Tuesday, 22 September 2009

23. Spring - Fête de Bayonne 2008

I think we'd been in the house for 2 months and we had just about got ourselves straight when our first visitors arrived.. By the end of September 2008, five months later, we'd had 21 visitors - and with Madame's health problems, this is something we won't be repeating - except for very special cases. She only knows one way to entertain and that is to push le bateau out.. She is a truly wonderful cook but for days after each set of visitors had departed, she would be absolutely worn out.. It was too much for her. So as much as we’d like to invite friends down here, I think for Madame’s sake, we’ll have to say come down by all means but we won’t be able to put you up. Which is a great pity but there we are.

We'd heard a lot about the famous Fête de Bayonne from various people.. This is the annual fiesta that takes over the town for 5 days & nights every year at the end of July/beginning of August. Last year, it was calculated that 1.3 million people came and this year was no different. Normally, Bayonne has a population of around 40,000 so you can imagine with well over a million extra visitors that the town was well & truly swamped. Many visitors come from the hinterland of the Basque region itself as the Fête is a celebration of their Basque identity but they also come from further afield. If parking can be problematic at normal times, then during the Fête it's a complete nightmare. In our avenue, people normally park on one side only and there’s usually always a space free.. However, during the Fête, cars were 'creatively' parked on both sides up on the pavement as only the French (and the Neapolitans) can do. This meant that we couldn't go out in the car because if we did, the chances of finding a space upon return would be z-e-r-o. It would be no use us putting the car in our garage as some eejits could always be relied on to block the access to it.
 
The Fête started off at 10pm in the main square in front of the Town Hall.. Fortunately we’d arrived there early and we’d found a shop doorway to stand in (which kept us out of the crush). After a few words from the mayor there was the mother of all firework displays – made up largely of explosive detonations that painfully rattled your chest.. Everyone was in white and red - white trousers, white shirts with a red bandana, and a red sash round the waist. Don’t ask why – it’s just how they do it here. Everyone – but everyone – was dressed the same – they all joined together in a display of pride in their separateness, their Basque identity, their distinctive Basque culture, their Basque music, their Basque dancing and their unique Basque language. Language specialists have no idea where or what the origins of the Basque language are – it’s like no other language in Europe or anywhere else. Here’s an example so you can see how different it is: Zuek egunkariak erosten dizkidazue. This means: “you buy the newspapers for me”. Knowledge of any other European language won't help in decoding this.

The Fête really was a spectacle.. Despite the bars being allowed to serve alcohol till 3am and stay open till 5am.. we didn’t see many drunks.. Many slept in their cars.. and cars were parked everywhere.. The town was full of little bars that people set up, each street seemed to have their own band and it was complete bedlam! The narrow streets were full of Basque marching bands beating out old rhythms with their drums, accompanied by the reedy shrieking of an instrument that sounds like a duck call..

One evening our local butcher (supposedly the best butcher in Bayonne) at the bottom of our avenue organized a dinner in the street.. We had to sign up and pay in advance then just turn up on the night. They’d put tables out in the middle of the road to seat about 100 of us.. The price included the menu, the wine and there was music provided by a small band.. It was supposed to start at 9.30pm but of course it didn’t start until 10pm.. The main course was boned leg of lamb – which was delicieux! Fortunately they came round again with seconds! I think we left about 1am..

They had a pop concert one night at the bull ring (which is about 200 yards away) – which was extremely loud.. They'd spent all afternoon doing imaginative sound checks ("Un, deux.. un, deux..") but as the concert finished about midnight it wasn’t too bad.

We’ve been continuing to tackle all the outstanding jobs – some big, some small – one by one. As the dining room shutters were a bit rotten at the top, we had to have some new ones made by Eric. He’s very, very good and not expensive. He’s got the Basque work ethic too..

He appeared one afternoon at about 1.30 with a stack of planks and by 6.30pm he’d finished. He’d taken all the metal fittings off the old shutters and re-used them where he could. Next day, I had the ladder out and I put on 2 coats of the Basque red that we’re supposed to use. All the woodwork of the houses in the Basque country is painted either blood red, dark blue or dark green. Now and again you’ll see a brown one.

So you can see that life here is all one mad round of fun, washing wine stains out the curtains, putting clean straw down, trips to the bottle bank and re-seeding the lawns after the starlings have been at it – AGAIN!

And now I'm just off to buy the newspapers in Basque.. or maybe not.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

22. Wide Loads

This morning we woke up feeling in need of a dose of adrenalin-fuelled high octane excitement - the sort that can only be generated by indulging in some cutting edge retail therapy - so we went out to buy a new toilet seat..! The one we inherited in the downstairs bathroom was past its sell-by date (enough information - it just was!) and was long overdue for replacement. You really haven’t lived until you’ve visited 3 DIY superstores to measure up the myriad toilet seats out on display. You do have to wonder at some of the ones we saw.. like the clear plastic one with barbed wire embedded in it - why?

We had a toilet seat problem.. and it's not often that you hear this discussed in a blog.. Perhaps the previous occupant(s) of the house were "wide loads" because for some unknown reason she/they had chosen to fit a special Godzilla-size toilet in the downstairs loo and not many seats appear to fit it. The only one that fit the bill was lavishly decorated with a highly coloured tropical scene from the Maldives.. Now we have to explain to everyone intending to use it why exactly we chose this particularly garish model..

On the other hand, Madame is absolutely delighted with her new kitchen.. she says it makes her feel like a star.. with everything to hand it’s all very practical. She’d had this idea for a tall wrought iron unit with glass shelves (for cookery books etc) to go in a corner and we walked into a lighting-cum-furniture shop and, “Stone me!” (in the immortal words of the Queen Mother) - there it was – the only one they had and in the exact colour (to match the walls) she wanted too.
More jobs crossed off the list.. put up the first aid cabinet and also tried to install the new small flat screen TV for the kitchen.. There was no aerial point in there so we’d bought an indoor aerial which turned out to be a waste of money. It didn’t seem to matter much where I pointed it, at best we got a black and white picture in a snowstorm.. but luckily the shop did say that if it didn’t work, they’d take it back. So no prizes for guessing where that’s going.. There’s an aerial socket in the dining room and now we’re thinking of taking a feed from that and drilling a hole through the wall to get it into the kitchen. However, I’m rather reluctant to do that as the walls are so pristine but I don’t think we have a choice.
This morning, I finally took the plaster off my middle finger – that was the one that was cut the worst – and it seemed to have healed over now. Unfortunately it was right on the knuckle where it flexes and the doc said I’d have to be careful to try and let it heal without doing too much physical activity.. (“Music to my ears!”) No, to be honest, it’s been a major limitation with all the jobs that needed doing.. I just had to try and avoid gripping things too tightly with my right hand.

I'm off now to have an arduous physio session with a bottle of Ricard..

