Friday 5 January 2024

296. Into the unknown..

14th May. Remember Cat Stevens? He made some very listenable-to music in the early '70s - this is one of his:

  

11th May. Just noticed that the hit counter for the blog is approaching the quarter of a million mark. I remember being excited when it hit 100! Who'd a thunk it?!

10th May. This turned up in my inbox the other day and it gave me a most welcome laugh. 

Apologies are due to my faithful reader(s) who might have been excused for thinking that the complete absence of posts since January was perhaps due to your Basque correspondent being forcibly restrained in a canvas jacket somewhere.. If only!😉 All I'll say is that we (the Royal 'we') have had a recurrence of health problems.. plus an unexpected surge in activity linked to the association I'm involved with.  

Here's a little video that I've not featured before that focuses on the line that runs between here (Bayonne) and Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. We've driven along the road that parallels the railway line many times and each time we comment on how picturesque that particular valley of the Nive is. Those with long memories might remember that the first stop on this line is at Villefranque - where we spent 5 happy months in a gîte when we first arrived in this beautiful and verdant corner of France waay back in 2007.

  

And before you ask, here's one that looks at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port: 

31st January. Walking into town this afternoon I was surprised to see Avenue Foch (the main thoroughfare into the centre of Bayonne from Pipérade Towers) completely blocked by maybe 20 huge 4x4 tractors each towing a trailer filled with old tyres although some appeared to be full of some organic vegetable matter (aka fumier). At the head of this line of farm vehicles, four policemen were standing there looking a little lost as all the tractor drivers had cunningly disappeared. As I walked by the lead tractor there was a deafening explosion from its trailer that came very close to causing me to have a wardrobe malfunction in the Trouser Department..! I have no idea what was causing these explosions but they continued at 15-20 second intervals. 

What was all this about you may ask? The recent inflationary price rises caused by higher energy costs among other things and the fact that farmers now have to pay the full retail price for diesel has meant than many farmers are working in the red. They claim that the supermarkets are buying in their produce from worldwide low cost suppliers. Madame saw some asparagus from Peru in the shops the other day. This is far too complex a subject to be dealt with here but it was reported recently that young farmers are killing themselves at the rate of two per day - and the farming community has decided that they have nothing more to lose and so they've taken to direct action - largely with the support of the French public. Yes, farmers may be land-rich but they are cash-poor. What hopes can a young farmer entertain for finding a wife and raising a family?      

On my return home, I was surprised to see Avenue Foch was open to traffic again. This was clearly just a token 'lightning' protest to demonstrate that they could easily close down the town if they so wished. France's new Prime Minister Gabriel Attal has taken some measures to address the farmers' concerns - but will they be enough to satisfy the aggrieved farmers? Agriculture is a key component of French life as it feeds into markets and restaurants - and what would France be without these? We've not heard the end of this. I support the farmers.           

14th January. Watching ARTE this evening we were privileged to see Bruce Liu playing Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor at the magnificent Kurhaus, Wiesbaden, from the Rheingau Music Festival 2023. His is a new name to me and I'm sure we'll be hearing a lot more from him in years to come. Unfortunately, the original video I posted was taken down (for copyright issues or some such) so I'm replacing it with the III. Allegro Scherzando movement: 

    

11th JanuaryWe made a flying visit to Grand Frais (noted for the freshness of its produce) this afternoon (just next to Biarritz airport). I was dispatched to examine the cheese department and in doing so I had to pass through the dramatically-lit displays of fruit and veg. 

Clouds of water vapour were drifting over the spot-lit displays of greenery and it occurred to me that all it needed was for Sherlock Holmes (played by Basil Rathbone naturally) to step out of the swirling mists. I shouldn't be allowed out on my own really!   

6th January. I was reminded by 50% of my global readership that The Shadows hit "Apache" deserves a mention - not too many records from 1960 have aged as well as this one. 

    

Original version here.

4th January 2024. With the news that last year (reportedly) saw the earth's hottest temperatures in 125,000 years, I can't help thinking that we - on board Planet Earth - have entered uncharted waters - but minus a steady hand or two on the tiller to guide us. And to make matters worse, wherever you look, the political landscape is populated with pygmies. The great Western democracies have become more factionalised than ever before - they are riven with bickering and power struggles. Governments  generally have 5 year terms, and even if they had long term policies and goals, these invariably are sacrificed on the altar of short term expediency as our political masters devote much/all of their time and effort in seeking and maintaining electoral popularity. And whether we like it or not, our politicians have to get themselves elected (and re-elected) if they are to function. Churchill famously once said that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Maybe the answer is a benign dictatorship - except that history has rightly taught us to reject anything with 'dictatorship' in the small print. Maybe it's the time for the UK to consider a National coalition government again.. it worked during WWII. The search continues.

I was searching through a number of stations on our internet radio the other day when I came across this minor classic tune by Duane Eddy - one that I hadn't heard for decades. When it first appeared in 1960 (I believe), it seemed to be ushering in a whole new optimistic decade.. With its distinctive electric guitar sound it became the signature tune for countless radio and TV programmes aimed at the youth market.

