell Verse (Txapeldunaren Agurra)- also freestyle, the bertsolari can part ways with the audience how he likes

While a beautiful form of spoken art, the Basque still manage to have a good time with this friendly competitive environment.  From the film, we really got the impression that all bertoslaris are a kind all thier own and that thier love and practice of the language bond them.  Thier topics could range from hunger in Africa (prison verse) or accidentally getting into your grandma's bed (conversation verse where one person would be the guy and one would be the grandma) to something as simple as fire (key word). 

Seeing as I have only studied one year of Basque, going to one of these txapelketas would be a bit silly for me because I would be completely lost.  Joseba has told me that after a year or so more of learning we will go and then I will get to experience a bertso competition live, which will be quite a reward for learning the language.  Just experiencing the nerves that lead up to a competition for one of these people was intense and to see how after being given a topic and thinking only a few minutes they compose beautiful verses, I was amazed.  It is like a comedian who performs improve or a rapper who makes his beat on the spot, but with no props nor music - just the words and thier power. 

Nowadays, people study very hard to become good bertso singers.  One of Joseba's bandmates is a popular bertso performer and also a bertso teacher.  The film gave a peek into a bertso school in Zarautz (about 20 mins from San Sebastian) and showed some of the techniques they use to teach kids (from qutie a young age) how to start to master this craft.  Highly regarded in the Basque Country, one bertsolari artist defined the verse improvisation as the following:
Neurriz eta errimaz
kantatzea itza
orra or zer kirol mota
den bertsolaritza.
    - By Xabier Amuriza   

Which would loosely translate to mean:
Through meter and rhyme
to sing the word
that is the kind of sport
bertsolarism is.

To see people so proud of thier language, especially because it is a minority one, was uplifting.  I know that I probably will never speak Basque well enough to be able to compose these poetical verses on the fly, but knowing that someone can master thier own language so well and be so aware of verse composition in such a tense environment is astounding.  I have included a link to a publicity video for the movie I just saw with English subtitles.  I know you won't  understand the Euskera (don't worry I don't catch even half of it), but hopefully you can see the magic in this video.  

Seeing that so many people in the world speak English, I think we take our language for granted.  Here in Basque Country, with only about 650,000 speakers, Basque is cherished, relished and respected in every form.  Bertsos - be them at dinner with friends talking about politics; at a bertso school with kids just starting to master the craft; or the every 4 years txapelketa with 15,000 people packed in to feel the excitement live, are touching.  Basques rarely get the chance to get excited and celebrate thier language and this 'sport'/'art' gives them that opportunity, and hopefully one day I will be able to appreciate that without subtitles.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Feeling the pulse of the world!

The Daily News has published another one of my articles today with a headline reading 'Six Billion Others:  Kelso grad feels the pulse of the world at Spain exhibit'

From time to time I send articles their way to share my experiences with a wider audience, which I love.  This article came as quite a surprise though.  I had sent my article and was told that there were a few travel stories already in waiting and that within some time they would run.  But, out of nowhere, the reporter contacted me saying that there had been a space problem and BOOM my article was running in 2 days!  Delighted, I sent over a recent photo and bada-bing-bada-boom it's there.  The one little misprint is that the photo's caption says I am in Austria.  Being a land-locked country, it is a bit unbelievable that the photo of me on the coast could be taken there.  The photo is in fact taken in Bermeo, Basque Country about an hour from our house. 

While most of you have probably already read the article because it was an earlier blog, hope you enjoy seeing it in a newspaper format!  I think the fact of holding the newspaper in your hand makes the news much more exciting and can't wait to see it in print myself. 


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Won't you be my neighbor

This morning, as we were woken up by our upstairs neighbor's habitual Sunday morning visitor's voice (I think her son), I thought I should write you a blog about living in a city in Spain and the joys that come with it.  The majority of places to live in a city or even the outskirts of a city in Spain are apartment buildings.  And I am not talking apartment complexes with a parking lot and a pool or a gym, but think NYC buildings with a bunch of apartments in them.  Every place I have ever lived here has been an apartment building.  The only other options are basically a huge villa or a farmhouse in the country.  If you want a yard and some peace and quiet, options B and C are pretty much your only options.

