I’m now back in London after a month’s intensive Basque course at the Maizpide residential language course south of Donostia (San Sebastián) in northern Spain. Regular readers will know that I’ve been learning Basque for a while now, taking classes in London and online via Skype but this has been my first time “in the field” as a Basque learner. The Basque Country straddles the Western border of the French and Spanish states but the language – spoken by about 700,000 people – is an “isolate” (unrelated to French, Spanish or any other language).
This post is for you if you’re interested in this part of the world or on what a residential language course might be like in the general sense or you’re keen on getting a sense of the vibrancy of Basque culture (including food, music and dance) and exploring the landscape, towns, villages and cities more. You can catch up with my diary of the first half of my stay here and I’ll be talking more about the course and my learning progress in a separate post.
Weekend in Navarre
My month-long course was actually two, two-week courses booked end to end. This meant that there was a weekend off after the first one and I took the opportunity to go over to the city of Iruñea (Pamplona in Spanish) to visit my old friend A. (a Catalan with whom I house-shared in Wales when he was over to learn Welsh years ago) who I met when he was learning Welsh. A. and his family live a couple of miles outside Iruñea in the little village of Zizur Txikia, through which runs the Camino de Santiego Francés pilgrim route. We stopped off at the sister settlement, Zizur Nagusia first. There the local bull run (“entzierro”) was talking place.
It was a mini version of the main Pamplona San Fermín celebrations, with adolescent bulls and young participants in the same life stage. Bull running is very exotic to me. The entzierro is a strong tradition in the area of Navarre round Pamplona in particular, though not further north, which is a reminder of the diversity within the historic provinces of the Basque Country itself.
Navarre itself has its own particular identity, history and its own regional politics today. It has its own devolved assembly and government, separate from the three other Spanish provinces and three different language policy regimes one for the north (language widespread – official status), south (little Basque left, no official status) and the central band, including Pamplona, which in terms of status is somewhere between the two.
Although the city is the centre for Basque-speaking Navarese, the visibility of the language there feels grudging to me. This may be about to change, though. The Basque nationalists have been in power and energetically promoting the language in the three western provinces since 1980 (except for 2009-12). They gained power in Navarre in 2015 for the first time in a new coalition which ousted the Navarrese People’s union, which is allied to the reactionary Spanish Partido Popular and privileges the Spanish language and a regional Navarrese identity.
In the light of the new regime, there are debates raging in Pamplona at the moment about street names, proposals to move the bodies of Fascist Generals from their honoured burial-place, and on whether the Basque flag, the “ikurrina”, should have official status alongside the Navarrese one.
On Saturday, we went on a trip into the hills in the drizzle through beech, hawthorn and oak forests, past fields populated with horses and lazy cows up to the Aralar peak to the Church of San Miguel in Excelsis. This is one of the oldest Basque sites, probably sacred since Neolithic times (there are minhirs and dolmen in the park).
The Church itself was closed so I didn’t get to see the famous statue of St Michael. He left it as a calling card back in the ninth century when the local Basque Lord, Teodosio de Goñi, called on his help to defeat a dragon. Thus ended Teodosio’s long period in chains on the hill. He’d been doing penance on the Pope’s orders after having slain his own parents in his own bed in a bit of a mix up.
On Sunday, we took my friend’s four year old son Osasuna football stadium where he had his photo taken on the pitch before the match against the Galician club Celta de Vigo. Osasuna FC is another manifestation of the strong local identity. The name is simply the Basque word for “health”.
Afterwards, I was glad that there was time for a quick stop in the centre of Pamplona. I was great to be back at the famous Cafe Iruñea on the central square, the Plaza del Castillo.
On Sunday, my friends kindly drove me the whole way back to Beasain, the main town about a mile and half from Lazkao (home of the language school).
On the way back, we stopped for a lunch of pintxos and beer in Agurain (Salvatierra in Spanish), just over the border from Navarre back in Alava province in the Basque Autonomous Region. There were fliers promoting language classes on the bar, just as there are ads along the street in Beasain, evidence of the enthusiastic campaign to promote the language. In the central square there were also posters calling for the return of Basque political prisoners (or terrorists, depending on your perspective) held in distant parts of Spain. These posters are very widespread throughout the Basque Country.
We drove on through another nature park, Urbasa-Andia and stopped for the children to look the wild horses and for me to buy cheese from a run-down cottage.
