Jim Peck and videographer Alan Austin went to the Basque country as part of the production of a special, "West of the Basque," for Idaho Public TV. They traveled extensively through the Basque region of Spain to capture amazing footage of the places and people that make the area so special. While there, Jim wrote a series of pieces for the Idaho Statesman and idahoptv.org.
It makes no sense that I am an American guy, sitting in a Basque bar drinking an Irish beer. It makes no sense that I am a TV producer writing for a newspaper either. But nothing seems to make all that much sense at the moment.
This weekend I climbed on a plane in Boise and flew to Chicago, endured an 8-hour flight to Madrid, rented a van, drove 3.5 hours to Gernika in the Basque Country and here I sit.
I'm not grouchy. It's just been a long day. Days? Daze?
The good part is that I am, amazingly, sitting here in the Basque Country. I'm here to wrap up work on a special for Idaho Public Television called, West of the Basque which you can see in March. I just left former Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa and his wife, Freda, who are a big part of the program. Tomorrow we'll visit the home towns of Pete's parents. They were born less than ten miles apart here in the northern reaches of Spain. They met thousands of miles away in Idaho.
I have been told that stepping into the Basque Country with Pete Cenarrusa is a lot like showing up on a Saturday night in Chicago with Michael Jordan. But not tonight. Tonight it was quiet and warm inside the small taberna. Outside, locals huddled close and hurried along through the chilly rain. Tonight it was good just to sit and listen to some of Pete's stories.
It is impossible not to notice the change as you slide into the Basque region after leaving frenetic Madrid, as you ease your way deeper into Spain. Suddenly the colors are richer, the landscape begins to roll and each hard turn of the wheel brings another amazing vista. I've never been here and am surprised by the rugged beauty of it all. One of the things that I wanted to bring to this television program was an idea of what "The Basque Country" looks like. When folks say they're from Ireland or Italy, we have an instant mental image that springs to mind. But I have seen the look that crosses the faces of people when they hear "Basque Country". Maybe we can help fill in the blank stares.
A trip like this, one where you're trying to make television in far-flung locations, means tons of gear and lots of hassle. I won't go into everything we trudged through in getting here. It would probably just bore you and re-infuriate me. But it wears on you. Sometimes I feel like hiding in my room upon arrival. I fight that urge because you only get one chance to see a place with fresh eyes. I'm here with Alan Austin, my director/videographer/audio engineer and translator. He speaks fluent Spanish. I point at things and grunt a lot. While Alan tended to all the gear and making fast friends at the hotel, I headed out into the town of Gernika.
Books will tell you that Gernika was nearly bombed to extinction by the Germans on a bustling market day in 1937. That more than 1600 people were killed. Most don't mention what a vibrant, welcoming town it is today. I wandered through the winding streets for a couple of hours just people watching. I was also watched a lot. Little kids in buildings waved at me as I lumbered past. I kept trying to snap at least one decent picture before they'd lunge from view, only to pop up again, laughing, as I lowered the camera.
It's exciting to be in a place where you don't know the language and yet don't feel like such a stranger. It's exceedingly rare these days. I've only been here a few hours and can imagine how hard it must have been for people, mostly very young people, to move to an unknown place so far over the horizon. Idaho must surely have seemed more remote to them than Gernika seems to me today.
Around the curves of this town you find shops and markets, bars and restaurants. You'll even find livestock. The rural roots still run deep. I was taking a picture of a big apartment building and turned the corner to find a guy cutting and loading hay on an old cart attached to an even older donkey.
I'm anxious to see more of this area. I have heard stories of breathtaking coastlines and heartbreaking sunsets. All of the Basque people I talked with in Idaho had a special place they wanted me to see. I have a notebook full of contact names, numbers and email addresses of people they want me to meet. And that is another interesting thing about this story. The Basque in Idaho are still connected to the Basque here in Europe. They are part of a trans-Atlantic conversation that has never quieted.
I'll listen in from this end and let you know what I hear.
Pete Cenarrusa's family is trying to kill me with food and wine. The fork rarely far from my mouth, the glass never leaving my lips. I am in danger of slipping into a wonderful food coma.
