Friday, 27 November 2009

tough times in St Jean de Luz

Today was a difficult day in St Jean de Luz. Choir is taking an autumnal break so my cultural pursuits lie in the heady world of dance. The weekly class has extended beyond the two hour mark (from 45 minutes) so I am having to keep moderately fit just to keep up my learning. Having grasped the fundamentals of Sevillanas I have moved on to Flamenco Rumba. Now, the Rumba itself is a fast-paced affair, the Flamenco Rumba is just silly. We need to break down each second into three parts each with a different movement in each 1/3 second for arms and feet. My coordination is not brilliant at the best of times so I am struggling a little.

Fabienne, my wonderful teacher, is probably the strictest woman on the planet. If I feel things are getting too much there's no sitting on the sidelines, she simply tells everyone I'm finding it tough and makes me dance in front of them. Although my feet were several seconds behind the class I felt I moved up in the macho-matador-upper-body-stance-stakes. At the end of the lesson I was feeling a little despondent but Fabienne together with a couple of ladies from my class insisted I am not to give up. I can safely say that I am most definitely the most brilliant male dancer in my class, absolutely no doubting that, then again I am the only male in my class. It's good to be humbled from time to time. (Fabienne, I will practice harder for next week!)

Basque of the day:- to learn one's lesson :: eskarmentua hartua izan

Thursday, 26 November 2009

mad Christmas rush in St Jean de Luz

St Jean de Luz takes its time enjoying the year. There is no sign of the Christmas madness that seems to have consumed more spend-needy oriented countries (those same countries are the ones still stuck in recession). The town is simply relaxing slowly towards winter. People have even started to wear jackets; coats usually arrive mid-December.

People are not hurriedly buying up thousands of pounds worth of gifts that may or may not be well received, they are not busily trying to organise the myriad of Christmas gatherings and they are definitely not even contemplating dressing their homes in shiny baubles. Christmas decorations are seldom seen other than the occasional yule log or conservative colourings.

In St Jean de Luz people take the time to mix and socialise all year round so there is no mad rush to see people as the year draws to a close. This is not to say that people will not be celebrating Christmas. The locals are more drawn to the date's true meaning and will seek out their families and loved ones for a three day feast when the time comes. For the time being it's still November.

Basque of the day:- capitalism :: kapitalismo

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

storm force 10 in St Jean de Luz

Weather is always an important topic of conversation in St Jean de Luz. For the last few days we have watched as the rest of Western Europe is flooded out and ravaged by cold rains. We, as usual, have enjoyed unbridled sunshine and warmth. However, deep in the Bay of Biscay the cyclonic depression that has been throwing Europe out of kilter was about to send us a gift.

As I listened to the shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4, an addiction that remains from my days in the UK, I heard that Biscay was about to experience storm force 10. This implies winds of 60 knots and very high seas carrying waves that can reach over 12 metres in height. Jumping out of bed I headed for the coast to see what was going on. I wasn't disappointed.
An enormous army of white steeds was racing in from the Atlantic crushing and crashing into everything in their wake. The waves exceeded those during January's hurricane in their relentless ferocity. The walls/digues that provide protection to St Jean de Luz were seemingly overwhelmed by the onslaught. Meanwhile, on shore there was no wind, no clouds and no sign of the warmth dissipating. Calmness covered all as it stood facing the racing tempest. Late last night some of the more maniacal local kids decided to go surfing on the beach. It was a joy to watch although I think that some of their mothers were less than pleased.
Basque of the day:- crazy :: zoro

Sunday, 22 November 2009

from St Jean de Luz to Bilbao

Moving further afield this weekend we left St Jean de Luz to visit Bilbao. Bilbao is a true hidden gem. It is steeped in history, industry, culture and cuisine (they say there is evidence that food was being cooked in Bilbao 10,000 years ago). Of course there is also a plethora of art museums. Prior to the Guggenheim the city was visited by few but since it burst onto the big screen in The World is Not Enough it is on the trail. Deservedly so but thankfully it has retained its soul. The old town is a real gem. Bustling narrow streets flow with bars and restaurants. Revellers enjoy Rioja, pinxtos and more formal dining. I opted for fried squid followed by pig cheeks in wine, fabulous.

The Guggenheim is quite simply splendid. From the moment you see the Frank Gehry design it is captivating, a real visual feast. The ground floor houses permanent installations, the second is dedicated to a theme or artist (Frank Lloyd Wright at the moment) with the third floor showing art from the vast global Guggenheim collections. If you have a spare day it is well worth getting lost here.

