Sunday, 25 October 2015

225. The clock's ticking..

22nd November. Two days ago it was 21° (70°F in real money) so we had lunch out in the garden. Yesterday, it was wild, windy and wet.. Today, we thought we'd nip across into Spain to do some shopping and as we approached the mountains, we could see that the summits of some (not too) distant peaks were covered in snow.. Explain me this.. (as they say here..)

I've been off rowing for a couple of months as I think I have tendonitis (possibly de Quervain's syndrome) around the base of both my thumbs. And before the suggestions come flooding in, I don't have a Blackberry or a mobile..! So I'm excused vacuuming.. (into each life a little rain must fall..!)
15th November.
Bleu Café, Grande Plage
9th November. According to the TV news last night, it was an unseasonal 27° in Biarritz and 28° at Saint-Jean-de-Luz yesterday.

8th November. We're enjoying an Indian summer here - yesterday we went to Saint-Jean-de-Luz and, as usual, pinched ourselves with our good fortune at being able to live here in this corner of France. The beach was crowded with late season sun-worshippers.. and there were quite a few in the water. The car indicated 25° - but it felt warmer than that in the sunshine. 

This morning we were in Biarritz (or Bayonne-Plage as wags in Bayonne refer to it!), once more enjoying the dazzling light, clear blue skies and 25°C (again!).. We stopped at the Bleu Café on the Grande Plage for a coffee. There must have been 100+ surfers out there - trying to catch the rollers as they marched in as if from a production line. 

There were more visitors in town than is usual.. I suspect many had combined a couple of holidays using a "bridge".. On the way to pick up a baguette from our favourite bakers we saw a bright red American 60s convertible (might have been an Impala?) coming towards us.. It looked to be the size of a cruise ship lifeboat. I can't think of a more unsuitable car for bumbling around the narrow winding streets of Biarritz. Parking (or mooring) a monster like this must be a nightmare.

I forgot to add that "The clock's ticking.." refers to the imminent arrival of Christmas.. We've been thinking about doing something then and so we've been looking around at places to go.. I'm not sure I want to be out on the roads then and also I'm not sure that I want to be in a commercial environment at that time of the year. We went out for New Year's Eve during our first year here and I don't want to repeat the experience. If we go anywhere it will be to here - our "ace in the hole" - Chez Pantxua (left and below) at Socoa.. 

25th October. Here's a short video I made showing (part of) what happens during the Fêtes de Bayonne..

Monday, 7 September 2015

224. Calm before the storm

18th October. Had lunch in the garden today.. and the way this year is shaping up so far it could well be for the last time - the temp was around 18°C. I also oiled and greased the plancha and put it away in the garage for winter.

I've not mentioned the Rugby World Cup (I think) lately.. With rugby, it's either famine or feast.. Once a year, in February-March, we get the Six Nations tournament - where the six participating countries are roughly of equal ability. To me, it's the highlight of the sporting year (from an armchair perspective) and I rate it higher than the Olympics.. However, come the Rugby World Cup and we get drowned in a deluge of matches - sometimes three in a day. Maybe it's me but I'm afraid I can't get too excited over England - Uruguay or New Zealand - Tonga or Canada - Romania..

Occasionally however, there's a titanic clash between 2 countries where I genuinely don't care either way who wins the match - yet it's totally enthralling. Such a game was played yesterday between South Africa and Wales. I've never been a fan of Welsh rugby (and not just because they booted us out of the RWC!☺) but yesterday I think they shaded the match and <through gritted teeth> were unlucky to lose. Perhaps the South Africans were slightly fitter as they seemed to take charge in the final minutes. But, well done Wales.. I don't begin to understand how the players can take - and dish out - those monster hits.. I can't leave the Welsh without mentioning Dan Biggar. He's a great player and seldom misses his penalties - but (you know what's coming don't you!) he's adopted the bizarrest and most laughable of pre-kick routines.. Give the image below a few seconds to load..
OK, it obviously works for him but I think they should put screens around him while he does it. It's verging on an OCD..

As for the New Zealand - France game last night, I switched off after about 30 minutes. We in the northern hemisphere thought we had caught up with the superior fitness levels and play of the southern hemisphere sides - but clearly New Zealand (and to a slightly lesser extent the other two big sides Australia and South Africa) has raised the bar. The way the All Blacks started off during the opening 30 minutes was unwatchable. They played with a ferocity, an intensity and their customary disregard for the opponent's well-being that is uncomfortable to watch. I'm sorry - I'm probably wrong - but that's how I see it.