We're sitting in the home where Pete's father, and his father's father and HIS father's father, etc…were born and grew up. Pete's dad left this white house on the hillside above the small town of Munitibar in 1907. The house is solid, built thick with stone and dark wood. It is very old, a cousin tells me. "This new part here, this arch, built in 1776." The new part! They figure it's been nestled into the hill for 500 years. Long enough to see the comings and going of plenty of invaders to this valley.
Our invasion, and subsequent potential gastronomic homicide, is a homecoming for Pete and his wife Freda. He hasn't been back here in years. The family still owns the house, they always will. It occurs to me that 500 years from now some other prodigal TV producer may be sitting here, telling this same story, reeling from just such a feast.
Friends and family from all over the area keep showing up to see Pete. The word is out that he's here, and he seems to be enjoying every minute. Fortunately no one is paying attention to me other than to make sure my plate is full and my jaws are kept busy.
The food, prepared by the wives of the cousins, is fantastic. There are wines and cheeses, jamon Serrano (ham)and roasted pimientos (peppers). I take some of everything, I'm hungry. The cheese is really wonderful. I ask, "What kind of cheese is this?" One of the women looks a bit aghast and turns to Alan, my director, who speaks fluent Spanish. He asks her what's wrong, eyebrows raised in alarm. Slowly she looks from me to him and says something carefully. After a bit of conversation he starts to laugh, then everyone at the table is laughing and looking at me. Well, it turns out that the word "cheese" is very close to a Basque word. In fact it sounds a lot like the Basque word for, and I am trying to be delicate here, urinate. They all seem to enjoy this very much.
Then there's a fish course. I'm told it's called merluza or hake in English, "Very popular local," they tell me. It's served deep fried. I eat the mound I am given. I clean my plate. One of the women notices and heaps another pile in front of me. Unless you are prepared to leave the party on a forklift, you might want to leave a little on your plate and claim you're full. If only someone had mentioned that to me. As I am nearly done working my way though the second helping, large platters of something steaming begin to arrive. Someone announces what it is, a blur of Basque. A cheer goes up from the merry crowd and they begin dishing it out. A wonderful collection of fish filets is accumulating on my plate. It's more merluza, this time in an olive oil-based sauce. Then a ladle is dipped deep into the serving dish and what looks like a sort of pasta covers my mountain of fish. I take bite and realize it's not pasta at all. It's…um…another bite…it's…..I can't tell. I ask and Pete translates the answer. "Eel. Baby eel."
It's a bit overcast and blustery today. I woke to the smell of rain on the wind and headed down to a sidewalk café in Gernika. It's a bustling city in the morning, the cafes brimming with people, full of the sharp scent of strong coffee and acrid tang of cigarette smoke.
I already know I will miss Café con Leche when I head home. It is an amazing concoction of coffee and milk, but creamier and more satisfying than the richest latte or cappuccino. I would like to challenge all the barristas from the Flying M to Dawson Taylor and everywhere in between to create something as wonderful as this in Boise. I'll be waiting to hear from you.
These narrow streets bristle as tight traffic screeches and beeps and whirrs along at breakneck speed. The sidewalks are a colorful mess of rushing men and women, babies in strollers and kids of every age. Alan points out that the babies are perfectly turned out, perfectly coordinated and that I, comparatively, dress like a slob. Apparently I am doomed as the ugly American, a fact later reinforced by my "cheese" remark.
Our lunch at Pete's father's house lasts until the evening. During a rare moment when he's not talking to ten people at once I ask him how it feels to be here. "It's special. It's home. And to see all my friends, my family…" he says wistfully, "…it's just wonderful."
We roll back to the hotel in the dark, winding through the rough countryside. You know, my seatbelt used to fit just fine.
Two days later I am driving with Alan, Freda and Pete to the home where his mother was born. He seems more emotional about this visit today, a bit quieter as we wind up the narrow road to the baserri, farm house. The quiet doesn't last for long. We turn into the yard and people rush out to greet us, dogs bark and even the sheep seem to call out to him.
