Semana santa

8 April 2010

— Palmsonntag (Palm Sunday), Anselm Kiefer (2006). Via History of Our World.

A short time later, when the carpenter was taking measurements for the coffin, through the window they saw a light rain of tiny yellow flowers falling. They fell on the town all through the night in a silent storm, and they covered the roofs and blocked the doors and smothered the animals who slept outdoors. So many flowers fell from the sky that in the morning the streets were carpeted with a compact cushion and they had to clear them away with shovels and rakes so that the funeral procession could pass by.

One Hundred Years of Solitude p. 144

Between Palm & Easter Sunday, all of Spain goes on holiday. The prices of plane tickets & hotel rooms go through the roof, the rhythms of city life change. The South is transfigured into something very much like a García Marquez novel — that is, into a place where magical realism isn’t a prettified aesthetic choice but rather an attempt to render the world accurately.

This time last year in Jaén, flowers rained from the sky & got under my collar, into my hair, piled in drifts around my feet, had to be swept from the streets. Women sing to the Virgen from wrought iron balconies. From every corner of the city echoes the sounds of distant drums. The pasos — the, um, Holy Week processions, we’ll say, to make it Anglophone — are a big, big deal. Every city, every village. Christs & Virgens on giant candlelit altars held on the shoulders of dozens of men hidden by velvet drapes, only their feet showing, sway, back and forth, in time. Massed horns play music that sounds exactly like the stuff Ennio Morricone composed for those Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. In Sevilla, on the night before Black Friday, the paso lasts thirteen hours & stretches for what looks like at least a half-mile, maybe more. Little kids run up between the hooded figures — the pointed hoods & robes of the cofraternities look, disconcertingly to Americans, exactly like KKK outfits — to collect the wax that drips from their candles.

We’re in the territory of archetypal Spain, tourists writing breathlessly, the Spain of painted tile & flamenco & dying bulls & baroque Catholicism that you get in dozens of travel accounts, the place all dressed up & exoticized — which still & all can’t take away from the strangeness of it when you’re actually there, but which makes it feel kind of cheap in retrospect.

Anyway: Up here things are different. There are still processions, of course, but the scale isn’t the same — they’re much smaller, the altars even, and the energy on the streets is totally different. Bilbao’s still a working town, and it empties out during holidays, becomes sleepy & dull. Everyone’s out of town. You see more graffiti making fun of the pasos, more people frankly antipathetic to them. In the south, even if you weren’t religious, Semana Santa pasos had an integral cultural component they don’t seem to here, and people weren’t as eager to disavow them.

Then again, a big reason that Semana Santa is still this big today is Franco, who held Spain in a kind of anachronistic timewarp for a half century. During the Second Republic, bullfights had become unpopular, and the left frequently tried to ban them (the Cataláns always hated them — they’ve just outlawed them as of last year). Catholicism was the same way — a lot of churches burned during the Civil War, a lot of irreligious peasants. It makes me wonder where all of this will be in twenty or thirty years, once the post-Franco generation is middle-aged.

I’ll leave you from a picture taken last year by a friend of mine from a rooftop in the Alameda de Hércules of la Macarena, that 13-hour paso. (Yes: It’s called La Macarena).

Born standing up

25 February 2010

Church & bridge of San Antón, oldest in Bilbao. Via carpantillo (flikr).

Anywhere worth going to in Spain will already be crowded by the time you get there. This is partly because bars (in Basque Country, in Andalucía, in Catalunya) are shoebox-sized conflagrations of smoke (filled, depending on where you are, with bartop trays of pintxos, or forested with hanging legs of cured jamón, festooned with strings of garlic & dried peppers, or there are giant barrels of wine with metal spouts, or painted tile, espresso machines . . . ) — they’re standing room only, usually, and often people spill out in knotted groups into the narrow medieval streets, even in the light Basque rain, & stand holding beers or crianza.

But it’s mostly because eating & drinking in Spanish cities is a complicated dance that takes place on a mysteriously shifting intersection of place & time. I don’t just mean the comparative rigidity of the midday meal, la comida, when the streets empty out & the siesta is sacred, because really that’s truer in Andalucía than anywhere else (here in Bilbao, shockingly, I’ve seen stores open at 3 pm. It must be a northern thing.)