      

Meanwhile, across the English channel, artists such as France's Françoise Hardy and others initially flourished as they relied more on words than the amplified jangle of a Fender or a Rickenbacker. I heard just before Christmas that her life is sadly drawing to a close after a long brave struggle with illness. 

Monday 3 July 2023

295. Bird-chirping weather

31st December. Sorry to have been so quiet lately but we had an unwelcome visitor  - a certain Mr Montezuma - and he outstayed his welcome. I think I've had no more than 4 glasses of wine in the last hour oops, week.. 

16th December. We made a visit to Grand Frais (near the airport at Biarritz) on Friday morning.. and they were fully stocked with 1001 delights, ready for the festive season (or Christmas as I like to call it!). The link above doesn't do justice to the mouth-watering displays of fresh produce there..   

Last Saturday should have seen another mass release of Chinese (or should that be Japanese?) lanterns from the centre of Bayonne. Here's a reminder of this event from last year.
  
Thousands of people crossed the border to come here and take part in another mass release, but we had a period of continuous heavy rain and the event was cancelled. Apparently many people then decided to visit Bayonne's indoor food market and the local TV news later reported that there had been an outbreak of mass shoplifting.. It is hoped that there will be another attempt to launch the thousands of lanterns this evening. The weather looks good so far. The Prefect of Pyrénées-Atlantiques has since decreed that tonight's event will be the last one ever due to "security reasons" and the "risk of fire posed by these lanterns".        

4th December. Earlier this afternoon we suddenly had a swirling strong wind that blew sheets of rain every which way. It was difficult to see across the road. All quiet now. 

3rd December. Beautiful crisp winter's day here today - a cloudless blue sky and 6°C - and ideal for a walk through the woods or down on the beach with Nutty (our cocker spaniel).  

2nd December. Walking by Mr Montauzer's shop in town (aka the Temple to the Pig) the other day, I spotted some boudins blancs (with truffles) in his chilled cabinet. Whooosh - I was in like Flynn.. For reasons known only to Mr Montauzer, his truffled boudins blancs only appear at the end of the year (and occasionally at Easter). And they never appear on his website. (How to make boudins blancs) Served with sauté'd apples (below), there's very little better on God's green earth: 
The other day I heard, and then saw, for the first time this year a great straggling vee-shaped formation of grues cendrées (common cranes) making their way towards the south west. Their raucous squawking is the first indication of their presence and then suddenly there they are - great wings flapping, the formation rippling in and out as they head towards warmer climes. It appears that they've been on the move for the last week or two (see here).  
1st December. Hard to believe that we're back in December again. It was raining on and off this morning and I eventually took the dog out for a much needed ease springs.. Just as we reached the gate, someone 'up there' cranked up the water pressure to max and we both got a drenching. 

30th November. It's become the norm to lavish praise on artists and performers these days but this recording of the 1st Movement of Elgar's Cello Concerto performed by cellist Jacqueline Du Pré with Daniel Barenboim conducting the London Philharmonic in 1967 fully justifies its description as 'the recording of the century'. I was lucky enough to hear French cellist Gautier Capuçon a year or two ago and I, being more accustomed to listening to music recorded on CDs - was transfixed by the richness and the breadth of sound that emerged from his 300+ year old instrument. 

(Goose pimple alert!) Prepare yourself to be amazed by the lyricism, the intensity and the colour of her playing:
         
NB If your goose remains unpimpled after listening to the above video, I strongly suggest that you make an appointment with your medical practitioner asap!

14th November. Here's Eddie Zheng, a talented 22 year old, and I'm sure his is a name that we'll be hearing plenty of in future. This video shows him playing Charles-Marie Widor's Toccata on the Cavaillé-Coll organ at nearby Saint-Palais. If this was boxing, it would have finished as a win on points for Eddie after 15 rounds. The Toccata hardly gave him a moment's respite as he produced an inspired and mature performance that was entirely fault-free. A name to watch..
          
8th November. To Saint-Jean-de-Luz this morning for a quick visit to our bank, and in walking back to the car, my eye was caught by the gleam of gold in a shop window. The shop specialised in the buying and selling of gold and I found myself looking at a one kilo gold bar. I looked up what the current value is and I must admit to being way off in my estimate. I'll stick to my day job!    

There's a phrase I've heard once or twice that had me confused initially - bourrée de pognon. To my ear, it sounds like something I could easily be tempted into ordering in a restaurant without knowing what exactly it is. It actually means someone who is very comfortably off, full of money, loaded etc.   

