Friday, 31 July 2009

all change in St Jean de Luz

St Jean de Luz is a bipolar town.

From mid September till the start of July there is a local Basque population of some thirteen thousand. During the summer months the population trebles as erstwhile empty apartments and houses are crammed with second home owners and tourists. It is wonderful for the local economy and a significant culture shock for those of us who live here year round.

Take Rue Gambetta. On any given spring afternoon it is a pleasant street filled with lovely shops and locals who spend time idly chattering with one another. Shift forward two months and the street is a chaotic melange of malcoordinated pedestrians and young children running at full pelt endangering all with their toppling ice creams. It is still a wonderful place, just different.

Basque of the day:- change :: aldaketa

Thursday, 30 July 2009

yanks in St Jean de Luz

I felt I attained local status for the first time today in St Jean de Luz. There is an external perception that the Basque's are rude and not to be trusted, I suspect this jaundiced lie was started by the anti-Basque governments of the mid C20. Anyway, sometimes it is good to give people what they expect.

As I walked down Rue Gambetta I heard a very loud and obnoxious American couple. They were saying things like "gee, it's nice here, but it would be nicer if it was bigger." You get the gist. As I walked towards them I could see they were intending to stop me. "Do you know where the market is?" they asked in their best English. No 'excuse me', 'hello' or slightest attempt to speak French. Riled, I shrugged my shoulders, "je ne comprends pas" and looked blankly into their podgy round faces. "D-o Y-o-u K-n-o-w W-h-e-r-e T-h-e M-a-r-k-e-t I-s?" they repeated more loudly. I was utterly embarrassed to be an English speaker. I continued with my glazed look, shrugged my shoulders again, made a slight noise through puckered lips and walked on.

It felt fabulous. Not simply for having resisted ignorance but also basking in a warm glow of satisfaction. By not letting the oversized Americans know where the market was I saved them from further calorific content. They should thank me.

Basque of the day:- fat :: gantz

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

St Jean de Luz lite

Another tough day in St Jean de Luz. After a lie-in, I felt I had earned it, I went for a run along the beach and a quick dip before the tourists arrived en masse. The beach is comfortably busy till lunchtime, thereafter it's a no-go zone for locals. At lunchtime I caught up with Pascale and Bruno. Opting for a delicious breast of duck it was only once I'd finished it that I remembered I have a dinner party this evening. To make amends we went for an ice cream. The five day festival in Bayonne starts tonight, I aim to pay a visit tomorrow.I do find it strange when people ask if you are 'off anywhere nice', especially with regards to holidays. One has to assume that the average person prefers to go somewhere that is not a nightmarish disease ridden manifestation of hell. Of course they are going somewhere nice, or at least somewhere they want to go. It is a little like signing off an email saying 'many thanks'. How many thanks is that? You have to assume it's more than two or you would have said 'a couple of thanks' and probably more than three else you would have said 'a few thanks'. Both of these sound weaker than simply saying 'thanks' so are we to assume that 'many thanks' is a huge number? Bear in mind that if it were too many it might sound like you were being disingenuous. It's tricky.

Basque of the day:- language :: hizkuntza

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

kids in St Jean de Luz

I have just spent a wonderful five days in St Jean de Luz with my good friends Peter and Nicola and their two young boys. Not having children myself I had seriously underestimated how much work is involved, it's exhausting. However, tiring as it was it was lovely to show friends around the Basque country. I even managed to convey just how stressful my life down here is. In search of a supermarket Nicola and I set forth to Spain. In order to reduce the risk of adverse stress we first headed to San Sebastian for tapas, ice cream and a walk on the beach. This gave us the required energy and ensured tranquility.

Otherwise, time has been spent enjoying the wonderful weather whilst building sandcastles and bodysurfing. St Jean de Luz has truly blossomed into tourist season. I had not factored on how challenging it can be living in a town that is visited by so many people. A simple visit to the baker in the morning takes twice as long: the queue is that much longer and the streets that much busier. It did add to the sense of fun and I think that the boys in particular enjoyed the happy atmosphere.