No, I mean that streets themselves change, they are modular & fluid. The steel shutters that close the stores rise & fall, the signs are lit or unlit, terraces laid out & bright or else stacked & chained, so that wandering the old towns you are even more lost at night than you used to be, nothing looks the same as it did that morning. Streets crowd to the bursting or are ghost towns, bars and cafés and restaurants too.

(And often those three places, the place you come to in the morning to read the paper & have your coffee in tranquility & the one you eat in at midday — two plates, bread, wine, coffee, dessert — & the bar you crowd around at night to shoulder around beers, are the same place, the essential unit of Spanish eating-and-drinking: the café-bar. With both its shelves of liquor & its espresso machine & its kitchen, not always open, so that not just the streets but the places themselves never stay the same, are modular & fluid themselves.)

Crowded, empty — it all depends on a kind of Spanish eating-and-drinking differential calculus: the day of the week, the time of day, summer or winter . . .

I feel like I’m drifting off into illegibility, so let me try to be specific. My friend was trying to show me around Barcelona one night, & we were accompanied by a number of impatient Swedes, and suddenly it seemed that nothing that should have been open — the cheap champagne bar, for starters — was open at all, on this Wednesday night; the plaza where normally at ten or so the young people start to swarm to drink out of bottles & skate was empty. Barcelona, she was explaining to the impatient Swedes (I nodded, we understood each other) worked by zones — you ate dinner here at 9, you had a drink over there at 11. If people weren’t where they were supposed to be, something had happened. We put our heads together.

As it turned out, we realized, it must be Ash Wednesday — carnivales had been the previous weekend, ending on Tuesday with the funeral of the sardine (Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Martes Gordo — in Bilbao it’d been on a Sunday, people wearing black & mock-crying while the sardine, giant & wearing a floppy purple hat, was burned in effigy outside the opera house on top of a bier of sticks) — and so the entire city was hungover, including the bartenders. Nobody was going out. Places were shuttering left & right around us.

Surely, the impatient Swedes said, there was somewhere to go.

No, we said. There is nowhere to go. This is how things are here. Anywhere in Spain worth going will already be crowded by the time you get there. If it’s not crowded, something’s wrong.

It’s no use peeking in & seeing the roiling cloud of smoke, the mass of dark coats, the napkins & cigarettes & broken glass mosaics on the tiled floor & saying, Too crowded, let’s try another one. You have to dive in, there’s nothing else to be done. The city is a dance, it follows a rhythm, & you are always a few steps behind. My first year in Jaén I called it the Spanish bat-signal. It was as if implanted at birth in the brain of every Jiennense was a transmitter that guided them unerringly to the right place at a given time.

I think this particular kind of crowd logic is unique to the places I’ve lived here. I don’t remember it being the same in, I don’t know, Boston.

You’ll be taken to, say, La Granja — a staid old café in the Plaza Circular with a wood bar, polished brass railings, starched old men serving coffee — on a Friday night, a particular Friday night, where suddenly it’s become a live music joint, there’s a band playing, the lights are off, everyone’s drinking cuba libres at two in the morning. Later, you’ll try to repeat the success with some foreign friends, guessing blindly, & find nothing but a quiet bar, a couple of old men sucking down vermouths.

You’ll try to plan a nice dinner in Gracía, in Barcelona, and find a couple of places via guidebooks & online reviews, only to find the two restaurants you’ve chosen shuttered, inexplicably, on an empty street. A block away, on c/ Verdi, swarms of families walking, old people, students, children, every place open & clamorous. You throw up your hands & decide to choose by sight.

And then when you finally think you’re getting the hang of the dance (ok, 8:30 & still early enough for Plaza Nueva, you think, or: 11 now, Somera will be filling up, or: Sunday noon in Sevilla, time to wander over to Alameda de Hércules and have the first beer of the day) you’ll be thrown off-balance by something big — a local saints’ day or festival, a national holiday, a change in the weather — and suddenly what was closed is open, what was open is closed, up is down and down is up, streets filling & emptying as if they were waterways with drains & sluicegates.

