Haz el bien, y no mires a quién. -Spanish Proverb


What’s this “Basque” business all about?

If you’re a meggrblog “regular”, or one of my close friends or family members, you have heard/read my references to the fact that I live the in the “Basque Country”, and that there is a totally different language (besides Spanish) here. Many of you have probably also heard of the controversy here regarding the Basque Separatist terrorist group, the ETA. I would be doing this blog no justice by not addressing this issue that is very pertinent to studying/living in this area. At the same time, I’d like to throw out a disclaimer in regards to the fact that this is an extremely complex and controversial issue that even many natives of this area don’t entirely understand. Add to that the fact that I am by no means an expert in politics or European history, and you will find that my knowledge of the political/cultural situation is entirely experiential and second-hand, though I will say I’ve done a significant amount of research to learn more. I will do my best to highlight some of the most important issues and facts in a concise way, but remember that this is only from the standpoint of a foreign language student (who studies Biology, nonetheless!) So without further ado…..

What is the Basque Country? The entire Basque Country includes a small region of northeastern Spain and southwestern France (see the map above.) The Basque Country, or País Vasco in Spanish, is also one of the 17 autonomous communities of Spain (like tiny versions of our states.) Bilbao is the biggest city in País Vasco, and Vitoria is the capital.

Ok that’s great. So why is it so special? The ancient history of the people of this region is one of great mystery. Not much was recorded until after the 8th century, although there is evidence of human occupation here as early as the Paleolithic period. What is perhaps most mysterious is the origin of the Basque language, Euskara.  This language seems to be in a league of its own, seemingly having no relation to Latin or any other root language.

  • A (very) brief history: The people of this region were probably able to remain quite isolated for many years due to the surrounding mountain ranges, and this added to the purity of their native tongue. For example, during the 500-year occupation of Spain by the Romans beginning in 205 BC, the Basque Country was unaffected. The area was finally conquered by the Muslims from the south and Vikings from north, but not much changed because the area was already quite populated and the people didn’t care to relocate. The Basque people fought for their independence for many years and remained largely successful. Fast forward to 1939, the beginning of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. The oppression of the people of Spain during the dictatorship was strong and widespread, but it was felt in an additional sense in the Basque Country: Franco prohibited the use of the Basque language, and worked hard to create a sense that speakers of this language were low-lifes in society. The combination of fear of legal repercussions and a growing negative feelings toward Basque language use caused a considerable and steady decline in the teaching and use of the language during the entire dictatorship of Franco. After Franco’s death in 1975 and the creation of a democracy in 1978, Basque Nationalism was on the rise, and so was terrorist activity by the ETA. History buffs can find more info here.

ETA, eh? Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (which is Basque/Euskara) basically translates to Basque Freedom and Homeland. Formed in 1959, the group is an offshoot of a pro-separatist group of university students from right here in Bilbao. The group is fighting for the Basque Country to have complete independence from the Spanish government. Since their foundation, they have been responsible for 800 deaths; mostly of Spanish military and police personnel, and also mostly in the 1980s. Today, the ETA is responsible for less than 10 deaths per year and it continues to decline. Their main philosophy is not to kill, but rather to draw attention to their cause by acts of vandalism. More on the ETA here.

What is it like to live in the Basque Country in 2010? There is an overall feeling of slight controversy here, but it is rarely voiced. I do know of several people here that do not consider the Basque Country to be part of Spain, and therefore consider themselves Basque (Vascos) and not Spaniards, but the overall support for the extremist view of the ETA is very little. The main focus seems to be one of cultural preservation, and at the heart of this is preservation of the language, Euskara. Euskara is the only tangible evidence of the Basque culture that can be used as a way to effectively set themselves apart, and therefore the protection of the language is of high importance here. The fact that Euskara has survived many centuries without being influenced by any other language is a rare, incredible thing, and it fascinates me. I will say, however, from a foreign language student’s perspective, dealing with the extra language can be frustrating at times. Things are in Euskara before they are in Spanish, and sometimes signs and ads are only in Euskara. 40% of the population here speaks fluent Euskara (all speak fluent Spanish as well), and interestingly the largest age group of fluent speakers is 16-24 year olds. They have taken the place of the former largest fluent age group: the 65+ year-olds. This is due to a combination of two things–the fact that those entering the 65+ group were the generation affected by the Basque oppression of the Franco dictatorship, and the fact that there is a rising sense of need to preserve the language, so schools here teach most classes in Euskara, with Spanish and some English on the side. In the streets, mostly only Spanish is spoken, however, one very peculiar case is that the people almost always use the Euskara word for goodbye, “agur”. I have yet to hear anyone say “adios” for goodbye, so take that as my advice to avoid one more thing to make you stick out like a sore thumb while you’re here 🙂

So, wait…the Basque Country ISN’T dangerous? NO! A thousand times, no! Spread the word! I recall that one of the first reactions I got to my decision to study here was, “Bilbao? Why there? There’s a terrorist group there. It’s not safe!” The irony is that the Basque Country of Spain is one of the safest places not only in Spain, but in Europe in its entirety! The crime rates here are some of the very lowest in Europe. Don’t believe me? Read this. I will go as far as to say that I actually feel much safer here than I do in North Dakota. Ridiculous, you say? Bear with me. Recall that I’ve said the culture here is astoundingly more social here, and that the people here do their socializing outdoors and at all hours of the day and night. When you are in the streets, it would be rare for you not to be in the company of a variety of people ranging from small children kicking around a soccer ball to young adults sipping some vino to grandparents laughing and walking with their children and grandchildren. Of course it might not be wise to walk down a dark alley alone at night in a rough part of the city, but couldn’t you say that about ANYwhere in the whole world!?? The gigantic misconception that this is an unsafe place is very disheartening because it means that so many people are missing out on all it has to offer in fear that they are jeopardizing their safety. This is simply not the truth.

*Phew!* This really barely scratches the surface. There is so much that could be said, explained and expanded upon. I hope that if you have any questions or would like anything clarified, I hope you will email me at:

I will leave you today with a sample of current popular Basque music which was shared with me by my Basque intercambio (conversation partner) Aritz. The song is in Euskara, and this video has a Spanish translation on top with the Euskara transcription on the bottom.  I hope you enjoy it. ¡Agur!