21. Farewell to the gite

I’m glad my stay in hospital is behind me.. I’ve just got to go back on 28th January for a final check-up. The staff were really friendly and a cut above the staff in NHS hospitals.. (in my experience)

I remember going to visit my Mum who'd been taken into the Accident & Emergency (A&E) Unit at an un-named NHS Hospital in 2006. As I arrived, an ambulance was parked outside the entrance to the A&E Unit and its crew were cleaning out the inside of it – one of them was holding a bloodied stretcher that looked like it had come from a chainsaw massacre while the other chap was hosing the blood off it. I wouldn’t have minded but this was in the entrance to the A&E Unit and everyone walking in or out had to walk through these pools of bloody water..!! I couldn’t believe it..!

1st February 2008. We’d settled on 1st February 2008 with our Hereford based removals company as the date for the delivery of the bulk of our possessions which had been in storage since the summer of 2007. The New Year came and went and as we neared February the last few jobs in the house neared completion. We had to seek permission from the Town Hall to block the traffic in the road while the removals lorry was unloading.

On the day, we were at the house at 7.15am ready for the removals lorry which was expected at 8.15. We turned the heat on and waited. We cordoned off a part of the avenue with some barriers that the council had kindly dropped off for us. I was half expecting a call from the lorry asking me to direct them here but nothing. Madame was getting increasingly agitated as the witching hour approached with still no sign of them.

At 8.15 I was pacing up and down outside when suddenly the big lorry turned into the avenue on the dot of quarter past.. (with the “Dambusters March” playing in the background) The driver was the same chap who’d moved us from the cottage into their storage facility in Hereford - so we knew him. Anyway, he and his mate soon got cracking and despite regular pit-stops for cups of tea on the hour every hour (unlike our Basque boys!) they soon had everything unloaded. Where did all these boxes come from I asked myself..? Boxes and still more boxes appeared. I opened one and found they’d packed half a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits we’d left out for them to have with their tea in the cottage five months earlier. I resisted the temptation to offer them to the men..

We managed to position most of the boxes in the right rooms and then we went back to the gite where we were staying for our last night. It was reassuring to see that our old things had emerged safe and sound not only from storage but also the long trip down. I was desperate to read a book other than "Out of Africa" - great though that is.

The next morning we were up early to fetch the rented camionette (light van) from nearby Ustaritz which we were going to use to transport all our things from the gite to the house.. In the end this evolution took 2 trips. We said our final goodbyes to Monsieur and Madame D who in turn invited us for a coffee in a few days time. Then we returned the van and headed off to the house. In the meantime, the last touches were being applied to the kitchen and the bathroom.. When we’d finally created a bit of space around the sofas, we opened a bottle of champagne that a friend from work had kindly given us - with a few bits of smoked salmon.. It felt good to be reunited with all our things again.

On the Friday morning, our new TV was delivered and connected up. We’ve now got hundreds of channels of TV from around the world – including Al-Jazheera which I don’t think we’ll be watching. They also brought round the new dryer and fitted that on top of the washing machine.. Before long Madame had most of our stuff put away and we were starting to see the walls again.

On the Saturday morning at about 8am I was putting together Madame’s old armoire (wardrobe) when I tripped over a piece that I’d put down on the floor and I went down like a sack of spuds -a sack of pommes de terre doesn't have the same ring to it! I landed on top of the attachment fittings for the electric radiator which hadn’t been put back up and whose edges were razor sharp. On getting to my feet I found I had a sliced cut across the back of my fingers on my right hand (across the first joint) which I hardly felt but then they suddenly started leaking blood.. Madame patched me up as best she could with what we had to hand and then I drove into town to find a pharmacy that was open because here in France, pharmacists will dress a wound for you as well as - here's a surprise - identifying edible from non-edible fungi.

When I found one, the woman took one look and said “’Opital!”.. When I got there I was whistled through to the Urgent Dept and where we found to our astonishment that the doctor there was a young Welshman.. His parents live here for six months and the other six months they spend in Welsh Wales so he grew up speaking French.. I had my hand x-rayed in case some foreign body had got into the cuts and I got a tetanus jab.. and they tied my hand up like a parcel and said no work for you this weekend. A result!

However, after a few idle minutes though, I started carrying on with the million and one jobs that needed doing, of which one of the most time-consuming was changing 20+ plugs on everything electrical from the familiar old British 13 amp to your basic untrustworthy foreign jobbies.. (I jest) And so the days of that week passed.. each day we’d open a few more boxes and put things away, downstairs in the basement or out in the garage to go to the dump.

One morning we went to the gite for the coffee as promised.. and as 12 o'clock approached Madame D brought out a few nibbles.. then it was time for an 'apero'.. at which point Monsieur D came in from the farm - then a bowl of soup appeared.. next minute, there's a roast farm chicken on the table, wine glasses, and we're having a real farm lunch.. cheese.. then a tarte and then coffee and a glass of Basque liqueur.. When we finally came to leave, they presented us with a porcelain Basque pattern coffee service.. Words failed me at this point. They are two of the most generous people I've ever met - we'll never forget them.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

20. The final countdown

Tuesday, 15th January 2008. Readers of a nervous disposition look away now… Between completing on the house and the run-up to Xmas, I had an overnight stay in hospital in Bayonne. I'd needed a minor ‘op’ to remove a stone that had taken up residence somewhere in my plumbing.

While still in the UK, I’d paid for a BUPA consultant and had had ultra sound scans but they were inconclusive. My GP referred me to a consultant at an NHS hospital shortly before we were to leave for France. When this date arrived, they carried out various tests which included ultra sound scans and cameras (but strangely no X-ray), the consultant's advice was that my problem could have been one of three things – the third of which was a tumour!! He wanted – in his words – to “open me up to see what it was”. I thought I don’t think so.. I thought it best to wait until we were settled in France where I’d have time to work through the whole process from start to finish.

So it was that once in France and we’d broken the back of all the tedious jobs and we were approaching Christmas, I finally went to the doctor.. I was quickly referred to a consultant who straightaway sent me for X-ray and 10 minutes later told me that what I had was a stone and definitely not a tumour. (Phew..!) It was as simple as that. With my layman’s hat on I can’t help but wonder why the NHS didn’t X-ray me..? He asked me what I was doing on the following Monday and with that, I was booked in for an ‘op’. I was amazed at the professionalism and speed of the whole process, the modern facilities, the friendliness and approachability of the doctors and the consultants.. It was difficult not to make comparisons with my experience of the NHS.

I went in and had the stone removed and when Madame brought me back home to the gîte, to my amazement Madame D came upstairs with a basket containing a bottle of wine, a packet of coffee, a box of sugar and a large bar of chocolate.. She said it was traditional in the Pays Basque.. and Madame and I were very touched by this kind gesture as they don’t have much in the way of material wealth.

This afternoon, I had my French class again which I enjoy. We all ended up talking as there were only four of us today and one was Vanessa, a new girl from Colombia in South America. The teacher asked me if I'd like to ask Vanessa a few questions? (Ding dong!) Faced with this approach, there was no option but to put my natural English reserve on hold and it wasn't too long we were all freely engaged in murdering the French language in a variety of ways using all available cover. Why didn't we learn French this way at school? All I can remember are endless lists of new vocab to be learnt and death by grammar.