I lived in many an apartment in Arizona and New York before coming here, but the experiences are incomparable for a few reasons.  The main difference seems to be the interior patio which is a free entrance to the life of all your neighbors.  Most apartment buildings are set up in a block of 4 apartments or more per floor.  Normally one wall of the apartment looks out over the street, two walls are shared with neighbors and the 4th wall's windows open up to an 'interior patio' as it is called here.  Basically it is a cut-out in the middle of the apartments where people hang thier clothing and can get some sunlight in the interior rooms. Please note, that although I call it a patio, we can not actually step OUT onto a deck or something, it is merely windows for us.  Some apartments DO have interior actual patios, but not this one. Sounds nice, but we get much more than sunlight from our interior patio.  In our particular building layout, all of the apartments' kitchens are located in the interio patio side, so as you can imagine, when everyone is cooking, everyone else knows it.  If someone is even in the kitchen it is community knowledge.  From loud frying pans crackling to couples fighting over what to eat at night to the smell of chicken wofting through the interior column, I can precisely tell you who was home last night and from the smell on our clothes this morning, I can tell you what they ate!

Even better than having your clothes smell like steak or peppers is the random suprise that falls upon your clothes.  The old woman who lives above us occasionally drops her apron while she is hanging it on the clothesline and consequently we always return it by hanging it on her doorknob.  The kind favor was not returned when I accidentally dropped my undies onto the clothesline below.  Shows what kind of neighbors in 3B we have!  Even worse is the lady at the bottom of the building, who gets incredibly angry if you drop something and it makes it all the way to the floor and she has to go fetch it for you on her patio. Even with the biggest smile and a hearty apology she hates you immediatley and requests you identify your apartment number (like she keeps track of who drops what or something). Think the mean dog in the movie Sandlot - she is kind of like except she has a croaky voice and due to her age a snail's pace. 

Besides being so close you have occasionally smell the fabric softner of your neighbor's clothes, it seems all of the tennants in our building are quite the gossips.  Our landlords warned us of this when we moved in and they were right.  Upon entering the elevator with a fellow resident, I always say hello very friendly and ask which floor they are going to for button-pressing purposes.  When they hear I am going to 4, they of course ask which door, because they can't accept just knowing my floor, they also need to know EXACTLY where I live. 

If they really want to know about our personal life, all they have to do is lean thier heads out the kitchen window and GASP hear us speaking in English.  To maintain some sort of flow of air in the apartment we often leave the kitchen window partially open but keep our speaking voices low.  However, it seems in Spain that the acceptable speaking level is a few decibels higher.  That goes for TV volume too.  From shows like Jerry Springer to soap operas it seems there is always a TV on in one apartment.  Not interior patio business but just our luck, our neighbor that we share the living room wall with happens to be a huge classical music fan and we can usually hear him singing some sort of opera or enjoying a classical CD at full-blast.  A few wall punches are normally in order to turn the sound down.  He is also the conniseur of loud-door opening and it seems his key just makes as much ruckus as possible when he gets home every night at midnight.  One day....ohhhh one day I am going to whip the door open and teach him how to quietly enter his house!

While in the States most people live in single-family homes, here that is basically unheard of.  I know that the same sort of neighborhood gossip can still easily go on how it goes on in our apartment building, but I guess since you can enter your own 4 walls, the nosy neighbor or the Friday night party never really seemed to annoy me.  Here every wall of your apartment is connected with that of someone else's home and the only free one is the wall that has windows to the street which is a whole new can of worms - kids screaming, people shouting to people in thier homes, horns honking, the works! 