We exchanged views on whether it is better or not to have children, it seems as though the grass is always greener and that it suits some more than others, we were all happy with our lot. There is seemingly a higher than average proportion of people in the Basque country who do not have children. The blood type common to people in these parts is reported to not be optimal for holding a pregnancy. As such it is relatively normal for husbands and wifes to remain as couples which given the social demands of St Jean de Luz is probably just as well!

Basque of the day:- children :: izenaren

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

still no rain in St Jean de Luz

The flower beds in St Jean de Luz are beginning to look a little parched. The local cats are hiding in the shade. The local people are hiding beneath canopies. Only tourists are seen out in the midday sun, and they are not all mad dogs or Englishmen.

As I tried in vain to keep cool this evening I was reading on my terrace with half an eye on the mountains hoping in vain to see clouds forming. As the light began to fade I noticed a shadow circling overhead. A red kite was rising and falling on the thermals rising out of the streets. They are magnificent birds with a wingspan not far short of two metres. They feast on small rodents so I am assuming there are a few mice braving the streets while the cats hide. A lovely end to the day, and strangely enough the local pigeon community were in hiding.

Basque of the day:- predator :: harrapari

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

St Jean de Luz melts

My goodness has it been hot today in St Jean de Luz. The Basque town served up temperatures that exceeded 36C. It was cooler to keep the windows firmly shut (and sit in a bath full of ice).
Despite endeavouring to have a productive day, everything took a little longer. Looking out of the window even the erstwhile panic-shopping was being undertaken at a more leisurely pace in the myriad of fashionable stores along Rue Gambetta.
It was a day for moving slowly and listening to Sailing By. I am guessing that the forementioned storm will be hitting us soon, it has to break sometime, please...

Basque of the day:- sweat :: izerdi

Monday, 20 July 2009

accepted in St Jean de Luz

This weekend in St Jean de Luz reminded me exactly why it is that I live in the Basque country. It wasn't the glorious weather that made it so, nor the long mornings spent on the beach, nor the idle hours chattering in cafes with new friends. It wasn't the continuous stream of ever varying music or pleasant views, both mountainous and feminine. As usual it came down to a new experience.

On Saturday I was invited to join a group of Pascale's friends at the Fête des Canards in nearby Urrugne. Cunningly a sardine festival is also held that night in central St Jean de Luz, this diverts the tourists and enables the Urrugne event to be almost exclusively local Basque, with the exception of a random Scotsman. Arriving early I walked up the hill into town. All roads had been closed as twenty or so long trestle tables (each sitting thirty) were laid out in the place and adjacent streets. As I had seen the previous week at the tuna event each table was linked to an association. I had been forewarned that we would be with the sports association thereby guaranteeing excess alcohol.

Having your own friends is one thing but to be wholly embraced by a new set of friends is quite a heart-warming experience (thank you Pascale). To a person the gathering made delightful company. Settling to dinner (after a few warm up aperitifs) my French was truly tested to the full. Dinner consisted of pâté, 'sein de canard en sauce à poivre avec du riz et la saucisse' and the obligatory gateau Basque and brebis cheese to follow. Washed down by several bottles of rosé (I had unwittingly been seated near the drinkers), the music started and we were all in gear to dance. In between dancing and singing an endless flow of coffee and paxtaran fueled us beyond midnight.

It was the first time I had truly felt welcomed and not seen as a tourist. Though still a stranger, I am happy with this status, it is what I am. I knew and recognised a good deal of the other revellers, and they are beginning to recognise and accept me. My French was far from perfect but during the course of the evening I was able to discuss the psychology of the female mind with a group of ladies. I put this down to drink rather than any special ability as I have never been able to discuss this subject intelligibly in English.

Basque of the day:- acceptance :: onespen

Friday, 17 July 2009

St Jean de Luz saved

Well the mega storm forecast for St Jean de Luz was a bit of a damp squib, especially after the hurricane in January. That storm was going to take some beating.

