Sunday, 30 November 2008

lang may yer lum reek

Being St Andrew's Day I felt I had to add a Scottish touch... We were unfortunately correct with our weather prediction. The snow has completely covered La Rhune, but that means that it's raining hard here given our proximity to the beach.

Continuing the Scottish theme I have been pleasantly surprised at the response we get here when I disclose my nationality. The locals seem to be very happy to share in discussing recent defeats of England at rugby! Both of us appear to be fiercely patriotic of our heritage, a good thing. There seem to be lots of other common themes too.

As mentioned we share a love for the oval ball. Both have a variety of other more 'minority' sports that are particular to the regions. Scotland has caber tossing, hammer and sheaf tossing and the stone putt. The Basques have wood chopping, stone lifting, bale tossing and anvil lifting. However Pays Basque also lays claim to Pilota, or Cesta Punta, a wonderful sport. Two teams of two players with large baskets attached to their arm catch and throw a heavy ball at a wall at the end of a large rectangular court. It is a little like squash meets lacrosse meets Deathrace 2000.

Both also have their own language. The Scots have Gaelic, a little spoken tongue partaken in by around 2% of the population. The Basques have Basque which is spoken by over 30% of the people. It is startling that it is still so widely spoken given the harsh attempts by various regimes over the last 100 years to kill off all things Euskadi. At church this morning the service was given in a mix of French and Basque and I can proudly say I managed to sing in both (badly!).

We ended today sipping Ricard at a local bar, Bar Suisse, in the main square of St Jean de Luz, a lovely way to end the weekend. As has so often been the case down here we were made very welcome and enjoyed a myriad of conversations with various locals. I was even given a large tumbler of Macallan to toast St Andrew, slàinte mhòr agad!

Basque of the day:- welcome :: ongi etorri

Saturday, 29 November 2008

tapas and tailwinds

We are taking a wager. For the third Saturday it is beautifully sunny and mild but there is a howling gale threatening to rouse itself. On previous such occasions it was followed by several days of rain, we shall wait and see but the ten day forecast is not hot, sorry Mum (ma mère et père me rendent visite cette semaine)...

We took advantage of the weather and headed off into the Pyrenees for a bit of walking. The view back towards the coast is wonderful, though our fitness levels are not! We scaled halfway up La Rhune but determined to finish the walk another day. The reason was twofold. Firstly we had been told that hefty blizzards were on their way and we could see clouds streaming across the mountain tops. Secondly we figured it was a more fun option to drive on to Pamplona for tapas and sangria. A no-brainer really!

Pamplona is a wonderful city. As capital of the Navarre region in Spain it is heavily steeped in history from general Pompey's camp site in 75BC, the destruction of the city walls by Charlemagne in 778AD, Napoleonic occupation in 1808 to the omni-present festival of San Fermin - more commonly known as the Bull Run - which has continued to grow in appeal since the C13th. Navarre is the primary Basque region in Spain.

It is odd criss-crossing the French-Spanish border because it is far less noticeable than crossing from Gascony to Pays Basque or Aragon to Navarre. The architecture is similar, there is a common beauty in the appearance of the people, the landscapes remain stunning and there is an inextricable bond in the Basque language. We are looking forward to exploring this further.

Word has it that I have volunteered to run the bulls next year so this blog may get cut short in July...

Basque of the day:- hello :: agur

Friday, 28 November 2008

changing seasons

Although the weather today is much the same as yesterday something in the air has changed. All of a sudden the Christmas spirit that robustly raised its head in the UK some months ago has finally started to flow through the streets of St Jean de Luz. The myriad of wee shops (mostly independents) are starting to dress their windows and the streets are a hive of activity as shopkeepers carry conifer branches, ribbons and baubles to and fro. The decorations are subtle, tasteful and unmistakingly French.

Dramatically, the last of the plane trees have been shorn of their branches. It's rather sad to see as it removes the last bastion of greenery from the centre of town. We now have to put up with living amidst the wonderful Basque architecture sans nature, c'est la vie. I still have no idea when the Christmas lights get turned on...

Given it's Friday we followed local custom and bought our first whole fish from the market today, a daurade (sea-bream). A new challenge awaits in the kitchen this evening.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

seal clubs and globetrotting

A stunningly crisp and even day. Looking across to the mountains from the headland it was clear that the snow had been busy at work overnight. However, today the winds ceased and the sun was exceedingly generous. Whilst out walking along the coastal path (it runs some 30km from Spain up to Biarritz) I noticed that there were lots of fishing boats out. Reflecting the traditional Basque colours, the boats are either deep red or dark green, and set against the contrasting blues of ocean and sky it made a beautiful scene.
Fishing and sailing have long been part of Basque heritage. As early as the C16th there is record of Basque crews sealing and whaling in the North Sea and even Newfoundland where hangers-on can still be found. The rudder seems to have been invented in the Basque region too, certainly the European version, as there are frescoes and seals dating back to the C12th that depict three masted ships. It is also said that the early terminology referred to steering by rudder as “a la Bayonnaise”. When the Portuguese explorer Magellan set off to explore the world in the early C15th his crew was Basque. Given that the crew returned his vessel to the Basque country after the captain died in the Philippines it can be said that the Basque people were the first to circumnavigate the earth.
These days St Jean de Luz is still a very active fishing port focused on crevettes, anchovies, sardines and tuna. All caught and sold daily in the market, and all delicious!

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

snow and wicca

Icy cold day today. La Rhune was snow-capped for the first time that we've seen, very pretty too. The mountain looms ever present, residing over St Jean de Luz. The maps say it is almost 1000m high, making it the same height as Scafell Pike, almost as high as Snowdon and a definite Munro. Although it rises from sea-level at the western end of the Pyrenees it never actually looks that high.

