Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port: The Basques (Die Basken)


A Count de Montmorency once boasted to a Basque about how old his name was, and the history of his nobility and his family. He boasted about the great men from whom he was descended. The Basque answered, „Count, we don’t descend from anyone!“

That’s how old they think they are, and they’re lucky, it can’t be proven. One doesn’t know who they are, where they come from, or what kind of language they speak. Nothing. No Latin or Romance language, and no northern language, is of any help. We cannot make any sense of a language in which the words, „Atehan psatzen dubena bere etchean da,“ mean, „Whoever enters through this door should feel at home”. Nobody has solved their puzzle, and a lot have tried. An unresolved scientific question? No German professor can accept that, so there are a whole lot of Germans among the researchers of Eskual Herrias, as the Basques call their country: Wilhelm von Humboldt understood and spoke Basque, and Hübner, Uhlenbeck, Linschmann, the founders of a Basque Society in Berlin; Phillips, Schuchardt in Graz, and many others, have worked on this mystery. None of them solved it. There are schools and groups. The first theory is that the Basques came from the south, the second that they came from the north, the third that they are Asian. There is evidence for everything and nothing. Only one sad thing seems likely: this language could die out one foreseeable day.

For one thing, it is not really developing. It creates no new words for new concepts, and when the Basques want to say ‚pencil’, they have to use the French word for it, because it is unknown to the language, and they append the Basque ending a to it, crayona. The older generation spoke only Basque, and I have met and listened to people with whom I could not communicate at all. The younger generation almost all understand French, and can speak both, but there are young people, and entire villages, where that is not the case, and French Basque researchers tell sadly of how they were sent from village to village on their field trips, “No, we don’t speak Basque any more, but perhaps in Izaba…“ The language can die out.

The race will not do so as quickly. There are about half a million of them, that’s all. Four provinces are in Spain, and three in France. Labourd is the westernmost, with Bayonne and Saint-Jean-de-Luz; Nieder-Navarra, with Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and Soule, with Mauléon. The Basques pay no attention to the bureaucratic French departement classification, which officially doesn’t include the beautiful, old names like Bretagne and, they still call their provinces by their old names. But, proud as they are, there is no aggression to it, and there is no ‘Basque Question[1]’. Nobody wants to be set free, because no one feels oppressed.

The first impression, in the middle of the mountains, is, seafarers. There is no rational reason for this feeling. Their faces, their calm manner, the self-confident strength, the inner freedom, all of this reminds one of the sea, of fishing boats and harbour people. Whether their ancestors were a sea-faring people, who knows, but the difference from the Frenchmen in the hinterland is unusually great. The men are handsome, they have narrow heads and finely worked features, one feels that every peasant’s head is unique.

The customs were very patriarchal for a long time, and still are so to some extent today. The pater familias has unrestricted power, the woman serves, but is not servile. The parents exercise their right of corporal punishment until the children are almost grown-up. I asked whether the fact that a lot of Basques served in the French army in completely different places didn’t slowly undermine this family constitution. They answered no, and I believe it. This conservative tradition has its good reasons.

There are few large landowners in the area, the peasants are free, but they all have the greatest interest in holding on to all of their land, and French inheritance law opposes that, because it does not acknowledge primogeniture. So what should they do? This is the same situation as the Prussian landed aristocracy when primogeniture was abolished there by law. Both the Prussian aristocrats and the Basques continue to abide by the old family law, by agreement. The disadvantaged heirs renounce their claim, and in neither group did younger siblings ever sue the eldest for the father’s property, although they would surely have won. The parents make it possible for the oldest to buy the inheritance of the younger ones. Sometimes this debt is mortgaged. If a son becomes a priest, he renounces, as a member of a church which has a great interest in this traditional property distribution. In any case, they get around a law which is inconvenient to them. Property should remain undivided, and it does remain undivided. I found a similar situation in Andorra as well.