7th November. As 45 year old songs go, 'Baker Street' still sounds remarkably fresh. Sadly, Gerry Rafferty (Fr translation) was unable to come to terms with the lifestyle that his fame had brought him and he died a lonely death at the age of 63.. This song, with its soaring alto sax (Raphael Ravenscroft) and equally good solo guitar (Hugh Burns), will serve as a lasting reminder of his talent: 
       
3rd November. Heavy rain was drumming on the roof all night - and it was still pouring down this morning. Looking out to the west, I could see patches of blue - and so during a break between showers, I got myself and the dog ready for a quick burst 'round the houses' and off we shot. The westerly wind was blowing hard - and the tall chestnuts and other arboreal entities (aka trees - not very good on names!) were swaying as the wind moaned and roared through the topmost branches. Of course, at the furthest point from home - by the bull ring - it started raining again.. and we arrived home like two drowned rats. This weather looks set for the day. We lit the woodburner last night as the temp had dropped to 11-12°C - and I've reset it for another cosy evening tonight. 

The Nive could well burst its banks in the centre of town this evening.   

2nd November. Reports about tempête Ciaran in the media this morning are saying that a peak wind speed of 207km/h (128mph) was reported at Pointe du Raz overnight with waves of 21m (68ft) high. I was downstairs at 4am to let Nutty out - he stepped out into the downpour, did a smart about turn and shot back indoors.  

1st November. This is getting serious now - yesterday I dismantled our plancha and I wrapped the cast iron cooking surface in an old sheet before lugging it downstairs into the cellar where it will stay dry until Spring. The rest of it I put away in the garage. I secured the all-weather cover over our outdoor table and just now I took down our garden umbrella, rolled it up and put that away in the garage too.

The heavy solid wooden shutters at the back of the house take a real pounding here - they bear the brunt of the winter storms and in summer they have the heat to contend with. I've painted them a few times but we've finally decided to replace them with some new ones - pre-finished in Basque rouge and of a composite construction - aluminium with (I believe) a polystyrene foam interior. They're due here any day now and once they've been fitted, I think we'll be in good shape for the winter.       

Those in northern France are being warned to brace themselves for the imminent arrival of storm Ciaran during this evening and tomorrow. The forecast for Brest in Finisterre is for winds of 170km/h (105mph). We had some strong warm winds from the south a few days ago and walking past the bull ring, the wind seemed to be coming from all directions as it whipped up leaves into rustling swirls.  

Sign of the times! I've just set the fire in the wood burner ready for lighting on that first cold winter evening (yes, we do have them here). Already, I see the first telltale signs of the approaching festive season (can't bring myself to type the word!) appearing in the streets. For some reason I find these preparations depressing. It only seems 6 months or so since last C*******s.         

31st October. I was down in the kitchen at early o'clock this morning after having let Nutty out for an unscripted 'wazz' - and I was wondering whether it was the 31st of October - or the 1st of November today. I found myself silently mouthing a fragment of a chant that had been embedded in my skull a loong time ago - 30 days hath September, April, June and November - all the rest have 31 except for February alone... and that's where my memory faded away. I can still just about recall my class chanting this and our "times tables". We learned - by rote - up to 12 x 12. Not sure what age I'd've been. I believe learning by rote has become unfashionable of late. 

Some years ago, educators in the US* determined to disprove the old adage 'If it ain't broken, fix it until it is."      

* I believe that educators in the UK have followed similar paths.   

20th October. For the past few months, my attention has been drawn to the increasing number of people here who have adopted modes of transport on the roads more appropriate to a circus. For decades, the following vehicles could be found on roads here in western Europe: buses, trams, lorries, vans, cars, motorcycles, scooters, mopeds and bicycles. So far - so good. You could be excused for thinking that one or more of these categories would cater for the overwhelming majority of us. 

The introduction of 4x4s threw a rock in the pond.. Women liked them because of the commanding view that they offered - and the notion that their sheer size conferred improved safety on the occupants - and these were normally children being driven to school. It didn't take long for the environmentalists to decide that alone of all other vehicles that 4x4s (known as Chelsea tractors in the UK) were uniquely responsible for global warning - and this was enough to trigger the development of electric vehicles to satisfy those of the hair shirt persuasion. There's now a constant barrage of advertising trying to foist electric vehicles on us all. 

The humble bicycle has not been left out of this race to madness - we now have electric cargo bikes like these for transporting the little darlings to school - ridden by virtue-signalling parents.
There's also been an exponential increase in the number of these slightly bizarre ebikes (below) - again, for transporting kids to school. Strangely, they're all finished in matt grey or matt pale blue. It's as though the owners feel that they have to apologise for owning such an expensive bike: 
Then there are these:
Not forgetting these:

Or these:

All of the above means of transport can be seen on roads around here. 

I think the world's gone mad!        

Decided not to have a post-lunch snooze today - and tell you something of what's been happening here. I heard the piece below on the radio earlier and it's long been on my list of favourites - set it running and enjoy:
    
I think it's now been 6 weeks since I caught Covid and the after-effects (mainly fatigue) have been slow to dissipate. What's been happening in the Pays Basque I hear you ask? Up until today, we've been enjoying the most prolonged Indian summer since we've been here - with temps in the mid to late 20s and beyond (think we saw 34° one day). Today though - it's been 'Hello Autumn' - with grey skies and sudden showers blowing in from the Bay of Biscay every few minutes. 

