Tuesday, November 14, 2006

an ignorant American in the Basque country

Herewith #2 in what may become an Occasional Feature of this blog: the Drunken Housewife writes on the topic of a reader's choice. Today we address a theme suggested by the Freewheeling Spirit: something which surprised the Drunken Housewife on a trip.

When I was a sophomore in college, I studied abroad on Boston University's advanced Spanish program, where I took classes at the Institutu Internacional in Madrid and lived, along with another B.U. student, with a Spanish grandmother in an atmosphere of decayed grandeur. Our hostess wished to visit her adult daughter's family in northern Spain, and yet she was chained down by her obligations to her American teenaged boarders. She convinced us to accompany her, painting a glorious picture of the wonders which would await us. We could cross over into France! We would see a whole new part of Spain! We would take a wonderful train trip! So, we agreed, and we all set off.

I had hit it off very well with my landlady, Chiruca, and my fellow student, but relations between the two of them were quite strained. My roommate found it maddening that I was so popular with our landlady, because to her way of thinking, I was not plunging deeply enough into the Spanish way of living (I was cheating on my American boyfriend with a Nigerian student, who incidentally went on to become quite important in the Nigerian government, whereas she was cheating on her American boyfriend with a series of Spanish men, but also another B.U. student). Whenever she had to talk to Chiruca, she'd become tongue-tied, and Chiruca compared her Spanish unfavorably to mine. The roommate, a New Jersey suburbanite, also had issues with the decrepitude of many of the apartment's fixtues, but I, being from a rural background, found it comparative elegant.

On our trip, the roommate acidulously commented on our landlady's decision to book herself into first class on the train, putting us in a lower class. We were entrusted with a bag of provisions, which we thought were for the long train ride, but which we unfortunately learned after gorging ourselves were supposed to tide us over for days, so that we would not be an imposition on Chiruca's daughter. Our landlady was disgusted and a bit angry to see how much we had eaten (it was a long train trip, and we were hungry).

When we arrived, we learned that our landlady's family lived in a beautiful, idyllic, but tiny village. We had been under the impression that we'd be in the vibrant city of San Sebastian, once a lively jetset favorite before Basque terrorism caused it to pass out of fashion with the wealthy. My roommate didn't warm up to Chiruca's daughter. We two had been instructed to leave our luggage "at the milk bar" so it could be claimed by car, and we left our things in what we thought was the the right place, but the daughter said she'd been unable to find it. We trudged back on foot from the house to the few tiny shops, and there was our luggage, at what we thought was "the milk bar" (a small, informal cafe). We shlepped our stuff back ourselves on foot.

My roommate's discontent grew and grew. She could not stand the idea of our rotting in this tiny (albeit spectacularly scenic) village. How could we reach the border, anyhow, and cross into France? We didn't have a car (I didn't even have a driver's license). She rebelled and argued with our landlady, and the end result was that the two of us went to the train station the next morning and caught a train into San Sebastian proper. (Later, when we got back to Madrid, my landlady scolded me privately for our ungracious behavior to her daughter's family, and I was shamed. As a teenager from a not-very-social rural family, I was then lacking in social skills, and I didn't realize that I should have brought a hostess gift).

In San Sebastian, we were solicited by a middle-aged Basque woman at the train station to take a room in a private house. We grew nervous as we followed the woman for what felt like ages, sure we were being lured to our demise, but it turned out well. We set out to explore the city, which had beautiful beaches, narrow streets, unintelligible signs in the spiky, consonant-ridden tongue of the Basques, and plenty of bars, restaurants, cafes, and shops.

What we did not realize was that we had chosen to go to San Sebastian upon the anniversary of the founding of the Basque language newspaper, which was the occasion for an outswelling of nationalistic feeling and resentment of the Spanish overlords. I should have known better, because I had mentioned the trip to the Spanish suburban family whose teenaged son I tutored in English, and the mother had told me NOT to go to the Basque country and informed me that she would be very worried about me. I had not lingered to hear why (most likely I was in a hurry to take the long bus ride back into the city to meet my boyfriend). We were raw American teenagers from unsophisticated backgrounds, used to the tedium of the New Jersey suburbs or the even more stultifyingly uneventless existence of rural Maine.

