Monthly Archives: March 2010

Jess Soodeen: ‘I grew up hearing all about Basques’

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ear_plugI first met Jess Soodeen in Azkoitia’s noisy(-est) bar Dean one night, where she’s become a regular face. Shouting into her ear, I wanted to know what brought her to a small town like Azkoitia. (Answer: a one-year Masters in Motorsport Engineering with local race car team, Epsilon Euskadi). My second question was, what on earth was keeping her here: “I love it!” she declared. And it wasn’t the drink talking – she’d just come off stage after gigging in the town’s main square with local veteran group Dirección Obligatoria.

For those who don’t know, Azkoitia is a Basque town of around 10,000 inhabitants situated within the Urola Valley near the heart of Gipuzkoa. By their own admission Basques take a while opening up to outsiders and in few places is this more evident than in Azkoitia.

But Jess is unphased: “I walk down the street and people say hello to me,” she says cheerily.

Aside from her integration into Dirección Obligatoria, Jess confesses to having three ‘cuadrillas’ (notoriously tight-knit friendship groups, typical in the Basque Country) and since her time spent in Azkoitia learning Spanish, has also managed a fair amount of ‘Azkoitiarra’ (a local dialect of the Basque language Euskera).

It is perhaps no coincidence that most Basque Country Live interviewees commonly share a culturally diverse background, and Jess is no exception,  starting with her surname: ‘Basically, a few centuries back a man who they named Soodeen jumped on a boat in Calcutta bound for Trinidad,’ she explains. At another time and place, meanwhile, a man named O’Leary (an ancestor of her mother) made a similar journey to the island the Irish called Talamh an Éisc, “land of the fish”, or Newfoundland, a large land mass off the east coast of Canada with strong historic ties to the Basque Country, based on whaling and cod fishing: “When I found out about the course in the Basque Country I said ‘I’m going there’; I grew up hearing about the Basques.”

And so to Euskadi…

Jess jumped on a plane bound for Valencia armed barely with a word of Spanish. But then, with a career spent both working and racing on the motortrack, she has had to be ballsy. It is an environment that requires tough decisions and quick thinking: “As a woman in the field, you have to earn respect and the fact that I’m not only a motorcycle racer, but also the mechanic of my own bike… these things work in my favour”.

Jess’s interest in motors goes back to 1999 when a group of mates “rigged it” for her to win bike lessons. She started r5racing in 2003 and by 2004 was only riding circuits. In 2005 she bought a Yamaha TZ 125 GP bike all the way from New Zealand and began tinkering. A degree in mechanical and a masters in motorsports engineering is, says Jess, “fine and dandy,” but it was hands on recognition that she needed, which is why she rebuilt her own motor: “I bought the bike to learn mechanics and this way gain respect for my ambitions as a circuit engineer”.  So why the switch to cars? “When I found the course in the Basque Country I realised that having education in cars as well would benefit my motorsports career in general in Europe.”

Not that that was the only factor that drew her our way: “I was fascinated by the Basque Country because of its history with Newfoundland,” says Jess. “I researched Azkoitia before I came; I had a picture of the indoor market on my computer screen for six months before I got here.

“Between the ages of 9 and 10 I lived in Libya. The rest of the time I lived in Calgary (a city of just over a million inhabitants) but all my summers were spent in Newfoundland.” Though essentially a city girl, Jess confesses to being something of a provincial soul. Something to do with all those long summers?

“Absolutely. The largest town in Newfoundland (capital San Juan de Terranova) has 100,000 inhabitants. That’s about the size of Vitoria.” To give  you an idea of the depth of the history between Euskadi and Newfoundland, thirteen of the Canadian island ports have Basque names, including Baya Ederra (Beautiful Bay) Port aux Basques and Balea Baya ,Whale Bay. (Basque whalers were recently cleared of having caused the extinction of the species off Newfoundland’s famous Labrador Bay).

Future prospects

With all these things in mind, you get the sense that Jess has discovered her spiritual home, the addition of Epsilon Euskadi (recently moved to Vitoria-Gasteiz), satisfying another important part of her ambition – working in motorsports – a dream she’s close to fulfilling:

“After completing my masters in 2008 I stayed one year more as an internship student doing race engineering with Epsilon Euskadi. Then they offered me a contract to start work this year. On 23rd December I found out they couldn’t give me the job.” (Current Government policy is to give preference to home-grown candidates where possible).

