17 September 2021

Independence Through Food and Drink

From garlic oil slicked Bacalao al Pil-Pil, umami rich squid in its ink, and succulent gooseneck barnacles to blistered Gernika peppers, masterfully burnt cheesecakes, juicy steaks and tart cider, Basque cuisine and gastronomy is known globally as one of the most refined, traditional, and delicious.  These are the foods that I am fortunate enough to have burned into my memory.  They surely, however, are not the foods that I crave with a searing nostalgia in the Covid era.  The Basque foods that strike that nerve are more like double decker sandwiches containing a layer of fake crab meat mixed with mayonnaise topped with ham and cheese, room-temperature and mass-produced croquetas stuck with a toothpick to a stale piece of bread and cheap jamon serrano, or hot bacon and processed cheese sub-sandwiches wrapped in tin foil to eat while watching the Athletic Bilbao match.  Although small bites known as pintxos can be found at any bar in the Basque Country—an autonomous and ancient region of Northern Spain populated by the Basque peoples—the second-tier (or probably third-tier), truly crappy pintxos that I crave most come from the pro-independence youth bars of the region called Herriko Tabernas, or village taverns.

At Kirruli, the youth bar closest to the central highschool of Bilbao, one of the three capital cities of the Basque Country, Fridays were for Euro Caña—one euro beer night.  If it was Friday in 2013—the year that I studied abroad in the Basque Country—and if you were part of the group of radically Basque friends (colloquially known as a cuadrilla) that I found through school and my host brothers, you would be there.  On Fridays, Kirruli’s busiest day of the week, speed was of utmost importance , so the kitchen relinquished their normal selection of pintxos and instead made slices of paper thin pizza using square supermarket sheets of dough that could be bought for a euro alongside your beer.  They were delicious, cold by the time you acquired a slice and worth every cent.  Not only were beers the price of an Arizona iced tea (NICE) but both drinks contained about the same levels of carbonation—close to none.  If beer wasn’t a patron’s beverage of choice, they could opt for Kalimotxo, a mixture of equal parts Coca-Cola and red wine, palatable to only the most un-seasoned of drinkers.  For an American teen from a small town in Vermont, there was seemingly no better place on earth. 

Kirruli was not just a place for drinking and partying.  On weekdays it was a relaxing space to hangout, drink an espresso, eat a cold slice of Tortilla Española and smoke a cigarette while I read the newspaper or a book.  It was a space for young people to be themselves, socialize, organize, and speak about school, politics and the things happening around them without the fear that their parents, teachers or relatives would pass by and scrutinize their decision making.  At Kirruli and other bars like it across the Basque Country, raffles would be held to provide Christmas gifts to prisoners convicted in relation to ETA. Money was raised to pay for the bus rides of Basque families to visit their relatives in prisons across Spain and France.  Protests were organized at Kirruli and would convene there before marching and chanting down the streets.  At Kirruli there were feminists, communists, anarchists, yuppies, athletes, dealers, graffiti artists and traditional dancers all tightly packed into one arena, all getting along.

Kirruli is not a normal bar but rather a hole in the wall surrounded by a red courtyard created by high rise apartment buildings with no discernable details other than that the blinds were always drawn over the apartment windows. I often found myself imagining  how terrible it would be to live next to a place that emanates a strong stench of stale wine and hashish and echoes the yells of drunken teenagers at all hours of the day.  Then, blissfully unaware of the thoughts I had about the neighbors of the bar, I would go back to spilling my drink, sharing a hash-filled cigarette, and yelling about a card game that I was losing. 

The interior of the bar was tiny. To the right, after entering the space, there was a small space to line up for drinks before the fifteen to twenty foot bar.  Only a few feet to the left, there was a steep set of stairs—which were often fallen down by unassuming or overly-inebriated patrons—which led to the kitchen, bathrooms, and a communal space which could be rented out by regulars for dinner parties. The men’s bathroom door was broken and anything that went on inside would be on full display to any passerby going to wash their hands.  

The walls of the bar were covered in the paintings of the faces of current and former members of ETA who were killed or imprisoned in their violent struggle against the Spanish state..  The young and forgetful are the quickest to make martyrs out of those who contributed to the darkest days of the Basque Country.  At the time, the images helped fulfill the sense of angst that I craved so strongly during my teens.  Kirruli told me that I could break out of my shell, question what I knew as an American, and who I would become as a young man.  Years later, however, I have come to question Kirruli’s message despite my desire to return to the bar.

Kirruli is a special place that asks for the freedom of its citizens and provides a space for young people to freely express themselves during a time in their lives when they are often being told what to do.  In their mission to fight for national independence, they help young people, including myself, find their own form of independence.  Through food, drink and a judgment free social environment, they have created a space for young people to flourish.  My friends who worked at Kirruli have gone on to become doctors, lawyers and labor advocates.  When the bar closes and pulls down the metal sliding door over the entrance, the word LIBRE is painted across the facade.  Successfully achieving their motto, freedom is what Kirruli provides to its patrons.  Though the community is strong and is what defines Kirruli, it is the affordable and approachable food and drinks that make the whole thing possible.

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