Monday, 8 December 2014

217. Seasons greetings to all!

8th December 2014. Or, as they say here, "Zorionak!" I can't believe that Christmas is once again upon us and almost within touching distance.. From us here in a dripping Pays Basque (at least it's still not freezing) I wish all of you "out there" our best wishes for a very Happy Christmas..

A few posts ago (here) I listed some of the Eternal Laws of DIY that I've discovered during a long career of exercising what I laughingly call my craft skills. This is not an exhaustive list..! Carrying on from where I left off last time, here we go:

15. Never start a job on a Sunday afternoon.
16. You can never find the thing you need until you don't need it.
17. Someone will have used the last bandage/band aid the day before you do involuntary finger surgery.
18. The only known supplier of the part you need closed down last weekend.
19. The most useless tool in your tool box is the wrong size Allen Key!
20. Superglue is a must for many DIY tasks - it is guaranteed to rapidly and permanently stick objects to anything other than that intended.
21. Despite clearing up after a job and putting everything back on the right hook, in the right box, in the right place on the right shelf - things disappear.

Friday, 18 July 2014

216. That time of the year again!

18th July. Here, Bayonne is bracing itself for the annual invasion of the barbarian hordes, aka the Fêtes de Bayonne.. For the past days the council has been erecting 2m high wire barriers in the most unlikely places to try and stop car drivers parking their vehicles where they often do during the other 51 weeks of the year. Roundabouts were the first to be fenced off, followed closely by the central reservation of dual carriageways.. You would not believe some of the places I've seen cars parked when there's been a major rugby match here. The difference is that this time over a million visitors are expected here during the 5 days (and nights) of the Fêtes. The barriers are also to stop people from sleeping in places considered inadvisable.. (such as roundabouts and the central reservation of etc etc..!☺)

Then there's the Fête itself.. here's the opening ceremony from 2013..

and the parade of the bands..

and then there's this..

For us, the Fêtes de Bayonne is a good excuse to head for the mountains and the cool crisp air.. This year we're off to the Hautes-Pyrénées..

We went to a concert by a local trio last night in Anglet - and Lascia ch'io pianga (Handel) was on the programme. I thought the soprano gave a praiseworthy performance of what is an extremely difficult piece. I had to remind myself this morning of it - here's the great Cecilia Bartoli's interpretation of the same piece (from "Rinaldo"):

Now if there was only one piece of music you could listen to before you shuffled off this mortal coil it would be this - by Maria Callas:

Wednesday, 23rd July. Here's a live link to the opening ceremony of the Fêtes de Bayonne this evening at 2200hrs local.. (9pm in the UK and 4pm in the US (eastern seaboard)..

29th July. Had a few days away at Argèles-Gazost up in the high Pyrenees during the Fêtes de Bayonne.. This is something to try next time we're there:
This is a favourite location of ours - it's the Col du Tourmalet that's often used in the Tour de France.. (click to enlarge it)

I discovered almost by accident that the Womens' Rugby World Cup was being staged in France. I only caught up with it live on French TV (France4) the other day in time to watch the semis between England and Canada. I've not been able to watch much womens' rugby in the past and it was always a case of after a few minutes the "off" button on the remote seemed an increasingly attractive option. In the past, the womens game was played with seemingly little in the way of commitment, intensity and basic skills - but I'm happy to say that this is no longer the case. Tidying my sock drawer isn't my preferred option any more! Take a look at this:
20th October 2014. Whooo-ooosh - that's the summer gone! Well, almost. For the last few days we've been enjoying an Indian summer here - it was 30°+ yesterday with more of the same forecast for today. I'm still in t shirt and shorts - but don't worry, I've warned the neighbours!☺

Yesterday we met up with Perry & Caroline (Taylor), a lively and charming Anglo-Dutch couple who I've mentioned before here. They live in the heart of Gascony a couple of hours to the east.