Almost everyone here is a cousin. And everyone is thrilled we're here. Well, maybe not Alan and I so much, but they act like they are. Drinks are passed around and there's a lot of talk about the old days.
Three of the men used to work in Idaho, when Pete ran a big sheep operation. He introduces me to Juanito, "We call him Johnny and he's the best sheepherder ever!" Pete yells and hugs the old man who hasn't stopped grinning since we arrived. "This man could be with 2000 sheep and he'd know how each one was, if anything was wrong with it. He'd watch them like a hawk all night." He steps back a bit from "Johnny," grasps his shoulder. The men smile warmly at each other. Pete's cousin Thomas, now in his 80's, also worked the ranges and mountains around Carey, Idaho. He tells me he liked Idaho a lot, but is glad to be back in the Basque Country, "It's home. Home is better."
Pete Cenarrusa says he's an American, that Idaho is home. But it's clear the houses where his mother and father were raised are home as well. The rooms still ring with the voices of family and, when he steps in the door, he's greeted like a long lost son. Pete tells me, "It's a great sensation to be here in Gernika where my mother was born, and she came to America when she was a young lady in 1914. And my father left from Munitibar in 1907. They met in Idaho in a Basque boarding house in Shoshone. And to be here, on the soil where my mother was born…to be among family," his voice trails off a bit, "It's just great to be here."
The ride away from his mother's house is quiet. Soon we're back at the hotel and the day is done.
"Did you go to the Guggenheim?" People will ask me this when I get back to Idaho. It is perhaps the most iconic of places in the modern Basque Country.
I'm sure you've seen it, even if you didn't know what it was. It's been hard to escape the images since it opened in 1997. It kinda looks like a crumpled, melted piece of foil set perfectly along a river. An unfortunately polluted river. Architect Philip Johnson called it, "the greatest building of our time." Of course I don't think he's seen the Grove Hotel.
I'm standing outside the grand museum, talking with historian and Boise State University Professor John Bieter. The man is clearly pleased, almost giddy. He's here, along with former Idaho Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa and his wife Freda, to enhance BSU's international studies program. They're looking for funding and overall support from the Basque government.
One goal is to offer a minor in Basque studies in coordination with the Cenarrusa Center and a consortium of universities. He wants to develop a relationship with Basque universities in bringing folks from the Basque Country to Idaho. He wants them to teach our students about Basque issues and vice versa. He wants an immersion program for the Basques in American language and culture. He says it's the next natural step, "We hope it will tie together in a new way a place that's been historically tied to this area for a long time."
Like I said, he's practically bouncing with excitement. His meetings with the cultural and education ministers apparently went very well. He hopes to hear a final decision on the details before the month is out.
If the sentimental soul of the Basque Country dwells in places like Gernika and San Sebastien, the hard beating heart pounds away in the industrial center of Bilbao. It is a firey, sometimes smog-choked city. But even in the dank canyons of buildings along the stinking river you can always see green hills rolling up to the clouds on the edge of industry. Bieter all three elements of the Basque economy are right here. "If you look at the farmhouses and things on the hill, it represents the old way of life. Most of the Basques that came to Idaho came from just beyond these hills. Then you also see industry all around. And right here, the Guggenheim Museum, center of tourism."
Ah, tourism. When you're working in a place like this you only look like a tourist. Actually, an ubur tourist with massive video gear, cumbersome tripod, lights and all the ridiculous trappings of what I do. I wish I was just a tourist. We do get to see some sights, but not for very long. We get to eat, but usually not very well since it's generally after midnight.
The other night in Gernika Alan, my director/videographer/translator/food critic, and I ended up in a restaurant at the back of a smoky bar. Everyone in front was gathered around the TV, transfixed by a soccer match. Occasionally the quiet was split by ear rending cheers or heart rending moans. We plopped down for dinner.
We ordered some kind of lamb, something to drink, something for a side dish…we didn't really care, it was 11:30p. A bottled of Rioja arrived and we sipped unenthusiastically. It had been a very long day of chasing good light for television and the unbelievably energetic Pete Cenarrussa. So we're sitting there and the guy across the room gets a bowl of something that looks yummy. Something steaming, smothered in dark red sauce. He breaks off some crusty bread and just digs in. I say to Alan, "What's that?"