Market day today so I stocked up on several wicker baskets full of vegetables and fruit. I also stopped for a bite of lunch at a lovely wee fish restaurant adjacent to the main market in St Jean de Luz. Started with green salad, followed with grilled gambas and finished with gateau Basque. Washed down with a glass of Basque cider. Delightful.

It is still extremely busy around town which is good news for commerce. The difference between June and July is dramatic. I think I prefer the former.

Basque of the day:- crowd :: jendetza

Thursday, 16 July 2009

severe weather warning in St Jean de Luz

Tonight people in St Jean de Luz and the surrounding area were contacted by the authorities to warn them of an impending storm. We are to baton down the hatches, unplug all electrical items, disconnect internet and not to go outside once it starts. As I look outside at dusk there are black clouds rolling in from the Atlantic and beginning to twist themselves around the Pyreneean foothills. We shall see what the night ahead has in store. We either have a fantastic storm coming in or somebody somewhere is about to undertake a mammoth swindle. The shipping forecast will be worth listening to tonight, but then again, isn't it always...

Basque of the day:- thunder :: trumoi

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

firey St Jean de Luz

During the summer in St Jean de Luz they have this thing called the toro de fuego. It takes place in the main Place Louis XIV at around half ten, just as it's getting dark and just as people are starting to feel the effects of wine and champagne.

Basically, the street lights go out and a man dressed in a wicker bull costume runs through the crowds with fireworks issuing forth from his mask. Given there were around five hundred in the square this evening this was quite some task.

There is a lot of noise, a good deal of frivolity and much singed hair. Absolutely no health and safety. I love the Basque country.

Basque of the day:- political correctness :: [does not translate]

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Bastille Day in St Jean de Luz

No readily evident heads of monarchy to be seen littering St Jean de Luz today but everybody was in fine spirits enjoying a day off work (except the shopkeepers and cafe owners who were rubbing their hands gleefully). While President Sarkozy was orchestrating events in Paris, St Jean de Luz held its own more subtle celebrations.

Festivities began at nine in the morning when the annual swim across the bay took place. Around five hundred willing participants swam the two kilometres from Socoa to St Jean de Luz. It was a little too competitive for me, next year perhaps. I settled for a shorter version along the beach and at a far more sedate pace.

Next up the local war and Resistance veterans together with serving members of the forces paraded in Place Louis XIV. As always the mayor was present to oversee proceedings. This was followed by our very own Fabienne (centre of photo). She had arranged a Flamenco dance spectacle on the central stage and together with a host of our ever so slightly more proficient dancers awed the adoring tourists.

The afternoon was more leisurely as families took long lunches together followed by worthy promenades. This evening the town and its many visitors took to the beach, there was barely room to sit. It was a balmy evening with a little wind which whipped up some nice waves. Set to this oceanic backdrop the fort at Socoa began the feux artifice accompanied by a range of more popular opera arias. Watching the multitude of colours explode high above the sea was wonderful. The ten second delay while the sound of bursting rockets reached us added to the fun. In reply St Jean de Luz responded with its own magnificent display. I could sense a little local rivalry going on and expect that over the years each town has tried to outclass the other.

The day has ended and I have seen no tricoteuse or replica guillotines though did see a cigar being cut at one of the swankier restaurants.

