Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Basque Language – Euskera

The Basque Country is not demarcated by geography as much as linguistic and cultural lines.  Above all else, Basques are united by their ancient language, Euskera.  Euskera is related to no other lanuage on earth and is  believed to be the oldest language in Europe.   But the origin of Euskera is as unknown as the origins of the Basques themselves and for now remains a mystery

Over the years it has been influenced by the dominance of Spanish and French, but Euskera has survived.  Recently, when Spain was ruled by the fascist dictator Generalismo Franco (1939-1975), it was prohibited to speak Euskera or any other minority language of Spain.  But Euskera survived in exile, and has thrived in the post-Franco renaissance. 

What explains the existence of a language so entirely different from the rest of Europe?  Many people believe that ancient Europe was populated by cultures quite similar to the Basques, all of which were overrun when the Indo-Europeans invaded from Asia minor in the early Bronze Age.  Their invasion introduced new cultural and linguistic forces that dominated all of Europe except the isolated hills of the Basque Country.  That is, Basque could be the only surviving pre-Indo-European language and the Basques the ‘aborigines of Europe.’

Furthermore they resisted the Romans.  Though the Roman Empire brought linguistic, cultural and societal influence with their legions, the Basques protected their culture and language from their powerful influence.  Most other languages in Western Europe are direct descendents of the ‘vulgar Latin’ spoken by Roman soldiers, including Spanish, Portuguese, French, Catalan and Galician – but not Euskera. 

By this point you might be smiling at my fascination at the Basques.  Sure, there are other minority cultures in Europe, small pockets of overlooked traditions and languages overshadowed by more dominant nation-states.  In England, the Welsh, the Scots.  In France, the Bretons, the Corsicans.  Indeed, Spain could be defined as a collection of minority cultures – the Catalans, Galicians, and Valencians all join the Basques in their resistance to the dominance of Castilian culture. 

So what makes the Basques so special to me?  To start, there’s the inherent mystery of their esoteric traditions and the continuous discovery that accompanies living amongst such an ancient and rare culture. 
But furthermore I see them as a cultural and linguistic anomaly in the homogenizing age of Globalization.  While most other cultures are sacrificing their particular traditions, languages or beliefs in favor of more ‘universal’ equivalents, the Basque culture indeed seems to be growing stronger

The Basques give me hope in the future of the world’s minority cultures.  If a small population with a peculiar language can survive for thousands of years in the face of invasion, persecution and external dominance, perhaps there is hope that other cultures won’t vanish in the face of an overpowering culture of the lowest common denominator. 

If the other minority cultures on earth are as interesting as the Basques, that is a very good thing indeed. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

FAQ: What is the Basque Country

***Note: To find Mark's Guidebook to the Basque Country, click here***

I’ve been talking about the ‘Basque Country’ in familiar terms so far, assuming that everyone knows exactly what it is.  Let me back up and better explain my subject of interest – the Basque Country and the Basque People.  

Welcome to Basqueland

The Basque Country is essentially an unrecognized country within a country. It is a collection of seven provinces wedged between France, Spain, the Pyrenees and the North Atlantic.  Four provinces are in Spain, three provinces are in France, but no single nation unites all seven.

The Basque Country is one of many sub-cultures within modern Spain, minority cultures that have gradually been dwarfed by the cultural dominance of their larger, more powerful neighbors - in this case, Spain.  Foreigners might not know much about the Basque Country, but the culture here is alive and strong.  

The Basques have a flag, a common language, and a extensive set of traditions distinct from the Spanish and French, but they have not been fully independent for over five hundred years.  Surrounded by the dominant powers of France and Iberia, the Basques have spent most of their history as self-governing subjects of greater powers.  

The Basque Country has always been difficult to define.  It has been described as a no-man's land between France and Spain and each language calls it something different.  The Spanish call it El País Vasco, and the French, Le Pays Basque, from which we get the English name, The Basque Country, or Basqueland.  Many Basques call it Euskadi, but the most accurate term is Euskal Herria - literally, The Land of the Basque Speakers.  
Euskera, the Basque language, unites all seven provinces on both sides of the Pyrenees.  I live in the province of Gipuzkoa (Guipúzcoa in Spanish), the coastal province squeezed between France and the westernmost province, Bizkaia (Vizcaya).  To my south are the interior provinces of Araba (Alava) and Nafarroa  (Navarra).