Events in the news are dominated by the happenings in Israel. I don't care what political cause was behind these atrocities - but the deliberate slaughter of babies, infants and toddlers by extremists in the Palestine community was beyond the pale and it brought the human race to an all-time low. I hope that those responsible will soon be be squashed like the vermin they are. No cause can ever justify those attacks. 

29th September. Went for a post-lunch snooze yesterday and woke up at 6pm. (it's called "Living the Dream - pensioner style!") It was only the telephone ringing at 6.30pm that woke up Madame..!

When walking into town, I pass a café that seems very popular with the local retired community.. They put about 3 tables together and there must about about 10-12 of them - all talking, no-one listening in the classic French style. I call it the Pensioners' Parliament..     

28th September. We've both had Covid during the last few weeks and it's left us very short of energy.. and I'm afraid that writing the blog just fell off the edge. By way of an apology, here are a few videos of some of our favourite places.. (never heard so many seagulls at Biarritz! It sounds to me as though they're an addition to the soundtrack)
 

 
 
27th August. Another sport I would gladly see the back of is handball.. There's an indefinable something about it that I find intensely irritating - and it could easily find a home with rap, skate-boarding, graffiti and la trottinette électrique.  

23rd August. A blanket of 40° heat has Pipérade Towers firmly in its warm embrace. We're reduced to lurking behind closed shutters. The dog is spread-eagled on the tiles somewhere and, in the interests of energy conservation, even his tail has stopped wagging. I might be joining him shortly.    

18th August. I've just realised that I haven't posted anything here for a while - sometimes 'Life' has a habit of getting in the way. It's been one of those months. However, something caught my eye yesterday in a newsletter for the neighbouring town of Tarnos that hit (& demolished) my funny bone. It was an advert for a forthcoming attraction that managed to combine in a single event many of the mindless elements of modern life that make me want to emulate Edvard Munch's "The Scream". 

Thè event is called "Rap 'n Skate" (Eng translation here) - which is fairly self-explanatory - that offers "other experiences combining sporting and cultural discoveries", one of which is a graffiti workshop. If there's one activity in the modern world that needs a 'workshop' like a hole in the head - it's graffiti. It would be hard to imagine three other activities that possess a comparable ability to annoy, irritate & frustrate more than rap, skate-boarding and graffiti. 

There's one more element of modern life that could and should be added to the list above - and it's the e-scooter or, as they're known here: la trottinette électrique. There's something instantly annoying about these toys and the eejits who ride them in and out of traffic on public roads where they really don't belong. I must confess that the urge to nudge one is compelling* - just as a way of driving home to the hapless individual riding the thing just how inherently unstable and vulnerable they are.  

* but of course I don't.   

Of course, you could probably put down the above three paragraphs as the rant of of an old person - and you'd be right. It's just that this nihilistic event lays bare the emptiness of the imagination of those benighted individuals behind it.  

If, having become enraged at the story above, you need to purge these negative thoughts from your brain - what better than this piece by Sergei Rachmaninoff that, although it's been played to death by the likes of Classic FM, still has the power to calm the troubled waters and sooth the savage breast (according to William Congreve). It's Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18: II. Adagio sostenuto, played by Klára Würtz, with the National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine, conducted by Vladimir Sirenko:

26th July. Just managed to redress the balance slightly - the score now stands at Mosquitoes 16 Me 1 (one). The Fêtes de Bayonne starts this evening (10pm French time).. you can follow the action here on a number of webcams.

19th July. No apologies for posting this video of a 1968 Porsche 912 with that timeless styling (yes, it's a 55 year old car!). To me, it's one of those cars that looks perfect from any angle. This particular model is not a fast car but for me it's just that it looks so right with that clean, understated elegance. The problem is other people have realised this too - with the result that the asking prices have soared in recent years. If I'm honest, there's never been a time when I could have afforded one. They've always been out of my reach. This is the closest I'm ever likely to get to one:

   

3rd July. The Tour de France whizzed in and out of town yesterday. I was talking to some neighbours as they returned from watching. They said they'd been in place since 3pm.. and they had to wait until 6pm to see the riders arrive - then whoooooosh! Each to their own I guess.      

This time of the year always provides the first hint of the arrival of the summer crowd.. after which parking in such hotspots as Biarritz and Saint-Jean-de-Luz requires either local knowledge or the skills of a Neapolitan taxi driver. I generally allow myself ½ hour of cruising the streets in ever-increasing circles before calling it a day and returning home. From memory, I've only had to do that on a couple of occasions though. Finding a parking space in the same post code as your desired destination in the summer months is the Holy Grail. Sometimes it seems as though you're in danger of straying into a different time zone.  

   

Latest scores: Mosquitoes 3 Me 0. 

I'm a little late with bringing out the plancha from its winter storage this year - so today's the day! 

The west-facing wooden shutters at the rear of the house are looking a bit weary as they bear the brunt of the winter gales. We've decided to have them replaced with ones of a similar style - but made of aluminium with a foam interior. I can't think of any other jobs that remain after this (he wrote hopefully!).    

