Ochagavía

Plaza in Ochagavia

For lunch on the second day of our road trip, Marketa and I stopped in Ochagavía, the most prominent village in Navarra’s Salazar Valley. We walked alongside the river, admiring the traditional architecture and taking pictures like crazy. Then we found a reasonably priced sidrería (Cider-house) to eat at. Marketa ordered “cow’s face” as she called it – some sort of cheek meat, while I ordered traditional Basque meatballs, Basque pate, and cuajada for dessert.

Marketa saw some Kukuxumusu merchandise in a store window in the plaza, so in we went. I was ecstatic to find several animated movies from my childhood – in Basque! Red-faced but determined, I asked the lady behind the counter for Haran Sorginduaren Bila – also known as The Land Before Time. She was very sweet. “I see you like cartoons, just like me!” she said. As she was scanning the movie, though, she realized that it wasn’t just in Spanish, but in Basque! I told her that was why I was buying it, because I was studying Basque a little.

At that, she went out to the street and called in her friends. “This is an American girl, studying Euskera!” she announced. All of them were pretty impressed. “You’re doing what we could not,” they told me. “We’ve tried to learn a little bit, but we’re too old now, it’s too late, we’re the lost generation.”

“Our grandparents spoke Basque, our parents understood it. But then came the Franco years… It skipped us. But now the children are learning again! And even you, an American!”

Zorionak Ainhoa!

Just like in ordinary life, sometimes you have to make tough decisions while abroad. I’d been looking forward to the upcoming International Student Farewell Dinner for weeks, just as I’d been looking forward to my friend Ainhoa’s birthday party. I’d submitted photos to the farewell slideshow, RSVPd on Facebook, and bought Ainhoa a birthday present. Then, the day before the dinner, I got a phone call from one of Ainhoa’s friends. The two events were going to be held the same day, the same time.

It wasn’t a fun decision to make, but I knew from the moment I got the phone call what I would decide. Ainhoa had been a great friend to me. Of all the locals I’d met, she’d made the most sincere effort to include me and show me her culture. I couldn’t miss her birthday, not even for a tear-filled slideshow where all the international students would probably sing along to “as we go on, we remember, we will still be, friends forever…” (and really, what else can happen at an event like that?)

So, I went to Ainhoa’s party. I was meant to meet with the girls who lived on my side of town so that we could take the bus to Txantrea together. I arrived at the designated place at the designated time. It was a cold night, and generally arriving right on time in Spain means you will be waiting 10-15 minutes, but I decided to play it safe because I was meeting with Basques (northern Spanish cultures are a bit less relaxed about time), and because it was a surprise birthday party. After several minutes, another girl who was waiting approached me and asked whether I was Miranda. We chatted and laughed at ourselves for arriving ‘early’ until Andrea came out of her apartment at last. By then we had missed two buses, and since they only come every 15 minutes, we were over an hour late to arrive in Txantrea.

On the way from the bus stop, we suddenly heard cowbells sounding through the otherwise quiet night. To my delight, a parade of Basque Joaldunak ran by! These are dancers who wear cones and ribbons on their heads, costumes of bandanas and wool skirts, and, best of all, two enormous cowbells strapped to their backsides. “Why are they here?” I asked. “To scare away evil spirits!” said Andrea. I laughed at that. “Okay. But why here, and right now?” She just smiled and shrugged.

We met up with the rest of the group and headed to a bar. As we approached, I once again heard the clanging of cowbells. The Joaldunak were taking a break and a beer inside! It was a tiny place, with Basque independence posters joining calls to socialism, vegan-ism, and the legalization of marijuana on its walls. I worked up my courage to ask one of the Joaldunak for a picture. He was so excited that I spoke a little bit of Basque, that soon he was teasing me and telling me I could play with his bells. Awkward in a way but way too much fun to resist!

