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Saturday, September 5, 2015

Bakio, Basque country, Spain. August-September 2015

Euskal Herria. Those were among the first words I saw in the Basque region, and it is the name the Basque people give to their land. In these parts of Spain, Basque comes first on the signs, followed by Spanish. Basque (Euskara) is one of the oldest languages in the world; it predates the vast Indo-European family of languages, and is the only non-Indo-European tongue in Western Europe.

When I heard it, though, it wasn't in the context of separatist rebellion (Basque was repressed under the fascist regime that ruled Spain into my lifetime). It was on the radio, a song (or rap) I recognized as "Fight For Your Right (To Party)." I knew it wasn't the Beastie Boys; was it Spanish? No; the rap to which our hosts' baby was happily bopping along was in Basque! This child will grow up, effortlessly, trilingual. Her books won't be burned. How lucky she is.

Bilbo, as the Basques call Bilbao, is the main city of this region, but we immediately left it to go over the misty mountains. There, we found Bakio, not a tourist town but a place where Spanish families rent holiday apartments. A young girl walked a burro towards a pop-up carnival. When I saw "Freedom for the Basque Country" graffitied on a wall, it took a second for me to register it was in English.

Because this was a vacation spot, at the climax of summer vacation, the people around me were relaxed. I can't know therefore if what I observed is true culturally, or just the behavior of Spaniards on vacation. But I loved being on a Spanish beach, or later, on the patio of a restaurant, with people all dressed in costume for the Bakio fiesta. Parents, grandparents, and children could everywhere be found together. Children ran freely; someone would always look out for them. I think I saw one person under 21 on her phone. People were outdoors, relaxing in an old-fashioned way, and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

North Americans know that Europeans behave differently on beaches. I've heard much mockery of the "pickle pouch" that European men supposedly wear for swim trunks (I hardly saw any of these, but nor did I see the cargo pants that pass for shorts with some N. American men). Here on Bakio beach, people were at ease with their bodies. Let me see if I can get this alien concept across:

If your kids want to run around naked, they just do. If a woman wants to take her top off, go for it. If she doesn't, fine. Bikinis are ubiquitous, no matter what the woman's shape. The feeling of freedom is hard to exaggerate. I knew, whether I took my top off or not, no one gave a damn, and that's what's so wonderful about it. There might be some woman in Anglo-American culture who feels good about her own body, but I get the impression that if you're not wanting to lose 10 pounds, you're a traitor to your sex.

As for the children...there is no zone of personal space. Unless and until they physically crash into you, you are fair game. We inadvertently ended up near the goal of a soccer game, played by boys aged 4, 4, 6, 7, and 7. I learned their ages because that's the level of Spanish I understand. Sesame Street again. The kids played for hours, and one 4-year-old in particular crashed horizontally on nearly every play, but he never tired. Throughout our visit I never saw a fat kid, either. Can't imagine why.

Besides swimming in the Bay of Biscay, we managed a couple of activities away from the beach. San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a 10th-century hermitage built out over the sea. The monks must have carried stones to build it all the way up what now purports to be 1,000 steps (I looked it up; there are 241). It is still a pretty challenging hike without stones. The views, though, of the bay and back over to the beach, are gorgeous.

It began to rain on our last afternoon, but not before we had a chance to check out the paella festival just up the road. Fifty-three groups had gathered to cook paellas for their families and friends; then the paellas were judged. T. talked our way into a taste of the 17th-place winner, proudly prepared by teenaged girls. One of them, who spoke with us in fluent English, had spent her junior year of high school in Indiana. There was singing and dancing, accordion and tambourine. Other than homemade paella our main source of food was tapas (Basque pintxos) from a bar...eaten at a much more leisurely hour than mealtimes at home.

The evening of the fiesta was inexplicably centered on an Athletic Bilbao float (the local soccer team) featuring Jesus holding a stuffed lion. A group of people dressed as police officers sang loudly around it. At least I hope they weren't the real cops, as the most popular costume elsewhere seemed to be robbers. Whole families were dressed in silent-film-era robber costumes, holding bags with dollar signs. Someone dressed as a sheikh slugged a beer. From beginning to end of the weekend, kids as young as seven were setting off firecrackers, with seemingly no regard for safety. It was un-British chaos!

Before heading for the airport we had a couple hours in Bilbao. It was raining, so we just looked around the Guggenheim museum, which has put Bilbao on the visitors' map. The building, designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry, is arguably the main attraction; there were temporary exhibits on Jeff Koons and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The latter was put on by the Art Gallery of Ontario. It felt like stepping back to my previous life on McCaul Street.