Perry is a talented graphic artist and recently he's been producing a series of cartoons that take a wry and affectionate look at the people of Gascony. I think he's found a seam of life in la France profonde that's rich in comic potential and his latest offering - Petites Gasconneries - could well be his breakthrough book.

Publishing is a notoriously difficult field for a new author to gain a foothold in but I think he's well on the way to getting there.

Here's one of his takes on local life that makes me laugh each time I look at it:

If you'd like to know more, take a few minutes to look through his website - his work deserves a much wider audience! This book will keep you going through those long northern winters until your next visit to the south west of France - a region that has preserved its strongly flavoured country traditions largely intact. If you love this blessèd region of France this would be an ideal stocking filler! (and no, before you ask - I'm not receiving any commission for this!☺)

21st October. "Where Did The Time Go" Dept.. We realised with a jolt last month that we've been here for 7 years already! (how did that happen?) There are always the same old questions that everyone seems to want to ask - and they all run along the same lines: do you miss England / do you have any regrets / do you think you'll go back one day? The answer is below*. We miss seeing our friends but as with so many of us these days, our friendships tend to be widely dispersed and so even in England we didn't see our friends that regularly.

I think for every one of us who takes the plunge and moves to France there must be ten (at least) who would like to but who can't for various reasons - reasons that usually involve parents or children and especially grandchildren. This is understandable but nowadays the world has become a smaller place. Once upon a time, if friends moved abroad, it was as though they'd moved to another planet. Today, with the extensive network of low cost flights around Europe travel has never been more affordable. And to fill in the gaps between visits, there's Skype.. one of the minor miracles of the age.

To those of you who are free to consider a move to France, the hardest part of the move is making the decision to go. Once you've done that, everything falls into place. If you are thinking about a move here, don't skimp on the decision-making process. (repeat ten times before going to bed!) When in England, I watched many of those French property shows that consider  the house finding process in isolation. It's so easy to be seduced by low prices, sunshine, a glass of wine on the terrace and the French lifestyle that's perceived to be "laid-back" - whatever that means. Before you even start looking at houses here, you should be asking yourself what kind of life you want to lead. For us, we moved here on retirement and so we only had a limited number of questions to ask ourselves. What are your plans for the long term? Is it to be a permanent move? Could you see yourself one day in a French nursing home? Or would you be looking to return to the UK for the final "hurrah"?

Only you will know what questions to ask yourself. Be honest and clear with yourself about what you really want. It might be that renting a gîte here every summer would get rid of the "itch"..

For us, the move here closed one chapter and opened another. I think that far too much is made of the so-called French bureaucratic nightmare when newcomers engage with the institutions that govern life here. I was astonished at just how helpful people were to us. I think the key is to do your homework - research what is required and make sure that before starting on the bureaucratic paper trail that you are in possession of all the various forms and original documents required.

*For us, the answer to the exam question is, to a greater or lesser extent, no to the questions posed above. For us the move has been a very positive experience.
We were in Biarritz yesterday afternoon and while people were on the beach, I noticed that the chap who sells hot chestnuts was already in business outside Galeries Lafayette.. (bottom right hand corner above)

1st November. A long outing this morning on the river - I went out in a yolette (a beamy IV) and we went up-river as far as the weir at Ustaritz. This made for a round trip of some 25km.. but because we gelled well together as a crew, it was not as tiring as it can be sometimes when the boat is all over the place ("a technical term, your honour") ie, when the timing is approximate and there's no balance.. The weather was an unbelievably unseasonal 25° and the river has never looked better. The trees had just started to turn a russet green/brown and a few leaves were spiralling down in slow motion. If only it was like this every week! We beached the boat just under the weir and someone produced coffee and croissants.. (my old rowing master at school never did this!)

4th November. Well, that's it.. I think we've seen the end of our extended summer. I was out yesterday evening at choir practice and when we all left the building afterwards there was the mother of all monsoons raging outside - with the kind of rain normally reserved for Hollywood films.. This (left) definitely wasn't me last night!