They say that the name translates in Basque as 'good pastures' and it is with Basque culture that La Rhune (or Larrun in Basque) is held in highest esteem. Many myths and legends surround the mountain. Until the late C18th locals paid a monk to dwell on the mountain full time in order to ward off the hoards of witches it was believed lived atop the mountain. So prolific were witches in these parts that the Spanish Inquisition undertook its most ambitious witch trials in the C17th just over the border in Navarre. Goya's 'Le Sabbat de Sorcieres' depicts wicca in practice.

I haven't seen any witches yet but will let you know if I do.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

smoke on the water

It's not just a groovy Deep Purple guitar riff, it really does exist! Out running early this morning between storm barrages we spotted what looked like steam coming off the sea where it had been smashing into the digues. Am guessing that the air temperature was significantly colder than the sea - does anyone understand why it happens??

Found a fab new wee place for lunch, Txantxangorri, three lovely courses plus coffee for EUR11.50, being a Scot I appreciated the price. The place was crammed full of lunching locals sheltering from the winds in platefuls of deliciously warm fodder! The storm came in again this aternoon so we spent the remains of the day largely indoors.
My dear friend Grant suggested that it was about time I paid homage to the Citreon DS, an outstanding bastion of French engineering and style. Marketed as an executive car it sold over 20 million units between 1955-75 and came third in the car of the century competition. Very cool too!

Monday, 24 November 2008

veering southwest 8 or 9, thundery showers, moderate becoming poor

The storm became ever more impressive as the night drew on: thunder, lightening, hail-stones, gales. It even made the shipping forecast. Biscay is one of the southernmost regions covered by the BBC Radio 4 shipping forecast, and often one of the stormiest. Today was a 'severe gale force 9 veering northeasterly' and it felt it. The shipping forecast soothes the air waves four times a day and the 0048 rendition has to be one of my favourite cures for insomnia. It follows a full-length rendition of Ronald Binge's 1963 classic, 'Sailing By'.

Both the forecast and tune have had a suprising impact on popular culture from song lyrics by Blur, Radiohead and The Prodigy to inumerable comedy sketches. Stephen Fry produced one of the funniest:

"And now, before the news and weather, here is the Shipping Forecast issued by the Meteorological Office at 1400 hours Greenwich Mean Time.
Finisterre, Dogger, Rockall, Bailey: no.
Wednesday, variable, imminent, super.
South Utsire, North Utsire, Sheer Ness, Foulness, Elliot Ness:
If you will, often, eminent, 447, 22 yards, touchdown, stupidly.
Malin, Hebrides, Shetland, Jersey, Fair Isle, Turtle-Neck, Tank Top, Courtelle:
Blowy, quite misty, sea sickness. Not many fish around, come home, veering suggestively.
That was the Shipping Forecast for 1700 hours, Wednesday the 18th of August, 1988."

Sunday, 23 November 2008

stormy Sunday classics

A thunderously stormy night continued throughout the day, quite spectacular at times. We endured a run in torrential rain this morning and must get some brownie points for that. The break coming in off the Atlantic was exceptional and sounded terrific. I finally beat the forementioned boy to the boulangerie and managed to buy some deliciously fresh chocolatines, I ate three 'sans culpabilité'.

Attending church was especially lovely today thanks in large to the historic suffering of Saint Cecilia (see yesterday's entry). A full orchestra and choir treated us to a selection of lovely music from Haydn to Prokofiev. I thought that the financial crisis had hit a new high (or low) after reading the church circular. An article caught my eye asking parisioners to help support what I thought to be a local bank, I was outraged. Turns out it was a 'banque' of charitable donations, cakes, clothes and the such, that are being sold as part of a 'braderie', the French equivalent of a jumble sale. Am rather glad I didn't take that one up with Cyril, my bank manager.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

feast day of St Cecilia

Today is the feast day of Saint Cecilia, patron saint of great musicians, poets and church music. Excited though we were by the prospect of a C15th banquet we had to settle for a fine rendition of 'Hymn to St Cecilia, Op27' by Britten and a finger buffet of roast palombe and peppers. Not a bad compromise. Throughout France, villages celebrate with music, bonfires and fireworks (any excuse for a party).
Saint Cecilia is celebrated throughout the Catholic world as a friend to all. She didn't have a friendly end though. Story has it that after her capture by the prefect Turcius Almachius (great name) she was locked in an overheated sweat-house. This didn't work so it was ordered she be beheaded. After three attempts the executioner ran away. She survived a further three days before her martyrdom commenced - nice.
Once again the rain was unrelenting. Incoming reports show far colder weather on higher ground. Further inland, beyond La Rhune in the Pyrenees Atlantiques some of the ski stations opened their slopes today. There are some 37 ski stations in the French Pyrenees and we are looking forward to exploring them in the coming weeks for some pre-Christmas skiing.
We cooked up a fabulous Rick Stein recipe for prawn linguine this evening. Though we are still not being overly adventurous with the local seafood catches we have become a dab hand at peeling prawns!

Friday, 21 November 2008

le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrive!

On the third Thursday of November each year French law dictates that the latest crop of Beaujolais can be distributed. Starting at one minute past midnight over a million cases of the red stuff make their way from the many vineyards to market places globally. So much importance is placed on this by wine connessieurs from New York to New Delhi that bottles are transported by car, motorbike, boat and plane in a race by bars, cafes and restaurants to be the first to serve the new crop. Beaujolais Nouveau day started as a local event but has been blown open as wine is ever more enjoyed globally. By the time this event, which lasts several days, is over almost half the harvested stock has been consumed.

We visited the market early today to stock up on crevettes, fruit and vegetables. I even braved returning to the previously mentioned butcher for some meats. Given that the rain has been unrelenting we determined to spend the remains of the day exploring the more liquid aspects of this most sacred of French days - sante!

