Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Trip Start Sep 02, 2010
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Trip End Jun 13, 2011


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Flag of Spain  , Basque,
Sunday, May 22, 2011

Several years ago, when my family and I travelled to the city of our ancestors, in Cornwall, I was a little disappointed to discover it's an industrial port city, not some charming English village on the Cornish coast, as I'd envisioned. Even so, we enjoyed making the pilgrimmage to the motherland and learning about our Quaker ancestors.

This year, Dan and I decided to make a pilgrimmage of our own. It seemed appropriate that at the end of our big round-the-world journey, we'd visit his ancestral land: Basque country outside of Bilbao. To finish at the beginning.

It's easy to make jokes about the Basque people: about their sheep-herding, isolationist culture; their radical politics; or their bizarre language, which looks like a cross between Greek and Pig Latin. The capital city of Basque country also gets a bad rep. People gush about the Guggenheim, but then they warn us that that's the only thing worth seeing in Bilbao.

Well, too bad for all you naysayers out there, but we LOVED this little corner of Spain. We found the people to be so friendly (we were stopped several times by locals wanting to know if they could help direct us somewhere--we'd had the map splayed out in front of us), the food to be amazing (best paella ever--better than in Valencia), and the city to be attractive (a charming walk along the river, lovely plazas, and a super-cool scene around the Guggenheim). And I adored the museum. The building was breath-taking (I took some photos on the sly, since we weren't really supposed to break out our cameras), and the collection was the best I'd seen of any other modern art museum. Loved it.

But the best time we had here was the morning we made our pilgrimmage out to the town of Dan's ancestors. We awoke early to a glorious sun, left our hostel, and took a local bus to a small town about a half hour from Bilbao. Once in the town, some locals helped us find a country road that we could walk along until we'd supposedly find Dan's ancestral home. (Thank goodness for Google maps and for his father's helpful family research!)

And so we were on our way. As we walked the four miles along the country road, we were giddy with happy anticipation. We wondered what we'd find or whom we'd meet at the family home. We took a bazillion photos of sheep (the ancestral sheep!!), and we were delighted when little old Basque men wearing berets would reassure us that we were headed in the right direction.

Finally, we came to an intersection that was marked by a single roadsign: there it was! Our last name--a TOWN of its OWN--was just up the road. After taking more photos and scaring a young runner as we yelled out to her that this was our homeland, we marched farther down the road.

At one point, when we began realizing that we weren't sure we'd find the correct house, we flagged down a man who was driving past. When he rolled down his window, Dan proclaimed, "I am from this town! This is my town!" And the guy's response--a blank stare with raised eyebrows--was priceless. So Dan backpedaled, explaining about his family history and asking if the man knew of any family who shared our last name, the name of the town. He gave us a vague response and kept on his way, but we didn't care. A bit farther down the road, he must have decided to take pity on us because he found us wandering around, approached us again, and explained that he did in fact know which house belonged to Dan's family, and that the couple who live there share our last name. I think he got a kick out of watching us snap more photos and collect rocks and soil from the surrounding property. (Yup, we were BIG nerds. We could have easily starred in "Borat Explores Basque Country.")

As we rounded the bend and approached the house, we were delighted to find it very well kept up. There were blooming geraniums in the flower pots, lovely rose bushes lining the home, and a trellis with grape vines between the white-washed house and garage. It turned out that this was the "summer home" of its owners--our distant relatives--so we weren't lucky enough to meet them. But Dan did leave an infamous note that will go down in the family history books: as he attempted the Spanish phrase for "ancestral home," he instead wrote, "the home of my inheritance." He signed his name with a flourish and added his email address, and only later when he spoke to his father did he realize his translating mistake. Oops. I'm sure the folks who own this place won't be so happy to find that someone has come back to claim this home and its land (he'd also elaborated, in his note, on how beautiful the property is...). Yeah...we'll probably never hear from them.

My enthusiasm in finding this town may seem odd, especially since this is not technically MY homeland--I just married into this family. But Dan and I felt such a profound attachment to this land. This was our dirt! Our rocks! Our sheep! Maybe it's because the Basque people do tend to be mocked--or just unheard of--but we couldn't get over how nice it was was to be in a place where "everybody knows your name." Not only could they pronounce the name correctly (that's enough of a trial for most folks in the U.S.), but they could tell us some history about it--like how it came to have two spellings. (When the Basque region transitioned to adopting Spanish as the dominant language, they added an extra letter to our name so that the Spanish could properly pronounce it. The name of the town, however, preserved the original Basque spelling.)

The best moment came toward the end of the day, as we were leaving the cemetery (we found some family crypts--creepy, yes, but also very cool). A man pulled up to us in his car and asked if we knew the way to the town we'd just come from--the town of our name. Dan exclaimed, "Why, of course I know where that is! That's my town!" And though the guy had every reason to write us off as freaks and drive away, he just smiled and laughed, and he brought out his map. Dan was beyond excited to be able to point him in the right direction. Then, with a grin and a wave, the guy continued on his way.
 
And we were back on the country road, just the two of us and our sheep, feeling energized to continue moving forward since we'd finally seen where we'd come from.
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