2000s Archive

Surfin' Safari

Originally Published May 2002
It's never too late to learn something new. Or at least that's what Michael Lewis thought when he set out to conquer the waves of northern Spain.

A light rain was falling by the time we arrived in Zarautz, on the northern coast of Spain. My wife and I walked down the wet, empty boardwalk to the Pukas Surf School. Propped against one wall was a row of surfboards; against another, racks of slick, black wet suits. Behind the counter stood a young woman with a sweet, shy smile. I smiled. She smiled back. I approached her and her smile turned frantic, in the manner—instantly recognizable to any American who has traveled in Europe—of a young woman who senses that an American is about to ask her if she speaks English. But there was no getting around it. We'd come to Zarautz for one reason: to learn to surf. An American friend had claimed that this Basque village was the best place on earth to do this. The language, he'd said, was no barrier. Everyone spoke some English. But they didn't, of course. They never do.

For some reason I've never understood, my wife believes that when we land in an awkward linguistic situation, I am responsible for getting us out.

"Do you speak English?" I asked the smiling young woman.

The girl giggled unhappily and shook her head.

"Surfing lessons?" I asked.

Again, she shook her head. The only preparation I'd made for this moment had been to practice the local speech impediment of pronouncing "s" as "th." This had proved useful just a few hours earlier, when I'd asked directions at the rental-car counter in the San Sebastián train station. No Spaniard knows what you're talking about when you ask the directions to "Zarautz," but if you ask where to find "Thaa Wowtz," they point the way.

"Thurfing lethons," I said.

"The teacher is out there with a group," said a voice behind me. The woman in the doorway motioned to the distant surf. Behind a curtain of rain, seven people clung frantically, and improbably, to giant training surfboards as the waves pounded them. Out in front of the helpless group, oblivious to their plight, a lone dark figure danced on top of a wave.

"That's him," she said.

I squinted. The man's absorption in his own admittedly dashing performance belied his responsibility for the group of people drowning behind him.

Moments later, the surfing instructor marched into the shop. Dripping seawater, he ignored me and kissed my wife, twice. But when he looked deeply into her eyes, he discovered that they were looking in horror at me. He turned to me as if I had just materialized, stuck out his hand, and offered what I took to be his name: "Who Dee Who."

"Who Dee Who," I said. "I'm Michael. I'm here to learn how to surf."

He looked me up and down and said, "Yes, English. Me Tarzan, you Jane." Then he said something in Basque that made the Basque women giggle, and then he left.

"What did he say?" I asked the English-speaking woman.

"He said he thinks it will end badly for you, but that he'll meet you here tomorrow morning." Pause. "And his name is Who Len." (Spelled "Julen." Pronounced, somehow, "Who Dee Who.")

We'd found a room on the beach in a hotel called the Karlos Arguiñano. The Karlos Arguiñano wasn't in any of the guidebooks to Zarautz because there aren't any guidebooks to Zarautz. Apparently, there's nothing about Zarautz that provokes a question or demands an explanation. San Sebastián is 20 minutes down the road in one direction, Bilbao 60 minutes in the other. Zarautz itself has as close to zero cultural and historical interest as it is possible for a charming European village to have.

We woke up that first morning, as we did the following six, and threw open the door to our terrace to find that the hotel staff had laid out hot breads and cold fruit and fresh-squeezed juices and strong coffee on a crisp white tablecloth. The sun rose in the sky, and joy rose in our hearts. It was mid-July, but, aside from a few elegantly dressed old locals out for their dawn stroll, the beach was empty. It was, it appeared, all ours.

Then came the rain. It began reluctantly but quickly gained enthusiasm. An hour later, when we reached the surf school, we were leaning into a storm.

But that was nothing to our surfing instructor, who was already waiting outside with a stack of giant training surfboards. Together with the rest of the class—two 15-year-old Dutch kids who had also been told that Zarautz was the best place on earth to learn how to surf—I stuffed my body into a wet suit and made for the beach. There, our giant blue and yellow surfboards lay waiting. Julen assumed the position before us of a general addressing new recruits. With elaborate hand signals he explained that the absence of a common language was unimportant. We had only to imitate him. He then demonstrated what appeared to be the single maneuver every surfer needs to know: the quick leap from the belly to the feet the moment the wave hits. One foot flies out to the front of the board and bears the weight while the other stays in the middle for balance. This took about four seconds to learn.

"Now we go," said Julen.

As we paddled side by side toward the distant breakers, Julen gave up trying to communicate with sign language and announced that he would try English—the only language we all shared a bit of.

"When you are ..." he began, and then made a paddling motion.

"Paddling into the wave?" I said.

Subscribe to Gourmet