On the French coast we find Lapurdi (French: Labourd), home of Biarritz.  Following the Pyrennes inland we come across Benafarroa (Basse Navarre), and Zuberoa (Soule).  In total, seven provinces split into two countries, totaling only 8218 square miles.  

It extends from its upper limit at the Ardour River at Bayonne, France up over the Pyrenees to its natural southern boundary at the Ebro River in the dry Spanish wine region of La Rioja.   Unlike most of Spain, it is verdant, hilly, and wet, a land inextricably linked to both the secluded valleys of the hinterland and the open expanse of the North Atlantic.  

There you have the geographical description of the Basque Country, but a simple geographical definition does not do it justice.  For that, we must move to language.

***Click to read more about Mark's gastronomical guidebook to the Basque Country  ***

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Movie Review # 7 - Exit Through the Gift Shop (USA)

Exit Through the Gift Shop
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Banksy
Starring: BanksyShepard_Fairey, Space Invader, Thierry Guetta (aka Mr. Brainwash)

[Warning: Spoiler ahead]
My favorite film by far. 
This movie is as mysterious as it's director, the world's most notorious anoynmous vandal - Banksy.  It's hard to comment this film - no one knows if it's a real documentary or just another one of Banky's hoaxes.   

Banksy's directorial debut has left viewers and professional critics equally confused about the veracity of this documentary, but all seem certain that it is damn good.  I left it feeling as stupid as the 'art-lovers' Banksy mocks in the film - giving value to what we are told is art, but quite unsure of what exactly we are looking at.  It's hard not to think we've all been mass-pranked by Banksy and easy to imagine him laughing at us all. 

Perhaps that is precisely what Banksy is trying to prove by this documentary on the origins, popularization, and subsequent commercialization of the street art movement.

Fairey's Latest - Street Art meets Politics
The movie begins in the early 1990s by telling us the story of Thierry Guetta a likeable, eccentric Frenchman living in LA who has a bizarre habit - he films absolutely everything he sees.  Through his cousin, Space Invader, Guetta is introduced to the blossoming street art movement and brings his camera along on clandestine midnight vandalism sessions across LA.

Through Space Invader Guetta meets Shepard_Fairey, founder of Obey, originator of the Andre Has a Posse posters and, more recently, the Hope campaign for Obama.  Guetta soon becomes the trusted documentarist for the entire street art movement - for everyone, that is, except for his idol, Banksy.
Bansky. man of mystery

Banksy was not easy to get a hold of.  The anonymous artist is an enigma  - part artist, part social provoceteur, part prankster.  His artwork has spread from the streets of Bristol as far as the States and  on the wall dividing the West Bank and Israel.  He has 'murdered' telephone boxes in England, decorated countless city walls worldwide, and put up his own, satirical artwork in the Brooklyn Museum

Guetta finally meets his idol and starts filming Banksy's stunts, including placing a Guantánamo Bay detainee in Disneyland.  As street art's rising fame brings Banksy's work to the attention of the professional world, Banksy asks Guetta to use his tapes to make the definitive documentary on the origins of street art - a movement spawned in reaction to the commerical art world that was now embracing it.

Banky's work on The Wall in the West Bank, Palestine
The only problem?  Guetta turned out to be all talk - he had a camera, but he was a worthless filmmaker.  Banksy takes the tapes into his own hands and tells Guetta to try his hand at making his own art.  Before long, Guetta has created his own alter-ego, Mr. Brainwash, and is preparing to make his own artistic debut in LA. 

At this point the whole nature of the film changes.  The first half of the film focused on Guetta's documenting the street artists' rise to popularity, and the second half  refocuses on Guetta as the embodiment of the comercialization of the same movement.

Thierry Guetta - aka "Mr Brainwash"
Guetta has little talent - yet he receives more commercial success in shorter time than any other 'street artist.'  Banksy playfull mocks Guetta's attempt at creativity, which is essentially copying Banksy's and Fairey's style and applying it to pop-art images.  Guetta happily explains to the camera the genius behind his 'art' as we watch him hype up his debut show, showing just how subjective our values of art can be.

