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.