February 2005
In this Issue:
The Basque Country, one
like no other
Basque Country, France
"Etxea", the Basque House
It is a visual treat to travel country roads in this region . . .
Women in Church
One can not separate religion from tradition in Basque culture . . .
Basque Festivals

Basque festivals, full of song and dance, are also a cultural tradition . . .

The Basque Pelota Game
Any Basque village worthy of its name has a fronton for the Basque pelota game . . .
The Devil Wanted to Learn
No Basque had ever been sent to Hell . . .
Typical Basque House - France!

Basque Country, France onjour!
This month, let's talk about a region of France with such strong personality that it is often described as a country in its own right: the Basque Country, or "Euskal Herria". It is an enchanting triangle of greenery and water, nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pyrenees, very near the Spanish border. A strange living language with very enigmatic voicing is still spoken there, residential architecture is a model of rare beauty and the inhabitants are a proud people. It would be impossible to discover this country - small in size but big in heart - and not fall in love with it! But before continuing, please remember that you can access and read all the newsletters already published at http://www.francemonthly.com/

"Ongi etorri!", or "Welcome!"

In this exceptionally charming region, a warm people with a very strong sense of community speak a peculiar language from another world, or so it seems. "Euskara", as it is called,
Basque Children - France
  Basque Children
(Click photo to enlarge)
has five vowels, twelve declinations, a difficult pronunciation, a somewhat Caucasian grammar structure, and sound similarities with Turkish or even Finnish and Japanese. Linguists are at a total loss. Where in the world did this language come from? One of the oldest, it has been spoken for more than 4,000 years in this region, having resisted the invasion of Indo-European languages. It existed there before the Greek, Latin, Slavic, Germanic, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon languages that followed and it still persists today. It can be heard in traditional songs and tales or spoken in the countryside. Of course, French Basques speak perfect French, but not mastering the Basque language as well as one's parents or grandparents is, still today, often considered breaking the chain of tradition and a disability.
"Euskadi", the Basque Country... Land of Uncertain Borders?

The Basque Country has a definite identity, yet is made up of 4 provinces in Spain and 3 in France. Labourd is the closest to the Atlantic coast and the most popular with tourists, while Basse Navarre (Low Navarre) and Soule in the south-east are breeding and farming regions steeped in Basque culture and tradition. Although these 3 regions blend together to form half the Atlantic Pyrenees department, they are typically referred to as their own country. After all, they have their own name, the Basque Country. The beautiful "Ikurina" flag represents Basque independence from these united Spanish and French provinces. It was originally created for one of the Spanish provinces alone, Biscaye, but quickly came to represent them all. The red background is Biscaye's color, representing the people. The green cross of St André symbolizes the oak tree of Guernica. For centuries, Spanish kings came to this tree to make the solemn oath to respect Basque civil rights, and the elders dispensed justice under it. Finally, there is the white cross proclaiming the teachings of the Christ who rules above the people and the law.

Basque Cake - France
Recipe for February 2005  
Basque Cake
Typical Basque Dessert
Preparation and cooking time: 40 minutes
8 servings
Click here to read the "Basque Cake" recipe in English.
Click here to read the "Basque Cake" recipe in French.
Cooking SOS! If you run into trouble with one of our recipes, send an SOS e-mail to 911@FranceMonthly.com

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"Etxea", the Basque House
  The Basque Country conjures up words such as "Euskara", "Ikurina", and also "Etxea", meaning "the Basque House", an equally important aspect of this culture. It is a visual treat to travel country roads in this region.
Ainhoa - Basque Country, France
Ainhoa - Basque Country
(Click photo to enlarge)

