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Surfing the Basque Country

While protesters rallied in the rain for the release of Basque prisoners (see post), hundreds of surfers gathered down the coast for the annual ZarautzPro. The six-star ASP professional surfing event drew surfers from around the world for the competition, momentarily infusing an international mix of visitors into the sleepy beach town.

My friend Griffin and I drove to Zarautz to check it out. After writing my last post about the Basque/Spain conflict, I was looking for fresh air and something positive to write about. We drove through the deep valleys between San Sebastian and Zarautz, I thought about how this inaccessible geography helped preserve Basque traditions through isolation from Spain and France. And as we came through a tunnel and approached the sea, I remembered how generations of Basques pushed off shore in the ships that would discover the new world and bring it home through trade. Throughout history, Basques have played this balance between isolation and engagement, preservation of tradition and assimilation of foreign ideas, concepts, and – in the case of surfing – cultures.

It was just up the coast in the French Basque town of Biarritz where surfing made it’s European debut in the 60s. But before then, Basque life centered around the sea. They were some of Europe’s early fishermen and evolved into the best sailors and shipbuilders in the Spanish empire. Their water sports include rowing, a sport that developed as early whalers in small row boats would race to port to get the best price for their catch at the market. As our car pulled into Zarautz, I noticed that the town’s coat of arms bears a castle, a lion, and a whale – remnants of this earlier identity.

Today, the image of whales is gone and the beachfront is covered in the logos of surf brands from California, Australia and Europe. The old whaling port sits idly on the east side of the mile-long beach, and now serves as a convenient spot to jump directly into lineup of the best break in town. Many of the local kids, who I imagine once would have been fisherman plying the Cantabrian Coast and the northern waters beyond, now move horizontally along the coast from break to break, traveling from Portugal to France to find the best waves on the lowest budget.

As we got out of the car and walked to the beach, I marveled at the juxtaposition of Basque culture and surfing culture. The former is rooted in geography, shared history and an identity inherited from the traditions of one’s forefathers. The latter culture knows no boundaries, is based on shared interest, and focuses not on your family history, but on what you are doing in the present moment. Admittedly,false surfing identity can be purchased through clothing and stickers (i.e. a “poser”), but the truest surfers earn their identity through talent and achievement. They are two tribes, but of a totally different nature.

Perhaps traditionalists could view surfing as a cultural invasion from abroad, but the two cultures are not entirely exclusive. Despite the Basque reverence for tradition, they have accepted the new sport readily. Their historic love for the sea has swapped the whaling spear for the surfboard and integrated the sport into the local culture. The municipal government sponsored the surfing event, and much of the town’s economy depends on foreigners coming here for their waves. The popularity of surfing has spurred a number of local surf brands who sell shirts saying “Surfing the Basque Country.” Surfing provides another common identity that further unites Basques from Spanish Bilbao to French Biarritz.

I watched people from all over the world coming together to enjoy the sport. The M.C. announced surfer’s scores in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. But no commentary was necessary to appreciate the surfing. The shared sport was the common language.

Then I thought back to the activists from the other day. For them, redefining borders and defending territory is paramount. So much of who they are comes from where they are from, and I appreciate that as an essential part of identity in a world that is becoming more homogenized every year.  But for surfers, national borders are more of a hassle that stand between you and the waves up the coast.

It’s not to say that surfing is going to bring the world peace and love and harmony. It has its shortcomings. I grew up in La Jolla, California, whose surfing culture criticized for it’s localism by Tom Wolfe in The Pumphouse Gang. I remember seeing local surfers picking fights with kids from another part of the same city, simply because they came from 10 miles inland. Close mindedness exists within every identity on the planet.

But more often, surfing transcends all that. Sure, some surfers fight over waves and terrorize tourists. But on the whole it’s a new, international culture that any of us can take part in. In a world of division, it’s one more common culture we can share. And for all the talk of unity between Basques in Spain and France, I’d bet that those who spend the most time across the border aren’t the activists.  They’re the surfers.

War and Peace in the Basque Country

Thirty Basque men, women, children and seniors stand in the rain silently, forming a long human chain in front of the Kursaal Building in San Sebastian. The modern, stylish building stands triumphantly over the beach and the old town, a physical symbol of the Basque people’s opening their doors to the world and a peaceful future. The demonstrators at their door hold pictures of a convicted member of the militant Basque separatist group, ETA, and their message is much less ambassadorial, more personal, poignant, and polemical.

My friends and I pass their long line, reading the signs they hold solemnly to a passing crowd of mixed sympathies and bewildered tourists. I look at the images of prisoners, unintelligible Basque phrases, their red, green and white flag, and the map of the un-official borders of Euskadi, with the label Euskal Presoak etxera, a phrase I now understand to mean, Basque prisoners come home.

