Wednesday, 2 January 2019

263. What will this year bring?

20th January. If, in an idle moment, you've ever wondered what the F1 - F12 keys do (on the top row of your keyboard), ponder no longer - look here. I realise that, in telling you this, I'm running the risk of getting dangerously close to proving the truth of the old adage that "life's too short to stuff a mushroom..". 

I took Nutty (aka "Bulldozaire" - our 17kg 4x4 cocker spaniel if you've just joined us) down to the beach this morning for a good morning run and a blow out. It was a blustery morning with broken cloud and showers blowing in periodically from the Bay of Biscay. I waited in the car for a couple of minutes while a shower blew through and then we set off. There's a jetty - although jetty's not the right word as ships can't moor up against it - they call it a digue in French - that sticks out (right - the nearest one of the three) and, as a small coaster was lining up to enter the river, it seemed like a good idea at the time to walk out to the end. There were quite a few surfers out there too. Just as I got out to the far end, a heavy shower made its presence known! I had to keep telling myself "It's only water..". It was a loong way back to the car. Nutty's a water-magnet - he took some drying off!

18th January. This is a well-known piano concerto that, despite being played to death on Classic music stations, can withstand repeated listening.. Here's Anna Fedorova and the North West German Philhamonic Orchestra conducted by Martin Panteleev at the Royal Concert Hall, Amsterdam with Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor:
(I confess that I'll never be able to understand how anyone can play this demanding and complex piece from memory - or even with the music!)

16th January. Went down to the beach early this morning to give Nutty a good run. According to the car at 8.30am, it was 2°C.. and it felt like every bit of it. The sea was almost a flat calm except for some beautifully formed waves that were rearing up at the last moment. Looking south down towards Biarritz, there was a silver'd mist hanging over the beach lit by the early morning sun that had just made an appearance. My shadow was about 20 yards (or 18.3m if you insist!) long. It was c-o-l-d ! 

Here's the latest picture of Nutty - glaring at the camera, as he'd been left alone over lunchtime (we'd been invited out). The object that looks like a gift-wrapped parcel between his front paws is his new 'squeak' - and he guards it jealously..!  

George & Janet, Pyrenees 1955
Regular readers might remember references here to the Comet Line - the Belgian-run WWII network designed to repatriate shot-down Allied aircrew. Sadly, I have to report that George Duffee DFC, one of the more notable wartime RAF evaders, passed away peacefully on 21st December aged 94. His beloved wife Janet predeceased him by 2½ weeks - they'd shared 72 years of a very happy marriage together. I was very fond of them both and they'll be greatly missed. Here's George up in the mountains (above) during their annual visit to the Pays Basque in 2012.

RIP George and Janet.

13th January. There was a feature on Penne-d'Agenais (Lot-et-Garonne) on the box a day or two ago - and a very charming village it looked too. Might try a short break there in the Spring.

Down to the beach this morning for the first time since the New Year.. a grey blustery morning with showers blowing through every few minutes. Very low stratus with the cloud down to the sea. Not a day to linger down there. It can only improve!

A former British Prime Minister (aka John Major) is pushing for a second Referendum (how on earth did he ever make Prime Minister?) Are we heading for best out of three? If our MPs and our brilliant Oxbridge-educated Civil Servants - with all the government facts and figures at their fingertips - can't agree on what's best for the UK, how on earth does Major expect the average 'Joe on the street' to be able to when 'Britain's brightest' can't? It begs the question why we are paying them.

Churchill got it right: The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. I certainly wouldn't go for a second Referendum.

12th January. Watching a cracking game of rugby this afternoon between Leinster and Stade Toulousain.. (It finished 29-13) It reminded me that the Guinness 6 Nations starts in just under 3 weeks time.. with a mouth-watering clash on the Friday evening (terrible time to have a game of rugby) between France and Wales.

7th January. Biarritz staged another mass release of some 3,000 Chinese/Japanese lanterns from la Grande Plage last Thursday evening (3rd).. A pity we had to miss it - but I picked up a real winter cold the other day and it wouldn't have been a good idea to have gone. I'm wheezing like an old set of bellows! (aka Man Pain!)
2nd January. This beautifully restored Bentley straight six engine is from a Mark VI model (1950-ish). I could look at this for hours! Period review of the car here.
Looking ahead, the opening round of the Guinness 6 Nations Rugby Tournament is only a month away.. 
We spent the New Year at the home of Madame's sister-in-law on the bay of Arcachon.. where, on New Year's Eve, we and three generations of family enjoyed a wonderful feast of the freshest of fresh seafood - coquilles Saint-Jacques (scallops) to start with; then gambas and crevettes (prawns or shrimp for English readers) of all sizes, followed by sea bream in a creamy sorrel sauce. We'd brought a crisp white Irouléguy. After that, it all gets a bit hazy - but I do remember having some magnificent cheeses (with a red Irouléguy) before we finished up with an assortment of decorated ice cream logs!

On New Year's day, we took the dog down to the sea-front and tried to walk some of the excess off. For lunch, we had a delicious veal stew (can't remember the correct term) - Madame's late brother knew his wine and with it we enjoyed a memorable 2001 Premières Côtes de Blaye from the dwindling reserve of his bottles. It struck me that drinking and enjoying a wine that he'd chosen - 5 years after his passing - was a touching way of remembering him - it brought him near to us all - and I silently toasted his memory. I hope you don't think this is a morbid thought but I think I'll lay down a few selected bottles in the cellar for friends to enjoy around our table one day, hopefully far in the future.

As always, the year stretches ahead as a series of blank pages. Who knows what the coming weeks and months will bring? All I know is that these are days to be filled with laughter and good times - and I'll try to share as many of them as possible with you. Madame and I hope that 2019 will bring much happiness to you and yours. 

