Surfing the Basque Country

While protesters rallied in the rain for the release of Basque prisoners (see post), hundreds of surfers gathered down the coast for the annual ZarautzPro. The six-star ASP professional surfing event drew surfers from around the world for the competition, momentarily infusing an international mix of visitors into the sleepy beach town.

My friend Griffin and I drove to Zarautz to check it out. After writing my last post about the Basque/Spain conflict, I was looking for fresh air and something positive to write about. We drove through the deep valleys between San Sebastian and Zarautz, I thought about how this inaccessible geography helped preserve Basque traditions through isolation from Spain and France. And as we came through a tunnel and approached the sea, I remembered how generations of Basques pushed off shore in the ships that would discover the new world and bring it home through trade. Throughout history, Basques have played this balance between isolation and engagement, preservation of tradition and assimilation of foreign ideas, concepts, and – in the case of surfing – cultures.

It was just up the coast in the French Basque town of Biarritz where surfing made it’s European debut in the 60s. But before then, Basque life centered around the sea. They were some of Europe’s early fishermen and evolved into the best sailors and shipbuilders in the Spanish empire. Their water sports include rowing, a sport that developed as early whalers in small row boats would race to port to get the best price for their catch at the market. As our car pulled into Zarautz, I noticed that the town’s coat of arms bears a castle, a lion, and a whale – remnants of this earlier identity.

Today, the image of whales is gone and the beachfront is covered in the logos of surf brands from California, Australia and Europe. The old whaling port sits idly on the east side of the mile-long beach, and now serves as a convenient spot to jump directly into lineup of the best break in town. Many of the local kids, who I imagine once would have been fisherman plying the Cantabrian Coast and the northern waters beyond, now move horizontally along the coast from break to break, traveling from Portugal to France to find the best waves on the lowest budget.

As we got out of the car and walked to the beach, I marveled at the juxtaposition of Basque culture and surfing culture. The former is rooted in geography, shared history and an identity inherited from the traditions of one’s forefathers. The latter culture knows no boundaries, is based on shared interest, and focuses not on your family history, but on what you are doing in the present moment. Admittedly,false surfing identity can be purchased through clothing and stickers (i.e. a “poser”), but the truest surfers earn their identity through talent and achievement. They are two tribes, but of a totally different nature.

Perhaps traditionalists could view surfing as a cultural invasion from abroad, but the two cultures are not entirely exclusive. Despite the Basque reverence for tradition, they have accepted the new sport readily. Their historic love for the sea has swapped the whaling spear for the surfboard and integrated the sport into the local culture. The municipal government sponsored the surfing event, and much of the town’s economy depends on foreigners coming here for their waves. The popularity of surfing has spurred a number of local surf brands who sell shirts saying “Surfing the Basque Country.” Surfing provides another common identity that further unites Basques from Spanish Bilbao to French Biarritz.

I watched people from all over the world coming together to enjoy the sport. The M.C. announced surfer’s scores in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. But no commentary was necessary to appreciate the surfing. The shared sport was the common language.

Then I thought back to the activists from the other day. For them, redefining borders and defending territory is paramount. So much of who they are comes from where they are from, and I appreciate that as an essential part of identity in a world that is becoming more homogenized every year.  But for surfers, national borders are more of a hassle that stand between you and the waves up the coast.

It’s not to say that surfing is going to bring the world peace and love and harmony. It has its shortcomings. I grew up in La Jolla, California, whose surfing culture criticized for it’s localism by Tom Wolfe in The Pumphouse Gang. I remember seeing local surfers picking fights with kids from another part of the same city, simply because they came from 10 miles inland. Close mindedness exists within every identity on the planet.

But more often, surfing transcends all that. Sure, some surfers fight over waves and terrorize tourists. But on the whole it’s a new, international culture that any of us can take part in. In a world of division, it’s one more common culture we can share. And for all the talk of unity between Basques in Spain and France, I’d bet that those who spend the most time across the border aren’t the activists.  They’re the surfers.

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