23 Signs You Grew Up Basque [BuzzFeed]


I decided to do a little something different this weekend. I wrote up a list on BuzzFeed called 23 Signs You Grew Up Basque. Please check it out and share it with your social networks. Like it, tweet it, comment on it, and/or post it on Facebook.

Also, at the bottom of the post, you can click those little Your Reaction icons to move it up in the BuzzFeed lists. As always, thanks for your continued support!


Real Talk: Why I’ve Never Cared to Learn Basque

Basque identity is wrapped up in language. The Basque word for Basque person, Euskalduna, literally translates to “person who speaks Basque.” Some might say that to be Basque you must speak Basque.

Throughout my short life, people have asked me if I speak Basque, tried to teach me Basque, and told me I should learn Basque. There’s a small part of me that feels like I should at least try to learn Basque (mostly when people tweet me or write articles about Hella Basque in Basque), but for the most part I have absolutely no interest.

[Sidenote: If you actually want me to understand what you tweet me, please use Spanish or French.]

I figure my lack of interest is because I already speak French. I know Euskara, the Basque language, is so much cooler and rarer and makes for a great party trick, but the main purpose I would want to learn Basque would be to speak with my relatives in the Basque Country. And the truth of the matter is that I already can–in French.

Frankly, my French gets worse and worse by the year. With little opportunity to practice, I’ve forgotten what feels like 80% of the vocabulary I knew as a child. That makes communicating in French awkwardly uncomfortable, as I stutter and struggle to find the words that used to come to me so easily.

So why would I add another foreign language on top of that? Trying to learn Basque seems like way more effort than it’s worth. Even if I worked at it long enough to be successful, how would I be able to keep it up? There aren’t very many people I would be able to speak it with on a regular basis.

It seems like a mission for failure. Why learn a language just to lose it through underuse?

And then there’s the issue of which Basque to learn. My dad, aunt, uncles, and cousins all speak a specific Basque dialect from their region. If I wanted to learn Basque to speak with them, there’s no way I could learn it here in San Francisco. (Aita’s not the best teacher.) I would have to move to their region and learn from the locals.

I could enroll in a Basque language course here in the United States or online, but then I would be learning Euskara Batua, what Aita calls “le nouveau basque.” And frankly, my dad gets riled up when he hears Batua because he can’t understand it very well. Learning Batua would just give Aita another reason to yell at me.

The whole thing is just one big headache with few advantages. Sure, I could impress some people by learning Basque. But if I’m looking for a language to actually communicate with people, I don’t think Basque is it.

I’m glad schools in the Basque Country are teaching Basque and there’s a Basque language revival going on over there, but in the United States learning Basque just isn’t practical.

For the same reasons my parents taught me French instead of Basque, I’m going to focus on improving my French: it’s more useful because more people speak it.

What Makes a Person Hella Basque?

This news is a few months old but new to me: Iker Saitua, a Basque graduate student from the University of Nevada, Reno retraced the steps of Basque immigrants just for funsies. He took the train from New York all the way to Reno and wrote an interesting article about his experience over at Elko Daily Free Press.

Reading his account left me a little in awe. I thought to myself: And people call me hella Basque? No, this dude is hella Basque. Or maybe just a dude hella into history.

Seriously, who takes a trip like that? I’m impressed that he’s so into the history of Basques in the West that he would do a whole cross-country train journey. As someone who hates taking hours to get from Point A to Point B, I can’t believe he made the trip willingly in his spare time.

But my reaction to the post got me thinking about Basque identity. I feel a little uncomfortable when people call me “Hella Basque,” because I feel like there are so many people who are more Basque than me. Like this guy Iker.

I don’t speak Basque. Ethnically I’m only half Basque. And I’ve only spent maybe a grand total of five months of my life in the Basque Country.

But what makes us Basque? What makes one person more Basque than another? 

I’ve always felt connected to the Basque community primarily through folk dancing. Since I quit San Francisco’s Zazpiak Bat dance group four years ago, my connection has lasted through the relationships I’ve built within the Basque clubs. But I can’t say being involved in activities and making friends within a certain group makes me Basque. There’s something more, something intangible to it.

So I wondered if any of you readers had thoughts on this issue.

What makes you Basque? Please share in the comments!

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An Open Letter to my French Cousins


I get the feeling from your side of the family that you’re disappointed at how Basque I am. At how much pride I take in Basque traditions, and how little I know about the region of France my grandparents came from.

