Tuesday, 2 November 2021

291. November rides again

21st January. I was down at the beach yesterday morning and well-wrapped up as the car indicated 4°C.. (howls of derisive laughter from Nebraska - I hear you!) but there were people out in the water surfing! I've heard it said though that the water temp is often warmer than the air temp. I'll take their word for it.

Santa was kind enough to leave a bottle of "Highland Park" 12 year old single malt under the tree for me. After the fire had settled down to a red glow this evening, it seemed the perfect time to try a dram from Scotland's Orkney Islands. An interesting dram it was too.. (tasting notes here) The hint of smokiness was right on the limit for me. Glenmorangie (Original - 10 year old) remains the firm favourite at Pipérade Towers.. I've yet to find another that ticks all the boxes and satisfies both Madame and I. I was weaned onto it in the mid-1970s and I've never looked back. 

Unfortunately following its sale to LVMH (the French conglomerate), the original bottle was ditched and they started ageing the whisky in (don't start me off!) in Sauternes casks (why on earth would you do that?) and it gets worse. If you want to read up on what's happened to this superb single malt, the sad story is out there on the internet. Fortunately they've left the 10 year old alone.        

This cartoon hit the spot with me..
"How's the Psalms' title page coming along?"

15th January. Sunny with blue skies - but cold. If it's grey and wet where you are, light the fire/turn the heating up, make yourself comfortable and sit back to enjoy this - one of the great films of all time. (hope the link works wherever you are)  

13th January. Veronica Bennett aka Ronnie Spector - the lead singer of the Ronettes (you'd remember them if you were around then) passed away yesterday. They made waves with their style - although when looked at today, they appear a lot less subversive than at the time. Still, a great sound..
  
6th January. This time last year the surgeon was firing up his angle grinder ready to remove parts of my right knee prior to fitting a prosthetic replacement. After a slow start, that year has passed quickly.

This is a piece I've been hearing often over the festive period - it's Hector Berlioz's "The Shepherds' Farewell". This was one of the last pieces we sang in the choir before it all ground to a halt due to you-know-what. (Needless to say, this isn't our choir!)
 
5th January. The newsreader on the lunchtime TF1 news was discussing the sudden drop in temperatures - yesterday it was 18° here and today it's 6° - and he came out with an expression I'd not heard before that "il fait un froid de canard".. which means it's cold enough for ducks. Explanations here (in French) and here (in Angliche!). 

4th January. I was listening to the radio in the car yesterday and there was someone (I think) from the Académie Française explaining how they assign a French word (or words) to everyday words in English. The part I heard addressed the 'thorny' issue of Post-It notes. These will now be formally known as Notes Adhésives Repositionnables. Don't believe me? Try Googling it.

To a greater or lesser extent, intransigence and pedantry are part of the French character and the insistence on precision is evident in the "Notes Adhésives Repositionnables" mentioned above. Both the "Adhésives" and the "Repositionnables" must end in an s to agree with the plural "Notes". This is slightly obsessional to those of us of an Anglo-Saxon persuasion and it may be that this finicky eye for exactitude has been absorbed into their national character. I've been astonished to hear friends being sidetracked over points of linguistic detail and arguing - instead of just agreeing to differ and moving on. At times like those, it's clear that the French language is more than a language. 

2nd January. It didn't take long for the season of "peace on earth and goodwill to all men" to evaporate. I'd taken the dog with me for a walk into town to buy a baguette and I decided to return via the banks of the Adour. I was walking along a newly surfaced walkway (here) when I saw a group of three people - each with a small dog - approaching. Next minute, as we became a group of four, the dogs started sniffing each other and tangling their leads (as is their wont) and then there was a squeal of brakes as two cyclists came to a hurried stop - "This is a cycle path!" - "No it isn't - it's a footpath" - "It's signposted as a cycle track.." - "No it isn't!" - and so it went on. Neither side wanted to back down, let alone apologise. 

For some here, intransigence is the default mindset. I hate to say it but in England I don't think this would have happened - at least not in the England I knew. Maybe I'm wrong but I like to think that there would have been an exchange of  "Sorrys" and that would have been it.

Moving on, today we're going to have a raclette.. an ideal dish for winter (even though it's 18°C as I write) - but it makes a nice change and it gives Madame a break! We have an electric Tefal table top raclette (available here) and it's simplicity itself to use: 
         
1st January 2022. We went for a walk at Milady Beach to the south of Biarritz this afternoon as it was - wait for it - an incredibly warm 23°C.. People were having picnics on the grass and I felt overdressed with a sweater on. What a beautiful start to the year. Happy New Year to one and all.. (OK, to both of you!) 

31st December. Here's a curiously likeable little video that popped up this morning..
   
30th December. We'd planned to go out to one of favourite restaurants tomorrow evening but given that the Omicron virus appears to be so highly contagious, we decided to err on the side of safety and so we've just cancelled. We decided that it wasn't worth the risk - plus if we'd gone out, I was planning to have only one glass of wine as there's sure to be a heavy police presence out on the roads. Staying at home means I can have two! (who said, "Or more!"😈)  

25th December. Returning from a walk along the beach on this mild Christmas morning (temp 15°) I put the car radio on to France Bleu Pays Basque and I heard this song being sung in Basque - a song that became increasingly familiar as it progressed. See how long it takes you to guess what it is:
   
24th December. A Happy Christmas to all -- especially to those who, for whatever reason, are unable to be with their loved ones at this time.. 