As we were walking down a tiny street, somehow, out of nowhere, a mob formed, which we were caught up in, being pushed and shoved about. People were shouting, but since it was in Euskara, we couldn't understand it. Then, for reasons which remained opaque to us, some authorities started firing on the crowd. I don't know how we got into a candy store, I think the proprietress pulled us two in; but we crouched behind tiny racks of candy, and the owner rolled down the metal overhead door. We stayed there a long time, the three of us, hiding behind the candy, and eventually when it seemed safe enough, the owner rolled back up the metal door and we left. I felt that we should buy some candy to thank our savior, but my roommate demurred. The proprietress told us that the bullets being fired were rubber, not real bullets, which was somewhat reassuring.

Throughout the rest of the weekend, at various intervals mobs would form and we would find ourselves tossed to and fro, like flotsam. We could never quite figure out what was going on, and we were unable to predict or escape the unruly crowds.

When we got back to Madrid, I told my student's mother all about it. She could not believe that our landlady had taken us to San Sebastian when everyone (but the ignorant American teenagers) knew it was the newspaper's anniversary and there would of course, be a lot of unrest. (In my beloved landlady's defense, she had planned that we'd be staying in quiet Basque villages, but we had rebelliously set off for San Sebastian). She had feared for my life, she told me emotionally, the whole time.

What I learned from this: when you travel, be aware of the dates and their local significance. Try to tap into the zeitgeist. My husband thought I was being alarmist when, during our stay in Jerusalem, I insisted that he not take any buses on Naqba day, the day Palestinians mourn what they call the "catastrophe" of Israeli occupation. I also refused to let him take our baby in a stroller to join a group of Palestinians in a protest march in Bethlehem. "I've been in riots before," I hissed at him. "I spent nine months making this perfectly good baby, and you are NOT taking her into a riot!" Nothing happened that Naqba day, no buses were blown up by suicide bombers, but within a few months, Sharon visited the Temple Mount in a provocative way, and the second, currently ongoing Intifadah was started. The amazingly kind Orthodox priests at the shrine where Jesus was allegedly born were forced to hole up and live in the shrine itself with few supplies, and many of them were killed. I wonder often what happened to the delightful bearded priest who insisted on laying the baby Iris exactly where the baby Jesus supposedly lay, while intoning some form of blessing over her (meanwhile, all the other tourists were made to stay behind a velvet rope). And then there was the bitchy Israeli waitress at our neighborhood restaurant, who was always flirting with my oblivious husband and giving me the evil eye. A suicide bomber devastated that restaurant; did the predatory waitress survive?


Freewheel said...

You dated Olusegun Obasanjo? ;)

And I wonder what became of your miserable roommate?

Great story - Thanks!

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating! It is amazing how invincible you feel as a young, single person! You can go anywhere and do anything without concern for personal safety. I think that sense of bravado disappears when you have children. From birth onward, there suddenly seems to be an overwhelming lot of things to challenge your self-confidence and be utterly concerned about! I look forward to hearing more of your adventures.

Anonymous said...

Hello Drunken Housewife,

Are we living parallell lives (though you are younger than me)I'm a drunken housewife in Chicago and I was in Madrid for the coup and marched in the million person freedom rally. I have a blog called theselfrighteoushousewife.blogspot.com--please check it out--especially my "Mommy's Cocktail Hour" posting. If you feel like it--email me and I'll see if I can figure out how to add you to my links (still figuring out the technical stuff). I'm at judy.zimmerman@comcast.net

Oh, I even have the smart-ass daughter--mine is eight who told me recently "I'd rather put a tampon in than go to play practice" when I expressed surprise at the vehmence she finished with "in you"