The Basque country is soft and pleasant, green and undulating, because it lies far enough in front of the Pyrenees, in the lowlands, and the feet of these mountains is the most beautiful scenery that I saw there at all, almost everywhere, from Bayonne to Perpignan, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean. Les Basses-Pyrénées still conceal enough ravines and difficult peaks, from which, of course, land ownership keeps its distance. Their houses are whitewashed stone buildings, decorated with dark wooden beams. Modern architects have adapted this style for villas and manor houses in the area. These wooden beams are most common in Labourd, less so in Navarra, where the houses look more sombre, and in Soule they are only of stone. All the houses have a windowless back wall pointing west, from where the fiercest wind comes. One couldn’t build the churches in this way without breaking all liturgical rules, so the church door is often protected against the wind by a wall. Almost all the houses have small balconies. There are miserable peasant huts and smart, well-kept houses. Some of the churches have curious old clock towers, in which the bells swing primitively. And they have something very strange inside, galleries for the men. This separation is otherwise not very common, and it is for a peculiar reason.

There are a lot of sheep in the Basque provinces. If you want to find magic in mediaeval France, you only have to look for the regions on the map where there are billy goats and rams, that’s inevitably where it was. This magic, whose remnants are still present today, as crude superstition, is of purely Catholic origin, it is, Gothic magic, as it were. There is no oriental influence, nothing Asiatic, it is the good old Roman devil who is up to his tricks. Peasant magic is a complex phenomenon. A shallow materialist like Herr Hellwig from Potsdam, district court assessor, and Prussian expert for the occult, would not find it very fruitful. In the 12th century, one heretic bull after another thundered down on the poor country. Suddenly, the church was the focus of interest, and the churches were not big enough, so the galleries were built on. Nearly every Basque church has one of these heavy, old wooden galleries. The big church in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, on the coast, shortly before the Spanish border, has a particularly beautiful, three-floor one. That is where Louis XIV was married, and the Haraneder House, in which the Infantin Maria-Theresia lived before she married, also still stands there.

The church plays a big role in this country, which is pious of its own free will. There are very few Protestants. If one wants to see ‚the town’ or ‚the village’, it is enough to stand in front of the church doors after mass on Sunday, when they all come flowing out. But not in colourful, traditional dress, romantic and defiant, like in a novel. The dress is mostly urban. The peasants may well wear their black blouse to the cattle market, but not on Sunday. Only the béret is ubiquitous. That is a round cap, with no brim or peak. It looks like an ice pack made of cloth, with a little stalk on top. Some Parisian children, and a lot of motorists, wear something very similar. One doesn’t see many walking boots. Espadrilles are white sandals, not unlike beach shoes. The foot is remarkably sure in these thin cloth covering, and one soon gets used to the little stones.

But however often one stands in front of the church door, one will never see an entire Basque family. One is always missing, and he is in America. Emigration is really very prevalent. The Basques are good and experienced stockbreeders, and one should not regard this emigration as an emergency valve of a suppressed underclass. Free farmers go, to make money. To California, to raise sheep. To Argentina for beef, and a minority to Chile, to trade. It is mostly younger sons who emigrate, those who do not inherit, and don’t want to work for someone else in their own country. Over there, they all have connections: an uncle, a friend, a brother. And the strangest thing is, they all come back. In America, they save the money which they can’t, and don’t want, to spend in the long, lonely months on the range. They come back in old age with considerable fortunes, which are greater now than before the war, because of the exchange rate. A lot of them have a wife waiting for them at home, and she does not wait in vain. Les Américains, they call the returnees, and proudly show off their beautiful villas. They are goal-orientated people.

What do these Basque peasants do in the evenings and on Sunday, when they are not working? When I arrived in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, there was a blue and white poster posted on every corner. Tomorrow, Sunday: LA PELOTE. La Pelote is to the Basques what Skat[2] is to German card-players, or the bullfight to Spaniards, or the game of Manille[3] to the French: the meaning of life. „One should preserve the Basques in a tower of silver and gold!“ said an admirer of the country, one day. “Yes,“ replied a Basque, „but there must be a game of pelote in the tower!” A ball game, but what a ball game!