After some time in the bar, we went back to a friend’s place. This was actually my first and only time in a private house in Spain! (Within Pamplona, it’s all apartments.)  We cooked sausages and croquettes to eat with bread and good Navarran cheese. Everyone wanted to play cards, but after a round or two of playing some Spanish game I never really got the hang of, they asked for an American card game. Okay, fine, but they didn’t have what we would call a ‘standard’ deck of cards – only a set of Mus cards, with less royalty than our decks and suits of coins, swords, cups, and wands, like in tarot.

Towards the end of the party, I gave Ainhoa the present I’d put together for her – some large print photos I had taken of her the day we went to the Cantabrian Sea. Ainhoa and her friends had a present for me as well! I had misunderstood a certain Basque political poster, often hung out of people’s windows in Pamplona and elsewhere, to simply mean, “The Basque Country is awesome!” They all thought this was very funny, and bought me one of these flags. Everyone signed it for me as well.

Zorionak, Ainhoa, eta Mesedez!

Happy Birthday, Ainhoa, and Thank You!

North, to the Witch Caves!

Zugarramurdi, in the Valley of Baztan

In the extreme north of Navarra is a little town called Zugarramurdi, home to 218 people and, four hundred years ago, one of the biggest and bloodiest witch hunts of the Spanish Inquisition. Ultimately, forty suspected witches were found guilty and sent south for further trial, where many ended up being burned at the stake.

In my second to last week in Pamplona, some friends and I took a rental car up to Zugarramurdi from Pamplona (about 1 1/2 hour drive). We were in a bit of a hurry, so we only took the quickest peek at the new Witch Museum, but we were especially eager to see the Sorgin Leze, or Witch Caves, where the devil himself was said to give services to congregations of witches on the banks of the Hell Stream (Infernuko Erreka in Basque).

The Hell Stream

The first thing we came across while walking the loop path was the infernal stream itself, reddish brown and strangely opaque. It looked as thick as paint, but it was moving too fast and without staining the stones around it. Although we were certain that the colour must come from the soil – clay or something similar – it was easy to see why earlier generations had found it so unsettling.

The caves are enormous and airy inside...

Following the stream, we soon found ourselves in the cavern itself, with its high ceiling and the little chambers above us to the left, where the covens were said to hold more private meetings. Open on two sides to the air, it was more like a natural bridge than a cave, but spectacular either way.

Whatever you believe about the historical ‘witches’, it’s easy to imagine some fantastic bonfires taking place here!

The biggest opening, with the hell stream below.

Published in: on December 10, 2010 at 00:54  Comments (1)  
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Xareta

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Xareta is an association of four Basque villages – Zugarramurdi, Sare, Ainhoa, and Urdax – which are united by cultural elements such as fantastic caves and Pottok ponies. What makes this connection unusual and interesting is that it straddles a national border – Sare and Ainhoa are French villages (2 of the 148 most beautiful in the country!), while Zugarramurdi and Urdax (Urdazubi) are Spanish.

On my last trip in Spain, a road trip to the North and East of Navarra, we passed through all four – seeing the witch caves of Zugarramurdi, getting lost in Sare, eating some Basque cake in Ainhoa, and taking a tour of the caves of Urdax. I know that there are a number of lovely walks to be taken in the region – I only wish we’d had more time to explore!

Published in: on December 9, 2010 at 23:55  Leave a Comment  

Mus

Mus games in Zumaia, Basque Country.

I first saw mus being played in little bars and restaurants by older men in the Basque country – it seemed to have a certain quaintness to it that reminded me more of dominoes than of poker. In Zumaia, I even saw them betting with piles of tiny snail shells!

According to the internet, though, mus is far from a quaint village tradition – it’s the most popular card game in Spain – and a mainstay among college students! If that’s true, then it’s another thing for the north to be proud of – it originated in Navarra and the Basque Country.