22nd December. Norman Rockwell was known and loved for his folksy paintings of an America that portrayed, and perhaps idealised (nothing wrong in that though), the optimism, family values and innate kindness that many of us believed characterised the country in the mid-twentieth century. More here
 
19th December. Here's a Christmas Carol (not a Christmas song!) or two to put you in the mood for the coming few days:
 
Last night I'd arranged to join in with Aeolia, a choir from Tarnos - as they'd planned to sing some traditional English carols at 5.15pm in the centre of Bayonne next to the Château-Vieux (interior photos here)But as Robbie Burns said - in his poem "To a mouse" - the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley. 

The Town Hall had planned a mass launching of Chinese lanterns on 4th, 11th and 18th December. In the past, this popular event has attracted huge crowds (of around 50,000) but due to the recent intemperate weather, the first two releases had to be cancelled so yesterday evening's event proved a great draw. All the traffic on the approach roads to the centre appeared to be static and as the witching hour approached, there was no sign of anything that looked like a choir. To be honest, standing in the cold waiting just about finished us off so we elected to head for home. The release of the lanterns took place at 7.30pm: 
   
As we walked into town the traffic was at a standstill as the world and his dog were looking for parking spaces.. Also, the arrival of Santa Claus on a huge float accompanied by dancing elves coincided with the time that the choir was supposed to start singing. We waited for a while but couldn't see anyone and in the end we left. Once home, I closed the shutters, put a match to the woodburner and poured a couple of attitude adjusters (I had a festive warming dram from Dr Speyburn (Dr Glenmorangie's locum)).   

11th December. I know it's shallow and I shouldn't find this motto funny - but there's just something about it that appeals to me. 

8th December. Into town on foot on a windy morning to pick up a few goodies for sending to friends in the Independent Coastal State (as England is now known in Brussels). I had my Barbour jacket on and I needed two hands at times to hold on to my umbrella in the gusting wind. Of course, I'd only been gone one minute and it started raining and hailing. 

In the town centre, the loudspeaker system was playing this (normally one of my favourite Christmassy songs) as I sang along through gritted teeth!😀 I turned a corner into a gale and it was only by executing a no-notice Cruyff turn (left) that I managed to keep the umbrella from doing an inside-outy. I arrived back home dripping wet.

7th December. It's 80 years to the day that Japan struck a surprise blow against the US at Pearl Harbour - and in doing so woke a sleeping giant. America came into WWII with its vast untapped resources of men, materiel and factories and from that moment on, the outcome of WWII became only a matter of time - not 'if' but 'when'. Four years later, the world looked a very different place.. with atom bombs, rockets, jet engines, computers, penicillin and many more inventions that would - for better or worse -  change our lives forever. 

Untold millions had died in the process and new crimes were added to the statute books. Once the dust had settled, new alliances were created - either willingly or under pressure - along with new borders and frontiers as countries re-aligned themselves in the New World order. In the West, the post-war alliances are still extant while the Warsaw Pact collapsed in 1989. Are we about to experience another global convulsion as a resurgent China begins to flex its muscles? Their motto seems to be "Softly, softly, catchee monkey".  

5th December. Predictably perhaps, the release of thousands of Chinese (or should that be Japanese?) lanterns planned for yesterday evening was cancelled due to the inclement weather. Just to emphasise the point, Mother Nature laid on a storm for us in the wee small hours that buffeted the house with moaning winds and deluges of rain that swept against our sturdy shutters. 

The evidence was clear to see on the roads this morning with piles of twigs and wet leaves scattered at random on the wet streets of Bayonne. I took advantage of a gap (or so I thought) in the procession of rain-bearing clouds to take Nutty for his morning run down by the sea (below). However, in the few minutes that it took to reach the coast, a wall of gunmetal grey/blue clouds had formed out to sea and we only managed 5-10 minutes before we had to beat the rain in a dash back to the car. Our cocker spaniel does 'indignant' very well!
While drying us both off in the kitchen, I switched the radio on only to hear a piece I haven't heard for decades.. It took me back to childhood - sitting with my mother in front of the fire at 1.45pm.. listening to a radio programme for young children. I think I would have been about 4 or 5 years old. How is it that these memories can survive being buried for so long in that grey matter between our ears - and yet I can't remember what we had for lunch yesterday? (Don't tell Management!😄)
 
3rd December. We had a wood burner installed a few years ago and it really comes into its own when the weather is cold, wet and windy - as it is now. The one we have is fairly similar to the one shown below - and with the shutters are closed, the stove lit - and a house call imminent from Dr Glenmorangie, life doesn't get much better than this.. (in winter!)
Our first Christmas card arrived today from England - and I was shocked to see the price of the stamp necessary to send a card from the independent coastal state formerly known as England to France these days - £2.55! A week or so ago I had to return a form I'd received from the UK State Pensions to certify that I was still alive. I had to pay 1.50 euros for a stamp to send an envelope containing a single sheet of A4. As much as we enjoy hearing from our friends in the UK at this time of the year, these extortionate postal rates are beyond the pale - so for those of you who customarily send us a card, we'd be more than delighted to receive an e-card from you instead..       

