Finding family in Basque Country

The daughter of the Monitor's Europe bureau chief visits her Basque relatives in Bilbao, Spain, for the first time.

Sara Miller Llana
The crowd watches as a float goes by at a children's parade in Bilbao, Spain.

I have always loved Bilbao. When I lived in Spain a decade ago, traveling across the country, I remember thinking that if I could choose anywhere to call home in Spain, it would be in this Basque city on the northern coast.

It just so happens I ended up marrying someone from Bilbao, but it’s never been home. I have just felt grateful that I get to visit it often.

Now I have a daughter. And she’s part-Basque. She’s almost 3 but for many logistical reasons she’s just met the Spanish side of the family now. And apart from getting to know new grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, it suddenly hit me that all of the things I have always marveled at about Basque culture and history as an outsider are in many ways part of my own child's identity.

We baptized her in the parish where my husband was also baptized. “Ongi etorri,” the priest said as the ceremony began – “welcome” in Euskera, the Basque language that my husband speaks and that has always confounded me (and every linguist on earth).

Though I make my husband say egun on (good morning) or eskerrik asko (thank you) to impress people at dinner parties, these words are ones my daughter will just naturally know.

Her grandfather cooked her bacalao (cod), gulas (baby eels), and pintxos, the elaborate tapas of the Basque Country. She also ate an entire plate of sea snails from the rocky northern coast.

Our trip coincided with the Aste Nagusia or Fiestas de Bilbao, the 9-day celebration of the city each August that began roughly when my husband was born in the 1970s. It’s a week of concerts, fireworks, games, contests, and encounters with old friends. Our daughter spent every morning playing on giant bouncy castles and going down the gargantua, a slide in a figure of a giant wearing a beret (or txapela). [Editor's note: The original version mistakenly referenced a Carnival tradition as being a tradition of Fiestas de Bilbao. The writer blames her Basque husband for the mistake.]

We walked along the Nervion River, past the famed Guggenheim museum, and across the city’s many stunning modern bridges that look onto verdant mountains.

I had decided I would try and give into the Spanish way of life when it came to sleep schedules.  The first night, at 10 p.m., she was not soundly asleep as she usually is, but in a park full of other kids her age. She was in heaven. But the next morning, when she woke up at the same early time she always does, I was far from it.

Ultimately I couldn’t let go of all of the American in me. While her cousins were out well past midnight, to catch a glimpse of the fireworks, she was tucked into bed in a still house. The family ate lunch at 2:30 or 3 p.m.; she was already fed and deep into her nap. She didn’t seem to mind (or at least not notice, for now).

“Maite zaitut,” my husband taught her to say (“I love you”) to the family, as we packed our bags and headed back to Paris. And the words, which I would often utter to my husband in front of his family, part in jest, suddenly didn't feel so silly or foreign.

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