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A weekend in the Basque country

As Spain is only just over an hour away from our home in France, when flying back from the UK it's just as easy to take a flight back to the Basque country and be picked up from there. So, that's what we did, flying from Manchester to Bilbao and staying two nights, one in Bilbao and one in San Sebastian. I had gone there with no expectations really but needless to say, I will definitely be going back. Find out more about our flying visit to the sun, sea and sand of Spain's Basque country.

San Sebastian
"Basque is the traditional language of this area of Spain and for linguists it has been a language that has long perplexed them, for Basque is a linguistic anomaly"

Euskara Batua

I was excited as I stepped off the aeroplane with the kids and approached the passport control officer - another adventure for these little people, exploring another land right on our doorstep, another language, another culture. Stefi pointed to the signs on the floor where 'stay behind the line' was printed in three different languages: Basque with all its x's, Spanish and English. I explained to Stefi that Basque is the traditional language of this area of Spain and for linguists it has been a language that has long perplexed them, for Basque is a linguistic anomaly. It is not connected to any of the other Indo-European languages that surround it and it has its own unique language family. As someone who understands Spanish, French and Italian, I can confirm that when I hear Basque, I find little to hook onto to attempt to understand. I opted for 'hola' (hello in Spanish) at the passport desk and the man greeted me back with 'hola' but as we walked away the usual 'adios' (good bye) was not the term he used. Instead, he said 'agur', which is the Basque version of good bye and this was perhaps the term I most heard used during the few days we were there (Click here for some useful Basque phrases). Apart from that though, unless it was that my ear wasn't tuned in to this mysterious linguistic code, it was mostly Spanish that I heard on the streets and in the shops. Basque was banned by Franco in the Spanish civil war, as the dictator attempted to quash regional languages and bring everyone together to speak the Castellano (Castillan) form of Spanish, the 'pure' language from the centre of the country. In a recent BBC article, a story was told of a Basque Grandmother who in the 1940's was fined, put in jail and had her head shaved to remind her of her shameful crime when she was caught speaking Basque one day to the fishermen in Bilbao. This suppression meant that many were afraid to speak their local tongue and the language understandably saw a huge decline. Recently, however, Euskara Batua has seen something of a revival and indeed, I recall having a student at Language Cafe in Manchester who spoke Basque as his first language. The European Union has a policy to protect and promote ancient and endangered languages in Europe and Basque is now the main language used in some schools in this part of Spain. It is believed that, Basque may be one of the oldest languages used by people on the European continent. It is thought the Basque tribes lived relatively isolated owing to the forests and mountains framing their space in front of the Bay of Biscay and it is possible they lived there many years before the Indo-European tribes made their way to Spain. It's certainly something of a linguistic treasure and one to be kept safe for sure. Below is a video about the Basque language. You have to get past the guy blowing his own trumpet first but after that, there's really an interesting introduction to Europe's most unique and mysterious language.



Parks, plazas and pom-poms

I hadn't gone with any expectations of Bilbao. My dad had said it was a big, busy port and when I Googled 'Bilbao places to go with kids' it brought up the usual list of museums and bits of castles. Whoever writes these things clearly doesn't have young kids! What they failed to mention was that Bilbao is like park heaven. There is a children's play park at every turn. You could quite literally park hop your way through the city all day long. There are fair rides, candy floss sellers and musicians everywhere, roundabouts, swings, slides and benches for weary parents. And the kids on these parks are some of the best-dressed kids I've ever seen! Girls with frilly dresses and boys with checked shorts and pom-poms on their socks. Just a mass of kids, in the centre of the city, talking, playing, running, jumping. It was certainly a sharp contrast to my trip to London a few weeks ago where I think I saw maybe two children the entire weekend. Our kids played with another mother's kids and they tried their best to communicate in a mixture of Spanish, French and English. The mother asked Phill where we were from because when she had asked the kids, Stefanie had said England and Joe had said France. When we spoke afterwards we reaffirmed that we are from both and from everywhere too. Bilbao was just a buzz of life, laughter and chat. It reminded me of the warmth of my Spanish friends, their natural conviviality and sunshine inside. The plazas were bursting with bustle, glasses glittering and clinking, skipping ropes flipping, children's bike wheels turning and grandmas gathering. After a mad hunt for parking, we found ourselves at a very local taverna serving pinxtos, the Basque version of tapas where local food is put onto cocktail sticks and served as an apératif before the main meal hours later. To give you an idea: goat's cheese and caramelised onion, octopus soaked in honey, green chilli and olives topped with anchovies, and 'tortilla española' (Spanish tortilla - the only thing Stefi would eat). We ate and drank 'vino tinto' (red wine) with the sparkling lights of the port against the black night sky, the small old town buildings hugging us from the sea breeze, the locals babbling away with not even a pause, the young boys playing football on the one flat surface under the arches and our two playing hide and seek in the square behind the trees and water fountain. It was magical. It was Spain. And it was the Basque country. As we made our way to the hotel for the night, the kids were still sliding down the slides and teenagers were forming their 'hang out' circles on the edges. True to our English timetable, we had eaten early and bed was calling but for the Basques and the Spanish, the night was only just getting started.