And everybody is standing bolt upright, leaning on the bar to eat, talking incessantly, gesturing with cigarettes. Don’t even bother looking for a table. In the winter, the doors are kept open, & the coats stay on. Some places have hooks beneath the bartop to hang them on. Or you pile them on top of the cigarette machine. Small ignitions of lighters (mecheros — I thought they were matcheros for over a year because I never had to spell it), floating ash, pintxos in Basque Country or Navarre, tapas everywhere else (the Cátalans are not big on tapas, & have banned bullfighting . . . the Basques hate flamenco & don’t drink sangria). Nothing to be done but follow the noise & see what’s going on. It’s not worth planning too carefully — you’re never sure which city you’ll be stepping into, where the crowded places will be.

Multitudes

14 February 2010

Lord of the Birds, Graciela Iturbide (1984), via.

I’ve always loved the little-used collective nouns that English accumulates — your shrewdness of apes, your exaltation of larks; clattering of jackdaws & mumuration of starlings. Just to list them is to become intoxicated by the accumulation. (We forget, of course, that even the commonest ones, flights & flocks & schools & herds & gaggles & troops, look odd from the outside, in translation, obscure groupings.) The most esoteric & the loveliest attach themselves to birds, & so when I think of nouns of multitude I remember Graciela Iturbide, whose photographs I saw at an exhibition at the Getty in ’08 — looking for them now, I can’t find the two I liked best, one of a cloud of birds suddenly frightened from a tree, hundreds of them surrounding it like a halo, & the other of a veternarian’s arm holding a pelican (I think?), backlit into shadow in front of an x-ray of its bones, the two inverted mirrors of each other, the bones white on black, the bird black on white.

Over Christmas I read John Crowley’s Ægypt & wrote down in my commonplace book a little moment on p. 254: ‘“exalted” as Axel said, by wine.’ What if, as with nouns of multitude — parliament of owls, siege of bitterns — there were verbs of intoxication? Exalted by wine, melancholied by gin, belched by lager, peated by scotch, embittered by ale. Extemporized by brandy . . .

Surely you can think of some better ones.

Carnivale in Bilbao, as I’ve said, brass bands in the streets, light rain, txiquiteros singing through glasses of crianza, the whole city in costume from the children to adults, groups, multitudes, in theme, disguised collectively. I’ve seen gingerbread men, firefighters, fields of strawberries, snowmen, professionals of every occupation, an entire army of playing cards armed with spears attacking a float manned by the Queen of Hearts in drag. And still, it should be said — this is nothing compared to Venice, to Cadiz. Halloween is the palest shadow.

Briefly noted

12 February 2010

Snowing in Bilbao yesterday & today — nothing like the storms 5,000 miles away to my left, but there are hailstones in the street & patches of unmelted slush & on the low hills that circle the city (Bilbao is el botxo, they say here, ‘the hole’) there is a covering of bright, white ice & snow that shines in the morning; I look at them from my window when I wake up. And despite all of this, I’m not as cold here as I was last year in Jaén, shivering in an uninsulated house, the hot water out.

El botxo — I thought something this morning, breath smoking while I huffed my way up the hill to school in Galdakao, something about this city I’d never thought about before: What is Bilbao doing surrounded by hills? This seems like an irrelevent question — it’s on the river, it’s a shipping hub — but it’s really not if you’ve lived in Andalucía, where every old city is elevated and has a fortress at the center. No fortress, in Bilbao. There were walls, but the only trace of them is near the church & bridge of San Antón, symbols of the city. Bilbao wasn’t a city, really, not more than a village, until after the Reconquista, after the colonization of the New World, after iron was discovered in the hills & it became a shipping center — that is, Bilbao, unlike every city in the South, is a post-industrial city, and it feels so natural it was only now, this morning, that I was struck by how strange it was to live in a Spanish city that wasn’t fortified, that hadn’t been built in the face of five centuries of intermittent warfare.

In K2, a bar named after the mountain with free wifi & good music that I use as my office in the afternoons, there are dreamcatchers & Indian headdresses made out of colored paper hanging from the ceilings (Penacho de Toro Sentado, reads one). It’s Carnivale, of course, which is why they’ve decorated — I’m dressing up as Clark Kent, myself — but that still doesn’t explain the weird, cartoony cultural appropriation. (There is a toy ax taped to the wall in front of me.)