Thursday, 20 November 2008

pia pia piano

Today we were assured that our piano would finally turn up (two months after the rest of our furniture). We had spoken extensively with the moving company, letting them know that at least four men would be needed to get it up the four flights of stairs and internal balconies leading to our apartment. When we first moved in a 'monte-meuble' was erected. It's a long ladder reaching from street level to the balcony on which a lift ascended precariously carrying our furniture. It was deemed not to be robust enough to transport the piano. We were sceptical at the time since this surmation had arisen as the rain started.

Around 1730 three chaps turned up. Clearly unbriefed they spent a good 20 minutes partaking in that past-time at which removal men everywhere excel: humphing, huffing and grumping. "C'est impossible!" was their suggestion. After a further hour of discussion, phone calls and general ambivalence little had happened. The piano remained snugly stored in their van. The big boss called. The chaps stood to attention as Maria gave him a piece of her mind. I was most impressed by her debating skills in French, however, the piano remained in the van. They suggested that we store the piano in either the wine cellar or garage, it didn't fall on eager ears. Around 1900 the men shrugged their shoulders and left to drive back to the depot. The piano remains in their van, but at least we have an assurance that it will arrive soon.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

commercial savvy

Well it is nearing the end of November. Although the main Christmas lights have been strung up along the main drag not one has been switched on. Neither are any of the shops showing the faintest signs of tinsel, Santa or Chris Cringle. No early Christmas trees, mechanised carol singing or bloody elves. It is so refreshing being able to enjoy November without having more than one eye emblazened on late December.

However, while this less commercial approach is invigorating, possibly even innovative these days, there is a more frustrating side. Lunch. Although it is respectful that lunch is sacred amongst retail outlets, it is also undentingly rigid. We recently sought to buy ski wear in advance of exploring the many Pyrenees ski stations. By 1220 we had most of the items we wanted less goggles and gloves. On asking for assistance we were informed that they couldn't help until after lunch. Could we leave our trolley till then? No, buy now or come back at 1500 and start over. We still need ski wear. Which brings me to today, in a round about way...

Our friend Pascale suggested we visit Bayonne to taste what she believes to be the ultimate hot chocolate. We arrived in time for lunch, and yup, it was closed. A retail outlet that offers food and drink but closes over lunch - brilliant. Bayonne was wonderful but I was in a grump so no photos today.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

happy banks and innuendos

I haven't seen the peak of La Rhune all day today, and it has rained a fair bit too...

We had a meeting with our bank manager this morning. As with most people I was slightly trepidous beforehand for no rational reason other than it's a bank. On arrival we buzzed the security buzzer (you can't just walk into most branches down here) and the wee receptionist smiled at us through the window before clicking the door open and bidding we enter. We entered and were greeted by Cyril our bank manager, undoubtedly the finest and smartest branch manager on the planet. Behind him stood the entire branch staff, all six of them, and he introduced us to each individually as we shook their hand. It was all very formal and made me feel a little silly with my £1.25 savings account.

Following the introductions he bid we enter his office, more of a boardroom given that space is hardly a premium in these parts. Accompanying him was his deputy Frederic and a young lady wearing an exceptionally short skirt called Sandrine. It transpired that her primary function was to sit next to me, take notes and show an indecent amount of thigh. I like to think that I support sexual equality so struggled a little then remembered where I was and that I should act accordingly. Thereafter her presence was a pleasure.

We conducted our affairs with all three proving an uncanny knowledge of global banking procedures and investments (£1.25 can go a long way if you are patient). The meeting lasted over an hour and it was Maria and I that had to bring it to an end, we were parched. As we have found common in French business meetings, even those that last some time, no offer of water was made. We thanked Cyril et al who had not only helped us enormously but also made us feel exceptionally happy, something no other bank has ever managed to do. As we were leaving Sandrine sidled up to me: "Monsieur Walker, I vill contact you if I 'av any action for you". Bemused but excited by this proposition I was quickly brought to earth by Maria who explained that 'action' was another term for investment opportunity. Hey ho, you live and learn.

Monday, 17 November 2008

the big boys are in the butcher

Woke up as a sortie of tiny clouds wrapped themselves around the peak of La Rhune. Their attack didn't mount to much and it stayed mild and sunny all day. Made my second faux pas of the week. I had a hankering for a gammon steak so set forth to find some. Unfortunately by the time I got to the butchers I had forgotten the French for gammon steaks (épaisse tranche de jambon salé). Instead I tried to explain that in Scotland there is a type of pork steak we eat with eggs or pineapple. The butcher listened attentively but two burly chaps next to me explained in no uncertain terms that they didn't care what people eat in Scotland and that I was now in the Basque country so should eat Basque food. Before I was able to express that I had meant no disrespect and that the Basques and Scots alike enjoy the meat I was trying to explain, I recalled that the military head of ETA had been captured earlier today and figured that there may be some resulting antagonism. Those who know me are aware of my unrivalled reputation for bravery, so I aptly purchased a joint of pork and left poste haste. Nice butcher shop though.

Signs of the recession are slowly sinking in around St Jean de Luz. Not only is it the hot topic amongst coffee drinkers, some shops are running closing down sales and there are a couple of properties appearing for auction sale. Many other shops had already closed down for the season to re-open in the Spring, I only hope that they are all able to. Le Figaro ran a report today stating that the top 8 oligarchs/billionaires in France have lost c€26bn in the last few months. They all own consumer facing businesses so people should expect a knock-on effect. The French finance minister, Christine Lagarde, must regret boasting in The Economist about the "totally remarkable performance" of the economy and asking what all the drama is about...

Saturday, 15 November 2008

happy daze and warring mandolins

Waking up this morning it dawned on me just how darned happy I am here. We've been lucky enough to travel the world, stay in swanky hotels and enjoy turning left rather than right on more than our fair share of flights and compared to all that St Jean de Luz just feels good...

