This article was translated by John R. Bopp
Unai Aranzadi is again collaborating with our blog bringing us a look into one of the most colorful parts of Bilbao: Olabeaga, aka “Norway”, a name that seems to come from a mixture of its topology and the amount of cod that arrived from Scandinavia.
With Halvard Nilsen as the star and narrator of this story, this article helps us understand the history of this neighborhood a bit, as well as to get to know the lives of the fishermen in those freezing arctic waters, where many years ago, Basque seamen waved back to their Nordic counterparts.
A NORWEGIAN SEA DOG IN BILBAO’S NORWAY
An article by Unai Aranzadi
In the Basque city of Bilbao, the dock in Olabeaga is called “Norway”, due to its being where ships that came from that Scandinavian country would unload prodigious amounts of codfish. And even though today, all that remains of this nickname is the sign over a closed bar, today we can recall part of that which joined us to Scandinavia thanks to the visit from fisherman and seaman Halvard Nilsen, a lover of the Basque Country and perhaps the last archetypal Norwegian sea dog to set foot in our own particular Basque Norway.
Walking along the shore of the Nervión, Halvard sees himself as a professional from another time. “There are fewer and fewer of us left to remember the world of sailing and fishing the way we Basques and Norwegians always did it in the past few centuries; that is, with a harpoon, getting on boats, and salting the catch.” He was born in the Norwegian town of Tromsø, whose latitude situates its waters inside the Arctic Polar Circle. “I came into this world fifty meters from salt water. There, it was all about the sea, like in some towns on the Basque coast. My father was a fisherman, so I up and did like all my friends, and in the fifties, when I was fifteen, I joined a crew as a deckboy, or as you Basques call them, txo.” For almost half a century, Halvard switched between the merchant marine and traditional fishing and hunting. “In the merchant marine, I’ve sailed around the world several times, from Japan to South America and Africa, taking all types of cargo. For example, in the sixties, war material from the United States for the Vietnam War. And in the seventies, we were taken prisoner in the Persian Gulf for problems with the Iranian Revolution. And as for my shipping to Biscay, it was almost always metal that we took to the United Kingdom, and also a lot of scrap that we brought back to the port of Pasaia.”
Between the 17th century and the beginning of the 20th, Olabeaga was a bustling space of international commerce and boat repairs, although it was also a place where seamen just back from long journeys could turn to booze, gambling, and prostitution, which was the beginning of this globalized world we live in today. However, Halvard confesses that the last Norwegians to disembark in the Bilbao ria went to the bars and restaurants in Santurtzi and Portugalete, and not Olabeaga’s Norway. “I’m speaking in the past tense because the crews on ships is hardly Norwegian or Basque. At all. Even if the company is from home, almost all the crew members are from faraway countries like the Philippines or China, because it’s a lot cheaper for the companies to hire them.”
As happened to many families on the Basque littoral, Halvard learned to fish thanks to his father. “We’ve fished everything,” he recalls enthusiastically, “from herring to monkfish, codfish to sole.” In search of these and other species, he sailed up to Iceland and even in the ice fields of the North Pole. “I did it on several ships, but I remember some of the first, which were wooden. One day, close to Greenland, we hit the ice. It was terrible…” but he drifts off without going into details; too hardened to need to show off his daring. Another of the experiences of this intrepid arrantzale is today quite controversial: hunting seals and whales. “It was a tradition of ours. The way we did it, we maintained what is called the circle of life. I hunted seals in the Arctic for a year. They were tough trips, and very long. It wasn’t for the hell of it, it was a means of sustenance,” he recalls.
On the way to the Maritime Museum, stopping for some rabas, or breaded and fried calamari, in one of the places that helps make the atmosphere of this neighborhood great, Halvard remembers the whale steaks he used to eat as a child. “They’re nothing at all like this white color in the squid,” he says, holding one up. “Whale meat is red, and it has a much more intense flavor. Up until the seventies, it was the main protein for Norwegian families. Today, it’s completely out of the diet. They say it’s poisoned by all the chemicals in the sea,” he regrets.
Finishing our walk, Halvard reads, in his marked Norwegian accent, the word “Noruega”, on a sign which still hangs over a bar that’s been history for a while. “This must have closed a long time ago,” he states through clenched teeth. “Well, it’s normal for there to be changes,” he concludes. “Our way of life has passed. I think that, just like for many Basque fishermen and seamen, mine is perhaps the last generation of a very long tradition,” he states while gazing at the ria, unable to hide a certain nostalgia.