I’m two weeks into my month’s sabbatical from work, at the language school at Lazkao in the middle of the beautiful Basque countryside of Gipuzkoa province in northern Spain. I’ve made a video of the journey here already and now here’s my diary of impressions of the trip at the half-way point. It’s an insight into life at an intensive summer language school and an account of some of the wider activities and trips I’ve done in the first half of my stay….all about experiencing the language in its natural setting and trying to use it so far as I can. I hope it’ll whet your appetite if you’re thinking of doing a similar course, whatever the language. If you just fancy visiting this part of the world or are interested in getting into the field to use your language, you’ll find it of interest too.
The trip really got off to a cracking start. Michael was a great host in Bilbao the Saturday I landed. As the course started at 8.45 on Monday morning, I had to be in Lazkao the night before. I arrived at Beasain, the rather larger town a couple a mile and a half or from Lazkao, five-ish on Sunday night. Couchsurfing.com came up trumps again and within twenty minutes of my Lazkao host, Felix, meeting me off the bus, we were at the village festival at Ataun San Gregorio, another couple of miles up the road. I felt like I’d arrived in the real Basque Country and, best of all, I was using my broken Basque all evening with Felix and his friends. I’ve tried to convey a taste of the journey ad that first evening in Ataun in that vlog of the journey here.
The following morning Felix refused to tell me the way to the school on the grounds that I should practise asking directions out “in the field”. I managed to do that and there was just time for a quick coffee and croissant in one of Lazkao’s many cafés before I found my way to the Maizpide. It’s a squarish, three storey building built, I guess, around the early 1990s, with a large portico at the front.
The beginning was very low-key, I was helped find my name in the group lists on the noticeboard in the entrance hall and pointed in the direction of my class. After a couple of minutes, our teacher, Josune, arrived, gave us our room keys and a one-page information sheet. Then we got stuck into the lesson first lesson. The group was small, only six students (now down to four as one person decided to move up a group, another down one).
Fellow students and social life
I’ve found my time here so far to be a very easy and positive social experience.
The bulk of the students is fairly evenly distributed from mid twenties to mid forties with a few older. There’s nobody really young (it’s a course for adults).
Most come from different parts of the Basque Autonomous Region (the three western most of the historic Basque provinces). The only other non-Spanish citizens this time are three students from France and me.
If I’d come in July or August, rather than September, maybe there would have been one or two more foreigners, such as students and academics taking advantage the summer vacation. Then again, Basque identity and the requirement to know Basque in many jobs in the region (or the additional bonuses paid to those who do) are the main incentives to come, so I guess there is always an overwhelming “domestic” contingent, just like there is in Welsh courses held in Wales (Welsh is my other “minority” language).
We have very structured and full-on days here. There are four hours in the morning from nine o’clock (with a half-hour coffee break), one and three-quarter hours for lunch and then another two hours lessons.
After the lessons, there’s barely time to drop your things off in your room before the start of a one hour “workshop” (loosely named). You stick with one activity throughout, chosen from sports, crafts, walking, dancing. The activities are a chance to meet other students from other groups and level and are a good opportunity to explore the town of Lazkao and the surrounding area.
The town feels rather larger than I expected (population, about 5,500) and the centre seems to have been mostly constructed in the last fifteen years or so, presumably in the boom times. It is dominated by the court for playing pelota (the Basque national game, a bit like squash, without the racquets) and a large paved area next to it, lined with trees. The area (including the court itself) doubles as the primary school playground and is also a real focus in the evenings, as there are several cafés nearby.
There are a few historic buildings in town, including two working monasteries, Santa Teresa de Jesús (Dominican) and Santa Ana (Cistercian) and a seventeenth century palace.
There’s a fast flowing stream (wannabe river) through the centre too. There’s a modern cinema. Most of the shops are small, local operations.
On walks along the roads out-of-town, we’ve also seen some typical Basque features such as apple orchards (cider is a big thing), traditional family farm houses (“basseriak”) and also a lot of local industry which does nothing to beautify but everything to solidify local life.
Lazkao is about sixty-three percent Basque speaking. I’m hearing some Spanish on the streets but generally it feels very Basque. Most of the public and commercial signage is bilingual or just in Basque. As in many Basque places, quite a few people have Basque flags hanging from their balconies.
