I discovered Basqueland (Euskadi in Basque) in the beginning of the new millenium, 2000. The USC Chamber Choir had won the competition in Varna, Bulgaria the year before, thus qualifying us to compete with the winners of five similar competitions in what is known as the Grand Prix of Choral Singing. We lost to a Russian children's choir, but that is another topic.
We were housed in a beautiful seaside town west of San Sebastian called Zarautz (someone once said that a Basque typewriter only has x's, k's, and z's). The town had a gorgeous promenade and our hotel was in the main plaza: la Plaza Muzika. Basque country is half in Spain and half in southern France, all of it beautiful. Simply and quickly put: It was love at first sight for me. And since most Basques also speak Castilian Spanish (castellano) I could stumble my way through happy hours and stores even though Spanish is my weakest language. I fared marginally better in French Basqueland even though that was my second weakest language. The other three in order of strength are English, German and Italian.
I vowed I would return. Two years later, for my 60th birthday, and after winning another competition, our English friends and four other close friends met in San Sebastian and we spent two weeks exploring the area, including to the land of the Three Musketeers where we got to sample a number of Armagnacs and visit a farm where ducks gave up their livers for foix gras (another great story, but not for here). We were a party of eight living like lords, including an evening at the world-famous Basque restaurant, Arzak, that took three hours and was worth every minute (worth every Euro, too).
Again, I vowed I would return. So our party of eight visited Zarautz and I visited a real estate office for rental information. The fall of '02 was a sabbatical for me, so I made arrangements to rent an apartment on the fourth floor of a building right on the Bay of Biscay. I arrived on 1 October and stayed for a month, finishing the book I had started in September. That month cost me $3000, a thousand each for rent, plane fare, and food and drink (ca. $33/day). At that time, the dollar and the Euro were almost exactly equal (yea!).
Here's what those days were like.
I got up at 830, put my espresso on the stove, and went out to the seaside balcony to open a window and watch the folks running on the beach and strolling the Paseo. When the espresso was ready, I brought it into the coffee table in the lounge and drank it with my roll, serrano ham, and manchego cheese.
I started writing at 930 and wrote until 1230, when I went in to shower and shave. Then I would go to lunch between 100 and 130, always choosing the restaurant's lunch special that was usually three courses, with dessert being ice cream. I went back to my FourthFloorSeasideApartment (ahem) at 300, napped for a half hour, and resumed writing at 330. I was always armed with a novel at both lunch and dinner, by the way, because I didn't have enough Spanish for cheery conversations with strangers.
At 630 I stopped writing and proofed what I had done during the day. With my first martini by my side, of course. At 730, I left the apartment, walked the Paseo for a while, had my second martini in the bar right across my street (I had taught them how it was made) and made my way to a restaurant at 830. This was a relatively expensive meal because I always ordered foix gras if they had it, with a small glass of red vermouth, followed by a meat entree of some kind and a suitable Spanish wine. At 1030 I went home, got into bed and read one of my novels until midnight.
About once per week, I would buy my breakfast at the small coffee shop across the street and read the paper, which was my only source of news (television news was far too fast for me to comprehend). My paper was El País Vasco ('the Basque Country') and I could slowly make my way through it with about 75% comprehension. It was there that I read about the latest shootings in the US and the terrorist bombing on Bali. On Saturdays, I rented computer time at a small shop and read about college football in the US, called home and the like.
I wrote six hours/day every day in that October except for three, when I rented a car, drove to Gascony to buy Armagnac, stayed at a neat little Auberge and came home, whereupon I drove around the mountain to a restaurant that I could see from my balcony but had never been to because I didn't want to decipher bus schedules. It was all fish there, with a grill that was kept burning all day. They brought around a large platter with raw fish on it, I chose the one I wanted and they grilled it. It was exquisite, as were the side dishes. I had draft beer for dessert, drove back and returned the car (a small Peugot).
If this sounds like heaven, that's exactly what it was. And no, I was not lonely, though I occasionally did long to speak English. Fortunately, a German chorus came into town for a few days (they won Tolosa that year) and I spoke it with them once German became too much work for me (usually after the third beer). I only learned one word of Basque ('augur') and have forgotten utterly what it means, though I think it meant goodbye in the sense of 'hey, later, dude.'
I'd do it again if I could. You want to read about these unique people who I dearly love, I recommend Mark Kurlanski's A Basque History of the World, which I bought just before my Birthday Jaunt in '02 . Don't google them until you do. Okay? Okay.
Grafitti message in English on the side of a building in the passage just below me: "Tourist--you are neither in France nor Spain." Got that? Good.