From Belfast to Pamplona…

Brian had said previously that he’d be interested in a blog about some of the contrasts between my home city and adopted city and I’ve finally gotten around to it so here goes with the stream of consciousness.

As I’ve alluded to here a few times, my wife is Basque. We lived in West Belfast for seventeen years, spending every summer of those seventeen years here before finally deciding to come here to live full time several years ago and while this blog is essentially a piece on cultural contrasts it being the Basque Country, much like Ireland, an element of history and politics is essential in setting context

‘Spain’ as we know it today is a de facto federation of seventeen autonomous comunidades with a constitutional monarchy under a centralised bi-camaral government in Madrid. In addition to the seventeen communities in European Spain there are also two autonomous ‘Spanish’ provinces, Ceuta and Melilla, in North Africa. The ‘unification’ of Spain was initiated by the Catholic monarchs Queen Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon, culminating in the eventual conquest of Navarra by their grandson Charles the 5th in 1524.

The seventeen communities within the state have various levels of autonomy, linguistic differences and independence movements with perhaps the most well known being Catalonia, (Catalunya) and the Basque Country, (Euskadi/ Euskal Herria) which also happen to be two of its most affulent regions. The policing of the state is undertaken by four forces, the policia nacional (the Spanish national police) headdquarted in Madrid, the Guardia Civil (the paramilitary Civil Guard under the control of the Ministery of Defence), the various regional police forces, Ertzaintza in the Basque Country, Policia Foral in Navarra, Mossos d’Esquadra in Catalonia, with the Policía Municipal uner the command of the various city and town halls within the entire state. Some of the forces have a distinct remit while others have an overlapping role.

The state was a dictatorship from 1939 until 1975 eventually transitioning to ‘democracy’ in 78 when a new Constitution was enacted giving the communities differing levels of autonomy. Under the dictatorship any expressions of regional identity were brutally suppressed and public use of any language other that Spanish was completely banned.

I live in Pamplona, (Iruña in Basque), the provincial capital of Navarra (Nafarroa), a mdium sized city with a population of around 240,000. Navarra is in a pretty unique position within the state as while the 78 Constiution defines Euskadi as the three provinces of Gipuzcoa, Vizcaya and Alava it gives a separate autonomous measure to Navarra and Basques consider Iruña to be the capital of their ancient homeland of Euskal Herria, (the four provinces of Gipuzcoa, Vizcaya, Alava and Navarra currently within the Spanish state and the three provinces of Iparralde, (the northern Basque Country), Behe Nafarroa, Lapurdi  and Zuberoa currently within the French state). The Basques have an expression in Euskera, Zazpiak Bat – seven is one.

The constitutional versus the historical, confused yet?

Pamplona is a great city to live in, modern and antique, traditional and open minded. Having a cold beer in Pamplona old town on a blazing summer day is truly one of life’s delights. It’s a city of contrasts where conservative Spanish nationalists, fervent Basque abertzaleak, a sizeable portion of South American, eastern European and African immigrants and everything in between live pretty harmoniously and respectfully, (this is demonstarted in a personal capacity with two of my good friends being a former Royal Marine, (and Irish nationalist!) and a former Argyll and Sutherland Highlander). At the moment we have a Spanish Socialist Workers Party President of the Navarran Government and a Basque EH Bildu Mayor of Pamplona and for as far as I can remember all official business has been conducted in both Euskera and Spanish.

However, the main reason for us coming to live here apart from my wife’s homesickness was the kids. Pamplona is an exceptionally safe city with little of the drunken deliquency that we can see back home and my children have flourished here, (one example of this being our second girl being streamed into the vocational stream in second year in secondary school completing both her undergrad and Masters degrees). Education is encouraged here and university tuition fees in public universities run at about 2-3,000 Euros anually.

Of course, Belfast will always be my home city and while I have a love/hate relationship with her there are always thinns I will miss, the genuine warmth and friendliness of the people, the dark graveyard humour, the food! (sometimes) and Good Guinness and an authentic pub culture.

If any of you ever find yourselves in my neck of the woods I’d be happy to grab a beer and show you around.

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