Wednesday, 16th January. We went to Spain this morning to do some shopping and as we approached the border, we were both once again struck by the beauty of the countryside and the mountain scenery. There’s something about the fold and the lie of the land here that we both like very much. Many of the peaks are steeply angled and of course the landscape is dotted with these beautiful white-painted Basque farmhouses that are often situated on top of hills. I think they do this to get the evening breeze when it’s hot in summer. While I do have a soft spot for the Malvern Hills, I'm afraid that they're small pommes de terre compared to the Pyrenees.
We decided to have lunch in Spain while we were there.. We had a tortilla each, which here is like a potato omelette with ham and cheese in it. With that we also had a round of hot bread with a slice of lomo (pork with piment d'Espelette) and cheese on it each. To ease its progress down we had a sangria each followed by an espresso..

When we emerged outside, I looked up at the sky and it was a real dark midday sky – almost black. It was the colour of a gun barrel – a very threatening dark blue-grey.. We went into another shop for some food shopping and while we were in there, there was a resounding crash of thunder followed by the sound of torrential rain on the roof.. The poor pooch was stuck out in the car on his own as they don’t let dogs in shops in Spain, unlike in France..

Thursday, 17th January. Rained quite heavily for most of today.. We went to the house this morning for 9am to wait for the company who were going to deliver the new bed.. They couldn’t or wouldn’t tell us an exact time it would arrive so we had to hang around until they finally came just before lunchtime. The kitchen fitter, Eric, is one of Peio’s Basque Mafia (another one!) and he’s another superb worker. By the time we left he’d done so much and neatly too. Every day we do a few more ‘little’ jobs.. I sometimes wish I’d made a note of them all. It would be quite a daunting list if we’d seen it at the start.

Yesterday, for example, we had a look at what system we’re going to use to get TV, internet and telephones in the new house. There are so many different possibilities these days and the tarifs of the various companies are all subtly different depending on what you want. It’s a real minefield. They make it difficult for you to compare like with like. Also what kind of phones to buy.. And, no, they’re not all the same nowadays.

The day before we’d finally tracked down the right council department – after visiting about four different council departments - that issues wheelie bins as ours had vanished. They said they’ll drop one off at the house this week. Tick VG. Another job done. I think we do about 2-3 of these little jobs every day and we’ve been doing this every day since we arrived here.

Today we’re going to look at renting a small van for the move on 30th January. Plus we’re going to look at another TV/Internet/telephone provider in Bayonne called Numericable. With many of these companies now they offer free phone calls within France and all the EU (including Britain) and N America… And that’s 7 days a week, not just week ends! However, when we arrived there, we were discouraged by the number of dissatisfied customers.. We’re also going to shift all the new bathroom fixtures and fittings from the front bedroom where they’ve been stored for the last few weeks to the back bedroom which has now been finished. Another job done. Once we’ve done that, the painter can get cracking in the front bedroom. Next week, the new bathroom goes in too..

Madame's going to start sweeping out the sitting room and the dining room today as we’ve asked Eric if he can give us a price for sanding the wooden floors in there and refinishing them. He’ll have to get a shift on as there’s only next week clear before the removals men arrive with all our stuff the following week.

Friday, 18th January. We went to the house this morning and Eric's almost finished. He had the fridge in and he was just screwing all the handles onto the new units. And then that will be about it in there.. There’s now very little trace of the previous owner’s decoration evident and the house is very light now. Eric is also an interior decorator and we’ve asked him to do the downstairs wood floors as his estimate was very reasonable. He’s going to sand the floors in the sitting room and dining room on Monday and then he’ll put a couple of coats of varnish down. I asked the painter this morning in a roundabout way what he liked to drink.. He said whisky.. I surprised him (and myself!) by giving him a bottle of 12 year old Glenmorangie on his last day as our way of saying thank you for a good job well done..

It was still grey here today after a couple of days of rain. The river that runs down the valley was running very high and the water was brown..

Saturday, 19th January. We went to the house this morning to meet Peio and two of his Basque friends from the Spanish side who were going to fit the work tops and the sink. They came today to measure up exactly as there’s always a world of difference between the plan and reality. Eric is going to sand the floors in the sitting room and dining room on Monday so we had a major tidying up session. We swept and swept and swept getting all the dust up.. One of the side-effects of the painter's technique is that it produces a lot of dust as he rubs down with sandpaper between each coat. But a determined sweep gets most of it up and we went over it at the end with a damp cloth. We did the upstairs too while we were at it. It really needs a good vacuuming as a lot of dust has got down between the cracks in the floorboards.

The pooch was wandering around in his new garden but he was slightly uncertain of himself. Not quite sure what’s happening. He looked like he didn’t know whether to stick or twist.

After I’d finished sweeping and shifting things around I went outside and sat on our terrace to cool off as I was covered in dust and sweat. Madame reckoned that it was warm enough to eat outside. I’ve always dreamed of living somewhere where you could sit outside to eat..

We went to St Jean de Luz this afternoon and when we got out of the car it was like May… blue skies, brilliant light and the sun was warm on our faces. It was superb - I left my jacket in the car and just had a sweater on. Madame wanted to go there as there’s a bedding shop that she wanted to have a look at. It was open so in we went and 20 minutes later (this is the kind of shopping I like!) we came out with a bedspread and two pillow cases for the new bed and a blanket as ours were getting a bit thin. As a bonus they were in the sales too.

After that we walked along the front and found a bench facing the sun and sat there for a bit like a couple of owld codgers.. Well, why not? It was really just the job and we were reminded how lucky we are to be living here. After that, we found a table outside in a crowded café in the main square where we sat and people watched for a while. It was so warm and we kept telling ourselves that it was mid-January!

Sunday, 20th January. This morning we drove just up the coast to a place called Hossegor in Les Landes. Although it’s just outside the Basque Country it’s very different. The landscape is different – the soil is sandy and so the trees and the vegetation is different – it was thickly wooded with pines. The style of houses is different too (right). Gone are the large white Basque houses with the wood facings painted blood red. We had a good long walk along an inland canal that was less of a canal and more like an inlet that was open to the sea. It became a large lake surrounded by houses that looked wince-makingly expensive. While we were there I saw a young couple getting out of a black Range Rover Sports - a familiar face I thought - it was Dimitri Yashvili (the French rugby international) who plays for Biarritz Olympique.

A white van with Spanish plates stopped outside the house during the afternoon and it was our Spanish Basques with our granite worktops.. The two Basques were quite happy to work away well into Sunday evening so we left them to it and sure enough, the next morning, when we opened up, the kitchen looked magnificent with its gleaming green granite tops. They'd done a beautiful job.

Monday, 21st January. Went to the house first thing (9am) and Eric had almost finished (!) sanding the sitting room and dining room floors..