In my defense, I’d like to explain to you why growing up Basque was so much better than growing up French in San Francisco. I hope at the end of this post, you will understand. It’s nothing personal. I was just exposed to so many more Basque social events than French ones.

Perks of a French Upbringing:

1. Speaking French as a first language

I have to admit, this one’s pretty cool. I get to communicate with my extended family in France, I have an easier time traveling around Europe, and I get to read a lot of great poetry and literature in its original language. (Hi. I’m a lit nerd.)

Watching The Lion King (a.k.a. Le roi lion) in French–not so cool. I seriously didn’t see the original version until I was an adult. Such a deprived, privileged childhood, I know. I don’t feel sorry for me either.

2. Eating delicious food

It’s no wonder I was such a tubby child, with all of the croissants, pains au chocolat, and pâté I consumed in my early years. I love food, so growing up eating French food was pretty sweet.

Here, I’m embarrassed to admit I can’t think of any other reasons why being French American in San Francisco was awesome. So let’s just get started on why growing up Basque was so much more fun.

Perks of a Basque Upbringing:

1. Instant friends!

Going to the Basque Cultural Center every few months for a holiday lunch and getting to play with the same kids in the Kids’ Room between courses lays the foundation for friendship. Then you get old enough to join the dance group or get involved in handball and pala, and those friendships are set.

By the time you’re an adult, you’ve known a bunch of people your whole life and you see them all the time. While school friends may come and go, Basque friends are forever. You always know someone when you go to a Basque event, even if you haven’t been in years.

2. Parties all the time!

Like I said, Basque clubs host a party for every holiday. And if you’ve been reading this blog, you know all about Basque summer picnics and how awesome they are. There’s practically one every weekend from May to September! Growing up Basque provides no shortage of parties.

3. Summer camp!

The North American Basque Organization’s annual Basque summer camp, Udaleku, brings together Basque kids between the ages of 10 and 15 from all over the American West. It’s two weeks of having fun, making friends, and trying new things. If you don’t have many friends in your local Basque club, Udaleku gives you the chance to make plenty.

I’d say a big chunk of my current friendship were solidified at Udaleku.

4. Folk dancing!

Although I spent a lot of my youth complaining about how I hated going to Basque dance practice every weekend, I really loved it. Folk dancing is such a random, interesting activity for an American kid to grow up with.

When it came time for the dances of Basque festivals, I had favorite dances, knew all the steps, and had a fantastic time. It’s impossible to be bored at a Basque festival if you know how to dance!

There you have it. Growing up immersed in Basque culture and community gave me lasting friendships, priceless memories, and unique experiences on a much greater scale than growing up French.

So sorry if I tell people I’m Basque before French. Sorry if I forget to mention I’m French at all. It’s cool to be different. And being Basque is definitely that.



My Love/Hate Relationship with the Basque Country

While I’m proud of my Basque heritage, my trips to the Basque Country have always been bittersweet, usually leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth. There are so many things to love about the Basque Country, but there are also a lot of aspects of the culture I could do without. I want to share both of these with you, because I know several other Basque Americans share my ambivalence.

Before people chime in with comments about my view of the Basque Country being completely off, let me preface these lists by pointing out that my main experience of the Basque Country has been on family trips. As such, most of my time in the Basque Country has been spent visiting (older) relatives on farms and in rural communities in Behenafarroa. I have never lived in the Basque Country, and I definitely see it as an outsider.

I cannot speak for the entire Basque Country, but here are my observations of the small pocket I have experienced.

I love:

  • The food
    I swear everyone comes back from the Basque Country at least five pounds heavier, because the food is amazing. Visiting people’s homes, they’re happy to share with you all of the homemade pâté and foie gras you can eat. And don’t even get me started on my aunt’s homemade sausages!

    Even the non-Basque food isn’t too bad. I had fried egg on a pizza for the first time at Zubiondoa in Ossès/Ortzaize, and now I have to eat it (la reine, I think it is?) every time I visit the Basque Country. The Chinese buffet outside of Bayonne also greatly exceeded my expectations.

    Literally, I feel like all I do when I visit the Basque Country is eat. After a week-long trip of sitting around for hours gobbling down course after course, I ate nothing but crackers for two days straight when I got home. I could not imagine wanting to eat ever again. (Leave it to the American to binge eat her way through a vacation!)