The only direct interaction I’ve been having with the locals (apart from Felix, of course) has been ordering espressos one of the nearby cafés during the morning or lunch break when we have been going in small groups and the occasional shop purchases. On the first Tuesday my Basque was in action at the local pharmacy as I brought ibuprofen and lozenges into play as my chest infection seemed to get worse.
Eat yourself fluent
Besides lessons and the “workshops”, the other real focus is meal-times. As I’ve been down with a cough a lot of the time and unable to keep up my usual thrice-weekly half hour jogs. It’s a good job that every morning begins with squeezing three oranges for fresh juice. I may leave with a spare tyre round my waist due to all the bread and wine I’m having with lunch and dinner but my biceps or whatever the arm muscles are that I’m working out at the juice squeezer will be “to die for”. At least in my right arm 🙂
The food is typical Spanish fare and there’s plenty of it. There’s always basic salad of lettuce, tomato, sliced onions, tasty olives. There are no desserts (probably just as well) but there is lots of fruit. Juicy nectarines have replaced apples towards my five a day. But why no cheese? It seems strange, given its importance in the culture of the area.
In the dining hall we sit at two long tables. The division is not policed, but one is for intermediate and advanced students and one for the elementary level students like me. It works well. Our teachers eat with us and, more generally, seem generous with their time. There’s lively conversation, even including the mechanics of the language (this goes down well with a language geek like me and is evidence of the high the level of motivation there seems to be among students). Given that almost everyone else has Spanish as a common native language, I’m surprised and impressed that I’ve heard so little of it. I guess it helps that during the first two weeks, there hasn’t been a complete beginners’ group (which I think is quite unusual).
Other facilities at the school are a games room with table football and table tennis and a TV room. There’s excellent wifi throughout the building but a computer room with desktops as well for people who want it.
On the first Wednesday morning, walked to Beasein’s rival for local supremacy, Ordizia under the blazing sun. The first eight or nine days here there was a real late summer heat wave. Oridizia is known for its fair and cheese festival. There was even a text about this in one of the units we’ve worked through in by London Basque classes.
The event took place in the pelota court again, with some leading Basque chefs as judges. I was told that sometime prize cheeses sell for thousands of euros for a full cheese.
Thursday nights – pintxo pote, for which read a more civilised form of the English pub-crawl. Why more civilised? One, smaller quantities of liquid: as regular visitors to Spain will know, you can oder a kaña or zurito, both much smaller than the almost compulsory pints drunk in Britain. Two: pintxos – Basque tapas – snacks – an array of which are out on plates along the bar. You pay for the drink and get a pintxo for free.
This “two for one” deal is a new tradition – brought in by inventive bar owners to tempt people out again after the 2008 world financial crisis. It seems to be working very well in Lazkao, though the pintxos aren’t a patch on the wonderful creations I’ve tried on the Gipuzkoan coast (Donostia, Zarautz).
On the first Friday after the evening meal, two bertsolari gave us a demonstration of their art, improvised sung verse. This is a mainstay of Basque culture and the big championships fill halls of thousands.
The alacrity is mind-blowing, even if I can’t understand much of what they’re saying yet. There are presumably certain tricks you can learn, such as chains of rhyming words, but I really don’t know how they do it.
There were lessons as normal on the first Saturday morning. With our teacher’s permission, my classmate Mikel and I bunked off from the shorter Saturday afternoon session for a trip to the North.
That’s the part of Euskal Herria which is in the French State, “le Pays Basque” as it’s known in the dominant regional dialect of degenerate Vulgar Latin.* Our destination was St John Pied de Port, or, to give it what my Cadogan Guide delightfully and quite correctly calls its “real name”, Donibane Garazi.
(*J O K E – French, je t’adore!).
I’ve long wanted to visit the French part of Euskal Herria. There are three northern provinces, deliberately subsumed in the sprawling department of Pyrénees Atlantique. I had a magical dream about the north on the first night here which seems rather bizarre. The idea of it must have got under my skin.
The cue for the trip was the chance to see a “pastoral”, a traditional kind of sung and chanted play, performed in a series of short, episodes, performed (you guessed it) in the pelota court. This year the theme was the life of Katalina Erauso (1592-1650), the “Nun Lieutenant”. A trilingual book of the text was on sale, which, in retrospect, I should have bought.
I think I may have baulked if I’d known in advance that it was going to go on for three hours, without and interval.