Saturday, 8 December 2018

262. Countdown to Christmas..

25th December. 
23rd December. In reading about the recent tsunami that killed many in the Sumatra and Java region, I came across this compelling video of Anak Krakatau volcano erupting during the night at the end of October (plus close-up version, filmed from a drone in daylight, here):
It appears that the tsunami was caused by paroxysmal explosive activity.. more here. When too close is too close.

And here it is - as it was filmed 3 days ago - hard to believe that it's the same volcano:
22nd December. Saw an amazing spectacle this evening. We walked into Bayonne to watch the release of hundreds - what am I saying?! - thousands of Japanese lanterns into the night sky. It was just the night for a hot wine to kick start the system too.

I think in England the Fun Police would have slapped a banning order on it ('Elf 'n Safety mate). It was a stirring sight as thousands of the metre-high lanterns rose gracefully up into the heavens (fortunately there wasn't a breath of wind). I've never seen anything like it in my life.. There were so many families there with young children and I'm sure the magnificent spectacle created an unforgettable memory for them all as the lanterns, uneasily at first, lifted slowly up into the dark sky. It seemed as though they represented all the hopes and dreams for Christmas and beyond of those present - very moving to watch:
This was followed by a firework display, accompanied by music. The last song was this one - and I'm convinced someone let all the remaining fireworks off at once! It starts at 0:36..

According to a police estimate, there were between 50,000 - 60,000 people present. Afterwards, we headed off into the centre and found a table at La Pièce de Boeuf - where we chose the "all you can eat" beef option from the "dead but could still be resuscitated" menu.. (looky here!) Excellent beef - tender as anything - and it could be cut with a butter knife. And for a change, we also put a bottle of Graves out of its misery!

It's always during the last few days before Christmas that doubts set in about the presents that you've chosen for your loved one. Was it a good idea to have bought her a pair of slippers with matching oven gloves*? How many times will she watch the DVD of the 2018 Six Nations rugby*? Will a new vacuum cleaner hit the spot*? ☺ While I think I'm pretty safe this year, there's always that lingering doubt. Too late to do anything about it now though.
* Just in case there's any doubt, I bought Madame none of the above! However, my brother once bought his wife (a stranger to the kitchen) a food processor. <ouch!> I believe he was seen wearing it not long after!

In the meantime, there's never a better moment than the shortest day of the year to enjoy the mountain scenery of the Pays Basque.. (full screen!) plus a report on Pierre Oteiza's pigs.. in Les Aldudes, a must-see village up in the Pyrenees close to the border..

19th December. Feel the need for a Christmas carol? Click here (ignore the adverts - they don't last long). Meanwhile, Madame's presents have been safely smuggled into the house - I've just one more to wrap and then I'm done. I also need to take one last trip down to the cellar to make sure that there are no major shortfalls in the bottle department. 

Most days I take a look at British Media online - and I shudder at much of the tosh I read there. New words continually bubble up to the surface of all the froth - and one curious addition to the trendy hack's lexicon is wellness. I have no idea what this means. Then there's the all-consuming obsession with celebrity - especially when the celebrities in question are total nonentities as far as I'm concerned. I'm convinced we have far too much media. I did ask a GP friend in England recently if he knew what wellness was and he had no idea. So what is it? Answers on a postcard please to the usual address.   

Here's one of those hyper-concentrated videos that attempts, in the modern way, to cram the Pays Basque into a frantic 2½ minutes. To enjoy? Dilute to taste with a / few / many / glass(es) of sangria / Jurançon / Irouléguy / whisky (insert drink of choice) - and r-e-l-a-x!

18th December. A disturbing statistic for casual observers of the European Union: according to figures released by the federal statistical office, Germany had a surplus of €48.1bn in the first six months of 2018, equivalent to 2.9 per cent of economic output — the highest level since German reunification in 1990. By contrast, France, the other major EU political player, had a €58bn budget deficit in 2017.  

How long can this dysfunctional situation be allowed to continue? It should be enough to send shivers up and down the spines of economists throughout Europe - and indeed further afield. The adoption of the euro by all those EU countries was, and is, a triumph of post-sixties wishful thinking, inspired perhaps by smoking too many exotic cigarettes (think John Lennon's 1971 hit "Imagine"), and unchallenged by economic reality and common sense. Germany's economists saw the potential advantage for them in a flash and quickly convinced their politicians to ditch the mighty D-mark in favour of the euro, as they saw that by doing so it would serve to preserve and enhance their economic dominance. Had Germany retained the D-mark, it would by now have had to be revalued upwards at least once. However, following the switch to the one-size-fits-all euro, they are making serious amounts of hay while the euro is pegged artificially low for the German economy.

And curiously, at a time when Macron is under pressure from popular opinion, French political commentators are unwilling to make the link publicly between France's economic woes and the contraints imposed by being in the eurozone. The EU project - beloved of post-war French politicians - is an article of faith for politicians of the mainstream parties. How long will this mindset continue to be the case after the UK's departure? 