The conclusion?  Guetta - or "Mr. Brainwash" - sells $1,000,000 of art at this two-week art show in LA, while Banksy and Fairey watch on bemusedly.  As Banksy says apropos his pseudo-protege, "I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don't do that anymore," and “Andy Warhol was replicating images to show they were meaningless.  And now, thanks to Mr Brainwash, they’re definitely meaningless.”

We all laugh along with Banksy at this talentless sap until we exit the theater (through the gift shop?) and hear the rumor - Guetta/Mr. Brainwash might be a fake, just a fictional creation of Banksy used to  show the art world how gullible it really is.  It would be the perfect Banksy move - a satirical slap in the face to all the people who have spent fortunes collecting Mr. Brainwash's 'art.' 

Real or not, the buzz has made him real.  His paintings have sold and he was even asked by Madonna to make the cover of her new album.  The art world has picked him up, while the film's viewer is left scratching his head, questioning our very definition of art.

One last thing: on the night of the premiere, a graffiti work appeared in the Parte Vieja of San Sebastian, supposedly by Banksy himself.

The choice of subject?  None other than us, the public and the art world, represented by a man admiring a framed picture of nothing at all.

Banksy comes to San Sebastian

Trailer here

Movie Review #6 - Celda 211 (Spain)

Celda 211
Country of Origin: Spain
Directed by: Daniel Monzón

Starring: Luis Tosar, Alberto Ammann

This excellent movie comes right behind Exit Through the Gift Shop for my second favorite of the week. 

By no means my own discovery, Celda 211 (Cell 211) was one of the most popular Spanish movies of 2010, and a recipient of no less than 8 Goya Awards (Best Lead Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Breakthrough Actor, and Best Director, Editing, Picture, Screenplay, and Sound).  Damn.  Celda 211 is also one of the three films representing Spain at the Oscars, all of which star Spain’s up-and-coming actor from Galicia, Luis Tosar.  Tosar is a Spanish actor to watch out for, and this movie is a great introduction to Spanish cinema of 2010. 

Celda 211 is the story of a Juan (Alberto Ammann), a newly recruited prison guard who gets caught up in a riot on his first day at work.  Thinking quickly, he changes his clothes and pretends to be an inmate to survive the chaos. 

The circumstances push him to the leader of the riot, a notoriously vicious prisoner named ‘Malamadre’ (Luis Tosar).  For better or worse, Juan and Malamadre are both neck deep in the riot while the police try to find a way to quell the riot and rescue their newest co-worker from the chaos.  The plot thickens as Malamadre takes hostage three Basque prisoners from ETA, thereby raising the stakes and complicating any easy resolution. 

In my opinion this film succeeded for the precise reasons Chicogrande failed.  Whereas Chicogrande portrayed the protagonists as infallible heroes and the antagonists as purely evil, Celda 211 tells a more accurate tale of justice – the cops and prison guards have just as much evil in their hearts as the prisoners have good, if not more. 

Justice as administered by our fellow man is never straightforward, as demonstrated by the extremely well-crafted characters of Celda 211.  I was on the edge of my seat the entire time.  The plot took so many unsuspected turns that Juan’s joining the riot proved to be only the initial twist. 

I highly recommend this film to anyone keen for a gripping drama with an insightful look into the concepts justice and Spanish society.  Check out the trailer here

Movie Review #5 - El Gran Vázquez (Spain)

El Gran Vázquez
Country of Origin: Spain
Directed by: Óscar Aibar

Starring: Santiago Segura

El Gran Vazquez (The Great Vazquez) tells the true story of the Vazquez, the best comic book artist in Barcelona during the 1960s, womanizer, troublemaker, and a self-centered scam-artist through and through. 

This movie was hilarious – even more so because it’s a true story. 

Vazquez, played by Spanish actor Santiago Segura, takes us through the streets of Barcelona as he cons one unsuspecting person after the other. 

The viewer can’t help but laugh at the clever tricks Vazquez employs to parlay his artistic talent and endless charm into the temporary solace of money, women, and a short escape from his growing army of enemies.

Billboard outside San Sebastian Film Festival
All is going well until Vazquez reaches a point when his girlfriend, wives, kids, and co-workers are pushed too far. 

