Monday, 21 December 2009

drinking and singing all night in St Jean de Luz

This weekend St Jean de Luz started to fill up with Christmas spirit. My choir were on duty. Meeting mid afternoon at our clubhouse in the port we crammed into the back of a transit van and headed for Biarritz. Assembling outside Maison Adam, the owner sings tenor with us, we broke into a variety of traditional Basque Christmas songs. Far from being carols the songs are upbeat and more folksy than religious. All very rousing, we attracted a significant crowd. Between songs the lovely girls that work in the shop ensured we were fueled by wine, chocolates and macarons. By the time it started getting dark we headed back to St Jean de Luz and the main event.
Gathering in one of the trinquets (a very Basque place where pelota is played) we enjoyed more wine before heading into the centre of town. Walking en masse with two of our more seasoned campaigners leading the way with large wooden sticks (our costume is that of the mountains) we were immediately the centre of attention. First we sang at a tapas bar, then outside another chocolatier on Rue Gambetta before moving to Place Louis XIV where we set up outside the main Maison Adam. Wearing Basque costume, including large floppy berets, we sang loudly and well. By the time we had finished our set in the Place the shops had closed. I had also sussed that the singing was centred around food and drink. Unbeknown to me the main event was about to start. A traditional event dating back decades and longer, a very Basque event that I was to feel exceedingly fortunate to be part of.
To kick-start the evening we had been invited to sing at the opening party of a new gallery by a famous local painter. He had painted our accordianist as the centrepiece of one of his favourite works. After canapes and wine we moved to Le Petite Grill Basque for more singing, wine, piquillos, crevettes and oysters. Next up one of the main bars in town where the local celebrity group Arin Luzien was practicing, complete with mandolins and other assorted Basque instruments. We combined and sang more, accompanied by a myriad of locals and several bottles of wine. Moving on we arrived at another restaurant where the local fire brigade were holding their Christmas party. Again more singing and more beer. From here, across the river into Ciboure and to Chez Mattin where we set up camp beside the bar. As the evening drew on more and more Basque was spoken, songs became increasingly passionate and the brethren ever more close. It was about midnight when we finished at Chez Mattin. The snow was falling heavily outside so we took a break to enjoy a snowball fight before moving on.
Heading back towards the port in Ciboure we descended upon a bar next to the fronton. Despite the hour, weather and quiet streets the bar was mobbed. We heightened the revelries into the small hours as the barmen kept the flow of beer moving in our direction. I was quite bewildered. I had expected a sedate rendition or two in town, not twelve hours of drinking, singing and socialising. In St Jean de Luz everybody knows everybody else. To have been at the heart of such a local group and embraced by the throng was a delight, something I dare say few other 'outsiders' can lay claim to. Around half two we left the bar, I presumed for home, not so. We still had our own private party to contend with. Back at our clubhouse we set about a feast of marinated veal, song and more wine.
I have no idea when we finished or how I got home but I did wake the following morning feeling exceedingly satisfied at having been part of something quite special. I also seem to recognise many more faces as I walk around town. Slowly, slowly, I think I am being accepted. Before arriving in these parts I had been warned that the Basques are notoriously unfriendly and that it's difficult to get on with them unless your family has lived here for generations. I am yet to experience this and think it's just an image they convey in order to keep unwanted visitors at bay.
Basque of the day:- thank you :: eskerrik asko

Friday, 18 December 2009

free wine in St Jean de Luz

At Christmas-time the many choirs of St Jean de Luz wander the streets in Basque costume singing traditional seasonal folk songs. My excellent choir, basically twelve blokes who like to drink but also sing brilliantly, are starting in Biarritz at 4pm tomorrow and then back to St Jean de Luz for the evening session. The choirs are amateur but receive payment in kind. We tend to stop and sing outside preferred chocolatiers, patisseries and restaurants. As such we receive fresh chocolates, macarons and glasses of wine. We cheat, the patron of Maison Adam sings with us so we are guaranteed fine fare.
It will be the first time I have worn Basque costume: mountain shoes (black boots that lace up the leg); thick white socks; dark trousers tucked into socks; white top; rough woollen dark overcoat; dark Basque beret. The songs sung in Basque at Christmas are very different from those I am used to. I had hoped it would be the usual carols using music I know but with words translated. Not so. The songs are very local and tell of snowy mountains, family and of course love of a beautiful women (a traditional Basque theme).
Heavy snow has fallen overnight on the surrounding mountains. The mighty La Rhune that stands proudly at the end of the Pyrenees staring out at the Atlantic has turned white. The cold is set to last. My wife finally returns home tomorrow after six months in London so I hope the airport stays open.
Basque of the day:- snow :: elur

Thursday, 17 December 2009

chilling out in St Jean de Luz

Returning from London to St Jean de Luz the temperature plummeted. From a balmy 5C we are now officially sub-zero. Moreover, the forecast for next week, Christmas Day in particular, is even colder ranging from -8C to -21C. The upside is that there will also be snow.

