Monday, 2 April 2018

254. Spring has sprung..

11th April. "Allez, allez, allez!" (if you have to ask what this refers to, you wouldn't understand!)

4th April. I removed the cover from the table on the terrace yesterday - always a good sign - and we had lunch out there for the first time this year. Think it was about 20° - give or take a degree. It looks like a morning for a ride on my e-bike as well - as the forecast seems to indicate that rain could be on the agenda this afternoon.

The arrival of warmer weather changes everything here - my shorts (!) will soon be making their first public appearance of the year, our plancha (right) will be dragged out and then we tend to live outside until late October/early November (fingers crossed). I'm surprised that the plancha has still to make an impact in the UK as they really do lend themselves to impromptu eating outdoors. I'd've thought they'd be perfect for those unpredictable (polite term!) British summers. From the decision to eat outdoors to starting cooking takes no more than 5 minutes - that's as long as it takes to heat up the cooking surface - plus the cooking surface is far less messy, more versatile and much more convenient than that of barbeque. They excel at cooking fish for example. Eating food cooked on a plancha is highly enjoyable compared to the forced smile of eating something part-cooked or overcooked (ie, burnt) on a barbeque. Here's someone showing how it's done in the US. There's a business opportunity here for someone.  

Hibiscus
2nd April. We've been busy in the garden tidying things up after the last wet three months. I noticed the wisteria (known as glycine in French - you'd never guess) is out. And after 10 years of effort, the lawn finally looks dense and green (with no burnt patches from you-know-who). The hydrangeas (hortensia in French) are off and running too.. and our small palm tree (left) in the front garden is pushing out these large buds and is poised to sprout its yellow blossom and shower everything with pollen. There's also a couple of hibiscus trees (with 5" trunks) that produce spectacularly blue flowers that have just started to bud. Everywhere we looked today, nature was in motion - at last.

Here's something I caught on the radio earlier today.. It was new to me and it sounded as if it could have been an old Irish air. But - it's called "The Ashokan Farewell" and surprisingly, it was written by Jay Ungar back in 1982. Well done to him! It was also used as the title track to the PBS series "The Civil War" (which I've just started watching.. really excellent so far).

If ever a tune was written for a 5 string banjo and guitar it was this one.. See here. However, the all-time definitive banjo and guitar track has to be this one. It still leaves me speechless!

Friday, 2 March 2018

253. Two down, one to go!

31st March. There's a Franco-Welsh couple a few doors away and we were talking over a drink a couple of months ago and comparing notes. In an astonishing coincidence, it turned out that we'd both lived in the same avenue in north west London at the same time in the mid sixties. Not only that, but they too used to stay at the same delightful hotel/restaurant in Ascain as us.

I had a similar experience during my first visit to the US in the early 1980s. I'd been invited to the Virginia Beach home of a retired US Navy captain one Sunday for a barbeque and to meet his wife and daughters (an invitation that was impossible to refuse!). We were relaxing with a cold beer and a hamburger with all the fixings (!) and talking about our origins when he suddenly said that I should meet his neighbour.

We walked down his garden and he called to Joe (his neighbour) over the garden fence. We shook hands and he asked where I was from in the UK. I named the city and he said "Me too..". It turned out that he'd grown up about 400 yards away from my childhood home. 

29th March. Bulldozaire, aka Nutty, our 10 month old cocker spaniel, has an inventive turn of mind. To set the scene, I'd better explain that our downstairs hall is tiled and a small rug sits in the middle of it. Nutty's latest game is to hurl himself down the uncarpeted stairs, going around the 180° turn at breakneck pace in a confusion of paws scrabbling for grip, before finally springing off the third or fourth step up from the bottom and landing on the rug.. He then 'surfs' across the hall on it at speed before crashing into the far wall. This isn't a 'one-off' - he waits until one of us resets the rug where it should be and then he repeats it.. What have we got?!   

25th March. Here's one of those quintessential photos by Dorothea Lange of rural America taken in 1939. It's very close to being a Norman Rockwell painting. More details here (plus some interesting comments).  Click on it to see it full size.

'Bulldozaire' and I were down at the beach this morning in between rain showers - or so I thought. The decision whether or not to take him is a 'no brainer' - he has to go. Staying at home isn't an option.. We'd got about 10 minutes into our walk when the first spots of rain appeared. Seconds later, they morphed into a full-on downpour with winds to match. The 10 minutes back to the car seemed to take forever and we ended up back at the car totally drenched. This is one of the few downsides to dog ownership - the indoor facilities just don't work for him!

21st March. If you haven't seen someone flying precision glider aerobatics, leaving a trail of sparks in the night sky - in perfect synchronisation with classical music, then you haven't lived! This is Toronto's very own Manfred Radius showing how it should be done:
The music is the Intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (or Rustic Chivalry).

We've just booked a break in early June at a small village high up in the mountains overlooking Lake Annecy. It's a part of France I've not visited before so I'm really looking forward to it. Looking at the video, it seems that rowing boats are available out on the lake.. it'll be good to get out on the water again. Watch in full screen!

20th March. There comes a moment during any prolonged grey, dank and gloomy period of the year - such as we have now - when drastic measures are called for to blow the dust away. Here's Jonathan Scott playing the finale from Saint-Saëns Symphony No 3 in C Minor, Op 78 - aka the "Organ" Symphony. Crank up the volume!
I was at the rhumatologue yesterday for the third and final injection of a silicon-based product into my knees. This should enable me to be relatively creak-free for another year (it says here). I'm not sure exactly how much good this technique actually does. Yesterday's session turned out to be one of those 'grit your teeth and bear it' treatments. It felt like the doc was using a sharpened knitting needle - it was one of those character-building moments!
 