Even the smallest village has its fronton, a rectangular, free-standing, grey stone wall, gently curved at the top, with an empty square in front of it, on which the players, the pelotari, leap around. They strike the little, stone-hard ball at the wall, with either their fist, or with a chistéra, a beak-shaped, hollowed-out bat or racquet, and it rebounds with great force. There are four or six players, two teams of two or three, who take it in turns to hit. Team A serves, the ball bounces back, and team B has to catch it and hurl it back. Then team A again, and so on. The force with which they strike is only exceeded by the nimbleness with which they catch the little, flying, grey dot, and hurl it back. The exertion is great, for the whole body. The game is dance, sport, gymnastics and mental exertion, all in one. If you come across a Pelote, go and watch.

On Sunday morning, all the pelotari were in the church. A well-known player was expected, Léon Dougaïtz. A blazered and uniformed sport commission was also present, with a real-life General. (It may have been an NCO, that’s really not my area of expertise.) The little church was packed. Down below, the women, above, in the galleries, the men growled and sang. A young priest entered the pulpit. He spoke about…? John? Matthew? Mark? No, he speaks about the Pelote this afternoon. His subtle attempt to surround this sport with mysticism doesn’t work at all, it is simply a quite well sung hymn of praise to ‘we Basques’. One cannot praise a mass highly enough, but there is always that little, fatal spark of knowing oneself too well. “If an outsider came into the church today, I would tell him to look at these sportsmen, the core of our customs and traditions.” But that’s already suspicious. The surest sign that something is not quite right with a custom or tradition, is when it needs teachers and priests to preserve it. Nobody tries to encourage the use of ink, and there is no association for the preservation of soft, folding collars. Only things which are not taken for granted are emphasized so sonorously. So the priest praises his sportsmen, and that is by no means a desecration of the service, a lot of Basque abbots and curates play the game themselves. They leap around with tucked-up cassocks, and they are by no means the worst players. As the Catholic clergy is, in general, closer to its people than the almost always somewhat moody, reserved Protestant vicars. Catholic churches are always open, Protestant ones only on Sundays. The clergy, too. And so this one preaches about the ball game. He benevolently holds his hands over it. Then what the church can’t prevent, it makes sure to bless. The choir sings, the service is over, everyone streams onto the street.

At midday I walk around the town a little. Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port stands fortified, on a hill. What is outside the historical fortifications is pretty, but insignificant. A dead straight, green avenue heads towards the mountain. Mozart wafts from the house of the magistrate. The weather is bright and still. There is the cemetery, with the characteristically shaped gravestones. A thick, round disk on a low pedestal. The weather-beaten engraving and decoration look like runes. Basque inscriptions even contain swastikas, a good example of its popularity. A historical symbol has probably seldom been so badly misused. And what strange names are engraved in the stones! Maria Ladeveze, Landerreiche Gabriel, Kurutze Hunen…

Here in the narrow, winding street which climbs the hill, is a house whose cellar used to be the prison, into which the bishops used to throw their best enemies. A high, almost dark room. A few neck-irons still hang on the walls. A tiny room is separated. It is completely black, and without any ventilation, with a heavy, wooden door. Here is where the condemned sat, for weeks on end, waiting to be executed. But it is impossible to see a prison anywhere in the world without thinking about how German judges treat political activists; the physical and mental torture, and how the accused are treated in court.

On top of the hill stands the fort. It is an old block with a drawbridge, and a quiet, white courtyard, in which grass grows. Only an old worker still lives there, but it all looks so clean, and hardly ruined. There are inscriptions on all the doors, and signs in the rooms. What is that? About five hundred German prisoners of war engraved here in the citadel during the war, but because there were a handful of attempted escapes to the nearby Spanish border, they were soon moved away. After them came a French punishment battalion, des fortes têtes, particularly recalcitrant people, who went from one prison to another. I can see the narrow stone cells that they built themselves. They must have been a right bunch of losers. The school teacher saw them and still laughed about them. They were nearly all tattooed, but one had had his war motto, MERDE, burned into his forehead, and when an NCO or officer gave him a command which he didn’t like, he simply pushed his cap back so that his forehead was visible, and the other could read from his face what he had to say. One can only go along with that.

