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The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo

Review by Steve Cracknell

When I read Georgina’s article, I thought: this is a book I have to buy. I haven’t read any detective novels since George Simenon died but I have lived in the Baztan valley where the novel is set, and I can use it to improve my Spanish. So I wasn’t particularly looking for a good tale. Yet I finished the 436 pages in five days. I had a dictionary by my side but I didn’t look up all the unknown words: I didn’t want to stop reading.

The Invisible Gardian by Dolores Redondo

The Invisible Gardian by Dolores Redondo

The story. Following a rather peculiar murder, police inspector Amaia is put in charge of the enquiry because she was born in the valley. She and her American husband move back in with family but things are not straightforward. Old tensions resurface and as the enquiry progresses the skeletons in the family cupboard are brought to light at the same time as the bodies by the river.

The Invisible Guardian is great crime fiction, but more than that. It is also a picture of a little-known part of Spain. This is not the identikit Spain of sangria and flamenco. Nor is it the Spain of mass youth unemployment, evictions and botellón. This is the Basque Pyrenees: green rolling foothills, 400-year-old stone houses and a tight-knit farming community.

 

Is there an invisible guardian in the woods?

Is there an invisible guardian in the woods?

Living there in 2010, it seemed that little had changed for centuries but, despite the apparent stability, there were tensions; the kind of generational conflicts which surfaced elsewhere in the 1960s didn’t seem quite resolved.

Bridge over the River Baztan

Bridge over the River Baztan

I was last in the Baztan in 2012, arriving accidentally for the annual fiesta of Elizondo, the only town. The teenage girls were still whirling through the traditional dances, though preferring tea towels around the waist to skirts. The men’s mutildanzak was still going strong but the new female mayor scandalised traditionalists by participating. But tradition was not being eroded everywhere: the street-corner vending machines sell milk from local dairy farms instead of the ubiquitous Coca-Cola to be found in other towns.

Parish church in Elizondo

Parish church in Elizondo

The Baztan is beautiful but enigmatic and Dolores Redondo has made it central to the intrigue, which is why the book is more than just detective fiction and why it deserves a wider audience.

The English edition of Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian will be published by Blue Door on 19 June 2014.

Steve has a blog on walking in the Pyrenees and has written a book about the French Pyrenees and the GR10.

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition
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Beyond the Michelin restaurants San Sebastian has to offer

Basque feast in the square

Basque feast in the square

Venturing further than the Michelin restaurants San Sebastian so proudly presents to the world, more intrepid travellers find that the white-washed mountain villages of the Basque Country have some wonderful culinary secrets of their own. Apart from the cider festivals and mushroom fiestas, sheep’s cheese competitions and roast lamb banquets in village squares … you also find Michelin restaurants San Sebastian foodies know nothing about! Well, I suppose this is not surprising.

Lorea´s and Haizea´s riverside restaurant at the bottom of our hill actually rejected its Michelin star (for reasons better asked them) and it seems to me that their sole existence is to bring pleasure to our lives offering us exquisite Michelin quality dishes at prices we can afford! We have beaten a direct path down the mountain straight to their door and their duck confit with wild berry compote, coconut gazpacho or goat´s cheese salad with honey and walnuts are among our jealously-guarded secrets!

Rick Stein and the Basque Country

Basque pagan fiestas in Ituren

Basque pagan fiestas in Ituren

Those who have followed Rick Stein´s campervan over hill and dale throughout Spain during his recent BBC documentary on Basque food will have some inkling of the bucolic mediaeval Basque landscapes that envelope the traveller within half an hour of leaving regal San Sebastian.

Here mountain streams creak with the sound of water mills grinding the corn and village squares ring with the sounds of pagan figures clad in sheep skins and lace petticoats, warding evil spirits away from the crops with a thrust of bells and a flick of a whip. Only here is Basque cuisine still umbilically linked to its culture and traditions and anyone seriously interested in Basque food should definitely mark this area on the map … that is if you can find it!

October mushroom fiesta

October mushroom fiesta

In our hamlet my neighbours still plant their tomatoes, chop their wood, sheer their sheep – and even cut their hair – by the phases of the moon. They pick sloe berries to make Patxarran, they make quince jellies and fig jams and  - as a history of witchcraft belies – have a tradition of making herbal healing ointments from wild plants. Some people still tickle trout and, if you ask Kokili, he will tell you which plants they used to threw into the streams to anaesthetise the trout and make them easier to catch. On misty autumn mornings the locals will scour the forests for mushrooms and Felipe can tell you with just one look at the shape and colour whether your Boletus Edulis had sprung to life beneath an chestnut, oak or beech tree!

One of the Michelin restaurants San Sebastian foodies know nothing about!

Lorea  at one of the Michelin restaurants San Sebastian foodies don't know about

Lorea at one of the Michelin restaurants San Sebastian foodies don’t know about

Here, the culture of the Basques is so deeply tied to the lands they have lived in since primordial times. And so if you do eventually track us down, you will find great Basque food at every turn. At Isidro´s farm you will find lentil and black bean stews bubbling on the stove over the winter months and at Sagrario´s farm next door, when the sheep stop lambing in the spring, you will find tangy, home-made sheep´s cheese and little clay pots of sheep´s milk junket with honey.

At Felipe´s watermill down the valley do try the local speciality of toasted corn talos with cheese and spicy sausage (made on the farms) – best downed with the dry local cider from Lekaroz. If the roast lamb on the spit at the local summer fiestas or the T-bone steaks and cod and pepper stews at the local cider house still don´t do it for you then it is back down the track to visit Lorea and Haizea at the bottom of our hill.

After a Michelin quality lunch on a hot summer´s day we inevitably find ourselves siestering in their garden, toes in the river and thoughts of the Michelin restaurants San Sebastian so boasts about, far from our minds.

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Basque Food
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The Camino de Santiago via the Baztan Valley

Several stretches of the Camino de Santiago lead walkers over the passes of the Pyrenees into the old kingdom of Navarre. The most popular and commercialised crossing point is the Camino Francés which leads pilgrims from St. Jean Pied-de-Port over the mountain pass of Ibañeta (1066 m) into Roncesvalles and on to Santiago de Compostela. However, although the best known, this is not the oldest crossing point of the Camino de Santiago.

Views of the Baztan Valley

Views of the Baztan Valley

This accolade goes to the Camino Baztanés which, for the past 1000 years, has led pilgrims from Bayonne to the monastery in Urdax and then over the far easier and lower mountain pass of Otxondo (a mere 632 metres and the most western of all the Pyrenean crossings).

The route from Otxondo then sweeps down through the green, verdant Basque lands of the Baztan Valley. As always, the Camino was hugely instrumental in the development of the towns along its way. An example of this is the beautiful village of Urdax, nestling at the foot of the Pyrenees, and boasting the impressive 10th century monastery of San Salvador Urdax, which was run as a hospital for pilgrims by the Augustine canons.

Urdax and the monastry of San Salvador

Urdax on el Camino de Santiago

Urdax on el Camino de Santiago

The monastery’s wealth was very much linked to the activity of the blacksmiths in the village but, like so many of the towns developed along the camino, lodging houses, traders and horse farriers (as well as pickpockets and prostitutes!) would all have eked out a living from the stream of pilgrims passing through the town.

Today visitors to the village could do little better than staying at José Miguel´s magnificent country guest house, Irigoienea, and popping into town to meet Montxo, a charismatic character who makes the best pintxos in the valley!