Sad to see Ireland exit the stage.. beaten by an Argentinian side with a 43-20 scoreline that flattered the Pumas. There aren't too many sides in the world game that could afford to lose through injury the likes of Paul O'Connell, Jonathan Sexton and that great flanker Peter O'Mahony.

Who would have thought that at this stage (before the Australia-Scotland match has been played) that it's odds-on that there won't be a single northern hemisphere country in the semi-finals..? Out (in alphabetical order) are: England, France, Ireland, Italy and Wales. The semi-finalists are New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and (at the risk of annoying anyone north of Hadrian's Wall) most likely Australia. I'd put money on the final being between New Zealand and Australia. Now you're going to ask me who I'd like to see win it compared to who I think will win it? You'll have to email me for the answer to that question. I wouldn't want to upset either of my readers in New Zealand and Australia..

The question that will be exercising the governing bodies of Rugby Union across Europe tomorrow morning must surely be "Where do we go from here..?" It's time for those hard decisions to be taken.. In my view, both the England manager and the captain must be questioned. I think Stuart Lancaster is an honourable man and he's done a great job of rebuilding the side but unfortunately his selections have come up short - both in the 6N and the RWC. "More of the same" isn't an option.. As Martin Johnson once observed, "There are no points for style.." Chris Robshaw may be many things but a leader of men he isn't. Yes, he may do lots of unseen work but I'm afraid I can't remember a single memorable passage of play in which he was involved. No, if I was the CEO of the English RFU, I'd be tempted to call Sir Clive Woodward in for a chat and make him an offer he couldn't refuse. Not just cash either - but back the guy up with everything he needs. No back-stabbing - no quibbling over his methods - give him the job and support him 100%. He's a winner. Remember this Test match against New Zealand in Wellington in 2003? At one point England were playing with 13 men - and still they won. Winning in NZ is one thing - winning there when down to 13 men is another. He'd instilled belief in the players. It also helped that he knew his best XV...

I took the dog for a long walk along the beach at Anglet this morning.. and, unusually, the sea was flat calm. Miniscule waves, like those seen at a lakeside, lapped on the shore. (had to remind myself that this was the Atlantic) Looking out to sea somewhere between ½ mile and a mile, someone appeared to be walking on water  - just like this image, except his paddle and his board were invisible. A couple of thousand years ago, this would have been enough to trigger a new religion at the very least!

While I was down there, a café sign caught my eye.. it read "Le Coconuts".. Perhaps it's me being picky on a Sunday morning - but shouldn't this be "Le Coconut" or "Les Coconuts"? On this same theme, there's a shop in St-Jean-de-Luz called "Sweater's".. known as the Greengrocers' apostophe in England.

Don't get me started on greengrocers' spelling (right).. I've actually seen these spellings in markets in England.. (in case you're wondering, OBO-jeans are aubergines and Monge-Two are mangetout..) OK, I promise I'll get out more..!  
6th October. I've mentioned Ramiro Arrue before here.. his work encapsulated the Pays Basque to such an extent that it remains the graphic reference to this day. He painted in a deliberately naïf style that showed the simple dignity of the Basques in their daily activities. While I believe his work shows occasional signs of being influenced by Cézanne and Lautrec, he had a unique and enduring style.

If you'd like to explore the unspoilt Basque country on foot, I'd suggest you head for the Baztan valley in Spain (purists would argue this is still the Basque country - and they'd be right!). I mentioned it in Post 207 (scroll down the link about halfway). If you think you'd like to have a walking holiday (guided or unguided) there - then why not contact Georgina Howard who runs Pyrenean Experience..? Her holidays sound like a lot of fun. Here's a reminder of the area:

3rd October. I've always liked these old travel posters (& art works) of the Côte Basque - so much so that I finally put together a short video of some of them. Some are influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec, while others tip their hat to the Cubists or to Art Deco.. Ramiro Arrue's work is in there too. All are interesting in their own way. (PS I know the music isn't Basque but to me it's a summer sound.. and it just seems right)
26th September. We were invited to an afternoon repas with the Goraki Choir in Ciboure today.. the night before they'd given a concert at the Saint-Jean-Baptiste church, St-Jean-de-Luz.

This is a mixed Basque choir and we know a few people who sing with them. The venue for the meal
was the parish hall, hidden in a narrow winding street in Ciboure.. The massively beamed hall was up on the first floor with stunning views across the river into the harbour of St-Jean-de-Luz - views that would have had estate agents salivating.. More photos of the concert here.