Tuesday 3 January 2023

294. We go again..

30th June. In between swatting the odd mosquito and other domestic trivia I forgot to mention the impending arrival of the Tour de France here in Bayonne on Monday, 3rd July. More on the route here.


29th June. The recent hot and sultry weather has brought the mosquitoes out and as I seem to be a permanent magnet for the whining little pests, I knew that I'd be targeted. So far the score is 2 - 0 to the mosquitoes. So far..☺

26th June. This is a piece you only need to hear once to be struck by its absolute perfection. It's Claude Debussy's 'Clair de Lune' played here by the greatest guitar duo of all time: Ida Presti (1924-1967) and Alexandre Lagoya (1929-1999). 

       

I must confess that I hadn't previously heard of this prodigiously talented couple, let alone encountered any recordings by them, until a few short years ago (it was actually in 2010 - I remembered I featured this same recording back then - how time flies). It would be well worth seeking out other performances by them (more here).

Their brilliant musical careers unfortunately preceded the step changes in recording, reproduction and video technologies that came along just too late for them - and for us.

2nd June. Seventy years ago, the 6 year old me spent most of the day watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on our new 14" television in glorious black and white. We have witnessed an astonishing number of changes during the intervening 70 years - many of which would have been unthinkable back then. I'll leave it to you to make your own list. We are now exhorted to "embrace change" - but is all change progress - and is it necessarily for the better? Presidents have been elected by tapping into the perception that voters want change. Remember Obama's mantra - "Change We Can Believe In", "Change We Need" and finally "Change". In France, François Hollande used "Le changement, c'est maintenant" ("The change is now"). The trouble with our political masters is once they get their sticky hands on the levers of power, their mantra quickly becomes: "Have you got any spare change?". Say no more. 

In the digital age that we find ourselves living in today, it's become easier and easier for software engineers to make changes to applications we all use on our various devices - changes that are necessary if they are to keep their jobs - and so we're doomed to experience a digital world that is constantly shifting. Today, it's Windows 10. Tomorrow, who knows? How many people rub their hands together at the prospect of a new Operating System.. or a new presentation for our Online Banking. I'm not a dinosaur but are all these changes to user interfaces really necessary? Why not preserve the familiar user interface and instead change the underlying functionality?       

1st June. I had to return to the hospital yesterday for a thorough check-up following my 'wobble' in February. I had the lot - an ECG, an MRI scan, blood tests, a check by a speech therapist plus a few others - and I was told I could stop taking the medication - and I could eat cheese again. I was glad to leave the hospital I can tell you. Phew.    

30th May. Another great singer has made her final curtain call and exited stage left for the last time.. Among her many hit records I think she'll be best remembered for this towering global hit - a song that's timeless in its appeal.

28th May. The pension payment saga is still rumbling on - with the UK's International Pension Centre taking two steps back for every step forward (and there haven't been too many of those). In March, I started the process of requesting that our UK pensions be paid direct in euros to our French bank - little realising that at the end of May two pension providers would still have proved to be incapable of making the changeover both 1. correctly and 2. in a timely manner. These call centres with their multiple choices and their operators who apparently are always 'experiencing a high volume of calls' approach the absolute nadir in terms of customer service.     

Apart from the above, I've been trying to take things easy here for the last few weeks as I'm supposed to be in 'complete rest' following my scare in February. I was told no computer work.. but as I'm feeling much better now, I've started resuming 'normal service'. Today, we're meeting up with R and C, friends from the Gers, and we're going up to Esteben borda for lunch. The farm is literally right on the border with Spain with stunning views of the Basque coast and the interior. One of my favourite places - it's in the centre below:    

En route, we'll be passing by this small stone cottage that has great appeal for me. There's just something about it. I know it's not practical, that it's - quote - 'far from the shops' (I don't see that as a downside!) and far from doctors and dentists and finally, "where do you buy your baguette"! We're all different. 

30th April. A few years ago, I heard the final few bars of this song on the radio and it summoned up the period in the early sixties that just pre-dated the arrival of the Beatles in the US perhaps like no other song. After a few minutes of Googling, I discovered who the artistes were - Nino Tempo and April Stevens, a brother and sister double act. I didn't realise it at the time but I later read that they reversed the standard convention and the recording had Nino singing the melody while April sang the harmony line. RIP April

    

25th April. A cautionary tale: Following my medical 'event' in February, I decided that we needed to put in place a "hands-off" system for converting and transferring our pensions in £ sterling from our UK bank into euros for our bank here in France. I was relieved to learn from the UK Govt web site that UK State pensions can be paid direct to an overseas bank in local currency as I thought that if any one of our pension providers would prove to be inflexible, it might be the UK Pension Service. But no, all seemed crystal clear so I started contacting all of our other pension providers to request that they made all future payments directly to our French bank in euros. 

