Back in January, when Martin spontaneously suggested we organize a work-bee to help Joseba, with his new project Olabe, I had no idea the magic that was waiting for me in Basque Country.
Basque Country, in case you haven't heard, isn't like the rest of Spain. Proudly perched on the northern Atlantic coast straddling the France-Spain border, the Basque region has its own language, culture, culinary traditions, and a distinctive geographic landscape. It has forested mountains peaks that reach for the sky and rolling valleys spotted with farmhouses that are vaguely akin to the Swiss countryside. And then there is the rugged coastline, dotted with surf beaches and battered by mighty Atlantic swells.
After a quick flight from Dublin to Biarritz, Martin, his wife Jill, his cousin Enda, and I hopped into the rental and began our journey to Olabe. Our unforgettable road trip led us through a string of small villages with names we struggled to pronounce, from Gernika to tiny Ea and drop-dead gorgeous Lekeitio.
Without fanfare, we crossed from France into Spain and soon after I remarked to myself “why is there suddenly Romanian on all the signs?” Truth be told, I don’t actually know what the Romanian language looks like but I just knew that this wasn’t French or Spanish. It was like Dorothy saying to Toto, “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Like many stories of human connection, ours begins in an unassuming way: surf camp. Martin, Joseba and I met at Camp Surf and Social Good sharing our stories about the positive impact of leaning into what we love in order to help others and exploring what it takes to create a future where "social good" isn't just an add-on – all the while using the metaphor of surf and the sea framed through the lens of grit, grace and gratitude. You know, warm fuzzy stuff. Any like many cocooned experiences where participants are criss-crossed across the globe, we might have that’s the end of the story. But when Martin posted a message in our WhatsApp Wavemakers group about the struggles he was experiencing with his aging mother, Joseba responded by sharing one of his own.
For the past ten years, Joseba and his wife, Joanna, had been living in Elorrio, a nearby town, working as a graphic designer and teacher respectively. But there was a constant niggling, a desire to live more simply and closer to nature. A month after surf camp, they took a giant leap of faith and invested everything to purchase a 400-year-old Basque farmhouse (or “baserri”) in Bedarona. It is in complete disrepair but their vision is to inject new life (read: completely overhaul) and create a cultural hub that can be used for conferences, retreats, teaching, workshops, and community activities.
When they “moved in” a few months ago, Joseba tweeted: “We have moved in! No hot water, no shower, a broken toilet, a full cess pit, a massive hole in the roof, no fire, no money, but content.”
You have to be bold, visionary and most importantly patient for a mission like this. In the time that’s past, they purchased a six-wall yurt to live in and a cast iron stove for heating (...and fixed the toilet, of course!). So progress is being made but there is still a huge amount of work to be done on the farmhouse itself – the worn out wooden beams are presently reinforced with supports, the upstairs floors feel as if they may collapse at any moment, not to mention the gaping hole in the roof.
That said, when you first arrive, you don’t even notice the work: It’s the scenery that captures your imagination. You can't hear a single car, just the birds and you can't see another house for miles. The house might be a mess, but nature is singing!
Olabe is a labour of love, transforming a dilapidated building into a gathering place for people to slow down and reconnect to what matters most – being well, making friendships, sharing ideas, connecting to nature, growing, learning about a new culture or perhaps reconnecting to one they’ve lost... But it's a big f$*@ing adventure (and that’s coming from me!) and Joseba and Joanna will need collective support to make it happen.
Joseba and Joanna’s passion and commitment to Basque heritage and the power of community is completely intoxicating to anyone who has the privilege to join them. This is demonstrated by the steady influx of people who, like us, show up ready to help for a few days, weeks or months. In the week that we were here, four other groups cycled through, each taking a few days to contribute their blood, sweat and tears to the cause – painting, gardening, digging trenches, plastering, tiling, “strimming” (also known as weed-whacking to us Canadians), etc. As they say, many hands make light work.
Plus there is something pretty spectacular about six nations sharing a meal together in the warm Basque sun overlooking the countryside.