The Guggenheim in Tellytubby land

Blessed in Bilbao

You never quite know as a tourist where is safe in a city and where is not but we had an overwhelming feeling of safety in Bilbao, and perhaps this was something to do with the huge number of kids around. There was definitely a lot more money in the city than I had imagined and the buildings and streets seemed well kept and clean. The fruit from the shops cost next to nothing in comparison to France and Stefanie and Joe gorged themselves on strawberries and tomatoes. Whilst sitting on a bench stuffing their faces they watched a lady across the street fish some cardboard from a bin and were amazed when she made a seat out of it and set herself on the side of the pavement to ask passers-by to spare a few centimes. As in any place, with money, some have it, some don't. We went over to the lady and learnt her name was Blessed and she had travelled through Africa from Nigeria in the hope of making a home there in Bilbao. Through her black skin her cheeks turned red as she explained how much she wanted to work, how she hated asking for money and how there was nothing wrong with her, she was willing and able to pay her way. But she did not have the papers. It would take another year to reach the three years residence required in order to be able to work. I reflected on my own precarious position in France, with just days from the dreaded Brexit and an interview a month later for which I may no longer have the papers required to be eligible. In Europe we have been so fortunate to be able to move and work across borders, with little regard for pandemonium paper chase and Kafkaesque corridors of hoops to jump through. Others have not been so fortunate. And soon I may not be either. We helped her buy some food to see her through a few days and made our way back to the Guggenheim via the tram. Between the tram tracks were beds of daisies and the soft green hills surrounding the museum led to Phill declaring to the kids that we were in Tellytubby land. It certainly did seem like it. With the museum's soft, curvy shape and the multicoloured buildings all around, the picture was certainly something somehow surreal, not dissimilar to the Teletubbies. The sun was peeping its head and the birds took the place of the rabbits, dotted around the park (yes, another kids' park), the water fountain challenge of water bursts from the ground and the mist of water surrounding the shiny metal bendy building, home to world famous modern art. Joggers jogged by and bike-riders rode over bridges. The saxophonist tooted his tune and the tourists tapped their phones to frame the picture. It was just cool. I definitely want to go back.


San Sebastian surfers
"The wave picked me up"

Surfers and skaters

San Sebastian had an entirely different backdrop to Bilbao. Its architecture reminded me more of the kinds of buildings I picture in books depicting the colonial buildings of Caribbean islands with their fancy façades, Juliet balconies and the obligatory palm tree tickling the bricks. The Puente Maria Cristina of 1905 sums up San Sebastian's grandeur with its four 18 metre high obelisks lording over the Urumea river that runs into the ocean. The old town also was a painting of pretty streets with cool cafes and pink confetti carpets from the blossom trees bordering the pavements. It was also alive with music and marches for women's rights. This was the same weekend that International Women's Day saw thousands of women in Spain take to the streets to march for equality between men and women. We witnessed a smaller demonstration in San Sebastian, peaceful and jovial but with a message stuffed with meaning. In contrast to the coffee shops, boutiques for browsing (things looked far too posh and expensive for my pocket), and old town blossoms, the oceanfront was reserved for two main activities and two main activities only: surfing and skateboarding. The skaters circled their track, launching and balancing on their make-shift platforms, perfecting their performance, jeans hung round hips and tattoos on display. For a moment I was back at the gas works in Manchester, hanging around under the arches with the skater squad. But in San Sebastian the background was rather different, no gas pipes or red brick buildings here. Three pointy hills divided the beachfront, punctuating the promenade and providing different beach areas. The waves were huge white wizards soaring upwards, spraying smoke and crashing back down in the blue. And on their backs rode boards with people on top, balancing, arms stretched out, weaving this way and that, before toppling and disappearing briefly beneath. The kids had to paddle, of course, and so did their dad. "Be careful, Phill", I said, "I can't see anyone else paddling and there are definitely not any other kids anywhere near the water so I'm not sure it's a good idea". But a yeah, yeah and a wave of the hand meant the caution was dismissed and the three of them went about their digging and scraping names in the sand, making a moat with an inlet to the sea, backs turned to the water and mum's watching the surfers and a sudden crash... and Joe is swirling in the water, Stefi's being scooped up by Phill and all three of them are drenched. Joe is crying while Stefi is looking up at me, eyes wide and she's smiling in amazement and repeating over and over, "The wave picked me up. The wave picked me up. It was like in Moana, where the wave picks her up". That could have been so much worse was my thought before moving to a self-condemnation of stupid bloody tourists. That pretty much brought our San Sebastian outing to an abrupt halt, especially as the kids ended up sitting naked in their car seats, covered in sand from head to toe with Stefi still parroting, "The wave picked me up". We will definitely be back again but perhaps next time we'll leave the surfing to the surfers.


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