At four in the afternoon, Pelote. Sold out, which is no surprise in a country in which, „Pelote Forbidden“ is written on every fourth house, because the lads whose ambition it is to become the matadors of the national sport, use every wall. The young priest who had preached sits with the VIPs, and the sport commission is also present. Pelote is luckily everywhere still more a game than a sport, but there are already associations, with meetings and committees, with disqualifications and annual congresses, but the spectators just love the game, the game in the open air, their game, and they don’t give a damn about the laughable organizational minutiae. Every age has its fools. Ours look with furrowed brow and sombre gaze at people playing, and give them, and themselves, a significance, which they wrap up in phrases such as, improvements in livestock breeding, training the youth, disciplining the mind, and such like. There is nothing more ridiculous than this sport prepared by clean-shaven, bespectacled actuaries, for whom the committee meeting is the most important thing. They haven’t yet got that far down here.

The two teams take their places. Two Spanish Basques, one short and one tall, and on the other side, Léon Dougaïtz, the Frenchman, and his partner. The man looks like a master bricklayer, he has a soft, rakish moustache, and wears a white shirt and espadrilles, but, like all the other players, no béret. His partner is a sturdy young man. He is going to play without a chistéra, with his bare hands. The players hurl the first balls at the wall, to warm up. Shall we start? Let’s start. A band plays. Léon serves. He stands with his nose to the wall, a metre away from me, and strikes the little ball with an incomprehensible force at the wall. It flies back, but they are on their toes at the back, and they send it back. We’re off! They leap forwards and backwards. Sometimes they hardly move, and especially Léon, who is playing at the front, doesn’t seem to care when the ball comes. He never seems to worry that it could hit him, but whether the blow will be powerful enough? The blow would kill an ox, but the blows are so light and elegant. They have no protection on their hands.

The spectators watch like hawks. When the ball flies from the back to the front, all the faces turn, with the same movement, towards the front. It looks as though all the heads were mounted on sticks, and moved by the same mechanism. They criticise very pedantically, and perhaps with a touch of local pride. Recently, the Spaniards won. Will Léon get revenge? Léon gets revenge. It’s not that he’s a canon, more a good artillery piece, but the only one who plays with his head. “Bravo, Léon!“ His face remains smooth and impassive, his shirt is wet, the sweat has transformed the rough material into transparent silk. A shoe has a hole in it, and is replaced, amid general participation, and then carry on, carry on!

The spectators are pretty united, there are probably few outsiders among them. They know each other, and smile at each other in recognition. Three friends, with a fat one in the middle, sit arm in arm and look at a fine lady, who certainly came up in a car, with ironic admiration. All-male society is harmless. There is a monk by Grützner[4], a fat, red-faced peasant with a knobbly nose, a spry, cheerful old man. He is terribly excited about something in the game, and alternately buries his head in his hands and throws his hat in the air and shouts. He jumps and dances excitedly in his seat, and is completely out of control. And it is terrible what is happening out there! The Spaniards are catching up! That’s impossible! No! Break. The players drink some wine, and sweat in rivers. The monk-peasant has calmed down a bit, and the fat man is having a conversation with friends, across eight rows of seats.

Before the restart, the band strikes up a song, and everyone sings along. It is one of those songs of which you immediately realize that it is much more than just a popular song, it is a folk song. They sway in their seats, a lot of them just hum, in the way that one hums when there is no need to say the words. They effectively hum the words. The butter-yellow late afternoon sun shines through the bushes and above the high trees. The sky is a sparkling blue, the band blows, the game is about to restart, and I feel that this is one of the afternoons which the Basques will remember when they think, “Home!” This bliss, which cannot be expressed in words, comprising nothing more than the five-hundredth repetition of that which the father’s, and their father’s did on Sunday afternoons. Nothing more than a get-together which is only possible at home. This sunshine and no other, this song, and the curved wall of the court, the old familiar seats and the old familiar jokes and shouts. These are the hours which the Basque in America misses when he thinks back, the court, the pelote, and something else. He will have friends all over the world, elsewhere, certainly. He will value them, but he will never again have the feeling of belonging that he has here, anywhere else in the world, the closeness, the deep shove in the last corner of his heart: home!