In Corazón tan blanco, things are beginning to come to a head — Marías has accumulated a certain number of disparate elements, developed them, brought them to a point where now we are in the present (the present perfect, usually, but that’s Castillian Spanish for you) & he has begun to arrange them on the table & put them in relation to one another. The Macbeth references which began with the epigraph itself (from which the title is taken) have piled up, are beginning to be repeated — the impossibility of translating ‘thinking so brainsickly of things,’ which Marías’ narrator renders as vacillating between pensar con tan enfermo cerebro and pensar tan enfermitizamente con el cerebro (I wonder how this is worked out in the English translation?) — and the English fragment, amidst all this Spanish, repeated: “I have done the deed.”

There is a nice bit that asks whether we read literature or look at art for conocimiento or reconocimiento (that is, for understanding, or just for recognition? The parallel is neater & more elegant, of course, in Spanish).

What else? I learned the Basque word for ‘rainbow’ yesterday. I’m baking an apple pie tomorrow, which is the furthest thing from a tarta de manzana even though it’s the only way to translate it. Over on my tumblr, I’m puzzling over a quotation from Tom McCarthy that ends, “The Internet reifies a logic that was always already there,” & I mention this because I don’t usually use that scrapbook to write at length, but it ended up long, & I could use some help in the comments.

Absence

8 February 2010

A failed disposable camera picture of my desk in Boston in ’08. Two photographs tacked to the wall are visible: An artists’ photograph printed in Harper’s of a controlled fire set in an empty model home in Britain to train firemen, & a newspaper picture of the Iraqi minister of the Interior blindfolded & tied to a chair in his office after he was arrested for corruption.

I got up earlier this afternoon, still at the same café, to order another coffee & I put out my cigarette while I straightened. While I walked away what was left of it was still smoking in the ashtray, a kind of signal or trace. It reminded me, when I sat down again, of those effective & precise signifiers of absence (that is, of former presence) that crop up most often in crime fiction — the detectives are just seconds too late, & there’s still a thin coil of smoke coming up from the ashtray.

I suppose, overused, these verge on cliché — the flapping curtains in the open window, the still-warm, slight imprint in the empty bed — but the physicality of the best of them is moving. I read a Chilean poet once, I can’t remember who, it was a friend’s bookshelf in Ronda, & I still remember a turn of phrase — someone had come home to find that a person close to them had been taken by the special police, had been disappeared. An empty saucepan or a teakettle sat on a hot stove, smoking, ‘dry as a bone,’ the water all boiled away.

I can’t think of other similar moments in fiction, but perhaps you can.

People disappear sometimes in Basque Country, too (not in the same way as in Chile! — I want to add, because parallels are cheap), & the stories you’re told about it are typically difficult to make a single clear sense of. A friend works in a pueblo east of here, way up in the mountains, & five people were detained a few weeks ago in 3 a.m. raids with — from her high schoolers’ perspective, at least — no explanation. They were spirited away in the night & nobody knows what’s happened to them. This, at least, was what she was telling me, what her kids had been talking about in class in their mixture of Basque & Spanish. The same thing happened last fall — there were massive demonstrations in Bilbao. My friend brought it up at a party, to a Spanish woman, who listened with a particular kind of expression on her face & then said, politely but firmly, “There must have been a good reason.”

Which is to say, Don’t trust your kids to give you an accurate sense of what’s going on out of their own feelings of persecution.

This morning while I was taking my coffee at the bar in the Mercado de la Ribera,  I read in El Correo about the cache of explosives recently seized in Portugal; ETA, it seems, has been making noises about car bombs, attacks on airports. Most of their leadership is in jail — if you look at the wanted posters you see a bunch of rural kids from the pueblos. An ongoing season of crackdowns & detainments that started this fall, probably not all justified, probably not all unjustified.  I’m in over my head. I didn’t mean to start writing about this again. I’m just trying to give a sense of what’s left, what’s hanging in the air.