One of these days someone will come along and explain to me how two countries such as Germany and Greece (but I could equally use France these days) with two totally disparate economies can possibly share a common currency. I think I'll have a long wait. Europe is paying the price for allowing French federalists (with their long-held ambition of setting up a European Superstate to take on the US) free rein with their flights of fancy nurtured in the rarified hot house atmospheres of their Grandes Ecoles. To my Anglo-Saxon mind, 'events' happen when they come about as a result of popular demand from the electorate - not when they are imposed, unasked for, by a political élite.
Peppone, 31 Cours Georges Clémenceau, 33000 Bordeaux
We're now nearing the end game of my request for French citizenship (Naturalisation) and so we went up to Bordeaux yesterday in good time (in case the gilets jaunes were up to their tricks on the autoroute) to be ready for the interview at 2pm. We had a couple of hours to spare so no prizes for guessing how we filled in the time! We found an authentic, quaint and oh-so-typical small Italian restaurant - Peppone - where we could have been in Italy. The photos say it all. (take a look down in their wine cellar - a feast for the eyes!) Fortunately, we'd arrived early and we had no trouble finding a table - but it is small - so say no more.. Great attentive service and excellent food. This is definitely one to return to. (I've added it to the Restaurant map)

Suitably refreshed, we made our way to the Préfecture where I was strapped in a chair under hot lights - no, seriously, it was really all quite civilised.. A lady came down at the appointed hour and we went through into a small interview room where she ran me through all the possible questions that officialdom could conceivably wish to ask in making its mind up about such an application. I think it was carried out in a relaxed manner - she had a form to guide her through the process that covered every aspect and we went through it all. After this meeting, I'm hoping that my application will be signed off by the Préfet of Nouvelle-Aquitaine - following which it will be sent up to Paris to be signed off (or not!) by Mr Christopher Castaner, the Minister of the Interior (at the time of writing). Once this has happened, I can expect to be invited to Pau (the capital of Pyrénées-Atlantiques) in the May/June 2019 time frame along with other successful local applicants for a short ceremony where we will all be presented with our new French passports. Phew!

We picked up Nutty on the way home - he'd had to spend a night and a day in the kennels - and then home for a quick bite before I was off out for choir practice. I must say that my enthusiasm low level warning light came on steady RED at 10pm when our choir leader decided we were going to start learning a new piece - right there and then. That had been one loong day! (Spoilt only by getting 'flashed' on the autoroute way home from Bordeaux.. Grr!)

16th December. This beautiful oboe piece comes from the soundtrack of "The Mission" - a film I saw once in the late 80s and couldn't get into. You might remember the film for the disturbing scene in which a Jesuit priest, lashed to a wooden cross, is launched on a river and goes over the Iguaçu Falls..
12th December. With less than 2 weeks to go before you-know-what, I have to say that - so far - I haven't received an invitation to a single bunga bunga party! Only joking! Wasn't it Bill Bryson who said that, at his age, he now views sex as a welcome chance for a lie down!* (I agree!)(Eek! What am I saying?!)

* In modern parlance, that would be a "lie down with benefits"..

Anyway, moving swiftly on, I have to make a start on writing Christmas cards - so, I suggest you find something to occupy yourself with for the next few hours.

At a time when earthbound media is huffing and puffing over such events as the "No Confidence" vote being triggered in the UK this morning - or that French lawyers (en colère*) are demonstrating outside the courts this morning over recent "preventive control" measures taken during the ongoing gilets jaunes disturbances - despite all that, it's worth taking a step back to absorb the fact that we are the first generation of human beings in history ever to know what colour a Martian sunset is.

Here it is (at no extra charge!) - I believe this was taken on Mars in 2015:

* Strikers, demonstrators or simply just malcontents are routinely described as being en colère here.. It just means that they're furious, angry, not happy or - insert word of choice.
8th December. Walked to town this afternoon to pick up a few things for Christmas.. it was so warm that we stopped off at this café on the banks of the Nive and had a hot chocolate and a pancake each in the sunshine. 

7th December. We're back after a few days away (just to give Madame a break before Christmas). We went down to Saint-Jean-de-Luz today - I'd received a letter from the Prefecture in Bordeaux (in connection with my request for French citizenship) telling me that they wanted to see me up there on 17th December - armed with more copies of paperwork that they already have in their possession. This time we need a letter from our bank in St-J-d-L that states that we have a joint bank account there - and it's active. I don't question any of this any more - I just do it. 

On the way down to the bank, we spotted a group of swimmers having a swim in the bay (above) - no wet suits either!  

It was around 17-18°, sunny with a cloudless sky so after calling in at the bank, we drove around to Socoa for lunch at Chez Pantxua.. We sat outside in the dazzling sunshine and had one of our best ever lunches there.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

261. Autumn marches on.

26th November. This track by Laura Pausini was the ever-present soundtrack when I was working in Italy in the 90s:
Here's another great song from Laura with Andrea Bocelli.

I'm not making this up - that air compressor is now listed at £3198..!

The weekend rugby results were uniformly good news for the English-speaking nations: the New Zealand tsunami made tiramisu of the Azzurri (highlights); Scotland made Argentina cry (highlights); England walloped the Wallabies (highlights); the Welsh bashed the Boks (highlights); the Irish tanked the Yanks (highlights) and, to round it off, France flopped against Fiji (highlights)..

25th November. Out on my ebike yesterday afternoon (before the rugby!) for a ride along the Adour - and I thought I'd try a ride through the Forêt de Pignada (mentioned a few days ago). I thought it would have had all the ingredients necessary for a great ride - but it didn't work out like that. Every now and again, I encountered drifts of sand across the paths and I'd come to a wobbling dead stop as the tyres cut through the sand rather than riding over it.  

By the way, that self-same air compressor is now advertised on the Amazon UK site for a crazy £1834.. 
23rd November. What's happening with Amazon UK? I've just re-checked the price of the air compressor and - on Black Friday of all days - it's now rocketed up to £345.10.. and meanwhile the price via Amazon France has crept up a few euros to 42.67€. I really don't understand e-commerce! 