To begin to appreciate Bilbao you need more than a day, and certainly at least one night. Nightime is when the city seems to come alive. Walking along the river past the opera house and into the old centre the city feels like a melange of Rome, Paris, London and Edinburgh. A true European feast. It is unreservedly Basque having been at the centre of Basque nationalism for centuries. We are already planning our next visit.

Basque of the day:-art :: erti

Friday, 20 November 2009

sunny again in St Jean de Luz

St Jean de Luz is having not so much an Indian summer but an African autumn. After a wet start November is proving to be unseasonably hot. With temperatures up in the mid twenties I couldn't resist spending the day on the beach. Granted, there weren't many of us but that made it all the nicer. The sea isn't as warm as it was a few months back but it is refreshing.

The local trawlers are busy scouring the bay. The are collecting seaweeds that they sell on to cosmetic companies. A nice wee sideline. With autumn comes bigger weather and the surfers are out every day. St Jean de Luz is one of many surf destinations along the Basque coastline. Although it doesn't have the gravitas of Biarritz or Les Landes on the surf circuit there are two spots in the bay where you can catch waves. I am still playing about in the easier mid section while more intrepid surfers head out to the point break.

Basque of the day:- by the sea :: itsasaldean

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

meanwhile, back in St Jean de Luz...

A busy interlude from life in St Jean de Luz. Arriving just in time for a dinner party in London on Thursday I barely slept before meeting friends for breakfast and then lunch. Friday afternoon was spent at the National Portrait Gallery before heading to see Rachid Taha at the Festival Hall - undoubtedly the best concert I have ever been to. After the concert we drove to Canterbury where I rested, ate and drank with friends for twenty four hours then caught a flight to Scotland to see family, visit a couple of castles and eat a haggis supper from the chip-shop (salt and sauce) before heading back to St Jean de Luz. I slept most of yesterday.

Today I have enjoyed being back in the sunshine and reacquainting myself with my preferred pace of life.

Basque of the day:- friends :: adiskide

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

remembering in St Jean de Luz

In St Jean de Luz today everything stopped at 1100. Around four hundred people met with an army squadron at the war memorial. A band accompanied several Basque hymns before the mayor addressed the gathering. Police stopped traffic while the bells tolled the eleventh hour. After the silence local school children read the names of those Basques from St Jean de Luz who have fallen fighting for the country over the last century. The squadron stood rooted throughout. Comparing the children reading out the names and those in uniform carrying guns there really seemed to be very little age difference.

I recently made a visit to Guernica/Gernika. It is a fairly average looking town that hides well the true importance and horrors of its history. For centuries the seat of the Biscayan assembly met under a giant oak tree in the centre of town. It is constantly replanted as the parent withers and has become symbolic of the traditional rights of the Basque people as a whole. The trunk of one of the original trees is now protected while its offspring take root nearby.

On April 26, 1939 Francisco Franco, frustrated by the Basques' refusal to meet his demands, used the Nazi luftwaffe to annihilate the town. The Germans used the sortie as an experiment for their terrifying incendiary bombs. The unarmed population had no hope of escape. Those that survived the bombs were mown down by pursuing fighter planes.

The massacre is remembered in Picasso's painting and more recently in a wonderful book by Dave Boling, both called Guernica.

Basque of the day:- tree :: arbola

Monday, 9 November 2009

St Jean de Luz waves

The sun came back today in St Jean de Luz, albeit fleetingly, somebody forgot to tell the sea that the storm was over though. Looking back up into the mountains I caught a glimpse of the first snow of winter. I'd hate to have been caught up there over the last week.

As I walked along the clifftops I thought about the coming week. The 70th anniversary of the beginning of WWII. It reminded me that St Jean de Luz was heavily occupied during the war and paid its own price.

Nazis came and went, drinking in the same watering holes used the C17th pirates that went before them and the tourists that came after. Perched high along the clifftops are inumerable German pill boxes, each ominously facing out to sea. Some are tiny, others enormously labyrinthine. They have been blocked up now but it is good they remain to remind us of what could have been.

During WWII the famous Comet Line passed through the Basque country into St Jean de Luz. Grounded airmen shot down behind enemy lines were helped to travel secretly through France by the Resistance. Once in St Jean de Luz they made their way through the mountain passes into Spain before being ferried back home to Britain. Many are reported to have stayed in the rooms above Le Corsair, the supposed Nazi drinking club of choice. It is a good bar.