After this we went to St Jean to go to the bank to tell them of our impending change of address and then, on the way back, we stopped at a Depôt Vente where we bought a wardrobe in cherry wood for one of the bedrooms. It should be a good match for a chest of drawers we already have in cherry wood and it will give us a bit more storage space. It comes apart so they’ll deliver it (on 1st Feb) and put it back together again. It’s 16½C, in bright sunshine and hardly a cloud to be seen..!

A chap could get used to this!

Monday, 14 September 2009

19. The Work Starts

At this point the diary entries that I wrote during the autumn of 2007 came to a grinding halt. I now have to resort to memory to cover the 18 month period down here from December 2007 to September 2009.

As you might imagine, the pace of events became a lot more hectic as the date for the completion of the house purchase approached.

One subject that rapidly took centre stage was the finance. I’d had an endowment policy with the Prudential – a solidly Scottish company (or so I thought) – and the plan was to surrender it to part finance the house purchase. I quickly discovered (to my horror) that the ‘Pru’ used a call centre that, handily for us (!), was based in the Indian sub-continent.. aagghh! At this point, I started to feel more than slightly vulnerable as we had no communications in the gîte apart from a ‘pay as you go’ mobile phone.. There was a telephone kiosk in the village but for email, all we had were the facilities of an internet café in Bayonne 10kms away - during normal shop opening hours.

The subject of house finance rapidly turned into my worst nightmare when I requested the Pru in the sub-continent to send a large wodge of ‘folding’ to an account we’d opened with an offshore savings bank in the IOM. This they did but, crucially, they neglected to annotate the transfer with the details of our IOM account with the result that the IOM bank sat on it for a while before returning the money to India – an action which caused me many sleepless nights.

Bizarrely, they then left a message on my mobile to say that as they had no details of the target account they’d returned the funds to India - so they clearly knew whose funds they were. Why oh why didn't they call me before bouncing the funds back to India...? All of this was calculated to have me tearing my hair out.. I would lie awake at night in the wee small hours, literally going hot and cold, totally consumed by the fact that neither the IOM nor the Pru in India could tell me exactly where our much-needed house funds (aka our life savings!) were in the international electronic soup that lay between them.. and all the while this was going on, the non-negotiable house completion date was fast approaching and the pound/euro rate was accelerating downhill into unknown territory in an out of control plummet..

Now imagine, if you can, calling the IOM or India on a “pay as you go” mobile and being held in a queueing system waiting to locate someone responsible at either end who could do something about the foul-up.. We did manage to track down the funds in the end and have then safely re-directed to the IOM but it took some time before my stress levels returned to normal.

Between the initial signing of the Compromis de Vente and the Acte de Vente (completion) being signed 3 months later, the pound sterling started to nose-dive in value against the euro and we just managed to convert our house fund into euros at a reasonable rate before transferring it all across to our euro-account in France. With only days to run, our bank in St Jean de Luz then had to prepare a certified banker's cheque for the full amount for us to present on completion day. It really was a close-run thing and so it was just before Christmas 2007 that we convened at the Notaire’s office to go through the paperwork line by line before finally, miracle of miracles, the Notaire handed us a large bunch of keys..

Afterwards, we drove down to St Jean de Luz to celebrate the house purchase with lunch and a well-deserved glass of champagne overlooking the bay. We’d done it! P-h-e-w...

Time for a break with a spot of slide guitar.. and some stunning scenery from the now-legendary Route 66:

We’d already made contact with Peio, our friendly Basque kitchen fitter and he’d put together an excellent plan for our kitchen as well as putting us in touch with other local Basque ‘artisans’ to tackle jobs like the walls, painting, plastering, tiling, plumbing and the electrics. His Basque Mafia (as I called them) contacts extended over the border into the Spanish Basque country from where he had a Spanish Basque mate who would cut, supply and fit the green granite worktops for the kitchen at an extremely competitive price.

Within a day of completing the purchase, we had the house full of Basque artisans all working as I’ve never seen tradesmen work before. Bear in mind that this was the week before Christmas, it was pitch dark at both ends of the working day and, in line with standard French practice, all the light fittings had been removed by the family of the previous occupier (bare wires sticking out of the walls) and the fabric of the house was stone cold. My first job was to rig up some emergency lighting so that we could see what we were doing.

Meanwhile, Bayonne was quietly girding its loins ready for Christmas. We had Christmas in the gîte and despite it not being that comfortable, the sight of a large jangling bunch of keys kept our spirits up..

In the meantime, our team set to with a vengeance. Basque was the lingua franca and they only spoke French when Madame or I spoke to them. The painter (in his late 60s) was a real find.. he’d turn up at 7.30am, drop his tools off, switch the electric radiators on and then he’d nip up the avenue to the café on the corner for a quick caffeine fix before returning to start work at 7.45.. He would then work straight through until 5pm without stopping. He took Christmas Day off but at 7.45am sharp on Boxing Day (26th Dec) he was back at work. (Imagine this in the UK!) I’d often ask him if he would like a coffee or a hot chocolate but he’d always decline the offer. I went round the house removing all the numerous picture hooks, mirrors and wall fittings while he stripped the blessed pink wallpaper off. Most of the ceilings had quite extensive cracking of the plaster. He just got his head down and started in the living/dining room and appeared totally unfazed by the magnitude of the task before him – filling in cracks and fissures in the walls, sanding them smooth before tackling the cracks in each ceiling.

Meanwhile, the tiler-cum-plasterer (another Basque in his late 60s) was revealing himself to be another master craftsman.. He started work in the out-dated kitchen by ripping out all the old appliances, units and sinks and then he attacked wall tiling with what looked and sounded like a road mender’s pneumatic drill. The kitchen soon resembled a Beirut film set as the floor filled up with chunks of plaster, brickwork and the air was thick with dust. The pristine design for our new kitchen that Peio had created for us on his PC screen seemed a million miles away. The tiler/plasterer started peeling back the paper on the ceiling as it needed re-papering. However, it soon appeared that the paper was actually holding the ceiling up and so he recommended that he put a false ceiling in. After we’d okayed it, the next morning when we visited he’d singlehandedly put up the supporting framework for the false ceiling and he was already busy attaching the plaster board.

Meanwhile the painter was working like a dervish and had made a beautiful job of repairing the cracks in the living room ceiling.

When the electrician appeared, it turned out that he was Madame D’s son from the gîte! It’s a small world in the Pays Basque. Soon he’d channelled the walls for the additional wall lighting and extra power outlets that we wanted.

The kitchen fitter had brought all the kitchen components in from the garage and had started assembling everything. The painter had finished the kitchen and had repaired the cracks in the bathroom ceiling, the landing ceiling and the hall ceiling. He’d also put the undercoat on in the bathroom and was now filling in the thousand and one little holes and cracks in the hall, stairs and landing. What a worker - he was unstoppable.. He’d arrive at 7.30am in time for a quick coffee and then off he'd go to work..

As I write, it’s just going dark (it’s 5.50pm) and the wind is getting up – every now and again you hear a bang as a gust of wind rattles the shutters. It’s been very blowy all day – the weather forecast yesterday was for 70mph onshore winds. I’d’ve liked to have gone down to the sea front at Biarritz to see the big rollers coming in but that will have to keep for another day.