Daytime largely consisted of the usual Sunday ritual: breakfast (including some marvellous boudin noir), church, promenading, we saw some lovely rock formations (one for you Murray!), and of course hot chocolate. Today we treated ourselves at the wonderful Pâtisserie Etchebaster, home of the undisputed champion of chocolat chaud in St Jean de Luz. It's so chocolatey that they serve it with a pitcher of water - brilliant!

This evening we ventured to the Ravel auditorium for an evening of traditional Basque music. The auditorium is named after one of the town's favourite sons, famous for his Bolero not his shoe shops. A local children's choir opened proceedings and sang some old Basque lullabies, very sweet. Basque is a language that seems more suited to song than any other I have heard - we must try to learn some of the native tongue although our friends here say it takes at least four years to learn. The grown-ups arrived next and gave an acceptable performance of various choral pieces. Third on were a group of 30 guitars and mandolins. As they took to the stage we were a little unsure what to expect. A shrill serenade of strings moved from Celtic to Basque to Latino music and raised the roof. All very splendid. It sets us up nicely for another tough week ahead!

tidal waves and gateau smiles

A beautiful morning so we got up early and headed for the beach. While the cold had snapped hard in St Jean de Luz yesterday, today the sun fought back with gusto and we enjoyed warmth. Our timing enabled us to go beachcombing as the tide was out and the oyster fisherman in. We even managed to walk out to the large Digue Ste Barbe one of three large defensive walls built in Napoleonic times to protect the main bay from the Atlantic. Although we were at the end of the digue at lowest tide we could still feel the power of the Atlantic as waves crashed into the outer wall and sprayed up and over us. We remained only a few minutes but by the time we were walking back towards the cliffs the tide was coming in fast and the weather starting to change. This is a dangerous place and I'll think twice before walking out there again!

Returning to town Maria had a craving for paella. We found a small and modest restaurant on the main 'place' and settled into a large terrine of seafood, chicken and saffron rice - delicious! Given that Scotland were playing South Africa at rugby this afternoon we decided to head home, but not before we stopped at a patisserie to buy a lovely Gateau Basque - if you've never tried it, do! Besides my challenge to find the perfect hot chocolate, I am also tasking myself unenviably, with seeking out the perfect Gateau Basque. The match was excellent and Scotland nearly won, a recurring theme...

Around 1700 clouds started to creep down La Rhune with a menace of less amiable weather to come. Simultaneously the main pedestrian street, Rue Gambetta, started to fill with promenaders. The French are wonderful at promenading and take it very seriously. It felt as though all of the town was out and enjoying Saturday evening. Multitudes of couples walked up and down the street inner arms linked, outer arms either carrying shopping or a dog - what is it with the whole carrying your dog thing? The cafes soon filled up too, as French sophisticates determined to sit outdoors enjoy warm beverages and cigarettes whilst lovestruck teenagers brave the cold and cuddle up on benches.

Still full from our paella (this town is even more excellent if you enjoy fish) we passed on dinner and headed out on our regular Saturday night bar walk (we gave up crawling long ago).

Thursday, 13 November 2008

militant marches and bon marche

Reading Le Figaro over breakfast set me off in a bad mood today. We have long known that French employees stand for no-nonsense when it comes to their entitlements and wellbeing. However I am still aghast looking at details of current various corporate action. The pilots and stewards/hostesses of Air France are the most recent to take strike action in abject horror at being asked to extend their working lives from 60 until 65, bless. Imagine having to work as long as other European countries, horrendous... I could perhaps have some sympathy were it not that they are maintaining their full entitlement to an end of career non-taxable cash payout in the region of 200,000 euros each. Perhaps they would prefer to work five years less and waive this payment? Bizarre and dumbfounding that they announce such militant action on the day the Eurozone officially goes into recession and at a cost to Air France for the four day strike of around 100,000,000 euros, about the third of the cost of a new Boeing 737. Rant over.

The cold was biting in St Jean de Luz today so we declared today a work today - god forbid! My wife did sneak out mid afternoon to enjoy the end of season sales, market and have a coffee with our friend Pascale. Pascale runs a great wee business here that helps second-homers settle (Cote Basque Info Services) and she is a superstar! My only outing was my daily run, swim in the sea and trip to the boulangerie. For the third day running some kid had bought up all the fresh chocolatines, when I catch him he is in trouble. I also managed to make an excellent faux pas using my slowly improving French language skills. Watching the locals I have figured out that rather than ask for a straight baguette there are two options, white and doughy or crispy and well-done (I prefer the former). Unfortunately as I walked into the boulangerie my thoughts were elsewhere, Hogwarts to be precise, and I asked for a 'dame blanche' rather than a 'baguette blanche'. One is a nice length of bread, the other is a barn owl, oh how we laughed...hey ho...