Basque of the day:- to have a narrow escape :: ozta ihes egitea lortu

Sunday, 8 November 2009

gusty St Jean de Luz

The weather is showing no signs of abating in St Jean de Luz. Unless you are an extreme sports fanatic, the surf is excellently dangerous, it is wiser to be indoors at the moment. I had little sleep as my wooden shutters were taunted endlessly throughout the night by the untiring gales. Thankfully the downpour didn't commence until I was back from my early morning bread run. I have now battened down the hatches, cranked up the heating and am not intending to leave my candlelit warmth for the remains of the day.

Basque of the day:- storm :: marruma egin

Saturday, 7 November 2009

weather in St Jean de Luz

The storm in St Jean de Luz is beginning to become fun. After spending the last few days joking with locals that the weather had become very Scottish, today I had to insist that it was most definitely Basque. The sun was streaming first thing this morning. Walking along the coast I could see a huge weather front out at sea. One brave soul was out windsurfing in the gusting winds. The moment the tide changed it must have given a shout to the front. 'Oi up, time for you to unleash hell!' The weather responded immediately, racing in and within moments the tranquil landscape had been transformed by the tempest. Walls of rain drove in off the Atlantic and people huddled in cafes seeking shelter. I assume the windsurfer made it back to shore.

We do get fantastic weather here. Good and bad. Being nestled in the far corner of the Bay of Biscay, weather coming in from the Atlantic is coralled along the north of Spain and down the west of France. Here it hits the Pyrenees and all hell can break loose. The seasons can be extreme. Big snowstorms followed by raging heat followed by hurricanes (seriously, we had one in January). Locals joke that in any given you day you may need to change your mode of dress five times, it's not far from the truth. The biggest plus is that the mountains, sea and forests are rich with life.

Basque of the day: what will the weather be like tomorrow? :: nolako eguraldia izango dugu bihar?

Friday, 6 November 2009

matador in St Jean de Luz

Cultural pursuits are back underway in St Jean de Luz. I have just returned from three hours of dancing. Now that sounds all good well were it a disco after several bottles of wine. However, when it's at lunchtime, involves flamenco and rumba, and means I have to pretend to be a matador in front of twenty women it is a far more daunting prospect!
Having graduated (without honour) from the beginners sevillanas class I am now being taught dancing way above my ability. Being the shape of an ex-rugby type doesn't help either. I still do the sevillana class as a warm up but the flamenco rumba is where it's at. I get to hold my shoulders back, click my fingers lots and look overtly proud as a bevvy of lasses do their stuff around me. Top stuff!
The only challenge is the actual dancing. I've never been particularly shy and like to think I have a modicum of rhythm. Today Fabienne demanded I master clicking my heels three times a second with each foot one after the other. I can just about master two a second, three is just silly. Next week I am getting to dance with a hat, whatever that entails?!
I'm not sure if it's my age but after class each Friday I have the same sort of high buzz I used to get after playing rugby or a good days skiing. The local flamenco season is warming up and from this month on there are soirees most weekends. If you'd told me I'd be doing this and enjoying it so much when I was still working in London I'd never have believed you.
Basque of the day:- shall we dance? :: dantzatu nahi al duzu?

Thursday, 5 November 2009

St Jean de Luz paddling

It is still raining hard in St Jean de Luz. That's three days now. Given there was a full moon when it started the chances are the dour weather will stick around for the lunar cycle. The winds are whipping up too, excellent waves. I fear another surfing adventure coming on.

Struggling a bit today. Had a boys night last night to watch a football match, Lyon v Liverpool. Was torn. I prefer French teams normally but the wife's family are from Liverpool. Luckily it ended in a draw. Am not normally a football fan but it was a good excuse to get to know the chaps better. Will opt for a rugby match next time.

The local children are back to school today after their mid-term holiday. They are relishing being able to jump in so many puddles, much to the consternation of their mothers. You can't beat jumping in puddles but I am clearly not as expert as these kids.

Basque of the day:- puddle :: putzu

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

November in St Jean de Luz

I have now been living in St Jean de Luz for a year. I have had more adventures in that time than I could have imagined. I am also astonished that in the course of a year so many people have visited Basque Bylines and from so many places (over 60 countries at last count). Thank you!

Nothing is more cyclical in the Basque country than the weather. If it is warm for a couple of days with an increasingly strong, balmy southerly wind then it is bound to rain hard very soon. Couple that to the month of November and you can guarantee lots of precipitation. So far this month has not bucked that trend. Saturday and Sunday on the beach, the rest of the week beneath a wooly jumper. The forecast won't encourage tourists either.

Still no news on whether our demonstration in Bayonne resulted in success. There has been a large run on 'meat' pies in one of the butchers following last week's pigeon cull, I am sure this is wholly unrelated.

Basque of the day:- anniversary :: urtemuga