San Blas

3 February 2010

Today is the feast day of San Blas (English: Blaise), patron of the throat. Here (by here I mean “in Bizkaia,” as one of the teachers at my school was quick to tell me: “Just in Bizkaia — not in Gipuzkoa”) you wear something — I didn’t quite catch what, a medallion or a ribbon, I’ll tell you when I find out —  around the neck for a certain number of days in his honor, and groups old men, in the Basque way, wear checked kerchiefs & berets & roam the old town singing in the streets. The church dedicated to him is in Arenal, across the river, and on my way here to write this there was a crowd spilling out the door of the church and into a line that stretched down the side of the street.

For San Blas they also sell a kind of flat, unleavened pastry made with oil, anise & a sugar glaze that someone brought to school a few days ago, and also a kind of small, hard donut (buñelo) out of what I think is the same dough.

(Gipuzkoa, incidentally, is the neighboring province, capital San Sebastian, which is a cosmopolitan seaside town & retreat for the wealthy — French menus, world-famous chefs, exquisite pintxos, a beach. There is a provincial rivalry.)

Market day

1 February 2010

I love the Mercado de La Ribera (Signs in Basque say: Merkatua).  They have creamy, unsalted butter wrapped in paper from Burgos; thick, fragrant stalks of leeks (puerros, a word I learned last week); apples, avocados, cherries, oranges at the fruitstands; fresh eggs piled in wire baskets; forty different kinds of cheese & homemade arroz con leche in little containers; five different kinds of mushrooms (setas are the wild ones harvested from the hillsides, campiñones are the white button kind); heads of garlic & dried red peppers hanging in bunches; buckets of dried beans, spices, peppers . . . And this is just on the third floor, to say nothing of the fishmongers on the ground floor or the butchers on the second.

The market looks a little like a big yellow train station. It has skylights & colored glass windows & mosaic tiles on the outside. Two-thirds of it is rubble, right now, because it’s being massively renovated, but the last third is still open. I go twice a week, Mondays & Thursdays in the morning.

Last week I found out that one of the fruitstands sells reusable milk bottles for 0,40€ & has a machine with farm-fresh milk that you fill up for a 1€ per litre. This in particular is a revelation, because Spanish milk is always sold in cardboard boxes, quadruple-pasturized and irradiated (“UHT”) & stored at room temperature in stacks on the floor like bricks, & it tastes like chalk.

As if this wasn’t enough to keep me happy, the market features the best idea ever: a bar on the top floor, right underneath one of the skylights, so that you can have breakfast when you come in the morning (café cortado & a croissant) or a caña & a tortilla while you’re finishing up.

But really, the reason to do my shopping here in addition to all of this, and in addition to the prices (I walk away from the fruitstand, my arms sagging, having let go of 2,50€; I try six different cheeses & pay less than a euro apiece), is that in a market you do something you don’t do in a supermarket, which is talk to people. The women at the fruitstands tell you which fruits are good: Not that one. That one isn’t for today. You want this one. You find yourself in the position of having to know the names for things. After a little while you’re recognized, both because you’re one of the few foreigners (my castellano is getting more noticeably accented because I’m trying to get rid of my andaluz; people ask me where I’m from) and because you’re young, and a man, and I don’t really see many other muchachos shopping at market. I almost said, because not a lot of Spanish boys my age cook, but I think that’s truer in Andalucía, where I knew tons of young adults who lived exclusively off of their mothers’ food, frozen in tupperware, than here in País Vasco, which has a food culture (so many chefs come from San Sebastían).

Still and all, it’s a delight just to talk to people, to feel like you’re part of a city, to see a smile of recognition, to have someone tell you when you’ve forgotten to withdraw enough cash that you can pay her the next time you come in, to return to your kitchen with fresh, real things, to chop vegetables, in place of going to the crowded aisles of the Carrefour Express ten minutes’ walk away in  Zabálburu to feel lonely & listen to the piped-in American pop.

(I found a butcher, too, a German family-run place in Ensánche that makes its own currywurst & sausage & stocks this spicy imported brown mustard you squeeze from a tube that you can’t get anywhere else, also shockingly cheap; the owner is exceedingly pleasant & trilingual in Spanish, English & German.)

Now the only thing I buy in a store are staples, rainy-day food — canned tomatoes, vermouth, flour, pasta, sliced bread. I meant to wait on writing this until I had pictures, but I’m still looking for a place to develop my first roll of film.

Matter of time

28 January 2010

The Matter of Time (Richard Serra), now at the
Guggenheim in Bilbao, scanned from a postcard a visiting
friend bought for me in the giftshop.