Apparently the game is a bit like spades, a betting game played with a partner. The rules I’ve found online look complicated, but I’ve heard it’s really quite simple, that the mechanics just take awhile to put into words. I’ll find out soon, I imagine – I bought my dad a set for Christmas. Unfortunately, no snail shells in this pack!

Published in: on December 6, 2010 at 11:52  Leave a Comment  
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Olentzero

Olentzero Dator - Olentzero is Coming

You might call Olentzero the Basque Santa Claus – but you’d lose a lot in translation. Sure, he’s a fat old man who comes down out of the mountains around Christmas time to give children presents, but that’s about where the similarities end. Cultures around the world often adapt their pagan traditions to Christianity, but Olentzero’s cover story seems to hold a bit less water than average.

The most common story about Olentzero’s origin is that he is the last of the Jentillak, (a mythological race of Pyrenean giants – name cognate to gentile), left behind when the others returned within the earth or threw themselves off a mountain when they heard of the coming of Christ. And he gets weirder – here’s my favourite stanza from a Christmas song I learned in Basque class:

He looks nice enough...

Olentzero gurea

ezin dugu ase
osorik jan dizkigu
hamar txerri gazte.
Saiheski ta solomo
horrenbeste heste
Jesus jaio delako
erruki zaitezte.

Our Olentzero
we can’t sate him
he has eaten whole
ten piglets.
Ribs and pork loin
so many intestines
because Jesus is born
have mercy.

Let me repeat that last part: “He has eaten whole ten piglets. Ribs and pork loin, so many instestines, because Jesus is born – have mercy.” Whatever happened to cookies and milk?

The worst part is, this is the new and improved Olentzero, the modern version sanitized for today’s children. In many older versions of the legend, if the children were bad, (for example, if they didn’t want to go to bed right away), a sickle would be thrown down the chimney to indicate that Olentzero was coming to cut their throats.

Published in: on December 1, 2010 at 22:14  Leave a Comment  

Stage Three: Going Deeper

As I rapidly approach the end of my time in Spain, I can see that looking back my time here has fallen into three stages, each distinct and with its own challenges, triumphs, and small miracles.

Stage One: Crash Landing

On the day trip to San Sebastian, I ended up with three random girls - Lea from Austria, Cynthia from Germany, and Ida from Finland. The first two later became two of my best friends here in Spain.

From the time I arrived in Pamplona in August and had to spend the night at the bus station, to perhaps as late as the end of September, I was getting my bearings. Every day brought a new challenge, and while I took a few day trips to nearby cities, most of my energy was spent trying to figure out this new world I’d been placed in, whether that meant Spain in general, Pamplona and UNAV specifically, or even the entire Erasmus situation. In the first weeks, I didn’t know how to get an ID card or use the school’s WIFI or library. I carried a map just to get across town. I had no idea who my friends were going to be or what classes I was going to be in. The world around me was a giant swirling chaos that I was trying to make sense of, one element at the time – the months ahead, a blank state filled with dizzying potential and a bit of fear. I felt tired a lot during this period, and nervous, and stupid. Sometimes I even felt angry. I didn’t really feel homesick, though – I was too busy for that, and everything was still so new that even when it was frustrating or frightening it was terribly exciting. Hardly a day passed where I didn’t, at different times, feel that I could do nothing right, and that I could take over the world single-handedly.

Stage Two: Far and Away

I spent some amazing days in Galicia with Sara and Colleen. Very rainy, a little stressful, but amazing.

