Saturday, September 29, 2012

Gernika and Bilbo

For clarification: Bilbo is the Basque name of Bilbao and Gernika for Guernica.

Today we had an excursion to the Basque province of Biskaia (Viscay in English), where Gernika and Bilbo are located.

I knew it was going to be a good day when I left the apartment and I got to meet my next door neighbor. He figured out I was the American living with Paco and Pepa pretty quick and switched (unexpectedly) to English on me. And he's from England so he had an accent. Whoa. I had kind of assumed the people who lived there were Basque because their mat outside their door says "Ongi etorri" which is welcome in Euskara.

Also slightly surprisingly was that our bus driver today was the same lady we had on our Madrid tour. 

I feel like Bizkaia is more Basque than Donosti, where I live. All the signs on the autopista seemed to have San Sebastián removed but Donostia untouched. Very, very Basque there.

First we saw Gernika, the Basque town that was infamously bombed by the Nazis in support of Franco in the Spanish Civil War. It inspired Picasso's famously haunting painting of the atrocities of targeting civilians in war. 

Ok, tiny history lesson. The Basques have always valued their autonomy. They created a set of laws, known as the fueros, which are the oldest democratic code of laws. They predate the Magna Carta by more than a century. These laws were created in the shade of the great oak tree in Gernika, the original center of the Basque Country. King Fernando, of Christopher Columbus fame, got the Basques to agree to be part of his kingdom if he would swear under the Tree of Gernika that he would uphold the fueros. Basques become part of Spain but retain autonomy and everyone's happy. Fast forward to the Spanish Civil War. The Basques are very anti-Franco and Franco's buddy Hitler wanted to try out his new planes. They choose the market town of Gernika, likely for its symbolic value to the Basque people, as their target. The Nazis unleashed incendiary bombs, leveling nearly the entire city but the Tree of Gernika survived. 

The trunk of that particular tree has a place of honor on the grounds. Oak trees live over a hundred years so there is a direct descendant of the original tree always growing. The current Tree of Gernika is only about 26 years old and has been the Tree since 2004. 

I felt very moved by this tree, being Basque myself. The Tree of Gernika (Gernikako Aretxa) is the symbol of Basque freedom. Not even Hitler could destroy that. Franco tried but he didn't succeed.

After that, we saw a demonstration of pelota vasca, the Basque's most famous sport. It is a type of handball played against a wall. There's many variations, including jai alai as its known in the States, cesta, which is played with the long pointy baskets at high speed, pala, which is played with a type of bat and more. Pelota is played with a type of padded bandage applied directly to your hands. There are also two types of courts. Unless it's cesta, there usually isn't protection worn. Well, in pelota/pelotari they protect their hands. We had a guy explain to us everything. Then he and three others played a short game to 15 instead of the usual 21. When a team is one point away, that's when you should clap. And you don't have to win by more than one. Also, lines are bad and make a scary noise when struck because they're metal. 

I had so much fun because we got to tape out hands and play too, granted with the soft and light kiddie ball but still. I tried out my Basque with the pelota players and they were really impressed and surprised. There's another guy in my program who is Basque and knows a bit of the language. He got really animated during the game because he had made a bet and surprised the players by yelling encouragement (or perhaps it wasn't quite encouragement...) in Basque at them. I did try hitting the harder ball meant for people my age. It would hurt if you had to do that regularly and you weren't used to it. No wonder they gave us the ones for 8-9 year olds. 

After that we had lunch at a cafe in Bilbo. It was three courses. First was a huge plate of vegetable paella. We were all starving so we inhaled it. It was tasty, but my host brother makes better paella. Second was chicken and French fries in gravy. Dessert was a yummy apple cream cake. We were so full we didn't want to move after all that.

But we had to walk very quickly to the Guggenheim to meet our reservation. There was much complaining. Worth it when we got there but you can't expect us to eat all that food and then be able to move quickly. That just doesn't happen.

The building was I think my favorite part of the Guggenheim. The building is quite amazing. The Puppy sculpture outside is quite cute too. It's a two story puppy made out of a metal frame and flowers. The Puppy was our meeting point for going home and our very adorable internship coordinator, Cecilia, came on the trip and she was telling us to meet at the Puppy. The only problem was when you say "puppy" with a Spanish accent, it sounds like "poopy" and that just doesn't work. We were trying not to laugh because we all really like Cecilia, but she kept telling us to meet at "the poopy". A few giggles did escape us. XD

There was also an exhibit that was done entirely from a iPad drawing app. Makes for an interesting philosophical debate on how technology is creating entirely new issues for the art world. If a work of art is created digitally and is then printed, theoretically millions of copies could be produced. Is there an original work of art? And say, someone commissions an original work of art that is produced digitally. Do they have the right to request that the file be destroyed once they have the only print? Or is that destroying a work of art? Can you have an original anymore? Odd questions to ponder on art, originality and intellectual promptly rights.

There was also a room (the largest room in the world that is not supported by columns I'm told. It's supported by flying buttresses if you were curious.) in which a artist from my hometown back in the States has an installation of large shapes you can walk through. They are painted to appear to be wood, but they're not. Walking through these constructions really distort your perception. You can also go up a few floors and view them from above to see a different illusion. Also, if you view the outside of the museum from above, it appears as if the river estuary and the museum pond are part of the same body of water, thanks to the placement of the bridges. 

We had a bit less than an hour to explore the museum and meet in front of the Puppy. I was pretty tired by this point so I went to the cafe and downed a coffee in less than a minute so I could get to everything else I wanted to see and the gift shop. Never skip museum gift stores.

Especially if you are missing a textbook. I had already purchase my Basque textbook, which is a cultural look at the the Basque Country. The book was translated into English by our professor. And it just so happened to be in the Guggenheim gift shop at about the same price as it would have been in the official bookstore. Two of my classmates were very happy about this. 

After all that, we came back to Donostia. I finally got to meet the other brother, Iñigo. And his Australian girlfriend, Angela. So now I've met 4/5 of my host parents' children. I still haven't met María. Little by little, I'm getting there.

My host dad is back from the hospital, which is a very good thing. In plenty of time for the Basque Derby too, just like he promised. He is a huge Real Sociedad fan and the Basque Derby is the most important rivalry game of the year. You just can't miss that.

On a slightly random note, I think I've finally outsmarted the mosquitos. I don't always remember to shut my window after dark so I'm still getting mosquitos in my room. I saw one in my room but I couldn't get it. So it occurred to me I had organic bug repellant. It smells like pine, tea tree oil and lemons but that is a small price to pay in exchange for remaining mosquito bite free. Mosquitos and I are tied at 1-1.

I also got to Skype with my mom. Good day.

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