  • Marché day
    Aita at bar des americains
    Every Monday in St. Jean-pied-de-port and every Friday in St. Palais. That’s the schedule, and you don’t mess with it. I think marché days have always been sacred for me, because they bring all of the tourists and locals out of the woodwork. Visiting in the summer, you’re bound to run into at least one Basque American family you know from back home.

    The shops and stalls are super cute, and I love watching my aita reunite with all of his old friends and enemies in the bars. There’s nothing more relaxing than sitting down at the bar’s outdoor seating for a drink between a petit tour of the shopping and the afternoon pilota match.

  • The sceneryCountrysideAnyone who’s seen pictures of the Basque Country can tell you it’s a gorgeous country. Lush green mountains, adorably picturesque towns, beautiful coastlines. The Pyrenees have innumerable trails to hike through, and I could take pictures of Basque farmhouses for days.
  • The history
    St. Jean-pied-de-port
    The Basque Country has so much amazing history! Plenty of old buildings to explore and historical sites to visit. I haven’t seen nearly as many as I would like, but I’m definitely going back one day for more. For history buffs, the Basque Country is a fascinating region to visit.
  • The bestas
    While I wish I had more young Basque friends to go around to the summer bestas with, the few I have experienced have been memorable. I love the idea of these small towns coming together to host activities and dances for one weekend, creating a big outdoor party for everyone to enjoy. The community spirit of it all is so quaint, and I love how similar the dances are to those at Basque American festivals.
  • Seeing familiar faces on people I don’t know
    Even though I know very few people in the Basque Country, whenever I go out to the marchés and bestas I see countless familiar faces. I feel a surreal sense of being at home when I see strangers who look like friends and family from our Basque American communities. It solidifies for me a real sense of identity and belonging, that this is the land my father came from.

Now for the rest…

I hate:

  • The fact that everyone knows who I am, but I have no idea who anyone is
    It’s a little unsettling to walk through a village with people’s eyes following me. They all know I’m the American. Pretty much everyone knows who I’m related to, how long I’m visiting, and why I’m there. They talk to me like they know me, but I’ve never seen them before in my life.
  • The lack of guard rails on narrow, windy mountain roads
    That shit is terrifying! I’ve prayed the hardest in my life on car rides through the Pyrenees. It doesn’t help that whoever’s driving usually loves to tell me all about the people who have crashed and died on the road we’re traveling on. People get their kicks at the petrified American’s expense.
  • People making comments about my body
    Some trips they say I’m too fat (in French, costaud which Google translates to “beefy”), others I’m too skinny. Either way, their judgment of my weight affects how they talk to me over food. If people think I’m too big, they make jokes if I help myself to seconds. If they say I’m too thin, they pressure me to eat food far beyond my comfort level.

    I’m sure they’re just concerned, but I could do without so much attention on my size. It could make a girl insecure…

  • Anti-American sentiment and political discussions
    Why people think it’s cool to talk about U.S. politics to us over the dinner table, I don’t know. Different cultures, I guess. Since I was raised to not talk about politics in polite company, I find it very uncomfortable when people bring up what’s going on in American politics–especially because I usually disagree with them.

    A lot of my relatives have expressed disapproval of whoever is President of the United States at the time of my visit. Which brings me to my next gripe…
  • Casual racism and xenophobia
    So much hatred of gypsies! Distain for British families buying vacation homes in the Basque Country. Jokes about how ridiculous it was that a black man in the marché spoke Basque. And my uncle literally named his black and white cat Obama. Because that’s so funny.Coming from the Bay Area, it’s a little shocking how little comments here and there add up to create such a negative landscape against anyone who is different.
  • Partying until the break of dawn (sometimes much later still)
    I know, I know. Call me boring, call me an old lady, but I’m a morning person and I hate staying up late. For a good party, I’ll stay out until 4:00, but 7:00 AM? That’s a little much. Staying out that late (or early, I guess) completely messes with my sleep schedule for days and makes me physically sick. I would much prefer starting the party earlier and getting to bed while it’s still night.
  • Over-hospitality and marathon meals
    Summer vacation Europe 2011 047
    People are major food pushers in the Basque Country. I have yet to find the balance of accepting enough servings of food to satisfy (i.e. not insult) my hosts and not stuffing my face to the point that I hate myself.

