Last two and a half weeks spent in France and Germany.
Christmas with my French friend's family in their house in the Champagne countryside. Then legged it to Alsace (a few days in Franche-Comté: Besançon and Belfort). Was lucky to meet several Alsatian speakers in Colmar, over a period of a few days. All elderly ladies in their 70s or older. Asked them about the status of the language, their lived experiences as Alsatian speakers (i.e. being punished in school for speaking their language) or during the war for example.
Unfortunately in Champagne, I heard no Champenois, which is a critically endangered langue d'oïl. And in Alsace, I heard no Alsatian in the street spoken by young people.
A lady I talked to at the bus stop pointed behind us to the Colmar theatre, where from time to time, theatre is performed in dialect (i.e. Alsatian). She commented that she didn't understand why people would come to watch a work in Alsatian, but when they sat down in their seats, they would talk to each other in French.
She had just gotten off the bus that came from the other side of the border, from Germany. That is to say, as a native Alsatian speaker in her 80s, she can easily cross the border both ways with no communication problem, something that is not true of any of the generations that come after her. She is a more competent traveler (and one would imagine, a more competent worker for being bilingual) than tens of thousands of young whipper snappers who have grown up in a now monolingual Alsace.
Afterwards, I went to Freiburg im Breisgau for a few days in the state of Baden-Württemberg. A wonderful city in and of itself. A place where Germanic varieties, from various regions, other than the standard German can still be heard daily in the street. I struck up a conversation with someone selling subscriptions to Die Zeit in the street. As it was a cold night and she wasn't having much success, I kept her company and we talked for about an hour. In the meantime some people came by, thinking that she was selling individual copies of said newspaper.
What I noticed and as she confirmed, was that these people spoke in their German, sometimes more approximative, sometimes less approximative to the standard, but always some variety that would be difficult to describe as 'standard German'. A young couple came over: they were Swiss tourists, that was obvious from the start. The man did not speak his native Swiss German variety, but neither could it have been said to be Swiss Standard German. It was his Swiss German modified to make it more manageable to Germans.
Now I am in Buchholz, a town some 30 km approximately from Hamburg, staying with the family of a friend. Neither she nor her parents speak Low Saxon (variety of Low German), although they have a passive knowledge of the language. Her grandmother speaks it. In Hamburg itself, Low German is disappointingly absent, and the language is limited to rural areas and increasingly older people. Speaking of rural areas, I made my way out to the town of Undeloh (in Low German, Unnel). Population 900. Wonderful place and worth the visit to the heaths, in summer the object of much walking tourism.
I did see Low German used in signs and cartels, but in an affective, decorative manner rather than in a real informative manner. That is to say, they used Low German in writing in a symbolic and minor way. For more concrete uses of Low German being written
down, it is sometimes written in the local newspapers in columns. In our days, it has been relegated to the realm of oral language, a far cry from the Hanseatic days when Low German varieties served as a lingua franca on paper as well.
All in all, a great last few weeks that have solidified my desire to learn German properly, not only because I feel it's a shame to travel through Germanophone regions without a solid grasp of the language, but also because better knowning German will help me better understand the situation of the minoritised languages in Germany and elsewhere. Just like how I learned French in order to better understand the situation of minoritised languages in Francophone speaking countries.
Far be it from me to imply that I have been neglecting Basque however. The last few weeks before this recent foray into France and Germany have been entirely focused on Basque, accompanied by a careful examination of numerous Basque towns along the Gipuzkoan and Bizkaian coast, and numerous inland Basque towns as well, through the medium of walking. I don't have a car, so I walked along the clearly marked Santiago de Compostela routes, hopping from town to town. It is a way for me to discover a town and its surroundings at a human rhythm.
Let me point out two highlights.
Ondarroa, a coastal town in Bizkaia. Due to my negative experiences with coastal towns in Mallorca, I expected coastal towns to be touristy and hence, less Basque speaking. Nothing can be less true. It is true that they are touristy in summer, but Basque remains vibrant here. All of the coastal towns I've been in have been Basque speaking, if not majoritarily, then at least significantly so.
These towns are also politically conscious and vote for the Basque nationalist parties, either the PNV (Christian Democrat, conservative party) or EH Bildu (far left, openly independentist). Ondarroa for example in the 2019 November elections voted 46.16%% for EH Bildu and 35.33% for the PNV, between just these two political parties, monopolising over 80% of the electoral space in the town.
Graffiti and slogans and flags are not necessarily indicative of the true extent of an opinion, but their presence at least shows that such sentiments are visible and accepted. By that standard, the Basque nationalist sentiment and causes dear to its heart such as political prisoners back home, amnesty, self-determination, is extremely visible in the public space in these towns. High up flying from the church steeple of Ondarroa, I even saw the Palestinian flag. Sympathy for Palestine is quite widespread in the Basque Country, and it seems even among the clergy.