1st December. This virtual ensemble comprises 25 players from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and 218 singers from the Stay at Home Choir (just love that name!) - here's their spine-tingling rendition of Vivaldi's Gloria:
 
If the above video is reluctant to start, try here while I go around the back with a large hammer! 

30th November. Into town quickly this morning for some shopping and while there I took the opportunity to pick up a few of the last remaining bottles of Georges Duboeuf's Beaujolais Nouveau to keep for a rainy day - of which there's no shortage at the moment - so things are looking up! 

The centre of town was all a-bustle with the signs that Christmas is fast approaching: lights and decorations going up; mini fairground rides for kids being constructed; the appearance of stands selling churros; the mini locomotive with its hot chestnuts; and the clincher: the lingerie shop with its window full of <look away now!> black and red unmentionables!😉   
There's also the release of innumerable Chinese lanterns from 7.30pm on 4th, 11th and 18th December (weather permitting) on the banks of the Nive to look forward to. See here for further details of all the festivities planned for Bayonne. 

28th November. Just back from walking the dog on a raw November morning. As it was a cold and blustery day with rain showers blowing through it seemed like a good idea to put my duffel coat on for the first time since we've been here. It put me in mind of that classic film from 1953 - "The Cruel Sea" - when duffel coats were just about the only protection available for those on the exposed bridges of the convoy escorts in the wintry Atlantic. (Here's a link to "The Cruel Sea" - full movie - in English here

The sea must have been quite a sight to see this morning with the strong north westerly winds that have been blowing for the last few days. Last night as I closed the shutters upstairs I could hear the distant roar from the coast and I didn't envy those who found themselves out on the ocean wave. I grew up on the coast in England and yesterday there was something in the air that reminded me of home - it must have been the salt-laden air.   

21st November. It was a good day for (armchair) sport as far as I was concerned yesterday. In the Autumn rugby internationals, England squeaked home 27-26 against a powerful Springboks side, then Wales did the same against Australia winning 29-28 - before the result of the day in Paris where les Bleus beat the New Zealand All Blacks convincingly 40-25. In between all this, Lewis Hamilton qualified fastest for the Qatar GP. Then in the round ball game, Liverpool thrashed pretenders Arsenal 4-0 - and finally, Max Verstappen (the accident waiting to happen) has been handed five-place grid penalty for ignoring yellow flags during qualifying.    

9th November
. We're now all fully jabbed-up as we 've had 3 x Covid vaccinations - and this afternoon we both had flu jabs. I asked for mine in my left arm as my right arm is my vacuum cleaning arm..😀

Citroën DS
How times have changed.. This - the Citroën DS (pronounced déesse in French - or goddess) was the futuristic car that was launched on an unsuspecting public way back in 1955 (yes, in 1955). The DS was known for its aerodynamic, futuristic body design and innovative technologies, and it set new standards in ride quality, handling, and braking - thanks to both being the first mass production car to be equipped with hydropneumatic suspension, as well as disc brakes. The 1967 series 3 also introduced directional headlights to a mass-produced car. 

At the risk of being branded a philistine (again), I have to say that yes, the DS is resolutely modern - it's different, it's bold, it's striking - it's all of those things - but is it beautiful in the way that early Jaguar XJ6s or early Porsche 911s are beautiful? Even today, 66 years on, the DS still has enough about it to challenge our ideas of what a modern car might or should look like. However, it has a certain brutality about it in a way that the two cars mentioned above don't. I think the expression that describes it most accurately is jolie laideTo my eternal regret, I've not been in one, ever - let alone driven one. I'm open to all offers. Seriously. 

Now, fast-forward 66 years and look at the Ami - the latest all-electric offering from Citroën (left).. The Ami is roughly cube-shaped (which presented a challenge to the designers) and the resultant horror is as different as you could possibly imagine (in your worst nightmares) from the DS shown above. Looking at the Citroën Ami, you could be excused for asking: is that the car or the box it came in? The answer of course is that it's both. It looks like nothing less than something that escaped from that children's TV programme "The Magic Roundabout". It's beyond ugly.. Yet someone will buy one. I've read that they're going to be imported to the UK - but only the left hand drive version. Good luck with that. The Islington chatterati will probably go for them - but I can't imagine the good folk of Widnes or British West Hartlepools taking to them.   
(Edited to add: I've already seen a few of these dorkmobiles here on the road) Watch this and cringe..
 
7th November. Sad news - we heard from a friend this morning that Jean Pierre Paroix, the owner/chef of les Bains de Secours at Sévignacq-Meyracq has decided to look for a buyer for his fine restaurant. It was never somewhere you would just stumble upon - indeed, finding it - even when you knew roughly where it was - was always a challenge. It would be true to say that it was buried deep in la France profonde in an unparalleled bucolic setting. More photos here.  
We were last there in September and, as always, it was a wonderful experience, unmatched by anything we've had elsewhere. His savoy cabbage stuffed with confit de canard, foie gras and minced pork will live long in the memory. What a great pity.. We were lucky enough to have stayed there on two occasions, both times for 3-4 days, to escape the heat and crowds of the Fêtes de Bayonne.. Thank you Jean-Pierre for looking after us so well. You will be greatly missed. 

