Sunday, 13 September 2009

18. The run-up to Completion & Christmas 2007

29th November 2007. Today as we drove over to Spain to do some shopping in Irun, we passed through the most south-westerly town in France – Hendaye – and I had to smile when I saw the town sign - for underneath it was a list of various exotic places with which it is twinned.

The "cratur"
One of these was “Peebles”.. The mention of this most worthy town in the Scottish Borders seemed totally incongruous here and conjured up in my heid visions of hoary old Scotsmen, clad in tartan and wearing hairy tweed underbreeks, descending on Hendaye en masse in charabancs demanding to be directed without further ado to the fabled stocks of “whusky at five poond a bottle ye ken..” (these do exist by the way!)We spent a few hours in Irun which is the first town in Spain across the border. It reminded us both of the towns of northern Italy – it was a lot more sophisticated than border towns usually are. We’re fortunate to be living so near to the border – it gives us another string to our bow. The day wouldn’t have been complete though without – yes, you’ve guessed it – an extra virgin cold pressed unleaded hot chocolate so we stepped into a small café and Madame had one while I had one of those hardhitting black Spanish coffees that are guaranteed to inhibit the blinking reflex for at least 4 days. Tasting Madame’s chocolate, in my opinion it was as good as one of those “authentic” ones they serve in the chocolatiers in Bayonne with the added bonus of being, with Peebles in mind, much cheaper (a third of the price).

Friday, 30th November 2007. This morning we went to St Jean de Luz to go to the bank after which we had a short wander around the indoor market and the fish market. They finally seem to be getting into gear now ready for the Christmas season. There were oysters of all different sizes, fresh scallops still in the shell, amazing displays of bread of all kinds, tempting arrays of yellow corn fed chicken, plump poultry, local Brebi cheese made from ewe’s milk and a thousand and one other delights.We went through to the fish market and there were masses of fresh fish straight off the boats gleaming under the lights – monkfish, rouget, sole, turbot, hake, salmon, trout, sea bass, skate, prawns, crayfish, lobster, crab and so it went on. All of which served to underline to me what limited imaginations we have in England and also how poorly we are supplied. Is it us or is it the shops? I wonder though even if all this bounty was available in England, just how many people would still be roasting turkeys and boiling pans of sprouts into submission on Christmas morning. I suspect the majority would be. (“And what’s wrong with turkey..?” I hear you ask..) Nothing, but why not try something new..?

I’m reminded of a story by S (aka Major Bloodnok), a former Army colonel I used to work with. He has a small cottage in Brittany and one day he was at the weekly market there waiting in line at the cheese counter. When it came to his turn, the stallholder offered him a taste of the cheeses he was unfamiliar with. There were a couple of English ladies behind him and each time he tasted a new cheese, they’d say to him, “Is it like Cheddar..?” (as if that’s the yardstick!)

My favourite Major Bloodnok story though goes back a few years to when he was staying at a hotel somewhere in northern France. A dusty Rolls Royce with GB plates pulled up outside and a gentleman got out along with his wife and daughter.

Entering the reception area, he spotted a waiter and asked in broad Yorkshire tones, “Garçon, d’you serve wine here..?”

Taken a little by surprise, the waiter thought for a second before answering, “Oui, monsieur, but of course..”

“Well, in that case,” the Yorkshireman continued, “I’ll have three wines…”

Meanwhile, back in the Basque country, when we came home, we met Madame D outside in the lane. I asked her if I could wander up to the barn for a last look at the pig before it went to “Hawg Heaven” on the Saturday.. She said the French equivalent of “Too late mate - he was killed this morning.” She said if I wanted to see him he was up in her son’s garage. I went up there for a look and there he was in all his glory – he had been split in two by the butcher and was tied spatchcock fashion to a door that was leaning against the wall while his head was elsewhere “helping the police with their enquiries”. In reality, the head was being used to make sausages. He was one big pig though.. I think even minus the head there was a good six feet of him.

Saturday, 1st December 2007. Today was the day of the big local derby game (rugby union) between Bayonne and Biarritz and we drove by the Stade Jean Dauger in Bayonne. If someone were to start an international creative parking competition, I’m convinced that the trophy would be held in perpetuity by the Basques. There were cars parked on roundabouts, on the dividing strip in the middle of a dual carriageway, and just about everywhere and anywhere a car could be parked. Occasionally you’d see a car parked and wonder just how it had been put there.. There was no sign of any police or traffic wardens in the area. (I’ll leave you to compare and contrast etc) People were just left to get on with it and consequently it all seemed to be running smoothly. Bayonne had been heading the French Top 14 rugby table a week or two previously but while the game was a close encounter, it was won, predictably, by Biarritz who had just too much quality in the end.

On returning home, we found a carrier bag full of freshly made black pudding and sausages sitting on the doorstep.. We tried them that evening and the sausages were especially good..


Sunday, 2nd December. I walked the pooch up the lane this morning – it was another of those beautiful mornings that we are lucky to get down here in the Basque country. The sky was deep blue, the sun was shining and, from the farmhouse chimney, blue smoke was rising slowly and drifting up and along the valley as various parts of the pig were smoked. There are still quite a few trees with leaves remaining and these stand out sharply – burnt copper against the intense blue of the sky. I think we’ll go to Biarritz again this afternoon. We never tire of walking along the promenade watching the great waves rearing up and crashing in an explosion of white foam. And yesterday there were surfers out there still…!

I was just watching a football programme on French TV and it gave the scores from recent matches like this:
Nantes 1 St Etienne 2
Cartons Jaunes 2 Carton Jaune 1
Carton Rouge 1 Carton Rouge 0
For a second or two, I thought that these were results from the French equivalent of the Conference League and that Cartons Jaunes were a team like Total Network Solutions who, I think, play in the Welsh League. Then there was a ker-ching as the centime dropped.. Carton means ‘card’ in French and ‘jaune’ means yellow and ‘rouge’ means – well, you know what that is doncha! Oh I geddit!

Monday, 3rd December 2007. A great weight was lifted from us this morning. And I hope I’m not speaking too soon.. After weeks of procrastination, delays, incompetence, lost cheques and waiting for cheques to clear from various financial institutions we finally transferred the bulk of the funds across to France this morning at an exchange rate which, while not great, was an improvement on the quoted rate last Friday.

This whole situation has been causing us both sleepless nights for weeks.. It also shows up that while we are supposedly in the electronic age, some of our systems and procedures are still firmly rooted in the Victorian age. For example, the bank in England wanted instructions in writing by post - and no, a fax wasn’t acceptable – to transfer money from our UK account to our account in France. Similarly, the building society in the Isle of Man where we held a tax-free savings account for non-UK residents needed a form completed by hand in ink authorising them to send funds to a newly designated account. I felt like asking them and the bank if mere paper would suffice for the letter or would I need to write on parchment? Roll on the 20th century..

Anyway, all that is now behind us hopefully - apart from a cheque from the Prudential that’s gone AWOL.. and the Pru has gone deep and silent on the issue.

Friday, 7th December 2007. Went to the bank today and our account showed that our house funds had arrived – even the cheque that the Pru owed me. I had to threaten them with legal action to get any sense out them..

Probably not a good time for the Man from the Pru to call. A well aimed freshly made black pudding can do a fair bit of damage..

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