When we landed in Bilbao, I thought I had reached Ireland.
From the morning sky, the valleys of green that welcomed us to Basque Country painted the land with the color of envy – a feeling I would soon feel for the natives who had been privy to this beauty since birth.
As my first entry point into Spain, I didn’t know how I would feel about this land, a land that save for the many descriptive paragraphs I had read in my collection of travel guides, was absolutely foreign to me.
The minute I set foot in the airport and interacted with rental car personnel, I knew I was in the land of reserved warmth. These were not an expressive people, but rather a cautious lot whose emotional deliverance would have to be earned.
I was going to have to work for their smiles.
I was going to have to work for their acceptance.
I was going to have to turn on the Juan charm in the only way I knew how.
A challenge was upon me, but I pulled from my memory and heart banks channeling the only point of reference I could pull from my childhood: I remembered my Tio Miguel.
My Tio Miguel, a tall, commanding man, married to my dad’s sister, my Tia Cuca, could appear to be gruff and unwelcoming at times. Behind the tough exterior was a man with a heart of gold. He was the first pillar of strength man I saw with teary eyes on the day my dad died and it was this invisible crack in his human armor that reminded adult me that I could get through to the Vascos before me.
I could go into much detail about my time in Basque Country, but suffice it to say that I got to visit a place in San Sebastián (Donostia) I had once conjured on the page with my writer’s imagination called Bergara Bar – coincidentally, it was an actual place with actual people. Sitting there with my fellow travelers eating my first Pinxos was one of the most surreal moments of my life.
The next morning standing on La Playa de la Concha with the crisp ocean wind hitting my face was one of the most pleasant wake up calls of life I’ve ever received.
We later met up with my cousins’ cousin and her husband in a small mountain village called Trucios and it was here where I got to experience first hand the generosity of spirit of the Basque people. Rosamaria and Tonio shared everything they had (and even what they didn’t) with us.
My cousin Miguel, traveling with us on this journey got to see where his grandfather was born. His grandfather was none other than my Tio Miguel’s father. This was the reason why we were in Basque Country – my cousin wanted to visit this place to see a part of his history, to honor a part of his father’s history and to relish in a part of his Basque history.
Miguel the son, would honor Miguel the father by standing near the place where their family tree branch had sprouted.
While this was undoubtedly an emotional moment for him, he took it all in with the Basque pride so prevalent in the people of the area, quietly and inwardly. It was a silent moment where history and present met to fulfill one man’s dream without fanfare, pomp or circumstance.
It was quiet, dignified and reserved.
In short, it was Basque.
Somewhere, in a heaven where fathers who leave their sons in life know all, my Tio Miguel was smiling down on him.
Leaving Basque Country I left with more in my luggage of life than I bargained for: recent memories with a new cousin I now claimed as my own and yet another memory with a cousin who had never not been part of my life. These two people, so remotely different, living on two distant continents, both exemplified the definition of the Basque in their persona.
And, while I don’t have one drop of Basque blood in my lineage, there is a little patch of green land in the north of Spain that will always have my heart and begs me to return someday soon.