Por Amour. A Boisean in the Basque Country

Miracles of the Past, Celebrated Today.

crossLegend has it that many many many many many years ago (I don’t know if we are talking about centuries or decades) the weather in Arrieta, Bizkaia (my father’s hometown) was dry and hot.  Much of the food for both the people and the animals was lost the year before because of hot and dry weather, and the town’s people feared it would happened again.  If it did, no one would survive.  It was a scary time and the grace of God was needed.

The town prayed to San Iñazio (Saint Ignatius also the patron Saint of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa) and together a promise was made.  If the weather changed and provided what was needed for a happy and healthy harvest to those in Arrieta and neighboring towns, on the feast day of San Iñazio, July 31, a pilgrimage would be made from Arrieta to San Juan de Gaztlugatxe.  A statue of the Virgin Mary would be carried to the small church that sits atop Bermeo’s island and a Mass would be said.

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The prays worked and from then on, starting at 6 am in Arrieta’s plaza a few hundred faithful make the four hour trek.  Through the town, up the mountain, down the mountain and up again.

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The Virgin Mary is still carried by four men with everyone else following behind.

It is also still tradition to stop in Mañuas, a neighborhood of Bermeo.  For the walkers it is a time to have a quick snack or grab a beer or a glass of wine. But for those who live in this small one bar, a handful of homes town, it is time to adorne the Virgin Mary with fresh flowers before she and her faithful followers continue.  It is also not unusual for people who live along the path to leave their houses and greet the group, putting more flowers on the statue.


I have to admit, my family and friends spent a little too much time in the bar (just one beer) during our stop. We missed the group photo and the Virgin left without us.  Trying to catch up, we were offered a ride by a passer-by but we gratefully declined.  Okay okay…since I am talking about prays, and miracles and the Virgin Mary I should confess that my cousin Udane and I didn’t decline, instead our friend Esther wouldn’t let us get in the car, saying we had to continue walking!!

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Four hours later we were greeted by the hundreds of others who had walked in homage from a different location or those who came by car.  Together, one by one, we walked the several hundred steps up to the church for a beautiful Mass and afternoon.

And as all Basque festivals, a celebration in Arrieta’s plaza took place later that night, once the Virgin Mary was brought back safe and sound!

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Okay…so the legend is beautiful and this is my third time being a part of such a special tradition.  But today I am praying to the Virgin Mary that she takes the pain out of my legs and butt because I simply can’t move!!!  To the three older Basque women who were sitting in the shade commenting on how great they felt and how tired, hot and sweaty these young people looked…may the Virgin Mary herself forgive you!!!  Oh and I should probably give thanks to the Virgin as well, that Udane was so out-of-breathe that she didn’t have it in her to give them a piece of her mind!!!



The Festival: Elantxobe part 2

The last time I attended the festival of San Madalena was 17 years ago.  I can’t believe it was that long ago, considering if feels like it happened yesterday.  Instead what happened yesterday, was a new way to experience the celebration of this great day.

Let me explain what I mean…

17 years ago, one of my dearest and life long friends, Alicia and I, were told to dress in blue and be ready for the festival of a lifetime.  We followed my cousin’s (then boyfriend, now husband) to the car where he drove us to Elantxobe.  I can’t begin to describe this remote village with only one road in and one road out…it is the same road.  You enter, but you can’t leave, unless you turn around on this circle that stands at the end of town.  It is the craziest thing.  The town is literally built on a hill and you have to walk past people’s front doors and walk ways to get through town.

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I was told by one of the guys I traveled with this time, that the girls of Elantxobe are known for having the best legs, considering they are always walking uphill.  I told him I noticed the butts on the boys weren’t so bad from all the steep climbing.

Anyway, the festival 17 years ago was a drunken mess.  What we wore that was white, eventually turned purple from all the water and wine being thrown around. If you tried to make your way up the cobble stone steps you would not get far because the cobble stone was soaked and that meant you slide right back down.  There was barely room to move and looking back it was highly dangerous.  So dangerous, that not long ago a young man died and since the festival has changed.IMG_1716


Today…it is more of a celebration to get to the festival, which now takes place strictly on the town’s port and not up and down the dangerous streets.

The theme is still fisherman blue, the party is still happening and the drinks are still flowing!  But 17 years later I got the opportunity to take part in the festivities via boat that start in Bermeo and end in Elantxobe!  It was amazing to see the empty waters from the day before filled with boats!

It was like spring break Lake Havasu style, but in the Basque Country!

14 of us piled onto a boat loaded with kalimotxo and beer and followed the others to the island where the festivities would start.  Dignitarities from surrounding town and  celebrants of all ages cheered together as the mayor of Bermeo threw a tile into the water, declaring the party had started.

From there it was to the port for more drinks and fun!

