You Know You’re Basque American When…

Photo Credit: Amaya Oxarango-Ingram

Photo Credit: Amaya Oxarango-Ingram

1. Your Car has Basque Flag Bumper Stickers and a License Plate Frame.

Most likely with cutesy phrases like “Proud to be Basque” or “World’s Greatest Aitatxi.”  Most likely purchased from the legendary Etcheverry Basque Imports.  Most likely tacky yet fabulous.  Everyone who sees your car will be dazzled by your ethnic pride and confused by what flag that is.

Morcilla2. You Get Excited When You See Beef Tongue, Blood Sausage, Oxtail Stew, or Pigs Feet on the Menu.

Your friends might think it’s disgusting, but you grew up with it. Amatxi probably told you it was chicken, and you went with it.  Now these treats get you a little nostalgic, so you have to order them whenever you can.

3. Your Aita/Aitatxi Stores Slabs of Dry Cured Ham in the Garage.Xingar

Call it Jambon, Jamon, or Xingar–it’s overly salty and it looks like an entire pig’s leg.  (Is it an entire pig’s leg?  I don’t know!  My city girl brain just knows it’s huge and a little creepy to have hanging from the ceiling in your house.) You know your aita/aitatxi is proud of these massive hams, but it’s embarrassing to have friends come over and think your dad is some kind of serial killer for a hot minute before you can explain.  He’s not an axe murderer, he’s just Basque.

4. You Say You’re French Basque or Spanish Basque.  

No one outside the Basque community knows what the hell Iparralde and Hegoalde are, or what you mean by “Northern Basque Country” and “Southern Basque Country.”  Heck, even a lot of Basques in the U.S. don’t know what Iparralde and Hegoalde mean, and that’s okay. I’m only fortunate to know those terms because of culture classes at Udaleku.

But actually, if I’m being honest, most Americans don’t even know what Basque means.  So when trying to explain things, we don’t bog them down with the details.

5. You Get Told You Either Look Like Your Tantta Maite or Otto Manex.

Or any number of mystery relatives from the Old Country you’ve never met.  But your parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents will swear you are the spitting image of this stranger.  Just roll with it and hope it’s a compliment.

6. You Have a Marching Band Playing in Your Catholic Mass.

1993 Klika closeupI know I’ve mentioned Klika quite a bit, and I know bugle corps are mostly an Iparralde thing (see what I did there?).  But that’s not something you see every day.  A band of men marching up and down the church aisle beating drums and blasting loud bugles?  So bizarre.  While other cultures might find making such a racket during mass disrespectful, it’s just Sunday as usual to us.

7. You Don’t Remember the Difference Between Euskal Herria and Euskadi, and You Don’t Really Care.  

map of Basque Country

Euskal Herria is the Basque term for the entire Basque Country, all seven provinces included.  Euskadi is the Basque name for the Basque Autonomous Community, a government entity in Spain comprising the three Basque provinces of Araba, Gipuzkoa, and Bizkaia.  Again, this is something I learned at Basque camp.

I’ve also been reminded of the correct usage of these terms by highly politically correct visitors from the Basque Country.  While I understand the sentiment behind their proud lessons about the homeland, I don’t appreciate the grammar lesson.  Don’t they know we Basques in America are the descendants of backwards, illiterate sheepherders?  You can’t expect them to have told us everything about what’s hip in the Basque Country nowadays.

8. You Hear Lamb Birth Stories at the Dinner Table.

Or a variation of such educational farm anecdotes.  For me, it was learning how pigs are slaughtered to make blood sausage, while eating blood sausage.  (Thanks for that one, Aita!)  While these gems only come out once in a while, they really leave an impression.

*I realize I’m neglecting my country Basque Americans here.  Perhaps instead of hearing stories of animal births and slaughters, you’re actually witnessing them?  In that case, I applaud you for your strong stomach and thick skin.  My French cousins would call you a vrai basque.*

9. Your Aitatxi Can Outdrink You. 

Photo Credit: Amaya Oxarango-Ingram

Photo Credit: Amaya Oxarango-Ingram

Dear ol’ Aitatxi has probably been drinking wine and/or cider since he was four-years-old.  They made it on the farm, after all, and he’s got the cute rosacea red face to prove it.  If your aitatxi’s like my aita, maybe he doesn’t even drink water unless it’s in his wine. Maybe he doesn’t even consider wine to be alcohol.  It’s only like 12% alcohol.  To your aitatxi, that’s child’s play.