I wasn’t bored though. The was lots that was unusual to see. A woman sitting at a small table at the back left of the stage waved red and green flags, seemingly directing the players. Another woman standing beside her signalled the start of each new act by turning the page of a large flip-pad.
The performance itself was a visual feast and I was engaged trying to understand snippets of the songs even if I had no sense of the progress of the story. A fun highlight was sheep on stage and the various choruses were rousing, with everyone on stage for the finale.
Before the play, we had time to explore the town a little. It was lovely, with its picturesque river and old packhorse-style bridge, historic defensive walls and gate and old centre.
The French Republic’s Jacobin hostility in law and state policy to indigenous languages with as much or more claim than French to a bit of respect had me braced to be very depressed and disappointed with the linguistic situation on the ground. In fact, once I got over the indignation of the lack of Basque signage on the main motorway in (they do occasionally manage Spanish), I pleasantly surprised. There was more Basque to be heard and seen than I expected.
Language aside, the town is clearly milking its Basque image, too. There were quite a few shops overflowing with kitsch souvenirs: fridge magnates, berets, flags, cheap plates and mugs festooned with local symbols (in this case the Basque flag, the Basque symbol or the sheep logo used for marketing). I love checking out such emporiums. “Naff nationalism”? Bring it on!
I knew that they play rugby football around places like Toulouse in south-west France but I hadn’t realised that love of the game stretched as far south as the French Basque Country. I’m not sure whether it’s giving pelota a run for its money, but there’s a field on way to the Donibani Garazi pelota court. I’ve seen posters for rugby games in Beasain as well.
I want to go back in the North before too long. There’s the famous coastline Miarritz (Biarritz) and Donibane Lohizune (St Jean de Luz) to visit. There’s also Baiona (Bayonne) and the ultimate in Basque exploration: the far-flung, sparsely populated language stronghold of Zuberoa (Soule) with its capital, Maule-Lextarre.
Sunday hike to Ataun
Sunday there were no lessons. Instead, were offered the choice of two walks.
The “long” walk, which involved a relatively arduous walk up one of the local peaks. What was billed as the “short” option was walk to the town of Ataun San Gregorio (where I’d spent my first night here with Felix). Give my cough and not having packed any proper walking boots shoes, I opted for Ataun.
Just for the record, had it not been for these convincing excuses, I’d obviously have been at the front of the thrill-seeking, extreme-sporting, adrenaline rushed pack on the long walk. Cautions and sedate, moi? 😉
As it turned out, even the short walk was not actually so short. We left at 9am with mist covering the tops of the hills. It was one of those beautiful mornings where the autumn is gently reminding you that summer doesn’t last forever. Later it got very warm and I was glad I’d packed the factor fifty.
Ataun municipality is a long ribbon a valley road with three more-or-less separate centres. We stopped for a coffee in the first of the three, Ataun San Martin and then carried on along the river-side path to San Gregorio and the Jose Miguel Barandiaran Museum.
JMB (1889-1991) was one of those archeologist-anthropologist scholars for whom I’ve got a lot of time, rooted but international, theoretical and empirical, somebody who seems to have done a lot for Basque studies.
There’s a great little watermill at the museum that we were shown round too.
Into the second week….tired but happy
One week in and I was thoroughly enjoying the whole experience. Felt like I wanted to slow the wheels down, as that Joni Mitchell song says.
Where was my Basque at this point? Still pretty Tarzanish. Given the amount of time and effort I’d put into the language before this course even started, I should perhaps be more frustrated with my own performance. Yet with a full timetable of six hours a day in class, I’ve just been getting on with it and not thinking much about the bigger picture. I am speaking just Basque all the time, though, and I guess I shouldn’t lose sight of that.
If I was more disciplined, I could be squeezing in an extra hour’s study a day but the time has been going on the blog or drifting between emails, Facebook and twitter. Plus, I often find switching off at night difficult and with a new location, a head full of ideas and my chest infection, I’ve been feeling increasingly tired.
The bedrooms are pretty basic but fine. All the rooms have two or three beds, most are quite a bit bigger than mine. I’m on my own, though and I’m very glad that’s how it worked out. What with my coughing though the night any roommate would surely have been complaining mightily by now.
