Friendship Across Lines

The other day, a package arrived from my friend Jone in Spain. It contained a necklace with the laubur, an unofficial symbol of the Basque Country. It bares resembles to the swastika, but the laubur, known in other languages by other names, is an ancient symbol long used by a number of different cultures and only later appropriated for alteration by the Nazis. Laubur means simply “four heads” in Basque. It’s rotated axis pushes forward and symbolizes the constant evolution of life.

I know there is a lot of controversy over the Basque Country, but politics aside, I have never experienced anything but the most genuine friendship from the people there. I spent several weeks in the Basque Country while living in Spain in 2011 and 2012, and my Basque friends made every effort to be inclusive, sensitive to the fact that I was uninformed about Spanish history and politics, let alone Basque history and politics, and respectful of my own cultural norms and traditions. I went everywhere from the beautiful cities of San Sebastián and Bilbao to the town of Irún and even smaller towns whose names I can’t even remember — places with all-night long garage punk concerts and heritage festivals; a fog-enveloped winery on the top of a small mountain; a storied church at the top of two hundred stone steps on a rocky island. A friend of mine’s family took me to the beach to walk long the shore that connected France and Spain. Another friend’s grandmother served me up a whole fish when we dropped by her house unannounced.

It is a beautiful place.

I wanted to learn more about this incredible culture so I started learning the Basque language. It is an ancient language — far older than most languages in existence in the modern day — whose roots are largely unknown. It shares almost no commonalities either in terms of vocabulary or structure with other tongues. There are many hard consonants, yet the words have a way of rolling together.

It is difficult to find Basque language textbooks in the United States. There is one in the entire D.C. public library system. This past spring, it was a terrific surprise when I received a package from my Basque friend Judit. She had sent me a Basque textbook and workbook as well as a Basque children’s storybook with which to practice.

And shortly after, another surprise package arrived from my friend Raquel, Obabakoak, one of the only few hundred books originally written and published in Basque. The version she sent me was in English, thankfully (I’m still working on reading the children’s storybook Judit sent. Diligent student though I am, I have not yet progressed beyond a basic understanding of the language!), with stories that beautifully capture the communities, folklore, and landscape that characterize the Basque Country.

Raquel doesn’t speak Basque. Judit and Jone do. I have Basque friends who are separatists and Basque friends who want to remain part of Spain. I have still other friends who are indifferent.

The politics are not, at this point, what’s important to me. If I were living in the Basque Country myself, or if I had roots there, or even if I were living again in Spain, maybe the politics would be of greater importance. But what’s important to me now is the friendship I’ve experienced from all the people I’ve met there. When Jone sent me the laubur, she included a note. “I want you to know that every day I think about you,” she said. “I would like you to feel the same way about us, your friends and family, and also about the Basque Country. This gift is a symbol of the Basque people, and I want you to have it.” She also wrote, “Enjoy life, it’s beautiful!”

It’s true.

An Open Rehearsal for Some of D.C.’s Secret Best

An Open Rehearsal for Some of D.C.’s Secret Best

A couple of weeks ago, Brian took me to an open rehearsal for Humble Fire in the Jamjar basement in Mt. Pleasant. Jamjar, if you don’t know, is one of the many DIY/DIT venues in D.C., and Humble Fire uses … Continue reading

Midnight Birthday Moment

In August, three of my closest friends moved away from D.C. Another is traveling frequently, only here on occasion.

It has been a tough month for looking forward. Usually I’m quick to spout off wise advice about taking everything as it comes and accepting that everything happens for a reason, things change, people come and go.

It’s a little bit harder when I have to apply this advice to myself.

I love D.C. I love that there are so many people, so many different types of people, and always something new to do. But part of this is that it’s a very transient city. And I’m at a very transient age. Some of my friends are in graduate school, others working full time. Some of them are doing gap years … or still doing gap years — three years after the first gap year. Some of them live in fancy apartments and drive expensive cars. Some of them live in shared houses. Some of them live at home. Some of my friends go out to bars every night. Some of them are married. Some have pets. One has a kid.

The point is, it’s hard to find time to meet up. It’s even harder to hold on to the things you once had in common.

The other day I was thinking about all of this and trying to make sense of it, or trying, at the very least, to find the good in it.

I do believe you keep in touch with the people that mean a lot to you, but I also believe that, sometimes, even if someone is important in your life, situations and evolving interests make it difficult to remain as close as you once were. So it’s important, as always, to savor what you have when you have it.

