I met an Englishman at a cultural event in the next-door beach resort town of Biarritz, in a tent that seated 750 people. I don't normally warm to the English - it may have something to do with their arrogant national rugby team, but is more likely an inherited prejudice. England has contributed to world civilisation like no other and what would New Zealand be without them arriving as colonisers, or settlers if you prefer the euphemism. This Englishman I liked.
The event is a celebration of the Basque way of life. My new friend said that when he first got to Biarritz 13 years ago, "it felt as if I was finally at my true home". This despite the Basque people being very standoffish until they learn to trust you - and that may be never - or one of their key players introduces you. "Then you're in and it's for life," this 75-year-old told me.
He hardly goes back to England and when he does, can't wait to "come home". I'm not quite like that, patriotic and emotionally anchored that I am to the country I was born and raised in. But I did get his point. This is some place, the Basque Country.
The Basque culture is unique, full-on passionate either singing, eating or conversing. They're a united people with their own language - though the majority don't speak it - and the songs that help bind them are wonderful sung en masse.
The food. My God, the food just kept coming. I don't prefer multi-courses yet I enjoyed four of the five courses and am glad I don't eat desert. Lamb on a spit will always go down with a Kiwi, like the big lead singer with the magnificent voice did. Found myself getting nostalgic for the company of Maori again. Yet part of me well knows that this Basque event is a reflection of their history, just as Maori reflect both on their past and what modern life has made of them. There's that other social code here, of never getting drunk. Drink and be merry, absolutely. But drunk is a very bad look. No violence at any social event - zero. Like it is with the vast majority of people I know in both countries. But this does not apply to a small minority who think it's okay to get pissed, be abusive and even fight.
As was said last week, I have very fond memories of singing and drinking with my Maori relations. But I did realise I was trying to relive a past that won't ever come back, wishing that I could do this with my own people of both my ethnic sides. I know culture evolves over centuries and that it takes its own carousing course, and is often crushed by overwhelming outside forces.
Somehow, the Basque have found a way to retain their culture of at least 2000 years. All over this town are little, private cultural clubs that exist solely on the fact they are Basque.
I do think we Kiwis need a really good national anthem. Like Kapa O Pango did to the All Blacks' haka. A big, beautiful anthem like the Welsh. We need traditions that have some element of ceremony and formal ritual, yet allows joyful expression. Some of the big choral pieces, like Hebrew Slaves from Verdi's opera, Nabucco, that everyone can be fully immersed in rendering with all our hearts.
New Zealand needs more Maori and Pacific Island composers to give us something that is typically us, that we can all rally around and sing with gusto, emotion, harmony and national pride.
The Maori Battalion came home with songs picked up from Italy and sang them like Eyeties. England's Vera Lynn took Marlene Dietrich's Lili Marlene and turned it into an English classic. At rugby games here in Bayonne, song sheets are on every seat for the fans to sing traditional songs. No one sings at a rugby game in NZ. We hardly even shout.
The Basque people dance a lot, mostly rock and roll and a bit of salsa. A woman dragged me up to dance and I suffered the painful experience with a fixed, false smile. But at any excuse I'll sing because, as mentioned last week, it's what I grew up on.
Our kids and grandkids have adopted Anzac Day heart and soul. Let's give them something more joyful to express culturally, some depth, some layers. It always makes for a better people.
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