18th March. We were up in Paris on Wednesday for the funeral of M, one of Madame's oldest friends. She studied at the Sorbonne with M and his wife C and we remained close friends with them for 40+ years. Very, very sad.

We travelled via the TGV. The southern extension of the special high speed track to Bordeaux was inaugurated in July 2017 and so the total journey time - Bayonne to Paris - is now only 4 hours. Between Bayonne and Bordeaux, the train travels at reduced speed over the standard track and thus it takes 2 hours to cover the 120 mile section. Once clear of Bordeaux however, the train really flies (300km/h, or 186mph) the rest of the way to Paris, taking just over 2 hours to travel the remaining 360 miles. (more here)
It was a train composed of double-decker coaches (above) and it was state-of-the-art, spotlessly clean, air conditioned, quiet, spacious, comfortable, free WiFi, rock steady at speed - and affordable. So impressive. I think we paid 120€ each for the return Bayonne-Paris ticket (approx 480 miles each way). We took the first class option as there was very little difference in price between that and a standard ticket. It made me want to drag British politicians over here by the ear to experience a modern high speed rail service. The TGV entered service in France in 1980. 
Meanwhile, across the English Channel (in the country that invented the railway!), it appears that, after decades of talking, a consensus has finally been reached between the main political parties and that the target date for implementing the first phase of the UK's High Speed train service - linking Birmingham with London is 2026. You couldn't make it up. Whatever happened to that optimistic surge of national self-confidence, dynamism and energy that created the Industrial Revolution and transformed Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries into the global powerhouse that it became? Powered by inventive engineers, risk-taking entrepreneurs and venture capitalism, the foundations of the world's first modern transport infrastructure were laid down - first, a canal network that served industry, then followed less than a century later by a national rail network  and then a global merchant shipping fleet (33% of the total global tonnage was British, even in 1939). And then we stopped.

12th March. I'm told this was a true story - but if it's not, it deserves to be.  

Two French deputies had an unseemly shouting match via their headphones in the European Parliament to the consternation of the assembly. The translators tackled words rarely used in civil society.

Another French MEP, attempting to protect the honour of France, made a moderating intervention:
"Messieurs, nous avons besoin de la sagesse normande". (la sagesse Normande is an old French expression recognising someone's common sense)

The English translation fired back: "What we need is Norman Wisdom".*

Every British MEP, for no apparent reason burst out laughing to the bewilderment of the French.

* memory jogger: Norman Wisdom was a British comedian in the 1950s.

Amid all the gloom that emerged on several fronts from a dismal sporting weekend, I forgot to mention that before the France - England match started, mein host offered me a Japanese whisky. I'm still trying to find the name - it came in an earthenware bottle - I've looked here but I don't see it.

Glentogouchi!
Edited to add: It was Togouchi.. (left) and according to this link it's a blend of Scottish single malt whisky and Canadian blended whisky.. That sound you can hear is the sound of Rabbie Burns rotating in his grave at 500rpm. (This is heresy on an industrial scale.. almost as bad as the French owners of Glenmorangie who now age that great Scottish single malt in Sauternes barrels. Words fail me..)

What was it like? Well, to me it tasted like a distant cousin (twice removed) of a Highland single malt.. It wasn't unpleasant - far from it - but it didn't have that distinctive whiff of the Highlands about it. (and why should it?) Unfortunately, having lived in Scotland for a few years, that taste is imprinted on me and it's one of the reasons I enjoy a whisky (blended or a malt) so much. I enjoy things that have a solid connection with where they are made. It's for that reason that I'm not interested in a Polish Burgundy - even if there was such a thing.. or a Mexican Rolex. I've worn US-made Florsheim shoes for many years but I was not happy to see that the last pair I bought online were made in India of all places. The first pair of Florsheim black brogues (I think these are known as wingtips in the US) I bought in the mid-90s are still like new (above). I think they'll be going strong long after I'm not!

As a drink, this Japanese whisky was enjoyable - but was it whisky as I understand it? I prefer my whisky to have originated from somewhere I can visualise in Scotland's blue misty hills. Speaking of which, I bought a bottle of 10 year old Talisker (from the Isle of Skye) a few months ago and unfortunately it had suffered the fate of being "tidied"! I found it lurking in the shadows down in the cellar and it's since been restored to its rightful place. I dusted off the bottle the other evening as I wanted to offer a dram to a neighbour. It had all the complexity you'd ever want from a Single Malt - it had taste in spades.. I learnt in Scotland to add a splash of water to my whisky to lengthen the taste.. According to Robert Louis Stevenson, Talisker is the "King o' Drinks". I've read that the 18 year old is the one.. (Note to self: add to Christmas list!)

9th March. It's the big one tomorrow..! France vs England at the Stade de France.. We'll be enjoying the match at the Biarritz home of a retired fighter pilot from the French Air Force. It's always a lively evening. (understatement of the year!☺)

4th March. I took Bulldozaire, aka Nutty, our cocker spaniel (who formerly did puppy impressions) down to the beach again this morning - it felt quite warm at 14°C. Here he is assessing the various options for a frictionless Irish Border.. It shouldn't take him long!

Brussels Got Talent...
aka Juncker, Tusk, Barnier, Verhofstadt 
2nd March. Listening to the noises coming out of Brussels in the lead-up to Theresa May's speech today it became increasingly clear that, with every utterance from Jean Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk, Michel Barnier and Guy Verhofstadt (right), that they have little genuine interest in negotiating with the UK. Dictating yes - but negotiating? No.