My lack of was sleep not helped during the first few nights by the acoustics up on the top (bedroom) floor of the building. I got off relatively lightly because my room is inner facing but those whose rooms were next to the road which runs by the school were grumbling a bit on the first few nights. The long, bare, echoey tiled corridors and noisy doors didn’t help. Then there was the atmospheric local soundtrack: morning church bells and the local cockerels in full voice at 5am.
I belatedly kitted myself out with a pair of earplugs.
On the second Tuesday I awoke for the first time here after seven or so rather than five or so hours. What a relief!
That evening I met up again with my Couchsurfing host Felix for a drink. It was very good of him to text me to check up how I was doing. It was a chance to practise my Basque with a native speaker, including asking some questions about the standing of the language in the area, how much it is spoken in the different towns and villages, generational differences and government policies.
On the second Wednesday, a couple of musicians from Ataun put on a concert for us in the cinema at Maizpide (which is rather impressive with its almost art-deco style and Basque flag).
The first time I felt some real advance in how I’m using the language was yesterday evening, out for the second time for pintxo potes. I really got talking with some of the students from the intermediate and advanced groups. It was very rough and ready but it did feel like proper conversation.
We all made our way back for what was for most students the last evening. Though I’m here for a month, each course is two weeks long. I’ve simply booked two in a row. When I go back on Monday, apart from one or two other continuers, there’ll be a whole new cohort of students.
The teachers handed out lyric sheets for a sing-song. This was great fun, the only fly in the ointment for me that my temperature was rising and my coughing was getting worse again.
This morning (Friday) I decided I had to see a doctor. I’d kept putting it off because of the hassle I expected around the admin and because I was generally feeling better during the day. But it’s been over a week now and I’m off to stay with my old friend A, the Welsh-speaking Catalan, in Iruñea (Pamplona) this weekend. It’s unfair to turn up as a guest with something that may be infectious. I really I don’t want to be under the weather for the second week, either.
Jone, one of the school leaders, kindly took me over and it turned out to be no trouble at all. I presented my European Union health card (use it while you can) and was seen within half an hour. All in Basque.
For all that, I was only prescribed a cough medicine. I’m all for the restrictive use of antibiotics….but couldn’t the crackdown apply just to other people? At least my codeïna fosfato was one from behind the counter which made me feel a bit better at once.
I’ve been writing this on my laptop on the train from Beasain and now I’m in Pamplona station, computer out again, waiting to be collected by A’s wife, G.
It’s a miracle I arrived. I had to change trains at a place called Araia, where the station something of a “wayside halt”. Unmanned stations always spook me. There was only one other person who got off the train with me, a young guy who sensed at once that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. He addressed me first in Spanish but switched to Basque when I asked him in Basque whether he spoke it and he told me which platform to wait on.
The train arrived virtually straight after he’d left. There was no number or destination on it but it was more or less the scheduled time, so I jumped on board. Inside, there was no more information beyond a ticker sign announcing the next destination. As we went back in the direction I’d come from and through the last couple of station once again, I had visions of an embarrassing anticlimax of a weekend back in Beasain but it turned out it to be the right one. I was too embarrassed to ask anyone whether I was on the Pamplona train but it turned out we forked off again and I was in Pamplona within an hour and fifteen minutes after I left Beasain.
Here in the station café, it all feels very Spanish. I was served a small beer by a bulky six-foot señor in his late fifties, all inky black hair growing grey, pot belly, yellow-brown skin and moustache. He did not seem at all impressed with my request in Basque for a small beer. A supporter of the odious Partido Popular (or it’s thinly disguised local little sister the Navarrese People’s Party), no doubt. I paid my dos euros, said gracias and took to my table, demonstrably unfurling my copy of Berria, the Basque languages’s one daily newspaper (just bought at the newspaper stand in the station hall), as I sat at my formica table by the slot machines. It was a bit of a pose as I can’t understand the articles properly yet, I can make out more than I could two weeks ago, though. It’s starting to feel more natural, too 🙂
I hope you’ll stay tuned for the next posts in project Basque Intensive. I’m doing a video about life at Maizpide, including short interviews with fellow students and one about my trips out and about, including to Ordizia and Donibane Garazi. Do you know this part of the world? Has travelling to use you target langauge or attend a course helped you? Let me know your experiences or plans in the comments below or by email (address under the “About”) tab at the top of the site and, if you enjoyed this post, please do share it.