Tag Archives: Castile

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.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Train Station (Arévalo, Spain)

Arévalo’s train station sits atop a hill a half-mile from town, alone and tragic like one of Hemingway’s short stories.

I was sitting by myself in the one-room brick station reading A Clean, Well-Lighted Place when an elderly man opened the door.  He walked inside past the ticket counter and sat directly beside me.  I glanced at the other three empty benches, then closed my book and greeted him respectfully.

“Buenas noches,” he replied.  He was leaning forward in his chair with his hands upon his cane.  He sat there for a minute stroking his thick gray mustache in silence.  His brown tweed jacked was pulled taut by his paunch and his gray sweater was sprinkled with breadcrumbs.  His deep breaths smelt of anis. I opened my book and continued reading.

What he said to me next I cannot recall, as our subsequent conversation was so peculiar that it overshadowed whatever small talk we may have had.

“I am alone,” he said.   “My wife is dead.”  I offered my condolences but he brushed them aside and cut right to the chase.

“Do you have a girlfriend?” he asked.

“Not at the moment.”

“Then you are alone as well.”  He sighed and tapped his finger against his cane.  “Why don’t you have a Spanish girlfriend?”

“I just arrived three weeks ago.”

“Ah, I see.”  The Old Man paused and stared at his feet.  He looked me in the eyes.

“Have you follado a Spanish girl yet?” he asked, his eyes wide with curiosity.  I begged his pardon and he repeated and clarified the one question I had never expected a 75-year-old stranger to ask me.

I tried to evade his question.  He persisted.  The Old Man turned, leaned towards me, and continued in an excited whisper.

“Spanish girls go all night, don’t they?  Come on, tell me!  How many have you had?”

I reduced my Spanish proficiency and pretended not to understand.

The door opened again and a girl about my age walked inside.  The Old Man straightened up and smiled, then followed her eagerly with his eyes as she walked past.  When she leaned against the counter to buy her ticket The Old Man couldn’t control himself anymore.  He elbowed me, pointed at her, began tracing the contours of her body with his wrinkled hands and longingly caressing the empty air.  He winked at me.

She took her ticket and sat down across from us to wait for her train.  I slid away from The Old Man and hoped the presence of a third person would end this awkward scene.  I opened my book and continued reading:

‘What did he fear?  It was a nothing that he knew too well.  It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too.  It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.  Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada, nada pues nada y nada y pues nada.  Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada…’

The Old Man bumped me with the handle of his cane to get my attention.  I threw him an exasperated look.  He was holding his cane with the heel in the air.  His slid his right hand down the cane about a foot from the end and pointed his left hand toward my crotch.

“How big are you?” he whispered.  His mouth was slightly ajar and his eyes were open wider than ever.  He slid his hand an inch closer towards the end of the cane.  “¿Asi?”

I looked at him closely and noticed again the breadcrumbs that covered his chest, probably remnants of his last solitary meal.  No wife to brush off his crumbs, no reason to look in the mirror.  I opened my mouth to say something but I pitied him too much to get angry.

I stood up and said good-bye.  “Mi tren viene ahora.  Cuidate.”

“Where are you going? Your train doesn’t leave for another 17 minutes!” he called after me as I walked outside into the cold.  I crossed the tracks and saw his black silhouette staring at me from the waiting room of the station.

It was a cold, dark night and I could see my breath as clearly as the constellations above me.  I have eight months left in this town, I thought.  Lord, please spare me from such a fate. 

The light of my train appeared in the distance.  I tucked Hemingway into my backpack as the train passed the factories, slowed, and stopped at the platform.  I swung onto the train and sped away from Arévalo.

And so began my double life.

Paseo Through Arévalo

 

Each day before sunset the people of Spain traditionally leave their homes and take a leisurely stroll called a paseo.  I take my paseo at five in the afternoon and join the rest of the pueblo in their daily walk through our village, Arévalo.  I descend the steps of apartment to the street below and merge into the slow procession of townsfolk wandering through the old barrios, past the abandoned mansions of forgotten caballeros, around the crumbling churches of Catholic Spain, and towards the castle that crowns the northernmost tip of the five-pointed town.

As the sun dips below the horizon, I walk behind the castle that once housed Queen Isabella, stand at the confluence of the two rivers that encircle Arévalo, and gaze across the fields of Castile.

Castile, the heart of historic Spain.  It was here that Castellano, the language commonly known as Spanish, was born.  It was here that Queen Isabella and Ferdinand allied their kingdoms and swept the Moors off the Iberian Peninsula in the reconquista.  It was in this town that the Spanish and Portuguese divvied up the New World. And it was across the plains to my south that Don Quixote rode in search of adventure.  In those times Arévalo was a thriving village well situated between the economical and political centers of power in Madrid, Valladolid, Segovia, Avila and Salamanca. That was the Golden Age of Castile.

As dusk sweeps across the central Spanish meseta, I stare into the twilight and imagine the golden days of Arévalo.  I turn and face the castle and peer through the slotted apertures into the candle-lit chambers of Isabella and listen for news of the reconquista.  I sneak past the sentries and pull my donkey through the shadows and past the palacios of the gentry, deferring respectfully to the armored caballeros who ride past on horseback.

