Pyrenees Call From Both Sides
Recently, I toured through the Southwestern part of France. It opened my eyes to a particular group of people that I have always associated with the game Jai Alai – the Basques.
I experienced their hi-speed dangerous game in the Frontons of South Florida. Both the game and its raucous patrons that bet on the outcome are great people watching events.
But the Basques are so much more than what I saw in South Florida in the 1960’s.
Basques is a French word. The Spanish call them “Vasques.” But I think they should be called Pyreneans, because the Pyrenees Mountains are always in view of their towns and settlements on both the French and the Spanish sides.
These inspirational mountains have stories of holy shrines, witchcraft, and tales of cultures long gone. The Basque culture is present now, and will be forever.
Are they Spanish, or are they French?
Yes they are! But they are more Basque or Vasque than anything else. They want their Euskal language and its culture to be separate from any other that might dilute the richness.
Their friendliness is witnessed everywhere by signs saying, “He who enters here is at home.” The death defying nature of their sports Jai Alai, bull fighting, and mountain climbing are all dangerous. These pastimes describe their fearless nature.
Basque seafarers may have been the first sailors to reach the shores of America. They perfected their ocean sailing techniques in small boats requiring courage and daring. Their whaling expeditions brought them to the West.
They may have arrived in the Americas long before Columbus, but they were not in control of the writers of history books and their efforts were easily overlooked. The Musee Basque in Bayonne contains artifacts that pertain to their early crossings of the Atlantic. There is a lot of evidence that the Basques traveled widely and explored areas credited to others.
Basque Cultural Roots
Basques have a long cultural history. They are said to have remained intact as a culture during the last Ice-Age. Their territory in the corner of what is now the Atlantique Pyrenees was never covered by ice. When the glaciers receded about twelve thousand years ago, these people were the basis of the cultures now in Northern Europe. Their language became the source of the languages that evolved after the ice melted.
Basque culture deserves some study. When you see more X’s and Y’s and K’s in words and signs, you know you have entered an area of Basque influence.
Hemingway first introduced me to the Basques in the Sun Also Rises. While experiencing the running of the bulls in Pamplona, I did not associate it with the Basques. I enjoyed watching them wear red berets and red scarves.
Seeing hundreds of them on parade at a festival near the sacred Pyrenees was quite impressive.
I had grown up with a culture put in place by a famous Basque. The only schools that I have ever attended were run by the Jesuits. The founder of the order was Ignatius Loyola. His Basque name was Ignazio Loiolakoa.
His Spanish name Ignacio de Loyola, was Latinized to Ignatius Loyola. No one had mentioned that he was a Basque, or possibly I was absent that day. My teachers preferred to call him Spanish. The Jesuits were always considered of Spanish origin.
Another interesting point about Ignatius and his fellow founding Jesuit, Francis Xavier, is that they were “conversos.” They were born into Jewish Merrano families which converted to Christianity. Of the hundreds of Jesuits that I have known, not one has mentioned that truly significant point.
Power of the Church of Rome
The order that Ignatius founded is now run from “The Gesu” in Rome only inches outside the Vatican perimeter.
The Superior General of the order is so influential that he is called the “Black Pope.” His power is often the source of much tension and displeasure for the Pontificate.
It is a surprising development that an organization instituted to protect the Pope is now sometimes a stone in the pontifical slipper.
The Basques are proud of their home style cooking. Their competitions in Basque towns and villages take place between commercial restaurants.
If the food served at the local restaurants does not measure up to the scale considered representative of Basque tradition, the populous will see to it that they go out of business.
Private cooking societies compete for neighborhood honors and excellent participants become local heroes. Basque men spend twice as much money preparing their creations as Americans may. They also devote much of their spare time perfecting their dishes.
Gastronomy and the raising of fresh ingredients is time thought well spent throughout the region.
Please note the interior of this Basque Bistro and the white sheets hanging from the ceiling. These are fans designed to calmly cool the guests without violently sweeping the food off the table.
Alain Ducasse is a Basque chef who has brought traditional cooking to world class heights. He is one of the greatest chefs in history and has amassed 21 Michelin stars in his career.
He unfortunately suffered at the hands of Basques separatists who accused him of commercializing Basque tradition. They repeatedly firebombed his restaurant in Biarritz on the Basque coast. He relented and closed his restaurant.
Three departments in France called Pays Basque, three states in Spain called Pais Vasque and Navarre make up the areas that the Basque call home. There is an independence movement which has long been underway.
Recent separatist moves in Cataluña and Scotland may provide greater popularity to the liberty efforts throughout the world. Everyone would like to think of their culture as being special. It is hard to express who you really are if larger entities in Madrid and Paris look upon you as an asset.
For hundreds of years the Spanish and French fought and argued over the lands now thought to be Basque. The treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 attempted to resolve these problems with one of its provisions being a marriage bringing the two parties together.
Louis XIV the king of France married the Infanta Maria-Teresa of Austria, the eldest daughter of the King of Spain, PhilipIV. They were married in 1660 in the Church of St John the Baptist in Saint-Jean-De Luz on the Basque Cote.
The wonderful Pyrenean people that I met want choices for themselves that allow their Euskal language and ways to be respected. They want self government. They are not renegades. They don’t want to thwart all authority; they would like to have a system with a Euskal flavor. If someone is going to tell them what to do, they would like it to be someone they can talk with in their own language.
Indeed, the Pryenees call from both sides. The subtle differences in cultures need to be looked upon with reverence. No one needs to feel they are a stepping stone for someone they hardly know or see.
Denis A. Molloy
Denis was born in Chicago 1942 to a second generation Irish immigrant family. Educated at Jesuit Loyola Academy, Wilmette, Illinois; Marquette University, then Marquette University Dental School. Retired after 45 years dental practice. He enjoys golf, sailing, and canoeing the wild and pristine waterways of Northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. Many years of international travel have led him to a second career in writing. You can find his blog called “Vigor” at www.quora.com; or at http://daincolgate.wordpress.com/.