“Obviously because of the current employment situation I understand why they did it, but it was a massive blow.”

Despite this setback, she remains positive and intensely fond of her adopted hometown. On the job front, things are looking up as well: “With the contacts that I managed to make during my time spent at the circuits I have managed to find some contract work with another team based in Switzerland, racing in German, French, and Italian circuits. It’s still not full time work, but my dream of a house in the mountains and only working in circuits is on its way.”

Bilbao 2.0

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After my Erasmus adventure last year, I knew I would someday go back to the Basque Country. The climate, the people, the food, the culture, the cities, the beach, … too many reasons not to come back. A training period at EiTB was the ideal solution to explore Euskal Herria some more.

Koen and I said Gipuzkoa goodbye and moved up north to the inner city of Bilbao (Bizkaia) in the Abando district. An opportunity to live the city life style to the fullest, while we are not restricted by long distances and bus lines (our last stay was in Bergara, approx. 50 km from Bilbao). Bilbao itself has enough to offer, as we knew already.

Tastebuds

Our apartment lies in Indautxu, one of the two neighbourhoods of Abando. It is ideally situated in the heart of the city with everything within walking distance.

Abando by night © Wiki

Abando by night © Wiki

Culturally and gastronomically this is going to be a welcome break from the everyday life back home. My first bite in a pintxo yesterday was a delight for my tastebuds. Don’t get me wrong, Belgium has some great dishes, especially in winter, but the Basques simply take cooking food to another level.

Last time my cultural visits in Bilbao were limited to the unavoidable Guggenheim. This time I’m going look for some alternatives like the Museum of Fine Arts (with a great permanent collection)  or the beautiful Teatro Arriaga. A music concert (Santana 27, Kafé Antzokia) here and there would be nice as well.

The inside of Teatro Arriaga © Astenagusia

The inside of Teatro Arriaga © Astenagusia

¿Que?

My Spanish language skills upgraded from ‘terrible’ to ‘understandable’ which eases social converse and brings with it the opportunity to connect a bit more with locals. But I have still a very long way to go until I can master the language.

Of course the climate is a positive change as well. Although there’s only a small difference of 5°C in comparison to Belgium you notice an immediate shift when you get of the plane. Not exactly Meditarianian but good enough for me.

We’ll see what this city has in store for me…

See you next time!

Agur!

Bilbao: part 2

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After a short period back home in Belgium, it was about time to come back. Bilbao: the sequel.

After a while you take a number of the things for granted, but when it is no longer there, you start to miss it. It sounds so cliché, but unfortunately it’s the bitter truth. It’s really weird to notice how fast some other culture can grow on you.

Memories

Walking into a bar and see delicious food on the counter, cheap wine, enthusiastic and talkative people, and of course the landscape.  Large mountains, a beautiful seaside and stunning beaches. Hiking or surfing? Knock yourself out!

The famous Guggenheim © spanish-podcast.com

The famous Guggenheim © spanish-podcast.com

The landscape is one, but it’s sure not the only thing that the Basque Country has to offer. Does Bilbao with the famous Guggenheim ring any bell? And the authentic Casco Viejo that stands in a huge contrast with the more modern centre of the town.

And what about Donostia – San Sebastían with more Michelin stars per capita than any other city in the entire world.

What is there not to like about Euskal Herria. Okay, it might rain occasionally, but hey, there is an umbrella shop around every single corner.

Returning

But enough with all the positive adjectives. I’m really struggling to come up with some new and unused ones, so let’s continue.

As the loyal readers might know, as an Erasmus student I already spend the first trimester in a small town called Bergara (Guipúzcoa). But now, as I am a couple of months older and wiser, it was time to move up north to Bilbao (Indautxu) and discover the big city in all its facets. Updates of that will probably follow in the upcoming months.

‘But why coming back?’, I hear you all simultaneously think. I was hoping to entertain you with a nice, long and funny story but unfortunately the truth is less exciting.

As I am in my final year of university college, it is obligated to  do a three month long internship at a media company. During my Erasmus period I already worked on a weekly basis at EITB and all of a sudden the opportunity came up to do the real internship there too. One and one makes two and now, two months after date Michael and myself returned to the Basque Country.