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My Maiden Voyage: Elantxobe part 1

There is something about the ocean that draws me in.  It isn’t that I love to jump in the cold water or anything, but just being near the water makes me happy.

Thanks to the connections and his ever so adventuress nature, my cousin’s husband, Iban, invited me to sail from Getxo to  Elantxobe as a kick off to the fiestas of Santa Madalena.

I happily accepted – then went home to Mungia to pack my things.

Fisherwoman’s skirt traditionally worn at festivals…check

White shirt…check

White and blue checked scarf…check

Shoes to walk the cobble stone streets with…check

I had all I needed for two days on the boat and I was ready to leave bright and early Monday morning.

As I went to bed, I tossed and turned, nervous that I wouldn’t be able to do it.  I dreamt about being sick, about falling off the boat, honestly I dreamt about making the trip absolutely miserable for the other three on board.

You see they sail much more often than me, clearly since this was my first time, and I worried about how excited they would be to have to hold my hair back, wipe my face and take care of me as we made our trek, my maiden voyage.

6 seasickness pills later and I was on the water!  It was a beautiful ride and an amazing experience.

I already told the captain and crew, I would say yes again to their next invitation.

This is the trip to the festival…photos of the festival in part 2.

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I’m The One In Red and White!

How do you begin to describe a festival such as that of San Fermin, or the Running of the Bulls, in Pamplona.

It is one of the most infamous fiestas and rightfully so…I can say from experience there is nothing quite like it.

I have had the opportunity to experience this great festival from two different vantage points.  The first was in 1997 with 8 friends from Boise (we are missing one in the photo, someone had to take it)!  We all happened to be in the Basque Country at the same time and decided to meet up.  Our day started at 4 pm and ended after 8 am when we saw the bulls make their way down the main street. Well I can say we all saw the bulls but maybe not all of us remember it.


It was hours of drinking and drinking and even more drinking.  When we got lost, we would eventually make our way to our two-hour check in spot and drink some more.  We all ended up with pink shirts and one red tie – to get full details ask those who where there!!!

This time, 17 years later…my experience has some similarities and great differences.

First and foremost, I am much older and because of that a little bit wiser.

The “Txupinazo”, which signifies the start of San Fermin is an experience all in itself.  People of all ages, backgrounds and experiences can be found walking the streets in a white shirt, white pants, red sash and red scarf.  If you are ever planning on visiting, don’t worry about not having the appropriate sash and scarf; you can buy them at each street corner for a mere 5 euros.

Fully adorned in red and white, my former roommate, Esther Ciganda and I made our way to her aunt’s store where we would be meeting dozens of her family members for lunch.

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We dined including lips and intestine! Yep you read it correctly – lips and intestine!

To wash down our meal, we enjoyed wine, beer and kalimotxos!!

While others packed the streets we were in no rush, as we waited until the last minute to step out of the store doors and enter a world of great celebration.

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Throughout the hours leading up to the Txupinazo I wondered why the locals, or really anyone for that matter, had their scarfs wrapped around their wrists and not their necks.  It wasn’t hot, I thought to myself, it can’t be the heat.  When I asked Esther why she wasn’t wearing her scarf, she informed me that they couldn’t be worn  until the celebration of San Fermin had officially commenced, noon on July 6.

As we waited for the start, the crowd yelled, the music played and water was poured onto the unexpected from the homes above the streets!

And at noon, the festival had started!!!

Groups of locals and visitors followed bands down one street and onto another.  Some went from bar to bar, while others looked as they had been partying for days as their whites had already turned purple.

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Our group went from bar to bar and  it was amazing how many people we knew, mixed in the thousands that were in attendance.

San Fermin is probably on many of your bucket lists.  If you have the opportunity attend, I suggest you do.  It is a party like no other and an experience of a lifetime!

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I will be back in Pamplona this coming weekend, so if you see me…say hi and you can even buy me a birthday drink!

Jaiak or Fiesta or Festival = FUN!

Jaiak, fiesta or festivals, call it what you want, most people call it fun.  Here are photos of the first weekend of festivities in celebration of San Pedro (St. Peter) that took place in Mungia!!

For the first time attending these festivals, I noticed I enjoyed the events that happened during the day more than those at night!

I hope you enjoy!!

Oh and don’t forget to take note of the older gentleman in the sparkly hat…we didn’t hit it off. He asked me if I had been eating because it showed – so I followed up by asking if he had been drinking because it showed! Oh Santiago!!

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Good Luck Udane and Julen!

My cousin Udane has been studying very hard for her final exam this year!  She would only take breaks when I would tell her it was time to go to the nearby bar for a quick drink!!   I wish Udane the best of luck and may she enjoy herself after her test at San Pedro Jaiak (St. Peter’s festival) in Mungia!!!  First round of drinks are on me!!!  In my original post I forgot to add her boyfriend Julen who has also been studying like crazy.  Good luck to you both and stilll…the first round of drinks are on me!