hot hot chocolates

St Jean de Luz finally admitted it was autumn today. The leaves quickly shed their green in favour of this season's colours: red, orange, gold and yellow. Somebody forgot to let the weather
know as it rebounded from yesterday and was actually warm. We even saw people other than ourselves swimming in the sea. Somebody also forgot to inform Mother Nature as a very happy bumblebee idled its way across our terrace as I sat reading this afternoon.
I continued my medical theme and successfully navigated various linguistical challenges. In case anyone visits a physio or radiologist in France the following phrases may prove useful:
- "Je ne détonerai pas si je fais prendre une photographie de rayon X"
- "J'avais l'habitude d'avoir huit jambes mais un petit enfant a retiré six"
- "Combien de temps est-ce que je devrais exposer un chat au rayonnement avant qu'il ait été dangereux?"
- "Ce n'est pas ma jambe que vous massez"
Onto my primary challenge and daily stress. In my truly selfless way over the last month I have given myself the honourably horrific and presidentially petrifying task of determing which establishment in Pays Basque serves up the the best hot chocolate. So far my top 5 reads as follows, in descending order (all SJdL unless stated):
5. Cafe Vauban - highly passable beverage, particularly enjoyable for accompanying an hour or so reading Le Figaro, could be more chocolately and/or be served with a chocolate on the side.
4. Le Majestic - similar to Vauban's in quality and stature but jumps a place given its people watching possibilities in the main square.
3. Pâtisserie Etchebaster - thick and creamy and they sell great cakes!
2. Atelier du Chocolat - the best of both chocolate worlds, a chocolate shop that sells great products and also mixes and makes hot chocolate for your enjoyment...but you have to take away.
1. Parador de Hondarribia - a C10th castle across the border en Espagne, this is truly the king of hot chocolates, thick, creamy, sticky, heart chokingly excellent and in wonderful surroundings (I believe most Paradores share the secret recipe).
I hope somebody appreciates the pain I am putting myself through to generate this league table. The quest shall go on.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

doctor doctor...

Driving rain, strong winds, 14C, sun-up 0740, sun-down 1811.

Today I decided I'd finally resolve all those niggling aches and pains that have been mounting over the last decade and become particularly exacerbated since I turned 30 (a wee while back). I'm not one who is afraid of medical treatment, just like many others I rarely get around to it. Locating a local doctor I called to make an appointment. Rather than the 'you can have an appointment towards the end of next week' response I expected, the assistant asked when I would like to have an appointment and whether I was free today - shock! Double shock when after sitting with him for a minute I realised he had my entire medical history at his fingertips. Now, France may be riddled by bureaucracy but the quality of service I received from the doctor was outstanding. By the time I had left he had not only given me a very sound diagnosis, he had also booked me to see a physiotherapist and for an MRI (unrelated issues unfortunately!). Centre-left Socialism, for the first time, I salute you!

St Jean de Luz has become very quiet this week. Yesterday was the last public holiday for a while (the French are almost as bad as teachers for taking time off) and so most tourists and second-homers have gone back, well, home. It is rather nice though. As you we walk down the main streets we are definitely recognising and being recognised by the local Luziens. Indeed we have received two invitations this week, one for coffee and one for dinner. I had best be brushing up my linguistics. Given it's now gone 1730, the working day is pretty much over and the cafes are slowly starting to fill up with aperitif imbibers and chatterings.

Being a chap I felt entirely consumed after being to the doctors so achieved little else today other than a wee run up the coast (and some more scribblings). While the winds and waves are buffeting the coastline the temperature remains very mild. I am less inclined to jump into the sea, and have even been known to turn the heating on of an evening, but it is still very much outdoor weather. Most of the migrating birds have passed on (as in headed south not died) so the coastal paths are far quieter than they have been.

Does anyone know how to explain ligament damage to a physio in French?

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Armistice Day

We walked across a rain-drenched St Jean de Luz, past the harbour across the river and into Ciboure for the Armistice Day memorial. Since we arrived slightly early we milled around with various soldiers, sailors and police constabularies. They were all very amiable but looked so young, particularly the soldiers, which made me feel very morose not because I am getting older but in consideration of what we were here to remember. Although battle thankfully never ravished this area (although there are various German pill boxes along the cliffs used as lookout posts) many young men gave their lives or as they said after reading their names "mort pour France". Around four hundred locals joined the forty or so servicemen as the mayor gave a short reading thanking the families and those other countries who came to the rescue of France 90 and 70 years ago.
Imagine having been 17 and fighting in World War I, the war to end all wars, and then on your 39th birthday, after enduring years of Spanish flu, WWII breaks out. It is worrying that kids these days moan about stress and are want to create their own violence. However, we need to remember that there do remain less fortunate innocents in countries such as Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan who are mixed up in daily bombardments between two sides they neither support or condone. I always feel very proud and hopeful on days like today, not patriotism as such, more a collective belief that were things to become terrible again we may still be able to band together and vanquish evil.
After the mayor's short piece, local children read the names of those from Ciboure who had died. Following the drummers and servicemen who marched ahead we proceeded back across the bridge into St Jean de Luz where the names of the fallen Luzien's were read out. Once the ceremonial aspect had finished everyone went back to the Hotel de Ville for an aperitif and some fabulous Bayonne ham (jambon). A real sense of community still pervades here. Many of the names read out shared the same family name, names which are still highly prevalent today.

Monday, 10 November 2008

for whom the bell tolls

There are advantages and disadvantages to living in a top floor apartment in St Jean de Luz. Advanages include wonderful views and the sound of waves at night. The disadvantage is the eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Although a wonderful example of community Catholicism, the historic bell rings out each hour of the day, and night. Not only does it ring out the 60 minute segment, it repeats itself just in case you missed it. This is lovely until you get to around 4am when eight deeply resonating peels disturb even the deepest whisky induced slumber. As I have been told, if this is the greatest of my concerns then I am a lucky man, enough said.

Warm and balmy t-shirt weather today so we spent the morning on beach catching up on some reading and making the occasional foray into the sea. The oldies aqua-aerobics class was out again, there is something particularly Victorian about seeing a group of octogenarians working out in the sea. Before lunch we headed to the market to stock up on fresh crevettes (prawns) and vegetables after the success of supper on Saturday. The market was very busy as locals and tourists sought out fare in advance of tomorrow's public holiday, remember although today is not a public holiday most people are off work so as to 'faire le pont'. Although the French respectfully take a public holiday on 11 November, finding out if there is a commemorative service or procession fell largely on deaf ears. I guess having been secretive French Resistance fighters they are still reluctant to discuss anything openly about the War until you have proven your trustworthiness.