My shorts and t-shirts are about to be put away back in the 'summer' chest.. Only last week, there were plenty of people sunbathing and swimming at Biarritz. Can't believe Christmas (there, I've said it) is next month.

We had the roof re-tiled (ouch!) a few weeks ago and so far all appears dry! Fingers crossed. The next job (there's always one isn't there?) is the west-facing back wall of the house which has some small cracks in it. As it's west-facing, it bears the brunt of the storms that blow in from the Bay of Biscay and so these cracks can't be ignored any longer. We've had several companies out to look at the wall and we'll have to decide which estimate to accept because I'd like to have this work finished before winter sets in. At this rate, we'll be having sausages for Christmas! (one each!) (maybe☺)    

Here's a video that shows off our corner of the world - in 25 years of first visiting and now living here, we've yet to tire of this beautiful region..  

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

215. Travels with a cocker spaniel in the Cévennes*

* Title plagiarised from Robert Louis Stevenson's classic account

Sunday, 15th June. Back home again after a restful few days away in the Cévennes, that delightfully unspoilt area that lies along the south-eastern edge of the Massif Central. (Read R L Stevenson's story here)

En route to the Cévennes, we broke our journey at Carcassonne - and the view of the medieval walled town from the autoroute was stunning - and straight out of the Middle Ages (via Walt Disney...) The old town was knee-deep in tourists when we visited and listening to their chatter it was clear that the medieval town of Carcassonne is firmly on the international tourist map.  

After a short 3-4 hour drive the following day, we arrived at our home for the next few days in the heat of the afternoon (temperature in the mid-30s). We were staying at a country hotel situated in an idyllic setting on a winding lane midway between Saint-Jean du Gard and Alès. This link will give some idea of the activities in the area. Staying at the same hotel was a lively group of some 40-odd septuagenarians who graduated from Montpellier University over 50 years ago and they've been meeting up on an annual basis ever since! After unpacking we found our way to the pool for a very welcome and much-needed splashdown.

This isn't a region of France that I've visited before and so the next day we headed down to Nimes, the capital of the Gard department in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. Winding our way through its shaded streets we came first to the Roman amphitheatre - a colossal 2,000 year old stone structure that's still in use today (primarily, and regrettably, as a bullring). Its profile dominates the town (above) and it serves as a powerful reminder of the impact of Roman culture on Western Europe. 
Place de la Maison Carrée, Nimes
British architect Norman Foster was responsible for the renovation / restoration / (insert word of choice here) of the Place de la Maison Carrée at Nimes. Without wishing to be too unkind to the architect, I think that when faced with the challenge of designing a building to co-exist in close proximity to the gleaming Maison Carrée (16 BC), the timelessly elegant Roman temple built in the palest of stone (above left), then whatever we build 2000 years later is always going to come off second best - unless lightning strikes. The supreme example of the lightning strike of artistic inspiration - in other words, how it should have been done - is I. M. Pei's glass pyramid in front of the Louvre in Paris.

However, here, in Nimes, we've ended up with a bland box that, unlike the Louvre Pyramid, predictably mimics the stylistic cues of  its surroundings - in this case, the Maison Carrée - and is constructed in steel, concrete & glass (above right). It houses the Museum of Contemporary Art (but it could just as equally be a supermarket logistics centre). To me, this is just a pastiche. How is it that with all the knowledge, materials, techniques and tools available to us in the late twentieth century that this building was the best that we could do? How is it that an unknown Roman architect who's been dead for 2,000 years can still show us the way home? Norman Foster's Museum of Contemporary Art is about as inspired as the work within it. (maybe that's the joke..) No votes from me I'm afraid. (No doubt I'll be shouted down as a philistine but I feel like reaching for the keys to the bulldozer..)