Having set all that in motion. I now wish that I'd maintained a diary listing the dates of phone calls (including the names of the helpline advisors), emails and letters sent because what should have been a straightforward operation turned into clerical morass of contradictory advice. The UK International Pensions Centre (IPC) was the clear winner of the "wooden spoon" with their 'advisors' repeatedly displaying their lack of knowledge of their own policies and often giving incorrect and conflicting advice - sometimes on the same day.. 

For anyone contemplating a similar step, I've extracted the magic words (italicised above) from the first link. Whatever else 'advisors' might tell you, for anyone wishing to have their pensions paid direct, these words should be carved on tablets of stone.  I would ignore the telephone helpline number and instead would recommend writing a letter containing all the usual info; name(s), address, National Insurance number(s), bank name and address, name of account holder(s) - and the most vital piece of information of all: your bank's IBAN and BIC. I would select a date at least two months ahead when you want the new system to become active and advise them of that too. 

We're fortunate in having an internet phone (VOIP) so phoning the UK was effectively free. All of our other pension providers were quite happy to comply with our request by phone - but just so that you have a record of your requests in writing, I would still say ignore the phone services and write letters. Good luck.  

Now breathe deeply - and r e l a x and enjoy some great musicianship (especially from the trumpet of Thimo Niesterok - more from him here): 

 

More here.

20th April. 'Sign of the Times' Dept # 1. I've had a Kindle Paperwhite e-reader for years and despite my initial wariness of the concept, I took to it like a duck to typing oops, water. I hooked it up to Amazon UK thus enabling me to trawl to my heart's content through the gazillion books available in English there. However, a while ago, I found that I was no longer able to browse and select from the vast range of titles in English as before. I first thought that perhaps my Kindle was showing its age but I had a sneaking suspicion that this breakdown of the service was somehow connected to - yes, you've guessed it - Brexit - and that the service had been blocked (as I was effectively importing books on my Kindle from the independent coastal state (as the UK is known in EU-speak) without any import duty being paid). 

I asked this question on Google the other day - "Is it possible for someone resident in France to access content on Amazon UK on their Kindle?". (It appears that I'm not the only one - see here) It turned out that the answer is no. Presumably a small-minded shiny-trousered civil servant somewhere decided that my ability to access books in English somehow contravened the spirit of the EU Withdrawal Agreement and that the House of Cards (aka the European Union) might be threatened by my doing so. The upshot of all this is that I have had to sign up to Amazon France. I did think of signing up to Amazon.com (the US site) to be able to access their content in English but then I'd have to pay in US$. Amazon France allegedly has a staggering 4m books in English available to Kindle users. I must see if I can find them.

'Sign of the Times' Dept # 2. How many people from the global English-speaking community do you think listen to BBC radio content online and accessible via an internet radio? In addition to the hundreds of thousands of users among the expats 'out there', there are those who have links with the UK through family - plus those who listen to improve their English and those who simply wish to hear a different viewpoint. My guess would be that it's certainly up in the many millions. You can't imagine how reassuring it (sometimes) has been for me to hear the news and current affairs as seen from the UK. (You can see where this is going already can't you!) 

In a high-handed move that will throw a rock into many ponds, the BBC has unilaterally decided that from mid-2023 it will no longer support the streaming format used in many legacy internet radios. 

Quote: “We are making changes to the way BBC live streams are distributed via 3rd party services and platforms, and the BBC stream you are currently listening to will stop working by mid-2023.  If you are using an internet radio or smart speaker and hearing this message, please contact the manufacturer. If you’re listening on web or mobile, this service is available to stream on BBC Sounds”

Full story here. I suspect the BBC bean counters have a cunning plan to put in place a system whereby listeners will have to pay to subscribe. What will I do? It would stick in my craw to be forced to replace our existing perfectly serviceable internet radio with another - just so that it would be compatible with the BBC's stream. And so it goes. 

As much as I enjoy living here, I have no wish to be deprived of my favourite Anglophone authors on my Kindle on the one hand and the convenience of BBC news (and other familiar content) in English on the other - even though the BBC News programmes have taken a decidedly political turn. Instead of reporting the news, it appears that they have unilaterally taken on the role of "holding the government to account". There was me, in my naivety, thinking that this was the job of His Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition in Parliament. There must be other news stations. I hope I can work out a new support regime.   

Now back to the Pays basque.. (phew!)

14th April. Just finished a prolonged period of blog maintenance.. Please let me know if you come across a link that no longer works.   

7th April. I spotted a protester's placard on the news earlier. The message on it summed up a mindset that seems all too prevalent these days.. It said: moins d'impôts, plus de apéros - or in Angliche: fewer taxes, more drinks.. Many shops and businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit staff - as a sizeable slice of the workforce became accustomed (during Covid) to not working - and they're reluctant to re-engage with the world of work. 

30th March. There's a new promo video for Bayonne. Perhaps I'm biased (!) - but for a town of 50,000, there's a lot going on here:

  

29th March. I'm halfway through trouble-shooting the blog - restoring defunct videos, replacing photos that have disappeared off into an electronic soup and links that no longer work. Keeps me off the streets..   