Funny how tight this sense of home is. No state can stick its nose or flag in here. That’s not what people mean when they feel like this. I have come across this feeling in Germany particularly around Frankfurt, and in Hamburg; the Berliners also claim it for themselves. Otto Reutter, the late variety singer, who had more humour in his fly buttons than an entire cocktail cabaret with guaranteed exclusive audience, these days. Otto Reutter sang a song, among his four hundred and eighty songs, with the chorus, „As I’m proud to be German!“ And the seventeenth verse of this song is about how he was strolling in the port of a fine French seaside resort one evening, when an almost-elegant lady suddenly hit on him.


The spa band played in its way,

the lady moved up close to me…

„Hey, fatso, are you a Prussian, too?” she asked quietly.

That’s why I’m proud to be German!


„Bravo, Léon! Bravo, Léon!“ Léon has done it. The Spaniards have taken a beating, but they are graciously applauded. Everyone is on their feet, nobody leaves. The people dance, later. The orchestra sits in the spectators’ seats: serious, moustached men, from whom one would not expect so much noise, and they have been joined by a ‘xülüla’, a shrill, little flute. The court is now empty, and the men dance. These ‚Basque leaps’ are danced exclusively by men. A young girl took part in the Basque games in Mauléon in 1896, and it was a sensation. As these dancers are not in traditional costume, white with a red scarf, the dance already looks strange enough. They form a circle and dance, each on his own. A fat man rolls his fat up and down so much that it’s frightening. I, for example, don’t like to witness heart attacks. One boy dances delightfully, he keeps his torso still, and dances so lightly! The circle turns to the left, and then to the right, but the dancers do not touch each other with their hands, they each dance alone. Applause. Encore!

And then, a fandango. Then two little groups of two men dance, still without touching, but the men are no longer alone. Two Spanish women, who are visiting, have joined them, and dance the fandango. All at once it becomes clear what the dance really is, and means. It becomes colourful, and apparently has a far, distant relationship to the Moors: to the belly dance. But the young girls dance so discretely. They snap their fingers, because no one has castanets. They turn and spin, quicker and quicker. The Spanish women get special applause. The young men look displeased: that is unfair competition, in skirts. And the whole thing starts again from the beginning.

There is dancing after every pelote, that’s just how it is. And the two men who sing to the people in all the breaks in play are just as traditional: the improvisers. There are always two of them, and they always conduct a sort of song competition. If one of them sings The Joys of Being a Bachelor, the other sings The Joys of Being a Husband. Cars and ox-drawn carts, sea and land, water and wine, sandals and clogs, this is the time-honoured subject matter. It is also a time-honoured tradition that they have to be implored for a long time to start singing. They are coy for a long time, but once they have started, they don’t know when to stop. First of all they greet everyone who has turned up this afternoon. Everyone laughs at them and applauds, and they reappear in the middle, after every dance. Thy raise their arms as they perform, their singing is always a sort of recitation, and each verse comprises four long rhyming lines. They are particularly proud of that: four rhymes! The Spanish Basques have even longer lines, up to 20 syllables: what lung capacity! When they have finished, I try to talk with them both, but one of them only understands Basque. The other explains what they had sung. He said that it needed a lot of experience and quick wits, and there are not many wanting to take over. Rostand[5] had heard him and was full of admiration for his ability to rhyme. “Is it a serious competition, packed in humour, that you have there?” I asked him. “One must always respect the other,” he said. And then everyone goes to dinner. They don’t eat badly. They drink a strong, slightly sour wine. The wine from Jurançon, near Pau, is also available everywhere. It is good and mild. At the market and on the road, the peasants and herdsmen drink from leather bottles, small wine sacks, which keep the wine nice and cool.

