San Sebastian: A Little “Pinxto” of Heaven

 

There are two things to know about San Sebastian:

 

1) It’s not Spain. Well, it is, technically–but not really. To the people who live there, San Sebastian is called Donostia and it’s a part of Basque Country. They speak Euskera, a language unrelated to any other known language, and one of the oldest complete languages in the world. Ethnically speaking, Basques are also thought to be the least assimilated remnant of the Paleolithic inhabitants of Western Europe. In other words, Basque is the oldest and most unique European culture–defined by blood, land, and language–since the Stone age. Holy f’n shit, right? When the Roman empire spread its homogenizing influence across the continent, they never could subjugate (or tax) these BADASS mountain people living along the green and rocky Atlantic coast of the western Pyrenees. 

From this perspective, it’s understandable why many Basque still want independence (more on this later in the post).

After spending a few months in warm and sunny Andalusia where the amiability of the people reflect the climate, the Basque seemed steelier, harder to get to know, but not unkind (though I did see some “tourists go home” graffiti). Our British friends who live amongst these stoic people  said the extra effort spent cracking their code is repaid in lifelong loyalty. And I believe it. 

The Basque are people with thick roots digging deep down into the earth, spreading laterally, wrapping their fibers around rocks and pipes and tree trunks, grabbing hold of each other tightly beneath the surface where their secret system of language and loyalty runs for miles. That’s how they’ve survived millennials of change without being torn asunder. I can’t help but feel awe and yet a tinge intimidated by their history. 

We only stayed ten days in Donostia, not long enough to get in deep with any Basque, but we did our best to hang tough with surely the toughest people in the world. 

Apparently this requires a lot of lounging around on beautiful beaches. 

And watching other people lounge around on beautiful beaches. 

Even Basque Jesus lounges at the beach…

And radicals protesting Spanish income taxes. 

We also played at parks…

Check out that high-step! Proud climber mom!

We watched the local girls do gymnastics…

and the boys play a mean game of kick the bottle… 

Check out this kid’s bully-mullet. Does it get any better?  And his face-off in the above pic! 

We peed in front of government buildings… Wait what? How did this picture get in here!

Ceci n’est pas une piss! This is NOT what it looks like! Okay it is. But I can explain. 

But first you need a little family history.

When we potty-trained Soleil at the tender age of 20mo in Sera do Cipo, Brazil, we subscribed to the “take off the diaper and let your kid run around half-naked” method. It worked! All but for one little glitch. Whenever this kid sees a patch of grass, there’s no holding her back. True story, one time a waitress at a sushi restaurant found her squatting by the indoor Koi pond, watering the greenery. Another time, while stuck in traffic in the Trader Joe’s parking lot in San Diego, she jumped out of the car and pooped in the planter box whilst a line of slack-jawed soccer moms in SUVs gawked in disbelief. Admittedly, that time caught me off-guard. I just hadn’t thought to carry a poop bag since Kiki passed away. Still, as a climbing nomadic family, we’re quite grateful for Soleil’s ability to drop trou wherever nature calls.

And, in true Basque fashion, not a single passerby batted an eye. In fact, I’m pretty sure the kid with the mullet gave us the nod.  

Adam, Tree’s brother, met up with us again. After parting in Seville, while we had our quick “stop to smell the roses” trip to Madrid, Adam wine toured his way through Portugal. Clearly the better travel plan. I was jealous, but he brought back bottles of Douro valley red and shared his spoils with us.

Watching Sol and Adam together always melts my heart. Maybe it’s the size difference, and how Adam sits on the floor to meet her eyes when they play. Maybe it’s the way she looks at him like her big playmate who “sounds like Daddy” but is easier to trap in her room playing an endless game of “family.” Or maybe it’s because as a nomad, I secretly worry that the time and distance apart from family will prevent the continuity of relationships– that Soleil will feel like she’s meeting strangers, over and over again, like an awkward family reunion version of Groundhog’s Day. But that’s not what happens. Instead, after months of not seeing each other, she jumps into Uncle Adam’s arms, and he lifts her tiny body six feet four inches into the air. At first I worry, is she going to freak out? But, no, they hug. She invites him to play. C’mon Uncle Adam. Let me show you my room.

I sigh in relief. She has roots, too. 

Speaking of being nomads, as I’d mentioned, we met up with some British friends, one lovely lady– Rosie Howorth! –in particular who goes way back to our Sprinter Life days. Her family not only used to watch Kiki for us when we’d take our annual trip home to the States, but they let us park the van in their yard and base out of their beautiful house in Santiago, Chile before and after our long journey. 

Now Rosie’s all grown-up, teaching English to the intrepid Basque, who, I  should mention, are trilingual as a matter of course. At home and in school, the primary language is Euskera. But, starting in primary, Spanish and English are taught as second and third languages. By adulthood, the children are fluent in Spanish and have a conversational grasp, if not fluency, in English. (Compare the last sentence with our POTUS’s claim, “I know words, I have the best words,” and cry yourself to sleep for the next 4yrs). 