Second half kicks off
As Mazipide didn’t open again until Monday morning, I’d booked into a Beasain hotel for Sunday night. It was is part of a complex comprising a restored iron foundry, watermill and manor house.
I had a stroll round the town that evening. There was a kids’ football tournament going on the little square outside the town hall, with a very Basque flavour. All announcements were in Basque only and there was a large Basque flags at the back of the pitch.
You hear a lot more Spanish on streets in Beasain than in Lazkao, though. I was a little disappointed that the hotel receptionist did not seem to speak Basque but the lift (elevator) did (well, it spoke to me in both languages). The women serving in the breakfast room on Monday morning was also a Basque speaker as was the cab driver who took me over to Maizpide, who also stopped at the station to pick up another student, conveniently halving the fare for me.
I dumped my bags back in my room while the new students were checking in and at nine o’clock the new, two-week course kicked off.
For the first day, the place was abuzz, an excited atmosphere and high noise level at mealtimes and up in the room corridors in the evening, as people started to get to know each other. Just like the first few days at college or university!
Maizpide’s model is that each group has three difference teachers for the three lesson slots each day. Two of our teachers I already knew from the first two weeks and there was one new one.
We were a group of eight students (the first group was only four), including me and Miguel, the guy who very kindly shared his trip to Donibane Garazi (St Jean Pierre de Port, in the French “Pays Basque”) with me on the first weekend. There was also a German lady based in the town of Oñati. I think I was the only non-Basque Country resident this time (though I met a student from Argentina and one from the Canary Islands, both living in the Basque Country).
I liked the dynamic of the slightly larger group throughout my “second half”. You can’t generalise of course about how personalities will mix, but with a few more people there are more personalities to spark off each other (for better or worse!).
Frustrations at my progress
We continued to work through the A2 (upper elementary level) material where we had left off. Various new structures were introduced and there was quite a bit of spaced revision of things we’d already learned.
I went through a couple of days of frustration in the middle of my third week when there were laboured introductions of various points of grammar and verb forms I’d long since studied and been practising at home.
I also realised that we were not going to get to the hypothetical and conditional tenses which are the main gap (along with the subjunctive) in my coverage of the gloriously complex (but very logical and regular) Basque verb system.
At this point, I considered asking to move up into the B1 group (lower intermediate level). The reality was, though, that my active command of the grammar I’ve studied was still stumbling.
I was also very much aware of that my level of understanding in the listening exercises we were doing and my speaking ability and vocabulary range was below that of some of the other students.
I decided it was better to stay put for the duration and there was enough new vocabulary and consolidation of structures to make it still feel very worthwhile.
Late afternoon workshops
Mondays to Fridays half past six to half past seven, the final slot of day, was set aside for an activity. At the beginning of each course, you chose one to do throughout the two weeks. It was a good chance to use the language in a less formal setting and to do something together with people from other groups.
First time round, I chose walks around Lazkao and the environs.
This time, I wanted to try something else and was delighted to find a new option: “txalaparta”.
To call this hitting planks with stubby sticks certainly won’t do! This Basque national musical instrument erm, facilitates a rhythmic conversation between two virtuosos, with roots, some say, in calling the neighbours over when the cider was made.
The traditional txalaparta almost died out in the 1950s but the instrument has since undergone a massive revival. I’d already seen it in action in London on several occasions and my first London Basque Society event included a performance. I’d never had a go myself, though.
First few days, we practised the basics. It inevitably emerged that on the last night we would be putting on a performance for all the other students.
So, the second week we split into smaller groups, each working on its own short routine and we had good fun and not a few laughs as ours gradually took shape.
A celebration of Basque dance
On the third Saturday my class broke early before lunch to go and watch the 50th celebrations of the Lazkao Dancing Society on the central square next to the pelota court.
I was particularly relieved to see lots of guys in red berets. Having acquired the said headgear especially for the featured images and YouTube thumbnails for this Basque Intensive! series on the blog, I was somewhat thrown when my Catalan housemate back in London said she was unaware of the red beret tradition, despite having lived in the Basque Country. In fairness, I should say that the red ’uns seem only to come out for ceremonial occasions (I’d seen them before in pictures of poetry competitions).
Folk dancing is not really my thing, but it this very well-attended event was another illustration of the strong interweaving of culture and civil society here.
