Sad to leave our Basque Village School!
Above Carlos’s bar in Ituren plaza is our Basque village school. This small primary school has currently some 63 children ranging from 3 – 11 years old and all subjects are taught in Basque. The children come from the villages of Ituren, (and its three satellite hamlets of Aurtitz, Latsaga and Ameztia), and from the neighbouring villages of Zubieta and Elgorriaga. However, due to age-old rivalries between Zubieta and Ituren – exemplified by the turbulent carnivals at the end of January – some parents in Zubieta choose to avoid ‘hostile territory’ and send their children to the larger school, further afield, in Santesteban/Donestebe.
Our Basque village school in Ituren has been officially baptised as the ‘Pulunpa’ School’, ‘Pulunpa Eskola’ – indeed a strange name even by Basque accounts. ‘Pulunpa’ is the Basque onomatopoeia for the sound made by the bells strapped to the backs of the Joaldunak, the famous pagan carnival protagonists that have made the village famous, and lie at the absolute core of Ituren’s identity. The name, in true Basque style, was chosen democratically by the pupils in a ‘naming-the-school’ competition a few years back. The school is the hub of village life and children’s and parents’ routines alike swing to the tune of the school timetable screeching into the plaza for the 9 o’clock morning bell and then returning in more leisurely fashion around 4 o’clock with Tupperwares of chorizo or chocolate sandwiches. Lazy afternoons are then spent in the plaza, catching up on local gossip while the kids run riot or practice Pelota (the national Basque sport a little like squash) against the green walls of the village fronton.
The style of life in the village changes dramatically between term-time and holiday-time and, where some Basque villages mark the beginning of summer by jumping bonfires during the summer solstice, our summer time starts with equal precision and drama with a big water flight in the village square.
The end of term party in June is a fun and joyous affair and kicks off with an informal sports day of traditional Basque rural sports in the village square. The teams are made up of children, teachers and parents alike. These sports days are organised by Maika, (who else), neighbour, fellow mother, friend, village mascot and Basque Country wood chopping champion, ‘aizkolari’!. There are wheelbarrow races, tugs of war, running races with heavy sacks and weights, ‘txingas,’ and, perhaps most worthy of mention, ‘maizorkas’: a ‘corn-husk’ relay race for which Maika unfailingly signs me up!
I remember one sports day a few years back which came after several days of rain and coincided with absolutely perfect hay-making weather. In farming communities like ours there is, understandably, one force greater than that of the school calendar, and it is that of the land: hay-making in June (and often again in August) and bracken-stack making in September. Everything is dropped (tugs of war and maizorkas included) and that particular summer Maika’s carefully organised sports teams were virtually parentless. Spying my English and Swedish guests hovering at the corner of the plaza, she ushered them boldly into the arena (one rarely says no to an axe-wielding, wood-chopping champion) and to this day we savour memories of John, David and Sonia dashing around the plaza in a wheelbarrow with the school kids cheering them on in broken English! It was another of those monumental moments which culturally-enriched us all!
After the sports day, the parents and teachers enjoy a large communal lunch under the porticoes of Carlos’s bar, followed by music and dancing which inevitably deteriorate into water fights and a dunk in the river! (The parents avoiding the latter if possible!). A fun and joyous moment for everyone. Summertime has arrived.
And it stays for quite some time.
The summer holidays start around the third week of June and finish about the second week of September.
Apart from the end of term fiestas, other highlights of the Pulunpa school calendar are, naturally, the carnivals themselves. On the Friday before carnivals, the children dress up as witches and demons or miniature Joaldunak with their tiny whips, sheep skins and bells and run riot around the village. Proud parents laden with jumpers and anoraks, Smart phones and umbrellas scuttle after them before sweeping their prodigy back into the warmth for hot chocolate and cake. Everyone then makes their way home (via the bar) to prepare for by far the biggest and most monumental festival of the year, carnivals. (About to take rip next weekend).
However, Marion is now 11 and this is sadly our last year at the Pulunpa school. Without a doubt, it will be the Christmas party that I will miss most. (I am not sure about Marion, but the annual school climb of Mt Mendaur (1100m) since the age of 5 will definitely NOT be on her list!). On the final day of term before the Christmas holidays the children stage a range of songs and dances in Basque, Spanish and English and the parents lay out the inevitable spread of txistora (local spicy sausage) tortilla, cider, wine and pintxo inglesak! As there are no corn husk relay races for me to run until the summer my annual role at the Christmas party is to provide a tray of my now famous ‘pintxo inglesak’ or English tapas (which – between you and me – actually aren’t English at all!). I amuse myself in thinking that one day anthropologists, probing into the history of this traditional Basque mountain village, will stumble upon the existence of the ‘pintxo inglesak‘ – now, after their success at the Christmas party, made in various Ituren homes. If they do their research right they may discover to their bemusement that the English tapas were made of Italian pesto, French goats cheese and Spanish cherry tomatoes! (And were actually copied from a Hawaian friend in Copenhagen!).
This day is sacred and finishes off with laughter and drinks at Carlos’s bar with other mothers; myself, Maika, Izaskun and Lourdes being the hard core, while our daughters are abandoned for hours in the village square. (Or so we think! This year they actually got locked in the school and it was hours before we realised they had gone!).
Being mum, and having a daughter at the local village school has probably been the most important factor in my integration into village life. Not only has it allowed me a great insight into the local culture but also a feeling of identity and belonging too – and my eyes will also well with emotion and pride when the Ituren Joaldunak lead their solemn march, ‘pulunpa pulunpa’, through the streets during carnivals next week. I would also like to think that our presence – and that of my guests and friends – has done a little to enrich life in Ituren too!