After a few false dawns, I finally took the all-weather cover off the table on the terrace this morning and stowed it away for another 6 months. Next up will be the plancha.. It will have been home to several large arachnids in the garage over the winter months - so it's always interesting when I remove its cover.  

28th March. In the Bayonne area and looking for a restaurant at midday? I don't think I've ever given a recommendation - without caveats or reservations - to a restaurant here before but I've just added the Brasserie les Arènes to the restaurant map in the left hand column. The cooking here can stand comparison with any of the more prestigious restaurants in Bayonne or indeed Biarritz. It really is that good. Definitely somewhere to book. Closed in the evening.     

24th March. In an exercise akin to painting the Forth Bridge, I've been engaged in doing some much-needed house-keeping on the blog - repairing broken links, replacing deleted videos, looking for coins that have dropped down the back of the sofa etc etc.

        

It's one of those jobs that I've been putting off - but I finally convinced myself to make a start on it. I'm about a third of the way through.    

19th March. Hard to believe but this piece - "Take Five" - was first recorded by Dave Brubeck's quartet 64 years ago.. and it still catches the imagination:

 

Try "Take Ten"..

Yesterday was the final day of the 2023 Guinness 6 Nations rugby tournament and Ireland were crowned as worthy winners of the Grand Slam, with France in second spot and a resurgent Scotland finishing third. For me, the stand-out fixture of the tournament was the Ireland France match - that saw two teams at their peak playing champagne rugby.. One of the greatest-ever matches I've been privileged to see.

     

14th March. Last weekend saw France dish out an uncompromising and painful rugby lesson to England - a lesson that left all onlookers in no doubt whatsoever that there is clear blue water (and lots of it) between the sides..

      

France were brilliant to watch and they demolished (no other word for it) England with some ease and they deservedly emerged victorious with a record 53-10 win. Ouch! If I could make one comment, it would be that any one of the dynamic French forwards could have been awarded the Man of the Match accolade as they were immense. I think Ramos, the full back, who was the actual recipient of the MoM award, had a great game - but the key to their record victory stemmed, in my view, from the platform that his dominant forwards created. No criticism of Ramos is intended by the way.   

This coming Saturday will see three countries playing away from home (Italy, Wales and England) with more unpleasant medicine to swallow.. and it's difficult to see anything other than three home wins - in ascending order of points difference - for Scotland, France and Ireland.  

7th March. This particular interpretation of J S Bach's "Sheep may safely graze" BWV 208 - sometimes known as the Hunting Cantata - is a piece I've been listening to frequently while I'm in this period of complete rest. It was written 310 years ago. Out of all the different versions 'out there', Doug Marshall's is, to my mind, the only one at the right tempo - plus his interpretation (using all available limbs) is unmatched for its emotional power. Bravo Doug!

 

There's also a synthesized version that's very listenable to.   

Some extremely talented musicians here.. with the world's longest song intro. As good as it sounds here - imagine how much better it would be in an atmospheric cellar somewhere. Health warning: Don't try this at home!☺ (might take a few seconds to load)

 

2nd March. Meanwhile, back at the 2023 6 Nations Rugby Tournament, we were privileged to witness (on TV) one of the greatest-ever matches - it took place in Dublin on 11th February and it was between the two top-ranked teams in the world - Ireland (#1) and France (#2). It provided a thrilling spectacle of running rugby, played at speed with total commitment, fast hands and little in the way of foul play. You'll be lucky to see a better game than this one between 2 great teams at the top of their form. It was no disgrace for France to finish second best - both teams can be proud of the way they played. If you missed this match (shame on you), take your phone off the hook, switch it off or pull the wire out and sit back and enjoy the highlights of this pulsating match between the two giants of world rugby (give it a few seconds to load):

 

22nd February. I had an unexpected stay in hospital last week - 2 days in intensive care followed by 2 days unplugged! The carotid artery in the neck provides the main supply of oxygen-rich blood to the brain and mine must have suffered a temporary flow restriction at midday on Sunday 12th - because the lights in my world suddenly started going out. (more here

I found myself sitting in front of my PC wondering how to switch it on - I stared at it for a full 5 minutes - unable to convert a thought into an action. I went downstairs and Madame spotted that I wasn't my usual self. She asked me to form a sentence - I couldn't - so fortunately she had the presence of mind to phone for an ambulance straight away. Once again, the sapeurs-pompiers outdid themselves and arrived here in under five minutes. From then on, I was whizzed into the A&E unit at Bayonne hospital - and after checking all the vital signs (Ts & Ps) I had an MRI scan (IRM in French). 

After that, I became a spectator as a team of medics installed me in an ICU suite and I was adjusted, jabbed, poked, prodded, tagged and wired up to a bank of bleeping machines at the bedside. I was receiving the full attention of the hospital staff night and day and when I heard that I was in intensive care, the centime dropped - it dawned on me that the situation was serious. (Too Much Information alert: the pistolet and I never became an item..)