There is a popular sitcom here called ''Aquí No Hay Quien Vive'' which means 'No one could live here' and it is always making fun of this exact type of living situation - where your neighbors know all your business.  Who had a fight with who last night, who bought what at the grocery store, who bought new undies, etc. 
With only a few months in this apartment, I feel we would make good supporting actors for the show!

Muxu from me and all my neighbors!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


I think this word - staycation - became popular at the beginning of the reccession when people still wanted to take a vacation but didn't want to fork over all the cash and instead started becoming interested in seeing the beautiful sights in thier area so as to not spend so much but still have a great time away from home.  Joseba and I enjoyed a lovely staycation this weekend in the neighboring county of Bizkaia.  While most people know this county for its biggest city - Bilbao - we were lucky enough to spend time along the coast in the little pueblos and in the countryside.

For a wedding present, Joseba's brother and our sister-in-law bought us a weekend getaway at an agroturismo called Lurdeia.  Agroturism is a movement that seems to be catching on and is quite popular here in Basque Country.  It is a niche type of tourism that brings the visitor to a country home - be it a farm, ranch, etc - where they sleep and get to take part in the country life.  Lurdeia, in Basque is a compound of the word Earth (lur) and call (deia), so this amazing farmhouse literally means 'called by the Earth', and during our stay we did feel the beauty of nature in many forms.  After spending the afternoon at a gorgeous beach nestled next to a rugged cliff on the Bizkaian coast, we traversed the winding roads up to the place for our first glance.  As soon as we saw it, we were astounded.  The house is incredible - all stone with dark wood accents and flowers spilling over the balconies and out of the window-boxes.

With a max occupany of 16 and a 'no children under 12 allowed', Lurdeia claims to 'sell tranquility' and that they do.  The typically Basque farmhouse style was the most well-kept I have ever seen, and the oh-so-ubiquitous purple blooms put the extra touch of warmth on the house.  Through the entrance we were in awe at the beauty of the wood that made up the lobby, dining area and lounge.  The stones and wood were accompanied by Basque handicrafts and hand-sewn doilie-like curtains. We were shown our room on the 3rd floor and learned that each room in the house has a name and that ours was named Eguzki, which means sun in Basque.  Being the top floor of the house, our room had skylights and those two arched windows you see in the photo which let in massive amounts of the rising sun.  In Spanish there is a phrase they use a lot that says 'cambio del chip', meaning 'change of the chip/mentality' and that's what we did as soon as we entered the room.  From the first week back at work, daily house tasks and errands, we 'cambiamos el chip' to complete relax.  From the agroturism's website, here is a link of our room. 

The agroturism isn't only a bed and breakfast type hotel, but also has a large garden on the grounds.  As guests we were able to request whatever we wanted from the garden to use for cooking meals.  Being completely organic and straight from the garden, our salad of crisp lettuce, big juicy tomatoes, sweet red onions and some store-bought Tuna was delectable that evening.

The next morning the breakfast that was served was equally delicious.  Dressed up in local Basque dress, the workers served us tasty ham with thier own cherry tomatoes, a vanilla pudding from a local artesin bakery, homemade coffee cake and fresh bread with butter and organic jam along with coffee and just-squeezed orange juice.  From the window we were able to enjoy the scenic view and see the fishing town of Bermeo below.

Seeing as good weather was predicted for Saturday but not Sunday, we tried to take advantage of the forecast and do the outdoorsy stuff right off the bat.  We jumped in the car and headed to Gernika (Guernica in Spanish) to the Fiesta de Conejo y Sidra (Rabbit and Basque Cider Celebration).  Although we got there at 11:45am they were offered a plate of rabbit meat along with all-you-can-drink cider.  However we did manage to stop by a liquor booth at the market and try blackberry liquor, creme liquor and patxaran.  This last liquor is unique to Basque Country and is made with and named after the plum-like berry called Baso Aran in Basque.  With a 25-30% alcohol content it is incredibly strong and in the middle ages was originally used as a remedy for digestive problems.  By the 14th century it was being used by Queen Blanca I of Navarre to cure any and all illnesses and as a festive beverage.  Now served as an after-dinner drink at many Basque tables, it only gained popularity in the rest of Spain in the 1950s.  Too strong for my liking, I tried it anyways and felt like I threw gas down my throat, but the salesman was so charming I couldn't say no.  When he offered us the café liquor, he somehow mentioned the Spanish saying 'If you were a coffee machine, I'd love to drink your coffee' which got a chuckle from me.