2) The second thing you need to know about San Sebastian is how the people eat because it’s possibly the most genius way to dine in the world. (In a parallel universe, I’m opening up a chain of pinxto (pin-sho) bars between Venice and Santa Monica right now, and I’m totally about to become a wealthy restaurant sensation.)

Here’s how it works: 

  1. You go to Old Town (Parte Vieja) San Sebastian and walk through the narrow passageways in search of pinxto bars. They’re everywhere so your odds of success are very high. 

We looked online for best-of lists and consulted Rosie to help us narrow down the choices.  Our two favorites were Gandarias and Borda Berri, both of which kill it with their modern Basque cuisine.

2. You walk into a bar, order a glass of wine or small beer, and let your eyes make the choice. 

Most of the time, pinxtos (small plates of food like tapas) are openly displayed on the counter and you pick what looks good to you (everything!), but sometimes bars list dishes on the chalkboard and cook them to order. At first our noses wrinkled at the idea of our food being out in the open where people breathe and cough and flies occasionally land, but then we figured the Basque have survived this way of eating for…ever? Maybe a little exposure is good for the old immune system. 

We tried everything, the more traditional dishes like fragrant mushroom risotto, stuffed portobellos, and veal cheeks braised in red wine, as well as adventurous creations like salted-cod taco and gold-dipped artichokes. 

3) And then once you’ve tried a couple little dishes at one place, you walk off to find another bar with different flavor arrangement to offer. For us, that was the crux. You can take the Americans out of America, but it’s harder to take America out of the Americans.

We’re pigs! Proper pinxto dining requires a degree of self-restraint antithetical to American consumerism, even for this downsized family. Whatever. We didn’t master the small quantity or slow pacing (I’ll take 3 risottos, 5 solomillos, 2 berenjenas, and a bottle of wine!) but we sure enjoyed trying.  

A bright future: self-service electric bikes are offered all over San Sebastian at a small hourly rate.

A dark past: this memorial honors all the people of San Sebastian slaughtered by Franco’s army in 1937. Franco, a merciless fuck-face, ordered multiple air bombings, including that of Guernica in Basque country, killing hundreds of civilians (think Picasso painting). After ruthlessly crushing any aspirations for autonomy, he forbid the Basque from even speaking their language, Euskera, for his entire 40yr rule. But violence begets violence.  In the midst of this oppression, the ETA was born.

  • 1959: Eta is founded with the aim of creating an independent homeland in Spain’s Basque region. The full name of the organisation – Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna – means Basque fatherland and freedom

For over forty years, the ETA raged a campaign of violence for a sovereign Basque state, costing 829 lives. 

After Franco died in the fall of 1975, the Basque culture slowly began to re-emerge publicly but the ETA, and many Basque, still wanted political liberation. While I don’t support the violence, the desire at the core of the fight was understandable.

Just a month before our arrival to San Sebastian…

  • 8 April 2017: The ETA revealed the location of weapons caches to police in France and said it had now completely disarmed.

Even prior to officially disarming, the ETA had been violence-free since 2011. Consequently, without the threat of car bombs looming over, tourism began to flourish in San Sebastian. While the Basque are surely happy about the influx of wealth, they have mixed feelings about the people who bring it.

In the summertime, the population of San Sebastian explodes, congesting the narrow streets, driving rents up and forcing locals out. Even worse, foreign investors buy property to rent on AirBnb at a premium to tourists… like us. While I love our slow-live lifestyle and appreciate how local infrastructure has accommodated global travel, I have to acknowledge the damage this arrangement causes, as well. In Malaga and now in Millau, France, where we rented longterm at (almost) local prices with traditional rental contracts, our impact seems offset by virtue of us being actual residents, at least for a while. But, in Seville, Madrid and San Sebastian, where we popped into for a matter of days and paid guiri (gringo in Spain) prices, I, too, have mixed feelings about our collective footprint on what are essentially other people’s hometowns. While the sublet concept of AirBnB is fine, speculators–the natural evolution of capitalism–are turning it into a cancer. I’m not sure what the longterm solution is but, one thing I’ve noticed, when we rent from locals and not sharky property managers, our experience is infinitely better. To do my part, I no longer rent from AirBnB unless the place is a real home, not a rental property.

On our last night, just when we thought our experience couldn’t get any better, we went out to dinner for a sit down meal at La Madame and had our palettes blown away. 

Thank you San Sebastian!

Check out my handsome dates. Am I lucky girl, or what? 

 

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Comments

  1. Hello from Northern California! Great info on the Basque stuff. Part of my ancestry. Can you offer any further info on your brother in law’s trip to Portugal? I’ve got my trigger finger on booking a trip there. Am particularly interested in touring some wineries as I live near the beautiful Napa and Sonoma valleys. Thanks!

    • Hey Laurie! You got some mighty roots! I just sent an email to my brother-in-law to get the names of his favorite wineries. The bottles he brought back were off the hook. Big, bold, juicy–Napa style. You’ll love the Duoro wine valley. We’re planning on doing the tour sometime in the coming year. After you visit, send me a list of your favorites too! Adam should get back to me soon. Stay tuned….

