April 28, 2015, by Rachel Bainbridge

“Dear Tourist, you are not in Spain. You are not in France. You are in the Basque Country”

This is what was emblazoned across a flag hung from a balcony on my street during my first couple of weeks here in San Sebastián (although if we’re to follow the train of thought of the above quote, we should be calling it uniquely Donostia, or its more familiar name of Donosti). While sounding very determined and almost intimidating, this declaration to me only really serves to highlight the goodness that can come from the three ‘nationalities’ that may be felt across the Basque region, and in turn reveal its rich culture. Indeed, it seems to belie the plentiful possibilities and unique way of life that can stem from a mix of three languages, cultures and landscapes. Despite my admiration of this Basque-Spanish-French melting pot however, it would be wrong of me to say that I have not been faced with my fair share of cultural challenges.

A couple of weeks ago, I popped into a local Eroski and patted myself on the back after successfully navigating the procedure of buying some croissants using only Basque (granted, I only said ‘Kaixo’, ‘Eskerrik Asko’ and ‘Agur’- or ‘Hello’, ‘Thank you’ and ‘Bye’- practically fluent, eh?), but now that the novelty of this has died down, it makes me realise that choosing which language to speak in in a multilingual region is a small challenge in itself. Do you attempt the more ‘niche’ language, attempting to appear more cultured and immersed but risking your awkward five-word vocabulary range being discovered, or do you opt for the more ‘mainstream’ tongue, something you’re a lot more comfortable with but which you can’t help but feel gives you an air of ignorance? Of course, people are always happy to speak to me in Spanish, but I feel like I should put the effort in. This becomes even more frenzied as you get closer to the French-Spanish border; do those on the other side know enough Spanish, or will you have to switch to la belle langue?

Naturally, the original quote I noted earlier alludes to the topic of independence, and this is evidently a topic that needs to be treated carefully. Seeing pro-independence flags and slogans all over the place certainly leads one to believe that the Basque Country really doesn’t feel as if it belongs to its wider Spanish or French society, but in reality, after speaking to a few natives, the independence debate really isn’t as clear-cut here as it is in Catalonia for example. Both sides of the argument are fairly evenly split, I have been told. Nevertheless, the first time I left Donosti to head to the village in which I work, I was told by a colleague that I really needed to be careful about what I said about the whole nationality discussion in the more rural areas. Apparently there is an extremely strong dose of support for separation there than in the cities. So, while I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a loudmouth, having to watch what you say all the time is definitely challenging and takes some getting used to and a lot of self-correction. Thankfully though, everyone I’ve met out in the provincial parts has been perfectly patient, and I have concluded that, as ever, the best way out of an awkward moment is just to laugh at yourself. Hey, everyone else is doing it, so why not join them?

Posted in Cultural challenges