Monday, 22 December 2008

lang may yer lum reek

Well, Christmas already, that arrived like a bolt, off back to Ecosse to see the family... The blog is almost two months young and despite having only told a handful of folks about it it's somehow had almost 500 visitors, many thanks all!

A summary of the salient points from the last two months:

- Basque is unique
- peope are unbelievably friendly and proud of their heritage
- rugby and cesta punta are religions
- ceremony is important, they even celebrate the Dead in these parts
- there seem to be a billion fetes and feasts, and bulls get short thrift
- Louis VIX got married here, pirates lived here, Ravel was born here
- 007 in French is odd
- flamenco dancing is for real men
- nature is more powerful than we recognise
- working hours are relaxed and striking is a social pastime
- gateau Basque and hot chocolate are awesome
- big waves mean big surfing
- seafood is plentiful and fresh, food is a serious business
- the health service works and banks try to help
- being betwixt the Pyrenees and Atlantic means weird weather (mostly sun!)
- nothing beats spending a day in a cafe drinking coffee and chatting idly
- tradition and respect still exist, and Christmas has not been spoilt by commercialism

Happy Christmas! :: Zorionak eta urte berri on!

...we have prolonged our stay in the homeland, Santa becomes more expert the older he gets, have a happy Hogmanay!

Sunday, 21 December 2008

aliens and carols

Noting that today was the shortest day of the year it was the first time I have really appreciated how late the light remains down here. It is half six just now and the sun has just finished setting behind the mountains (this photo was taken 5 mins ago). After a delicious lunch of veal escalopes in lemon we headed out to a carol concert in the church. It was conducted entirely in Basque and it was lovely to hear carols sung in this tongue. Afterwards we partook in a spot of promenading. It was very busy being the first weekend of the Christmas holidays as people dashed, as much as people down here dash, around the shops purchasing gifts for their loved ones. The people we have spoken told us that they only tend to start their Christmas shopping on the first weekend of the holidays.

The Parisians are back in town and we both felt that our home town was being invaded. I guess that is a bit like pot calling kettle black but we have gradually felt we have become part of the local town so having so many more people walking around felt strange, goodness knows how it will feel in August. Many Parisians have second homes here, St Jean de Luz being a very Gucci town, and the population probably more than doubles when the out-of-towners arrive.

Basque of the day:- foreign :: atzerritar

Saturday, 20 December 2008

swimming and donkeys

The sun was back with a gusto today. Walking past the historic church, Ste. Jean de Baptiste, today we had an odd experience. Seemingly from within the sacred walls came the rocky tones of Eric Clapton. It turns out that in preparation for Christmas, numerous loudspeakers have been set up around town to provide the festive shoppers with background music.
This afternoon ventured onto the beach for the first time in a while and both made it into the sea! Not exactly warm (11C) but not numbingly cold either (don't tell Mrs W about this photo please!). We noticed a couple of others who were braving the water but appeared to have the luxury of a changing room. After speaking to them we have now joined, for the mammoth fee of EUR15 p.a., their local beach club that has changing facilities, showers and toilets nestled beneath the esplanade on the beach. They also meet daily throughout the year for a dip followed by drinks, very civilised.
St Jean de Luz officially opened the town for Christmas this evening. Imagine that, a town in the C21st that only starts to celebrate Christmas on the 20th December, so refreshing! Groups of Basque men wandered around dressed in the local costume accompanied by accordionists who roused them into song at the merest drop of a roasted chestnut. The crib we saw being constructed in one of the squares yesterday was also in full swing. Rather than the more recognised fat bloke dressed in red with a rubbish stick-on beard the crib was a backdrop for local children who acted out the nativity, complete with real cows, sheep and donkeys, fabulous!
Basque of the day:- nativity scene :: jaiotza

Friday, 19 December 2008

spinning, driving and fishing

Following yesterday's entry I discovered today that President Sarkozy has ordered proposed education reforms be 'postponed' so as to avoid a Greek-style backlash. We await to hear the response from the pupils' unions. Yes, that is correct, the pupils have their own union, I'd love to hear Ed Balls' view on that...