"I don't know, man. It looks awesome." I can see the hunger in his eyes.
He calls the waitress over and asks her what it is. "Callos y morros. Es bueno!" She gives a great big smile. Alan is telling her how I think it looks good and she says she'll bring us some, just to taste.
"Cool," I say.
First she comes back with a platter of fried stuff. We try what turns out to be a ham and cheese…woops…queso thing. Then some deep fried balls of something creamy. It goes particularly well with the Rioja. We are starting to get into this. More of the jamon y queso creation, more Rioja. Perfect! I try something else. My teeth sink in, but only part way. I try to bite through and can't. Then I can, and taste it, and wish I hadn't. It's…it's…not good. I can tell from previous experience that it's something we silly Yanks usually toss away. Something from the interior regions of the lamb/pig/cow/goat. I look over at Alan and he's got the same look on his face I must have, one half of the terrible fried thing dangling from greasy fingers. As I am trying to get through this bite, here comes our smiling waitress with a big red steaming bowl. I know it must be our special sample of what the guy is eating.
"Callos y morros!" She proudly announces and presents us with the burgundy stew.
Oh, it smells good. I ladle some on my plate. It looks like chunks of beef and maybe lamb, the deep color and aroma are wonderful. I try to act like a local and break off some bread, dip it into the sauce. "Dude, this is awesome!" I say to Alan. For some reason we have taken to talking like wayward California surfers on this excursion.
I take a big forkful. And chew. And chew. And then chew some more.
There are times in life when things go your way, and times when they do not. Sitting in a small restaurant, listening to the passionate cheers of soccer fans, feeling wonderful for being far from home in a strange country…all these good things fade fast when something this horrendous is assaulting your taste buds. Words fail me at how awful it is. I think, "Can I spit it out?" No, I can't. The people will freak out. "Can I swallow it?" Don't think so, it seems to be getting bigger in my mouth. "Will I throw up?" That one's a definite maybe. I look over at Alan. He's mid-chew as well. I watch as his eyes start to bug out, his face turns red. He looks balefully into the bowl whence it came. Is he going to commit the ultimate faux pas and evacuate his mouth right here and now?!
Time passes slowly and soon we are out on the street, winding our way back to the hotel. Nothing more is said about the meal. Neither of us humiliated ourselves, neither of us is full and neither of us wants anything more to eat.
Back in my room I am curious. I fire up my trusty laptop and Google "callos y morros." Most of it is in Spanish. I keep searching and find a site in English. I sit there in the pale light of the screen, I can hear my stomach rumbling. I read the site, "sometimes made with muzzle of cow…face of the pig…intestines…" Not sure I really want to know this. "…cheeks and gums.." Nope! That's enough.
In front of the Guggenheim John Bieter is telling me how diverse this country is. "It clearly has a foot in the past and maintains a connection with that old traditional, rural way of life. And yet it is as future looking and as Euro looking as any city in Europe."
My meal proves he's right. In the old days people used to eat every inch of an animal. They couldn't afford to waste anything. Some people here cling to those traditions. And yet they also have places like the Guggenheim. The diversity of extremes is everywhere you turn.
On my return they will ask, "So, did you go to the Guggenheim?"
I will answer, "Yes." I won't tell them I never stepped foot inside. There wasn't any time. "But I had this stuff called callos y morros…"
"My friends, I tell them, 'Don't even think of coming here . . . . don't even think of coming here,' I tell them," said Luceo Borga. "'Don't even think of coming to the United States. You suffer here,' I tell my friends. 'It's nothing easy earning the green money,' I tell them. 'You have to suffer.'"