This afternoon we made a remarkable discovery akin to anything Indiana Jones (top link!) could have achieved. We have identified the location of the legendary Foret de Lapins. We had heard tale that there were thousands of these mythical vampire creatures roaming the hills somewhere near here and now we know where they are we can seek them out and attempt to uncover the Coupe de Carottes. It's actually a wee nature place not far from here, but we thought the name was brilliant!

Sunday, 9 November 2008

rugby rumbles and sunny sunday

Woke up around 8am to the sun streaming through the window, not what I am used to in November. Sunday is the day of rest so a break from running! After a leisurely breakfast of fruits purchased from the market, again on the balcony, we strolled up Rue Gambetta to Saint-Jean-Baptiste. The service was almost entirely in Basque which made it a tad more challenging. (Photo shows the bricked up door alluded to last Sunday). Once again, the church enjoyed a full house. Given Tuesday is a public holiday for Remembrance Day, there are many tourists in town. If the French have a public holiday on a Thursday or Tuesday they tend to take the Friday or Monday off for what they call 'faire le pont', a bridge to a long weekend.

After church we took a leisurely stroll along the promenade via the harbour which is always worth a visit due to the tirelessly enjoyable range of colours, smells and noises. The tides have obviously changed as the fishing boats were returning later than usual.

This afternoon I enjoyed my first rugby match in the Pays Basque, St Jean de Luz Olympique vs Valence d'Agen. A good quality game ending 28-23 in favour of the home side. Although there were only five or six hundred spectators, the Basque crowd lived up to my expectations and hopes by generating noise levels experienced less often in Scotland or England.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

I caught my first tube today, sir

Surf was most definitely up this morning. I counted around 50 surfers braving the cold tides. Not surprisingly my wife spent most of the morning by the beach. After the firemen yesterday I am very much looking forward to the all-women beach volleyball competition! There were also a good number of fisherman wiling the hours away on the piers, it looks exceedingly relaxing, just not sure if I would have the patience. The weather was lovely so after picking up some croissants (a kid in front of me bought up all the chocolatines, most dischuffed) we managed breakfast on the terrace. Afterwards we headed to the fish market to pick up ingredients for tonight's supper. Rather than paella we have opted for a seafood risotto. The market was packed, both with fish and customers. We picked up 250g of prawns for €3, a bargain. Already have some clams and a little saucisson so all set.

Given the weather, we spent the afternoon on the beach. Again, I was the only one daft enough to venture into the sea (without a wetsuit). A real Saturday feeling with myriads of pedestrians and shoppers abounding around town. I am assuming that besides the locals enjoying the weekend that there are a lot of people within the region who visit St Jean de Luz for the day. Even after dusk the streets were busy. A very pleasant atmosphere and certainly not the usual November feeling. The risotto was a fantastic success and enjoyed wholeheartedly with a fine bottle of Chateau Belingard 2005.
Anyone figured out the film today's title comes from?

Friday, 7 November 2008

naked firemen alert

On returning from my morning run I informed my wife that the local firemen appeared to be having a recreation day on the beach. Before I could ask her what she wanted for breakfast I could hear the front door closing as she shot off to see for herself. She returned a couple of hours later... I tried to feign a grump but she reminded me that I did spend a good bit of time admirning the local lasses. Fair play. The locals are particularly attractive. I am rather hoping that all this fresh air and healthy eating will have an effect on me too, though I know it's a long-shot.

After a tough morning's work we caught the tail-end of the market to stock up on delicious home-grown produce for the weekend. There is a large market which is held in a wonderful hall and spills over onto the surrounding pavements on Tuesdays and Fridays. The fish market opens daily with an amazing range of fanciful fare freshly stocked daily. Much of the catch is caught within sight of St Jean de Luz in the waters around the nearby town of Ciboure. We are planning to cook up our first paella tomorrow, slightly daunting but I am assured it's straightforward. Headed to Cafe Vauban afterwards for a large helping of moules-frites followed by a fantastic crepes-chocolat (sorry Pete!). Having spent the afternoon equally embroiled in numbers and words we feel we have deserved a drink so are heading for a night out hitting our regular bars: Bar Basque, Cellier Chantevin and Bodego Chez Kako.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

bask in a Basque basque

Don't worry I'm not wearing a basque, just always wanted to write this... General happiness ensues in most cafe conversations as the impact of Obama's election victory on France is discussed at length. I wonder if American cafe culture has ever discussed, or heard of, Sarkozy? The French are excellent at cafe conversations. There is no subject taboo and within minutes a conversation can be wholly philosophical, theological and ecological. However, there is a fair amount of naval gazing, particularly on matters cultural. This probably results from a protectionist approach to culture (there was a great Time magazine article on this earlier in the year) whereby a predefined number of French movies are to be shown in national cinema and a preset number of French songs aired on radio. On one hand it does mean that artists are able to ply their trade in absolute creative freedom, but it does result in movies being made about family dinner-table conversations and lamentable songs recorded that wouldn't even make the first rounds of Eurovision.

Wonderful clouds abound as the weather can't quite decide whether or not to have a last bash at warmth before settling into winter. It was warm enough for a quick swim though and I shared the beach with a multitude of cormorants and seagulls. The season for swimming may be coming to an end as I am increasingly finding myself to be the only person daft enough to take a plunge. A plunge a day feels great though and I am enjoying my effort at understanding the tides. St Jean de Luz has fantastic flora and fauna. From the multitudes of plane trees (or platane in French)that surround the squares to the many coastal bushes that even now appear to be coming into bloom. I noticed that tree by tree the fine greenery and youthful limbs of the plane trees are being taken back in advance of winter. In their finery the trees are tranquil but shorn the trees look like multi-limbed ogres flailing their arms wildly with enormous stumps instead of hands.
Whilst out taking our afternoon promenade we found a fabulous patisserie and I have now tasted the best hot chocolate I have had in St Jean de Luz (Alex take note)! Maison Etchebaster on Rue Gambetta is lovely, a very traditional and wonderful wee place to while away a couple of hours nattering. On our way back we decided to get into our movie going and popped into Le Rex to watch Mensonges d'Etat (Body of Lies by Ridley Scott). Again another action movie (quite a good one) so easier to follow, but I was still proud to have managed. Walked home under a pretty moonlight sky. The star constellations are much the same here, just in different places. Made very warming soup using the stock from the Coq au Vin we cooked up the other night (great recommendatio Clare)and served it up with a fresh baguette, delicious.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Judy Dench in French