I have the utmost admiration for the French health system - and all those who man it. Professional, kind, thoughtful, tireless, friendly, spotlessly clean and efficient, it's the very model for how a first world European country should be providing health care for its people in the 21st Century. And when I was discharged on the Thursday, because Madame was still unable to drive, I was sent home in a taxi provided at the hospital's expense. 

I've been prescribed medication to restore me to full health and I've an appointment at the hospital at the end of May to see the specialists following a battery of tests and an MRI scan.  

It's sobering to read of the NHS meltdown in the UK - there appears to be a yawning chasm between the two systems. It's also sobering to realise just how little it takes for our carefully constructed world to collapse like a house of cards.   

4th February. This afternoon sees the start of the 2023 Guinness Six Nations rugby tournament.. featuring England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales (listed here in alphabetical order - although I'd be delighted with that as the finishing order at close of play on 18th March). Here's the fixture list. If you're new to the game - or in need of a refresher - take a look at the basic rules.. or buy the book:

2nd February. I'd better be on my best behaviour tomorrow - I've been invited to lunch by an association of retired police and gendarmes in the local area. (so - no rubber cheques!) 

Our finances took an unexpected torpedoing the other day - as we needed a new electrical distribution control panel in the kitchen. The existing one looked well past its sell-by date. It was one of those jobs I've been postponing for a while as there's no immediate benefit - but it had to be done. We now have a new smaller wall-mounted control panel with multiple circuit breakers for all the circuits in the house. We've managed to establish which of all the 23 circuit breakers control all the various circuits and power sockets - wouldn't you know it - all except one.    

24th January. I was down at the beach a day or two ago with the dog and it was cold - according to the car it was +1°C.. (midsummer in Nebraska!) The sea was fairly flat - with no giant rollers rearing up to break with a crash - and to my surprise there were upwards of 20-30 surfers out there. It made me cold just thinking about it.  

19th January. We were out at the neighbours at the end of the afternoon yesterday and walking back the few short steps to home in the blustery cold and wet made me thankful that I'd cleaned out the woodburner earlier and reset it with logs and condensed wood - so once we were back in, all it needed was one match and away it went. I closed the shutters, turned off the radiators that we'd left on, and Madame came out with the DVD for "Sleepless in Seattle". A heart-warming story just right for a cold night. I'd forgotten just how good the film and the soundtrack were - so here - at no extra charge - it is:

   

If the video doesn't step through all 15 tracks without needing to be nudged, click on this link

18th January. One of the most distinguished and distinctive of all the voices on broadcast radio in the 20th century belonged to Alistair Cooke. I grew up listening to his weekly "Letter from America" programme that was broadcast every Sunday morning by the BBC. Earlier today, I was listening to his measured tones in an archived recording of one of his monologues (just over 14 mins long) entitled "Summer's end". 

My ears pricked up at one point (at 7.40) as he recounted how, in 1890, William K. Vanderbilt, Edward Meade and Duncan Cryder visited Biarritz in south western France. At the resort they met Scotsman Willie Dunn, who had just built a golf course there. They were so taken by the sport that they decided to introduce golf to New York. The men scouted around the city for a spot; Meade thought upstate New York was a good place, while Cryder preferred Yonkers. Long Islander Vanderbilt urged them to look east. 80 acres of land in Shinnecock was purchased for $2,500 and 44 original members signed up for $100 each and the result was the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.    

17th January. Just back from an ill-timed trip on foot to the boulangerie - it was raw and cold òut there with gusty winds containing a mix of rain and hail. Managing the dog, an umbrella and the bag containing the bread was (word of the moment) compliqué. It looks like we're stuck with this weather for a few days. This was the scene at Biarritz earlier (clearly an OMG situation!):

    

We've not escaped the wintry weather that has afflicted other regions further north - in the early hours we had a visitation from one of those winter storms that we've become familiar with that blow in occasionally from the Bay of Biscay. 

It all started with the sound of the wind rising and moaning around the roof and chimneys, setting the shutters all a-rattle. This was followed by the 'car wash' style rain as it drove against the roof and the shutters - and seconds later, the gutters started to gurgle noisily. Then came a brilliant flash of light - followed seconds later by a prolonged crash and thunderous rumble close by. Cue yet more rain as the deluge intensified. I suddenly felt the weight of our 17kg cocker spaniel across my feet as he nobly decided to keep me company up on the bed. At that point I realised that there was nothing for it but to lie still and go back to sleep.

4th January. I've just found this short video made by visitors to Bayonne on 18th December - it features a glimpse of the mass release of thousands of Japanese lanterns.. it's a spectacular sight:

3rd January. A Happy New Year to you (I nearly added: to you both). I hope you emerged intact from what can be an emotionally draining time for some. Stress, families, alcohol and an ill-considered phrase or two are often among the usual culprits - in vino veritas - say no more.    

We spent lunchtime on New Year's day ensconced at our favourite restaurant (no prizes for guessing where!). The owners opened up only hours after they'd crept up to bed at 4am that morning! They are made of strong stuff in the Pays Basque.. 

I noticed that the car was showing the outside air temp to be 22.5°C.. it felt like summer.