Vazquez’s tale takes us to the limits of how far one clever man can play the system before it comes back to bite him – hard. 

It’s well written, funny, and Santiago Segura’s acting does justice to the real Great Vazquez. 

Highly recommended to anyone wanting to exercise their Spanish and laugh at the same time.  

Trailer - Here  

Movie Review #4 - The Oath (USA)

The Oath
Country of Origin: USA
Directed by: Laura Poitras

Any trip to a European film festival would be incomplete without the mandatory anti-Bush documentary, and I was lucky to discover that The Oath took up that charge even two years since W. went back to Texas. 

But The Oath was not what I expected it to be – that is, a film intent on proving a point instead of searching for truth and accuracy.  It was distributed by Zeitgeist films (makers of Loose Change), but instead of finding a film laden with conspiracy theories, I was pleasantly suprised by this well-made film by American director Laura Poitras. 

Poitras critiques the War on Terror by juxtaposing the contrasting tales of brothers-in-law, Salim Hamdam and Abu Jindal, Bin Laden's personal driver and his body guard, respectively. 

Bin Laden's driver, Hamdam, was captured in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo Bay while Abu Jindal, a man suposedly more valuable than anyone in Guantanamo, is a free man in Yemen. 

While Hamdam waits out his sentence in Guantanamo, we spend most of our time with Abu Jandal, who is now a taxi driver in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a where he runs a support organization for former al-Qaeda operatives.  We drive with him through the streets of Sana’a as he explains why and how he got involved with Al-Qaeda, why he so respected ‘Sheik bin Laden,’ and countless insights into how the organization is run.

The film's strength lies not by dropping controversy-provoking conspiracy theories in your lap, but by taking us into the homes and minds of our self-proclaimed enemies. 

I was suprised by Jindal's testimony - we hear not the zealistic dogma of a die-hard killer, but personal anecdotes from a conflicted and humbled solider.  Jindal discusses his transformation from the inner ring of Al-Qaeda to a 'reformed' terrorist working as a cab driver, begging the question - given all that's happened since 9/11, does his oath of allegience still bind him? 

Jindal's personal testimony reminds us that the bogeymen of the Middle East are not so different than ourselves.  Through Poitras’ lens, we are invited into Yemeni homes, we watch Yemeni youth groups talk to Jindal about the fight against America, and we are even shown young boys explaining why they want to grow up to be terrorists (because ‘the Americans put Uncle Hamdam in jail in Cuba.’)

The camera also moves to the military tribunals of Guantanamo Bay and gives us valuable perspective into the nature of justice being served to suspected terrorists.  I was particularly moved by seeing how little faith Hamdam’s appointed military lawyer had in the very court he was serving.  Charged by the military with defending someone doomed to conviction, his barely-veiled disillusionment spoke volumes about how far tribunals have drifted from true justice. 

This film is stripped of the usual intellectual talking heads expounding upon their own theories.  Instead it takes us deep into the lives of two men and brings the debate back down to the ground level – how people feel when their family is directly affected by international politics. 

Anyone with an interest in American foreign policy should watch this film, if only to remind us that the War on Terror is ultimately not a war of abstract theories, but one that touches people and families not so different than our own.

Trailer - Here 

Movie Review #3 - Chicogrande (México)

Country of Origin: México
Written and directed by Felipe Cazals

This movie had so much promise.

The premise of the movie intrigued me –the US Cavalry’s search for Pancho Villa through the border regions of Mexico.  After Villa strikes Americans in New Mexico, the Cavalry set’s out on one of its last missions – to find Villa and crush his revolutionary social movement. 

All the elements were there – great historical backdrop, ripe conflict between two fundamentally opposed characters, and directed by celebrated Mexican director, Felipe Cazals. 

But my hopes were not fulfilled.  In my opinon, Cazal’s determination to prove his political message cost him his credibility, and thus the movie itself. 

I get the idea – by showing the brutality of American retaliation to Pancho Villa’s attacks, the director could prove that the Iraq invasion, CIA torture tactics and Guantanamo Bay are only the newest manifestations of the inherently evil spirit of that big bully north of the border. 

