Thursday, July 5, 2012

Euskadi - colour and culture against the big nations

Having been in the Basque Country for the past few days, I've noticed much in comparison with the situation at home in Scotland from both the Spanish and French 'occupied' territories. As my visit has coincided with the final stages of Euro 2012 and the progress of Spain, the rather lacklustre support for the Spanish 'national' team has been palpable. Walking the streets of Bilbo and Donostia, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the tournament was even taking place.

In Bilbo, flags and banners celebrating the rise in fortunes of the local AC Bilbao - defacto Basque national team - are still everywhere, in shops, in cars and hanging from balconies. While there was cheering from local tabernas upon the Spanish victory, the flags and shirts of Spain have remained nowhere to be seen.

Posters on the walls remind you that 'this isn't Spain, this is Euskal Herria'. Though to be honest the indigenous culture screams at you. In Basque.

Language is and isn't a political issue. In Scotland, it just isn't. Scottish is far too often ignored by Scots and a glaring example of this is the 'Yes' campaign for independence. I'm not arguing for Scottish Gaelic to be 'promoted' by the Yes campaign. I'm arguing that it should be used. Scottish has shared a certain parity with English in as much as it's supported from different parts of the political spectrum. A language is a medium and the Yes campaign needs to harness any and every medium available particularly a language that is the anchor of the nation's culture and iconography.

The Basques on the other hand live their language across all domains within the Basque Autonomous Community - it's not just an adornment or prop for the tourists. The BAC apparently enjoys more power than any other non-nation-state on earth. It has huge industrial value and is wealthy by anyone's reckoning. It's easy to see why the monster of the Spanish state doesn't want to let it go.

In Scotland, I've noticed a new and predictable stooshie over the Scottish Government's plans to signpost all major routes in both English and Scottish. This wouldn't happen in Euskadi though it would seem as if the Basques are bold in most things they do once they are freed from the chains of Spain or France.

Even the new architecture is bold, individual and very much a statement of confidence. The Guggenheim in Bilbo is just one example. Basque nationalists in power at 'devolved' and local level pulled out all the stops to ensure that the city's revitalisation started here. Under centralist rule from Madrid, Bilbo would probably have remained a rusting industrial backwater in a 'region' of Spain. It's not only the Guggenheim though. Another example is the office of the health department in Bilbo newtown with its angular, idiosyncratic and mirrored facade. A behemoth of an old wine warehouse has been turned into a state of the art centre for culture and recreation which incorporates galleries, cinema and a glass bottomed swimming pool. Bilbo even has relatively new tram and metro systems - themselves works of art. Sure, all this costs money but what doesn't?

Which brings me back to language.

Most detractors of Scottish in Scotland are monoglots to whom bilingualism is a mystery. Occasionally though, some will embrace the benefits of bilingualism but insist that additional languages be 'useful' so that the outlay can be seen to be 'prudent'. Linguists  however declare that there is no such thing as a 'useless' language though tinpot bigots argue that only big boys of English, Spanish or Chinese - the Walmarts, IKEAs and McDonalds - of the language world are worth acquiring.

This leads me to ask, 'why Dutch?'. Almost everyone in the Netherlands speaks excellent English. Why then do the Dutch insist on speaking... Dutch?

The Basques, despite being 'fiercly nationalistic' as some might put it, also embrace multi-lingualism and multi-culturalism. I would contend that the territory under Basque control is one of most colourful, welcoming and outward looking areas in Europe. The European Union's advice on language in education is that each member state should teach 'mother tongue plus two'. The Basques insist on 'two mother tongues' plus two.

Hence some 80% of Basque primary children in the majority Basque-medium system are immersed in three languages from age zero and enter secondary school with complete or near fluency in three languages. Once in secondary, they acquire a fourth tongue which could be French, Arabic, Polish or German. Local demographics such as a significant number of immigrants often dictates the lingo learned. It's difficult to imagine white English kids in Bradford learning Urdu or Arabic or native Scottish bairns in Leith picking up Polish or Spanish.

However, the 'big nation' philosophy becomes more apparent once you cross the bridge from Irun into French Basque Hendaia. Here, some progress has been made in displaying the Basque tongue on some public roadsigns though it's obvious that the wrathful and jealous French god in Paris sees too much indulgence in languages other than French as sinful. Here, the use of Basque sadly reminds one of Scottish in Scotland - it is used sparingly but comes across as a 'prop' to paraphrase the linguist Joshua Fishman.

The shortcomings of the insular big nation with its siege mentality are also evident at the local SCNF station where the young lass on the ticket desk was unable to communicate in any other language than French. This despite the Spanish Basque country being only yards from her seat. Our pooled family tongues of Engerlish, Spanish and German fell on stony ground. Even an appeal to the auld alliance by using pigeon French-Gaelic failed.

Back in our Donostia-San Sebastian base, we watch one of the Basque language telly channels - Hamaika - which has an afternoon slot showcasing the varied Basque language music scene. It was pleasing to note many bands of the tuneful punk variety though metal, rock, pop and world music/ ska fusion was also present. Sadly, a similar program on BBC Alba which didn't feature fiddlers, songs written by dead poets, Gaelic choirs or religious music would be ten minutes long. Basque language punk is for another blog though.

The Basque Country, or most of it, is but a bawhair from complete independence. Even without the full complement of powers, it a shining example of the need to vote 'Yes' to Scottish independence in 2014. We could vote 'no' and remain a region with no voice or independent contribution of our own to the world community. We would remain tied to an inward looking and fearful big nation that remains in thrall to banks and big business, however corrupt. Or maybe we could use independence as a springboard for an open, progressive and internationalist nation that embraces our own languages as well as the cultures of others?

An elderly woman on a bus engaged us in conversation. I spoke in mistake-riddled Spanish. She replied that 'we have two idiomas'. 'So do we' said I. 'I know' she continued, 'and we're both at the same place'.

I was a bit puzzled and thought something had gone missing in translation. 'What place?'

'Independence', she replied.

Gora Euskadi. Saor Alba.

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