It's been more than three months since I came back from the Basque country, and I can't get these words from a lonely sheepherder out of my head. It's been more than a year since I started working on this program and now it's done. When you do a show like this, you can't help but immerse yourself in the subject. When it's done there's a feeling of excitement and completion. And there's a sense of loneliness because the thing that's been keeping you company, the thing you've been devoted to, doesn't need you anymore. There is so much more to the story of the Basques in Idaho than I thought when I first started trying to tell it over a year ago. No one-hour television program can cover it all, but I found myself surprised at the layers of the tale as I watched it from start to finish the other day.
You might have read about my trip to the Basque country in these pages last autumn. It was an amazing trip and I think about it all the time. I want to go back. But the parts of the story that really grip me are from this side of the world. Portions of the story of the Basque in Idaho are like a lot of other immigrant stories. But there is something unique about these people that separates them from the others. We all know Italians, Irish, Germans or members of the other ethnic groups that came to America looking for a better life. We have an idea in our heads of what their countries look like, what their language sounds like. I don't think that's true of the Basque, even for people who live out here in the West where most Basque settled. That's one of the big reasons I wanted to do this show.
The generations of Idaho Basque are still with us. I looked across the room during a reception for the late Jimmy Jausoro and could see the better part of a century of Basque history. Jimmy was an icon of the community. He played the accordion for the Oinkari Basque Dancers and every other event for as long as anyone can remember. He died in December 2004.
There in that room was former Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa, who never lost an election in more than 50 years in state government. He's the son of immigrant parents, born into the sheepherding community of Carey in 1917. Over in another corner was Dave Bieter, mayor of Boise, and his brother John, a professor at BSU. They're part of the next generation; their grandparents came from Bizkaia. And there's Sean Aucutt, who dances with the Oinkari; one of his grandparents was Basque. And scattered around were some little kids, some of whom are learning Basque at the Boise Ikastola. It's the only place in the United States where pre-schoolers are learning the Basque language. They all came to remember and celebrate their old friend Jimmy. Most of the tears were left at the funeral, but some still moistened cheeks between laughter and the telling of stories.
It struck me that the Basques here in Boise really do make up a kind of extended family. As I sat there, I realized that most of the people who brought the Basque culture to this part of the West were represented right in that room. The Basques came to Idaho when Idaho was just becoming a state and the sons and daughters of those pioneers were all around. The generations could be seen with the glance of an eye. And most only had to drive a few miles to be there. That's certainly not true of what you'd find with the Irish in Boston or the Italians in New York.
There in the room where I was sitting was most of the past, present and future of Basques in Idaho. Most of the people in "West of the Basque" were right there — laughing, smiling, crying. There in that room were people who had started from humble roots with the sheep and had gone on to lead our state and still lead our city. It is, perhaps, just another example of the American immigrant story, but I think it's more than that. Sitting there, you realize that Idaho really wouldn't be Idaho without the Basque. They came here to make some money and then go home. I talked with Basque scholar William Douglass at the University of Nevada-Reno, who said, "Most Basque probably intended to return. In fact in all of my years of interviewing Basque in the American West, only one man ever said to me that he left the Basque country intending never to go back."
It was the sheep that brought them here, that provided them with jobs. It's a myth that the Basque were natural herders. John Bieter told me, "Immigrants do work that nobody else wants to do. If you go to Australia today and you say Basque, they'll associate them with sugarcane cutting." But while you won't find any Basque sheepherders, that way of life hasn't vanished. That way of life is just being lived by different people, another generation of immigrants, people like Luceo Borga. He's from Peru. He came to Idaho to find something better. Sound familiar? "You're alone, without family, without your children, it's sadder," he said. "I'll see what's up ahead. I think I'll return for one more contract and then, I'll probably go back to Peru."
It's what most of the Basque herders said more than 100 years ago. It's a hard life he's living. But you can't help but wonder: In another hundred years, will we be saying Idaho wouldn't be Idaho without the Peruvians? The story of the immigrants in Idaho continues. The Basque have moved from the sheep camps to the Statehouse, they fill our communities with another layer of the tapestry of Idaho. And for some, like Luceo Borga and others, Idaho is still the frontier, a promised land where possibility lies in the mountains and with the sheep.
So for me, this show is done. I have tried to tell this story well, but there are still lots more. Now it's on to the next one.