The organisation was impressive.. rows of tables had been set out - enough to cope with the 170+ guests who were expected. To go with a welcome glass of local cider, teams of helpers were circulating with all kinds of appetisers - delicious small sausages known as "loukankas", a variety of quiches, cold soups in small cups, a mix of potato salad and cod - again in a small cup - and other delights. After much to-ing and fro-ing and general shuffling about, we all eventually sat down - only to jump smartly to our feet as the room resounded with a Chant d'Honneur that was sung with an impressive vigour.. Each place setting came with its own Basque song sheet.

A number of planchas had been set up outside and a small team were hard at work cooking over well over 1,000 gambas (left). Clouds of blue smoke rose up from the planchas as the gambas sizzled. They were delicious.. and, as they had to be eaten with the fingers, each table had been well-stocked with finger wipes.. While all this was going on, a few musicians kept stoking the fires by singing some Basque favourites.. Corks were being popped like at an Irish wedding as we all settled to the task.

Meanwhile, the plancha team weren't slackening off - we could see them slaving outside over their planchas - loading them with enough ribs of beef (côtes de bœuf) to feed the assembled masses.. Teams of ladies came round with platters piled high with substantial slices of rare beef (right).. This was neither the time nor the place to be a vegetarian.. this was red beef - red in tooth and claw.. It had clearly been hung as it was as tender as you like. A long time since either of us had had meat as good as this. Nouveau cuisine..? Fuhgeddaboutit..!

More outbursts of singing punctuated the chomping of beef.. as seconds were brought around. (in case you're wondering - yes, I did!)

The choir formed up and sang for us - Basque voices have a unique timbre to them that's very distinctive. Unfortunately for non-basque speakers, the language is completely impenetrable and gives no clue at all as to the meaning of the song. On the positive side, they have some great tunes that are instantly memorable.

Cheese and dessert followed and soon the coffee came out. We had to make an early exit as our poor pooch was at home alone. Luckily he likes his sleep these days.

A great day and one in which it was plain to see the pleasure and the pride that everyone present took in their culture.               

25th September. A new expression caught my ear the other day: bourré de pognon*.. When I first heard it, I thought it sounded rather like one of those flowery menu descriptions in a trendy restaurant.. like Ecrasée de pommes de terre - which is how mashed potatoes are currently described in über-trendy restaurants here (Ecrasée = crushed). 

"Yes, I'd like the bourré de pognon to start with, followed by .." etc etc.

* For anyone desperate to know the answer, it means "stuffed with money"..

We finished up at La Plancha, Bidart this afternoon. It's situated overlooking the beach at Ilbarritz (just to the south of Biarritz). Well worth a visit..

11th September. There was a piece on Télématin (France 2) this morning that featured the Musée de l'Annonciade at Saint-Tropez. Made a mental note to go there one day. Some wonderful paintings there.. Scroll down this link and see what you think..

I gave Madame one of those internet radios the other day.. Without wishing to sound as though I'm on commission, the performance is - no other word for it - simply staggering.. Not only does it have the capability to access over 10,000 internet radios - but it can also work as a FM radio, or DAB radio.. It can also receive podcasts.. and input from other devices.. Simplicity itself to use as well.  I found myself exploring Cuban radios - and stations around the Caribbean.. before returning to European stations. Needless to say, Madame is totally delighted with it. She says it's right up there with her Mac laptop. Praise indeed..!  

10th September. If you like jazz, try TSF Jazz..

It was a visit to a Thai restaurant in Biarritz the other day that made me think of this.. If you like Thai food - and you live in Seattle, this is for you.. Drive out to Saya Restaurant (8455 S 212th St, Kent, WA 98031) and just trust me and order the Gai Yang (Thai BBQ chicken) on the lunchtime menu. By far the best BBQ'd chicken I've ever had. What wouldn't I give for one now..! Menu here. How many marks out of 10? 17..!

10th September. If you somehow managed to miss the final of the Mens' VIII from the world rowing championships at the beautiful lake of Aiguebelette in the Savoie last weekend, you're in luck - click here.. The race ended up as a "toe to toe" slugfest between Germany and Britain. Keep an eye on the stylish Kiwi crew.. A pity they ran out of gas in the last 500m. A future race-winning boat if ever I saw one.

9th September. Spare a thought for your poor correspondent - he's frantically trying to finish translating a number of speeches (fortunately from French => English) that have arrived late from various people so that they'll be ready in time for the weekend.. Desperate measures have been called for!   