Then, everything changed. Suddenly all the important things had finally been settled, and I knew how to get by. I trusted myself to be able to figure things out and handle day to day activities competently. Classes were in full swing, but exams were still far off and I didn’t have any big projects yet. Spain – or, at least, Pamplona – was starting to feel like home. As summer turned to autumn, I began to look around me for activities to fill my new life. I joined Club de Montaña and went canyoning in Aragon, climbed a Pyrenean mountain, and hiked through the Selva de Irati. I visited a friend in Alicante, partied in Madrid, explored Asturias and Galicia, went surfing in France and saw a U2 concert in San Sebastian. This was certainly the most exciting part of my time in Spain, and to outward appearances my happiest. In reality, though, not every day was storied ex-pat bliss. Travelling is stressful, after all, and although every time I set off for a new adventure I was buzzing with excitement, there were always busses and hostels to coordinate, budgets to keep an eye on, and schoolwork to make up (or at least feel guilty for missing). The stress hit at funny times – some mornings I felt nervous for no reason, other times I fretted over how quickly time was going by, and, I admit it, at the midway point I even felt a little bit homesick. After the first weeks I became more aware at how time was continuing without me back home, that I was missing birthdays and holidays and entire seasons of real life.

Stage Three: Going Deeper

Safe at home is sometimes right where you want to be during a northern Spanish winter.

In early November, things changed again. Winter arrived and brought with it freezing temperatures and the approaching threat of final exams. A homing instinct kicked in and I stopped my boundless wandering and returned to Pamplona, more or less for good. These practical concerns were a blessing, though, because when I stopped moving around so often, I started going deeper into life at home.  A few of my Spanish contacts began to develop into something like friends, and my group of Erasmus friends became tighter and more familiar and comfortable. I learned how to cook regional specialities, I got a library card, I found some volunteer work at a nearby Basque high school. I took some short trips around Navarra, my home state, and was amazed anew at the variety and beauty tucked into such a small area. With a new sense of stability (not to mention a plane ticket in hand to go home for Christmas) the last traces of fear and uncertainty left. My life in Spain began to feel totally normal, even routine – and that – to watch a foreign country lose its foreignness – to see it become home – is a magical thing, a miracle – and it might even be the best argument for studying abroad.

Irrintzi

In Bilbao, I went to a pintxo bar called Irrintzi. Like the names of many pintxo bars, to the newcomer to the Basque Country it looks like a mess of random letters, more like a random file name you typed out in a rush than a word with significance and meaning. Still, like most of them, it does actually have a meaning.

It’s basically a crazy, high pitched scream, serving the traditional purpose of calling throughout the mountains, like yodelling. Nowadays it’s often used by Basque as expressions of excitement, happiness, and emotion at fiestas and the like. Here’s a definition I particularly like, from buber.net – “The traditional Basque mountain cry, a ululation characterized by a rising pitch and concluded with a kind of demented laugh.”

Because real life has to add a darker and more complex tone to everything, Irrintzi has recently developed another meaning – it is the name of a new Basque terrorist group that works in France with the motto, “Euskal Herria ez dago salgai” – “The Basque Country is not for sale.”

The Light on the Mountain

On the bus home from San Sebastian, Ainhoa told me stories about her family – about her grandfather, who would go up to spend nights on the mountain in a little txabola (shepherd’s hut). She said it seemed so cold and primitive that she couldn’t imagine sleeping there alone, but he always brought the dogs with him and he enjoyed it. He continued doing this even when Ainhoa was a little girl, and the family would watch from down in the valley for him to signal with his lantern that all was well – then they could close the window and sleep. One time, they didn’t see the lantern, so they were concerned and drove up to the mountain to find out what had happened – but the grandfather was just sleeping peacefully. Apparently they’d only missed the signal that night. 🙂

Published in: on November 25, 2010 at 16:45  Leave a Comment  

To Pain with Love

“Amaia Gabantxo: In Basque, there was just a very simple line that used the verb “to fall in love.” But, you know, it seemed so clumsy because the Basque is so beautiful. It’s maitai mindu. If you split the word, if you look at the two words that form it, it just means “love pain.” So, to fall in love in Basque, is to pain with love, you see. So, you can never love without pain in Basque.”

http://www.nea.gov/av/avCMS/Elorriaga-podcast-transcript.html

Published in: on November 5, 2010 at 22:03  Leave a Comment  
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