Basque of the day:- French Revolution :: Frantziako Iraultza

Monday, 13 July 2009

fishy goings on in St Jean de Luz

With my wife back in St Jean de Luz this weekend was far from quiet. Our good friend Clare was also visiting again (see first ever blog entry) and we used this as an excuse to maximise every moment. The weather smiled upon us allowing a weekend largely spent outdoors.
Saturday saw a day on the beach. It is Bastille Day on Tuesday and so town was full to overflowing with second homeowners from Paris and tourists from further afield. As usual they were taking a (very) long weekend, using Monday as another 'pont' day bridging the weekend and public holiday. Our usually quiet beach was crammed with barely enough space to lay down a towel. As such we three decided it was more spacious in the sea and spent several hours swimming leisurely up and down the bay. It didn't cross our minds to worry about the security of our belongings, such is the feel good factor in St Jean de Luz. In the evening the annual Tuna Festival took place. Our friends Pascale and Bruno (together with aforementioned delightful children) kindly agreed to show us the ropes.
For the event town is wholly pedestrianised. Every available space is bedecked in long tables (each sitting around sixty). Adjacent to each set of tables, usually three or four, is a cooking area. Each of the associations from St Jean de Luz takes an area and serves up a set menu which unsurprisingly is centred around tuna, in our case with a lovely piperade Basquaise. The rugby club is next to the literary association which is next to the bakers association and so forth. Bruno selected one of his friends' areas and we were not disappointed.
There were four or five larger such areas in town; the main square, the quayside and two car parks. Each had its own stage and we were entertained by a host of Basque music while we ate. Afterwards we joined in with some Basque dancing stopping only to partake in a glass or two of patxaran or manzana. By eleven o'clock the crest of the evening's wave had passed and the erstwhile wonderfully behaved hoards of children who had helped generate a familial feel were beginning to tire. Pascale and Bruno made their exit and we three headed to a cocktail bar and managed to lose several hours deep in gossip and idle banter.
Sunday again rose with the sun high in the sky (well it was by the time we finally awoke, somewhat dehydrated). Heading to the beach we caught up with friends and I whiled away the day building sand castles and gigantic sand volcanoes - fabulous. In the evening Pascale and Bruno hosted a soiree at their lovely home in the foothills of La Rhune. We met a variety of interesting, intriguing and very pleasant people but more importantly enjoyed an opportunity to sample Pascale's amazing culinary skills. Crab breads, tuna wraps, marinated prawns, freshly baked macarons, chocolate gateau Basque to name but some. It had been another wonderous weekend in the Basque country filled with new experiences, tastes and acquaintances. Clare in particular was overjoyed at being able to live a local life in an amazing corner of the world that differs ever so slightly from central London. We even managed to avoid sunburn.
Basque of the day:- local :: bertako

Friday, 10 July 2009

returns to St Jean de Luz

A happy day in St Jean de Luz. Today I get my wife back. She has been held hostage by Willy Wonka for the last three weeks. He kidnapped her from a shoe shop in London. He has agreed an exchange in return for a gateau Basque recipe (I made one up) and promised that she will return with plentiful supplies of cocoa products.

Basque of the day:- chocolate :: txokolate

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

St Jean de Luz conundrum

Today was a frustrating day in St Jean de Luz. When we arrived here we determined to open a bank account with a self proclaimed 'global' bank. Its offer to enable simple hassle free transfers between UK and French accounts was music to our frustrated ears. After five branch meetings, fourteen emails, twelve telephone calls and four letters I am still unable to transfer funds. Each correspondence promises that next time it will get sorted.

I had a flash-back this morning to a recent late night out. I disctinctly recall standing in a bar talking to a stranger about Basque politics. Now, this is neither an activity or subject for the fainthearted or less intelligent (both counts rule me out). It has evolved over several centuries and is always referred to with the utmost passion. However, whenever I have asked a friend to explain it to me they have always replied "c'est difficile". Anyway, my addled mind figured my Celtic roots stood me in good stead to explore the topic and offer my inebriated wisdom on the matter. Other such discussions have always tapered off, this one did not and my fellow bar-stander was becoming ever more heated. Whilst most Basques hold a strong view (this merits its own entry) they are peace-loving, not so this gentleman. Around this point I hazily remember becoming mildly apprehensive and making excuses to leave for another bar, before doing so he handed me his details and insisted I contact him to discuss the matter further. It is this piece of paper that instigated the memory recall, needless to say the piece of paper has by now long disappeared in a trash-can out of town somewhere.

Basque of the day:- extreme :: buru

a quiet day in St Jean de Luz

Although tourist season has started in St Jean de Luz, today was a less than eventful one. I did hear a joke on the radio though that I thought was rather good...

