Lost in Translation: ETA

The tiny region of Basque Country in northern Spain is bilingual, meaning that almost everything here–street signs, advertisements, metro exits, menus–is written in both Spanish and Euskera (Basque). Euskera is completely unrelated to any living language, so you’d be amiss to think you could easily pick it up because of a prior foundation in Spanish.

Basque country also happens to be infamous for the terrorist organization ETA, whose main priority is promoting Basque nationalism and the separatist movement from Spain. They are currently not very active (phew!), and in fact Bilbao is an extremely safe city, but of course things get blown out of proportion and many foreigners’ first thought about this wonderful region is of violence.

In the past three weeks I’ve been wandering around every nook and cranny of Bilbao, and also trying to decipher any signs I see written in Euskera (with no luck, of course). And I’ve noticed something odd–almost EVERY sign I see, in every store and on every street, includes “eta.” I thought they had signed a peace agreement! I thought the major terrorist leaders were in jail! I had told my friends and family back home not to worry, that Basque Country was really as safe as it gets and there were no visible signs of the organization anywhere–but here signs of ETA activity seem to be popping up EVERYWHERE.

Finally, at orientation, it was all cleared up for me: uppercase “ETA” is an acronym for “Euskadi Ta Askatasuna,” meaning “Basque Homeland and Freedom”–aka violence to achieve political goals. But lowercase “eta” simply means “and” in Euskera–basically the most common word in the language. So butcher shops and supermarkets are NOT advertising their fraternization with terrorists, but rather that “chicken AND pork are on sale this week!” Sort of an unfortunate coincidence though–it’s surely freaking out many naive travelers. And they wonder why this place sees less tourists than Madrid or Barcelona….