In my view, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the UK concluded that no deal was better than a bad deal and walked away from the negotiating table. The problem is that the EU appears to view the UK as supplicants in this process.. whereas the reality is that we are a partner nation of equal status. It seems that the EU wishes to punish the UK for having the temerity to want to leave a political construct that it joined of its own free will. The charge of 'cherry picking' has been levelled against the UK for its negotiating stance - but it is entirely reasonable for any head of state/prime minister of a country to seek to obtain the best deal possible for itself in any negotiations with a third party. I can't imagine any leader of a country doing otherwise.

It occurred to me that there's no effective opposition in the European Parliament that I can see. The serried ranks of MEPs in the European Parliament (below) are merely there as window-dressing or nodding dogs - to give the symbolic appearance of a parliamentary system while in reality being largely toothless. In effect, its only role is to rubber stamp the policies and legislation that cascade down from the unelected EU Commission. Question du jour: Do you know the name of your MEP?

No views contrary to the received wisdom can be accepted in Brussels. The EU's movers and shakers live in the Brussels bubble where their views are unchallenged and the idea of reforming the EU is heresy. They envisage a 'one size - fits all' Europe - a mindset that conveniently ignores the reality experienced by anyone who has ever travelled around Western Europe and enjoyed the diversity of its economic, cultural, geographic and historical riches - all of which combine to form each country's unique national identity - its DNA.

The UK has always been an outward-looking maritime trading nation, first exploring the globe and then settling vast areas of it and implanting the seeds of our democratic systems. Given that, it's therefore hardly surprising that our world view is significantly different to that of other countries within the EU, some of whom have markedly different histories. It was only when the political dimension of the EU's mantra of "ever-closer union" started to supplant its initial emphasis on economic integration (the EEC) that the UK decided that this was a step too far - and one that was incompatible with British concepts of its democratic values.

There are other tensions swirling around in the muddy waters of the EU. The question of language came up when the UK formally declared its intention to leave the EU. The immediate reaction of the ever-tactful Jean Claude Juncker was to point out gleefully that English would soon be of lesser importance as the EU's working language and that French would replace it. To him, the UK's exit didn't represent a catastrophic failure of the EU to represent and accommodate all its member nations - no, his instinctive reaction was to play the language card. His outbreak tells you all you need to know about him. You have to wonder at these people.

President Jacques Chirac
It reminded me of this astonishing incident when President Chirac (right) stormed out of an EU Summit in 2006 because a Frenchman had addressed the meeting in English..! When senior EU politicians act in this fashion, it raises serious questions about the mental stability of some of its leaders and the real aims of the EU.

I've always thought that the EU was designed to give France a voice on the world stage - in French. The EU was formed to create a Francophone geopolitical bloc. France had been marginalised during WWII and so in the post-war years it sought to leverage its influence to better effect by being actively instrumental in the formation of a succession of supra-national alliances - namely, the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, followed by the European Economic Community in 1957 and then the European Union in 1993. We are asked to believe that the current situation marks the end of the EU's expansionist ambitions; that the idea of a United States of Europe (USE) has been shelved. But as long as the phrase "ever-closer union" remains on the EU's statute books as its primary aim, then that desire for a USE is parked in the Commission's pending tray. It only needs only the arrival of a charismatic and ambitious European politician (where have we heard that before?) to trigger the process and if the UK remained in the EU, then following the introduction of Qualified Majority Voting in 2014, the UK would have been powerless to veto it. It's clear to any observer that there's a massive democratic deficit between the politics as practised in the EU and the more accountable democratic political structures of the US.

The only bright spot on the horizon today was the far more realistic and practical contribution from Hans-Olaf Henkel, a German MEP and former president of the Federation of German Industries - I don't agree with all that he says but it's refreshing to hear an influential German identify where the EU is going wrong. As he said in the video, the departure of the UK from the EU is equivalent to 19 countries leaving.

I'll shed no tears for the EU apparatchiks mentioned in the first paragraph - they need no outside assistance to demonstrate that they are political pygmies who are out of their depth in the shallow end of international politics. Because the UK questioned and challenged the onward blind rush to federalism, we were treated as pariahs - and, in an act of monumental pettiness, found ourselves relegated to the second rank in all official photographs. Our role was clearly to pay up and shut up. It's taken a while for the wheel to turn full circle but our day will come. 

Thought you'd seen it all? Thought that nothing could surprise you? Then think again, pilgrim! We discovered that we have a channel on our TV called DOG TV.. Monsieur (Nutty) sits on his bottom wedged in between Madame on one side and the arm of the couch on the other and he leans back and watches this channel.. In human terms, there's very little action but he becomes totally absorbed and if he'd been a bit wild, then this seems to calm him down. (I can't believe I'm writing this!)    

There's more here. It really works..

A rare sight!
Those of you with long memories may remember that in previous years I've had to visit a rhumatologue (a rheumatologist) to have my knees injected with a gloop-like substance to help with absorbing shocks (apart from the shock of losing to Scotland last weekend!). 

I was there again this morning to have another set of injections in my knees. For anyone contemplating the same thing, I'd say that while it's not especially pleasant, it's not that painful.  

1st March. It was only yesterday that I woke up to a snow storm at 6am that lasted most of the morning. This was our garden (right) yesterday..

Today - you would not believe it.. 18°C and the snows's all gone. I was just stowing some logs in the garage and when I came out, there was a warm wind blowing and it felt like early summer. Very odd.

The "Two down, one to go" title of this post refers to January and February.

Friday, 2 February 2018

252. A February face..

28th February. The weather forecast was right on the money.. we woke up this morning to a silent white world - and it's been snowing continuously since about 6am. The dog was booked into a dog grooming place in town at 9am so I set off with him into a near-blizzard - slip-sliding along the pavements as Nutty tugged this way and that in his excitement at discovering the white stuff! When I arrived at the shop, it was still closed.. so after waiting 5 minutes or so, we returned home. I'll be glad when life returns to normal!

