Monday, 23 April 2012

183. Spare me the analysis - where do I vote?

23rd April 2012. "Our" old village in the Pays Basque featured on lunchtime national TV news (TF1) today.. yes, it was time for Ascain (right) to hit the national consciousness. TF1 ran a piece that showed how the election voting process was handled in a far distant corner of France - and Ascain is about as far and as distant from Paris as it gets. There, it's the age-old tradition that voters first go to church to refresh their souls (Lord, give me strength!) - after which they repair to the bar of "our" small hotel to refresh their throats (Lord, give me another!) via a pastis or similar (& there's nothing quite so similar as another one!). Having fortified the major relevant elements of the inner man, they then feel up to stepping across the road to attend to the small business of electing a president.

Election time in France is a curiously low key affair as, unlike in the UK, political posters don't appear in gardens or front windows of private houses, there are no witty bumper stickers and we haven't had a single leaflet stuffed into our mailbox - not a single one! We also haven't had to endure a single doorstep conversation with a political worker. No, here it's all left to the broadcast and print media. The degree of media cynicism is remarkable though - a local newspaper shop displays advertising placards outside for national magazines and under a picture of the leading presidential candidates one magazine front cover asked "The biggest lies of the campaign - Who lies the most? Who lies the best?"

This was where we used to stay each summer - there's a very quick view of it at 01:23 - blink and you'll miss it. (NB. the video is slow to load for some reason)
You'll be pleased to hear that there'll be no more election coverage here as I'm sure - if you're anything like your correspondent - you've had it up to here with politologues (political journalists) speculating over the minutiae of the political news. Suffice to say, win or lose, the talking, forecasting, denying, analysis, accusing, speculation, interviewing, extrapolating and prognosticating will carry on for a few more months yet until we're all brain dead with electrocephalagrams that look like a drive across the prairies - because that's just the way politicians like us..!
France and Germany share a joint TV station known as ARTE and the following video is one of their productions. It features Aquitaine - which is the region of France where the Pays Basque is found. Unfortunately for the majority of readers of this blog, it's in German.. but it's beautifully filmed. The film's starting point is the Pays Basque - and it covers pottoks (the wild ponies of the Pays Basque); Sare - where there's a piece on Pelote basque; the famous restaurant Chez Margot at Socoa (just across the bay from St Jean de Luz); Larressore - where they still make makhilas (I must get around to explaining these one day) and then it's up to Les Landes and an inside look at Course Landaise.. There's more but I haven't watched it right through myself yet.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

182. Rain-fuelled rant!

18th April 2012. I came across this old map (below) the other day in a document someone sent me. I would say it must date back to pre-war times. What I find interesting about it is the amount of green space that lies between the towns to the west of the RN10 (highlighted in red).
Today, much of that has been built up and driving around the area, I'm constantly reminded of this as developers are steadily building on every available plot. Where vacant plots don't exist, existing buildings and often houses are torn down so that revenue-earning apartment blocks can be erected in their place. Nowadays, the three towns of Biarritz, Anglet and Bayonne that, pre-war, were completely separate are now effectively one and it's now known as the Agglomération Côte Basque-Adour. Try saying that with a mouthful of Gâteau Basque! This is one area of France where there are more buyers than sellers and my guess is that the nationwide drop in house prices that was reported yesterday won't apply here.

We spotted the new Cité de l'Océan (below) the other day when we were down on the sea front at Ilbarritz.. I've always thought that architects here in France are capable of creating the most stunning buildings or structures. They are equally capable of erecting the most monumental eyesores - like the one below.. (is that a building or the box it came in?)
In the first category I would place buildings such as the dazzling Louvre Pyramid - conceived by I. M. Pei - that has more than a touch of genius to it. In my humble opinion it sits perfectly in front of the Louvre - and it looks as though it's always been there.