    Not only do people insist I eat a ton of food, they also insist I drink. People definitely give me a hard time for not drinking alcohol, but they certainly look at me like an alien if all I want to drink is water. Is it so hard to accept that I like to stay hydrated and save my calories for the foie gras?

    On top of the over-hospitality, I dread six hour sit down meals. Getting together with family to share a meal is not a simple affair. Course after course after course gets served so slowly that by the end of the dinner my butt’s asleep in the chair. I know Basque culture can be very anti-fast food, but does it have to be so pro-slow food?

Bring on the comments! What do you love and hate about the Basque Country?

10 Ways to Spot a Basque

1. Basque nose

Many Basques have a distinctive bump on their noses. While non-Basques get their funny looking noses from breaking them multiple times, Basques are just born with them.

Photo Credit: arditegia.com

Photo Credit: arditegia.com

2. Sporting lauburu (Basque cross) jewelry or tattoos

A lot of non-Basques take this ancient symbol to be a type of Swastika, with some school kids going so far as to call you a Nazi for wearing one. Researchers have been trying to figure out for years where the lauburu came from and what it means, but they haven’t managed to agree on anything quite yet.

The point being: this symbol is hella Basque, and if you see someone wearing one, they’re most likely definitely Basque.

3. A thick accent

While many Basques have French sounding or Spanish sounding accents when they speak English, Basques from the mountains who spent much of their lives speaking nothing but Basque sound completely different.

Compare the accent of your aita/ama/aitatxi/amatxi/aitxitxe/amuma to that of the young people you meet from the Basque Country today. You might never guess they came from the same region!

This accent can often be hard to place as well. My aita has often been mistaken for Eastern European.

You can hear some good accents in this clip of Alone on the Range: Basques in Wyoming.

4. Crazy last names like Begiristain, Mariñelarena, Berasategui, Arizmendiarrieta, and Goikoetxea

Credit: reactiongifs.com

Photo Credit: reactiongifs.com

It’ll probably take you a minute or two to figure them out, and they’re never pronounced the way you think they should be.

Photo Credit: Project 44 - Eve and Adam

Photo Credit: Project 44 – Eve and Adam

5. Men who are either very short or very tall

Why is there such a huge gap in Basque men’s height? I think of it this way: the men from the mountains are like hobbits living in the hills, while the men from the coasts and cities are giants declaring to the world, “Look at me, I’m here!” From Napoleons to Nordics, Basque heights run the gamut.





6. Wearing a beret non-ironically

Photo Credit: Amaya Oxarango-Ingram

Photo Credit: Amaya Oxarango-Ingram

Every once in a while you’ll see people wearing berets for a costume party, but Basques wear berets on the daily. They’re not just costume props to Bascos, they’re actual hats.

And aren’t they adorable?

7. Rosacea

Photo Credit: Amaya Oxarango-Ingram

Photo Credit: Amaya Oxarango-Ingram

From years of drinking wine and sun exposure, many Basques eventually develop rosacea as they age. You can see a nice example of it above.

8. Sausage fingers

Photo Credit: Scott Larsen

Photo Credit: Scott Larsen

Whether from a lifetime of manual labor or playing pilota, many Basques have sausage fingers. You win the Basque jackpot if you find someone with sausage fingers AND missing fingers.

9. Pronouncing Guernica like Gernika

When I learned about the bombing of Gernika in school, I was surprised to hear it pronounced Gware-nick-a. I tell you, Americans really have a knack for butchering beautiful foreign words. No Basque I ever met has pronounced it the American way.

10. Mullet + gold pirate hoop earrings + unshaven face + cropped pants + fanny pack around shoulder = hella Basque

Here I’m talking about a very specific breed of Basque male, in my experience originating from Hegoalde. These are the people I see randomly peppered into large Basque American festivals (usually with the visiting band or group of pilotaris) and I say to myself, “Now that dude’s legit Basque.” (Yes, I’m from California, and that’s actually how I speak to myself.)

I don’t understand why this is a look or who thought it was cool and trendy to look like a pirate, but I’m not here to explain it. If you have a picture of this phenomenon, please send it my way! I wish I had the drawing skills to illustrate it, but just know that this look is as ridiculous to my American eyes as it sounds.


While I recognize that each of the items in this list may not be exclusively Basque things, find someone with a few of these characteristics and there’s a good chance they might be Basque.

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.