The church bells ring loudly from the belfries of the town’s dozen churches, one for each of the twelve barrios as mandated by Isabella the Catholic.  It’s nighttime now and the paseo is almost finished, but through the mist I descry the stream of people ahead and walk towards them.  A string of lanterns holds the darkness at bay and a muted rumble of voices and laughter slips from the taverns and warms the night air.  I rejoin the paseo and follow the townsfolk down cobbled streets into the central plaza of Arévalo, Plaza del Arrabal.

The men of the town are gathered here speaking to one another and suddenly I feel out of place amongst the merchants and gentlemen of the town.  They discuss news from Madrid, trade with the Americas, war with the English and they gossip of their neighbors.  I sense them starting at me and I look down at my worn clothes and ashamedly try to sneak out of the crowd before I become the subject of more gossip.

The Spanish are a sociable people, always gathering in large public groups and making it nearly impossible for the foreigner to make himself scarce.  But tonight I have it.  I escape from the plaza and round the corner to the calle principal, when an old man stops me and, not recognizing my face, inquires about my business in Arévalo.

Buenas noches, Señor.  I am a humble English teacher in the secondary school.  I hail from the distant colony of San Diego, in California Alta and I am staying here for a year to teach the children of Arévalo the English language.  I have just finished my paseo and I now am repairing to my abode to finish the most recent work of Señor Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote.

Don Quixote!?!”  The viejo, exclaims.  “That Cervantes is as foolish as that character of his!  Why, I can’t understand why a man would spend the last years of his life writing about a buffoon riding across Castile tilting at windmills!  You are a teacher, my boy, why do you read such whimsical non-sense?  Surely you could be studying works of more importance, works of practical significance, works that would bring you closer to God!  Would you teach this garbage to Arévalo´s children?  And why would you teach them the language of our most hated enemies, the English?  And…”  …so on, and so on into the night.  I nod my head, and at the soonest opportunity bid him farewell and slip into the night fog.

Don Quixote has a bad rap, I thought, What is so wrong about harboring romantic dreams of adventure?  The mist thins as I pass the last church in the beautiful old town and walk past the petrol station and along the park into the new part of town.

To my right is a row of Franco-era apartments, many of them covered in aggressive graffiti – anarchist signs, crossed out swastikas and anti-monarchist slogans.

As I approach my building I am greeted by the stench of manure blowing across the plains from the wheat fields that surround Arévalo on all sides.  My fingers, frozen cold in January night, fumble with my keys and after a minute I enter my lobby, flip on the light switch, check my mailbox and walk up two levels to my door.

It is dark and empty in my five-bedroom flat.  My only roommate has turned off the heater and lights (as always), ostensibly to save money but more likely to freeze his wacky roommate to death until he moves back to California.  I walk past his room, closed and locked (as always), and stick my tongue out at the green light spilling out from the television behind his door.  I throw my letters on my desk – all bills, no letters from damsels in distress – and collapse on my bed.

I think about all my dreams, about traveling to foreign lands, sailing across distant seas, speaking exotic tongues, and writing words that change the world.  I wonder if these dreams will come true.

Am I just hopelessly quixotic?  I stare at the ceiling, but the peeling paint offers no answer. Will my dreams surrender to rigid realities and prove to be nothing more than the chimeras of idealistic youth?  My roommate emerges from his cave and slams his door, loosening a flake of paint from the ceiling that falls falls falls down onto my cheek.

Dammit.

I sit up and survey my room and wonder once again if life in a 7,000-person town is slowly driving me insane.  The piles of books heaped in huge teetering towers on the floor, a dozen corners of the room bedecked with trinkets from a dozen corners of the world, a massive California Republic flag, and a map of Europe tacked against the wall and perforated with a geographical to-do-list: pins poking across the continent, from the Basque Country to the Balkans, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, north to Norway and south to the Sahara.  My dreams have exhausted my supply of pins.

Then there are the countless pieces of paper that cover the rest of my room like the crazed wallpaper of some Beatnik poet gone-mad.  About half of them were a collection of poems and quotations written by my favorite authors and, increasingly, by myself.  The rest of them are flashcards covered in red marker with commands (START WRITING!!!), questions (What is your book about?), themes (Search for individualism in modern society), chapters (Buying the Minsk – Saigon, Vietnam), topics (The Dalai Lama and China) and orphaned epiphanies searching for a home somewhere in the first draft of my first book.

My roommate farts, and the noise bounces through my paper-thin walls, something that would make me smile if my situation were not so bleak.

What the hell am I doing here? Am I ever going get this book together, or will I just get lost along the way? Is it even possible to write a book in such a stiflingly small town?  And if I get the book written, will it ever get published?

I have no answers, only the strange faith born from the audacity of dreaming the impossible.  I sit down at my desk, stare at the START WRITING!!! message on my wall and pick up a pen and paper.  Dear Don Quixote, It’s January 21th, 2010 and it’s time to assess my dreams, both those realized and those still lying ahead…