Christmas shopping today. I took in three cities as I searched for Mrs W's gift: Biarritz, Bayonne and Dax, finally sourcing what I was after in the third. I hope she appreciates the effort! It was an interesting tour of the primary Basque centres, all very different and all very rugby oriented. The Christmas market starts in St Jean de Luz tomorrow and I aim to complete my purchases then. A group of workmen were busily, I use this word loosely, constructing a massive crib. I will report back on this and the market tomorrow.

The winds picked up overnight and when I went out for a run this morning in the dark the beach was being pummeled by waves that had somehow managed to retain their gusto beyond the defences. Also speckled along the beach were several mature fellows with enormous fishing rods trying there luck. I hadn't seen people fishing directly from the beach before, let alone in the dark. The lights at the end of their rods swayed mysteriously as they awaited their prey. I wonder what they were after?

Basque of the day:- fishing :: arrantza

Thursday, 18 December 2008

school for scoundrels

Grant, Peter, et al, listen in... Two local educational observations made this week. First up, primary education. As the local primary nears the Christmas break we have noted that they have been having lots of lovely days out. Some school related such as taking PE on the beach, others less so including a mass visit to the wee cinema, Le Rex, this morning to watch a special showing (kids only) of Madagascar 2 (whatever that is). There were around 100 kids and they lined up perfectly awaiting entry, no squabbling, arguing or shouting and all wrapped up in scarves and matching hats. Very sweet but I bet there was a lot of rustling of sweetie papers.

Secondary education. It must be a joy to be at senior school in France at the moment. There have been numerous teacher's strikes resulting in many days off. More recently, the students clearly felt they hadn't had enough holidays and that it was too long to wait till the holidays so they have gone on strike, creating a full-on barrier across the school entrance. Brilliant. What are they striking about? They are angry about reforms to the French secondary examination course, the baccalaureate, and also about the planned loss of 25,000 teaching posts over the next two years. Imagine, pupils sticking up for exams and their teachers...

Conclusion, treat wee kids properly and they are angels, act like militants in front off adolescents and they will follow suit.

Basque of the day:- congratulations :: zorionak (also means happy Christmas holidays)

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

sky gods and cafe culture

Ominous skies were order of the day. I spoke to a local gentleman who told me a little about the myth of Urtzi. He is supposedly the Basque sky god and is represented as the lauburu, with four heads in a swastica like formation. I wonder if this is where the Basque symbol comes from?

I read an interesting article on cafe culture in France. In 1960 there were some 200,000 cafes in France, this year there are c41,500. If the French are unable to retain the culture of sitting around, smoking and chatting idly, what hope for the rest of us?

Basque of the day:- sky :: zeru (this is a modern word, the old Basque word for sky was urtzi)

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

moody waters

The sun disappeared again today, though at least the rain stayed away. Tuesday is a market day so we stocked up on fresh fruit and vegetables (you get three large bags full for around EUR12). I also bought a couple of large handfuls of crevettes (EUR3) to pop into a risotto alongside some tomatoes, white wine (Belingard of course), onion and saucisson - fab.
I went for a wee cycle this afternoon out to Fort Socoa, which I believe dates back to 1627, and managed to get out on the digue as the tide was out. When the tide is in this is completely impassable! Even though it was a few metres down, the sea was seriously menacing out there. A very odd contrast when you stand out there and look back along the digue to shore. On the right the Atlantic relentlessly blasts away at the land, on the left the becalmed waters of the bay offer stillness. Very mean and moody.
Basque of the day:- mood :: gogaldi

