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 all the money he needs after spending his youth as a lumberjack in the French Alps, he is relatively healthy (apart from the dialysis) and spends his days sun kissed and svelte walking the hills in Ameztia with his dogs. He is never lonely, living with his brother and saintly sister-in-law, (Sagrario), but he is no longer part of the Ituren work force.
This seems to have left him totally demoralised and unmanned. How can he enjoy life when the raison d’être of living is denied him?
The high regard for work can also be seen in the community work organised by the village called ‘Auzolan’. (In Basque Auzo means neighbourhood and lan means work). Auzolan is a Basque concept and consists of community service for the village in which every household is expected to participate several times a year as a way of paying our village taxes. Working groups of neighbours are organised to mend roads, unblock drains, paint the public buildings, clear rubbish etc. followed by a hearty and well-earned almuerzo with wine from the bota, bread, chistorra, chorizo and dry slabs of sharp, homemade, sheep’s cheese.
Nevertheless, the Basque concept of work has never been clearer than when I had a new extension put onto my cottage. Four ensuite bedrooms have just been added to a house which was once so small that even the bathroom was outdoors! Ignacio, (Luis’s cousin) famed for his efficiency and trojan work effort – and understandably the most sought after builder in the valley – came to do the work.
Well before dawn one morning last December there was a low whirr of machinery and a flicker of lights and a UFO landed in the field below my house. For 3 months the place was overrun by a team of squat, mute men in blue trousers with jet black hair and long pale faces. They worked in virtual silence with only the necessary grunts to direct a crane or locate a drill. It was well into the night before the lights were dimmed and the velvety silence of winter mountains once more reigned supreme.
I had made attempts at communication when they first arrived but those that were unable to divert their gaze would stare back at me incredulously with a look that told me that I was in the way of another shovel of cement or brick on the wall.
As if to the beat of a drum, everyone worked in total synchrony, (whether Ignacio was there or not) and the new building was ready for the roof within 17 days of that first UFO sighting. It was now January and the wild weather that heralds the arrival of the Ituren carnivals had descended upon the mountains. On one such evening I arrived home in snow blizzards, bitter driving winds and sub-zero temperatures to find the lights on and the UFO machinery whirring away as usual. Through the frenzied flurries of snow I managed to make out four shadowy figures bent double on the roof; pale midriffs exposed to the elements, undeterred in the laying of 80m² of tiles. Oblivious to the conditions and without a word of complaint they did not stop until the whole roof was laid.
I have never seen such dogged and unrelenting patience anywhere else in Europe and I understand why the Basques’ capacity for work and their silent resistance in the face of adversity have taken them all over the world. Many Basque farmers spent their youths as lumberjacks in the Alps or in America where their ability to accept long periods of solitude and isolation made them highly sought after ranchers and shepherds in the states of Wyoming, Arizona and California.
Last week, the very last sounds to be heard were the sounds of Ignacio, the boss himself, hammering in the last posts of an outdoor staircase in the driving rain; working silently side by side with his men, indistinguishable in the same blue trousers, with the same long pale face. His reputation and the immense respect he has among the villagers of Ituren are due to neither his power, position nor money (and he is most probably one of the wealthiest men in the village (although you can never quite tell with the Basques!)). Ignacio has gained admiration but he is as hard a grafter as each and every one of his men. He is the first on site in the morning; driving the trucks and lifting the timber. For here, in the cement mix of hard work, silent resistance and dogged perseverance the values of equality and collaboration are equally important.
Last week the UFO was spirited away, as suddenly as it arrived, and the mountains ring again with the sound of sheep’s bells, spring lambs and birdsong. Apart from the existence of a whole new wing to the house and a couple of terrified cats you may be tempted to believe that my UFO story never existed!
Oh .. and the appearance of the odd empty beer can which may just testify that these extraterrestrials shared at least some humanoid characteristics!