After Urdax, the Camino de Santiago climbs up to the pass of Otxondo before dipping down to the historical village of Amaiur in the kingdom of Navarra, whose presence was first felt on the pocket when pilgrims paid their taxes to the castle guards at the town´s entrance.

Amaiur; Gateway to Navarre

Amaiur (or Maya) has a special name in Basque hearts as it was here that the last 200 defenders of the Kingdom of Navarre´s independence fought their final battle. Exhausted and starving they finally surrendered to the troops of Castile on the 19th July 1522 … and the kingdom of Navarre came to its end.

As you enter the village behind the chapel on the Camino de Santiago you will find the ruins of the castle and its ramparts high up on your right, together with a memorial plaque to the soldiers who died there.  Walking through this historic and bucolic mountain village, look at the many engravings on the fountains which represent the passing pilgrims with their cape, stick and clam shell (the universal symbol of the Camino)  – and if you are feeling particularly footsore  do note the rough foot towel left at the final fountain on the way out of town.

The Black Plague in the Baztan Valley

If you look up at the arch on the south side of town you will see a statue of a virgin who has been worshipped ever since the time of the black death in the 17th century. Although the plague was said to have killed about 80% of the local population some miracle seemed to save every inhabitant living within the village walls. As you pass the arch, look back to see a mysterious and inexplicable stain on the stones which seemingly emanates from the very back of the virgin herself.

Lunch at the mill in Amaiur on the Camino de Santiago

Lunch at the mill in Amaiur on the Camino de Santiago

At the end of the village you will also see the church, constructed with stones left over from the ruins of the castle, and to the right of the church is a delightful working water mill. If it is open do go in and say hello to the miller, Felipe, (see video) as on certain days he will serve you traditional Basque corn bread talos with local sausage and cheese, downed with tumblers of fresh Baztan cider.

And, if your feet (or the cider), get the better of you he has a charming two bedroom apartment to rent right above the mill.

Posted in Special Places to visit in the Spanish Pyrenees, Walking in the Pyrenees
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Baztan Valley – Traditions and Code of Honour

Views of the Baztan Valley
Views of the Baztan Valley

The Baztan Valley in Navarre is an area of extreme beauty and mediaeval Basque landscapes which, due to geographical, social and political factors, still keeps many of its secrets to itself.

There are almost eight thousand people living in the Baztan Valley, spread between its fifteen pretty, white-washed villages. Elizondo is the capital of the valley and is once said to have had more banks per capita than any other town in Spain. It has a population alone of around three thousand five hundred people although how many of them are bankers I am not so sure. That they are almost all either descendants of smugglers or past smugglers themselves, I am far more confident!

The Baztan Valley and the ‘Euskaldun Hitza’

It may seem incongruous to go from smuggling to the Basque code of honour in one simple step. But actually it is not so strange. The Baztan Valley has seen very little immigration and the thousands of prehistoric burial mounds in these mountains indicate that many Baztan families have been here since primordial times. The Basque language is predominantly a spoken language and agreements here have always been sealed by a handshake and one’s word of honour. To this day, ‘Euskaldun Hitza’, (the Basque word) is accepted with great solemnity and taken very seriously indeed and still forms a binding contract between the true mountain Basques of this area.

When I asked my 9 year-old Basque daughter what would happen if she didn’t keep her ‘Euskaldun Hitza’ – she replied – ‘it would mean that I was Spanish!’.

Almost two decades ago I came to work as a mountain guide in Elizondo, and as the year progressed, I found it increasingly difficult to pay anyone. Roberto, the butcher, repeatedly told me to come back and pay later when he was less busy. Lourdes at the bread shop never had the bill made up when I dropped in, and my taxi driver, Francisco, would dismiss my furtive attempts to square up with a wave of his hand. Jumping on his bike, he would disappear over the mountains leaving me standing in the doorway of his house, purse in hand.

It took me a while to learn that it wasn’t that the local people were adverse to money (quite the contrary: hence the smugglers!). It is that the people of the Baztan Valley were paying me a compliment. They were offering me the ultimate token of acceptance; that they considered me a person of my word and worthy of the ‘Euskaldunak Hitza’.

Wood and apples

In these Basque valleys of the Pyrenees, the Basque code of honour can be detected in different ways. Most farms have orchards of fruit trees but to reach over the wall to pick fruit off the trees is totally unacceptable (even though the farmer would be the first to offer you a bag of apples if you met him.) Wood, too, is another example. Here in the mountains wood means wealth – (you almost find yourselves drooling over these immense and immaculately aligned wood piles that surround every Basque mountain farm). These wood stocks are usually left unguarded at the edges of the property but everyone knows that to take the smallest of logs would be to commit the ultimate cultural crime. And this thought leads me to another. Is it possible that this seemingly naïve act of leaving their wood (and wealth) so exposed to passers-by is an act of defiance? Is it a stand down? Is one being challenged to show one’s true Basque colours? Were Roberto, Francisco and Lourdes really putting my true ‘Basqueness’ to the test?

Smuggling and honour

The ‘Euskaldun Hitza’ and a strong Basque code of honour was also one of the reasons that the smuggling network in this area worked so well. Every smuggler had his own territory and worked his own crossing point over the border into France and no smuggler trespassed on another smugglers patch. Once over the border into France, French Basque smugglers from the Pyrenean villages on the other side would then take over. If a Basque Spanish smuggler was caught smuggling horses or cows over the border the first thing he would do would be to release the animals and run for cover. The Guarda Civil would herd up the animals but as they had no immediate use for them they would auction them off in the nearest market town. Such was the code of honour within the local Basque community that the farmers (who were invariably smugglers themselves) would boycott the auction leaving the sole bidding up to the family members of the smuggler who had lost the animals the night before. With no competition the smuggler would win back his livestock at a pittance only to head out on the next moonless night to gain a better price for them over the border in France.

To this day I still feel that it is an honour to live here and hope that I never (inadvertently) breach the trust my Basque neighbours and friends have given me. (Do see the blog on when I get the Day of the Joaldunak Wrong! )
I am off now to pay José Mari in the computing shop in Elizondo, in the Baztan, …. that is if he will let me!

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition
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The Baztan Trilogy, Dolores Redondo – are we ready?

The Baztan Valley and its many mysteries.

The Baztan Valley: Mists over the village of Amaiur.

The Baztan Valley: Mists over the village of Amaiur.

We thrive on mysteries in the Baztan valley. Our history, our wealth, our survival – in fact our very identity – has always depended on our intimate knowledge of our land. This has been our closely – kept secret since the beginning of time. However, now that The Baztan Trilogy, Dolores Redondo, her international best-selling crime fiction, has been translated into over 20 languages and Nigel Nadermann (the German director of Stein Larsson’s best-selling Millennium Trilogy) has obtained filming rights – are we ready for fame? Are we ready for the mists to clear? Are we happy to let the world into what is perhaps our greatest secret of all?

Delores’s first book, the Invisible Guardian, is due to be published in the UK on 19 June 2014 and those interested in an excellent review of the book in English can find one here.

Smugglers and witches

Witches of The Baztan Valley

Witches of The Baztan Valley

The dank and misty winter forests encircling the town of Elizondo in the Baztan Valley which provide the murder scene for Dolore’s Redondo’s victims hide far more than their corpses and the tracks of their assassins. These murderers follow in the footsteps of thousands of people before them, not only Basque farmers and shepherds leading their flocks out to pasture, but pilgrims and refugees, smugglers and witches. The Basque people of these mountain villages, with their inscrutable language, pagan traditions and herbal remedies, have all too often incited fear and suspicion. During the 17th century the Baztan women were easy victims to the witch hunts of the Spanish Inquisition. Some escaped through the forests and over the mountains into France but others were dragged to Logrono, tortured and burned at the stake.