We were starting to wilt in the heat as various indicators around town were showing 36-37°.. We kept the dog topped up with water but it wasn't fair to him to stay any longer so we headed back to the car. (air con to max!)    

We next found our way to Uzès.. another jewel-like ancient Roman town in the Gard. On another day it would reward careful exploration but on the day we visited, the thermometer was up at 39° and so we parked ourselves in the shade of the Place Albert 1er (below) where the dog (and us) could keep cool - him with a large bowl of water - and us with the aid of a citron pressé.. (Click on the photo)       
Place Albert 1er, Uzès

Feeling hot and sticky? Need something that hits the spot..? I've been making these over the last few days. Into a tall glass pour a fat finger of white rhum from the islands (50° BV if you can find it). Then a good splash of sugar cane syrup, the juice of a freshly squeezed lime, stir well and then top up (to the brim) with shaved ice. Vary the proportions until you find what suits you - then make another one right away!

7th July. I finished the first run through the latest piece of translation work late last night and what a relief! It's been hanging over me since April.. I wanted to finish it before the summer really got into its stride as the last thing I wanted was to be sat here while the summer drifted by outside. All that remains to be done now is to go through it and review the text one last time... and then whoosh.. off it will go into cyberspace.

To celebrate here's a "never-seen-before" seagull's eye view of a 4th July firework display - someone had the bright idea of filming within it from a drone.. Eek! watch in full screen HD.. Brilliant!   

Despite the staggering imagery of the display above, I think Japanese firework displays are in a class of their own.. marvel at this one.. (again, best in full screen HD)

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

214. Backing into Spring in the Pays Basque.

Friday, 14th March. Those of you who know Saint-Jean-de-Luz will be saddened to read of a tragic fire on the top floor of the Grand Hôtel in the early hours of Monday morning that took the life of a 76 year old lady and caused much damage.

Saturday, 22nd March. The planning for this year's Comète Commemoration in the Pays Basque is in full swing. Last Sunday, a group of us headed up into the hills past Ixtassou to try out Lezetako Borda, a restaurant that's buried deep in the folds of the Pyrenees on the Spanish side of the border (this is the exact spot) - it's not a restaurant that you would ever blunder across by accident! The road there quickly turned into a single track with unfenced vertiginous drops for the unwary. 

I got ab-so-lute-ly soaked this morning out on the river.. When I checked the weather at 6.30am it was raining and I thought - that's it, no rowing for me this morning.. but later on at 8.15 it had cleared up so I hot-foot it down to the river.

We set off in a IV and all was going well.. except that I could see some substantial-looking low clouds over the sea out to the west that looked disturbingly like a line squall. The rain held off until we were about 8km up the river from the dry clubhouse - when suddenly the skies opened. There seems to be a local phenomenon here called "Car Wash Rain". Elsewhere, rain falls gently from clouds under the influence of gravity.. Here it's a different story. What we got this morning was the full Kärcher pressure wash experience.. It lasted about 20 mins and at the end of it all I needed to complete the programme was a squirt of shampoo and then for one of those big flailing rotating rollers to go over me - front and back - followed by a dryer. I was totally sodden - nothing was dry. Still, as my old rowing master at school used to say - it's only water..

Monday, 24th March. Strange But True Dept: A Tasmanian Single Malt whisky - Sullivan's Cove's French Oak Cask - has been voted the world's best single malt whisky at the World Whiskies Award held on Thursday night in London. According to the tasting notes, if you like red wine gums, jelly babies, fresh cut grass, anise, cinnamon, white pepper, fruitcake, coconut and melted dark chocolate - then this is for you..  

I was offered a dram of "Whisky Alsacien" (ie, from the Alsace region of France) a month or two ago. Thought it was a bit light on jelly babies, fruitcake, melted dark chocolate etc etc..☺  

My old neighbour in Scotland used to tell me that "there's nae sich thing as a bad whusky".. I wonder what he'd have made of this one?☺

Tuesday, 25th March. More rain today!