In the evening, there is a ball on the marketplace. It is festively lit by lanterns, and soon everything slips and slides, particularly under a row of dark trees. What happened to the grace of the circle dancers? The same young people who just danced their national dances so beautifully, modestly, without the slightest pose, are now dancing foxtrot and two-step, and it’s not the same at all. They are no longer young peasants, they are workers from the suburbs, the lop-sided copy takes everything from them, and gives them nothing in return. I once saw young farm labourers and country girls dance modern dances, in Holstein. Their heavy feet thumped on the floor, and they were as gracious as calves. It was pitiful. It was similar here, because that which is coming is inescapable. Even the most pathetic chronicler of Basque identity must admit, three times in every book: it is disappearing! It is all disappearing, the language, the customs, the traditions, the morals, beliefs and superstitions. No one can tell us that something like that can be preserved through such a sweeping transformation of the world! You ride the subway in the cities, and believe that the dumb peasant can remain his eternal, unchanging self? He will be infected, too. At least the transformation is very gentle here. But despite all the preservation of tradition, when the vine louse devastated the vineyards, and the Americans marketed a new plant, even the most conservative Basques introduced it. Chicago wins, you can do what you like. Good night, marketplace.

The next day, it is teeming with livestock. What an ordeal such a market day is for the animals! I’m not over-sensitive, and they are slaughtered anyway eventually, but they have to make quite an effort to earn their death. The pigs trotting for hours, tied behind the cart by a rope, making a terrible spectacle, but always with that hint of comedy which a pig always has in our eyes, even in the moment of its death. A row of ducks is lying in the sun, they open and close their beaks and can only cluck quietly for thirst. A cow licks its calf, whose mouth they have wrapped up in straw so that it doesn’t drink now. The jumpy sheep are felt by their potential buyers. What angular, fine farmer’s heads! What benevolent faces! What a calm, self-confident expression in their eyes! These people make one feel good.

Some of those who have come to the market, take lunch in the hotel. It has a high room, with a light-coloured, floral carpet, and the peasants in black costumes are very distinctive against the wall. They sit and eat, well and plentifully, and not too quickly. A violin player comes, and fiddles something for them, perhaps he is a peasant fallen on hard times. His child collects on a plate, and gets a few sous. At the corner table were Majors. Retired officers seem to be the same all over the world. They all have a respectable, somewhat faded, wife, and an unattractive, awkward daughter, and daddy orders cheese as loudly as though he were in command of a brigade. But he is harmless and well-behaved, and only raises his square soldier’s head occasionally, to see that everything is in order.

A seminary student goes past outside. He has been taught Latin prayers that he can say by heart, without understanding them. He carries his prayer book under his arm. He no longer has to fear the competition which caused his predecessors so much trouble: Jansenism, which was born here. The Pyrenees have produced a lot of religious phenomena: the Spaniard Loyola built his first house on the Spanish side, and we know what that led to. And the Basques used to be very war-like in religious matters: the ambassadors of the Bishop of Oloron, one of the first Calvinists in the area, were first trampled by donkeys in Mauléon, and when the old man himself came to revenge the insult, they hacked him to death with an axe. The murder of the Bishop of Oloron was not an isolated incident. Medieval urban and rural feuds were of the greatest brutality, just as much here as everywhere else. On one occasion, six or seven Basques who had rebelled, were tied to the Adour bridge in Bayonne, at low tide, and had the pleasure of waiting until the tide reached them. There was a father and son among them, and the entire population stood on the banks of the river and waited for the glorious spectacle. It reached the son first; as he started to gargle, and his father started to insult the executioner, they knocked out his left eye with a stone. The tide soon cooled it, and the other one, too.