Soon, many walls had been replastered, floor tiles had been laid, new ceilings fitted and skimmed with plaster, light fittings installed, kitchen units built and gradually we could see that there was more work behind us than in front of us.

This was the first time we’d been involved in a total refurbishment of a house from top to bottom and it was very rewarding to watch it all gradually coming together exactly as we’d imagined it.

The bathroom was the last room to be attacked and it was blitzed! The noises coming from upstairs were indescribable as our tame tiler set to with a vengeance and his trusty four foot long pneumatic drill. Soon he’d chiselled off all the wall tiles and removed the bath, the wash hand basin, the toilet and the bidet.. After removing all the rubble he re-plastered the walls..

I was continually amazed at the pace of their progress when compared to British workmen. We’d spruced up the kitchen of our Herefordshire cottage just prior to selling it and our tiler there stopped every hour on the hour for a mug of tea and biscuits. Here, in Bayonne, they never took a break and just worked and worked and worked. After the bathroom had been repainted, the new shower unit went in, along with a new WC, wash hand basin and the heated towel rail and suddenly the bathroom was finished.

I was becoming a regular at the rubbish disposal centre which was fortunately only a 5 minute drive away and the house started to look empty as heaps of packing and cardboard boxes disappeared.

Gradually, there remained fewer and fewer jobs to do as we approached completion. We agreed a date by which it would all be finished and so at that point I called our removals company in Hereford and asked them to deliver all our things from out of storage on 1st February 2008 – which was only 5-6 weeks after we’d taken possession.

The house looked perfect and we were delighted with it. The new TV was delivered – followed by the man from Orange who hooked up our phone, TV and internet access. We had a large wardrobe delivered in kit form and soon that was assembled up in our bedroom. We also bought a wardrobe unit from a depôt vente in St Jean de Luz.

All that remained to do now was to start sweeping up the plaster dust that was everywhere but this little job took us weeks to get under control!

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..

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

17. Noël

I was just saying to Madame the other day that so far we’ve seen no reference to the approach of Christmas in any of the shops – no towering displays of marzipan or jars of mincemeat or John Lennon singing “So this is Christmas”.. or Easter eggs in Woolworths. (now - unbelievably - closed for good in the UK I heard)

So imagine my surprise this morning when I heard on the radio the unmistakeable sound of 'Jingle Bells'…! It made me think – well here we are with less than 2 months to go to Christmas and still no Christmas Lights.. The French just don’t have a clue do they.. (irony!) I would guarantee that, for the last few weeks, supermarkets back home will already have been fully set up with dedicated aisles for such traditional English Christmas essentials as German Stollen bread, French marzipan, Belgian chocolates, Turkish delight, Italian panettone cakes and the like (we contribute the spuds!).. and deep freezes full of turkeys the size of small boulders..

One afternoon we went into Bayonne to a “Depôt Vente”. This is where you can take things to sell – mainly furniture.. The Depôt Vente sets the price and then takes a percentage of the proceeds. We went there looking to see what they had in the way of armoires. There were some in stock and while they were certainly cheaper than we’d seen in antique shops, it was fairly clear why. I think these are the kind of places that you need to drop in every week to see the new stock as it arrives - except that, like stuffing mushrooms, life is just too short for some things.

After this, it was starting to feel like evening so we came back. Madame had bought some chestnuts so we had these roasted with a cup of tea (living dangerously!).

For the French holiday on 1st November, we planned on going to Les Aldudes - a village buried in the Basque mountain country that straddles the entrance of a valley that, while it runs deep into Spain, it’s still French. The valley's chief claim to fame is that it produces arguably the best Jambon de Bayonne in the area. And, of course, many of the other products that the Basque cuisine is famous for.

There is a saying that some lofty Parisian food critics are fond of quoting that the only implement needed in a kitchen in the South West is - a tin opener! While this was meant as a clever put-down, nevertheless I think it does hit on a truth. Much of the great cuisine of the South West can be preserved.. Think of confit de canard, foie gras, haricot beans in graisse d’oie (goose fat), rillettes, cassoulet and pipérade (though personally I have some doubts about this last one) et al... There isn't much that can't be put in a can or a jar - but it's none the worse for that. It's possible to buy all these products via mail order too!

Post visit report: Well, we had a great day out today high up in the Pyrenees.. First of all, the weather was supposed to be 3C in the morning warming up to 12C in the afternoon. Anyway, we set off and as we climbed up and up the skies cleared and we were gradually able to see the start of the high Pyrenees in the distance – the mountains near us were only about 2-3,000‘ high – further east, I think they go up to about 9,000’ or even higher. As we climbed, the full extent of the Pyrenees started to unfold in front of us.. and just when we thought we’d seen one high mountain, in the distance behind it, we’d see another even higher one - and in the blue misty distance behind that one, another one..

and yet another one beyond that. And all the time, the valley sides were getting steeper and steeper as we wound our way ever-upwards.. It was difficult to keep one eye on the driving with all this magnificent mountain scenery around us and at one moment, I thought I saw the pale outline of a snow-covered white peak that was higher than the rest, way way off in the distance and I thought, surely not, a snow covered peak so early in the season but on the regional news when we returned home they featured it too. First snow of the year in the Pyrenees..
Les Aldudes
Stirring mountain scenery and it was difficult to keep my eyes on the road as the country opened up before us. We ran up the valley on an old single track smuggler’s road that climbed up towards Spain and near the top we pulled over to eat our lunch.. I opened my window and looked out across the expanse of a great deep valley – white farmhouses with red roofs were dotted across the valley floor. It was through rugged border country like this that the men and women of the wartime Comet Line (organised by a brave young Belgian woman) famously helped Allied airmen to escape down from the Low Countries, through the occupied zone in France, across the Pyrenees into neutral Spain and home via British-controlled Gibraltar. In fact, in Sare, a Basque village close to the border, I recently discovered a newly placed memorial to the SAS, who'd also operated against the Germans in the area.

I saw some large birds flying around in circles and I suddenly realised I was watching vultures (griffon vultures..) circling around in the air currents.. As I watched, I suddenly saw one furl its wings and dive down to the ground, followed by another, and another. Soon, there must have been 20-30 of them down there. Whatever was down there under a tree was getting a good pecking. Another British pensioner who won’t stop for a snooze after lunch again! We first saw them here a few years ago when we were up high in the mountains.. I remember thinking at the time, if I didn’t know better I’d swear they were vultures. When we got back to the hotel, they told us that, yes, there were quite a few vultures up in the hills.. Certainly makes you think twice about falling asleep in the sun after a good lunch..