Monday, 15 December 2008

snowy white petrol

We awoke to masses of snowfall shining off the mountains in a most splendid wintry sun. As such we opted to find somewhere to build a snowman and partake in a spot of sledging. Heading across the snowy Pyrenees we had lunch in St Jean Pied de Port.
Driving on we ascended the valley of d'Iraty, which is well-known for cross-country skiing, something I fancy having a bash at. After six kilometres of vertical climb I decided that although we have a Swedish car with chains on I ain't happy with all this slipping and sliding on cliff edges. I chickened out and drove back to another route which headed over into Spain. This one was blocked too, though there were some great mountain goats. We figured it was our punishment for bunking off school on a Monday and chose an easier route to Spain to enjoy a hot chocolate sat beside a log fire.
Post hot chocolate I went to fill the car with petrol. It is so much more cost effective doing so in Spain even though it is only 20 miles from St Jean de Luz. A full tank cost me EUR40 today, bargain!
Basque of the day:- snow :: elur

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Basque fire water

Dinner last night was fab. The company was outstanding, a nice melee of Basque, Parisian, Spanish, Portuguese, English and Scottish, all conducting conversation en francais - I think I conducted myself ok. Even more outstanding was Pascale's cooking, what a dinner...

Appetiser: ham tartlets, mini saucisson in pastry, feta parcels served with rose champagne
Starter: home-made foie gras on toasts served with Monbazillac
Main: slow-roasted monkfsh (in a secret family sauce) on herbed-rice served with two outstanding Bordeaux rouges ('78 and '99)
Dessert: awesome chocolate (dark and milk) grated into cream served parceled in sponge, smattered in a creme anglais, served with Patxaran - a very strong Basque tipple Bruno insisted I try, loved it!

The drive home was interesting, I think that I'll experiment with Patxaran a fair bit going forward, very medicinal. From what I woke up remembering this morning we had agreed/ commited to the following:

1. I am going to play pelota - excellent
2. I am now getting my hair cut at a salon in San Sebastian - excellent
3. Maria is going to play golf - great
4. I cannot compete with Pascale in the kitchen - obvious (she had even made the place settings out of pastry - sickening!)
5. there are more fetes and drinking soirees in this region than anywhere else and I am going to spend the next 12 months sampling them - tough decision
6. Maria wants to build a house like Pascale and Bruno's - scary (fab house but it's huge!)
7. I have to wear my kilt at New Year to enable the younger local ladies to 'experience' the mystery that is a Scotsman - very scary

Basque of the day:- frightened :: beldurturik

Saturday, 13 December 2008

sapin noel and Basque parties

It does rain a lot here. My mother always told me not to dress the house for Christmas before the 10th of December so we set out today to get us a 'sapin noel'. We perused various tree-vending establishments around St Jean de Luz before buying one from the wee shop next door (the one where you bought all the biscuits Pete). This week's stressful moment came when we couldn't decided between a two foot potted tree or a seven foot free-stander, we opted for the big one. I tell you, life here can be as tough as it used to be in the City.

We managed to squeeze it into the elevator and expanded it accordingly in the salon. Does anyone else have as much trouble trying to get the blasted thing vertical? It took so long to find a semblance of verticality that we didn't have time to dress it, something for tomorrow.

This evening our friend Pascale has invited us for dinner to her house in Ascain, a lovely wee village in the Pyrenees foothills about 20 mins from St Jean de Luz. Will we manage to cope with fashionable French etiquette? Will we get served anything we don't recognise? Will my tenuous grasp of French see me through the evening? These questions and more to be answered tomorrow (well later this evening probably but I expect I will drink too much and go straight to bed when I get home). A bientot...

Basque of the day:- dinner :: arratsekoa

Friday, 12 December 2008

flaming flamenco

To paraphrase an awful pop song "I took a flamenco class and I liked it". Seriously, it's hard work what with coordinating your hands, feet, clapping, stamping, legs, arms and then there is the yah-yah-yah-reba-reba-ing... Anyway, I have signed up. Same time same place next week and I won't hear a word against it!!...

Lovely piece on the BBC website about France and the Chernyobl Effect. Apparently when the nuclear disaster hit and radiation was racing across Europe the French stated publicly that it wasn't a problem for them because it wouldn't cross their border. Accordingly, there is still yet to be an official statement admitting that France is in recession. Conversely, they say that they are far from it with a mighty economy that grew an awesome 0.14% in Q3. It is reassuring that there is more than one government that sticks its head in the sand and says daft things.

