pays basque

My sojourn in the south of France was in the heart of Pays Basque or Basque Country, a region spanning across France and Spain where the Basque people live. The Basques are an ancient ethnic group that have been living in the foothills of the Pyrenees since time immortal, with a separate culture and language that are so incredibly alive. There's the lauburu, the Basque cross, adorning everything; the wildly unfamiliar Basque language on street signs alongside the French and the Spanish; traditional dance parties springing out of nowhere. They're fiercely proud of who they are and where they came from.

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A traditional Basque dance gathering that happens every Sunday in Biarritz

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Eglise St-Martin

My program took us on two excursions deep into Pays Basque, one into the French part, the other into the Spanish part—taking me to cities that I only knew through a love poem from a lifetime ago.

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We started off at St-Jean-Pied-de Port, a city in the Navarre region where many pilgrims pass through. It's architecturally very similar to Biarritz with the red capped houses and colorful shutters. There was a market there with local vendors selling their produce where we were let loose to explore. At one of the stands, an old man approached Noelle (my wonderful roommate) and I, fascinated by her iPhone and how it could take pictures. Before either of us realized what was happening, he took it out of her hands to examine it closer. He turned it over and over again in his hands, even taking a selfie with Noelle by accident at one point, amazed by how much that little piece of technology can do. "We live beyond our human understanding," he said. We ended up talking with him and his sister for a while about the community that they come from and trying some of the amazing mate that they had. 

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M. Puyau, our trusty historian/guide during our excursions

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"Do you know what the most important thing in the world is?" the old man asked us, just before we had to go. "It is to love your neighbor. It's the only thing that matters. You must love your neighbor, even when it is difficult to." 

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Next up was Terroir Tombourin, a family farm that raises sheep and cows for milk and cheese production. The plot of land is passed down generation through generation and every homestead has their own way of doing things that they pass along as well. It warmed my heart to see people that care so much about quality production and who engage in such sustainable practices, not just for profit, but for their children and grandchildren as well. 

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After, we headed to Espellete, famous in France for their piment, hot peppers that gain more and more punch as they're dried in long garlands on the walls of homes. We finished off the day in St-Jean-de-Luz where we visited Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste, 

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Piments d'Espellette

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 Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste

Two days later, we climbed aboard the bus again for an excursion to Spain to the cities Bilboa and San Sebastian. The actual act of crossing the border surprised me, which is more like crossing into another US state than the full-on border control I'm accustomed to—thank God for the EU. Our first stop was the Guggenheim in Bilboa, where there's currently a L'art en guerre (War Art) exhibition featuring pieces created by artists during the World Wars. Rather sobering exhibit, but incredible to see people still creating and speaking out during such a difficult time—also how art helped people process the unbelievable reality around them, as a way of acceptance, escape, healing. 

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There was also A Matter of Time, an installation by Richard Serra in this giant space that's reminiscent of an airplane hanger (with Gehry's masterful touch, of course). He's created these massive sculptures of rolled steel that coil and twist and create labyrinthine corridors that people can walk through. The passageways narrow and widen, straighten and curve until you reach the middle of the spiral where there's an open space that feels like an exhale, if that makes any sense. The piece wasn't as claustrophobic as I thought it might be, with the giant steel plates leaning over you, but strangely calming and womblike. There's always only one path to take and you follow along the quiet path, letting it take you where it wants to; you just follow and soak in the rhythm of the changing patterns.

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After lunch, we headed to beautiful San Sebastian, a popular tourist beach city, like Biarritz. We were there for the rest of the day, wandering along the beach and the narrow Spanish streets trying to figure out how tapas worked. Funny excursion considering how most of us don't know a lick of Spanish and had no idea how anything worked.

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For our last Basque city, my host mother took Noelle and me to Bayonne on our last day there. Picturesque little city along the Nive River.

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And to top it all off I turned 20 the day after Spain (not quite the same without Danielle, but we'll celebrate together next year), and celebrated with my friends at a bar that we loved and went clubbing for the first time, dancing until the wee hours of the morning. Check that one off the bucket list. :) 

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And here's a picture of a cat in a washing machine. (Any integrity this blog post had just went out the window.)

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