Secret paths in the Basque Country

Smugglers of the Baztan Valley

Smugglers of the Baztan Valley

Late into the 20th century the Basque people were still being marginalised and this was evident during Franco’s times when school children were whipped for speaking Basque and all Basque traditions were banned (with limited success).

However, the smugglers turned the language to their own advantage. The Basque language was a secret code that they shared with their French Basque neighbours over the border and, coupled with their intimate knowledge of forest paths and mountain passes, facilitated an impenetrable smuggling network involving virtually every household in the valley. Cows, horses, coffee, tyres, radios and lace were some of the many goods smuggled over the borders by night and which helped to keep the Baztan economy alive. In fact, the clandestine smuggling activities of the area were so successful, that it has been said Elizondo once had more banks per capita than any other town in Spain!       See other articles on smuggling in the Basque country.

The path to Hell Mill (Infernuko Errota)

The miller of Amaiur

The miller of Amaiur

The farmers also had their reasons for keeping their paths a secret. Part of Franco’s clampdown on the Basques was to lock the mill wheels at the village watermills in an attempt to control the Basque’s food supply. Instead of making their own bread, the locals were now dependent on buying their bread from state-run ‘panificadoras’ with its reviled black bread ‘pan negro’ (memories of which still send a shiver up the spines of the older Basque generation).

However, the location of one mill, Infernuko Errota, (Hell Mill), hidden in an obscure valley to the north of the Baztan, was a ferociously guarded secret and one that Franco’s police never did discover.

For years, the children of the Baztan valley trembled as they stumbled over the hills by night on their way to Hell Mill, trailing reluctant donkeys loaded with corn and grain behind them.  It is easy to imagine the fear of these children as they groped their way along the forest paths. According to Basque folklore the forests were haunted by grotesque forest dwellers and spirits such as Basajaun, a huge hairy creature who lived in the woods and protected the flocks of sheep, or the beautiful, golden-haired Lamia, who lived in the rivers and streams, waiting to lure lonely shepherds away to their death. Even today, you can still find the form of a Lamia carved into the coats of arms on the Baztan houses or the name incorporated into local place names near the water’s edge.  (See an article on the Lamia).

No Trespassers Allowed

Basque Joaldunak of Ituren

Basque Joaldunak of Ituren

Nevertheless, the tangled labyrinth of paths through the woods not only served the initiated few with an escape route, but also had a vital role in keeping foreigners and marauding armies out.

This part of the Pyrenees, with its intricately-woven system of river valleys, thick woods and hidden mountain pastures, was virtually impenetrable to outsiders. Romans, Visigoths, Moors – even Franco’s Guardia Civil – never felt comfortable here and would cling to the major routes for fear of getting lost or being ambushed.

The intricate lie of the Basque lands has undoubtedly played a central role in preserving the Basque language, culture and identity.

Despite so many efforts to stamp out their Basque ways, behind closed doors or on obscure mountain farms their dialects have been whispered and their pagan rituals have been enacted since pre-Christian times.

The Baztan Trilogy, Dolores Redondo – yes, perhaps, we are!

However, there is another, present-day secret that still comes as a surprise in our modern jet-setting climate. This is the unworldly, God-sent beauty of the Baztan valley when the winter mists lift and the summer and autumn sun lend these lands their Midas touch.

Picture of Delores Redondo's Baztan

Picture of Delores Redondo’s Baztan

So we return to the question about Dolores Redondo’s The Baztan Trilogy. Are we really ready to be put in the spotlight? Ten years ago I would not have been so sure.

However, although this was one of the last places in Spain to feel the effect of the recent recession (smuggling money has kept it buoyant for so long) we realise that we can no longer be complacent. A gentle trickle of sustainable eco-tourism is the perfect complement to our traditional, rural way of life.

It offers some help to local artisans and cheese-makers, millers, cider houses and family-run restaurants and in so doing helps to keep the local culture alive.

So YES, to a few, initiated, discerning tourists we are just about ready to prise open the doors to this paradise of ours – but, please, don’t forget just how lucky you are!

 

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Special Places to visit in the Spanish Pyrenees
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The importance of ‘work’ in the Basque Culture

Amatxi in the vegetable garden of Zubialdea in Ameztia

Amatxi in the vegetable garden of Zubialdea in Ameztia

As I dashed out of my neighbour’s farm Amatxi (the grandmother) waved to me from the door ‘Que trabajes mucho!’ she said; a translation from the Basque ‘lan haunditz egin’ meaning ‘I hope you have lots of work!’. She wasn’t being funny, nor making subtle remarks about my lazy ways, (I don’t think), she was simply sending me her heartfelt wishes for a good day! Work is a very interesting concept in the Basque culture and a far cry from the ‘mañana’ approach to work that we often attribute to the Spanish of the south.

Here in the mountain Basque culture the greatest honour bestowed upon a person is that they are a good worker; neither their education, their breeding, their position nor money can elevate a person to a higher status than their simple capacity to work.

Amatxi was simply wishing me the most desirable thing she could think of; a full working day!

For good or for bad, work for a rural Basque person is not only their source of pride but their whole identity. Luis, my 50 year old neighbour, has been recently pensioned off early due to kidney problems. This episode in his life has been traumatic for him; and I am not referring to the ongoing dialysis sessions in Pamplona hospital where the constant attention of pretty nurses has worked wonders for this shy, confirmed bachelor). Luis has Read more ›

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Cultural Differences, Life in the Basque Pyrenees
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Cider Houses in the Basque Country .. and a few less trees

Cider drinking at the mushroom fiestas in Elgorriaga

Cider drinking at the mushroom fiestas in Elgorriaga

For some reason cider has become the theme of the week … and not a drop has yet passed my lips . .. I swear!

My partner, the village lawyer, always seems to get interesting cases when the Basque cider houses open (usually between January and April) although I have to admit, the  ’wild-boar-in-the-boot-of-the-car’ case during last year’s hunting season also had its appeal.

From what I can gather the local cider seems to reach deep into the Basques lumber-jacking genes (many of them having spent their youths as log cutters in the high Pyrenees or the French alps) and more than one Sagardotegia (cider house) has woken up on a Sunday morning to find itself with a couple of trees less than it had had the night before. Near Elizondo, a couple of evidently  ’new-age’ Basques, also bestowed their affections on the local flora; but this time just the shrubs and flower pots outside the door. I will ask tonight what the arguments were in their defense.

The Basques have an age-old tradition of making cider, and cider was the traditional beverage way before wine was every introduced.  In days gone by almost every farmstead would have made cider for its own use and even now, if it is possible to lure my farming neighbours away from the toil of the farm for an evening on the tiles, (where does that expression come from?), then the local cider house would still be very much their first choice. Today, the Sagardotegiak are a slightly more elaborate affair offering an accompanying menu of cod tortilla, piperada, T-one steaks and sheep’s cheese etc. the details of which, together with the interesting history of the Cider Houses in general, is more eloquently described by my colleague, Phil Cooper, writer of the Sunflower Guide to the Basque Country. http://basquecountrywalks.com/basque-cider-houses/

I leave you all with a happy picture of Stuart, a guest of mine from last year on our Walking, Basque Culture & Gastronomy week enjoying the cider at the mushroom fiestas in the village of Elgorriaga down the road. (In his case I believe the trees (at least) were left standing!).

 

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Basque Food, Life in the Basque Pyrenees
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Talk about languages; we have enough problems with our own!