Quantum of Solace in French, a very different Bond experience. Although the movie is an even less robust Bond than anything IceSave offered, the French adaptation has wonderful voiceovers, particularly for Judy Dench and Daniel Craig who has the potential to become a wonderful 007. For those interested I must share the trailer in French. I struggled to follow all the dialogue but I got the jist from having seen Casino Royale, however, I don't know if the bad guy was French in the version we watched! It is a good action film but needs more sass and gadgetry not to mention title music, surely the PC Police can simply let Bond be Bond. It is a shame that the current generation of teenagers are growing up without getting access to the delights of Bond of yore... or the Bond Girls! Not sure how the French feel about 007, a very British agent, but the audience seemed to enjoy the movie.

Came across these funny wee birds whilst out running this morning. There were hundreds of them, I am assuming they are migrating from some place to another, does anyone have any idea what they are? On our way home we noticed that many of the streets in St Jean de Luz are named after famous privateers, a posh way of saying pirate. The town was originally funded by riches 'privated' by such adventurers and this opulence remains in the form of plentiful boutiques and opulent architecture. The main street of Rue Gambetta has a myriad of shops catering for all. Nearby is the clothing outlet Quinze owned by the wonderful French rugby player Serge Blanco. He is a big hero in these parts having spent his career playing for Biarritz Olympique. Rugby is very much the primary sport in Pays Basque, far ahead of football in popularity. So much so that the kids on the beach kick a rugby ball around rather than the rounder variety.
Remember, remember the 5th of November. Much as we love bonfires, fireworks and toasted marshmallows I regret that we will not experience Bonfire Night this evening. I wonder if there is an anti-festivity held in historically Catholic countries celebrating the life and efforts of Guy Fawkes? Given the recent marital strife in the Madonna household, has there been a twist this year on the traditional plea of 'penny for the Guy'?

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Christmas lights and flapping fish

Wonderfully sunny morning. As I was running along the beach (are you impressed Pete?!) I noted a couple of local ladies dwelling by the shore, as I approached I saw that they were trying to rescue a large flatfish that had seemingly beached itself. Not being as brave as the locals I was relieved when one of the ladies waded into the sea and helped the fish back out. In my broken French we briefly discussed the creature and the improved weather before parting company feeling warm that we had done something good already today. As I headed back on the return leg a group of ten more mature locals filed out of the very plush thalassotherapy spa of Grand Hotel Loreamar which fronts the beach. Led by a younger lady they headed into the water and proceeded to partake in aqua-aerobics. Not wanting to be outdone I plunged in too, albeit further up the beach so as not to be confused with them!

Returning to the apartment, via the boulangerie, a couple of large lorries parked up on Rue Gambetta which is normally pedestrianised. A crane pulled a man into the air and it was only after I rounded the corner that I realised what he was up to, hanging the Christmas decorations. It still feels too early given the weather but I guess back in London and elsewhere neon flashing lights and baubles have been dazzling shoppers for weeks. I must find out when the lights are officially turned on. Before heading up to start working I noticed how busy the cafes are. The work ethic in Pays Basque seems to be fantastic, frustrating to begin with but respected once you get used to it. Work seemingly never begins before 0900 (except in the port) which gives everyone plenty of time to take coffee with friends or family. Lunch is mandatory and lasts at least an hour, and the work day tends to finish at a respectable hour too. Whilst workers in the UK perhaps earn more dollars, the French earn far more by enjoying time with those they love. Off to Le Rex cinema to see Quantum of Solace in French this evening, I will report back tomorrow.

Monday, 3 November 2008

a new boulangerie

Still raining this morning. It used to be that Monday was a day that marked the end of the weekend and start of the working week, commencing early with a management briefing... Monday in St Jean de Luz is far less daunting. A lazy start to the week with coffee, fruit and fresh bread followed by admin and a couple of hours of writing. Went downstairs to Cafe Vauban for a light lunch and to read Le Figaro. The men working in the cafes here are wonderful. Immaculately turned out, brimful of banter and absolute pride in their work. There is a great piece in the paper today on Air France potentially going on strike because they were no longer going to be able to retire at 55 or 60 and were being told to retire at 65 (god forbid!), the French government has backed down and stated that people will be asked to retire at 65 but emphasised that it was merely a question and in no way mandatory. I am not sure how many people will jump at the chance to work for an extra ten years. I really want Sarkozy to succeed but he can't climb down so readily on domestic policy, very different to his comparative success with foreign policy and as EU president. Weather began to clear up as coffee completed, we can see La Rhune again.

October holidays are over which means less people around town. St Jean de Luz is very popular with Parisians many of whom have a second home here. However, it also means schools are back and the cafes are full of students taking coffee, smoking, chatting, preening and carrying their moped helmets from table to table. Mid-afternoon the sound of opera being sung floats upwards to the apartment. There is a man who walks, or cycles, around St Jean de Luz singing various popular arias. He seems to dwell where the acoustics are best, quite often beneath our front balcony, and appears to do this for no other reason than he enjoys it, we do too!