For the Love of God, More Ice!


Nothing is better than your favorite cocktail, a new coca cola, even the water we are obliged to drink, poured over a nice big glass of ice.

I get it, for some of you a full glass of ice is miserable. It hurts your teeth and causes the liquid you are drinking to burn your throat. If that sounds familiar, then the Basque Country is where you need to be!

Why you ask?  Because they have a serious problem with ice and an even bigger problem with putting more ice cubes into the glass – even if you ask over and over and over again.

I order a drink, any drink, it doesn’t matter what type of drink it is, and I always finished my sentence with…“mucho hielo por favor.”

I would like to think that they don’t understand me, my accent is a bit broken and they don’t get it, or maybe they are somewhat hard-of-hearing and what comes out of my mouth didn’t make it into their ears – but that is not the case because when I ask a bartender for “a lot of ice please” they repeat what I say, questioning my petition – “muchos hielos?” “Si” I respond, “muchos.”

Holding the glass on the palm of their hand, tongs in the other, they put one cube, two cubes (which is where it ends when you don’t ask for mucho) and finally three cubes of ice.  I used to smile and politely ask for more which, who knows why, seemed to offend each bartender.  But I have come to kindly smile, grab my glass and bitch about it to the person I am with!

Yes, I bitch about the ice cubes as if it is something of substance to bitch about.

The dog that is not on a leash doesn’t bother me as much, the child who has just pulled their pants down and peed in the middle of the sidewalk doesn’t bother me as much, the excessive use of house slippers when you just want to walk barefooted inside doesn’t bother me as much, as their disregard for a nice cold drink!

What bothers me is the ice issue in this country and I after experiencing this ice issue over the past several years and visits here, I think there is a conspiracy to teach the American that more and bigger isn’t always better!

Well I get it, my glass is not going to be packed full of ice – but don’t think that is going to stop me from saying – “muchos hielos, por favor!”


Encore, Encore…Bring on the Accordion!

MusicMungia12It takes specific cultures, specific upbringings and a specific taste in music to love the one specific instrument I am writing about today.

It isn’t particularly the coolest instrument  (don’t be offended if you play it, I wish I did) to play and you don’t tend to hear it being played by bands with songs topping the music charts.  Come to think about it, I don’t know anyone who has won a Grammy with the accordion in decades, or ever!

But for me, and I am going to assume for many people with the same cultural background, the piano accordion – or the push button “Triki” is one of the best instruments around!

A small sample of music in Mungia

How can you not LOVE the accordion?  It is beautiful and the sounds it makes can turn any foul mood to a happy one in no time.

I am going to venture to say what where I come from, my home country, the accordion does not get the respect it deserves, not like it does where I am now!

You may be laughing a little as you read this or even better, you may be thinking about a festival or gathering you recently attended where the sounds of the accordion filled the air – it certainly has where I am now, specifically in Mungia.

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If you have heard, read, visited or studied the Basque Country, you probably did not do any of those in Mungia.  It is not a vacation hotspot and there is no specific architecture that graces the covers of magazines.

It is simply a town of about 15,000 that is safe to walk in, clean and very family oriented.   The plaza is always filled with couples having an evening coffee or drink and the children run wild.  What it also seems to have on a frequent basis is music. There is one specific couple who seem to lead the pack in organizing music, and I personally am thankful for their dedication to filling the air with songs that make those they pass, smile a bit more and move with a little more spirit.

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Don’t misunderstand what I am saying, I am not living in a Disney movie where everyone is dancing and singing in the streets – but every now and then it feels a little like one as a group of musicians randomly passes by.

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Small disclaimer, I love all the instruments shown here – I just decided to write about the under appeciated accordion!!

I Dare You to Smile…


peopleI admit it,  in my home state people are very friendly.  I would love to think it is this way all over the US, but I can really only speak for Idaho, maybe Arizona.  Where I come from, people smile at others; it is what it is.

Well, it isn’t necessarily the same in the Basque Country, so I have decided that I have nothing to lose by smiling at the people here, specifically at the older generation who walk around with what I would consider to be a glare on their face.  You know they don’t mean to appear angry; it’s just their look.

If you are Basque and have spent any time here, you know exactly the people I am talking about!

They are the men adorned with a black beret and they wear a striped or checked shirt that is tucked into their navy blue pants.  We each know one or two, or more of them.  You know, the old guys with the navy blue sweater draped over their shoulders.

And you know their wives too. They are the women with very tan legs, a knee length skirt, and a silk or satin blouse with the jacket that perfectly matches their skirt, which rests nicely on their shoulders.  Oh, you know who I am taking about, the ladies who are quick to tell you how much weight you have gained since your last visit, even if you lost some!!