Talking about languages; we seem to have problems enough with our own! How many of us have tried in vain to get past the automated telephone systems that protect companies from their clients! (For those of us living abroad with foreign accents trying to get through the automated switch boards of large telephone companies (NO NAMES!) this can be the bane of our lives.) DO see this wonderful video about a Scotsman and an Irishman in a voice recognition run elevator in Scotland!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=sAz_UvnUeuU

 

Posted in Cultural Differences

Don´t take the Spanish people out of learning Spanish

My Basque/Spanish daughter, Marion, learning English with my mother at Christmas

My Basque/Spanish daughter, Marion, learning English with my mother at Christmas

I am always amazed at the number of Spanish language schools in Spain that boast about their highly sophisticated language labs full of the latest technology! Surely, (I have always thought) it is far better to learn languages with real people? Surely, the elderly señora with time to talk on the plaza, or a friendly shepherd bringing the sheep down from the hills are far more efficient teachers for those learning the Spanish language than an audio tape in a sound-proofed room? So, when Francois Grosjean, Emeritus professor of psycholingusitics at Neuchâtel University drew my attention to the following experiment, it was refreshing to know that what seemed pure common sense … does still make sense! (Which is not always the case these days.)

Patricia Kuhl* and her colleagues at Washington University conducted an experiment on infants. They asked themselves whether any type of exposure to two languages (through human interaction, DVDs, audio input, etc.) is enough to encourage infants to develop the phonetic categories of each languages.  They exposed 9 month old American infants to twelve sessions with Chinese native-speakers who read and played with them in Mandarin. With a second group of similar infants they gave them the same amount of Mandarin language exposure but only through DVDs and audio input, specifically avoiding any live human exposure.

Interpersonal skills play an essential role in the learning of a second language

The results were clear. Whereas the infants exposed to live human exposure acquired the Mandarin phonetic contrast, the second group (which learned through audio, and audio visual mediums) did not. Kuhl hence concluded that the presence of a live person interacting with an infant and engaging them in an interpersonal and social context were essential in motivating the infant to learn a second language.  Naturally, I ask, as adults, do we really learn that differently

So, next time you find yourself learning the Spanish language in a language lab at a Spanish language school in Spain  … get up and go for a walk, find a lively bar, join an aerobics class or knitting group or a local AA session, or simply chat up the lab assistant, but take those headphones off!

*Kuhl, P K., Tsao, F.-M. & Liu, H.-M. (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100 (15), 9096-9101

Posted in Language Teaching and Group Dynamics, Learning Spanish in Spain, Raising bi-lingual and tri-lingual children
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Spanish Language Courses at the Open University: their Perfect Summer Complement

Open University students learning Spanish this summer

Open University students learning Spanish this summer

Open University Spanish language students enjoy our Spanish language courses and house-parties in the Pyrenees in Spain, and have done for over a decade; braving the 10 hairpin bends to our Pyrenean farmhouse to join us for a chat! Our total immersion Spanish language courses have always offered an ideal summer complement to years of distance learning where Spanish tuition is based primarily in reading, writing and comprehension skills! It appears that many Open University Spanish students (and adult learners of Spanish in general) miss a genuine opportunity for a chin wag; to chat, to converse, to interact, to discuss, charlar, conversar, interaccionar, exponer, departir – basically  – HABLAR en español!

This may seem a long way to come just to  ‘chat’! However, unless you have Spanish-speaking friends or relatives, or live abroad, unstilted conversation practice with native Spanish speakers is not always easy to come by. And, even when travelling abroad, there are many places (especially in the south of Spain) where the Spanish would rather hone their English skills than wait for foreigners to stumble through their irregular verbs and muddle their ’paras’ and ‘pors’. It would not be the first time that British guests from the south of Spain have ventured up to our Spanish house-parties in the Pyrenees merely to find native Spanish people happy to ‘speak’ to them in Spanish!

Spanish summer school

Spanish conversation classes are difficult at the best of times, not only on Open University Spanish courses but in traditional classroom-based evening schools as well. Conversation classes require small groups, preferably with the presence of fluent (native?) Spanish speakers, but also a genuine reason to interact! Teachers … or (let us say) … language facilitators, have to be imaginative, inspiring, resourceful and genuinely emphatic which is not always easy within the confines of a sterile, formica classroom.  They need the ability to both whip up an atmosphere and debate among the group, while simultaneously supporting each member with their personal language needs. Fill-in-the-gap exercises are so much easier to hand out!

Spanish summer courses .. perfect for Open University Students

Spanish summer courses .. perfect for Open University Students

Lozanov, Vygotsky, Krashen, and Goleman

Lozanov, Vygotsky, Krashen, and Goleman as well as other theories on second language acquisition have all inspired the total immersion Spanish language courses and house-parties that we run from our farmhouse in the Pyrenees (now in their 15th year). Our intensive Spanish teaching methods and the personal nature of these courses dictate small groups of no more than 8 guests at one time. We invite them to join in our Spanish lives in the village of Ituren and meet our local Spanish friends: farmers, shepherds, millers, smugglers, musicians, cooks, lawyers and teachers. All of our courses are hosted by a professional language facilitator with over 20 years’ experience of working with intercultural groups and … just as importantly … a passion and interest in people! The walks, cultural visits, fiestas, meals, talks, guitar recitals, cooking classes etc. all provide a fun, lively and dynamic platform for endless and uncontrived Spanish conversation between the local Spanish people and our guests.

What sort of vocabulary drills can you do underneath a chestnut tree? (sacar las castañas del fuego, darse un castañazo, castañear, las castañuelas etc.) and what idiomatic expressions can you practise in the bar? (soltar la gallina, pagar a escote, estar como una cuba, cambiar el agua al canario etc.)

By linking new Spanish vocabulary and grammatical constructions  to emotional, visual, aural and kinaesthetic experiences we cement them in our memory far more effectively. In this way our total immersion Spanish language courses offer a refreshing, summery but also efficient boost in language skills for those following distance-based language courses (such as those run by the Open University) during the winter months.

More blogs on the theory and methods used in our exclusive total immersion Spanish courses can be found here:

http://www.pyreneanexperience.com/what-lozanov-has-to-do-with-our-spanish-house-parties-and-in-defence-of-the-comment-mummy-your-job-is-just-like-having-a-party/

http://www.pyreneanexperience.com/green-and-blue-exercise-boosts-mental-health/

Posted in Language Teaching and Group Dynamics, Learning Spanish in Spain
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Change of Language? Change of Personality?

Edorta sings us songs in Basque, English, Spanish and Catalan

Edorta sings us songs in Basque, English, Spanish and Catalan

Once again thank you to Francois Grosjean, Ph.d. Emeritus professor of Psycholinguistics at Neuchâtel University, Switzerland, for his latest blog on bilingualism and personality change. Without falling into boggy ground over the definition of personality (something so difficult to define and yet something we are so acutely aware of ) the question ‘do our personalities change when we change languages?’ is fun to ponder. It even appears that bilinguals themselves are totally divided as to whether they think their personalities change with the languages they speak.  As always, my favourite guinea pig is my tri-lingual daughter Marion (See blog: Trilingualism and the Maternity Ward): Is she actually a politer person in English not only because English has more PLEASES and THANK YOUS than the Basque but also because her only models of English here in the Pyrenees are the dulcet tones of a genteel mother (ONLY to make a point!) and the mild censored expressions on cbeebees (the BBC children’s channel)? And why does she tend to choose Spanish as the language of drama and mimickery? Is it because at her Basque school, Spanish is the language of the playground, the language of make-believe role plays, rhyming songs and skipping games with her friends?