5th November. This is a song that I haven't heard in a loong time.. and it's performed here by one of those virtual choirs.. but I think it works better if you set the playback speed to 1.25.. Try it!  
                                                                                                                                                   
Click on the Settings control (above) and change the playback speed to 1.25

3rd November. The "Hermione" has been opened up for visitors.. details here.

Back from a trip into town (in the car as it was raining) to collect the dog from the groomers. The narrow streets were full of people driving around looking for a space but I was lucky to find a paying space within a few yards of the shop. I grabbed a folding umbrella out of the car and went to buy a short stay ticket - only to be confronted by a new ticket machine with a minimalist screen that defined 'user unfriendly' - in fact, it was user hostile. (Don't manufacturers ever test their products with people who are unfamiliar with them? Grrr!) 

Standing under a torrential (as in torrential) downpour trying to figure out how the thing worked suddenly became all too much (I'm no Gene Kelly!) and so I abandoned the idea of buying a ticket, gambling that few parking attendants would be zealous enough to be out checking tickets in weather like this. After collecting the dry dog, I returned to the car and by the time I put him inside, he was soaked to the skin.. Some of the roads had lakes of water across them complete with waves! Just to make life interesting, the downpour turned into a deafening hailstorm as I made my way to the bakers where I was soaked again in the few short yards from the car to the shop. On the way home, I took a short cut the wrong way down a one-way street to avoid the worst of it and made it into our garage which was starting to flood. Fortunately we'd been emptying the fridge so I unplugged it. That's more than enough excitement for one day!   

2nd November. We've just finished the final few jobs that remained from the list that we started 14 years ago. The stairs and the upstairs landing have been carpeted; the floor of the downstairs utility room has been re-tiled; we've fitted a dog guard to stop Nutty from going upstairs (except when invited!) and we finally replaced the oversized downstairs lavatory with a more modern one that doesn't require an HGV licence to use it. 

Now we start again! 

1st November. I was out in the garden 2-3 nights ago as night was turning into day when I heard the unmistakeably raucous calls from overhead as thousands of migrating cranes from northern Europe and Scandinavia headed south for the winter. They appear to fly at all hours - I've heard them overhead at 3am. These latest ones were invisible in the half light but I expect we'll see more of their great flapping formations in the next few days:

Sunday, 1 August 2021

290. Summertime

30th October. As the number of visitors to the blog approaches the 100,000 mark, I'd like to say a big thank you to all those of you who have visited over the years.

24th October. There's a well-written descriptive 'primer' about the Pays Basque in the "Independent" for those who wish to know more (in one article) about this endlessly fascinating corner of Europe that straddles the border country of France and Spain. My regular reader(s) may remember that Madame and I made our first visit here 30 years ago and that we were instantly smitten by its unique identity as expressed by the warmth and generosity of the people, the impenetrable Basque language, the Basque culture, the gastronomy, the style of the houses, its distinctive landscape - it goes on. 

It didn't take long for us to decide that here was where we were going to live one day. The area combines everything we love in our lives with very few of the factors that combine to make life disagreeable elsewhere. And there aren't many places in the world where I can say that.

The "Independent" article (above) about the Pays Basque compresses neatly into a column what I've been trying to do for years. I've been writing about the Pays Basque here since 2009 - trying to capture the essential spirit of life here - if I'm honest, as much for my own benefit as anyone else's. Top tip? Start at the beginning

22nd October. I've come across a copy of Orson Wells' film (in English but with French subtitles) made in 1955 about the Pays Basque..
   
19th October. Woke up today to a beautiful morning here in the Pays basque where the temperatures were heading for the high twenties with a soft warm wind from Africa (according to the forecast). We decided to take a walk along the coastal footpath at Anglet hoping to make a stop at L'Arrantza, a quaint-looking café overlooking the sea and set up with grass-fronded parasols and comfortable chairs.. You'll find it at the Plage de la Madrague..
Unlike similar establishments at its glitzier neighbour (Biarritz), a couple of coffees here were only 2.20 euros. And its comfy chairs made leaving difficult! This is somewhere we'll return to before the weather changes.

As you can see from this short video, there's no shortage of beachside bars and cafés along this stretch of coast. The 'in' drink appears to be a Mojito.. (I prefer the ones I make.. they're teeth-crackingly cold - and they really do hit the spot on a hot day..) 
   
16th October. I spent the whole of yesterday translating the quarterly newsletter of the association I'm involved with from French to English. The dog woke me up at 4.45am (bless him!) and half an hour later I found myself in front of my PC making a start on it. Apart from meal breaks, I worked through until 9.30pm when I finally called it a day* after finding myself staring at the screen for 5 mins. I've almost finished. 