22nd November. We both have ebikes and I was surprised to read that the tyres need pumping up to astonishingly high pressures. For example, mine need around 65-70psi (4.5 - 4.8 bar) and if I don't ride it for a week or two, the tyre pressures soon seem to drop off. As the nearest garage with an air line is a fair way from here, I thought it would be a good idea if we had one of these handy little Michelin air compressor gizmos (left), so I ordered one this week and it arrived yesterday. It plugs into the 12v cigarette lighter socket in the car and it works a treat. I see that Amazon UK charges £197 and change for one - while the same thing from Amazon France is only 39.90€.

The chart below hardly needs any words to explain it. The graph shows the exchange rate between the pound sterling and the euro - and you can tell to the minute when the news was released that the EU and the UK negotiators finally agreed the Political Declaration this morning. However, this is only Part 1 and it has yet to be approved and signed off by all 27 EU states and the UK House of Commons. The Trade talks are going to grind on for a few years. I think we'll have all lost the will to live by the time that gets signed off.
19th November. I make no apology for including the full match between Ireland and New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin - for I doubt that we'll see a better international this year. This is a rugby match to watch again and again.
If you want to beat the All Blacks, take a leaf out of Ireland's book - and do likewise (easy to say!). There were many thunderous tackles, mighty collisions and much heroic defending on both sides from start to finish and Ireland didn't take a single backward step. Ireland were inspired and relentless and they took the game to New Zealand with a vengeance. I wouldn't single out one player for Man of the Match - for me, there were 15 Men of the Match - and they were all Irish.
Ireland's Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best, Cian Healy, Peter O'Mahony and Devin Toner celebrate the final whistle.

Here's a short video of Bayonne that captures much of its spirit.. Within its historic ramparts (designed by Vauban), the streets are narrow and so all building had only one place to go - up! Outside, however, it's a different story and the adjacent tree-lined boulevards boast some highly desirable houses in the Basque style, interspersed by a number of pleasant parks and gardens.
18th November. I was just closing the shutters upstairs at 8pm when I heard the sound of cranes overhead on the move again. I thought they roosted overnight? If anyone knows better, please leave a message.

For those interested in reading the case against Theresa May's Chequers Agreement, look no further.

We've found a new place for walking the pooch - aka tree heaven! It's the Forêt de Pignada at Anglet.. and it's full of tall maritime pines, tranquil paths ideal for those contemplative walks and - at this time of the year - precious few people!

Walking through the woods, there's only the occasional sound that penetrates from the outside world. There are multiple routes through it and the little feller is in his element! The activity shown both here and below is typical of the summer months - outside of July-September, many of these places can be enjoyed in peace:
There were two massive games of rugby of interest to me yesterday - England vs Japan at Twickenham and Ireland vs New Zealand in Dublin. While I'm primarily an England fan, Ireland has long been my second favourite as they play with an aggression, a passion and an intensity that England find hard to emulate. Sit back and enjoy these highlights from the Aviva stadium as the boys in green finally record their first and well-deserved home win against the All Blacks:

England were less impressive - however, after trailing 10-15 at half time to a sparkling Japanese XV, Eddie Jones made a few substitutions and although they ran out 35-15 winners at the end - a scoreline that flattered them in my view - I think it's fair to say that they never really subdued Japan, led by their inspirational captain Michael Leitch. Japan pose a genuine threat and they are more than capable of causing a few upsets in the upcoming Rugby World Cup in Japan (only 10 months away!).

A name to watch for England in the Six Nations: Joe Cokanasiga.. a massive talent at 21 years old. His stats are impressive: 1m93 tall (6'4"), 120kg (260lbs) and he's fast. Look here.

17th November. On looking out at the sky this evening, I was reminded of an unusual sight I saw about a week ago. At around 3am early one morning, I was persuaded by Nutty, our 17kg cocker spaniel, that he had to go out. Standing in the garden, I heard the now-familiar raucous screechings of cranes migrating south - and suddenly there they were revealed in the moonlight: an immense ghostly formation of cranes (grues cendrées). There must have been close to 150 of them as they passed low overhead - perhaps 300 feet up - in a single, broad, flattened vee formation. I'd always assumed that they rested up at night and waited for light before continuing. From this map, it looks as though they rest up just north east of here at the lakes at Arjuzanx.

You don't have to dig too deeply into the soul of a Frenchman to find the beating heart of a revolutionary. Today sees a nation-wide 'Manif' ('demo' in Angliche!) against the recent rise in fuel prices. Apparently it's a leaderless movement that's been put together with the help of social media and the plan is simply to disrupt traffic around the country - and the identifying mark of the protesters will be the gilet jaune (the yellow jacket that all drivers are supposed to carry).

Taking the pooch for his morning excursion this morning, I could hear the sound of sports motorbikes being revved to the limit and the screech of tyres from the direction of the town centre. On reaching Allée Paulmy (mentioned previously), the road was filled with several hundred sports motorcycles, many of whom were practising burn-outs and other 'tricks' to impress the onlookers.. There were tractors bedecked with Basque flags, cars with girls in yellow jackets hanging out of the windows pumping their fists, horns being sounded, engines being revved - in short, all the evidence you'd ever need that France is, at heart, a nation of anarchic revolutionaries.

Could this happen in Ye Olde Englande? I don't think so - even with the ongoing train crash that is Brexit, I don't see the Brits getting out on the streets in huge numbers across the country. Here's how Brexit is being reported here:

15th November. For those of you out there who aren't all "Brexit'd out" - here's the 585 page Draft Agreement that's taken so long to produce. There's a shorter 7 page summary here with the catchy title: "Outline of the Political Declaration Setting Out the Framework for the Future Relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom" - that's going to race off the shelves nearer Christmas! I admit to not having read it yet - but if this Draft Agreement passes through Parliament, then reportedly the UK is going join a customs union with the EU for an unspecified period - but one which we can only leave if both parties agree.