Basque of the day:- government :: gobernu, jaurlaritz

Thursday, 11 December 2008

careless castanets

In my search to integrate into local society I began conversing with a lovely more mature lady over lunch today. I understood fully that she has lived in the Basque country all her life, that she is a widow, enjoys a great social life and has children who live in Spain. About this point my French left me and I nodded very politely for fifteen minutes or so in a Homer-esque fashion as my thoughts wandered to things I did understand like chocolate and donuts.
The lady continued on quite happily as I uttered the occassional 'oui, c'est bon' type comment, laughing and/or scowling as I felt fit for each turn in conversation. Maria joined us for coffee and picked up where my slackness had left off.
As we were leaving the bistro the lady kissed me twice and intimated to meet her here tomorrow around the same time. Somewhat bemused I politely agreed. I asked Maria what all that was about as we walked home. It turns out I have inadvertantly signed up to take flamenco dance classes, starting tomorrow...!!

Basque of the day:- dance :: dantzatu

parlez vous

Three days till my first Franco-Basque dinner party, so three days to at least sound semi-proficient in French, a tall order... After sitting over my books at lunchtime (I ate way too much chocolate mousse) I decided this aproach wasn't working. Maria suggested we have a cinema evening at Le Rex as an alternative way of getting French exposure.

We did a double-header back to back and I can proudly say that I watched my first wholly French movie and understood most of it! The movie is 'Pour Elle' and I strongly recommend it to all. The second movie was more of an obvious one to follow, 'Le Jour où la Terre s'arrêta', 'The Day the Earth Stood Still'. Very average remake of the 1951 classic, released in the UK tomorrow and easy to understand en francais. Keanu Reeves is very 'interesting' with a French voice. Does anyone know why movies are often released in France before elsewhere?

A sad day today, not only has Gordon Brown stated he saved the world, we have to say goodbye to Woolies (even its site is dead!) and to Oliver Postgate, creator of the Clangers, Ivor the Engine and Bagpuss. Emily loved him....

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

cashing in on French luxury

Reading Le Figaro today it appears French luxury brands are responding in different ways to 'le Crise'. In Paris the jiji boutique Lenotre is offering customers a special yuletide chocolate log for a bargain price of EUR115 (it does feed 8 after all, so just over EUR14 a slice). The log is on sale 19th December, get in fast...

Restaurants in Paris are offering cut-prices for recession struck diners. At the Gucci Paris caterer come restaurant Chez Dalloyau, a proposed Christmas menu starts at cEUR60 (before wine), and the EUR65 offering by Chez Francoise (including coffee) has been reserved by 170 people with only 30 places left.

Champagne sales were down almost 17% in October which is bad news for the industry as 40% of sales are realised in Q4... surely some fizzy bargains shall ensue??

Back to tripe then... poor lambs!

drinking, drink and drinks

An seasonably mild and sunny day today so we spent a good deal of the day enjoying another coastal walk. Even the waves were taking it easy though I'm sure it was only a brief break in their eternal attack. Given we had ben virtuous and that it is Monday we decided to go on a a bar crawl this evening (apologies for any resulting incoherence!).

Bar Suisse in the Place Louis XIV is a good place to start such a venture. Being located in the main square it does attract quite a few outsiders (god forbid) but there is still a strong undercurrent of Luziennes. I can recommend either the kir royal or pression.

Leaving the main square we headed along Boulevard Victor Hugo to Chez Kaka. Here is a fine place to eat, the curried moules are a favourite of ours. The clientele is more local 'jiji' so cocktails were the order of the hour. A very passable vodka martini and well mixed cosmopolitan.