Here's someone who had fun in it!
27th February. There's talk of snow here tomorrow.. apparently we can expect 4-5cm of it. In ten years here, we've only once had a light covering of snow - but it disappeared by midday.

Just as we seemed to have accumulated several generations of camera technology (it's about 5 at the last count), we also have a number of corkscrews that, at various times, I've sworn by (or at!).

When I was still living at home with my parents (decades ago), an aunt gave my parents an ingenious wooden corkscrew that mystified us all. It - or, more accurately, we - could be counted upon to destroy any cork. The problem was that when using the darned thing, the main body of the corkscrew obscured the view of the screw biting into the cork in the correct place (ie, the centre). We often contrived to ruin corks so that they couldn't be replaced!

This was followed by a succession of winged corkscrews (right) but after a season or two of use, the stresses involved in pulling corks would often put an irreparable strain on the lightweight mechanism causing it to fail - just when you needed it to work!

One of the first I remember buying was a corkscrew with a wooden handle made from an old and gnarled vine root (left). They come in all shapes and sizes so I needed to try a few from the display of dozens until I found one that fitted my grip. The problem with it - such as it was - was that before using it, I first had to find a sharp knife to run around the bottle top to remove the lead capsule cleanly. Not a major problem and I was happy with it for many years. These are inexpensive and widely available - and they're often to be found in French supermarkets.

The trouble with these is that they both need a fair amount of oomph to get the job done. A few years ago, I came across this well-engineered product (right) and I gave one to my late Mum as she would frequently entertain her friends and she needed something that would lever even the most recalcitrant cork out of a wine bottle with the minimum of effort and drama - an important consideration as she was living on her own then. We have it now and it sits in a drawer somewhere as an emergency back-up.

My cousin from Canada visited us here (almost 10 years ago now.. phew) and she kindly gave me an extremely practical corkscrew known as a "waiter's friend" (left). It incorporates a small blade for cutting the lead foil neatly around the top of the bottle plus it's small enough to slip into a pocket. Try that with any of the others! Of all the corkscrews I've ever used, this has to be the best. I enjoy using things that are well designed, well made and fit for purpose. If you follow that principle to its logical conclusion, then one day you'll find yourself looking at Laguiole corkscrews. Admire the skill here as a Laguiole craftsman assembles and finishes a corkscrew.
Laguiole is the Rolls-Royce of cutlers in France. Take a look at their range of corkscrews - they're beautifully made objects and they're made to be handled. Now tell me you don't know what you want for a birthday/Christmas/retirement present!    

PS: The last word on the subject!
25th February. It's going to be cold here during the next two or three days - not as cold as Winnipeg (which is reputed to have the coldest winter temps of all major Canadian cities) but getting down there. I was down at the beach this morning with Bulldozaire aka Nutty, our 9 month old English cocker spaniel puppy (if a 15kg (33lb) eating machine can still be called a puppy!) and it was very cold indeed. Not quite raw - but very close to it. And looking out at the waves forming, I spotted a good half dozen surfers waiting for the wave. Rather them than me.

As for the weekend's Six Nations rugby, France finally won a match 34-17 in Marseille on Friday evening against the courageous Italians, the perennial holders of the Wooden Spoon (la cuillère de bois).

Yesterday, championship leaders Ireland beat a resurgent Wales 37-27 in Dublin:
Later on in the final match of the weekend's action, Scotland built on their deserved win against France last week as they demolished (no other word for it) England's hopes of a third Grand Slam with a well-deserved and comprehensive victory against the 'Auld Enemy'. Any hopes that Scotland would be unable to maintain the awesome power and discipline with which they started the match for the full 80 minutes proved to be ill-founded. There appeared to be no chinks in the armour of the men in blue. That victory will rightly be celebrated north of the border for years to come. Rugby at its best. Well done Gregor Townsend!
23rd February. I read somewhere the other day that those seeking French naturalisation may be asked to sing the "Marseillaise" during the ceremony (gulp!). While I know most of the first verse, I must review the words of the refrain to get them spot-on if I wish to avoid a repeat of John Redwood's acutely embarrassing performance (a real 'Bambi staring into headlights' moment!) when he attempted to bluff his way through the Welsh National Anthem when he was the Secretary of State for Wales in 1993. (I think this was one of the nails in his political coffin) 

Reading the English text of the Marseillaise, and comparing it with the national dirge - oops - anthem that I was brought up with, it's fair to say that they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. (That's all I'm saying!☺)

Glyn Davies, MP
20th February. It was with a jolt that I discovered a few years ago that my right to vote as an overseas voter in UK General Elections and Referendums would cease 15 years after I left the UK permanently. In my case, the current expiry date is 2022 - a date that once seemed far beyond the horizon, but which is now approaching fast. (too fast!) As my income is taxed in the UK, the mantra that sparked off the American Revolution: "No taxation without Representation" immediately sprang to mind.

However, I've just learned that a Private Members Bill - the Overseas' Electors Bill 2017-19 (sponsored by Glyn Davies MP) - will be having its second reading in the House of Commons in a few days. The worthy aim of this bill is to set out to extend the vote for life to overseas-resident UK citizens. I thought it was iniquitous that voting rights stopped after 15 years abroad - so all I can say to Glyn Davies, MP, is many thanks in advance - and should you ever be passing through Bayonne, there will be a sangria or three waiting for you with your name on it.