Another phrase that caught my eye is that the UK is now described in the Draft Agreement as an "independent coastal state". I wonder if Bill Bryson will be renaming his first book: "Notes from a Small Independent Coastal State"?

President Hollande once warned that there would be 'consequences' if the UK left the EU.. in the same way that Mafia protection teams warn restaurant owners of the fire risk if they fail to pay up. The EU has carefully contrived an end game where neither of the two choices on offer to the UK are especially appetising. One is to agree to this preposterous Draft Agreement that will see the UK shunted into a siding - from where there's no release until the EU agrees - a position that will cost us somewhere in the region of £40bn to £60bn - a colossal sum sufficient to buy between 162 and 243 brand new Boeing 777-300ER airliners.

The alternative is to walk away and trade on WTO terms. However, untangling the resultant chaos with an uncooperative - oops, sorry, what am I saying! I mean our "friends and partners" in the EU could be challenging indeed!

All this to exit a political grouping of nation states that we entered into freely (following a democratic referendum) - and one that we now wish to leave (again, following a democratic referendum). 
11th November. Back from walking the dog alongside a surging sea and, on returning home, I was faced with a sight on the television that stuck in my craw: a group of black-clad world leaders walking in a gaggle along a Parisian boulevard towards the Arc de Triomphe. Maybe I'm out of step with popular opinion but I've long held the view that it's politicians who cause wars and the sight of their faux-sombre faces as they 'paid homage' was too much to take - especially as they saw fit to preface it with a glitzy dinner last night at the Orsay Museum. (it wouldn't do to pass up an opportunity of a free feed would it?)

One phrase that our politicians are careful to avoid using is that War is a failure of politics. The only people who should be upfront and central in remembering and honouring the dead are not those who cause wars but the military - those who have to do the politicians' dirty work - and the families of the bereaved. It is only they who have to confront, and pay, the true cost of war - and it's at times like these that we should pay our respects to those of the military - both dead and living - who stepped forward at times of national need to serve their country - unlike the politicians, who customarily take a step to the rear. Am I alone in thinking this? If our politicians describe our fallen soldiers as our 'Glorious Dead', how should we best describe our politicians?
These images are almost unwatchable - row upon row upon row of silent witnesses, forever on parade in their serried stone ranks. Why them - why not me? If one man's death is a tragedy - what words could be used to describe all these deaths?
10th November. At around 7.20pm (UTC + 1) this evening, an asteroid the size of a house, and travelling at 4 miles per second, will whiz past Planet Earth - missing us by an estimated 237,000 miles. This appears far enough away until you think of its speed in standard astronomical units (light years) - then it sounds far more threatening as its miss distance will be less than 1½ light-seconds away - which is uncomfortably close. Gulp. Odd to think that everything we know hangs on such small margins.. You can watch it here with the Virtual Telescope Project from 7pm.

9th November. It's usually about this time of the year that we light the fire - and think about putting one of our favourite videos on. I think we could well be in for an evening at the foot of the Ngong Hills:
Health Warning: A few lines on Brexit. Juliet Samuel writes for the Daily Telegraph and she has produced a stinging (& well-deserved) one minute critique of Theresa May's shambolic handling of the negotiations. (don't forget to turn on the volume)

8th November. The questions have started - "Any idea what you'd like for Christmas..?" Truthful answer? No.. Probably the only thing I'd really like is more time between Christmasses. They seem to be coming along more frequently these days. Must be a sign of the times. Then there's the question of what can I get for Madame. I walk around town and fail to get inspired. I prefer to do my Christmas shopping in November - as it takes the desperation out of it! There's nothing worse than going out on Christmas Eve having to find something that doesn't look like the last chicken in Sainsburys!

Bayonne (& the rowing club) looks nice in the winter sun here:
7th November. On Sunday we took a drive out to the stunningly beautiful Les Aldudes valley to see the autumn colours but I think we were a couple of weeks too early. As we climbed higher and higher we started to see snow lodged in gullies high up on the hills and, far off in the distance, the top of the Pic du Midi was completely covered in snow. We finally achieved a long held ambition of mine which was to visit Urepel - a small village that I had always thought might be as far from Calais as it's possible to go and still remain in mainland France. (Just checked - it's actually Menton that's the furthest)
We're having some work done in the kitchen by someone who comes from this valley and, speaking of restaurants in that area, he told us to try this place.. They've not heard of nouvelle cuisine here.

There's also a Logis hotel - St-Sylvestre (above) with a restaurant that's long been on my 'to do' list. (Top tip: don't forget the elasticated waist trousers..)

Here's a short video about the branding of the cattle* in Urepel and their subsequent journey back up the mountain to their summer pastures. 

* they seem completely unconcerned by the process.

3rd November. A cold start to the morning today and mist lay on the river as I drove with the dog out for a mid-morning walk through the woods. Major advantage - he didn't come back soaking wet from here! If I'd still been rowing, it would have been an uninspiring and damp start to the day in the mist.

2nd November. Here's a glimpse of the future.. think these boards fitted with hydrofoils will be all over the beaches down here next year:

1st November. Today being la fête de la Toussaint (All Saints day), it's a public holiday here in France, despite it being a secular state. Traditionally, it's the day when families return, like so many spawning salmon, to their natal village to pay homage at the graves of their loved ones - usually with a bunch of chrysanthemums*. 

Bearing in mind that in France, as in many other countries today, the descendants of those resting in peace have often moved far from their spiritual home, the days surrounding Toussaint see an exodus of elderly drivers, unaccustomed to driving long distances (especially after a good lunch!), out on the roads. For this reason, Toussaint is associated with a peak in the number of road accidents. This year, as Toussaint falls on a Thursday, many people here will be taking a day of holiday (known as a pont - or a bridge) - thus finishing up with a 4 day weekend. If I have to be out on the roads in the afternoon, I try to keep well clear of cars driven by anyone wearing a hat! Say no more!