We left with some Basque sheep cheese (it is inevitable that we buy this at almost every open air market) and a Basque cake without even trying the rabbit, which was the whole point of coming, and set off to the Santimamiñe Caves a few minutes away.  Named the most important caves in Basque Country, archeologists have found evidence of human life in them from 14,000 years ago.  Discovered in 1918 by some local boys running around in the hilly area, the kids found the entrance and dared to go in over 200 feet into the cave until they saw ancient cave paintings, got scared and left running down to thier village to tell about thier find.  Soon after an excavation team too to the cave with pick axes and chisels and catologued 40,000 items which told about the lives of the early inhabitants.  Only until about a decade ago did the Basque Government shut down the major part of the cave to the public to start a reevaluation project to look further into the prehistoric activity in the cave.  However, when Joseba was young he took a class trip to the caves and was able to walk the whole thing - getting glimpses of paintings ('moving' horses, bulls, goats), seeing the stalactites and venturing as far as the boys in 1918 did.  On our visit we were only able to take a few steps into the cave and admire a bit of excavation work but were treated with a 3D experience as if we were walking in the cave.  With steep ladders and massive interior caves we even the sound effects of your boots crunching the thousand-year-old rocks.

The small port village of Elantxobe was next on our good weather day.  Founded in 1520 the location was selected for being protected by the harsh north winds and its small inlet that seemed great for a port.  While it has a good coastal locale, the steep hills make this town more vertical than any I'd ever seen.  Houses built at such angles that it seems they should just tumble down the cobblestone road that isnt even big enough for a car.  At the entry of the village is a one-lane road that both incoming and outgoing traffic use.  The entrance is so small that the buses that come each hour have to stop on a rotating part of the cement that turns them in a 180º to leave!  A completely pedestrian city, Elantxobe only has 439 actual residents but all the charm in the world.  Once a successful fishing village it was also known for its whale hunting skills.  With a man designated to sit watch for coming whales, he would sound a whistle to the village far below and they would quickly man thier rowboats to paddle out and make the kill.  With whale hunting illegalized and fishing not so popular, Elantxobe has turned into one of the gems of the Bizkaian coast of an enchanting step in history.

Another special coastal spot is the fishing town of Bermeo, about 20 minutes West.  For a Saturday afternoon, we expected the street to be packed with lively fisherman drinking Basque white wine and eating pintxos like no tomorrow, but it seemed more like a ghost town.  We passed a few people here and there and I tried to pick up on thier Euskera, but Joseba told me that their dialect is sooo different from what I am learning that it is quite difficult.  It would be the equivalent I guess of Texas cowboy speaking with a British monarch - different pronunciations, weird spellings, even different sounds!  And, while I normally love the hustle and bustle of the crowded Basque streets the absense of rowdy men did allow us to test out a new skill - panoramic photos!

The majority of the rest of the weekend was spent at the agroturism, chatting with the extremely friendly hosts, checking out thier gardens, enjoying the little lake they have and walking the grounds. We spent each nice with a glass of wine on a wooden bench overlooking Bermeo and the sea below through the night sky. Our favorite activity though was, and don't laugh, walking through the grass barefoot.  I honestly cannot remember the last time I did it, and with my feet in the grass made me realize how much I miss it.  It is something you just CAN'T find in a city but something I think we each need.  While we don't live in a skyrise or a super polluted city, it is still always nice to get out once in awhile and 'cambia el chip'.