I consider myself quite politically left of most people in America.  I detest invasions, occupations, torture, or any of the other horrible by-products of geo-politics.  But I still understand that every nation – the ‘bullies’ and the ‘victims’ – have both good and bad citizens.  We are all human. 

But Chicogrande essentially portrayed Americans as universally ruthless, arrogant, and crude and every Mexican as ultra-resilient folk-heroes, martyrs, victims or noble saints.  By failing to show both sides of each character, we were left with shallow puppets instead of intriguing, convincing characters trapped in the perils of war. 

For example, Major Fenton, the head of American forces, seldom spoke any dialogue that did not seem stolen from 1950s Soviet propaganda films.  His motives were purely evil and sadistic.  After using Fenton to display the ruthless evil of America, the director then poked fun at him by using some Mexican characters to shave off half of his beard and hair and steal his hat. 

Major Fenton
Yet Major Fenton still rode around for the rest of the movie with a half a moustache and his hair a jumbled mess.  That is simply unrealistic.  In reality he would have shaved off the remainder of his moustache and got another hat to cover up his new haircut. 

But the director would not permit this.  Instead, the American characters existed only to be ridiculed, while the Mexicans were glorified. 

The nail in the coffin came at the end, as the bemused Mexican villagers watch the Americans retreat across the border in defeat.  The director actually has to use a few bystanders to echo his own beliefs. 

The old confused señora asks the rhetorical question, I wonder if they will ever come back again?  A young, intelligent Mexican doctor says something like, No, they will be back.  They will always keep us under their thumb and never let us grow.  Why? Because they can.

Et cetera…

One of the principles of any good writing is “Show don’t tell.”  Unfortunately, despite Cazals’ spending 90 minutes trying to show us what he thought about the US, he had to resort to using a mouthpiece to telling us directly what he felt we were too stupid to understand. 

I regret giving three negative reviews in a row, but Chicogrande was inarguably a grand disappointment.  Skip it. 

Trailer - Here

Movie Review #2 - A Tiro de Piedra (México)

A Tiro de Piedra
Country of Origin: México
Written and directed by Sebastián Hiriart

Perhaps this one was such a let-down simply because of my expectations.  The synopsis made it sound great – a Mexican shepherd finds a key on the ground and takes it as a sign to embark on the adventure of his dreams, one that takes him thousands of kilometers into the United States. 

Wow, I thought, Dreams, wandering, omens, adventure – this sounds right up my alley! 
I imagined it as being a Mexican version of The Alchemist. 

Unfortunately, it was just that – a 97-minute boring Mexican version of The Alchemist made on a $300,000 budget.  Absent were Paulo Coelho’s wise words, replaced only by long periods of silence and an almost complete lack of dialogue.  The plot moved along very slowly as he progressed northward, and I felt as if I were actually in the car with him – that is, I wanted to take a nap so we could wake up in San Francisco and be closer to the end. 

But the similarities to The Alchemist go beyond the protagonists’ identical lives (both were young shepherds, bored with their lives), their dreams of travel (going to the Pyramids in Egypt versus Oregon in the USA), and the omens that spurred their adventure. 

It was, in fact, so similar to The Alchemist that I knew what would happen to the protagonist in advance – essentially the same challenges and vicissitudes that befall Santiago in The Alchemist: naiveté causes him to get robbed?  Check.  People telling him his dream is foolish?  Check.  Getting lost a few times?  Check.  A buildup to the climactic reaching of his destination, in which he is alone and lost, yet so close to home?  Check

The only part from which the film deviated from The Alchemist’s plot was at the end, which was poorly written, confusing, and underwhelming.  It would have been better if the filmmakers had restrained their creative impulses and simply stuck to Coelho’s conclusion. 

But I am being quite harsh - there are a few good things to say, principally seeing the perspective of an immigrant coming to the USA.  As someone who was born and raised in southern California, illegal immigration was something at once a common sight and a misunderstood phenomenon. 

This film gives the international audience a first-hand account of the motivations behind immigration, the challenges crossing the border, and the reception in his new host country.  The protagonist actually goes through San Diego and right past my house, bringing home the struggle that so many people go through in search of a better life.  The protagonist struggles to find food, shelter, and onward travel in a country that misunderstand his quest. 