We ducked across Rue Gambetta and sought our dinner at the lovely wee Petite Grill Basque. The decor is magnificantly quaint with a myriad of interesting artefacts adorning the walls. There is also the most unusual air conditioning we've ever seen. A series of giant rugs are seemingly framed to the roof, each attached to a length of rope that disappears at the far end of the restaurant. When things get warm a loud click is heard followed by a mechanised pulling of the rope as the rugs shudder into action. Anyway, the food is also fabulous. I started with croquettes stuffed with chicken and followed with breaded veal escalope. We washed supper down with a bottle of Basque red wine, a new wine region for us to sample and we enjoyed it copiously.

Staggering our full frames along Rue Gambetta we continued to Bar Basque and Cellier Chantevin (two of our tried and tested haunts). We continued the red wine theme and are sure to regret it tomorrow. Oh dear, a large glass of water before bed methinks...

Monday, 8 December 2008

pork in wine

A relatively quiet day today. Mother and father departed this afternoon back to the northern wilds so we cooked up a grand lunch after church. The main course was exceptional (and easy) and I share the receipe below:

1. Lighlty brown a large pre-seasoned joint of pork in olive oil then place in an oven-proof casserole dish with a couple of sliced onions. Cover and cook for 60 mins at 180C.
2. Remove dish and add potatoes, sage leaves, black pudding (long lengths) and two glasses of medium white wine. Season, cover and cook for a further 45 mins at 180C.
3. Chop up carrots, beetroot, courgettes, pumpkin and leeks. Place in an oven tray and drizzle with olive oil and rosemary. Cook alongside casserole for 45 mins.

Serve immediately to your parentals and watch your mother look proud!

Saturday, 6 December 2008

fortified paella

We continued our tour of St Jean de Luz this morning showing mother and father a sample of the market, fishing port, beach and shopping. Fortuitously the shops had set up their windows for Christmas so everything looked lovely and we all experienced our first rush of Festive cheer.

Undecided on where to settle for lunch we opted to jump in the car and head across to Spain in search of paella. We drove to a wee town we know called Hondarribia, about half an hour from here. It is a wonderful medeival town whose walls are still pock-marked from bygone battles and defences against the French. I imagine most of these border towns really saw some military action over the years. We found our desired dish and tucked in for an hour or two.

Crammed full of prawns, mussels, chicken, Rioja and rice we decided to go for a walk in the fresh air so jumped in the car and drove to Socoa back on the French side. It is on the opposite side of the bay from St Jean de Luz and has a lovely fort that is attached to one of the digues (sea defences). By now the wind had whipped up again as the tides raced back in. We each took turn and immense pleasure from pushing mother out onto the ramparts so that she could enjoy the exhiliration of being overwhelmed by spray from the crashing breakers. She was very resistant and close to tears but we knew she was secretly probably, or at least possibly, having fun. She is a sport and we love her dearly.

Friday, 5 December 2008

at last, the holy grail of hot chocolates

Father flew in today from Scandinavia bringing a cold gale with him, he is always very generous like that. Lovely to have my parents in town and they both seem to adore St Jean de Luz, being a relatively good son that did make me feel good. The four of us opted to do some visiting so headed out in the car to explore the nearby cities of Biarritz and Bayonne.

I truly love Biarritz, it doesn't do much for me but it does attract most of the British tourists and stops them coming to St Jean de Luz. Truly it's not a bad place, it has fabulous waves and a wonderful rugby club, however, we opted to spend our time in Bayonne. This is a great city. Excellent shopping, lovely architecture and thanks to Pascale's recommendation I have now found the new #1 hot chocolate! My quest for the ultimate hot chocolate is in many ways more challenging than climbing a mountain or running a marathon. In both those instances success can be gauged, one knows if one climbs the highest mountain or breaks a marathon record but one never knows if they have tasted the best hot chocolate. My pursuit is selfless.

If ever you find yourself in Bayonne head for Cafe Cazenave on Rue Pont-Neuf. The chocolate arrives like no other I have seen on my quest so far. The thick froth is teetering over the top of your cup, a wee dish of cream is served on the side (for ultra calorific extra tastiness) and it is served with a warm brioche to dip into the delicious brown molten joy. It is so worth all those morning runs to enjoy moments like this guilt free...