We next came to a small village, ie, about 5 houses together, and one of them was a hotel with a restaurant. Out of interest we stopped to look at the lunch menu… it was £8 for a 4 course lunch…! (these are 1960 prices!) Next time we go up there, we might just try it. Anyway, we continued higher up the valley and soon we came to the border. There was no border as such – just a garage and a smoky café.. (smoking still being allowed indoors in Spain)

The countryside looked spectacularly good in its burnt copper autumn colours under a cloudless deep blue sky. After this, we went to St Jean Pied de Port. This is a very old town in the heart of the Pyrenees where Madame’s father’s family originated. Time for a Basque choir.. and enjoy the wonderful scenery:
video
It’s on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. People still come from all over the world to walk the route. It was getting really warm now and after blocking various pavements for a while we found a tea shop and sat outside in the sun. Madame couldn’t believe that she was still wearing her sunglasses on 1st November..!

Main street of St Jean Pied de Port


St Jean Pied de Port
At the moment, there’s still that holiday feel to life down here because we’re still "camping out" in the gîte with a minimum of our belongings. I just have the one English book and that’s “Out of Africa” - which I’ve read twice since we’ve been here - as all our books are in storage. As a compulsive reader, failing to ensure that I'd packed a box of books in the van was a major mistake.

This is "Tarantella" by Hilaire Belloc.. (try reading it aloud)

Do you remember an Inn,
Miranda?
Do you remember an Inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding,
And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees,
And the wine that tasted of tar?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
(Under the vine of the dark veranda?)
Do you remember an Inn, Miranda,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
Who hadn't got a penny,
And who weren't paying any,
And the hammer at the doors and the Din?
And the Hip! Hop! Hap!
Of the clap
Of the hands to the twirl and the swirl
Of the girl gone chancing,
Glancing,
Dancing,
Backing and advancing,
Snapping of a clapper to the spin
Out and in
And the Ting, Tong, Tang of the Guitar.
Do you remember an Inn,
Miranda?
Do you remember an Inn?


There is another verse but I like this one.

16. Sunday lunch again

Anyway, it’s Sunday again and there’s not a cloud in the sky. I could get used to this! We’re off to the restaurant in 'our' village again for lunch. After that, we’ll probably lurch down to St Jean or to Biarritz for a waddle along the sea front.

The nice thing about houses like the one we’re in is that in the morning, you can open the windows, push back and clip the shutters in place - then leave the windows wide open to air the room properly. I think that’s why so many people in England suffer from asthma – the houses don’t get properly aired. They live behind their double glazing with the central heating on and the windows never get opened. Consequently, the bedrooms are full of microscopic dust from skin flakes etc..

Another rant over!

 Later that day - had an excellent lunch at the restaurant – we hadn’t booked so we had a different table.. They had a new menu for Autumn – the starters were either frogs legs or an Autumn salad which was a cold collation: 2 major slices of Bayonne ham, their own paté, warm foie gras, salad, asparagus tips, gherkins, hot bacon. Madame chose the frogs legs while I had the salad.. After that, the choices for the main course were either: civet of hare, wild boar, a brochette of fillet of venison or a wood pigeon. Madame had the wild boar and I had the venison. I was feeling a bit stuffed after the starter because the foie gras was about the size of a horse’s ear.. and it had been quick fried and was delicious beyond words.. plus all the ham… To be honest widger, I could have stopped there with just the starter.. but I was eating for Britain..

Madame’s wild boar came with steamed waxy yellow potatoes and a little stack of creamed chestnuts.. My venison was on a big skewer interleaved with bacon and mushrooms and had a pile of chips with it (finger wagging time!)… Both were delicious – my venison was red in the middle and tender. So tasty.. Madame’s was the same… All this slid down accompanied by some Madiran, the local red.. After that, there was a sorbet with something alcoholic poured over it. After this I had a coffee – well, I was driving! How much was that lot I hear you ask..? £18 each..

Scientists have found a correlation between the greater health & longevity enjoyed by men in this region of France (compared to the rest of France) and the consumption of the local red Madiran wine.. Something for the ladies: dark chocolate is also mentioned. For more information, here's the link that claims Madiran has significant health benefits:

We had a walk around the village to try and walk some of it off – it was very warm. I’d left the gîte in a padded jacket and a sweater over my shirt but I left these in the car and just had my shirt on.. in late October as well. Not a cloud in the sky and the village looked wonderful.. the mountains were purple in the sunlight.. Think the thermometer outside the Pharmacy said 18C but that was a shade temperature. I think it was nearer 22 in the sun.


After this we went to Biarritz to have a walk along the front.. There was a surf competition on – French National Championships – and there were quite a few people down there watching the big rollers sweeping in.. There were quite a few Brits there with it being half term. We sat and watched the surfers for a while too before heading for home..

Surfing the Belharra reef
For more hard core surfers (well insured ones with a death wish), there's always the monster waves at the Belharra Reef for those brave enough to try - just to the south of St Jean de Luz.. If this picture (and no, it's not been Photoshopped!) doesn't put you off: then you probably need to watch the truly scary video..
video
In this next beautifully filmed clip, the monster waves above are shown forming over the Belharra reef (turn the sound up!) :

And so ends another week.. I could get used to this.. (there's an echo in here!) What am I saying...? I am getting used to this..!! Living healthily is not easy - the tricky part is remembering where I left the corkscrew..

15. Antiques and another thick head..

We had a very pleasant day out a couple of weekends ago. We set off just after 9am to go to Pau (looking for an old armoire – or wardrobe). We took the motorway and soon ran into morning mist but as we neared Pau it lifted. The countryside looked beautiful and once again I regretted not having a camera to hand. As we went over the top of one hill, the landscape ahead was hidden in low early morning mist with the tree tops standing clear in the sunlight. The folds in the landscape looked like an endless procession of blue waves rolling towards us… they receded and faded into a blue haze with telephone wires gleaming silver in the morning sun. Magic.

Pau is one of those places that had its heyday back in the twenties and thirties when, before the advent of civil aviation, the rich used to rumble down there in their Bentleys or Hispano-Suizas for the winter sun. Also, Pau used to host a Grand Prix that was run around the streets of the town back in the era of the state-funded German works teams – Mercedes and Auto Union – in the thirties.

Looking south from Pau
It had this “lost in time” feel. The road into the town centre took us through some fairly run-down areas but once we’d parked, we found our way to the old town and there the picture changed markedly.

Place Royale

The town is built on the edge of a flat-topped hill that looks south with a splendid panoramic view of the Pyrenees. Naturally enough, the chic part of Pau is on this side.. and there were some lovely old buildings and stylish apartment blocks here as well plus an old restored castle that had formerly been occupied by Henry IV. The style of building in Pau is totally different to that in the Basque country – no big white houses with overhanging roofs – here, the roofs were more steeply pitched with flat tiles - as opposed to the pantiles that are the norm on and near the coast. Henry IV was the king who, according to legend, promised to put a chicken in every pot. We found the Place Royale (right), a square that couldn’t have been in any other country but France. It was bordered by elegant old apartment buildings in pale stone, all with shuttered windows and the square itself was lined with clipped trees in rows that surrounded a raked light gravel centre with a statue of King Henry IV.

