Bilbao’s Hidden Dangers

Today’s slide show: Images from the Basque Country.

Basque-language posters call for democracy and self-determination

On my last day in Bilbao I had my first encounter with the thing it’s most famous for—politicized Basque nationalism—when thousands of citizens marched down the Gran Via, or Kalea Nagusia, as the Euskaldunak would have it, to protest apartheid and call for self-determination.

A recent study by Iñaki Zabeleta found that 85 percent of articles about Basques in the U.S. press refer to terrorism, so it’s not surprising that for most Americans, nothing says “Basque” more than Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom), the terror organization responsible for more than 800 deaths over the last 30 years. Of course, ETA didn’t appear out of nowhere—the Spanish establishment imprisoned more than 8,000 Basques in the 20 years following Franco’s death, torturing many of them while in custody.

The Basque nationalists’ appropriation of the “no apartheid” slogan is a reference to the Spanish government’s March 2003 banning of Batasuna, the party considered the political wing of ETA, which regularly took 10 percent to 20 percent of the vote in the Basque Country. It’s a clever slogan—it’s tough to support apartheid—whether or not it’s appropriate.

Given the radical nationalists’ associations with violence and murder, locals didn’t seem too alarmed by the march. The protesters gathering in Moyúa Plaza didn’t put the folks sitting at the outdoor bars near the square off their drinks, and the Batasuna flags carried by marchers didn’t seem to outrage the spectators on the sidewalks. Apparently, even in the Basque Country, it’s hard to get worked up about politics during August.

According to The Basque History of the World, residents of the Spanish section of the Basque Country are the most policed population in Europe, but at least to an outsider like me, it doesn’t feel like a police state. As in the United States, there are legitimate concerns that recent anti-terrorism measures encroach on civil liberties: On the sixth night of Aste Nagusia, police confiscated posters and photographs displayed in four txosnas—the temporary street bars established during the fiestas—which they claimed were sympathetic to prohibited terrorist groups or justified terrorist acts. By Friday morning, the streets in the Casco Viejo were full of graffiti denouncing the police action and equating “Spaniards,” by which they meant the authorities, with Nazis.

Aste Nagusia has its security risks, but the biggest hazards you’ll encounter come from more quotidian threats than policemen or terrorist groups. As is true for just about any part of Spain, a visit to Bilbao will do your lungs no good—locals smoke everywhere, but especially, it seems, wherever food is being consumed. You should also watch out for small children with sharp farm implements—at one of the exhibitions of traditional rural Basque sports, three generations of aizkolariak (log choppers), including a 5-year-old boy, wielded their axes just a few feet from the crowd.

In fact, a whole range of activities that liability issues have caused to pass from the realm of experience in the United States are represented at Aste Nagusia. At 8:30 every evening, a “fire bull” chases small children around the Plaza Arriaga streaming sparks, trailing firecrackers, and generally terrorizing the under-5 set. Kids that cry or shrink from the flaming beast are mocked by their parents. The dreams of young Bilbaínos are also haunted by the giants that roam the streets and entertain the tots during the fiestas. One of the most popular attractions in the kiddy play park at the side of the River Nervión is Gargantua, a giant Basque who eats children and expels them from a flap in his culo.

A passed-out partier

And of course there are the dangers of the demon drink. This year’s official Aste Nagusia poster design aroused controversy because it featured a corkscrew imitating Marijaia’s arms-raised pose. Critics claimed it encouraged drinking, while supporters said it simply represented reality. With drink so readily available—the txosnas supplement Bilbao’s already plentiful bars to supply booze to revelers—it’s inevitable that brain cells suffer: Passed-out partiers litter the streets every morning.

Surprisingly, perhaps, for a city where politics is a matter of life and death, Bilbaínos are exceptionally friendly, after an unintrusive fashion. They’re not the smiliest people and they’re rather reserved (for all their foodiness, once the meal’s on the table, there are no inquiries as to how it is or whether everything is to madam’s liking), and yet the small gestures are everywhere. In the Metro, an employee will approach puzzled travelers, patiently ascertain where they want to go, press the right buttons, and indicate how much money to put in which slot. Most cities big enough to have a subway operate on the “If you can’t figure it out, you don’t deserve to ride, ya yokel” principle.

My week in Bilbao left me imagining myself Basque—my European equivalent of a trait I’ve noticed in North American-born friends, when folks whose forebears came over from Europe within the last hundred years fixate on one rumored Native American ancestor. No matter how magnificent the Basques’ prowess as sailors, there’s no way Basque seed could have found purchase in my Welsh and Mancunian antecedents, and yet every time I see a classically Basque face with its long ears, expressive brows, and sad eyes, I see my maternal grandfather (especially if you replace the boina with a Northern English flat cap) and wonder if my own tendency to burst into song at the drop of a beret could possibly be a sign of a secret Basque heritage …