Saturday, 29th March. Is your heart a bit slow getting going this morning? Listen to this clip - it's guaranteed to set your feet tapping.. and everything else should soon join in..

And I know I've posted the next clip before, but Sidney Bechet's "Si Tu Vois Ma Mère" is worthy of a repeat - shown here as it was used to accompany Woody Allen's paean to what many think of as the most beautiful city in the world.. Full screen and the highest resolution you can manage - oh yes, and volume to the max!

Sunday, 6th April. As Europe moves slowly towards greater homogenisation, it's always a pleasure have a glimpse of a unique culture that appears to be flourishing still. Here's what happens when 15,000 Latvians join together in song:

For those of you who are straining to remember exactly where Latvia is, strain no more..

I came across a graphic this morning that made me pause - and then suddenly the penny (or should I say the centime) dropped..! Espelette is famous in these parts for its dried red peppers so in the above image they've linked a pepper with a pair of luscious lips - plus - d'Espelette and desperate sound similar.. and "Desperate Housewives" is all the rage here apparently (so the coiffeuse down the road tells me!). Anyway,  now you have it all. This is the kind of punning word play that the French love.. There's a site if you wish to see more.

I've mentioned these passages in Paris before here but I think you're long overdue a reminder! If you're in Paris and you've not visited one of these before - go and have a look!

If you've never driven a 2CV before, it's high time you treated yourself to the experience. Buy / borrow / rent / steal one and wobble out onto the highway.. What are you waiting for? It really is a driving experience like no other.. It's easy to laugh at these frail-looking contraptions as Gallic eccentricities but - believe it or not - they are supremely comfortable and they come into their own on "country" roads. The car abounds with practical features.. let's see how many I can remember - there was a ventilation flap that ran the width of the windscreen that allowed outside air in (via a mesh); the seats (cloth supported by rubber bungees from a tubular metal frame) could be removed in seconds if you felt an alfresco picnic moment coming on; there was a full length sun roof that could be easily unrolled; I seem to remember that the tilt of the headlights could be adjusted while driving; it had a centrifugal clutch; quirky yet practical flap-up windows; a fuel gauge that was nothing more than a long dipstick.. I'm sure there were more.. Oh yes, the car stuck to the road like (insert word of choice here) to a blanketIt had more roadholding than performance and it could corner at incredible lean angles in perfect safety - the passengers would be more likely to screech before the tyres did! All this and 60-70 miles per gallon..(4.7 - 4.0 litres / 100km)
Its minimalism is supported by some very clever engineering.. particularly in its long travel suspension. I once owned an early one with the 425cc engine and I think I had more fun with that car than any other before or since. And when was the last time you heard of a car being 'fun' to drive?

What was I doing when I found this clip from "Casablanca" - who knows? - but Paris is a special place for Madame and I and so I have to find a place for it..

I think it's time we had a long weekend up there - visit a few of the old haunts. It's a while since we've been there.

6th June 2014. The commemoration ceremonies being held all over the world today to mark the 70th anniversary of D Day (or J Jour as it's known here) remind me of a strange but true story. Ten years ago, I shared an office with someone who had an MSC in chemical engineering but, despite that, she was often (as in always) the last one to spot any kind of cultural or current affairs reference that happened any time before two weeks ago last Wednesday.

It was the week of the 60th anniversary of D Day and it had been all over the media and so, as was my wont, I asked her when D Day was.. Her first reaction, "Is this another one of your catch questions..?

"Nope"," I replied. "It's as straight-forward as they come."

She looked thoughtful for a moment before answering, "The 18th century?"

I said "No - but I'll give you a clue.. It was the 60th anniversary this week.."

"Ah," she said triumphantly, "1920!" (and no, sadly, she wasn't joking..)

When I revealed the answer to her, her response was classic - "Well how do you expect me to know that? It was before I was born.."