10. You Think You’re Hella Basque, Until You Go to the Basque Country.

The times in my life when I’ve felt the least Basque–and by extention, the most American–were when I was visiting the Basque Country.

You grow up, going to all of the picnics and festivals, learning Basque dances, card games, and sports.  No one can question how Basque you are!  You are hella Basque.  Until you go to the Basque Country for the first time and realize it’s a whole different world out there.  An actual different country!

You realize your knowledge of cultural traditions is mostly irrelevant in your travels, as Basque people don’t actually spend all of their time folk dancing or playing cards and pilota.  While you may impress people with your “Ni neska polita naiz!” [translation: I am a pretty girl!], your language skills are useless.

Really, you’re just in a foreign country you thought you knew everything about.

This One Time At Udaleku Camp…

The North American Basque Organization‘s (NABO) annual two week summer camp, Udaleku, just wrapped up in Bakersfield, California yesterday.  Visit Euskal Kazeta’s Facebook for pictures and videos from last night’s final performance, and the Udaleku Facebook for more pictures.

Udaleku, known in my day as Music Camp, is a culture-filled day camp for young Basques between the ages of 10 and 15.  Lucky campers get to learn a whole host of Basque things:

On top of all of this, Udaleku provides children of NABO’s Basque communities the opportunity to visit other Basque clubs.  Every year, a different Basque club steps up to organize Udaleku, with members opening up their homes to host children for two weeks.  Not an easy thing to put together, but somehow it all gets done.

Visiting other Basque clubs at such a young age is key to keeping our communities connected.  Udaleku fosters lifelong friendships, many of which are bound to be long distance.  Having friends all over the Western United States opens doors for young people to travel to other clubs’ summer picnics and festivals when they get old enough.  Going to Udaleku as a kid is like what networking is to adults.  We meet a lot of people and somewhere down the line, those connections prove to be helpful in more ways than just socially.

Attending four Udalekus as a child set the foundation for my future involvement in both Udaleku and Basque communities outside my own local Bay Area.  After graduating from camp, I returned three more times to help out: two stints as a camp aide and one San Francisco camp as an instructor.  And I have a feeling that’s not where it ends.

This year’s end of Udaleku coincides with an interesting moment in my life.  I am currently in New York City, celebrating my birthday with a cousin I didn’t know existed until I was twelve years old.

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Gathering in someone’s backyard for the kickoff event of 2002’s Reno camp, a middle aged woman I had never seen introduced herself to me as my cousin.  Confused and wondering why this strange woman would be lying to me (even back then I was a cynic), she pointed out her son in the crowd and told me he was my cousin too.  That marked the beginning of a formative reunion with my long lost cousins from Chino, California.

These are the kinds of stories that come out of Udaleku.  This invaluable summer camp provides a space for young Basques in North America to connect, feel included in something larger than themselves, and learn that getting involved with Basque communities can be fun.  I would strongly recommend to any parent and child considering Udaleku as a summer activity to apply for next year.

Do you have any interesting stories from Udaleku?  What does Udaleku mean to you?

Fiction Fridays: Chino Picnic, Part 1

My main writing project at the moment is a young adult novel about a fictionalized Basque American folk dancing group. Every Friday, I will post excerpts from my novel draft. This is a work in progress, so comments with feedback are much appreciated! I hope you enjoy this first installation of Fiction Fridays.

The clear, starry night above the town of Chino, California enveloped the fairgrounds with a warm breeze, as the all ages Labor Day dance got underway. Throngs of Basque Americans crowded around the outdoor bar lit up by the fluorescent lights of the weather shelter overhead. They spoke loudly to compete with the live music blaring from the speakers, delighted at catching up with old friends and connecting with new ones. On the open slab of concrete a few steps away, countless couples moved to the melodic accordion music of the visiting three-piece band. Tall bleachers allowing seating for the young and elderly and the band’s elevated platform boxed in the makeshift dance floor.