I heard a podcast this morning from a group calling itself Brexit Brits Abroad. It's neither pro-Leave or pro-Remain - it simply informs the curious about the range of opinions on this thorny and divisive subject. Lots of useful information there - including a brief on how to apply for French nationality.

18th February. A few years ago, when I was still rowing, a group of us from the rowing club here took up an invitation from a Basque rowing club based at San Sebastian to row with them in their trainières (or traineras in Spanish). These are large light boats with fine lines that hold a 13 man crew plus a steersman and they are raced in regattas along the north coast of Spain every summer.

They were formerly used to bring the day's catch of anchovies and/or sardines quickly back to the home port, with the first home attracting the best prices. The arrangements on board can seem primitive to anyone used to rowing in classic IVs or VIIIs as there are no sliding seats, no modern gates to secure the oars and no adjustable stretchers for the feet. However, as they are light in weight, they accelerate remarkably quickly and are very lively in the long Atlantic swells outside the bay of San Sebastian. Despite not having sliding seats, the oarsmen manage to achieve a very respectable length of stroke by leaning back almost horizontally at the finish and pulling the oar right up the the shoulder. I enjoyed the experience very much and the next day I felt stiffness in muscles I didn't know I had!
You can watch a race between 4 trainières in the bay of San Sebastian (La Concha) here.. it starts at 04:10..

14th February. After weeks of rain, I'm pleased to be able to report that the forecast for tomorrow is for 19°.. Could it be? It'll be a novelty to take Nutty for his daily walks and not have him coming back like a drowned rat!

13th February. I came across some interesting old images of the Pays Basque - so I put this short montage together accompanied by a spot of Sidney Bechet - voila! (kept me busy on a rainy day!)
11th February. Just finished watching a magnificent Scottish win (32-26) against France in the 2018 6 Nations Rugby Tournament.. Forget the "Flower of Scotland" - this music says it all! Well done the Sweaties! (In case you're wondering, Sweaty socks = Jocks!!)
Here's Scotland bouncing back after that defeat in Cardiff last Saturday and demonstrating a lot of heart against the French:
Yesterday, Ireland had a try-fest against the gallant Italians in Dublin and emerged a convincing 56-19 winners to put them on top of the table.

This was followed by the 'must-win' match of the day from Twickenham as hosts England took on Wales, fresh from overpowering Scotland last weekend in Cardiff. England won an attritional match 12-6 that started well for them but they seemed to tire in the second half as Wales came back strongly at them. The Welsh had a try disallowed by the Television Match Official (TMO) and judging by the reaction, it won't be long before the TMO has a TMO watching him. I found it impossible to judge from the available footage whether or not it was a try. All I would add to that is that even though the whole of the Welsh population desperately wished it to be a try, "wishing it" doesn't necessarily make it so. At some point we have to assume that the TMO is unbiased and competent. Therefore if he says "No try" - then that's it. 
8th February. Last weekend saw the welcome return of the 6 Nations Rugby Tournament.. Wales were first up on the Saturday and they defied all the critics and, in a comprehensive display, put Scotland to the sword:
Next up were France and Ireland in Paris. The Irish lads took an early lead but were never able really to put much daylight between them and les Bleus. This match went the distance and then some! (that's all I'm saying!)

Italy welcomed England to the Olympic Stadium, Rome for the match on Sunday. Italy have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years and although England were on the scoreboard early on, they were unable to stretch out their lead until the end of the match. Italy will win a match this year, that's for sure. 2nd February. Today is la fête de la Chandeleur - or Candlemas Day - or as it's known in the US - and this should ring a few bells (!) - Groundhog Day. Hidden in the fine print of that first link is this all-important sentence: In France and Belgium, Candlemas (French: La Chandeleur) is celebrated with crêpes. As (my) luck would have it, Madame really has the knack of making these..
We generally limber up with a few savoury ones before moving on to the sweeter ones.. before finishing off with those flambé'd in rhum, Calvados, Grand Marnier or whatever else we can find down in the cellar. Mmmm-mmmm (followed by zzzz-zzzz!☺).

We were up in Bordeaux on Wednesday for the day.. However, the two hour journey means we won't be making a habit of it unfortunately - it's just that bit too far for an out and back day trip. It's a great pity though as you could be excused for thinking that, when walking around the centre (the area around the Opéra), you could be in Paris. (enjoy this video accompanied by Mahler's Symphony # 5 (Adagietto))
The spacious boulevards are lined with elegant apartment buildings very reminiscent of those built by Baron Haussmann in the capital - albeit on a slightly reduced scale. And for those interested, we found another restaurant to add to the map (left).. the lively La Villa Tourny where we enjoyed the 19€ lunchtime menu. If you haven't a head for heights, look away from 15:06 onwards..
1st February. One down - two to go! January, February, March: my least favourite time of the year. 


There's nothing like having to remain indoors while frequent rain showers sweep in from the sea for calling to mind fragments of verse learned in dusty schoolrooms long ago. 

When icicles hang by the wall
   And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
   And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
                        Tu-whit;
  Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

William Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost

And in case you were wondering where the title of this post came from?

"Why, what's the matter,
That you have such a February face,
So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness?"

William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

Monday, 1 January 2018

251. Another day, another euro..

30th January. I've mentioned before somewhere here that the French often abbreviate words and expressions. McDonalds becomes McDo (pronounced McDough), "l'actualité" (TV News) becomes "l'actu", ordinateur (computer) => ordi and Sécurité Sociale => Sécu are commonly heard examples. Through force of habit, I invariably say "Merci" when leaving a shop and this often triggers the reply, "Non, c'est moi qui vous remercie" (No, it's I who should thank you). The other day I received the abbreviated version of this.. I said "Merci" and the shopkeeper replied, "C'est moi..". If I hadn't heard the longer version I'd've been wondering what this meant.