* Chrysanthemums are traditionally associated with cemeteries in France, so it's not a good idea to offer them to your hostess when invited out.

I mentioned a day or two ago about the trees on Allées Paulmy being trussed up in anticipation of the roadworks necessary for the new Tram'bus service - well, here they are! You could be forgiven for thinking it must be a slow news day here - but as it's Toussaint, everywhere's closed and it's grey and wet.

Madame has just opened a tin of cassoulet* (below) for lunch. (It's said that sniffy Parisian chefs are fond of saying that the only kitchen implement required for 'cuisine du Sud Ouest' is a tin opener!) I spotted a half empty/half full (you choose) bottle of Saint-Pourçain lurking on the kitchen table - so there's hope!

* from here - given to us by some kind neighbours.

I stopped earlier in the year (en route to Provence) at the Aire de Port Lauragais, a service station on the A61 some 30km south east of Toulouse (it's worth making a note of this address). The service station lies at the intersection of the autoroute and the Canal du Midi - and there you'll find La Dinée situated on an island in the marina. It's one of only two privately owned restaurants to be found on the French autoroute network and if, like me, you enjoy the traditional cooking of South West France, then the menu there is the mother lode. Whatever else you do, go there hungry. The cassoulet that we're having in a few minutes comes from the Hotel du Lauragais (map here) and they also supply La Dinée. I'd recommend the La Dinée set menu for 20€70.. starting with the salade Lauragaise (smoked duck breast and duck hearts) followed by the Cassoulet Maison de Castelnaudary (Try as I might, I couldn't finish mine). A nap in the car park afterwards will seem like a very good idea. I'd be surprised if there's a better cassoulet than this anywhere. As you might expect, there's a Confrérie of the cassoulet..

Far be it from me - un Anglais! - to suggest one recipe is better than another as each town around Castelnaudary is proud of its own version of this classic dish. Here's another view on how it should be prepared.

Verdict: Marks out of 10 for the cassoulet? 37! Thick with haricot beans, Toulouse sausageduck confit and richly flavoured with duck fat.. Just the job for a cold winter's day and excellent for keeping the draughts out.
We've just had a few heavy rain showers blow through out of the Bay of Biscay - so I'm hoping that this isn't a foretaste of how the rest of November is going to pan out.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

260. Off season

30th October. Fascinating fact for when it goes quiet in the snug.. For those of you who, like me, grew up on such stirring stories as "The Battle of the River Plate", it will come as something of a shock to learn - as I just have - that we've been getting it all wrong for decades. In Spanish, the river is known as "Rio de la Plata". Us Anglophones - in our wisdom - called it the River Plate. That film should have been called "The Battle of the Silver River". (That should ensure a few more minutes of silence!)

Preliminary work has been going on for some time now preparing the local road systems in readiness for the launch of the new Tram'bus service (as they're calling it) that is coming to Bayonne. Tram'bus is a battery-powered articulated bus (no overhead wires required) that is planned to enter service on the first of two routes on the Basque coast next year.

Five minutes walk from Pipérade Towers brings me to Allées Paulmy - a very attractive boulevard in central Bayonne that's also a busy traffic artery. It's lined with many mature trees and some substantial houses (left) in the Basque style. There is clearly some Tram'bus-related work programmed to take place here as many of the trunks of the trees have been wrapped in coils of 3" plastic tubing and have been further protected by substantial wooden planks that have been lashed vertically around the trunks over the tubing. This is an occasion when a single picture would have saved me a lot of blah blah! The road visible at lower right is a service road that runs parallel to Allées Paulmy - the dual carriageway just out of shot to the right. I believe the Tram'bus will be routed via this service road - no doubt amid howls of complaint from those who currently use it to park!

This is the proposed new tram'bus:

Bayonne is a very green town with many parks, gardens and some magnificent trees - take a look here at these pictures taken around the historic ramparts on the fringe of the town centre.

28th October. It was c-o-l-d down at the beach this morning with a stiff breeze coming off the sea.. a cold 9°C. The average winter temps here bottom out at 8°C - a fact for which I'm forever grateful! OK, it's not in the same ballpark as Winnipeg or Wisconsin - but nonetheless.. There were quite a few surfers (a good 20+) out there in the uninviting waves too. I was glad of my scarf!

Living, as we do, in town now, our ears are no longer assailed by sporadic gunfire as weekend hunters attempt to blast four-legged and feathered game into next Christmas. These sounds were a regular part of our soundtrack when we first arrived here as we lived further inland in a rural location. One spin-off from all the sound and the fury of the hunt at this time of the year is that many local restaurants (such Oppoca at Ainhoa) start featuring game on their Autumn menus - wild boar, venison, wood pigeon, hare etc. Say no more! (I've mentioned this before - those without very long memories can re-read it here)

Don't misunderstand me - I'm always on the side of the hunted. This (above) looks like a fair fight to me. I've always viewed hunting with a rifle or a shotgun as an unfair contest - but if game has been killed, then I do enjoy eating it. 