Read more ›

Posted in Cultural Differences, Raising bi-lingual and tri-lingual children
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Basque Smugglers and Tomatoes

Koikili on his horse ranch in Lesaka

Koikili on his horse ranch in Lesaka

Koilkil, our retired smuggling friend, continues to surprise us with his tales of smuggling cows and horses over the Spanish/French borders of the Basque Pyrenees. He rarely speaks with animosity about the Guardia Civil during Franco’s regime … sometimes I even note a tone of sympathy! The youths sent up to patrol the borders were usually from the south of Spain, dragged into conflict, miles away from home and absolutely ’shit-scared’ (excuse the expression but it is totally relevant to this blog post). Petrified about ending up stranded in these dense, dark and misty Basque valleys, the Guardia’s were little match for the local smugglers whose knowledge of the mountains and local weather patterns is virtually part of their genetic inheritance.  So the Guardias would often huddle around the main intersections, drawing heavily on cigarettes, sharing their food (cheese, chorizo, bread, tomatoes etc.) where the sound of them talking and the light and smell of their cigarettes were an easy giveaway to the silent smuggler.

If by chance a smuggler did get spotted, the Guardia would usually aim above his head whereby the smuggler would often drop his load (or scatter his animals) and take off into the night. If he was lucky the packages would contain something useful that the Guardia could either use himself or sell on (such as coffee, chocolate, radio’s etc.). If not, he could find himself running around the woods rounding up a smelly herd of calves or horses which his unit would then send to auction. However, the smugglers so often had the advantage. Their mountain farms allowed them a supply of cheeses, chistoras and cuts of meat, inaccessible to ravenous Guardias dependent on irregular army rations, and hence a safe passage through the mountains was an easy bribe.  And, even if a smuggler did loose his calves or horses to the Guardias (which represented months, years of wages) these were not too difficult to retrieve at the auction the following day.  All the locals knew exactly who the livestock in the auction  really belonged to and, in an act of solidarity, (which is so quintessentially Basque) no one else apart from the smuggler would turn up! Being the only bidder at the auction he would retrieve his livestock for a fraction of the cost … and the following night he would undoubtedly head back over the mountains with them again!

And so what about the tomatoes… I hear you ask? Well, coming from the south of Spain the Guardias tended to eat far more tomatoes than the Basques … so next time you find a wild tomato plant growing conspicuously at some desolate place in the mountains you might now know why! Another dead give-away for the smugglers.

P.S. A question for another blog. How did the smugglers stop the stallions making a sound and nickering at the mares as they passed them over the borders at night?

More about Koilkili in the Guardian Article by Max Walker:http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2010/apr/17/spain-basque-navarre-culture-walking

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Life in the Basque Pyrenees
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Lunch & Autumn Walks in Ituren (17th November 2012)

Views from the school run to Ituren

Views from the school run to Ituren

The best way to start off this invitation is with a picture of Ituren on the school run down the mountain earlier this week .. and if this photo came with a sound track, you would also hear the haunting cries of the cranes as they cross the valley fleeing the winter from the north.  True to Amatxi’s prognosis we are now experiencing an Indian summer or ”quince summer” (el veranillo de San Miguel o el veranillo del membrillo). With the warm golden sunshine and the walnuts ripening on out-stretched sheets in the farms this is by far the most beautiful time to see the area.

Invitation: 17th November 2012

Those who are up for the adventure are welcome to join me for a light lunch of cheese and wine etc. at my home in Ameztia, Ituren this Saturday between 13.00 – 14.30.  Afterwards I invite you all to join me on a pretty walk along the shepherding paths and smugglers tracks that lead from the house so that we can enjoy the stunning autumn colours! The perfect tonic before winter sets in.

Here are the directions: Good luck!

Take the N121a from Behobia, direction Iruña/Pamplona and turn off at Donestebe (Santesteban). Cross the village and take the direction to Leiza, passing the village of Elgorriaga and then Ituren.  As you enter the village of ITUREN (from N121A and Santesteban) you will pass the Farmacia on your right, then an Asador on your left. Soon afterwards you will find a square on your left and a road that goes off to the left alongside the square (direction LATSAGA). Take this turning. This road crosses over a bridge and continues past some small, modern houses on the left and at the end of the road some older houses (the first with a large balcony over-looking the road). Here, do NOT enter the area of the older houses but follow the road as it takes a very sharp and steep fork to the left. Follow this road about 3 km uphill through the countryside until you get to a set of blue rubbish containers.                               

At the rubbish containers the road forks; it goes either straight ahead (putting the first house on your left-hand side) or forks steeply left up-hill (putting the first house to your right). At the rubbish containers go straight ahead, putting the first house on your left hand side and continue gently up hill. You will soon pass fields on both sides and drive through the middle of a farm, the farmhouse to your right. (If you see anyone at the farm say hello and ask then for directions to my house). If not, continue up-hill until you come to a cemented crossroads. (More in the shape of an X than a  +). Continue straight ahead/leftish along the flat along a row of walnut trees and you will soon see a wide turning to your left. Do NOT take it).  

Continue straight ahead on the road that gently bares right (putting a largish barn (which looks like the face of a Koala Bear) to the left of you). The road climbs and then dips and passes through some chestnut trees with a long barn above a field to your right. When you come out of the trees you will see a sign saying IAULIN BORDA and a gravel drive dipping sharply away to your left. Take it. The house you see to your left is ours! You have earned the first drink simply by getting here!

P.S: (Bring walking boots and warm clothes and a bottle of water)

 

Cheers!

Cheers!

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized

El Día del Joaldunak (When I got the dates wrong!)

 

Lazaro, the Joaldunak leader, prepares to perform 'on the wrong day'!

Lazaro, the Joaldunak leader, prepares to perform ‘on the wrong day’!

It is the day that only the villagers know about, (and me) and last year I got it terribly wrong!

This is the private day of the Joaldunak – the mythical, pagan, carnival personality of our village of Ituren. This is the day they make their personal pilgrimage to our mountain farms in honour of their ancestors.  But today there are no coaches, no television cameras, no tourists just my neighbours hurriedly preparing mushroom tortillas, and pintxos of spicy sausage and sheep’s’ cheese.  Bottles of cider are uncorked as the Joaldunak approach, and the deep dirge of the bells reaches a crescendo in the oak trees at the bottom of the track.

Sheep’s skins, lace petticoats, whips and bells.

As an English woman living here among the Joaldunak it is a great honour to be part of this event. For the handful of special guests who join me for this Walking and Basque Pagan culture week (in which this event is pivotal) few have not been visibly viscerally moved.

SO: when guests from all around the world had booked their flights to join me for this ceremony, you can imagine that the most I can do is get the date right!  You can imagine the horror when Juanito explained that (due to a misleading calculation in the lunar cycle), the dates had been changed! How the hell do you face your clients after that????

Sagrario with her husband, Ignacio, and his brother, Luis. Without doubt, the last time they wear the bells

Sagrario with her husband, Ignacio, and his brother, Luis. Without doubt, the last time they wear the bells

What happened next is without doubt, the greatest honour ever bestowed on me during the 10 years that I have lived here. When the Joaldunak leaders learned that I had  ‘metido la pata’ as they say in Spanish, the troop of Joaldunak rallied around me. (Lazaro rushed back from San Sebastian), Juanito, Javier, Pello, José Ramon, Juanjo all donned their bells and sheep’s skins. Sagrario put on a huge comida popular at her home,  roasting the lamb on the spit outside the farmhouse, while her husband, Ignacio and brother-in-law, Luis, put on the bells for the first  (and last) time in 25 years. Visual tears of pride as the bells were strapped to their broad 50-year-old backs. Musicians came up from the village and over 40 people came together that day to stage an enormous ceremony just so that I (La Inglesa) would not loose face in front of my clients.