28th January. Next weekend sees the opening of the NatWest 6 Nations Rugby Tournament. Here's the fixture list. I've said it before but to me it's the highlight of the sporting calendar. Forget Wimbledon, the Indy 500, the Americas Cup, the UEFA Champions League, the Ryder Cup, the Superbowl, Strictly Come Dancing (!), whatever - all pale into insignificance compared to this.  

There's a recurring theme that runs through life down here - and it's one that's very welcome. 

When we used to make our long-awaited trek to the Pays Basque every summer, we'd stay at the same little hotel/restaurant at Ascain, where we were treated like family. It wasn't long before I would regularly be offered a complimentary digestif - usually a generous glass of Marc d'Irouléguy (strong enough to fire a Buick into a low earth orbit) - with my after dinner coffee. Curiously, I never had any problem getting off to sleep there.

And the owner would always tuck a bottle of wine under my arm as we left on our last day, saying, "Think of us when you drink this.."  

The waitress at our favourite seafood restaurant in Socoa now offers us an apéro on the house each time we go there. 

Then I mentioned a few weeks/months ago about the lady in the wine shop in Bayonne who gave me a miniature of "Bastille", a new French single malt whisky (right), to try.. 

Then the other day when I'd been dispatched into town to pick up some boudins blancs from Montauzer, I found myself in line behind a young lady who, in between making her mind up in a long and complicated order, was being questioned by the assistant - as to where she was from etc etc. It turned out she was from mainland China, and she'd been working in Versailles for a year. She spoke French well too.. (oops, I thought!) While her order was being made up, my eyes ranged over all the mouthwatering products on display. Foie gras - mi-cuit (half-cooked) or sealed in jars, terrines, rillettes, all kinds of sausage including the truffled boudins blancs I was after.. either fresh or 4 in a vacuum pack. After the girl left, the assistant said to me that all kinds of nationalities came in the shop. Her ears pricked up during my response and then she was away again with "how long had I lived there?", plus a word or two of praise for my French (always welcome!). What gave away my nationality was me saying "OK" (instead of d'accord). Anyway, to cut to the chase, after buying the boudins, she asked me what I thought of jambon Ibaïama (right). I found out later that this was the ne plus ultra of Bayonne hams. When I admitted to not knowing what it was, she took a leg of ham to the slicing machine and ran me off a slice. This she wrapped up in silver paper and gave it to me. (It costs 56€ a kilo by the way!) They're a generous people down here.

27th January. "One of those things" Department! I woke up this morning thinking about the high-flown language used to attempt to describe the taste of wine. (Don't ask me why) We've all read those columns in newspapers where the journalist strings together a list of various carefully chosen oddities (a dusty drawer, pencil shavings, liquorice, woodsmoke etc etc) in trying to capture in print something so ephemeral and transient as the taste or a flavour (wrong word maybe) of a glass of wine. The problem is that the printed word enters the brain through the eyes - whereas the taste is captured instantly via the tongue and the nose. It's then correlated with our mental taste memories*. Tasting can't be done in print. It can't. For example, take an everyday object such as a carrot and attempt to describe the essence of its taste - in words. Very quickly, you'll realise that you're wasting your time. All the writing in the world can't describe the taste of even a boiled potato. What chance then has the wine writer got in trying to describe the subtleties of a glass of wine? There's only one way - it has to be tasted. Form a queue please!

I once heard a memorable expression that someone used to describe a sublime taste - he said, "C'est comme un ange qui pisse sur ta langue..". Probably not a good idea to use that one when the vicar's there.. A more polite expression was "That has the taste of not enough!".

* In my view, our memories work best for visual images and sounds - and less well for tastes.

We've just had the last of Monsieur Montauzer's justifiably famed truffled boudins blancs, (no other will do) accompanied by sauté'd apple slices.. For reasons that escape me, he only makes them over the festive period and that is rapidly drawing to a close. And bearing in mind what I've just written in the paragraph above, I won't attempt to describe the taste!   

26th January. Sighs of relief all around.. Nutty's having his stitches out this afternoon (slightly sooner than anticipated) and so we can all wave goodbye to the plastic conical collar he's been wearing for a week. I know it's been annoying him - and it's certainly been shredding our nerves as he's banged his way around the house. So, it's back to business as usual this afternoon. Phew! By the way, the rain is still with us. I escaped a soaking by a matter of minutes when I took him out this morning. And the e-bikes are still locked away in the garage!

The association I work with had a monthly committee meeting two days ago at Biriatou, situated right on the Spanish border. (The Comet Line was a WWII network set up to help shot-down Allied airmen to return to England.) As luck would have it, we had sun and blue skies for once - we soon forgot the grey skies and rain of the past month and it reminded us what a beautiful part of the world this is.

I arrived in good time as I wanted to re-visit the memorial site (right) we had inaugurated in April 2016 for two wartime evaders who, tragically, were drowned while attempting to cross from occupied France into Francoist Spain. They were part of a ten-strong group who arrived on the banks of the Bidassoa, in flood, at 1am during the night of 23/24 December 1943. They would have been hot and tired after their 4 hour hike over the Pyrenees and during an ill-advised attempt to cross the Bidassoa, two evaders were swept away in its fast-running cold waters.

There had been a memorial to one of the evaders - Count Antoine d'Ursel - at the riverside for many years. The photo (left) shows the memorial being installed on the steep river bank in 1960. However, in recent years, its foundation started to crumble, plus it was barely visible. In researching the history of that night in 1943, I became aware that no memorial had ever been provided for the other evader, 2nd Lt James F Burch, a USAAF B-17 pilot - and so we decided to rectify that. (Jim Burch was the only aviator to lose his life while in Comet's charge). It was decided to move the Count's memorial to a new site where it would be co-located with that for Jim Burch.