7th September. I'll probably get howled down for being a complete philistine (again!) but I think this next piece would have received J S Bach's imprimatur.. It's his Brandenburg Concerto No 3 in G major played on a synthesiser.. (cries of "Hanging's too good for them!")

Compare it with the more traditional version:

What do you think? I'm not saying one is better than the other - I think the modern version can stand comparison with the original. 

Anyway, moving on, loins are being girded in anticipation of the forthcoming weekend's exertions.. Yes, it's the annual Comète commemorative weekend - where around 100 or so people from all parts of the world gather together at St-Jean-de-Luz to pay homage to those of the Comète Line who gave so much during WWII. On the Saturday and Sunday, we'll be tracing one of the wartime escape routes taken by the Comète guides and the evading airmen from Ciboure over the Pyrenees and into Spain. 

At times like this, I wish I'd spent at least a few days up in the hills this year but for one reason or another that didn't happen. However, I know I won't be the only one! Here's the forecast for Saturday and Sunday.. looks like it could be damp. Warm but damp..

223. Memorial for 2nd Lt James F Burch, USAAF

I've mentioned my interest in and involvement with a local association "Les amis du réseau Comète" ("The Friends of the Comet Line") in earlier posts here. The Comet Line was a network set up during WWII by Andrée De Jongh, a 24 year old Belgian woman, with the aim of enabling Allied aircrew who had been shot down in northern Europe to be repatriated back to Britain from Gibraltar. This laudable aim was achieved via a thread of volunteer helpers that stretched from Brussels, Paris, the Pays Basque and on into Francoist Spain.

The history of Comète contains many individual stories of heroism, courage and adventure by innumerable brave souls - both civil and military. These shining examples of 'grace under pressure' were counterbalanced by many unspeakably brutal acts by an opponent whose savage deeds were a barbaric throwback to medieval times. Several books have been written on the subject and there are also many personal accounts available online.

During the course of the annual commemorative weekend, "Les amis" retrace the old routes over the Pyrenees. Before other inland routes were pioneered, the original route taken by the Comète guides and the evaders led from Ciboure (close to St-Jean-de-Luz) up into the mountains before descending to cross the Bidassoa, the river that marks the frontier between France and Spain. After crossing the river, the evaders would make their way to a safe farm where they would be fed before taking a well-deserved rest.

During the course of reading the accounts of these crossings (one of which is Peter Eisner's excellent "The Freedom Line"), I became aware that two men were tragically drowned  during their attempt to cross the wintry Bidassoa on the night of 23-24th December 1943

One was Count Antoine d'Ursel, a Belgian civilian who had formerly been the head of Comète in Belgium. The other was 2nd Lt James Frederick Burch, USAAF, a 27 year old native of Terrell, Texas, who had been shot down in his B-17F over Holland on 10th October 1943.
2nd Lt James F Burch, USAAF
(taken 4 days before being shot down)
Trying to ascertain the facts of this tragedy with any degree of reasonable certainty at this remove (70 years after the event), at a time when little or nothing was committed to paper (for obvious reasons), is made more than usually difficult by the circumstances of that night. 'After action' reports were written - but given the darkness, the language difficulties, that the river was in flood, the fact that the evaders came under fire from the Spanish side, the fear and the fatigue, it is not surprising that the accounts differ in the detail.

Count d'Ursel's widow later caused a memorial (right) to her husband to be erected on the banks of the Bidassoa and, as an example of how we can sometimes be blind to the obvious, I unthinkingly accepted the fact that there was no memorial to Jim Burch. It was only after reading more into the events of that night that caused me to ask myself "Why no memorial to Jim?".

I put this short video together to shed some light on what happened that night - best viewed in full screen:

fundraising ideas for schools, churches, and youth sports teamsYes, there's a memorial to Count d'Ursel but, sadly and unaccountably, there is not one for Jim. We, in "Les Amis..", decided that even 70 years on, that his sacrifice and his passing merited a memorial so that future generations may be prompted to ask who, what and why. Accordingly, we have started a project to provide a memorial on the river bank to Jim Burch, the only aviator to lose his life while in Comète's hands.

We have found a stonemason who will furnish us with a granite memorial stone, engrave a suitable inscription and set it up at the riverside. We have therefore launched an appeal for donations to finance this project. At the time of writing (25th September) we are within touching distance of the target figure. The drop down menu below has 4 options: 10€, 25€, 50€ & 100€. Please give generously.. 


On behalf of the committee of the "The Friends of the Comet network" - our heartfelt thanks to all those who have donated so generously for this worthy cause.. I will post news of the project here as and when it happens.   