As this wonderful fiesta drew to a close, the last words of the Bertsolaris (Basque bards) over their sloeberry liqueurs were GEORGINA; DON’T FORGET THAT NEXT YEAR (2012) El DIA DEL JOALDUNAK IS THE 22nd SEPTEMBER!

There are still a few rooms left on this walking holiday 16th – 23rd  September and the experiences of the Basque culture this week will be absolutely unique for anyone who comes.

More information about this week: http://www.pyreneanexperience.com/walking-holidays-basque-culture/

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Life in the Basque Pyrenees
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Edorta sings Razón de Vivir by Victor Heredia

Some more wonderful memories of Edorta as he sings ‘Razón de vivir’ by Victor Heredia to another Spanish group on the terrace of our home in last autumn. No international house-party here in Ituren would be the same without him. Eskerrik asko Edorta!

Posted in Basque music
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Edorta sings a song from Silvio Rodriguez at our Spanish House Party in Ituren last night

 

Edorta came to our house in Ituren last night to sing Spanish and Basque songs to our guests. Here is one  of  our favourites by Silvio Rodriguez. Romanza de la Luna. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovroy8IWq8E

 

 

Posted in Basque music

Our Basque grandparents (Amatxi and Atautxi)

 

The Basque grandparents on the neighbouring farm

The Basque grandparents on our neighbouring farm

Here is a picture of Amatxi and Atautxi, as I have always known them; the ‘grandparents’ who adopted me when I arrived in Ameztia 10 years ago and helped me to bring up Marion when she made an appearance 3 years’ later.   Amatxi  who taught Marion how to sow, how to make bread, how to plant potatoes and Atautxi who taught her how to take the corn grains off the husks and separate out the black beans as they lay out to dry in the sun.

I have learned so much about the Basque culture from them.

From Atautxi we have listened to tales about the witches and the Lamiak (beautiful blond sirens that lived in the rivers and would lure single shepherds to their death); about how to cut firewood by the phases of the moon and even plan the birth of a son or daughter by similar methods!

Amatxi and Marion at home at Zubialdea in Ameztia

Amatxi and Marion at home at Zubialdea in Ameztia

And Amatxi who remembers lying in bed as a girl listening to the sounds of the Portuguese and their horses creeping past the farm at night as they were smuggled over the border into France with the help of local guides; who told me of the mothers with new born babies working in the fields with roof tiles strapped to their heads. (In the past the church had ordered all mothers to stay under the ‘roof’ of their house for the first 40 days after their child’s birth).

With them lies so much history… for the Basque history is an oral history .. and there is still so much to document.  And when they leave us, a part of Basque history will go with them forever.

 

A month ago Amatxi and Atautxi (grandmother and grandfather in Basque (their real names are Ilaria and Manuel) celebrated 60 years of marriage. The celebrated the day together with their 49 children, grand children and great grandchildren. With two more expected this August. Two weeks later Atautxi was admitted to hospital with Pancreasitis and he has been there ever since. We are not quite sure of the future. Our thoughts are with them.

Meet Atautxi on this national Spanish documentary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMSPk3jrO4M

 

Atautxi as his usual humorous self!

Atautxi as his usual humorous self!

Posted in Life in the Basque Pyrenees
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The Making of the RTVE DESTINO ESPAÑA Documentary:

Wallflowers and Stephen Fry!

When I was contacted by RTVE, National Spanish TV, to do a documentary on my life for their programme, Destino España, the natural wallflower in me was nowhere to be found! (See the video on the menu bar). Illusions of grandeur had been sown a year ago when I had a near miss with Stephen Fry and a BBC documentary. The BBC had contacted me to help with the Basque part of their recent TV documentary on languages and, after much effort (and personal favours) galvanising my neighbours in Ituren into action – joaldunak, bertzolaris and  smugglers alike – the BBC dropped the idea in favour of a free booze up at Arzak (the number one Michelin restaurant of San Sebastian). As for Basque culture, that would have to be it!

The excuse was that Read more ›

Posted in Life in the Basque Pyrenees
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Life in the Baztan Valley

Here is a national Spanish TV documentary by RTVE about my and Marion’s life here in the Baztan Valley in the Spanish Basque Pyrenees. In this short documentary you will meet some of the friends and neighbours who have enriched our lives: Felipe, the miller from Amaiur, and Isidro, Amatxi and Atautxi from our neighbouring farm of Zubialdea in Ituren. Zubialdea is our second home and the place where Marion grew up helping out since she was 2 years old as a shepherdess on farm. Throughout our life here our emergency number has always been that of Zubialdea …. snowed in, mice in the house, a tree fallen across the drive, run out of firewood, hungry….  Zubialdea and equally our other neighbours in Sumbillanea have come to our rescue.

The other character you will meet in  the documentary of our lives here in the outskirts of the Baztan Valley is Juantxo, the Joaldunak. The carnival character of the Joaldunak, of which there are some 30 men, is such a huge part of our village culture and psyche who – more than once - have come to my personal rescue!

Thank you to all my neighbours and friends in Ituren and the Baztan Valley.

Enjoy.

Posted in Life in the Basque Pyrenees
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Business with the Basques in Northern Spain

Basque friends at a cideria with Basque champion woodcutter 'Olasagasti'

Basque friends at a cideria with Basque champion woodcutter ‘Olasagasti’

Any article entitled ´Working with the Spanish’ will get into stormy waters if it attempts blanket coverage of the Iberian Peninsula and this is no truer than for the proud Basque people who inhabit the rugged coasts of the North.

Just like the English ‘go on holiday to Europe’ so the Basques ‘go on holiday to Spain’ and in the public Basque-speaking schools (Ikastolas) more hours of English are taught than Spanish! Although business with the Basques usually takes place in either the English or Spanish languages, the Basques do NOT see themselves as Spanish (the World Cup excluded) and this is often the first cultural faux pas to be made!

Naturally, generalisations can be made and a love of food and wine, family and friends can be found throughout the Mediterranean lands, but the Basques are not Latins and business with the Basques is quite a different kettle of fish than with the more extrovert Spaniards of the South.

Business in the Basque country is informal and non-hierarchical

From a British point of view, the Basque reserve and informality are easy to relate to. The Basque dress code is usually relaxed and understated, and any overt display of status or position does not impress. Historically, the Basque culture has always tended towards democracy and a flat social hierarchy which is also reflected in the language they use.  When speaking Spanish the informal use of ‘tu’ to address your colleagues and business partners is used far more in the north of Spain than in the south, where echoes of a feudal past can still be discerned in the  more formal and commonly-used ‘Usted’.

Are the Basques on time?

I can hear the reply of ‘mañana, mañana’ but NO, don’t be taken in and don’t take the mañana system for granted when heading off for appointments in San Sebastian or Bilbao. Although the timing may be slightly more relaxed than we know it in Britain, the Basques tend to be refreshingly punctual and to the point. One notable difference is that in Britain we like to fill up our posh leather agendas weeks, if not months in advance. Trying to nail down a Basque (or Spanish) business partner for a meeting too far ahead of time may do little more than bemuse their shorter-term mind sets. In these your partner will quite often ask you to call to make an appointment when you arrive in town and then fit you in in the next couple of days.