After a light lunch we wandered through the square to a viewpoint looking south. The flower borders were full of colourful flowers (chrysanthemums according to Madame) and there were palm trees all around. There was a free funicular railway that ran hordes of pensioners (ie, people over 60)(like me) down to the bottom and back if they felt in need of more excitement than could be found in a cup of hot chocolate.. We wandered along the edge of the hill in the warm sunshine till we found a card shop. After we’d bought some cards we just sat in the sun and soaked up the sunshine.

We had a look in a few antique shops for armoires but they wanted crazy money for them. As luck would have it, there happened to be an antique fair on that very weekend – and free admittance.. There were some OK armoires there but they weren’t sufficiently well made to prise any excess funds from the vaults…

One last thing we noticed was an English estate agent had set up here with all the adverts in the window in English and French… Sign of the times..

By this time we’d had enough excitement (!) for one day and so we set off for home. As it was the end of the month we went downstairs to pay Mme D the rent for the month and she invited us down for a drink.. (Uh-oh!)

She put out some ham on crusty bread for us while M’sieur D got a firm grip of the whisky bottle. Can he pour them…! I think I had 2 of his US Marine Corps-size whiskies (equivalent to a Jereboam!). Mme D said that the ham came from her own pigs. In fact, I’d heard the odd grunting from a sty and she confirmed that they kept 2 pigs at the moment. They’re both over 200kgs each (about 450lbs or so) and they’re both due for the chop in a month… At this point Monsieur D went into graphic detail about how the job would be done. Suffice to say, it takes them about 3 days to fully finish butchering the animals. The annual killing of the pig is embedded in Basque tradition. Neighbours combine to help each other in the cold winter months and turn the day into a festive celebration. With a few drinks of course.

He said that each ham (ie, leg) weighs in at around 22 kgs or almost 50lbs.. They salt the legs to turn them into ham, the blood is used to make black pudding, they make sausages from the head and… well, you don’t want me to go on, do you..?! But they use everything except the squeal.. It does sound a bit cruel to us townies but it's the harsh reality of farm living. It happens every day at an abattoir near you – except there, the numbers are measured in hundreds or thousands.

14. Of oysters and folklore..

Another day we decided to go to "Les Halles", the food market in Bayonne on the banks of the Nive; however, when we arrived there, we found ourselves in an area we hadn’t been to before and there were quite a few cafes with tables outside built on to the market that were serving seafood and oysters. Lots of people were sat out quaffing oysters and white wine so we sat at a table in the sunshine.
Covered market (Halles de Bayonne), Bayonne
They had a good little menu – they were offering half a dozen oysters and a glass of white for 7.20€ - that’s about £4.95 - so we had a dozen oysters between us. But only 3 worked…! (Sid James laugh!) They were No 3s.. & slightly larger than the No 4s that we normally have – they were bigger and deeper – and after four, Madame had had enough. I always find with oysters that, after I’ve had a few, my imagination starts to take over and I start thinking about what I’m putting in my mouth. It’s fatal to look too closely at them…! I just managed to finish off the rest - in line with the time honoured family motto – “Operor non licentia quisquam in vestri patella vos ingratus parum uredo” - which roughly translates as “Don’t leave anything on your plate, you ungrateful little bleeder  blighter”! After the oysters we had some local paté, with crusty bread and a salad.

Following this bijou snackette, we drove to Hasparren, which is another typical Basque village about 10-15 miles from where we are. When we arrived there at 3pm, it seemed like the whole village had turned out in black for a funeral in the big church that dominated the centre.

The clock struck three and then the bells started a funereal tolling… and those words by John Donne sprung to mind - “No man is an island, entire of itself... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” This quote has always had a resonance with me for some reason. Wish I could remember the entire thing. There wasn’t much going on in Hasparren (what with the entire village being at the funeral) so after looking around, we headed for home.

One Sunday, we went to a festival in Bernadette & Philippe's village when they bring all the pottoks (wild mountain horses) down from the mountains for the winter and run them through the streets. It was a huge all day event with all kinds of folklorique things going on. The previous weekend we'd been at the restaurant when they'd asked us if we were going to be going be there for lunch on the following Sunday because apparently the village always gets invaded by hordes of beret-toting Basques (and we’d have to book early) and the festival goes on all day and night. They advised us to get there by 9am just to be able to park…! All the restaurants serve the same menu that day – and all we knew was that it was going to be based on apples.

Mme D gave us another 6 fresh eggs plus some more of her fresh sweet green peppers that she grows. Madame made one of her award-winning “6 egger” omelettes (cries of “You’ll be egg-bound!” or “You’ll get boils!” from the wings) with the green peppers in - which we eased down with some very dark red wine from Cahors – which we'd found somewhere at ~£2 a bottle.

Another Sunday morning came – and what was special about this one was the Sunday morning hunting… It sounded like November 5th as I walked up the hill with the dog… there were single bangs, double bangs in quick succession and then what sounded like a bad night in Baghdad as local hunters attempted to blow the wings off a sparrow or summat using what sounded like a belt-fed mortar.. The bangs were coming from all around and ranged from the deafeningly near to the barely audible..

We arrived at 'our' village on the Sunday just as they were diverting traffic around it because they were expecting big crowds.. We started off in the bar in the restaurant where we had a coffee and a croissant – although others were already into the armagnac - at 9am..


In the field next to the restaurant a marquee had been set up and filled with benches and tables where the feeding of the 5,000 was going to take place later on. They had all the local varieties of cattle and sheep in pens and many of the people were in traditional costume. Some real Basque faces there. There were drums and fifes going off all over the place. While we were waiting for the thunder of hooves, there were a few demonstrations of Basque country dancing and you could see parallels with some English country dancing. There was one where they danced with sticks – a bit like Morris dancing but minus the sheer entertainment value.

One troupe looked really weird.. They had conical hats on their heads that must have been 3 feet high, a shaggy sheepskin top with 2 enormous cow bells tied behind their backs and they adopted a funny high-stepping walk in order to make these bells clang with each step.. (and I’ve missed out a lot of detail here).

Think they'd do well on Clapham Common..! Note: I've added a clip of them in Post 71, look in the first video there at about 6:30..

Pottoks
Then a few horsemen and –women came galloping down the hill, followed by a number of horsemen from the Camargue area of France. They were using saddles that looked like they'd originated in the Middle Ages – these had the high backs and fronts like the knights of old used to have. They were dressed in dark suits, they were all moustachioed and all wore low crowned, wide brimmed black trilbies.. Who was the spiv in "Dad’s Army"..? Private Walker - yes, him! They all looked like him.. “Spivs on Horseback!” Then about a couple of hundred horses came galloping down the narrow lane – it was quite a sight.. After that, we went for a walk around the village as we’d been standing in one spot for too long. Jumpy leg!