The club was started a decade before the death of Spanish Fascist dictator general Franco. The Francoist régime (1939-78) suppressed the Basque language and identity and I wonder whether there are some parallels between the displacement from political activity into folk culture such as dance as was also seen in the Baltic States. In Wales, similar movements were seen but – given the liberal political system in Britain – without the same symbolic urgency and excitement.
Walk to Lazkaomendi
On the third Saturday classes finished at 5pm and there was no workshop. It was quite a relief for me to have some time to myself.
I walked up to the hillside road that rises next to the language school to Lazkaomendi. There were some fantastic views to enjoy, including of the Txindoki mountain.
Lazkaomendi was more a collection of scattered traditional farmhouses (“baserriak”) than a village proper, with one administrative building at a deserted crossroads. Underneath, there was – surprise, surprise – a court for playing the Basque sport of pelota (a bit like squash but played with bare hands or in special gloves). I kept going another three hundred metres to what looked like a restaurant/bar, but it was closed. Dusk was falling as I got back to Maizpide over 90 mins later.
Back to Beasain
There are no lessons on the third Sunday but, as on my first Sunday, there was choice between two walking trips “long” or “short”. I opted for the short one again. I thus found myself back in Beasain for a tour of Igartza, the very mill and manor-house complex which stand opposite the hotel I’d stayed in for one night exactly a week before.
We were caught in a downpour on the way but the sun was shining strongly later on and I more or less dried out. The guide at the museum gave us the tour entirely in Basque. I understood quite a bit and noticed some aspects of his accent, so some progress there!
We were back in Lazkao by lunchtime and another festival was underway. I tried some local cider, dispensed in a spirit from a barrel. They sold you the glass for a euro. Refills were allowed, which meant a chance to practice my technique.
The third Sunday was also the elections to the parliament of the Basque Autonomous Region. There had been posters all over Lazkao since I arrived and I’d seen several campaign events held by the EH-Bildu movement (the left-wing nationalists) who emerged as the second strongest force in the new parliament, behind the more centrist and “bourgeois” Basque nationalist party, the EAJ (PNV in Spanish), traditionally the strongest party.
Frazzled and fatigued
On the third Wednesday the cough which had dogged me during the first half had abated sufficiently for me to hazard a jog into the woods.
After days sitting for three two-hour stretches without a break in class, I was really glad I got several more runs in during the second half of the course. I was conscious I was eating much more bread and eating later than at home. It was high time for some exercise.
The runs dwindled in the last week, though, as I became increasingly frazzled through lack of sleep. Inability to drop off is a long-standing problem of mine, although, mercifully, it seems only to come in waves. I was running on four and half to five hours for a lot of the time. This meant that I was at way below optimal efficiency in class in the final week and really felt quite exhausted a lot of the time.
There were more evening events held in the cinema during my second two weeks than during the first. One night two women to give us a display of Japanese “rakugo” storytelling. So, my first experience of this aspect of the culture of one of Asia’s language isolates took place through Europe’s own language isolate – Basque.
Another night, a Basque storyteller performed for us, his words at times interrupted by the sound of Benito, a local donkey, tethered on the verge on the side of the road opposite Maizpide, who also often let his voice be heard during lessons (to much amusement) and in the middle of the night (which went down less well).
I couldn’t get the arc of the story, though I understood snippets of the story. The meaning of braying, though, was obvious (“why am I stuck on this scrappy bit of roadside slope when we’re in a luscious landscape full of rolling green meadows?”).
In the last week there was an evening showing of Bypass, which doesn’t sound like the Basque language film it is; the first one I’ve watched without subtitles. I could work out enough of what was going on in this comedy to enjoy it, but only getting snippets of the extremely fast dialogue. That’s a necessary stage of learning. Here’s the trailer:
In my last week, Wednesday rather than Thursday was the day of the Lazkao “pinxto-pote” (a widespread, post-2008 crash “tradition”: the bars offer you a free pintxo or two when you buy a drink).
We all got back from that for the evening meal and then there was a sing-song, led by three of the teachers playing the guitar, accordion and tambourine. The patxaran (a Basque liqueur made from sloe berries (blackthorn), cinnamon and anisette) was also passed round.
Pintxto-pote had moved forward a day because Thursday – our last full day of lessons – was Michaelmas (29 October) and St Michael – the very same who appeared at Aralar – is the patron saint of Lazkao. This was yet another excuse for a celebration, this time the schools even closed and a couple of bouncy castles set up in the morning for the kids in the smaller square near Maizpide.