I really appreciated this aspect of the film and eventually abandoned my hope for a decent plot and instead imagined the movie was an insightful documentary about immigration.  That was the only way to get any satisfaction from this mediocre film. 

Trailer - Here

Movie Review #1 - "Buried" (Spain)

Marko’s Movie Reviews
I saw some great movies and some rather horrible ones.  Let’s start with the bad ones. 


Country of Origin: Spain

Director: Rodrigo Cortés
Starring: Ryan Reynolds

This is one of the worst movies I have ever seen in my life. 

It was produced and directed by in Spain, starred American actor Ryan Reynolds, and took place in Iraq. 

I initially thought that such a combination could be either great or horrible, a hunch proved correct when I learnt the storyline – Ryan Reynolds is buried alive in a casket in the Iraqi desert with only a limited amount of air left and a cell phone in his pocket.  I was interested to see how it would turn out, so I bought a ticket for the midnight premiere and listened to director Rodrigo Cortés give us his introduction. 

The film’s Spanish director knew he was running the edge between creative genius and total failure.  He came out before the screening and gave a charming speech about how he realized he was working within limitations, and that at the end of the day you can’t escape the fundamental constraint – it’s about a man in a box.  The question, he said, was how to make it work within those constraints? 

After watching the film, I proposed a different question – why not pick a less limiting script?  Perhaps, one that involved more than one scene, one character and one setting?   Sure, maybe one of the history’s great filmmakers could make it work, but Cortés could not. 

For one, the Cortés decided to film in real time – that is, second by second as it happened.  This was intended to build tension and make the viewer feel as if he was in a coffin, but instead it only brought awkward moments where Reynolds was simply crying onscreen before a bemused audience.  That sort of crap should be edited out. 

Secondly, the camera never turns off, never leaves the casket, and never shows any actor besides Reynolds.  Aside from Reynolds swearing to himself in the dark, the only dialogue comes via the cell phone he uses to contact the outside world – his family, the embassy, the Pentagon et cetera. 

As Reynolds struggles to contact someone who can actually help him before he suffocates, he is embroiled in the bureaucracy of the State Department, family problems back in the States, the complex politics of the Iraq invasion, and at a few points he is even put on hold, while the audience listens to a disembodied voice say Your call is very important to us…

All of this conflict was channeled into the coffin via Reynolds’ cell phone.  In my opinion the tried to cram too many things into a box. Without editing, multiple characters, and the occasional change of scenery, it’s hard to tackle so many conflicts in one movie. 

After about ten minutes I just wanted to wish the protagonist the best of luck and move on with my life but I sat through it out of respect.  Towards the end I found myself in the awkward position of wanting for Reynolds to either be rescued or simply die – anything to get me out of the theater. 

Oddly enough, most other people liked it and the movie got quite good ratings on IMDb.  I can’t understand such sentiments. 

I think the director summed it up quite well before the movie even screened – no matter what you do, it’s a movie about a guy in a box. 

Watch Trailer Here

The San Sebastian International Film Festival

With this crazy apartment search was going on, I had little time to write about one of the best things I’ve experienced so far – the San Sebastian International Film Festival. 

I've been waiting for this for a long time - I even booked my plane tickets so that I could arrive right before the 10-day festival started.  

Tickets went on sale on the 13th and I picked up as many tickets as I could.  They were divided into various categories, including Made in Spain, Horizontes Latinos (Latino Films), Documentaries, and the jury’s pick. 

After a year in a pueblo without a movie theatre, I was in HEAVEN!  San Sebastian has so many theatres, it has been the site of one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world for 58 years.  We spent a week skipping from movie to movie, making our own observations, only stopping to have a few pintxos and beers before going back again. 

In the end, I saw a number of flicks from Europe, South America, and a few from back home as well.  

The next post will have my comments on what I saw.

Where are the Basques?

Where are the Basques?

After two weeks of living here in San Sebastian I’m finding myself in an unexpected predicament – I don’t have a single friend who is actually from San Sebastian.  I’ve got tons of new friends, but every one of them is a foreigner.  Even my apartment has only one Spaniard, but she wasn’t born here either. 

I’m starting to wonder, where are the Basques?