Everyone had been at the fairgrounds all day, going through the motions of the annual schedule that had not changed in its forty-five years of existence: Catholic mass said in Basque, barbecue steak lunch, traditional folk dance performances, and now the much anticipated dance. Although many were tired from the long, hot day’s activities, the energy was palpable. Members of Chino’s adolescent folk dancing group milled about the scene, some dancing, others trying to score drinks, some wallflowers sitting on the bleachers.

“Your brother didn’t come tonight?” sixteen-year-old Maia Heguy inquired of her friend, leaning in close and speaking loudly over the music. Tall and commanding, she had the type of distinct features that photographed beautifully but looked harsh and masculine in person. She tried to counteract this effect by growing out her straight, dark brown hair as long as she could, earning her the pet name Pocahontas among her friends. Continue reading

Piperade is the Crack Spot

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My family and I first ate at Piperade to celebrate my 18th birthday.  My birthday, my choice, and after 18 years of birthdays and countless family parties at the Basque Cultural Center, I wanted to try something new.

My poor aita hated it, and made the evening a miserable experience for everyone with his criticisms and negativity.  Several years later, I once again choose Piperade as the venue for my birthday dinner.  This time, my father is excited to return.  He’s heard some good things about it (mostly from me), and he’s willing to give it another try.

I think of Piperade as Sexy Basque.  It’s warm and homey with all of your favorite foods, like your mom’s house, but the combination of its chic clientele, eye-catching artwork, intimately dim lighting, and ambient Latin music give off a swanky vibe.  (Not to mention the higher pricing…)  It all makes you feel like you’re in an upscale, cosmopolitan spot in Bayonne.

It’s not surprising then my 70+ year old aita, born and raised in an isolated mountain farmhouse, would feel out of place in such a hip establishment.  Yet this time around, Piperade won my father over with a little sweet talking and complimentary goodies from the proprietor.  Success!

The Picky Aita in Question

The Picky Aita in Question

While most of the Basque restaurants in the American West were born out of sheepherding communities and boarding houses, Piperade represents the modern Basque.  It’s a place where the descendents of those sheepherders, armed with middle class cash and urbane taste, can gather to enjoy delicious Basque food while feeling sophisticated, rubbing elbows with the Financial District crowd.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the family style meals offered by Woolgrowers and other staple Basque restaurants, but stepping into Piperade just makes me feel cool.  The place is always packed for dinner, and  reservations ahead of time are strongly recommended.

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Walking into a Basque restaurant packed with non-Basques makes me proud.  It shows there’s a significant number of Americans who appreciate Basque culture and Basque food.  Enough to pay $20 for a plate of piperade.  (Seriously, don’t you guys know it’s just peppers, onions, and tomatoes?  My dad’s got a freezer full of the stuff and I’m sure he’d be happy to share it with you for free.)

Jokes aside, my thanks go out to the Gerald and Cameron Hirigoyen for building this business.  Piperade gives us young Basque Americans in the Bay Area a place separate from our parents’ and grandparents’ Center to enjoy ourselves and celebrate our heritage.

Piperade

1015 Battery Street

San Francisco, CA 94111

10 Basque Picnic Essentials

Basque picnic season is in full swing, with the North American Basque Organization’s Convention coming up in Elko, Nevada July 5th through 7th.  For the newcomers to our little subculture and for those who have been through the routine a million times, here are my tips for your next Basque festival.

Photo Credit: Amaya Oxarango-Ingram

Let’s start with the practical items.

1. Reserve a Table.  Picnic tables are prime real estate at daytime picnics.  Everyone and their Sharpie-wielding mothers seem to arrive the day before or at the crack of dawn to claim their turf.   You’d better not try to sit at a table with a name on it!  Oh no.  So be sure you (or your mother) get there plenty early or ask a friend to save you a spot.

2. Bring Your Own Snacks and Drinks.  Is there one kickass dessert you just have to share?  Will your kids not leave you alone unless they’re munching on some Goldfish?  Are you dying for Kool Aid and they don’t have it at the bar?  Bring your own!  One of the biggest part of summer picnics is sharing food with friends and family, so make sure to pack the extra stuff in case you happen to get peckish between mass and lunch, or in case you still have room for dessert after that hefty slab of grilled meat.