This helps me make another point about formal and informal systems. In the Basque country there is a very reliable formal system where your word is your honour and a date is a date. However, when plans go astray for whatever reason you will find that the Basques can be very flexible too and that a few phone calls later appointments can be changed, dates and venues can be swapped, and the new plans will be equally reliable as the old ones. Having run a business in the Basque Country for over a decade these two systems allow a refreshing mix of security and flexibility.

 My word is my honour   

The Basque culture has a strong oral tradition where people are expected to honour their word and, on the whole, the system still works. Basques like to show trust and like to feel trusted and for many Basque shaking your hand on a deal is as binding as any written document. Nevertheless, there is a naturally a fine line between leaving yourself wide-open and nailing down every detail of an agreement in writing, but do at least be sensitive to this deeply-seated Basque code of honour.

Pintxo bar in San Sebastian

Pintxo bar in San Sebastian

Money is always a quagmire of cultural differences and, in the Basque Country (and Spain as a whole), talk about money and pricing are usually introduced towards the ends of conversations. If a client does hand you over cash then he may feel offended if you sit down and count out the notes in front of him. If you do have to check, be discreet.

However, there is no better demonstration of this code of honour than in the bustling tapas (pintxo) bars of San Sebastian. With the bar tops laden high with colourful plates of pintxos you are invited to spend the evening grazing, helping yourself to one after the other , ordering a glass of ‘tinto’ or a bottle of ‘Txakoli’, (and then perhaps a couple more pintxos to round off the day). Hours may pass before you nudge through the crowd to get the bill from the waiter who, more often than not, will only have your word as to how many pintxos and drinks have passed your way.

Business and Socialising

From my experience the Basques do not like to mix business and pleasure. It is either one or the other and the idea of working breakfasts or lunches is generally anathema to them. If you are asked out to lunch by your business colleagues then more often than not the content of the lunchtime conversations should be kept to general social topics such as family, Basque culture, wine, food and football etc. If you have any Basque contacts or business colleagues in common then showing that you are already part of an inner circle is also a clever step to make. However, if strict business talk is absolutely necessary don’t let it creep into conversation until the coffee is served.

Likewise, during meetings, it may feel natural for Northern Europeans to take coffee breaks and saunter back into the meeting room cup of coffee in hand, whereas for the Basques this seemingly innocent act could be interpreted as a lack of seriousness and respect. Food and work just don’t mix. (This attitude to business is a far cry from that of the Danes, Barry Tomalin * and I worked with in Copenhagen. Here, they would start the morning training sessions with ‘hyggelit’ cakes and  coffees but would be talking about numbers and prices before they had had time to wipe the crumbs off their business plans!)  

* I have had the great honour to work with Barry Tomalin in Cross-cultural Awareness Training over the years. Barry is a writer, author and public speaker who is now the director of Cultural training at International House in London and lecturer at the London Academy of Diplomacy. His book ‘The World’s Business Cultures and how to Unlock Them’ is well worth a read. See his website at www.culture-training.com.

 

 

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Cultural Differences, Life in the Basque Pyrenees
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What Lozanov has to do with our Spanish house parties (and in defence of the comment ‘Mummy, your job is just like having a party!’)

Twenty years ago, when Jan, the Polish sandwich boy, visited my PR office in Canary Wharf neither he nor I had any idea of how our brief exchanges would sow the seeds for the Spanish language courses I run in the Pyrenees today. It all started as he handed me a ham and pickle sandwich and chatted enthusiastically, albeit in broken English, about his life in Poland and his experiences selling sandwiches on the streets of London. During these lunch breaks my resolution firmed and, within 3 months of starting my once-in-a-life time job for an international PR company, I had given in my notice and was running around a small English school in Mayfair with Japanese executives – a pair of worn male slippers in one hand and the script of an Alan Ayckbourn play in the other. I had made up my mind to work within the world of language and culture – and have steered that course ever since.

Making friends over a Spanish lunch in the Pyrenees

Making friends over a Spanish lunch in the Pyrenees

It was at this Mayfair language school that I first learned about Georgi Lozanov´s teaching techniques of Suggestopedia which made total sense of my experiences as a language teacher and as a conversationalist with Polish sandwich boys in my time off. In retrospect these brief conversations with Jan encapsulated much of Lozanov’s thinking. Munching on my ham and pickle sandwich and cupping a warm mug of coffee in my hand I listened eagerly to Jan’s descriptions of Polish life – welcoming a few minutes off from the soulless marketing of high fashion brands. Jan seemed equally eager to talk and chatted away animatedly, in faltering English, evidently moved by the fact that someone was more interested in him than the range of sandwiches he had to offer.

Learning Spanish with the senses – Spanish that makes sense.

Lozanov´s theories on the teaching of a foreign language outline the importance of engaging the whole range of a person’s senses in the teaching process – not only the traditional senses of sight, sound, smell and touch but also those of movement and emotion (etymologically not unrelated).  Lozanov goes on to advocate the importance of establishing a happy, friendly and non-threatening environment where teachers take the role of fun, and empathic (but not necessarily infallible) facilitators who show a genuine interest in their students. In retrospect, thinking of my own experiences learning languages in many different countries, I can not think of a more motivating factor in the learning of a language than the simple but powerful desire to communicate with other people.

Learning languages by the waterfalls of Itxusi

Learning languages by the waterfalls of Itxusi

The desire to show our Spanish hosts how much we enjoy the paella they have made for us ….. to tell friends from San Sebastian of the tapas bars we have visited in their city … to learn about the Basque culture from the elderly farmers next door ….  to share our experiences of motherhood with other mothers in the square … to communicate our personality, our humour, our thoughts and sensitivities. In short that human and overwhelming desire to build bridges between one person and the next!

It wasn’t a surprise to me when I came across the experiments of Patricia K. Kuhl, Feng-Ming Tsao and Huei-Mei Liu (2003) on the effects of Foreign Language Experience in Infancy (in this case Mandarin). In their experiments on 9 month old infants they found that the infants acquired a sensitivity to Mandarin if words were imparted by a real person but acquired none if the same words were emitted by a DVD, hence implying that – in infants at least – human presence and social contact is an essential prerequisite for the learning of a second language. To all those language learners who have struggled with DVD’s and language labs doesn’t this make sense? *

Serendipitous meetings in the Spanish Pyrenees

Serendipitous meetings in the Spanish Pyrenees

Serendipitous Meetings

As I sit here planning our walking and Spanish language house parties this summer, preparing the house and organising foresters and musicians, lawyers and smugglers to join in the fun, I wonder what has happened to sandwich man Jan? I knew him superficially for a couple of months and it seems so odd that 20 years later I am dedicating this blog to him. But that, of course, is the wonder of serendipitous moments that can change the course of our lives – and surely, the more languages we speak, the more people we meet, the more of these serendipitous meetings are out there waiting.

Experiment on second language learning in infants.* http://www.pnas.org/content/100/15/9096.long#sec-2

Posted in Language Teaching and Group Dynamics, Learning Spanish in Spain
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A Portrait of an English Mother in a Basque Pyrenean Sheep Shed. Autumn 2005

I dug this paragraph out from my writings years ago when Marion was just 1 year old and it reminds me of many of those tiny cultural differences that I suppose I now take for granted.

We wake up reeking of the raw onion on the dressing table …..Amatxi’s solution for Marion’s cough. It works but we reek! As I carry her down the stairs of my renovated Basque sheep shed, situated high up in the Spanish Pyrenees, we indulge in our game of bell guessing. I say it’s a herd of horses but, when we look beyond the gate, Marion cries  ‘MOO’ . I am wrong.  Bell culture here is fascinating. Every animal, every herd is different.