This was, incredibly, only my second visit to Spain and my first to the mainland. I loved Mallorca, but there I was surrounded by German and English tourists, and didn't hear much Spanish (or Mallorquin). This time I felt like I'd really traveled to a different country, not just a different climate. I definitely want to return to Spain.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Of Muppets and migration

I don't know if Americans can hear it over the immigration rhetoric in the U.S., but there is something pretty disturbing going on in Europe. It's being described as the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

That's a hell of a comparison, and I use hell advisedly. There have been hundreds of gruesome deaths: men, women, and children trapped in trucks; bodies fished from the sea. But I don't want to write about that, as if appealing to Westerners' humanity is enough to make us want "migrants" moving in next door. Because come on, most of us don't. Philosophically and even personally we may be pro-immigration--I certainly am--but that doesn't mean we have an answer for the desperate crowds trying to get through the Channel Tunnel or the Budapest train station. I don't know where to put those people, and even if I did, I don't know the logistics of actually settling them, let alone where Europeans would find the political will.

One thing I do know: These people have to go somewhere. We don't feel the urgency of World War II at present, but let's remember that all those people on the move in the 1930s and '40s had to either go somewhere, or die. There wasn't a humane, "send them back" solution, and there isn't now. Syria, for one, is a land of destruction; I don't need to go into who all contributed to making it a hellhole, it just is.

Some Westerners do sense that there is no way to send people back. They say--tongue in cheek I hope--sink the boats, or just bomb the whole Middle East. I understand the despair that leads to such statements. There is no obvious place to put people, and yet they keep coming. Are they fleeing for their lives, or are they economic migrants, "just" looking for a better life for themselves and their children?

In many cases, both. And here is the hard, cold, economic fact that Westerners and especially Europeans have to face. Whoever the migrants are, and however we manage them, there is no future without immigration.

European countries, without exception, have aging and declining populations. Some of the countries you would least expect this of, such as Italy, are in fact the most aging and declining. At the same time, all these countries have racked up unsustainable debts that future generations are going to be stuck with. Older workers are expecting to retire on a shrinking tax base. Without younger workers who pay taxes, every economy in Europe is unsustainable. Where are we going to get those people?

The United States, unlike Europe, can look forward to a growing economy sustained by continuing numbers of young workers who pay taxes and contribute to paying the national debts. But the only reason for that is immigration--specifically, Latin American immigrants and their children born in the U.S.A. This doesn't tell us, of course, how immigration should be managed, what the laws should be or how they should be enforced. But it's a demographic fact. The future of the U.S. is an immigrant future. (And the past is an immigrant past, but I'm not appealing to that here.)

Europeans, by and large anti-immigrant, point out that the U.S. and Canada are huge countries with a long history of integrating immigrants. Canada, which certainly can only grow and thrive with continuous immigration, is by and large successful; you hear relatively little immigrant-bashing or the idea that such people can never be Canadian. (With the Syrian refugees, Canada, like other countries, has tragically failed.) But Europeans say it's different here. Small, crowded, not used to it, Muslims...

All good points but there is no alternative. There is no future in which the population continues to be overwhelmingly white and monolingual (English or whatever the native language of the country is). It's just not demographically sustainable.

Do I know where to put the hated "migrants" in European countries? No. I don't have an answer for the U.S. either, but I do know the future is brown and multilingual. There is no other way to sustain our populations, our economies and tax base. You don't have to be a multiculturalist or a bleeding-heart liberal to understand this. It's business sense.

Certainly, the British approach of taking in asylum seekers but then forbidding them to work is not a good approach. Forced idleness is profoundly bad even for someone with far more resources than these people have. I remember my months of no work permit in the U.K. as some of the most depressing of my life; I hated it here and felt anything but part of the country I was living in. But a person enterprising enough to leave everything behind and risk his life is likely to work hard if given a chance.

In country after country, immigrants in general pay more in taxes than they use in services, contribute to the economy more (for example, by starting more new businesses) and commit fewer crimes than native-born people do. A system that hands out benefits to idle people is not sustainable, whether those people are migrants or not. But a system that finds a way to integrate new residents and take advantage of their hard work is the future--if Europe is not to decline.

It's this no alternative that, I think, most galls a significant proportion of the population, not only in Europe but in the U.S. The future I paint is basically what those of us who grew up watching Sesame Street learned to expect. Some of the presidential candidate rhetoric makes me think there are two types of Americans: the Sesame Street and the anti-Ses.

My generation was the first to grow up believing that women could do anything (our mothers' generation made it possible). We also learned that Spanish speaking was a normal part of American life, and now we know that a man of color can be President of the United States. All this drives the anti-Ses crowd crazy. They cannot stand a multicolored, multilingual future for America, and they think Barack Obama is somehow causing it. On the contrary, he can't stop it, and neither can they.

We know that not nearly enough refugees were taken in the 1930s and '40s, because we know what happened to those left behind. Many of those who fled, such as European Jews, made massive contributions to their adopted country. What seemed at the time like just a crisis turned out to be an opportunity. I know--sounds like something an American would say! At least, the America I grew up in.

Sesame Street was not the actual world of the 1970s, but it became real because my generation of kids grew up believing it was possible. Now it has moved from the possible to the necessary. This is the future of the United States. If Europeans are wise, they'll embrace it also.