* It was 32 pages long - before any wags here are tempted to suggest that that's not bad for a one page document! 😁

14th October. Earlier this week, we went to the local hospital where a vaccination point had been set up. The appointment for my third vaccination was timed to the minute and there was only a negligible delay as I was fed into the well-organised system. A doctor asked me a few yes/no questions - and then despite the fact that we were both wearing masks, she said that she recognised me. She lives in an impasse (cul-de-sac) behind our house and a couple of years ago, she and her husband organised a highly enjoyable apéro-dinatoire for all their immediate neighbours

Having a Britannique in line (albeit one with dual nationality) was clearly a novelty and so I received the full attention of the nurses - with lots of good-humoured comments. The nurse actually giving me the vaccination didn't take a run at me in the manner of someone throwing a javelin - but after asking me if I had a preference for left or right arm, she just wiped the target area with alcohol - and then seconds later she rolled my sleeve back down again. That was it - done - and I hadn't felt a thing. The most painless injection ever. I thought she'd had second thoughts and decided not to give me the vaccination.   

We finally decided to address one of the very last of the jobs remaining with the house and that is to carpet the staircase and the upstairs landing. We've chosen sisal carpeting and we've had the measurer and fitting team around to plan how they're going to fit it - as there are some complications. I've just downloaded pages and pages of documents from the carpet company all written in legalese - 5 out of 6 of which need signing and dating. It's a lawyers world that we live in.  
  
13th October. There are a couple of small wooden balconies at the front of the house - one upstairs and one downstairs - both are painted Basque rouge as is the norm here. The upper surfaces of both were looking the worse for wear with the paint all cracked and blistered as they attract the full force of the sun. After giving them a good rubbing down with sandpaper, I filled all the cracks with wood filler and after rubbing down a second time and refilling - and re-sanding - they were looking much better. (In case you're wondering, there is a point to this story!) I applied a coat of undercoat and today was the day when they were going to receive a fresh top coat of Basque Rouge. (interesting article here on Basque houses)

I brought an extending ladder out from the garage to make the job of doing the upper one that little bit easier and so with an open litre can of paint in one hand - and a paint brush stuck in my back pocket, I set off up the ladder. I hadn't bargained for my right leg (due to my new knee) being less flexible than my left - so I had to shuffle slowly up the ladder one step at a time. 

When I'd finished, I started back down the ladder again (with the open can of paint in my left hand) but when I was about 4 steps from the bottom, my shuffle turned into a plummet as I lost my balance - aaarrgghh - and fell the rest of the way, landing flat on my back, still clutching the can of paint - but being a Northerner, I hardly spilled a drop..! 😀     

Job done..  Next time though I think I might just pay someone to do it.     

4th October. This song by Gilbert Bécaud describes an (imaginary?) encounter with Nathalie, a female Intourist guide in Moscow.. It made the 18 year old me want to visit the Café Pushkin.. (lyrics here - click on version #2)
      
1st October. I could listen to a lot of this:
30th September. We set off early this morning for Andernos-les-Bains (about 2 hours to the north) to take a friend for lunch at Le F des Fontaines, a restaurant with its feet in the water at nearby Taussat. It had a extended deck outside that overlooked the bay of Arcachon.. and I can't think of anywhere we've ever been that's had such a panoramic close-up view of the sea. Fortunately the cooking was up to it as well. This is highly recommended for anyone finding themselves in the Bordeaux region. Here's the restaurant under a big sky - just as it was today. More photos here and here.       
27th September. We watched a concert (Julian Rachlin & Denis Matsuev with Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.1) on the box the other evening and we were transfixed by the power and the passion of Denis Matsuev's playing. Here he is with Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No.3 - a Russian playing real Russian music.. Stand by for fireworks!
          
Here's another look at my 'dream'.. a 50+ year old Porsche 912 that still looks the business in a very understated way - no aerofoil wings, no untoward lumps and bumps - just timeless styling: 
21st September. I was out for a ride on my bike along the banks of the Adour this morning  when I came across 'Hermione" in dry dock. She's a replica of an 18th century three-masted French frigate of the same name. I was surprised to read somewhere that back in the 18th C she had a crew of 300.. 
She's here in dry dock in Bayonne for 6 months - having some damage below the waterline put right - so I'm hoping to have a look around her. With our long maritime history, I think this is something the UK could and should emulate. (Looks like someone has already had this idea - Google has just turned up the Lenox project

18th September. Back home after a few days away at Bielle in the Vallée d'Ossau.. with its stunning mountain scenery, towering peaks and alpine-style roads with vertiginous drop-offs. The big plus for us though was that we could breathe at last after the heat and humidity of the recent weather on the coast. 

Every field seem to be devoted to the growing of corn or maize (maïs in French) - the stalks of which were a good 7-8 feet high. It's rarely seen on menus in France though as it's only considered suitable for animal feed here..
   
The owner of the hotel where we stayed had an immaculate Lancia Montecarloin rally trim in red - what else!
* It may have been the legendary supercharged 037 model - it had 4 pipes sticking out of the back - my knowledge of Lancias is not that great. 

During one prolonged day of rain, we decided to revisit a favourite restaurant of ours - Les Bains de Secours at Sévignac-Meyracq - for lunch. It's situated in la France profondeOnce again, we enjoyed a wonderfully inventive lunch there - full of surprises - all of them good! I don't think we've ever had better anywhere. Highly recommended - and well worth making that special journey to visit it - you won't be sorry.  

For our last night in the Vallée d'Ossau, we decided to treat ourselves at a restaurant in nearby Laruns that featured garbure.. To an ear attuned to the sound of the English language, garbure doesn't sound that appetising but, when made well, it is a very special dish indeed. See what you think:
Unfortunately, our garbure was nothing like the one shown above!