Went for a stroll along the beach and up to the headland just before dusk (at the moment it gets dark at 1830). It is wonderful to see so many people out walking before supper. The swell was impressive and the surfers were taking full advantage. Just as the sun started to dip out of sight the sky took on a reddish hue so hopefully the weather will start to pick up again. After such an unseasonably warm weekend swimming in the sea and eating outdoors the temperature has sunk dramatically. Snow is forecast tonight on higher ground. Stopped off for a hot chocolate and then on to the local cinema Le Rex where we commited ourselves to buying loyalty cards, so lots of movies in French starting with Quantum of Solace tomorrow evening, can't wait to see how Judy Dench and John Cleese sound in French! Before heading home we popped in at our new favourite place, Boulangerie Labechiloa on Rue Loquin, to pick up a baguette for supper, lovely and warm.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

hot chocolate and roasted chicken

A wetter day in St Jean de Luz. Thankfully the rain was driving so hard that its rythym stirred us around ten. At least it gave us enough time to dress and head along the sodden Rue Gambetta to the wonderful church of Saint Jean-Baptiste. Louis XIV got married to Infanta Marie-Therese here in 1660 and subsequently bricked up the door he and his infanta wife exited by so that no-one else could get married and leave by the same means - brilliant! There is something really lovely about the way this church brings people together and the service is conducted in a mix of French and Basque which adds to the interest factor. The church itself is also quite special, lots of wood throughout and it is a great example of the duality of design - using a ship's hull as the basis for constructing a church. There are also three tiers of wooden balconies, one suspects the wedding was a well attended event. I don't understand Catholicism being a Scottish Presbyterian but I do love the ritualistic elements, very interesting. It amazes and warms me that having left the UK where church was sparsely attended (mostly Christmas and christenings) that there are three services here on Sundays each drawing around 600 people. In this time of imminent recession and catapulted capitalism it's pleasing that there are still outposts of tradition and spirituality. Talking of spirituality, the other big plus about going to church is being able to go for a hot chocolate afterwards... I augmented the cocoa with a large chocolatine (pain au chocolat) and got the sugar rush I was craving.

Given the weather we headed home and roasted the vegetables and chicken we bought at the market on Friday. Clare and Alex left this afternoon from Biarritz airport. Fabulous as it has been having visitors this past week (Peter, one of my old college friends, was down earlier in the week - a real task master hence the running in the morning thing) it was nice having the place back to ourselves. I like it when that happens as it always makes me even happier to welcome friends in the future. The weather went from wet to wetter so we spent the remains of the day watching the rain pour in the street and on the hills and picking at the roasted leftovers. Thinking about today's service and the few words I could understand (must get back to my French studies), does the English word 'mercy' come from the French 'merci'?

Day of the Dead

Woke around eight and went for a short run along the beach in St Jean de Luz and up onto the coastal path. It's the first of November but the sun is still strong and the sky a deep blue. The tide was on its way in so the waves were crashing brilliantly on the tidal defences. The wind was gusting so the spray carried up onto the paths. You get a wonderful view up there, across the bay of St Jean de Luz and on along the coast to Spain, all nestled beneath La Rhune the most perfectly shaped and deceptively high mountain I think I've come across on my travels. The trees are so much greener here at this time of year compared to in the UK. The wildlife is also abundant as a myriad of birds stop off for some R&R before migrating further south. After my run I braved a dip in the sea much to the amusement of the locals, I lasted about two minutes.

Grabbed some freshly baked pastries and breads on my way back home and all settled for a lovely breakfast on the balcony. We have two friends with us at the moment, Clare, a long-term friend of my wife, Maria, and her son Alex. We picked up a Chinese pamplemousse at the market yesterday, hugely thick skinned but delicious and with no tart taste (I always hate the sour taste of normal grapefruit first thing). Given its the end of the school holidays there were hoards of Parisians promenading late morning. The wee cafe beneath us was crammed full of conversation, coffee and Marlboro Lights. Today is the Day of the Dead (All Saints or Tous Saints), chrysanthemums add splashes of colour around town and people remember those who have moved on on a more permanent basis. Went for a walk to work off some of the croissants. Managed to find a table in the sun for lunch at Le Majestic and after a lovely dish of saucisses headed off to Bilbao. The two hour drive took us through the Pyrenees into Spain. The architecture changes dramatcially once you cross the border and the Basque white, red and green postcard buildings give way to a less structured tangle of more modern apartment blocks. Quite a contrast. Once in Bilbao we dropped the girls of at the Guggenheim and the boys headed for the San Mames stadium, home to Athletic Bilbao FC. Alex is a huge football fan and I was keen to experience sport in Spain.

We took the tram and frequented a few simple very masculine bars for a couple of beers and obtained tickets behind goal. Way before kick-off the place was bubbling with enormous flags waving throughout the forty thousand throng, some aligned to the club and just as many adorned with the iconic Basque flag (kind of like the Union Jack but in red, white and green). The match wasn't brilliant from Alex's reaction but the noise was terrific and though overtly passionate very non-threatening. By the time the final whistle had gone (Bilbao lost 1-4 to Villareal) we had even picked up some of the songs. As we were leaving we realised just how cold it had become so sought out the girls as quickly as we could. After spending a couple of joyous hours ambling around the Guggenheim they had headed to a place called Etxanobe in the massive Palacio Euskalduna. Thankfully it was five minutes from the stadium and on the way back to the car. Although we were cold and hungry (it was only at half time that we realised that the many silver wrapped things in the bars were sandwiches which some 39,998 of the crowd had enjoyed) they relished telling us just how fantastic dinner had been, a very grand affair and the girls being the girls had ended up chatting with the chef and owner Fernando Canales who gave them each a parting gift of his latest cook book signed in person. I must remember to enjoy a dinner there the next time I am across. We had to settle for hot chocolate and a day-old croissant (well Alex had a hot chocolate as there was only one left) before making the 90 minute drive home. As we neared St Jean de Luz it began to rain hard. We dashed up to the apartment and straight to bed.