Those are the people I have been making a conscious effort to smile at as I pass them on the street or they pass me while I am out having a coffee.

And it has paid off!



First encounter, bar conversation last Sunday morning having a coffee…

          Me: Hello, good morning. (Of course I say with a smile on my face.)

          Old man: Do you know me?

          Me: No.

          Old man: Do I know you?

          Me: No.

          Old man: But you greeted me like you know me.

          Me: Yes, I did.

          Old Man: But you don’t know me?

          Me: No I don’t. I just like to smile. (Sounds cheesy but he caught me off guard with his question. I just expected a smile back or even a glare.)

Old man turns around, starts to walk away, and then instantly stops.  He adjusts the sleeve of his navy blue sweater, which had slightly fallen from his shoulder, then walks back toward me and says…

           Old Man: Keep doing what you’re doing, it’s a great way to be.

Next encounter – different day, different old man, different bar.

My cousin, Udane and I were having a drink one evening.  As we were talking, another gentleman, dressed as described above, with his hands clasped behind his back, casually strolled by with a scowl on his face.  He looked at Udane first and then me.

I smiled, he stopped walking.


Then he smiled and pulled two candies out of his pocket, a Werther’s Original for each of us.

— Random photos courtesy my cousin Udane.



Fake It ‘Till You Make It

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Have you ever gone grocery shopping in a foreign country?  A country where you have no idea of what to do or what to buy?

It has happened to my family before when on a previous trip to a wedding in the Basque Country. My mom and brother attempted to buy ham.  They ordered a few kilos and once they realized just how much that was, they understood the shocked – or maybe even disgusted – look on the butcher’s face regarding their order.

That shopping trip is something we have laughed about several times.  Remembering that particular shopping experience, I tried to make smarter purchases during my first few trips shopping here – but I can only imagine how I looked walking the isles of the large supermarket.

With each attempt at trying to figure out how to get around, here was my thought process;

           ◊ Put on a tough face and go
           ◊ Follow my friend Maggie’s advice, “fake it ‘till you make it”
           ◊ Enter each situation with complete confidence.

Sounds easy right, and it was until the moment I was forced to have any communication, then that confidence all went away. I am specifically talking about when I needed to be speaking in French.

I went grocery shopping my first three days in Ustaritz and each time it was an adventure.  The first few trips I did not dare purchase fresh fruit and vegetables for fear I would have to figure out how to use the weight machines.

To figure out what to do, I decided to concentrate on what others were doing.  In some cultures I would have been accused of flat-out staring, and in other cultures the legal system would have labeled me a stalker, but I figured it was surviving. I am sure I looked as confused as I felt, standing there with my mouth wide-open watching intently as people made their way up and down the isles.

I followed shoppers to see what they were buying, I took inventory of what they had in their carts as it was more than likely going to dictate what I would also be eating that night.  But fantasy faded and reality hit when I realized I had no idea how to cook what they were putting in their baskets.

Chocolate bars, Kinder bars to be more specific, went quickly into the cart, followed by shampoo, face wash and eye make-up remover.  When Mr. Big mentioned long before that we could live on cold water and love, I was afraid we were going to have to make that a reality.

I walked around some more finally adding chicken breasts to my cart and off I went, I was done.

I stood there feeling good, actually feeling great.  I smiled at the nice people around me.  And then another sudden observation, panic hit again, how was I going to get my groceries out of the store. Everyone around me had their own shopping bags and all I had was my beautiful Michael Kors Christmas gift from my mom.  I sure as hell wasn’t going to put raw chicken in there.

I started to sweat as I envisioned myself carrying my purchases through the store and out the door.  What was I to do?

Suddenly in all its glory was a rack of reusable bags. I grabbed three, not really knowing how many I would need and proceeded through the checkout line.

The cart I was using immediately caused a loud and obnoxious beep, which then caused everyone around to start staring.  I stood there, frozen, waiting to see what to do next. Fingers points and the French language filled the air as I tried to figure out what the clerks were saying.  Apparently I had crossed a very important imaginary line that only certain types of carts were allowed to cross, mine was not one of them.

I paid, more French was rattled at me, “Only English” were the only two words I could say, I threw my monopoly looking money toward the woman working the cash register and I walked out.

I sat in the car, calmed down and I felt accomplished. I opened my new reusable bag and pulled out my more precious purchase – God bless the Kinder Bar.

Once home, Mr. Big quickly informed me that for the environment’s sake his country had switched to reusable bags.  I didn’t know how to tell him that my county was trying that too but recent reports had found salmonella in those bags and it was making people sick.  I figured it wasn’t my job to act as the FDA.

For dinner, chicken and the small bit of salad in the refrigerator from before and of course the staple dinner item, bread.  Did I forget to mention that I also bought bread? Apparently it was old bread…who knew!

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