After driving through a more or less constant downpour we arrived back in the Pays Basque and after picking up the pooch from the kennels we took him down to the beach for a good run.. As much as I like being up in the mountains, there's something indefinable about the sea that has always drawn me - is it the distant horizon with its constant reminder of a world beyond? Or is it that salty tang? Or the eternally restless sound of the waves?  

9th September. Here's Jean Paul Belmondo making his final appearance at Les Invalides this afternoon. I'm sure he's still smiling in there.. 
   
7th September. Sad to hear yesterday of the demise of that great French actor - Jean-Paul Belmondo - who for many epitomised the charm of the Frenchman with his confident swagger, sheer likeability and easy charisma. With his distinctive features, there was only ever going to be one job for him and he found it early on. He was one of a dwindling number of film stars who could, without any exaggeration at all, be said to be irreplaceable. He was to generations of French filmgoers what Sean Connery (and Kirk Douglas before him) had been to the Anglophone world - a larger-than-life character who, by some strange magic or alchemy, was able to dominate every scene of his films. To many French men, he typified the French man they'd like to have been. Ask yourself: who's left?  
    
Over the weekend, we had 3 days of bullfights at Les Arènes nearby.. The bullring is on my early morning dog-walking route and I think it was on Sunday morning that I saw a "suit of lights" hanging up on a garment rail inside the grounds of the bullring as vans were unloaded. It struck me that the spectacle of the bullfighters and the whole carefully calibrated charade of the presentation is designed to divert and distract the viewing public from the essential cruelty of bullfighting. 

Hemingway fell hook, line and sinker for the spectacle in the 1920s and wrote "Death in the Afternoon" - what many have subsequently described as the 'bible' of bullfighting - where he wrote of: “the emotional and spiritual intensity and pure classic beauty that can be produced by a man, an animal, and a piece of scarlet serge draped on a stick.” (conveniently forgetting the sword) I'm not sure that the bull would agree with him. There's no mention of the cruelty in Hemingway's world. As an activity, it is abhorrent, medieval, cruel and decadent and it has no place in France, let alone Europe.

I remember reading "Death in the Afternoon" as an impressionable 20 year old and I have to confess that Hemingway's persuasive prose had me nodding along with him. This is the problem when you confuse a description of bullfighting when written by an author at the peak of his powers with the sordid reality of it. I remember trying to convince a girlfriend at the time that bullfighting was a noble art - having read his book but never having seen a bullfight. How wrong I was.  

If I were to go into a field and start stabbing at a bull or a cow with a sword, I'd fully expect - and deserve - to be arrested for cruelty to animals. However, in a bullring, matadors are applauded.   

Later on in the day, during the mid-afternoon dog walk, I crossed paths with 4 elegantly dressed, coiffed and perfumed ladies who were en route to witness 6 bulls being put to death for their evening entertainment. I would have liked to have thrown the contents of a dustbin over all of them (and more). 
   
2nd September. The sky has suddenly gone black - as in black - here - and a few minutes ago a lady from a flat behind us called to say our garage door was open and that there was a storm coming.. Moments later, the sky was full of lightning and now the rain is now falling in sheets like a monsoon. There are some kind people around. Merci beaucoup! 

I should have taken a photo of the western sky - a dense black wedge of mammatus cloud - black as night - was driving in from the sea and it split the sky - with clear blue sky showing on either side. I've seen mammatus cloud before but this was an extreme example of it (the cloud was denser and blacker than any of the photos shown in these two links). There were multiple soundless flashes of lightning within this mass and then suddenly the skies opened with a torrential downpour accompanied by lightning flashes and violent crashes of thunder.

One good thing to come out of the Covid 19 global pandemic has been the eruption of virtual choirs.. here's one with Judy Collins' "Amazing Grace":
Apparently there's a shortage of Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) drivers in the UK..
Yesterday marked our 14th year since arriving in the Pays basque in September 2007. I meant to post on the subject yesterday but I ended up in a stressful online electronic tangle with a Forex trading company that we'd been using since February. In the middle of a routine monthly online transaction to change our £ sterling to euros, they suddenly demanded to know my employment status, then they asked for a photograph - not a scan or a photocopy - but a photograph of my passport - and finally to surrender control of my mobile phone to them so that they could take a "selfie" of me. 

I wasn't sure if their site had been hacked or not but I thought the security measures they were taking were out of all proportion to the risk. And under the pressure to complete the transaction I started responding to their demands before I suddenly realised that they were excessive and potentially damaging to me. Why hadn't they emailed all their clients to brief them on their new security policy so that we could read through it in slow time and prepare the necessary info for them? To launch into these bizarre requests in the middle of a transaction caused other sites I was using to time out - amid great frustration.   

I pulled the plug on that nonsense and started googling for an alternative Forex dealer. Finally, after starting the abortive transfer process at around 11am - I finally completed the monthly currency exchange with a new Forex dealer at 9.30pm.. Phew! In between all of that, I called my UK bank* to brief them on what had happened and to ask them to block any requests from the offending company to transfer money from our account.  

* This involved an inordinately long time waiting on their "Customer Service Department" (ahem!) to pick up the phone.. I gave up the first time after waiting 18 minutes stuck in a queueing system. Aaaarrgghh! Breathe deeply - and now r e l a x.