Final students’ concert
Before we hit the streets for Michaelmas (one of the main events was a gig by the director of the school) we had our own performing to do: the end of course concert.
At the end of first course the had been dancing outside. This time – moved to the cinema for a fuller programme: the second dancing group and three txalaparta routines, including the one I was involved in with two of the other guys on the course.
Everything seemed to go down very well and people seemed to find our act – which involved a bird whistle and an animal horn as well as the txalaparta amusing and entertaining, as we’d hoped.
And so Friday 30 September had arrived and my four weeks intensive Basque course was drawing to a close. We had lessons in the morning. Some work but also, towards the end some delicious Spanish omelette brought in by our teacher and some wine brought in by one of the students.
Then there was the final lunch together in the dining hall and people finished packing and starting saying farewell and checking out. I didn’t leave until mid afternoon when I was picked up by a cab for Beasain – by the very same driver who’d brought me back at the beginning of the second half.
My bus to Bilbao wasn’t till early evening, so I had lots of time to have a bear on the square outside the station and bus stop.
Back in Bilbao
The journey to Bilbao took about 90 minutes through beautiful countryside. I met Maider, my former class teacher from the London Basque Society, at the main bus station in Bilbao. She moved back to the Basque Country several months ago. We walked across town to meet her boyfriend, Beñat, and Richard, another student of Basque at the London Basque Society, who’d been on a course similar to mine at the Zornotzako language school about 20 minutes’ drive outside Bilbao.
I checked into my hotel and we all went for a meal at the bar/restaurant at the Lizardi Basque Language Centre in Txakur kalea (“Dog Street”) in Bilbao’s atmospheric old town. It was lovely to catch up and to compare notes with Richard (who also studied at Mazipide two years ago) on his experiences.
Although I’d enjoyed the college hall of residence/dorm type atmosphere at the language school but I really appreciated the comfort of the hotel for my last two Basque nights.
On Saturday, after a very leisurely start, I spent the early afternoon mooching round the old town and – inevitably – in the main bookshop Elkar (also a publisher of Basque learning materials).
I bought two books to help provide base for more systematic expansion of my vocab: an illustrated vocabulary and an elementary monolingual Basque dictionary which includes examples of usage as well as definitions so that I can work on chunks of vocab in context.
Late afternoon, I walked north along the river and round past the Guggenheim Museum, cutting across to the Museum of Fine Arts, which I hadn’t visited before. By the time I arrived it was less than an hour to closing, but the museum has a great collection and it was well worth even a quick scout round.
Sunday evening and I was back in the old town to order pintxos and a zurito (small glass of beer) in Basque in one of the bars in the old town. I also stumbled on a shop called Brixton (my neighbourhood in London)…. The writing was on the wall. Nothing more for it than a night’s sleep and a cab ride to the airport the following morning.
Back in London, I can look back over a very rewarding immersive experience in the Basque Country.
A lot of the time in the Basque Country I felt frustrated to come up against my language limits constantly. I need to remember the reason for that: with the exception of my two days in Navarre in the middle of the trip, I was studying and speaking Basque – and only Basque – all the time. Frustrations aside, my enjoyment of working on the language and trying to use it didn’t fade.
I’ll post briefly with an evaluation of the course and the language-learning side of the visit soon. I posted a clip of a call with Joseba, my online Basque teacher just before I went away and I’ll post another one with the post-course evaluation. That’s part of my language logging process and it means I can compare my level a bit more objectively.
The month gave me a chance to get to know the Basque Country better. It was my fourth visit, but the first for three years and the first I started learning the language, which of course gives me a whole new perspective.
I learned more about the history and culture of this part of the world, appreciated new aspects of places I’d visited before and saw many new ones.
I met and talked with old friends and new acquaintances and used the language in real situations with strangers.
I’m a long-term language learner – already at it three years with Basque – and I’m savouring this major staging post on the winding road.
I’ll be striking out again with Basque soon. I’m hoping to return to the Basque Country for a week (at most two) next spring. I’ve returned home with a clear idea of how I can move myself forward both in my Basque life here in the meantime.
Next up: I’m working on two short videos to wind up this Basque Intensive! series: one about life at the school and one about my trips out and about. They both include brief contributions from many of the inspiring students I met on the course. If you’re interested in Basque, thinking of visiting this part of the world or just thinking of doing a summer course in another language, let me known about your plans, hopes, wins or frustrations in the comments below or drop me an email (address under the “About tab”). I hope you’ll stay tuned!