27th October. One from 1977 and sounding as fresh as ever:
26th October. At last, the voice of reason - and coming from a surprising quarter too - the German Parliament. I wouldn't argue with a word of Dr Weidel's speech. However, she's a member of the AfD Party - founded in 2013 and now the largest opposition party in the Bundestag. Its policies have tapped into some understandable resentment against the EU - and what it's brought Germany. Unfortunately, so far the anti-EU rhetoric has only emerged from the far Right - there seems to be no cross party support for its policies in the way that UKIP managed in the UK a couple of years ago. And the far Right in Germany includes some strange bedfellows with their demands reminiscent of darker days.. Still, with this speech to the Bundestag, I think she nailed it:
Just had a surprise visit from a large, leather-jacketed policeman while Madame was out at the shops. And no, he wasn't selling calendars! He was a friendly individual and his visit was in connection with my ongoing request for French citizenship.. I think it was in the nature of a 'belt and braces' confirmation that - despite the myriad documents and photocopies I've submitted that certify chapter and verse that I am who I say I am, and that I actually exist as described - that yes, Pipérade is alive and well and living in Bayonne. He asked me to confirm a few basic points - all in French - and then he went off quite happy. (I think!)

Been busy painting garage doors, pruning trees and preparing the garden for winter - quite a few trips to the déchetterie (tip) with sacks of rubbish - as well as covering up the table, & cleaning the plancha and lugging it to the garage.

In recent years, there seems to have been some kind of annual competition for being the first presenter in the televised media to sport a Remembrance Day poppy.. an "I'm more virtuous than you are" thing. I saw the first poppy of 2018 yesterday on Sky TV. This race to be the first signifies what? Remembrance Day should not be an occasion for mindless presenters to display their political correctness. To a simple soul like me, the day for wearing a poppy - and meaning it - is 11th November. Not before and not after. It appears that the poppy has been 'politicised' - at least, according to the BBC (who else) in its guide to the humble poppy..

19th October. I mentioned Shawn James here a few weeks ago - he's a resourceful character who built his own log cabin out in the Canadian wilderness - and I thought I'd put up a couple of his videos that are, to me at least, compulsive viewing. He summed up his philosophy of life on his website thus:
“The problem is you think you have time. The hours have a way of turning into days, the days into weeks, the weeks into years and the years into a lifetime. How different would your life and your memories be today, ten years later, if you had done that?!”
There's also a quote from Mark Twain there as well:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Mine could be summed up as:
 ".. the more we put into our lives, the better we feel." 
I've long been of the opinion that our "stuff" expands to fit the space available - and then some! The reality is that we don't need more than a fraction of all our accumulated possessions to live a happy and contented life. And watching these videos puts all the hot air and tension of Brussels into perspective. He has an enviable lifestyle.. (and I like his dog!)

18th October. For those Brits whose stomachs churn (and knees jerk) at the financial excesses of the EU - knowing that UK taxpayers contribute 12½% of the EU budget - I wouldn't recommend that you click on this link. The unchallenged corruption that seems to be endemic in the EU goes straight to the heart of why so many voted to Leave.

17th October. I've been following Adrian Holovaty's YouTube channel for some time. He's a gifted player and he's transcribed many great songs for guitar. See what you think:

16th October. There's been some massive flooding in the Aude (at the other end of the Pyrenees) where 18cm (7 inches) of rain - equivalent to 3 months rainfall - fell in the early hours of Monday morning - one village was flooded to a depth of over 6 metres (20 feet) and some unfortunate people were drowned in their own homes. It doesn't bear thinking about. Altogether there have been 11 confirmed deaths with possibly more to follow.

I've tried to keep this blog as free as possible (as much as I'm able) from discussions on the merits or otherwise of Brexit and the associated negotiations but the events of the last few days have brought the EU's negotiating strategy into sharp focus.

From the outset, they selected the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as the schwerpunkt for making the exit talks with the UK as unhelpful and obstructive as possible (while I'm being polite here, part of me wants to reach for a baseball bat!). I think it's fairly obvious why they're doing so - it's pour décourager les autres and also to ensure that whatever outcome emerges from the exit talks, it will not be in any way advantageous for the UK in comparison to its present position as an EU member state. Depending upon your point of view, you may or may not think that they're being reasonable.

Here's an extract from a think-piece by Dr Sheila Lawlor that neatly encapsulates the situation:
To anyone reflecting on the many thousands of miles of borders between the EU and 19 third countries, the fact that the Irish border has prompted so much political frenzy may seem bizarre: other EU borders are with a variety of third countries, including a motley  collection of states – dictatorships and lands racked by armed struggles, or used as transit points for mass immigration, or for smuggling and the slave trade. By contrast, the Irish border divides two peaceful, democratic neighbours, sharing a common law tradition and the closest ties of culture, history and economy, living in harmony and mutual self-interest and with the Belfast Agreement a matter of practical cooperation – an agreement it should be noted to which the EU was not a signatory.
You can read another paper by Dr Lawlor - "Ruling the Ruler - Parliament, the People and Britain's Political Identity" here.

I think the only winners out of Brexit are those endless political talk shows and commentators who get paid small fortunes to speculate about the speculation. I've had to become very selective about who I listen to these days - otherwise my knuckles would be white all day!
13th October. I don't think I've mentioned this before but, for finishing off a meal on a warm evening, it doesn't get much better than pouring a splash of limoncello over some lemon sorbet. You'll thank me for this! We'll explore the delights of a Sgroppino in another post.

10th October. More info for expats potentially affected by Brexit here and here.

Every now and again, when listening to a conversation in French, I'll pick up an unexpected combination of words that makes me realise that I've just heard a new idiom. So it was when we bumped into a friend in town yesterday and we stopped off in a café for a chat. In the midst of some rapid fire French, our friend said: ça ne casse pas trois pattes à un canard.. I thought whoa there! I've got to find out what that means. 