29th August. This is the weekend of le Grand Retour (the big return) when those holidaymakers with children will be making the great trek back home. Not a day to be out and about on France's autoroutes, especially those heading towards Paris. 

25th August. Earlier I was half-listening to someone on the radio prattling on (and on) about the joys of WFH as he called it.. (it's known as working from home to the rest of us). It struck me that one of the reasons why we've enjoyed the last 14 years so much is because we too have been 'working from home' - if you can call work taking the dog for a run on the beach; exploring mountain passes in the Pyrenees; having lunch out in Basque villages where life stops at lunchtime; wondering which pair of shorts to wear or any one of a thousand other things. If this is WFH, then long may it continue. 

23rd August. I really don't understand anti-vaxxers - I remember thinking right at the start of it all, that the only way that we'll be able to defeat Covid would be via mass vaccination. Yet the anti-vaxxers have all kinds of fanciful theories - ranging from the bizarre - Bill Gates wants to inject us with tracking devices - to the nonsensical - such as Boris Johnson is "behind" it - whatever that means. Then there are those benighted anti-vaxxers here in France who shout "Liberté" when they are really making an anti-Government protest. If ever I met an anti-vaxxer, I'd be tempted to show him/her this.  

We paid a visit to Biarritz yesterday morning and found a table at the Bleu Café on the Grande Plage - but someone has had the bright idea of installing some OTT monster parasols.. so now there's just a letterbox view of the sea. There's still nowhere else we'd like to be on a Sunday morning though!
21st August. Out in the car this morning for some minor shopping, and at a set of lights there was a young man standing in front of three lanes of stationary traffic juggling 3 Indian clubs before darting among the cars looking for tips.. The summer always brings more than a few of these 'hopefuls' down here - I once saw a lady in town waving a 6 foot ribbon around in the hope of capturing spare change from passers-by. Her 'act' couldn't have been more minimalistic..  

There are no words sufficient to describe the human tragedy that is unfolding in Afghanistan in the wake of the decision to pull out. Without wishing to point fingers at any individuals, it's clear that, in the West, we have too many politicians and not enough statesmen. In fact, no statesmen. It seems to have escaped our politicians' attention that there's an unbridgeable gulf between our Occidental concepts of democracy, law, education for all - and the type of society that the Taliban seem to want to impose - backed by Sharia law - where medieval punishments such as stonings for adultery and hand amputation for theft are de rigueur

There's one ray of sunshine as far as I'm conerned (you may think it trivial - and you're probably right) but perhaps the day is fast approaching when I'll no longer have to endure listening to the BBC 'journalists' talking about Afghanistarn, Karble and the Talibarn. It might be a small thing but these languid Home Counties pronunciations have had me gritting my teeth for 20 years. The last time I looked, the diminutive of Stanley isn't Starn - it's Stan; and Karble should be Ka-bull (Ka to rhyme with cat) and Talibarn should of course be Talibann.. I think I'm fighting a losing bartle though! 😀     

20th August. Blue skies this morning.. At last! 😎

Here's Scotland looking at its best.. (music from the soundtrack of the cult film "Local Hero")
  
19th August. For all dog owners 'out there' who think they know their dogs, here's a cautionary tale.. I went out in the garden this afternoon to see Nutty (our cocker spaniel) standing astride a fluttering fledgling. When he saw me coming, he grabbed it and disappeared with it like a flash into the 'jungle' - some big bushes that are his preserve. We managed to catch him in a pincer movement - but too late.. he'd eaten it.  First lizards and now fledglings.. he's a serial killer. He's the fourth cocker we've had but he's the first (that we know of) to eat other species. Not good.

I had a good ride (on my ebike) early this cool morning along the banks of the olive green Nive - and, to my surprise, for such a beautiful river, I was disappointed that there wasn't a single boat out on the water. 
However, there was quite a few holiday makers with loose toddlers on the towpath, along with roller-bladers plus a couple of anti-social lycra-clad cyclists riding two abreast - so I had to keep a watchful eye out when passing them. I rode as far as the footbridge at Villefranque - I think I did about 30km in total. I know, it's hardly Tour de France territory but it's better than not doing it.  

17th August. I've just spotted an account in an English newspaper of a bizarre construction that's appeared adjacent to London's Marble Arch.. a 25m (82 feet) high artificial hill (or mound) that's cost £6m (so far). It's designed to attract people to come and shop in Oxford Street.. How threadbare must your imagination be to think that something as ill-conceived as this could possibly bring people back into central London and not only that, but people would pay to climb up it? In failing miserably to touch the human spirit, this project is akin to the loosely-named Millennium Dome.. that was anything but and could easily have been charged with an offence under the Trade Descriptions Act. What to say except that somewhere in London the lunatics are running the asylum..  

And in other news, from the roof of London's Dorchester Hotel nearby, read this review of their 'Polo Lounge' and weep.. (The bread basket is £16. The salads start at £28. A bowl of pasta is £38. A steak is £135. Proof that I'm not making this up!) 

Far from encouraging me to visit the self-proclaimed "world-class city", stories like these have the opposite effect on me. I'm more than happy to leave them to it.