Over at the fountain, two men are having a serious dispute. I am not able to judge whether Basque is a beautiful language, it sounds neither beautiful nor ugly. Its supporters, especially the Basque writers themselves, naturally over-estimate its immanent poetry, which, like any language poetry, is a subjective impression. One told about how many poems there are about hunting wood pigeons. Wood pigeons are called usua in Basque. The Basque added, „This word wood-pigeon doesn’t really say much. To be able to appreciate the entire poetry of usua, one must…“ Nothing at all, of course. This honourable and understandable local ecstasy reminds me of performers in German concert halls who sing foreign folk songs, but make themselves slightly laughable by reciting the lyrics in German first. “The maid goes to the well in the morning, and says, “Oh, well! How beautifully you flow, you good well! But where is my true love gone? Do you know, perhaps? If you see him, good well, give him my love!” The orchestra stalls love it, and everyone is amazed when it is followed by a delightful little song, in which it really doesn’t matter whether the well burbles or not, and whose rhythm and colour are enough. One can’t translate folk poetry. One can only create something comparable.

It is not only the language that makes one aware of being in a special corner of France. The woman in the hotel wants to say, „By God!“ to me, and to emphasize it even more, raises her right fist above her crown, the short forearm is close to her head. I inquired later about this wild tomahawk gesture. It is the Basque version of crossing your fingers. „By God!“ and now I know that she had lied. The Basques are held to be not very reliable, and the first, pleasant impression, is perhaps deceptive. A non-native once said to me in Bayonne, „The people in Bayonne are kind, friendly and as false as the timber of a gallows.” Just an opinion, but others also don’t have a good word for them, and accuse them of an avarice which I have never experienced.

How does a nation regard its constituent tribes? For the French salon literature, the Basque country is, like Andorra incidentally, a wonderful opportunity for uncontrolled romanticism. Pierre Loti’s famous Ramuntcho (which is in its 224th edition) is a perfumed affair, which smells of a very good wild flower perfume, but of the perfume, not of the wild flowers themselves. It’s a strange thing that mediocre writers handle peasants either slightly condescendingly, with affectionate goodwill, „All the best to you, my good man!“ Or they stuff the peasant’s soul with a dollop of mystery which has no business there, and is certainly not to be found there. One sometimes has the impression that Loti[6] made a note of all the common Basque expressions, and just dressed up one of his love stories in this costume, just for a change. He also tames the wild, mountainous passions discretely, so that they can still be enjoyed in the best salons. And even when the hero is up to his neck in trouble: always noble, always noble! I think that such novels tells us more about the author than the country which they purport to be about.

A woman passes on the street, with a herrade, the conical water jug with handles, which gets thinner towards the top, on her head. It is unknown in the neighbouring French provinces. Carrying jugs on the head is a Basque custom. Basque customs… One is well-known throughout France. The first word which one hears when one speaks of the Basques, is smuggler. There is a lovely old print, The Pyreneen Smuggler, in the Bayonne museum. There he runs, with a sack over his shoulder and a shotgun in his hand, through the mountains, proper mountains, as one can see them in the prints which hang in Swiss hotel rooms, and in the background, two gendarmes are pointing the dangerous man out to each other. But that is a long time ago. It’s not worth it any more.

I had intended to visit the customs posts with a captain of the gendarmerie, but when I saw him cranking up his car to set off, I didn’t feel like it any more. Smuggling? The currency has destroyed it. The starting conditions were splendid. Tobacco and alcohol. In France and Spain, the traders had the greatest interest in keeping the prices high through customs duties to obstruct the natural price development, like everywhere else, and there were, and are, people on both sides f the border who speak the same language, and who are only aware of their belonging to different states when they have to pay taxes or perform military service, and who really belong together. An unspeakable amount was smuggled. The gendarmes knew, but it was a fair fight. Nobody fired a gun on either side, under any circumstances. Whoever got caught, paid up or did his time, but that was no reason for enmity. You are a smuggler, that’s your job, and I am a gendarme, that’s mine. The effort was great, and the profits slim. They usually didn’t even use mules, who can climb the most difficult paths. The smugglers carried everything themselves, and what paths! At night, in the rain, up the steepest cliffs, and back down the trickiest scree slopes, and all that for a few francs! Smuggling was a perfectly honourable profession. Everyone knew who was doing it, but nobody said anything. But these days…