_

The Guggenheim is the first thing I thought of when I thought of Bilbao. Before I knew anything else about the city, I had a vague mental image of a silver, billowing, sail-like building, blurred green hills behind, something near water. This is particularly ironic because the Guggenheim is, really, still a new building, and because it really doesn’t belong to Bilbao or to the Basques at all. Nonetheless, as a single piece of architecture it’s done more to reshape the city than anything since the steel industry. (Bilbao is Birmingham is Pittsburgh is Glasgow; they’re refranchising the Gugi’s starchitecture to Abu Dhabi).

Funny: it photographs well, but it doesn’t look like much from the street. It faces away from where anybody lives or works; it’s best viewed from a bridge, or the hills overlooking the city, or like a paddle-boat. You occasionally catch glimpses of it, if you’re out that way, down a side alley: an anonymous wall of tarnished silver. It doesn’t loom over the city or mark the skyline—it’s not even central, it’s shunted off to the other end of the Abando, way across the 19th-century extension and as far away from the Casco Viejo’s dank & twisting medieval cobbles as you can get. It’s best viewed, and most dramatic, from the river, which used to be where the docks and the factories and the steelyards were and now is a kind of postindustrial parkway.

At any rate. I’ve seen Serra’s Matter of Time twice since coming here; it’s probably the best reason to visit the Guggenheim (overpriced compared to the Museo de Bellas Artes, which has a bigger collection & is free on Wednesdays). Photographs of it are kind of beside the point—lacking better words, I’ll just reprint here what I wrote in my notebook while sitting in the center of one of those loops of steel:

Richard Serra’s labyrinth: a nautilus, high rust-colored walls, sloped steel, narrowing & widening. An endless feeling, walking through, something about the angles producing a self-renewing feeling of anticipation, of expectation — almost there . . . . A constant sense of being about to arrive, that something decisive is approaching. Deceptively simple.

Appropriate for Bilbao, which has been forging steel since the 6th c.

Being inside the pieces warps your sense of space. You loose yourself. The walls bulge and recede in equal measure. You are made to feel endlessness, momentum, sudden absence of light. Sounds become distant. Someone whistles, a thousand miles away. Far-off footfalls.

The snake [center] is darker than the others, gradients of light near the lip. Stamp your food and the echoes are inhuman. The walls ring like gongs. One spiral feels like it is collapsing, the walls changing color, and you lean to avoid the fall.

A week or so later, Serra came up —one of those moments where what you read all seems to be interrelated— in a Believer interview with Dave Hickey. (About all of these Believer references: I don’t have internet at home. One day, I opened every free online article in the Believer in a tabbed browser so that I’d have something in English to read at night before I go to bed. This is the result.)

DH: Alec Waugh proposes “seriousness” as a form of infectious stupidity. I agree. Actually, Bruce Nauman is pretty funny. Everybody pretends that he’s not, but clown torture is pretty funny! You know? And, uh, I think Peter Saul is funny, he’s very witty, and I think Ellsworth Kelly is not funny but he’s witty, and Ed Ruscha is extremely funny and extremely witty, you know?

SH: I love Serra but he’s not funny.

DH: No, well, but Richard’s smart. And he’s an artist. He can’t talk without drawing. He’s the real fucking thing. Not nice.

SH: Not nice. No, he doesn’t seem so nice. [Laughs]

DH: But Richard’s really fun to go look at art with, because he will look at anything, and he likes to look at art, and when you see him you don’t sit around. He says, “Let’s go look at art,” so that’s what he does. He’s kinda corny because he’s not hip at all. He doesn’t know anybody. He doesn’t know who got AIDS, he doesn’t know who got fired. But he’s a real artist to me anyway.

More photographs — the dumbest way to experience Serra ever — on my tumblr. Tomorrow, I want to take this quotation & think about what seriousness as an infectious form of stupidity might mean.