A mummy balloon and a daddy balloon have a baby balloon. In the early days baby balloon likes to sleep snuggled up beside his mummy and daddy in their bed but as he gets bigger his parents decide it can't go on. One night though baby balloon sneaks into his parent's room as they sleep. There isn't much room so he releases a little air from daddy balloon, a little from mummy balloon and wee bit from himself. Nestling between them he falls asleep. In the morning his father is not happy.
"Look son, this is really not on. You've let me down, you've let your mother down and worst of all you've let yourself down."

Basque of the day:- joke :: txantxa

Monday, 6 July 2009

a big weekend in St Jean de Luz

This weekend in St Jean de Luz reminded me what it was like being young.

Friday night presented a dinner at the casino to celebrate the end of year at our Flamenco class. Around twenty of us ate, chatted and imbibed. During dessert some of the ladies began murmering about going dancing. Before I knew what was going on I, together with FX, was escorting a dozen lasses to a local nightclub. Reassuringly they are all friends of my wife. Top dancing skills by all as we payed homage to Mr Jackson and drank cocktails into the small hours.

Saturday was a quasi working day. There is a superb local chocolatier called Maison Adam. The proprietor had asked our choir to sing a variety of traditional Basque folk songs outside his shops in Biarritz and St Jean de Luz. The lovely girls from the shop presented us with copious amounts of red wine, chocolate and macarons to assist replenishment of our energy levels. A fair crowd of Biarritz locals and visitors stopped to listen as a we ran through a fine array of Basque folk songs. We sang for an hour in Biarritz which largely served as a warm up. Six o'clock approached so we headed back to our cars and sped back down the coast to St Jean de Luz.

More wine and cake awaited us, as did a far more substantial crowd. This time there was the added challenge of our knowing a good deal many of the passers by, even the mayor stopped by to congratulate us. By now our voices were finely tuned and we did ourselves proud. Starting in rue Gambetta we moved up the street and camped at Place Louis XIV where even more wine and macarons awaited. The cafes were full of pre dinner revellers taking aperitifs so the crowd was significant. Given the applause I think we were very well received. Around eight we headed back to our HQ in the port.

My fellow choristers are from a myriad of vocational backgrounds. Drawing upon our strengths we pulled together a dinner to welcome in the summer, it seemed like a good enough reason. Central on the large square table sat three groaning trenchers. In each, on beds of ice, sat a fresh and plentiful selection of 'fruits de mer'. Given the external backdrop, fishing boats and fisheries, decoration inside, fishing nets and whaling hooks, the food tasted even finer as we tucked into gambas, oysters, scallops, clams and perriwinkles. Four cases of champagne that had been chilling overnight arrived and were deposited in a large vat of ice within ready reach of the ever thirsty throng. Following the seafood plates of charcuterie arrived, boudin noire was prepared and a stew of fish gills and onion distributed. Fellow patissiers prepared a mountain of cakes and mousses for dessert. By now we fourteen had each consumed a bottle of champagne but still more poured forth. It was a sublime dinner and something I truly did not expect to have been party to. Being accepted into the choir has opened many doors that remain locked to other less inclined outsiders.

The table cleared we again broke into song, each of us taking it in turn to lead a song of choice. I did my very best to provide three Scottish songs, but in all honesty by now things had started to get hazy. At one in the morning we tidied up tables and closed up shop. A phone call was made and the local police waved us across the bridge, turning a blind eye to our less than sobre driving. St Jean de Luz is a place where who you know is what matters most. Arriving at a small bar in the heart of town we set up camp and remained ensconsed there until the sun had risen again the following day. This is the kind of job I have always wanted.

Basque of the day:- hangover :: biharamun

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

too hot in St Jean de Luz

Today it was too hot to do anything in St Jean de Luz other than go to the beach and come home to watch Andy Murray get through to the semi-finals at Wimbledon.

Basque of the day:- heat :: bero