Such protests are a common sight in the Basque Country, though when I first arrived here I was unaware of their significance. I made my first trip to San Sebastian while working as an English teacher in a small village in rural, conservative Old Castile, deep in the Spanish heartland. From the languid villages of the meseta, it was difficult to imagine that people in the north were fighting for their independence. I researched the conflict online, discovering a complicated and bloody battle going back centuries in time. Before I left for San Sebastian, the philosophy teacher took me out for a beer and attempted to fill me in on the situation.

He pulled out a napkin and drew the map of the Basque Country, the three French provinces and four Spanish provinces that made up “Euskal Herria,” the unrecognized “Land of the Basque Speakers” straddling the Pyrenees. He then drew the arrows pointing inwards from Spain and France, forming the flag I now saw the protesters holding in the rain. He did not write or explain Presoak etxera.

“If you see this flag, be careful.” he had warned me. “This flag means it’s bearer supports terrorists. It means they support ETA and the attacks they’ve made against Spain – from bombing innocent civilians to assassinating politicians. Avoid any bar that flies the flag in it’s window, and whatever you do, don’t talk politics with anyone.”

I nodded, folded up the napkin and put it in my jacket pocket. I suspected he’d provided me a facile explanation that lacked the profundity of thought expected from a philosophy teacher. I decided to reserve my judgement until I saw the situation for myself.

I saw the flag everywhere in the Basque Country. It hung from windows of homes, from balconies of the old town, from behind the bars of taverns from Bilbao to Biarritz. It was so ubiquitous, I couldn’t believe that everyone who held it was as evil as my co-worker made them out to be. I tried to avoid talking politics as long as I could. But after a few beers at a local tavern where the flag was printed on the napkins, curiosity got the best of me.

“This flag is calling for justice,” said the bartender, leaning over the counter. “When the Spanish arrest a member of ETA, they do horrible things to our people. They torture them, they murder them, and they put the rest in prisons in the most distant corners of Spain, as far away as the Canary Islands [off the coast of West Africa]. We can’t afford to visit our friends and relatives, many of whom we believe are being unjustly held. These arrows mean we want the prisoners to come back here to the Basque Country. To Euskal Herria.”

He looked me gravely in the eyes, pushed off the bar and went back to drying pint glasses behind the bar and talking to the other patrons in Basque. I left my inquiry at that, knowing that the issue was far more complex that I could fathom at that time. I felt the weight of centuries of mutual mistrust and anger pressing down on the shoulders of both this bartender and the philosophy teacher back in Castile.

***

I was unwittingly pushed into the middle of the conflict soon thereafter. Two weeks after returning to small town Spain, the local Guardia Civil detained me and interrogated me on suspicion of being a member of ETA hatching a plot on their local police station (see post here). They had seen me writing notes in my notepad and had followed me for two weeks, during which time I went to the Basque Country. I supposed they had planned to make headlines by thwarting my operation, only to realize I was merely the town’s English teacher.   They released me apologetically, saying “We can’t be too sure these days, you know…with ETA and all.”

Months later, I moved to the Basque Country and took a picture of one of these independence rallies. A local grabbed me hand and stopped me. “Put away the camera,” she said, “People here are going to think you are a spy for the Guardia Civil.” I told her about the misunderstanding with the Guardia Civil back in Castilla. She scrunched her face into a scowl and said, “Fascists. Ignorant fascists, the whole lot of them.”

Though I laughed nervously about the irony of the incidents at the time, they revealed a deep misunderstanding and paranoia on both sides of the conflict. During my first year in San Sebastian, I avoided the subject of ETA, learning to celebrate the uniqueness of the Basque region without focusing on the more radical elements of the independence movement.

I fell in love with the Basque Country. There I discovered a nation without a country, a people with a long history largely unknown to the world, and a culture that drew me in and mesmerized me. I realized that if so many cultural treasures lie hidden within well-trodden Western Europe, the world beyond the West must hold enough diverse cultures to fill a lifetime of discovery.

Old Basque Dude
Photo by Daniel Burgui Iguzkiza

And so now, when I see the demonstrators standing in the rain, holding up pictures of convicted terrorists, I understand that the faces in these photos are their sons, sisters, cousins and friends. The conflict is personal for everyone involved.  There are bloody hands and innocent lives lost on both sides of the battle. Many heated conversations have made me realize that the longest continuous conflict in Europe can not be solved by me alone.

Then I think back to the philosophy teacher who told me not to talk to the bartender. I think about the Guardia Civil and the activist, and the chasms that separate their perspectives. Then I realize that these divisions and misunderstandings are preserved by silence.  And so I keep talking and writing, because it is only through communication that we can hope to forge the mutual understanding we need to build peace.