These large half-timbered and whitewashed buildings, embellished with brightly painted shutters of green, blue, or more often red, stand out amid the verdant landscapes. It used to be that beef blood was used to get this brownish-red tint so typical of Basque houses. Traditionally, they were real family compounds, housing the three generations of grandparents, parents and children. The oldest, whether boy or girl, inherited it since it was quite logically assumed that he or she would be the first to marry and the most able to take over family affairs. The "Etxea" was given a name which was then often adopted by the family as their own. This is why today many Basques have names such as Etchevery or Etchegory since originally "Etche" meant "house".
Women in Church
  One can not separate religion from tradition in Basque culture. Depending on the population of the village or city, the Basque churches varied in height from 2 to 4 levels. The ground floor was for women, whereas the main floor and above were reserved for men. Don't believe it if you are told that these gentlemen attended the services upstairs purely
Saint Jean de Luz Church with its 4 levels - France
St Jean de Luz Church
(Click photo to enlarge)
by gallantry or just to avoid the temptation of taking a glance at the ladies' underskirts as they climbed the stairs! This tradition actually pre-dates the French Revolution, and goes back to a time when the dead were buried on church grounds and funerary rites were held exclusively for women. There were ornamental sculpted tiles on the floor of the naves, each one representing a house from the village. During the service, women stood on their own tile, called a "jarkelu", where they would melt wax over the tomb in memory of all the house's deceased; they also took care of the food offerings. This is the real reason men and women are separated in Basque churches.
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Basque Festivals
  Basque festivals, full of song and dance, are also a cultural tradition. Songs seem to follow every daily task, and there are over 200 known dances. Every gender, every age, every social class, every province has its own dances.
Basque Festival, France
Basque Festival
(Click photo to enlarge)
A group will often gather after an official celebration or just a good meal, to dance the "mutxikoaks". The men form a circle and take more or less complex leaps. It is truly amazing to see how extremely agile these robust farmers and shepherds can be. Carnivals are also traditional. There, goddesses, giants, bizarre creatures, half-men, half-animals, all parade through the village following a straw or rag figure who ends up tried and burned on the public square, surrounded by a jubilant crowd. From Bayonne to Pampelona, or from Garazi to Hendaye, whether in the biggest city or the smallest village, these ancient festivals persist in everyday life, much to everyone's delight, inhabitants and tourists alike.
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  The Basque Pelota Game  
  Any Basque village worthy of its name has the traditional houses, a church, and nearby, a fronton for the Basque pelota game. More than a game "field", this front wall has become the symbol of this unavoidable regional sport. Spread by the Romans across the West, this palm ball game became the sport of choice of French and Spanish kings in the 16th century, which is also when the Basques took it over. Back then, it was practiced with bare hands, and face to face. In the 19th century for the first time, the core of the ball was made out of rubber which gave it such velocity potential that players started using a wall in play. Thus, the fronton was introduced. Pelota is not that simple a game; as a matter of fact, it has no less than 21 variations. Purists still play with bare hands, while others favor either a wooden racquet or a long wicker basket-glove called "chistera" which was originally used to pick fruit, and makes for a very elegant show. Basque pelota when played indoors is called "trinquet". Its peculiarity is that scores are sung, in Basque. This is a fascinating and virile exhibition that you can't miss since it is a part of every Basque's life from a very early age on.
  The Devil Wanted to Learn Basque  
  No Basque had ever been sent to Hell, and the Devil wanted to make up for this terrible oversight. The only way he could accomplish this was to corrupt an inhabitant, and therefore he needed to speak Basque in order to communicate. He promised a poor peasant a treasure in exchange for some basic knowledge of this mysterious language.
Bidarray - Basque Country, France
Bidarray, Basque Country
(Click photo to enlarge)
The man was oblivious to his interlocutor's sinister demeanor and accepted his offer, to improve his own miserable existence. Weeks, months, and years went by without the Devil making any progress towards his goal. No matter how hard he tried, he simply could not remember the vocabulary, didn't understand the grammar, and couldn't master the pronunciation which he found much too difficult. Finally one day, after many sleepless nights and fits of stubbornness and rage, he was able to compose an impressive speech. He set out, his parchment under one arm, determined to find a victim. He quickly settled on the daughter of a wealthy farmer whom he considered to be too pious. On this December 24th, as the little girl was hurrying to meet her parents at church, the Devil made himself invisible so that he could follow her. As he was lurking behind an oak tree near the church, he became furious when he realized that his parchment had become invisible as well. He tried to remember his speech... he couldn't believe he might have worked so long in vain. By the time he was able to make the document reappear and was prepared to speak the fateful incantation, the child was dipping her little hand in the font, and fervently crossing herself. At that very moment, there was a terrifying thunder clap as a lightening bolt split the oak tree wide open and the Devil was never to be seen in the region again.
  A Dream Setting for a Proud and Hospitable People  
  The charm and character of the Basque Country comes not only from the beauty of its magnificent landscapes and its lovely climate, but also from the strong and living culture that its people are so proud of, even if modern-day life sometimes takes them away from it. We will be glad to point out where to stop and what to see in an upcoming newsletter. We will share with you once again our love of this country, its breathtaking landscapes, its culture, and its generous people who possess the quiet self-assurance forged from centuries of knowing that they are a breed apart, with roots that go back to time immemorial.
Basque Country, France

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