San Sebastian has been frequented by people from across Europe since summering here was made fashionably by Queen Isabel II in the 1840s.  This trend is only increasing as surfers and backpackers have found its combination of beaches, pintxos, and nightlife an irresistible draw.  Lots of people come here to study Spanish (like my roommates Nick and Kevin) or to participate in the trans-European study abroad program, Erasmus.  I can see an invisible line separating the local people from those of us who have come from abroad.  I intend to cross this line.

Basques have a reputation of being ‘closed’ and ‘cold,' preferring to keep to themselves.  The Basque language is an invisible tie that separates us from the locals, one that I cannot see myself mastering without years of practice.  

Furthermore, Basque social scenes are characterized by cuadrillas, a rough translation of ‘cliques.’  That is, most people have a group of four or five friends that they always roll with, from youth all the way to adulthood.  Boys with boys, girls with girls.  Foreigners like myself usually come and go without ever joining a cuadrilla

I’ve never been a fan of cliques, but this seems to be the way of the Basque Country.  Rolling with the locals is the only way to learn a about a culture and that is precisely what I intend to do.  

I have faith.  I realize that I just need to switch up my social scene a bit – spend less time in the bars geared towards Erasmus students and more time in local hangouts.  Luckily, I stumbled across a super underground bar frequented almost entirely by locals.  I’ll be spending more and more time there over the next few months. 

I realize I must find a balance between hanging with my fellow foreigners and the locals and not neglect one group at the expense of the other. 

Little by little, I will immerse myself in the life of San Sebastian.  I am busy setting up intercambios (language exchanges) with locals, branching out to meet the local CouchSurfing community, making friends through surfing, and meeting people out at night. 

Little by little I will join this community, I remind myself.  Little by little.

Roommates of Plaza de Guipuzcoa (AKA the UN Subdelegation on Enjoying San Sebastian)

Four days have passed since that last surprise, and I think everything will be alright. 

I have managed to find 7 great roommates and we’ve smoothed things over with the landlord.  She claims that the construction was a surprise to them as well, but that we will be compensated financially. 

I am too excited to worry about it.  As we approach the first of October, the dream apartment in Plaza Guipuzcoa is slowly transforming from a hostel to our apartment.  We are disassembling beds, sweeping and cleaning, and unpacking our bags. 

Kevin and his nasty moustache
We’ve got a great line-up of roommates. 

First, my buddies from California, Nick and Kevin, will take a room each.  We’ve been hanging out a lot so far, so having them as roommates will only further cement our friendship.  I foresee our trio doing a lot of surf trips, guitar jams, cooking up communal feasts, and making weekly raids into the nearby Parte Vieja.   

Milo, a student from Cornwall in the UK will also join us.  Like me, he is an Auxiliar de Conversacion here in Spain.  He works in Irun, near the French border. 

Nick Ivarsson - The Swede from Cali
From Brittany in the NW of France, we have Maria.  She is also an Auxiliar de Conversacion, working in Hondarribia near the border.  She´s a super-cool girl, an excellent violinist and she´s even promised to teach me French this year.  She and Milo share a common heritage despite being in two different countries.  Both Brittany and the SW corner of England are homes to Celtic populations, much like Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, or Asturias and Galicia in Spain. 

Next is Felipo, a Brazilian student of Gastronomy.  He is a surfer, a cook, and an all-around chiller.  We are glad to have him join the party. 

Maria, the violinist from Brittany, France
Isa is our token Spaniard!  She is great, a really funny, cool girl from Castilian Navarre.  I think she is a little intimidated by being the only Spaniard in the apartment, but what could we do?  It seemed like most of the people looking for apartments were foreigners.  Perhaps this is because many Spaniards live at home until they get married, but I am not sure. 

Lastly, we have Elin, a cool Swedish girl who works for the hostel that owns the property.  She’s been in San Sebastian for a half year and she will certainly show us the ropes as we get acclimated to the life here. 

So that is our dream team!   As Isa says, our apartment looks a bit like the UN! 

It’s going to be a great year and we will all learn a lot from each other.