When we got back, it was time to ease our way into the restaurant for lunch. It was fully booked, inside and out. Luckily, they’d reserved us a table outside on the terrace but thankfully in the shade as it was very hot by this stage. They gave us a strong cider with something added to it which knocked us out.. phew! People were being turned away in droves. Because of the numbers, all the restaurants in the village were serving the same meal – local lamb. While we were having lunch we could hear the presentation of prizes over the tannoy and the big prizes were given away by Michelle Alliot-Marie. We saw her in Biarritz years ago when she was the mayor there and I remember thinking at the time that she had star quality and that she’d go far. She’s now the Minister for the Interior* (equivalent to the Home Secretary in the UK). I was amazed that she’d turn up to a small place like 'our' village.. She’s a local though and has family in the area. We were told that when they had bad flooding and landslides in and around the village in 2006 that she was there in three hours and she mobilised all the government aid and support. Think she’s on the ball. After she’d finished she walked by us accompanied by a couple of heavies.

Ainhoa
After this we went to Ainhoa (above), a beautiful village on the border, and from there across into Spain to fill up the car with diesel. After this, we came back into France and stopped in a small oak forest where we put the travel rug down in the shade of a big tree and we fell asleep for a while in the heat. The dog was the first one to start snoring, closely followed by – well, I’ll let you guess!
St Jean de Luz
After this we went to St Jean de Luz to walk some of the lunch off along the front. Finding a space was hard – it was almost like summer – and we ended up parking just behind the front in a shady avenue with some great houses but, knowing what we know now, the prices would be telephone numbers. We trolled along the front until we found a spot with some shade – it was very hot with not a cloud in the sky. Big waves were rolling in and there were a few jet-skis out surfing the big waves. Fun to watch. We stayed there for quite a while eventually coming back at about 7pm.

* At the time of writing (Sept 2009) MAM - as she's known here - is the Minister of Justice.

13. French classes and Nantes

I changed French schools a few weeks ago because the one I was at was all self-taught – I would pick up a module that explained a particular point and I would sit there doing the exercises until the centime dropped. It was all a bit soul-destroying so Madame said I’d be better off in a class with a teacher. So I had my first lesson in the new school. After a few minutes the teacher said that I should be in the Woodwork class oops, a higher level group.. But it was a lot better than the previous school.

A few weekends ago we were up in Brittany staying with our friends P and M-A in Nantes. On the Sunday morning before lunch, they took us on a lightning tour around the centre of Nantes. I don’t think Nantes is that well known in England but I think it deserves better. It suffered bomb damage in the war but the old part, which contains a magnificent castle, is still largely intact.
The castle was the former capital of the kingdom of Brittany in olden times and following its recent complete restoration, its stones are now gleaming white and it looked fully functional. Really impressive.

The old part of Nantes reminded us of parts of Paris with its beautiful old squares, elegant public buildings and Baron Haussman-esque apartment buildings. It was much more of a city than I’d expected. It has topped the polls in France for the last few years as being the city with the best overall quality of life. It's full of smart shops and restaurants, antique shops, old book stores and many individual shops that (almost) made me want to stop and have a look.

By comparison, Bayonne is much smaller. But then here there’s St Jean de Luz, Biarritz, Anglet and Bayonne all in very close proximity to each other - each with its own distinctive character and attractions – and over the border in Spain there’s San Sebastian which is very stylish. St Jean de Luz is Madame’s favourite and, as I’ve said before, I think when we get a bit older, we’ll probably think about looking for a flat in the centre there. We often go for a walk in St Jean and it suits us both very well. It’s flat (unlike Biarritz which is quite hilly), compact (so everything is in within easy reach) and the beach is only at one remove from the centre of town.

We’ll see. Think Nantes would be a good place to work but I think down here is the better place for retirement because there’s the seaside, the much warmer climate, the mountains (skiing and walking), fishing (with the rod I bought in Scotland and have been dragging around ever since!), cycling (lots of cycle paths), golf (must be half a dozen golf courses at least around here), and, of course, there’s Spain just over the border. We also noticed that autumn was a lot more advanced up around Nantes – not many leaves left on the trees – whereas here just a few trees have started to change colour and drop their leaves.

Madame always says that the River Loire (which Nantes is at the mouth of) is the big divide in France as far as climate is concerned – north of it and you’ve got all the clouds, rain and mist and to the south of it you’ve got the sunshine. In theory!

We also went into the restored cathedral in the centre of Nantes which looked as though it was built only last week. There’d been a fire in the roof in 1972 which totally destroyed the roof and all the old medieval stained glass windows were lost as they exploded out in the intense heat. The replacement stained glass windows were a bit different too – instead of the usual scenes of saints, Eddie Stobart and co etc, they’d been designed to look like flames – and each window showed a different level of intensity of the fire. Some looked very good but others not so. The fire was caused apparently by some workmen who were working up on the roof with blowlamps setting fire to pigeons or something.

We didn’t have much time to spend looking around as the next stop was the huge Talensac food market. This apparently is one of the biggest and best in France and you would just not believe the range, variety, quality and prices of all the food products – poultry of all types and sizes, seafood, all kinds of meat products and fruit and veg on show. I wished I had my camera at one point as I spotted a smartly dressed lady in a queue at a till waiting to pay. She had her money in one hand and she was holding two large nasty-looking live crabs in the other.. Can’t imagine ever seeing that in England.

Thinking about that I was reminded of the other day when we had some oysters for lunch in Bayonne. On one side, there was a lady on her own tucking in to a dozen oysters and a whole bottle of white wine (I think I might struggle with that..) and on the other side, there were two ladies having lunch together – again, tucking into a pile of oysters with a bottle of white wine in an ice bucket. I remember thinking now there’s another sight you’d never see in England.. (and why not..?) If you are visiting France and have yet to try an oyster, don't let anyone tell you that they're slimy - they are anything but. Loosen the oyster from its shell, squeeze some lemon juice over the oyster and raise the shell to your lips and slide the oyster into your mouth accompanied by a glass (or two) of Chablis, Muscadet sur Lie or Sancerre.. Mmm! Please, no Guinness or Tabasco sauce - these kill the taste in my view. If you are new to oysters I'd suggest starting with No 4s. The number refers to the size - with a No 1 being the largest.
We also stopped briefly to look in the window of a cake shop… Ye gods… you would not believe how good everything looked. But there was not an Eccles cake or a custard slice to be seen for love nor money!

So, back to Tuesday… at my new French class this morning, there were four of us – J (a Sarth Efrican woman), L (a young Mexican hom) and O, a Spanish speaking chap from somewhere in Central America. J has been here since April and her husband commutes from Biarritz to London a few days a week then returns here for a long weekend. Think they’ve been watching too many of these House Abroad shows on TV. Crazy. She doesn’t speak a word of French and even if she could, no-one would understand her. She told me that she didn’t do it at school. Her pronunciation is just about the worst I’ve ever heard – worse even than mine! She pronounced vous gagnez as “vooze gagg nezz” and mieux as “my ucks” – think she has a long way to go. I subsequently was moved up to a higher level class and so I've lost track of how J was doing.. I wish her well!

My new group - a mixed class of around 10 - consisted of Germans, Argentinians, Mexicans, a Pole, a Kosovan and me.

Wonder what the French is for Eccles cake?