*Also, check ahead of time that lunch will be provided.  There’s nothing worse than going to a picnic expecting a hot lunch to discover you were supposed to bring your own food.  I’m looking at you, San Inazio Sunday.*

3. Bring Cards, a Book, or Twister.  ANYTHING to stave off the boredom that inevitably comes in the middle of the afternoon.  That awkward in-between period when you’re tired of watching the dance performances you’ve seen a dozen times before but you still have several long hours before the band starts playing and it’s your turn to bust a move.  This mostly applies if you’re a loner or can’t stand hours of small talk.

4. Slather on the Sunscreen.  Many of us Basques are pasty white kids.  Embrace it!  Don’t be too shy to apply as needed throughout the day.  Or just stay in the shade as much as you can.  This usually does not apply to San Francisco’s picnic, though.  If you’re going to that one, I’d be more concerned with bringing a jacket to protect you from the gusty Petaluma breeze.

 5. Take Pictures.  Basque picnics are very casual affairs, so not many people think to take pictures unless it’s of their children during the dance performances.  But it’s always fun when pictures from picnics twenty or thirty years ago resurface on Facebook, providing us with the opportunity to laugh at people’s haircuts, or the fact that dudes still had hair back then.  I’m not saying you have to be your group’s photographer the whole day, but take the time to snap a few pics of your friends and family for future enjoyment.

Photo Credit: Amaya Oxarango-Ingram

Photo Credit: Amaya Oxarango-Ingram

Now for the social stuff. 

6. Talk to at Least One Person You Don’t Know.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of hanging out with our old friends or the people we came with, but these events are a great chance to meet new people.  One of the best ways to see everyone is volunteering to help serve lunch, sell sandwiches, or work the bar.  A lot of times organizers need last minute help, so find whoever’s in charge and offer your services.  Most everyone I’ve met at a picnic or festival has been friendly and happy to chat, so break out of your bubble and see who’s around.  You can very well find a new best friend, business contact, or babysitter at Basque festivals.

7. Hang Out with the Klika/Pilotaris at the Bar.  Not all clubs have a Klika, but if they do you can’t miss them.  They’re the group of men wearing white, marching in and out of mass, tooting loud bugles.  And the pilotaris are the men with, well, big hands.  If you’re looking for a new friend, lover, or just a free drink, these men are happy to provide.  This mostly applies to women, but fellas looking to befriend a burly Basque man should keep an eye out for San Francisco’s boys.  You never know with those guys…

– OR –

8. Avoid Klika/Pilotaris at the Bar.  If you don’t particularly enjoy dealing with a crowd of drunken men, stay away.  They can be a little much for the more introverted party-goer.

9. Have a Positive Attitude.  As with most things in life, festivals can be much more enjoyable if you go into it with a positive attitude.  I spent enough picnics as a surly teenager to know that they are what you make of them.  Which brings me to my next point…

10. Lower Your Expectations.  For young people going to a festival, it can be helpful to lower your expectations.  You’ve been waiting for this picnic/festival/Jaialdi for weeks or months, working up how crazy off the hook it’s going to be.  You’ll catch up with old friends, drink a few kalimotxos, dance the night away, maybe crash a motel afterparty, and you will definitely hook up with that cutie you’ve had your eye on since Udaleku all those years (or months!) ago.  Sadly, this cannot be the reality at every picnic or festival, and if you go into the festivities with this mindset you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment.  So yes, it will be fun, but don’t paint yourself into a corner with how epic you’ve built it up to be in your mind.  Sometimes things don’t work out the way you’ve planned, and that’s okay.  Better luck at the next one.  Because hey, sometimes they do.  😉

Now go forth into the Basque American West and enjoy yourselves!  For a full list of upcoming Basque festivals, check the NABO website.

What are your tips for festival season?  I’d love to hear from you!  Add to the discussion in the comments.

Basque Friends Make the Best Friends

A life without friends means death without company.      – Basque Proverb

When you meet a Basque, you are sure to meet a friend. Unless you’re hogging all the wine at dinner, then you’d better watch yourself, because there are two things we all know about the Basques: 1) We love our wine. 2) We carry pocket knives.