The French inflation came very slowly, and the Spaniards had time to realize what their pesetas were worth in France. They know that very well, much to the chagrin of the Basques, and when one asks them about their old trade, one hears laments, compared to which the sighs of Berlin bankrupts are the purest cries of pleasure. “There’s nothing left! No business! The Spaniards won’t pay! What are we supposed to smuggle?” It’s heartbreaking. The times are gone when the women and children on the look-out called out, “Otsoa! Otsoa! The wolf! The wolf!“ to the smugglers, when the gendarmes approached. The wolf has gone vegetarian, because there are no more sheep any more. The romantic is over, torn evening clouds, through which the pale moon shines on the secret contrebandiers. Smuggler love and smuggler death: all over.

Above all because the border doesn’t fill any reasonable person with such heart-pumping awe any more. We know who is guarding whom for whom. The grain should not come from where it is cheaper, the piano not from where they are better-made. Industry, capital and employment are supported artificially. An economic process. You can paint your laughable border posts as ceremoniously as you like, but write on them “Müllers vaseline is the best!“ That would be a lot nearer the truth.

And now is time to leave. Away from the little mountain town in the country, out on to the trunk roads, on which I will meet the ox-carts, with the animals carefully wrapped up in linen cloth, their heavy heads protected from the flies by a net. I never saw them be hit. Only the donkeys have to put up with a lot of sorrow, suffering and blows here. The axles of the old carts squeak and cry. As a Basque once explained, „So that the oxen don’t get bored.” An even temper is a fine thing to have. So, time to leave, but how?

The entire Pyrenees are traversed by a large road, which the more northerly railway network augments most felicitously. A road is more flexible than the railway, it can take a break when there is no demand, it is easier to finance. It is strange how the old stagecoach is being re-adopted everywhere these days, here, in Scotland and in Switzerland. But Herr Schwager has oil-blackened fingers, his post-horn sounds, and Englishmen and, what is even worse, their wives, are sitting in the open coach and letting the Pyrenees, to which they are entitled, float before their cold fish eyes. There is a kind of circular-tour ticket, from Bayonne to Perpignan, which one can interrupt twice, but otherwise one is mercilessly chased through bushes, fields, woods, gorges and valleys, past precipices, over bridges and along frothy streams, which are called gaves. Onward, ever onward, until everyone has to get out. That suits the English. They put up with it because they have to have seen that, too. And if the English are even Americans, their disinterest in the landscape knows no limits. I have sat next to some whose heads one permanently wanted to bang on the rock slabs, “Here! Look at that, you idiot, so that you at least get something for your money!” But he sat there and looked straight ahead, because he had paid for straight ahead. Exporting people is seldom successful.

I would like to travel with such a stagecoach. They don’t take much luggage, and one has to make the best of it, and they are always full, but on s’arrange. I really do arrange myself, and climb in, obediently and tamely to the people with the big jaws. They sit there in silence, uttering four sentences in the three-hour journey. They are coldly moved by the landscape, and I by them. I sit at the front, next to the driver, which is my favourite place. One always has warm feet, and it smells so nicely of petrol and nature. The driver tells tales from his life, and there is a small mirror next to him, in which I can observe my Americans in the back. I nearly forget about the Pyrenees completely. If it goes on like this, I will write a guide-book, Guide to the Cultivation of Americans who Live Well. I can’t take my eyes off them. A green scarf blows in the wind, the expressionless elevator faces sway a little in the curves. Magnificent. If one could shoot backwards, now. But it’s peacetime, who would shoot? And so we drive through the land of the Basques.


[1] In 1927. Before Franco






Next chapter: Lieber Jakopp! Not yet translated

Author: Kurt Tucholsky

Published in:

Back to contents: TuchoPyrenees Tucholsky Pyrenees Book


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