Thursday, August 12, 2010

Language and resistance in the Basque region of Spain

San Sebastian in all its glory.

Last year N. and I spent three weeks in Spain and France, circling the border on trains and sampling food, wine, architecture and sun everywhere we went. It was a gorgeous three weeks, with far too many highlights to mention. It was one gigantic highlight.

After some time in Barcelona, we took the train to San Sebastian, on the Atlantic coast. It's a tourist destination, and the only place we found was a dump of a hostel, but the beach, food and architecture was enough to keep us there for a while.

In the bathroom stall at the public library, I saw this graffiti:

espaƱolitos, go home!

Those of you with a working knowledge of Spanish culture may see the paradoxes (not the right word...) in this tiny piece of cultural resistance; I love it.

Obvious question: Why is it in English? Why not Spanish or Basque?

In a region that partially defines itself as vehemently independent, one that struggles to maintain its language and culture, it was odd to see English used as a vehicle for anti-homogenizing sentiment. Spanish is the dominant language, not English, so is to be avoided. In a world where we're used to reading or hearing about the disappearance of language and the globalization of the English language and American culture, it's almost refreshing to see this.

So not Spanish. Basque, then? Problem is, the annoying espaƱolitos wouldn't understand it, much like most of us (western Canadians, anyway) wouldn't understand if we were told the same thing in Quebecois French. It would be great for locals, but the visiting young Spanish tourists would likely see it as an interesting bit of local culture. "Look, they even write graffiti in their own language."

I don't have any grand conclusion(s). Go to San Sebastian. Even at the height of the tourist season, it was gorgeous and worth our time. While you're there, read about the history and buy some Basque literature. There are only about 100 novels written in Euskara, the Basque language. I bought one by Bernardo Atxaga, called Obabakoak (even available at Amazon). He translates his own work into Spanish, then they are translated into English.

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