This is Silbury Hill - and it was built around 4,500 years ago.. without fanfare. More photos here and more info here.
12th August. Just cooling down after driving back home through the massed holiday traffic from Ascain where we had lunch at Restaurant Larralde with a friend who's going through a rocky patch in her personal life. There were a few long tables set out under the trees for family parties of Basques - very traditional. 
It was warm and heavy until, with a sudden rolling crash of thunder up in the mountains behind us, the spattering of drops turned into an instant downpour - forcing groups from unprotected tables to scurry indoors clutching their glasses of wine.. while the waitresses quickly stripped the tables that were bearing the brunt. We were dry under a big umbrella.. Minutes later, it was all over and the garden dried out quickly under a hot sun. 

It normally takes us ½ hour to drive there - today, it took 1 hour 20 mins.. I don't think I've seen holiday traffic as bad as this for a loong time. It was a tad grey so I think people had decided to give the beaches a miss - so the roads were full - as were the restaurants. Fortunately, we'd booked.   

This was playing on the radio earlier..
 
11th August. I wouldn't have thought this was possible - but - never say never. Here's the Joscho Stephan Trio in a dazzling display of technical virtuosity as they present their acoustic version of Jimi Hendrix's epic sixties single "Hey Joe" as you've never heard it before.. (the few bars from 2.49 to 3.05 do it for me)  Caution - do not try this at home!
     
9th August. Just back from a trip to the coast to give the pooch a leg stretch.. On the way back, on a two lane road, a young lad on a scooter filtered down the middle of the road with inches to spare on either side.. The problem was, he had a full size long board attached loosely to a support on his scooter. Another one for the Darwin Awards.   

Make yourself a cup of tea/coffee/whatever or pour yourself a cold one and relax with this video (no music or commentary - just the sound of the sea) of the endless motion of the Atlantic as it surges up against the beaches and rocks at Biarritz:
   
5th August. No prizes for guessing the title of this next piece - it's catching!
 
("Dark Eyes" - it starts at 0.50 if you want to cut to the chase!)

Just back from a trip to Grand Frais (just by the airport at Biarritz) - a supermarket chain that specialises in f-r-e-s-h produce. I seldom make reference here to food shopping in supermarkets but to anyone planning on visiting France I'd say make sure you pay Grand Frais a visit.. they have stores all over France. They're unlike any other food shop that I know of and it makes shopping a pleasure.. rather than the stress of hunting down what you want in France's crowded giant-sized supermarkets. Their fruit and veg is incredibly fresh, with some of it gleaming as clouds of water vapour drift across the spotlit displays. It's also human-sized.. If I wander off to look, say, at the cheese - then unlike at the ultra large supermarkets that straddle a few post codes, finding Madame again was a simple matter. Needless to say, I have no connection with Grand Frais other than as a satisfied customer..
          
4th August. Stuck at home but feel like an early evening stroll around Biarritz? Try this (I suggest you ignore the first 55 seconds) and see what you think.. it's best in full screen (with something cold!). Our favourite place for wave-watching (and people watching) is the Bleu Café - it shows up at 9.20:
     
What would be your first reaction to an admittedly innovative carbon fibre ¾ scale acoustic guitar (that contains no wood) that was made in China (where else..?). Before you heard it play, I suspect your initial impression might be less than favourable - but it appears to have received an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the guitar community.. The oddly-named Lava Me 2* comes with some slick built-in electronics that allow volume, reverb, delay and other effects (like chorus).. More here. Given the choice between this though and a traditional wooden guitar, for me the aesthetics win every time. Yes, the Lava Me 2 might sound good but, in comparison, it looks like a child's toy.  

* it sounds like an Italian DJ attempting to pronounce the title of the Beatles first record..😎
 
1st August. Here are images of a migrant encampment set up in the Place des Vosges - one of the most glorious locations in all of Paris - filmed just before the French authorities moved them on. 

The EU seemingly does not have a policy for dealing with the issue of uncontrolled migration. We've seen the people-trafficking gangs exploiting those who wish to move to the EU - and those who wish to move from the EU to the UK. This is one of the major human tragedies that affects us in Europe and yet the EU seems unwilling or unable to address it. Despite it being a Europe-wide issue, there's a deafening silence from Brussels.  
  
Unfortunately for those in Brussels who are studiously looking the other way, this problem isn't going to disappear. In my view, the migrant crisis owes much to the Schengen Agreement - which, as you know, led to the abolishment of the signatories national borders, to build a Europe without borders known as the “Schengen Area”. In an ideal world, this was all very laudable but in reality it was and still is an impractical policy that ignored the darker side of human nature. It was obviously dreamed up after one too many exotic cigarettes.. but the EU being the EU, it will continue with Schengen as to do otherwise would be an admission that one of its key policies is not fit for purpose.

According to this, the EU is the largest donor of development aid in the world. It is committed to increasing its contribution, and to donating at least 0.7% of its gross national income a year. But financial aid alone is not enough to sustainably reduce poverty.

Political action is needed to overcome challenges in governance, trade regimes and geography, and to make best use of the opportunities arising from globalisation.

So - what is the EU doing to bring a halt to the number of migrants who are mobile in Europe? What is the EU doing to ensure that its development aid reaches those for whom it is intended?

Meanwhile - where's summer?