I spent about four hours wandering this small town of less than 9 000 people, and in those 4 hours, I did not hear a single word of Spanish. I do not exaggerate. Not a single damn word. I sat down in the town square with a drink and watched and listened to hundreds of townsfolk go by during the night. I watched the kids play street football, including the immigrant kids. All in Basque. It is only when you are surrounded by Basque in normality, when you are not obligated to switch to Spanish to make yourself understood, that you realise the abnormality of Spanish. It is abnormal the extent to which Spanish is pervasive in Spain (like how abnormal it is that French is omnipresent in France). And it made me think that we still have a long way to to go, so that all of Donostia or all of Bilbao can become a similar Basque safe space.
The second highlight was going to Ipar Euskal Herria, the North Basque Country. More specifically, I went to Baiona and Angelu with some French friends of mine. This was in the weeks leading up to Christmas, so we went to see the Christmas market in Baiona.
As expected, the public space is dominated by French, with rare exceptions. For example the place names (but not the traffic signs!) are given in trilingual versions, as well as some plaques giving information about historical buildings: French, Basque and Gascon, although when I asked my French friends (who were not from the area), they had no idea what the third language was. I honestly don't think I would have gotten a different answer if I had asked someone from Baiona.
Sadly, the eclipse of Gascon in Baiona as a community language is complete. Baiona had been a Gascon speaking city for centuries, that is no longer true, the overwhelmingly used language of communication on all levels is French.
These very recent efforts of public conscientisation have been admirably put into action by the recently created Euskal Hirigune Elkargoa-Comunautat d'Aglomeracion País Basco-Communauté d'agglomération du Pays Basque. In 2019, they declared Gascon and Basque to be two official languages of their community. A declaration that is legally void and null, due to the French Republic only having one official language. It was thus a mostly symbolic gesture.
But it makes me wonder what the opinion of the French denizens is concerning these largely symbolic gestures that have to do with toponymy. Do they stop in front of one sometime, or look up from their car window, and wonder 'what are these languages there, and why are they there anyway'?
Here, a ticket machine in French, Basque and Gascon. Notice how French is always in bigger text size than the other languages and comes first. If you come to Hego Euskal Herria, the South Basque Country, observe the proportion of text size of Basque vis a vis Spanish, and whether Basque or Spanish comes first. It may seem banal, trivial even, whether the Spanish/French text comes first in a pamphlet or whether the Basque text comes first. Or whether Basque is written in bigger letters than Spanish/French. But believe me, it is no small matter. Subtle or not so subtle visual signs like these reinforce linguistic ideologies.
Anyway, I went to Baiona with my friends. I honestly did not expect to hear any Basque spoken, but I was happy to run into a couple of elderly Basque speakers. That they were not from Baiona itself did not matter. They came from towns in Ipar Euskal Herria, but had come down to Baiona as part of a choir group. They sang carols in the streets, and at the end of each song, they were greeted with warm applause. And yet again, I asked myself. Most of these people in the audience do not know Basque, judging by the demographic surveys. What, exactly, then are they applauding if they don't understand? Are they lead to question or rethink the place of Basque in society, or on the contrary, does hearing Basque carols at Christmas reinforce the opinion that the Basque language is appropriate for those Basques over in those mountain and for 'folkoric' things, but for normal conversation and raising your children, French should be the normal thing?
These Basque speakers greeted me enthusiastically and I'm happy to report that like in the south, Basque speakers do not switch to foreign languages like Spanish or French if you are able to maintain the conversation in Basque. One of the gentlemen I met in the line for the toilet at a cafe. He was wearing a txapela, so on a hunch I talked to him and he turned out to be a Basque speaker from Senpere, that town famous for its Herri Urrats festival, about which I have written about before in this log. He must have been in his 70s.
Despite the fact that northern Basque dialects are quite different from the dialects I have mostly been exposed to, that somewhat surprisingly posed little problem. For one, I have some exposure to northern Basque dialects, even if it is not as much as I would like, so use of northern vocabulary like mintzatu (something that Batua has adopted!) was no problem. Two, I think it is because none of them were from Zuberoa, but from Behe Nafarroa or Lapurdi. The Zuberoan dialect along with the Bizkaian dialect, as well as being on the geographical opposite points of the Basque Country, have been called the two most divergent dialects of Basque, and I would have been in real trouble if there were Zuberoans there.
This brief visit to Baiona reinforced my determination to explore more of the North Basque Country and expose myself to the Basque dialects spoken there. There's so much I don't know. I already know I'll go to Senpere this year for the music festival, but I also would like to go to the ultra rural Zuberoa to see the Maskarada festival.