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

222. Farewell to a great lady

1st September. I've just been out with the dog and even though the temperature has dropped from the mid thirties to ~20°, the humidity is still right up there. According to an online site it is 86% right now. It feels like it too!

30th August. Another baking hot day - it was still 35° in the shade at 7.30pm.

Gracy Florence
It was the funeral of Gracy Florence, the former mayor of Espelette on Saturday, 22nd August. We met her 3 years ago when the annual Comète weekend saw us gather in Espelette. This small village that's Basque to its fingertips played a key part in the story of the Comète Line - as it was the focus of several inland routes that had to be developed after the arrests of Andrée De Jongh, the founder of the entire network, and others at Bidegain Berri farm (near Urrugne).

After a ceremony of remembrance in front of the War Memorial, Mme Florence had spoken without notes, simply and movingly, of the spirit that motivated those of the network. I remember that we were left afterwards with the impression that we'd been in the presence of a very remarkable woman.

The funeral was equally remarkable and that the church of St Etienne was packed to the rafters was in itself a testament to the power of her personality and the deep love and affection in which she was held by her family and her many friends. We'd arrived early at 8.50am and were lucky to find a pew at the back of the church. By 10am, it was standing room only with all three galleries packed. The service was in Basque and there was a Basque choir in place - and the power of their singing made for a deep and moving ceremony. I think many large lumps were swallowed by those present. What a way to leave this world - surrounded by friends and with singing like this that raised goose pimples on me. I'm sure the family would have been comforted by the strength of the feeling of the community around them.  

The chief mourners were led to their seats by the former rugby international Pierre Dospital (Peyo). A mighty Basque and legendary prop forward from the early 80s, he still possesses a formidable physical presence. He welcomed me into the church with a handshake that was akin to shaking hands with a jambon de Bayonne..! Yes, I may well be taller than him but he's built like a solid oak wardrobe! Would I have liked to have faced him in a rugby match as the two front rows locked horns? This picture (right) might provide the answer..

It struck me that Florentino Goikoetxea - Comète's own Basque mountain man who led so many aviators to safety across the Pyrenees must have been cast from the same mould. They make them tough around here. As I've often said here - the Basques love to sing.. and here's Peyo with his choir's version of that old folk song "The water is wide".. While I think James Taylor recorded the definitive version (here), Peyo's would do for me! 

29th August.. Oops! Welcome to the "Egg on Face" Dept.. Looking on the bright side (I've never seen the point of pessimism), over the two matches England outscored France by 5 tries to 2. However, credit where it's due - France outplayed England for long periods and it was only after some substitutions that England came alive.. It would have been a travesty if they'd managed to win the game in extra time (as they threatened to do). In 2003, England went into the World Cup ranked No 1.. being diplomatic, I'd say that Stuart Lancaster has a few selection problems. The team he sent out looked like headless chickens for so long.. and straight from the kick off, France looked like they meant business. This is painful to watch if you're an England supporter. Fortunately it was a "friendly"..

I had an outing this morning in an octuple (an VIII sculler). With the humidity, it took only minutes before rivulets of sweat were dripping off my ear lobes, my nose and my eyebrows.. It made for an uncomfortable morning.. We did 17km and I was happy to see the clubhouse again.   

It's a baking 37° as I write.. the dog is flat out on the tiles and I'll be joining him shortly..

19th August. After returning from a couple of weeks away in the UK (6100km in 2 weeks), it's impossible to describe the sense of anticipation I felt at the prospect  at the first of the two friendlies between England and France last Saturday evening.

Here's Sam Burgess - all 6'5" (1.95m) and 18 stone (115kg) of him - extending the warmest of welcomes to two of the French team - first captain Dimitri Szarzewski and then centre Alexandre Dumoulin. He's the latest import to join the Union code from Rugby League and he looks a very powerful centre indeed.. If this is the Entente Cordiale, I'm all for more of the same in the second match to be played this coming Saturday. Please - no phone calls during the game!

It should be noted that winger Jonny May is the only player who keeps his place from the first match. The XV that coach Lancaster has selected looks extremely businesslike and I would not be at all surprised to see England run in a few tries. 

Some very familiar names appear: M Brown (Harlequins); J Nowell (Exeter), J Joseph (Bath), L Burrell (Northampton), J May (Gloucester); G Ford (Bath), B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester); J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton); J Haskell (Wasps), Chris Robshaw (capt, Harlequins), Billy Vunipola (Saracens).

I don't see France continuing the forward domination they demonstrated last Saturday. It should be a cracking match..