My 25th birthday was my friend Sylvia’s last day in D.C. She had been out all day visiting friends in various places. By the time she finished seeing everyone else and got to me, it was 11:00 pm. I was concerned it was too late, that it was going to be a hassle for her, but one thing you should know about Sylvia is that she’s unshakably loyal. If she gives you her word, she means it, and she’s committed to being there for her friends.

So at 11:00 pm, after a full day of goodbyes, Sylvia drove to my house from Virginia, sat at my kitchen table, and talked with me for over an hour. I have so many good things to say about this girl that I don’t even know where to start. Sometime I’ll write a whole separate post about her because she is truly incredible. But here’s just one example in the meantime:

When it was nearing 12:00, I said she must be tired and asked if she needed to go. She was exhausted. I could tell. I was exhausted. I was already in my pajamas. But Sylvia looked at the clock. “We have to wait ’til your birthday,” she said. And she stayed, fifteen more minutes, and then twenty more minutes after that, so that the first moments of my 25th birthday I spent with one of my most treasured friends, someone who over the past year and a half had been a central part of my life.

This was so precious to me. Sylvia’s last hours in D.C. My last hour of my first quarter century. That we got to spend them together was something really special.

I don’t know when we’ll see each other next, or if things will change, but I do know that that night, and the friendship that it represented, is something I will always remember. I have had so many adventures with Sylvia, so many wonderful times. It was, upon reflection, a poignant moment: The end, for both of us, of one phase, and the beginning, for both, of the next.

Blues and Beet Gazpacho

Brian Farrow knows everyone in this city. Last week I won tickets to see Shakespeare Theatre’s performance of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, which, side note, was wittily interpreted and had me laughing throughout (Second side note: What kind of couple dissolves imminent fights by playacting as if they were Tunisian harlots, gentile aristocrats, and lions? Not sure, but I love it. Also, if all fights could end with a snappy piano rendition of “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” that would be bomb.), and afterward, Brian, who had been my guest, invited me to a house party in Mt. Pleasant.

If you haven’t figured this out yet, Mt. Pleasant hosts a substantial number of house parties. All of them are great. You should always go.

This one was at Brian’s friend Sitali’s house. Sitali is another musician. He had invited Robert Lighthouse and some other musicians over to play some blues.

I love the blues. My dad spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and we often had the blues playing in our house when I was growing up. When I was 17, I formed a one-girl blues band that sometimes included my eight-year-old neighbor. It was called Sugarpie Stanton and her Kingbiscuit Swingers. The name was a lot flashier than the band itself, I’m sorry to say.

Anyway, point being, when I heard this was not just any house show but a blues house show we were going to, I was pretty excited.

When I walked in, I was handed a square cup of beet gazpacho. There were trays of ribs, pickled watermelon, and giant s’mores out back. We sat around on the porch a while chatting and playing the kazoo. I carry one around in my purse, because that’s the type of quirky person I am.

After a bit we went inside. The guys were going to start jamming. A bunch of us crowded into the living room, where there was a keyboard, a mandolin, and four or five guitars. In the middle of the room was an empty one-armed rocking chair, and someone indicated that I sit there. The bluesmen started playing: The Swedish guitarist Robert Lighthouse; trumpeter and keyboardist Joe Brotherton; a man named Wayne on the washboard; and my friend Brian playing the bass line on the guitar and later the mandolin.

Man was it good. There is nothing like a jam session in a hot, humid night to set you straight.

The best part was the trumpeter tossed me a shaker egg to play along. Do you know how long I’ve wanting to play with a band? It’s a dream of mine. And to sit with those storied blues musicians, shaking that shaker egg and rocking back and forth in that one-armed rocking chair … That was incredible, surreal. Sometimes you wonder if the heat makes you a bit delusional.

Later, when we walked out, it was misting and it started to drizzle. Brian had borrowed the mandolin and began to make up a song.

We walked along the sidewalk, a little bit giddy. On nights like these you feel a bit like children, partly because it’s raining and what person in their right mind skips in the rain without an umbrella, and partly because of the night itself, because at 1:00 in the morning you’re so filled with wonder and just … love … for this world, this life, the things you do and the things you discover, that you feel like you’re coming into your own again.

We waited for the bus at the top of the hill. In the bus shelter, we sang one of my favorite songs, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” You can hear me almost laughing. So much happiness packed into a single night.