After  breakfast we take a plum and blackberry crumble to Sagrario´s on the neighbouring farm. It is just a 5 minute walk away.  My neighbours go crazy for crumble (lemon curd, chedder cheese and Thai curries also go down well in the hamlet) – and I promise to help Sagrario make one for the fiestas next July. We walk through carpets of sheep’s droppings and chestnuts,  pass blackberry bushes and fig trees with Marion alternating exclamations of ‘NAN NAN’ and ‘CACA,’ (Basque:  FOOD and POO).

It doesn’t matter that we reek of onions.  Sagrario’s house reeks of cows. They practise the old fashioned-farming system with the animals on the ground floor; their very own central heating system. One day I remember Sagrario exclaim ‘qué calor hace aqui’ and, where we would have reached to turn the thermostat, she simply popped downstairs to take the cows out.  We have lunch with the extended family; thick vegetable soup, pork, potatoes (all off the farm) followed by strong home-made sheep’s cheese and crumble! The older men reminisce about their past, log cutting in France … the girls in the fiestas and while Luis, Sagrario´s single brother-in-law fills my glass with local wines, I solve his future by playing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor with the damson stones on his plate!

Posted in Life in the Basque Pyrenees, Raising bi-lingual and tri-lingual children, Wildlife and Nature of the Pyrenees
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Why do the British suffer so acutely from Linguaphobia?

On my travels I meet a stream of intrepid Brits. They trek the Himalayas in thunder storms and raft the Zambezi with the crocodiles and yet,  no matter how extrovert and gregarious they are by nature, one obstacle seems always to obstruct their path – the language barrier.  Lame excuses such as ‘my memory is terrible’  or  ‘I just don’t have the ear’,  crop up time and time again. To some extent we can blame our colonial past. Rather than adapting to foreign cultures we have forced them to adapt to ours, and suffered the consequences: a national apathy towards the learning of foreign languages.

Yet it is never the apathetic who suffer from phobias. It is those who struggle valiantly to remedy the problem, braving a few phrases of a new language and bracing themselves for the reply which finally comes – broken and faltering perhaps – but almost inevitably in English.   One morning, at a bakers in Copenhagen, I remember asking, in Danish, for a couple of  wienerbrød.[1]  The woman replied in English, I battled on in Danish, she asserted herself in English, I gritted my teeth and pursued the Danish, she gritted hers and pursued the English and so we went on until I finally left the shop.

One of the great barriers we have to overcome is that most other Europeans are, by necessity,  streets ahead of us in learning foreign languages, and in particular English. Many look for any opportunity to try out their English skills and we – demoralised and deflated – understandably give in.

However, this is not the whole picture. Another reason for our linguaphobia is the simple fact that we know so little about our own language.  Most of us have little idea of how English is made up, we know nothing of  pronouns and prepositions, and the word  grammar strikes a note of horror, recalling images of clinical classrooms and military verb drills. Usually, it is only when we come to learn a foreign language that we gain our first real insight into our mother tongue.  This seems to me a little like putting the cart before the horse or – as they say in Spanish – before the ox  (poner el carro delante de los bueyes)!

Putting the ox before the cart

Putting the ox before the cart

Unfortunately, from the point of view of the non-native English speaker our general ignorance of foreign languages is frequently interpreted as arrogance. In learning a few phrases of the local language we offer other cultures an important token of respect and show people that we are prepared to meet them on their terms rather than expect them to surrender to our own. From our perspective, no matter how well other people speak English, the ability to speak their native tongue allows us a far deeper insight into the nuances of their culture and the nature of their values. It enables those wonderful, impromptu conversations with locals in shops, on trains and walks around town, and inevitably enhances our ability to build solid friendships and learn more about the world we live in.

I have based our Spanish language courses here in Spain on this philosophy and aim to put the horse back in front of the cart, to demystify Western European languages by revealing their infinite similarities as well as to provide people with the tools to help them make the most of the linguistic journey ahead of them. Language learning should also be fun!  So, if you would rather launch yourself into conversation at the risk of error than remain tongue-tied in the search for perfection, then I encourage you all to confront the ghosts of linguaphobia!

*Except from my book Breaking the Language Barrier.



[1] (What we term Danish pastries, the Danes call Wienerbrød  which transaltes literally to “Viennese bread” !?)

Posted in Learning Spanish in Spain
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The Basque House – a mixed blessing.

Over the past decades I have come to realise just how important a role the Basque farmhouse (etxea) plays in the Basque culture. When the final roof tile is put into place, a sprig of bay leaves is tucked into the eaves above the front door and the house is given its name. It is usually by this name that the family is best known and it has taken me years to get to know my neighbours by any other name:  they are  - quite simply -  Isidro de Zubialdea, Amaia de Sumbilleneako Borda,  Juanito de Arozenea etc.  Had Marion and I not been better known as ‘las inglesas’, we too would simply be Marion and Georgina of Iaulin Borda. Surnames are used little around here.

My neighbour's house, Zubialdea

My neighbour’s house, Zubialdea

The Basque house is perhaps better thought of in terms of a family seat, rather than a mere dwelling place of bricks and mortar and for many mountain Basques the mere thought of selling their home, or even a piece of their land, is shameful. In the old laws (fueros) of Navarre, the Basque etxea had the same properties as an embassy or a church; it was out of the reach of the law and, if a family member was wanted for some serious crime, the police had no right to enter the house, having to sit out the long wait until the suspect deigned to appear.

I remember a conversation years ago with my friend Tere who was talking at length about ‘her house’.  The more she went on the less I recognised the family chalet she lived in with her husband in Elizondo. When I tried to clarify the matter it appeared that the simple and unqualified term ‘mi casa’ referred unambiguously to Read more ›

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Life in the Basque Pyrenees
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Life on a Basque Farm (as I never knew it)

My dear neighbour and friend, Sagrario, lives on the Basque farm next door and is 47 years old. She is more or less of my generation – or so you would think until you heard the stories of her childhood. Only then do I realise the true extent of the cultural abyss between us. Sagrario was born on the farm of Sotillanea, a large Basque farm, just up-stream from my own now run by her younger brother, Juan Angel.  On a snowy morning in January, so icy that they couldn’t even get to the church in Ituren and had to make a sudden dash for the church porticos of Elgorriaga,  she married Ignacio, a Basque lumberjack from the neighbouring farm of Sumbillanea. She has lived there ever since.

Sagrario and Ignacio live with their children, Amaia and Iñaki.  Amaia is  a very pretty hairdresser whose boyfriend, Joseba,  is one of the strongest Basque men in Navarra! (especially known for the ancient Basque sport of lifting carts and ‘chingas’ around the plaza). Iñaki is the younger of the two, a welder and mercifully-gifted mechanic. Both have inherited the glint in their fathers beautiful green eyes.  Ignacio’s unmarried brother, Luis, lives with them too. He is always joshing but is painfully shy; a passionate huntsman with hands as rough as bark and a heart of honey. Frightened by women. Very Basque.

Trying some of Sagrario's sheep's cheese

Trying some of Sagrario’s sheep’s cheese

The family of Sumbillanea (for here families are often known by the name of their houses rather than a surname) have looked after me, and my land, ever since I have been here. Most mornings, when Marion was a baby, Sagrario would dispatch Luis off with the sheep and a Tupperware container of pureed home-grown vegetables. Read more ›

Posted in Cultural Differences, Life in the Basque Pyrenees
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