I asked what it meant literally and what the meaning was. The literal meaning is: that doesn't break three feet of a duck. I was still none the wiser - so I asked what the meaning was. Apparently it means that whatever the subject of the phrase was - it was nothing special. The thinking behind it being that as ducks have only two feet, it would take someone or something truly exceptional to break three. Another mystery solved! ☺

9th October. Looking at the blog hit counter, I see that we're fast approaching 75,000 hits. I remember the early days when getting those first 100 seemed like an impossible achievement! Many thanks to all those of you (OK, both of you!) who have stayed the course!

We'll be making a trip up into the Vallée des Aldudes (here) before too long to see the spectacular autumn colours. The valley extends into Navarre like a blunt finger. Might just stop off at the Auberge Hotel Restaurant Saint Sylvestre while we're up there.

This will give you an idea of what's in store:
 Merci à Mariano pour ce diaporama magnifiquement réalisé
In the absence of any real news, the chattering classes often try to occupy themselves, and distract us, by urging us to adopt the latest 'de-stressing' lifestyles. Their latest attempt is based on yet another fad that's emerged from Scandinavia - we've had koselig from Norway, hygge from Denmark - to which (according to these under-worked journalists) the Swedes responded with lagom - and now it seems we're supposed to copy the Finns and get completely kalsarikänni - or 'pantsdrunk' - at home. Apparently we have to "find our most comfortable underwear – the really holey ones where we’ve forgotten their original colour. Perhaps invest in some wool socks, too. Pantsdrunk is not about getting wasted". This is what you end up writing if you read Media Studies at Uni.

Rest easy - you'll be pleased to know that I won't be illustrating these pages with graphic examples of your correspondent in the Pays Basque getting pantsdrunk! (not that I do that these days) 

8th October. This song - Vivere - is one I often heard while I was working in Italy in the mid-90s. The singers are Andrea Bocelli and Gerardina Trovato:

7th October. The weather is definitely autumnal now - down at the beach this morning, the sea was slate grey and the first hundred metres or so were covered in foam as a blustery onshore wind whipped up the surface. Out to sea, the horizon was dark with showers and so I curtailed the dog's usual walk. Here's a live web cam that shows what Biarritz looks like right now (ignore the annoying advert - it doesn't last long).

We spent the rest of the day lurking indoors as rain lashed down intermittently..

Well, it looks like I (and other British expats in France) won't have to fear the squeal of brakes as a Citroën Traction Avant pulls up outside the house at 3am in the near future. Nathalie Loiseau - France's high flying and impressively qualified Europe Minister (and mother of 4!) - put forward a bill last Wednesday that will unilaterally guarantee the rights of British citizens living in France, who would otherwise immediately become illegal migrants in the event of a no-deal Brexit when their EU citizenship is revoked on 29 March 2019. Personally, I always found that particular 'Project Fear' scenario highly unlikely - but, as I've mentioned here previously, I decided a good while ago that a "belt and braces" approach (applying for dual nationality) would be a wise move if EU expats were ever to be used as political pawns following a breakdown in relations between the EU and the UK.

From the noises coming out of Brussels during the last day or two, it's starting to sound as though someone is paving the way for a soon-to-be-announced rapprochement with the UK over the Brexit negotiations. I think the onward march of the calendar plus the prospect that the UK's £39bn might evaporate from the EU's balance sheets (if there's 'no deal') has started to focus a few minds on the political and economic realities. I hope so, at any rate. The Irish border question has always been nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt by the EU to put a stick in the UK's spokes. Meanwhile:
5th October. We had some English friends over today from L'Isle-Jourdain in the Gers where they have a second home. They were staying here at Hotel Ur Hegian (right on the Franco-Spanish border) and so I thought I'd take them for lunch via a spectacular route up and up into the high country via some steeply winding single track lanes. We ended up at Venta Burkaitz (here - find it and win a prize!). We found a shady spot outside as it was 29° and blue, blue skies. We all had the same menu - river trout, followed by suckling pig, and then various desserts and coffee.. As we were just inside Spain, we handed out some gratuitous punishment to a bottle of Rioja. Thus primed, we then set about solving the more pressing political problems of the day. No problem too challenging!

4th October. I was up in the loft earlier fitting a new filter to a dehumidifier gizmo we have up there that pumps dry air into the house - it's one of those fiddly jobs that you just don't have enough hands for. Anyway, between me cursing under my breath as I tried to tighten some screws in the dark while holding on to a ladder, this memorable scene from "Manhattan" came to mind. I think it's Zubin Mehta and the lush strings of the NY Philharmonic.

2nd October. Out on my ebike this afternoon - along the banks of the Adour until we hit the coast - then a left turn on to the Boulevard des Plages to parallel the coast all the way down to Biarritz where I stopped off at Kostaldea (right) for a cappuccino and to take in the uninterrupted view of the sea. I've been driving past this place for several years now but this was the first time I had occasion to stop there. It won't be the last.

It's usually packed during the season, but today - now that we're in October - there were just a few tables occupied. The way down there is mainly via cycle tracks - which suits me fine - and it was a real pleasure to be out and about in perfect weather - temps in the low 20s (I'm guessing) and low humidity - under the maritime pines with the heat of the sun releasing the smell of the needles.

We were saddened yesterday to hear of the passing of Charles Aznavour - at the ripe old age of 94. There was a time when he appeared regularly on British TV screens and and it was fashionable among the chatterati to mock him. This at a time when he had no competition in the UK (unless you count the late Matt Munro or the dire and equally late Max Bygraves).

Aznavour was an authentic performer, he loved singing to an audience and he'd just returned from giving a concert in Japan. He left school aged 9 and subsequently taught himself at least 5 languages and he could sing in 9. He reportedly wrote over 1200 songs and recorded 91 albums. What a work ethic..! Here's a favourite I remember hearing back in the sixties..
Out of all his songs, this was the one that did it for me - I wouldn't change a word: