Wednesday, 2 September 2009

2. Arrival in the Pays Basque

Two days later on a sunny Saturday afternoon we found our gîte just outside Villefranque, a very Basque village which was set back about 10kms from the coast. The nearest major town was Bayonne, the unofficial capital of the French Basque country, deep in the south west of France. We were met by the owners - Monsieur & Madame D - who farmed the property. Our gîte was in an upstairs section of their vast white-painted Basque farmhouse which was situated in a hollow at the end of a valley lined with an eclectic mix of Scots pines, old oaks and strangely enough.. palm trees.

Monsieur D looked every 2.54cm the Basque farmer with his broad Basque beret and his face a deep mahogany red colour. I was later to find out (the hard way) that his nose was the original location and inspiration for his spectacularly rosy hue. Madame D was a friendly woman of sturdy stock and she was blessed with a powerful voice that could be heard echoing all over the valley. They were a geographically close family in a way that we in England are no more; their son’s house being 100m up the lane while that of her daughter was 150m up the lane in the other direction. Madame D had herself been brought up in the neighbouring farmhouse just 50m away. They had a few animals – 5 cows, 2 giant pigs, around a dozen chickens and several hutches, each of which held a fat rabbit or two – all of which would make their contributions to their kitchen in one way or another. I would guess that they are fairly close to being self-sufficient.

As soon as we’d unpacked the van and I’d had a day off to unwind, I set off alone at 7am on the Monday to return the van to England. I made good time – hitting the Périphérique (or, in more prosaic Anglo-Saxon, the ring road) around Paris at ~3pm so I decided to push on to Calais. On arrival there, I still felt fresh, so I took an earlier crossing than I’d planned and, before I knew it, I found myself back in our Herefordshire village again at 11pm where I spent the night with a neighbour – 16hrs later and 900 miles (1450km) after leaving the gîte. (Health Warning: Don't try this at home)

After a short but satisfyingly deep coma, I returned the van to the rental company early the next morning and taxi'ed back to our village to pick up our left hand drive Golf that we‘d left at the neighbour’s before setting off for Dover and France again. I arrived back in France at about 8pm that evening and thought I’d drive until I was tired before stopping. In the end, I didn’t get tired and so I drove on through the night with the traffic-free autoroutes all to myself. At 7am on Wednesday morning I found myself outside the farmhouse again trying to get back in. After throwing gravel at Madame’s window with no joy, I was finally let in by a sleepy eyed Monsieur D in his underpants! I’d driven 1800 miles (2900km) in 48hrs.. and I still felt fine. However, I doubt that I’ll be making a habit of it. (how wrong can you be!)

The next few days blurred into weeks. We started on an interminable round of visits to various French government offices, car insurance companies, and health insurance companies as we engaged with the great well-oiled bureaucratic machine that runs France. And most of these had acronyms. For example, there was CPAM (aka French Social Security), MGEN (the Health Mutuelle for teachers that Madame belonged to) and MAIF (a car insurance company specifically for teachers).

In England, we’ve opted recently for made-up names that attempt to capture the core values of the target company. These are dreamt up by glossy agencies that are paid frighteningly large lumps of money to do so. I seem to remember the short-lived Consignia, then there’s Exxon, QinetiQ, Expedia, Excellerate, Xafinity and Capita and zzz-zzzzzzzzz........

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