We selected a suitable location for the new combined memorial site and a team from the Town Hall at Biriatou cleared the ground and did all the hard work of moving the Count's memorial to it. As it weighed some 300kg, this was no mean feat.

I always find it to be a moving experience when I visit the site and it was no different on Wednesday. I'm always struck by the stillness, the tangible poignancy and the air of peace there. I had another committee member with me - a Basque - whose father had been a wartime Comet guide in the mountains, helping some 130-140 Allied aircrew to escape to freedom. He remarked on the atmosphere there too. It's a special place - and it's situated in the patch of green at the centre of this link. If you wish to experience the slightly precarious 4km drive back to Biriatou, turn right at the above link and follow your nose. This is a photo-montage I put together that tells the story:

22nd January. At this time of the year, with Burns Night (25th January) fast approaching, I find that my thoughts turn unbidden to visions of a hot steaming haggis (right).. served with tatties and neeps - and accompanied by a dram or two - never wine. One memorable Burns Night saw me drinking whisky before, during and after the meal - and, apart from me trying to take my trousers off over my head at bedtime, I suffered no lasting ill effects - my head was as clear as a bell the following day. (Realism check: I doubt that I could do that now - even if I wanted to!)

Madame shares my fondness for the haggis and so the other day I thought I'd see if I could find someone online willing to supply me with one. I found the very thing - until I asked what the postage here would be. The haggis itself would cost around £7-8 but the crippler was yet to come - they wanted £29 and change to send it from Scotland to here. If you haven't ever experienced a Burns Night, they are memorable occasions.. and having been to one, you'll be wanting to attend another. 

Stop Press: If there are any other haggis fanciers living in France, gagging for a haggis and desperately seeking a supplier, help is at hand. Here's a French-based site that will deliver a genuine Scottish haggis to your door for a reasonable sum.

There's a classic chauvinistic French joke at the bottom of the above link. To save you translating it, here it is:

A Frenchman, a lover of good food, was invited to a Burns supper by a Scottish family, and at the end  of the meal, the hostess - in search of compliments from a Frenchman – asked him what he thought of the "haggis".

The Frenchman, pushed to the limit, replied: "When I saw it arrive on the table, excuse me, but I thought it was sh1t (let's call a spade a spade).. But - once I had tasted it, my only regret was that it was not"..

And this from a nation that eats andouillette.. (if you're ever offered it, think about saying no.. unless you're feeling very brave.. and have no sense of smell)(another point of view here)

While Nutty and I were at the vet's the other day, he sat himself on the scales there in the waiting room. He now weighs in at a healthy 14.2kg (31lbs) - and all of that is muscle and bone.. He's an enthusiastic eater but he doesn't restrict himself to the all-in-one biscuits that he devours twice a day. Oh no, he actively searches out food wherever he can. Out in the street, he becomes a canine vacuum cleaner - he's lightning-quick to spot discarded paper handkerchiefs (don't ask me how I remove them from his mouth - ugh!) while chewing gum is another favourite. The Christmas tree briefly attracted his attention but since that disappeared, he's discovered new avenues of pleasure! There's a wicker laundry basket upstairs and it appears he's found how to dislodge the lid.. as he was caught late in the act of destroying one of Madame's soutien-gorges the other day. The chairs in the dining room have some tie-on cushions and - yes, you've guessed it - these too were nibbled. Shoes cannot be left at ground level.. they have to be hidden. A Persian rug in the study had one of its corners "rounded off" by him. He's also discovered that, if he stands on his hind legs, he can reach the kitchen worktop.. Then there's the garden. Shrubs, flowers, pot plants et al have all been tried. All of this has taught us that we have to 'up our game' to try and stay one step ahead of him by removing all potential food sources from his reach. And so it goes..
    
To take (y)our minds off the wintry weather, here's a reminder of some of the delights to be found here in the Pays Basque..
"Ostalapia"

We've been to "Ostalapia" a few times - it's an uber-stylish restaurant with great food, and while we've always enjoyed ourselves there, my only reservation about it is that it's out in the middle of the countryside. Not "in the middle of nowhere" but perhaps closer to the middle of nowhere than you'd want to be. After your meal there, it's a case of jumping back into the car because that's it! There are no cafés nearby for a late night coffee or whatever. The plus side of its location is that it's off the well-trodden tourist trail.. Out of season, it's perfect - however, it attracts a very different clientele during the peak 2 months of the summer season. The first time we visited it was during one summer and I must admit that we were put off a little by the rows of flashy cars outside (mostly from Paris & Bordeaux) and by the sound inside of a roomful of exuberantly bronzed, blinged-up, perfumed and expensively attired beautiful people all talking (with no-one listening) at the same time. It all depends on what you prefer. Anyway, see if Julie (below) can change your mind:
Here's another of Julie's programmes on the Pays Basque.

21st January. Still waiting for a suitable break in the weather so we can take the e-bikes out without getting soaked. I was down at the beach yesterday with the dog and there was a mighty wind from the south-west blowing in. It was cold too.. (OK, not cold as in Nebraska - but nevertheless..!) The pooch is sporting one of those conical collars at the moment. He'd gone to the vets on Friday to have a small growth (nothing serious) removed from under an eye. The house is now echoing to the sounds of crash-bang-wallop as he negotiates his way past doors and furniture. It has to stay on till the end of the month while the stitches heal.   

