Finding Gernika 

Travels in our Basque sister city

Saturday is a dangerous day to navigate the streets of Gernika while overloaded with a massive backpack and a laptop case. It is a day when all 15,000 residents of this little city in the green mountains of Basque Country seem to amble slowly down the sidewalks, three abreast, arms linked, pushing baby strollers.

Loosely-supervised children squeal through the plaza in the center of town, and parents stop every few feet to chat with friends and neighbors. Down a brick-paved alleyway, people stand outside, smoking, talking, sipping wine or coffee. They have one small drink per bar, then move on to the next.

I rolled into town on the bus from Bilbao. During the hour-long ride, we passed through green hills, farm land and snow-capped mountains—past little farmhouses with red tile roofs—while I slept off my headache, the result of a Friday night in Bilbao. Without a map or guidebook, I rely on friendly locals and my Spanish for information on a place to drop my bags. An hour into our quest, it's obvious that lodging proprietors are also out mingling and enjoying the beautiful weather.

Although they're a backpacker's challenge, these crowded streets are why Blanca, who owns a small sweets shop near the main plaza, says her first visit to Boise was also her last. She stayed with a relative in Boise (pronounced boy-Say in Basque Country) during the 2000 Jaialdi festival but says apart from the festivities, people stay in their houses too much.

"It's a little bit boring," she says, "and too far to travel."

This is hard to accept, at first. I think, "Well downtown is always pretty full of people, especially in the summer. Maybe her family is just boring." As the night progresses, however, I gain some perspective. My hostel shared the street with a number of small bars, and it became clear that my companion and I were the only ones in the entire town who stayed in.

From our balcony, we had a front-row seat for social observation. The first burp of the bar doors expels the older crowd. They are mostly married couples, leaving arm-in-arm before midnight. A stream of young revelers in small bellowing groups trickles into the streets until at least 3 a.m., when I fall asleep. It reminds me of last call in downtown Boise—except rather than just a young percentage of the population, the entire town is there.

Maybe Boise isn't the most accessible tourist terminus from Basque Country, but everyone in Gernika knows about it. On the outskirts of town, a small sign hangs below the welcome sign. It shows a likeness of the rotunda of the Boise Capitol building along with the crests of two other European sister cities of Gernika. "If you don't have family there, you know someone who does," says Saioa at the tourism office. "It's very well-known."

Sporadic questioning on the street supports her statement. "Oh yeah, BOI-say. Do you know my cousin? He moved there about 30 years ago." Or ... "You should really talk to my aunt's cousin's sister's friend. They went to Boise last month." Some of those cousins, nieces, nephews and grandchildren from Boise visit with traditional dance youth groups to perform at summer festivals.

Gernika once had a Bar Boise to match Boise's Bar Gernika, but it's been closed for years.. At our spotless, inexpensive hostel (Madariaga Ostatua) with its private bathroom and balcony, the grandfatherly owner and I hash out a Spanish-as-a-second-language conversation wherein he asks if I know his brother-in-law in Elko.

The Basque diaspora of the early 20th century left Boise with the highest U.S. population of Basques (estimated at 15,000) and the second-largest Basque ex-pat population worldwide after Argentina. The majority of Boise Basques can trace their roots to the province of Bizkaia, which contains the cities of Gernika and Bilbao and hundreds of family farms.

Blanca explains that a few came over, found work, told their brothers and cousins and kept coming. Basque immigration is rarer now than during the early 20th century. With the Bizkaia economy more stable, farm kids often turn to industrialized Bilbao if work is scarce.

Many of the early Basque immigrants married, established families and never left southern Idaho. A few others, Blanca says, have returned to retire on their family land amid the leisurely pace and communal atmosphere of the Gernika area.

It's now Sunday afternoon. In one of the multitude of tiny bars, some old men are probably comparing Idaho stories over beers and pintxos (Basque bar food). In this bar, however, the old men have noticed us staring incredulously at the ceiling, where pig legs with white drip cones hang curing. Moments later, the bartender is sawing on a leg held in a metal vise on the bar counter. All eyes watch expectantly as he delivers us a plate of pig bits and bread.

I think of my bars in Boise­—how bar food might be a basket of tots or just the olives in my martini. Chewing the first pig meat I've had in years (it tastes like bacon but less crispy, more raw), I reflect on the connection between Boise and Gernika. To the casual observer (or the first-generation immigrant), the cities are worlds apart. Hundreds of thousands of people vs. tens of thousands; sprawl vs. apartments; convenience vs. community; mugs of beer vs. thimblefuls.

Then again, these places aren't really connected by city life. Somewhere outside of Boise, some sun-dried old ranchers or farmers are sitting around in the same formation as these guys. The words may be in a another language, but the stories are essentially the same. More mini-beers, and I reason that these sibling cities are like any other siblings. They have unique personalities ... and different favorite foods, but the stronger element is that which they share—the history and family members that overwhelm the differences and preserve the bonds.

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