“La banda terrorista”

24 January 2010

Opening my morning paper today in the café-bar, past Haiti & an article on immigration, I find a small article summarizing a new book, Vidas rotas (Broken Lives) — which (I cannot help but think — the article is filed out of Madrid) in the very Spanish El País is summarized by the headline as “Una niña, primera víctima de ETA” — a little girl, ETA’s first victim, ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) being, of course, the Basque separatist group that has carried out bombings & assassinations since the 60s — or, I should say, since the article gives the name of the girl & the date, since June 27th, 1960, when a child named Begoña Urroz Ibarrola died in the bombing of the train station in San Sebastián.

Vidas rotas, then, is a book that records every single person killed by ETA over the last 50 years, in chronological order, as well as, if known, the people who killed them, & in what manner.

Its 1,310 pages, say the article, “contribuyen a recordar, en carne viva, que la histora y la política del País Vasco no pueden entenderse sin aceptar el vasto coste humano del terrorismo.” The history & politics of Basque Country cannot be understood without accepting the vast human cost of terrorism. This is, of course, true — & yet writing it makes me nervous, ties my tongue. Of course, it’s true that the murder of a little girl for political ends is unspeakably ugly.

The article lists:  361 civilians, 209 Guardia Civil, 149 national police, 97 soldiers, 16 special police & 25 city cops. A murder every year except for 1999, 2004, & 2005. The book closes with the two Guardia Civil killed in Calviá (Islas Baleares) last July.

I’m not sure how this story would be told if I were reading it in something aside from El País, if I were hearing someone from here tell it, & part of that is what makes me hesitant, nervous — I’m reading this in a café-bar, after all, in public, & in public you just don’t talk about these things, particularly if you’re a foreigner. The rest of Spain, as far as I can tell from the reaction of friends of mine in Jaén when I told them where I was going — “You’re going where?” — views Basque Country with a kind of irrational, ignorant fear tinged with exoticism, as though I weren’t living 4 & a half hours by car from Madrid but in some kind of magical land on the far end of the earth, or rather, not magical but wartorn. It feels like talking to college freshmen in Boston about living in Jamaica Plain.

You can’t argue with the weight of the dead. But of course here the relationship between the kind of political sentiment that ETA represents & a rejection of the violence they carry out is much more contingent & embroidered. Yes, I can hear someone saying, yes, this was wrong, this was horrible. But — and I don’t know what would follow. Something, assuredly. All I have after four months here are bare fragments, & maybe I’d be better off keeping quiet until I know what I’m talking about, but part of me wants you, dear reader, to share my confusion.

I wasn’t planning on writing about this this morning.

Swordfish bars

13 January 2010

If you walk downriver from where I am into Bilbao La Vieja & make the correct turns, you’ll find yourself in a small square edged by concrete apartment blocks. On one side, there is a wall-sized mural of gray-uniformed men charging in ranks, bayonets fixed, towards you, words I can’t read in Basque above, & in that wall is set a small black door.

If you find yourself downriver in Bilbao La Vieja at 3 or 4 in the morning, you might see a woman dressed all in black & holding a cell phone standing, to no apparent purpose, in the plaza. And if you meet with her approval, the door in the mural wall will be opened & you’ll be let inside.

Inside is an illegal after-hours Basque bar, elaborately soundproofed, with no name that I know. (Pronouncing Basque bar names is a perennial problem for all of my foreign friends; we’ve developed ad hoc descriptive nicknames in English instead — Green Bar, where a redheaded Basque bartender who lived for years in Dublin gave me a free winetasting, or Animal Bar, which  has high-resolution photographs of goats & pigs on the tables and is a lesbian bar, but only sometimes. This sort of place, one of an unknown multitude lurking somewhere in the warrens of San Francisco & Bilbao La Vieja, I, at least, call a swordfish bar, after the usual kind of password for a Prohibition speakeasy, and you never find the swordfish bars unguided.)

The place is a subterranean crowding of cigarette smoke, red-painted walls, alcohol-stained wood, the smell of hash or weed, conversational Basque everywhere (unusual, for Bilbao), people dressed in black shoulder to shoulder, filled to the brim, and I suspect that having an accent when you order in castellano was to my advantage — better to be foreign here, than to be Spanish.

I was there the week before I left for Christmas. I think, reflecting on it now, that this is how Bilbao has been, for me: more reserved than the stereotypical effusion of Andalucía, but the kind of place where you might at any moment be shown a door you’d never noticed before & open it find yourself in the middle of something extraordinary.