    • Here we go, a list from Adam:

      · Quinta Do S Murcas
      · Quinta Do Valladu
      · Quinta Do Seixo (Sexto)
      · Wine Soul – Wine shop
      · Quinta Do Crasto
      · Quinta Nova
      · DOC DOURO – Best restaurant

  2. Hi there, I am heading this way in a couple of weeks and I hear there’s good bouldering it the area or vicinity. Do you have any info or experience. Any recommended reading or something to look out for? Thanks

    • Hi Cocco! We didn’t do any bouldering (thought we heard it was awesome), but one of the Brits in the picture above has a Basque boyfriend, and they took us out to a secret sport climbing spot outside of Durango that was amazing!! 30 minute approach uphill. Steep and super high quality rock, and hands down the most beautiful crag I’ve ever been to. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of it though. Here’s what I suggest: Go to the local climbing shop and talk to someone there. It seems there’s quite a lot of climbing within a 2hr radius of San Sebastian, but most of the crags are only known to locals. Your mission: crack the code and make friends with a Basque! 🙂

  3. Super sweet!

  4. Watering the greenery! SO much smiling because my kiddos did the same thing (or do, but they’re adults now so it’s a little less frequently in public). 🙂

  5. OMG YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I get so much crap for letting my kids pee outside!!!!! You should see the other moms faces!!! LOL!!!!!
    #WINNING

  6. Wild pee, that’s what we call it!

  7. Interesting basque facts, that’s where my maiden name comes from 🙂 and go Soleil! nurturing nature lol, I remember the times I had to do the same

  8. Lois Stark…what’s your concern? The creepos into kiddie pee shots or the high-crime profile I’m creating for my 4yr old child? 😉 Kidding about the second, but I, too, was concerned about the first. But then I thought that there are so many varietals of crazy people, and they will consume information as they do. I can’t control that. If something is obviously innocent–no lady bits are shown, there is nothing sexual about the photo– then I don’t want to be cowed by the fractional minority who will misconstrue intention. Thoughts? I’m totally open for discussion. I think it’s good to talk about.

    • I wasn’t thinking about anything sexual or necessarily inappropriate. I just know from experience that children as they grow up (and this stuff doesn’t go away) may not appreciate this picture being out for the world to see.

    • Kids are incredibly handy with social media. If they wanted to be mean when your daughter gets to school age they could take a screen shot of this and spread it all over the school.
      Believe me I have seen this happen.

    • Lois, that’s a good point that I hadn’t thought of. Thank you.

    • Lois Stark Good point Lois. I too have seen this happen, and it can embarrass and even devastate vulnerable teens. By all means, teach kids to be free, to be practical, – but be aware as you post their “cute” photos that you are risking their future ability to personally decide whether they want such private photos of themselves in the public domain.

    • Stevie Trujillo one of the things I admire most about you is your willingness to hear what others say to you with an open heart and an open mind.

    • Thank you, Butch. I really appreciate that. It’s something I work on. It’s not easy to quiet that immediate defensive reaction and listen, but I find that when I’m able to sit with the discomfort and allow myself to consider a different perspective, I gain much more from the exchange.

    • And although I agree with everything said I also think ties generation coming up will all have pee photos to use against each other.

    • Sherrie McCarthy Hahaha! I think you are very right! I’m not too worried about this picture, but moving forward I’ll be asking myself whether or not Soleil might feel uncomfortable with a photo/story before publishing it.

  9. Way to “GO” Soleil… Figuratively and literally!! 🙂

  10. Gotta go, gotta go! With our daughter, she had to go and it was in the woods by a Church! And wouldn’t you know they all came out and was appalled! Finally someone says that there was a toilet in the rectory! Yes, we got caught and we scooped her up quickly and was truly embarrassed! Finally I thought, stop looking if you don’t like the kid has to go! It wasn’t near the church, it was in the woods along side their parking lot! I didn’t belong to the church either! Jimmy and I after being on road to Florida had to go! We stopped at a Dunkin donuts to see if there was a restroom! We’ll it so happened there wasn’t. So we went behind some Dumpsters! Low and behold apartment building windows facing our asses! I never peed so quick! 🙂 Jimmy almost got a ticket one other time but the cop just scolded him! he claimed he could of given him a ticket for indecent exposure! Really, you couldn’t see anything the car door was blocking him!

  11. Mastering the art of the wild pee is essential for any woman! It’s actually one of the random things I can’t wait to teach our little Tree!

  12. Looks familiar 🙂

  13. why put off until tomorrow what you can do today!

  14. I have Basque blood.

  15. Oh nooooo! Reminds me of childhood spent in third world country…mom always made sure we pee’d before leaving the house, but sure enough, the minute we were on the road, nature called, and mom frantically looked for a bathroom. And of course, unlike it is in the western world, there were no bathrooms in sight!!!

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