Peter Mayle 1939-2018
19th January. Farewell, Peter Mayle. I was saddened to read of his demise in the news this morning. He famously "discovered" the Luberon and wrote very amusingly about his experiences there, and in doing so, I think he inspired many baby boomers to follow suit. It's no secret that some/many (delete as required) Brits have a love/hate relationship with France, born out of centuries of mutual distrust. Peter Mayle committed the ultimate sin for a Brit - he actually admitted to preferring life in his beloved Provence to that of his home country. For many Brits, this was unforgivable.. Yes, France is a nice place to visit for holidays but to live there?! Good Lord no.. How many times have you heard someone express the view that "France would be OK if it wasn't for the French.."*. As a result, his books often took a hammering from certain critics who, in my view, were greatly displeased by his having opened up and popularised "their" Provence with the middle classes - and worse.

* What they choose to forget is that France didn't spring up fully-formed from the primeval ooze - it grew into the country we all love today thanks to the tireless work of countless generations of Frenchmen and -women who went before us. You can't have one without the other - and I for one would hate to see France transformed into Bournemouth with sunshine.. From my experience of living here for 10 years, I simply don't recognise the tired old stereotypes of the grumpy restaurant owner or the surly waiter beloved of the English tabloids.    

If you're unfamiliar with his work, I would recommend that you read the opening chapter of his book, "Bon Appetit! Travels with knife, fork & corkscrew through France.". I think this brief encounter with France when he was a young man marked the beginning of his life-long love affair with France. I had a similar Damascene conversion when I had my first rare steak-frites at the age of 18 - I wrote about it here. He and I were of fairly adjacent generations and his observations of post-war English food are spot-on in my view. He was clearly a contented man.. as evidenced in this interview.

I once sat at an adjoining table in a restaurant to an English family on holiday here years ago. On examining her plate (in the manner of a forensic pathologist), one of the ladies exclaimed, "It's not quite what we're used to, is it?" I silently despaired. Isn't that one of the points of foreign travel? To experience and enjoy different sights and sounds, tastes and experiences? I'd better stop here before I say too much!☺  

RIP Peter and thank you.               

14th January. In case either of my global readership (you know who you are!) imagines that life down here is one merry round of lotus-eating, interspersed only with the quaffing of fine food and wine, all taking place under rustling palms in a sub-tropical climate, then watch this - this was Biarritz on New Year's Day:
     We're still seeing the tail end of these winter storms - I think we've only had a couple of dry days since Christmas.

galette des rois à la frangipane 
couronne des rois
It's traditional at this time of the year here in France to eat either a galette des rois à la frangipane or a couronne des rois. (it's all explained here) At Pipérade Towers we'll be having both this afternoon as we've invited our next door neighbour over. She's well into her 90s and lives alone but she's very active. Madame had ordered a couple from a pâtisserie (right) in an arcade in the centre of town and I was 'volunteered' to pick them up. On arriving, I was surprised to see that, despite the pouring rain, there was a sizeable queue that stretched out of the shop onto the pavement (fortunately under cover). I think I was about 12th in line and I settled down for a long wait - but many people had put orders in and the gift-wrapped galettes were soon flying out of the door!    

11th January. This song by David McWilliams popped up on the radio today.. He appeared from nowhere - made this record (which was played to death on pirate radio Radio Caroline in 1967) and promptly disappeared again. 

There was a banner headline over an article in today's left-leaning Guardian newspaper: "Number of Britons applying for French citizenship rises tenfold in three years". On the face of it, this "disclosure" would appear to imply that hordes of expat Brits in France are thus validating the newspaper's anti-Brexit stance. This is nonsense.

In googling the background to this "story", it was a simple matter to establish that this was - in the immortal words of the current US president - fake news. While I’ve not been able to find an accurate figure for the number of expat Brits resident in France in 2017, according to a French Wiki site there could be around 400,000 of us here. (although this seems a high figure to me) According to Le Figaro, some 3173 of them applied for French nationality in that same year. That’s only about 0.8% of them. Doesn’t seem quite so big now does it?! It's hardly a tsunami..

If the expat Brit population would be nearer 200,000 (a figure I’d be happier with), the number applying would still only represent 1.6% of us. In other words, the number of Brits applying for French nationality would rise from the statistically invisible to the infinitesmal. These are negligible percentages and hardly the basis for the Guardian's shock horror report.. Imagine the impact of the story was reversed.. 99% of all Brit expats in France have no intention of seeking French nationality? (Note to The Guardian: must try harder!)

9th January. I've been hors de combat these last few days due to a seasonal flu-like cold - which means I've been exploring every combination of sneezing, wheezing, coughing, blowing and spluttering known to mankind (bearing in mind that man pain is that much worse than any other kind!☺). It's kept me indoors more or less since the turn of the year - which was probably no bad thing as we've experienced some very wet and stormy weather recently. Closing the upstairs shutters during a wet and windy night had its moments!

2nd January. I'm only 3 years behind..! The making of "Happy" videos mushroomed on a global scale 3 years ago.. see here.

1st January 2018. Good morning to all.. I hope you're feeling fine after last night. First of all, whoever and wherever you are, Happy New Year from the Pays Basque. 

Here's something I found to kick the year off in style..  If it hasn't already, I think this will catch on with Generation X or Snowflake kids or whatever those of the millennial generation are called.. see what you think:

(Other versions here of Happy in Bayonne / Biarritz / Pays Basque / Anglet / BAB2*).
* BAB2 = a large commercial shopping centre here.
We're off to our favourite seaside restaurant for lunch.. for some fresh fish and some crisp white wine.. what more do you want? ☺

(Added later: our waitress told us that their last customer left at 8.30am on New Year's Day..!)