Now I gotta go, it’s time to get back to unpacking!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Eurkea! The Perfect Apartment is Discovered...With a Fatal Flaw

When I found my apartment, it seemed to good to be true.  Now, as the construction workers surround our building in scaffolding, I wonder if it was. 

At first glance it seemed perfect.  I could not find a better location – a corner apartment overlooking the most picturesque plaza in San Sebastian – Plaza de Guipuzcoa.  A sandstone building built in the Parisian ‘Belle Epoque’ style of the late 19th century, complete with a bustling boutique-lined arcade on the ground level. Two blocks to the beach, 4 minutes to the surf break in Gros and one block to the bars and restaurants in the Parte Vieja.  A central pad nestled in a pocket of serenity between a park and a pedestrian street.  Perfect.

Furthermore, all eight rooms were enormous.  During the summer the place is a hostel, so the rooms are designed to hold 5 people each.  Each room has a balcony with a view of the plaza, the ocean, or the statue of Jesús Cristo atop the nearby Mount Urgull.  To top it off, all the utilities and internet were included – all for 350€.  A steal for San Sebastian.

I saw potential.  With the right roommates, we could turn this apartment into a social center of San Sebastian ex-pat crew.  It could be a couchsurfing hub of northern Spain. 

So I quit my apartment search, told the property manager that I would find the other 7 tenants and put up an ad looking for cool roommates to spent an incredible year in an incredible apartment.  In just a few hours I’d switched from frustrated apartment seeker to the organizer of a dream apartment – after two weeks of searching, I’d finally found my Alberge Espagnol. 

But something was amiss.  The property manager wouldn’t look me in the eyes when she promised me it was a great deal, and I felt like she was hiding something from me.  She said the heating had to be replaced and the bathrooms needed renovation.  I asked her for her word that the heating would be repaired before winter and signed the contract. 

The next day, the construction began.   I woke up from a siesta to find a construction worker erecting scaffolding around my corner room.   My view of the ocean – gone.  I leaned over and asked him how much time it would take.

Cuatro meses, he laughed, Mas o menos.

Four months, more or less.  In Spain, that almost always means more rather than less

I felt as if I’d been duped.  I went to the landlord’s office and asked her if she knew about the construction.  She denied it, said she would not be interrogated by me, and threatened to cancel my contract and let me find another apartment. 

My dream of the perfect apartment seems in jeopardy. 

I am unsure what to do, so for now I will just keep searching for roommates and hope it all works out well.

Where to Live? San Sebastian by Neighborhood

Where to live?

The first step is deciding which neighborhood to call home.  Four my purposes, I will divide San Sebastian into four possible barrios where I could live:

Option One – Gros: Home to the surfing beach of Zurriola, this laid-back beach community feels like a town apart from the rest of San Sebastian.  It’s a residential neighborhood of five-story turn of the century buildings stretching from the mountain on the eastern limit of town to the river that divides the beach from the Parte Vieja.  Pros: Mellow surftown-vibes, 2 minutes walking to the beach, and ocean views.  Cons: it would be easy to get stuck in this barrio and never see the rest of San Sebastian, it’s far from where I have to work, and its expensive.

Option Two - Parte Vieja (The Old Town):
A beautiful grid of narrow streets and tall, ancient buildings squeezed onto a peninsula between the port, the mountain, the castle and the river.  The most centrally located area and home to the most bars per square meter in the world, so finding a party would be a cinch.  But rooms here are small, expensive and loud.  If I wanted to experience the quintessential cramped medieval apartment situation, this would be my jam.

Option Three – Antiguo:  Tracing the Bahia de la Concha to the other end of town is the posh neighborhood called Antiguo.  This is where many of the city’s rich folk live, and one street belongs to the local futbol club players.  Close to work, close to the university, and with views of the most picturesque beach in town – Playa de la Concha.  But it’s far from everything that matters to me – surf and nightlife.  So it’s really not an option.  Neither are the areas in the hinterlands, where I would need to catch a bus or buy a scooter I can’t afford.  So there is really only one more option…

Option Four – El Centro:  The most centrally located neighborhood, hence the name.  Everything is close from here – two or three minutes to the surfing beach, the nightlife in the Parte Vieja, the Playa de la Concha, and not far from where I have to work.  The only drawback?  It’s expensive as hell.  I guess I better start looking.