Thursday, 4 December 2008

red, white and green

We have noticed a great deal of red, white and green in our travels around the Basque country. Additionally we have admired the Ikurriña or Ikurrina flag which is the official flag of Pays Basque. The flag is red, white and green and resembles the pattern of the Union Jack. It's British influence is presumed to be due to the close connection between Bilbao and Britain at the time of its design in 1894.

The flag was designed to represent the province of Biscay: a section for each of the seven Basque provinces and one for the whole region. The regime of General Franco prohibited the flag although it continued to be flown and became a symbol of defiance – the first actions of the clandestine group ETA involved placing flags in public places. The flag was only legalised in 1977. The red symbolises the Biscayan people (the race); the green saltire is said to represent the Oak of Guernica, a symbol of the old laws of Bizkaia; and over them all flies the white cross, God's symbol of Basque Catholic devotion. Red, white and green have become the adopted Basque colours and can be seen throughout the region, most notably in the architecture.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

black rods and local bods

Good to see Mr Rod wielding his staff today in the House of Commons, fairplay, pomp and circumstance is something the British do with phenomenal aplomb. British men really know how to wear feathers and fur and get away with it. Talking of fur, the woman from yesterday was out walking her cat on the beach again today. Why is she training it on the beach? Is she anticipating spending time with it in the sea? Possibly beachball? Perhaps a spot of surfing??

We have noticed quite a few interesting characters since arriving here. First up is 'Opera Man'. He cycles around town singing various arias from Mascagni to Mozart and generally filling the streets with music. There are the '4 Walkers of the Apocalypse'. Four more mature gents in berets who walk at break-neck speed along the promenade never saying a word and generally grumping at anyone who crosses their path. 'Smiley Lady' walks and runs the beach each morning smiling to herself in a state of permanent happiness with the world. What is it that makes her so cheery all the time?? Then there is 'Fat Grey Bloke' who is out running every morning, rain or shine, trying to get fit, hang on a moment, that's me...

Basque of the Day:- people :: jende

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

electric forks and cat walks

Very odd day. The weather couldn't decide between snow, sun or thunder storms. Thankfully it mostly opted for the middle one. Out running this morning we came across a wonderful sight, a mature lady out walking her three month old kitten on the beach. Leash and all (see picture left). You don't get that at Bognor.

This follows the pampering other favoured pets receive. Never have we seen so many designer coats, for dogs. Not only that but the poor little pups get carried everywhere, either underarm or better still in a handbag. Together with the existence of many a pooch parlour offering everything from perms and nail filing to teeth whitening and eye tests, there is a definite love for animals in these parts.

As mentioned the weather was largely sun filled. However, I spared many a thought for the fishermen as I looked out into the Atlantic and saw immense thunder storms flashing away across the horizon. The mixed weather is set to stick around till the next lunar change (or so I was told by a neighbour) so more snow, sun and lightning. I must remember to tell mother to pack a warm jumper for her visit this weekend...

Basque of the Day:- cat :: katu

Monday, 1 December 2008

le petit anniversaire

Basque Bylines is one month old today (many thanks to Clare!) and I wish to say thank you to the 300+ who have visited the blog, I hope it is of interest and shall endeavour to keep it so...

My parents arrive later this week and following yesterday's entry, the region is really gearing up to greet more Scots: rain, rain and more rain. Given the weather, little other than work was achieved today (I didn't follow the St Andrew's Day bank holiday rule I regret to say). I did make it to the hardware store though. The French have a word for this form of vendor I love: quincaillerie (kin-ki-erray). It is one of the shops that is open on a Monday, many others take this as a day of rest. This means as a general rule shops are open Tuesday through Friday 1000-1200 and 1500-1900, some take a half day on Saturday, most close Sunday and many on Mondays too. Not a bad working week when you compare the lunatic working schedules of the UK and the such. Another notable difference is the emphasis on fresh, home-grown produce centring on the market. People don't appear to eat less quantity than elsewhere but do appear significantly healthier given the quality of their diet. We are hoping this will rub off on us...

Basque of the Day:- happy :: zorioneko