The other big change since coming home is that over the past week St Jean de Luz has turned itself very Christmassy: the main streets shimmer with sparkling decorations; shop windows are bedecked in a vast array of Yuletide splendour; hot chestnuts are readily available and people are finally beginning to talk about Christmas. That it takes until the 17 December for Christmas to arrive in the Basque country never fails to please, no ploughing through Christmas advertising in September here.

I had my first official hot chocolate of winter yesterday. Starting with Etchebaster in St Jean de Luz I will once again selflessly peruse the myriad of coffee houses in the Basque country to discover the Hottest Hot Chocolate of 2010. Last year's winner, Cazenave in Bayonne, will take some beating.

Basque of the day:- Christmas :: Eguberri

Friday, 4 December 2009

from St Jean de Luz to San Sebastian

I escaped from St Jean de Luz for an evening out in San Sebastian. The short 30 minute drive is always fun. I never cease to take pleasure from crossing a national border. Having spent too much time as a kid looking at maps I always imagine everything will be red in Spain as it was on the map, then again not everything in France was blue.

San Sebastian, or Donostia as it is known in Basque, is a splendid place to take dinner. The old town with its grid-like narrow streets are crammed with bars offering tapas, or pinxtos as they call them in Basque-land. Weaving through the omnipresent throng we arrived at my favourite haunt and enjoyed several plates of braised beef in red wine, sauted octopus, fried gambas and cured veal.

Taking some air after dinner we heard singing. Following the sound we arrived at a large tent on the central plaza. Inside a multitude of locals were sitting around tables speaking Basque. I eventually figured out that they were working on ideas for the town's bid to become European City of Culture in 2016. It seems like yesterday that it was Glasgow. How time marches on.

Basque of the day:- time :: denbora

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

St Jean de Luz verbage

Having been in St Jean de Luz for a year now I am slowly getting grips with speaking French. The more I understand of the language the more similarities I find with English. There are a whole host of words that exist in both languages either directly or indirectly. There are three obvious types:
1. Exact matches: chauffeur, restaurant, profession, avenue, table etc.
2. Close matches: absolument-absolutely, vin-wine, necessaire-necessary etc.
3. Trend matches: English - pret a porter, chic, soiree; French - weekend, cool, let's go
However, there are also a few words in English that are obviously derived from French but which carry a very different meaning. The two most obvious examples are mercy and settee.
Mercy in English is a word used to show compassion by one person to another. It has to have come from the French 'merci' which means thank you. I can only imagine that at some point a group of French soldiers were taken prisoner by the English. During their imprisonment I imagine the French saying thank you to the English for not killing them. Misunderstanding what was being said I like to think that the English saw this as a new word that has been adopted under the guise of mercy.
The word settee is common-place in English. The nearest French translation is canape, nothing like settee. Again, imagining some battle fought long ago, the English were this time captured by the French. I like to think that some French soldier ordered the English to sit on that bench over there, declaring 'assieds-toi'. Not understanding the foreign words or accent perhaps the English soldiers thought their captor was referring to the bench or wooden settee. Who knows?
The more I think about the more confusing it becomes. Throw in Basque and Spanish then I'm completely flummoxed...
Basque of the day:- translate :: itzuli

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

success in St Jean de Luz

There is a rumour doing the rounds in St Jean de Luz that the LGV is being re-routed. It had been planned to destroy various villages as well as scour a gaping hole through La Rhune. It now looks as though it is following the existing rail route with no adverse effects. Why couldn't the authorities simply have opted for this in the first place? It would have saved a good deal of effort and public relations.

On another note... What is it with people in the UK who have already put up their Christmas decorations? I can partially understand reatil outlets touting for business early but bringing the plastic cheer into the home early is just not class. Even the shops here are only just beginning to think about Christmas. It's the 1st of December not the 21st!!!!

Basque of the day:- tradition :: tradizio