From the moment of our arrival, we began our immersion to Basque culture. Joseba’s pride in his heritage shone through most on the night he gave us a tutorial in all things Basque. And in case we had an doubts about his passion, Joanna shared a wee story about visiting Joseba’s university dorm room when they first started dating and finding a giant Basque flag on display over his bed.
This plucky region has maintained its spirit while split between Spain and France. If you follow the news, you know that Basque nationalism is a point of controversy. The region’s history with Eta, the Basque separatist organization, is complicated and has been, at times, bloody. But on the day we arrived, Eta was unconditionally surrendering its weapons cache, signalling a new future.
Joseba and Joanna came to the Basque Country from England so that his family wouldn’t lose Euskera, the Basque language, which is inextricably linked to Basque culture. They are incredibly adept at traversing the cultural lines as they mix Basque and English traditions and teatime is a perfect representation of the cross-cultural life that Joseba, Joanna and their daughter, Nahia, have created. Our mid-morning tea break included tea (brought over from the UK), scones and jam highlighting their English roots and Joseba’s Basque heritage was represented by homemade chorizo, cheese and a healthy splash of red wine. In my opinion, teatime at 11am that includes wine is the best kind so let’s raise a glass and say “Topa!”
If you’re like me and a bit linguistically obsessed, you do your best to learn a few obligatory words and phrases no matter where you travel. That language with all the k’s and tx’s that I mistook for Romanian? That’s Basque. But Basque, or Euskera, requires some serious tongue twisting. Forget any French or Spanish you might know – Euskera is like neither of them. In fact, it’s like nothing else actually, and it’s a wonder that it has survived for this long. (Nerd fact: the Basque language predates the Romans and, even more intriguingly, it bears no relation to languages spoken elsewhere in Europe). But play Scrabble here and you're bound to have some big scores — the language is filled with k's, tx's, and z's.
Kaixo – Hello
Zer moduz – How are you?
Garargado bat – One beer
Bi garagardo – Two beers
Mezedez – Please
Eskerrik asko – Thank you
Ez dago zergaitik – You’re welcome
Agur – Goodbye
See what I mean?
I clearly think the most important words in any new language revolve around ordering food or navigating the local grocery store. Surprisingly, there is still very little English anywhere in Basque Country so our trusty guides tackled the menus to ensure we tasted all the delicious local delicacies including squid in its ink, monkfish, the best steak of my life (seriously and it was just a neighbourhood restaurant in Akorda not even one of the famed Michelin restaurants in the region), sardines, coquetas, tortilla de patatas and of course, pintxos – which are small finger foods served at bars and a quintessential Basque experience that forms the backbone of the local food culture.
And while the region’s hidden villages and strong culinary traditions are ripe for discovery, Basque is often left off of many travel bucket lists so you might be wondering what lures many unsuspecting travelers to donate their time for some gruelling labour at Olabe? Sure, it has nature, food, culture, and friendly locals but so do so many places. I feel like I should end this post by paying homage to where this journey all started – surf camp. The Basque coast is the Mecca of surfing in Europe.
Sitting on my board at Laga beach, I can feel the sea breeze in my face while the waves make their way towards me. Their force builds slowly as though they were trying to swallow me whole – a bit like how I’m feeling about my current internship struggle. But then I begin to paddle and let myself be swept along. A flow of adrenaline washes over my body – just like when I started out on this adventure... and everyday since that I remember to I pinch myself and think, “I’m doing it!” So while this would have been a brilliant vacation all on it’s own, it was a perfect pattern interrupter and a great reminder that "you can’t control the waves, but you can learn to surf."
Jealous and now you want to join in the Olabe adventure? Roll up your sleeves and join in (I promise you won’t regret it) by connecting with Joseba, Joanna and Nahia on their Facebook page: Olabe.
P.S. Here is a great post surf tradition - drinking wine out of a leather shepherd satchel.
Nice to meet you...
I'm Andi (hence the blog name). I'm a travel aficionado, passionate eater, tireless explorer of internet rabbit-holes, and amateur thinker. Join me as I give it all up (ok, that's a bit of an exaggeration) and go around the world on a mid-career "soul sabbatical" & year-of-learning to figure out what to be NEXT when I grow up. Won’t you grab a cup of chai and stay a while?
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