Then there's the breathtakingly hypnotic viaduct at Millau - designed by Norman Foster. This most elegant of structures defies the imagination in its extreme simplicity and, on seeing it for the first time, most people are reduced to an awed silence as they goggle at the bridge stepping out across the void with seemingly little to support it. To lend some scale to the picture, some of the support towers are higher than the Eiffel Tower.. Truly stunning.

In the second category are those that (in my view) miss the target completely. Examples? Well, close to home, there's the branch of the Caisse d'Epargne (savings bank) at Bayonne that, if only it was nearer the sea, could be offered to the Navy in times of national need to serve as a submarine pen. Built in the historic quarter of Bayonne, a few paces from the ancient cathedral, it's a deliberate slap in the face of history and without any redeeming qualities at all. Well, maybe one - the roof keeps the employees dry. (Happily, it's been demolished since I wrote the previous paragraph and some apartment blocks are going up in its stead).
Then there's that monument to industrial quantities of reinforced concrete - the Ministry of Finance, Bercy (below) in Paris. Again, brutal, squat and with a brooding mass, it straddles the riverside boulevard and juts out into the river Seine. It could well be George Orwell's Ministry of Truth (from his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four) What on earth were they thinking of..? No question - this has a top 3 place in my list of buildings that would be improved by demolition. 
Then we come to the Pompidou Centre - or, as I like think of it, the Emperor's new clothes writ large in 15,000 tons of steel and 50,000 cubic metres of reinforced concrete. Again - what were they thinking of? There's a kind of intellectual arrogance at work here that says if you dislike the building/structure/oil rig (call it what you will) then you must be a reactionary old f**t.
Then there's the Opera at Bastille.. It looks like nothing less than the headquarters of an insurance company or a nuclear power station. Enough said.
By way of contrast, here's the magnificent Opéra Garnier and I don't think I need to add a single word:
When I look at Paris I see one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We have a duty to pass it on to succeeding generations intact - we don't have the right to vandalise it. What will these excrescences say about us to future generations? Enough said.

19th April 2012. I've been re-seeding 'this blessèd plot' (aka the lawn) and so far so good.. green shoots have appeared in all the right places. Fortunately April has brought with it many gentle showers - rather than the torrential downpours that we've often been at the receiving end of. The grass is looking green and hopefully this period of wet weather should ensure (ha-ha!) that the lawn has a fighting chance this year!

Just the other side of the Pyrenees lies the small town of Burguete in Navarre, Spain. It's known mainly for one thing: it's where Ernest Hemingway lodged in 1924 & '25 en route to the running of the bulls at Pamplona. (more here and here)

The Basque country (on both sides of the border) would have been vastly different in those days with few concessions to tourism and it must have been a real pleasure to travel around it. While the coast has changed beyond all recognition, the inland regions remain more or less intact as they were - even in the height of summer few of the legions of tourists that throng the coastal resorts explore the hinterland. There, it's not difficult to understand the attraction the country had for the author. Here's an extract from "The Sun Also Rises" that describes the moment Hemingway and his friend arrived in Bayonne.

In the morning it was bright, and they were sprinkling the streets of the town, and we all had breakfast in a café. Bayonne is a nice town. It is like a very clean Spanish town and it is on a big river. Already, so early in the morning, it was very hot on the bridge across the river. We walked out on the bridge and then took a walk through the town.

I was not at all sure Mike's rods would come from Scotland in time, so we hunted a tackle store and finally bought a rod for Bill up-stairs over a drygoods store. The man who sold the tackle was out, and we had to wait for him to come back. Finally he came in, and we bought a pretty good rod cheap, and two landing-nets.

We went out into the street again and took a look at the cathedral. Cohn made some remark about it being a very good example of something or other, I forget what. It seemed like a nice cathedral, nice and dim, like Spanish churches. Then we went up past the old fort and out to the local Syndicat d'Initiative office, where the bus was supposed to start from. There they told us the bus service did not start until the 1st of July. We found out at the tourist office what we ought to pay for a motor-car to Pamplona and hired one at a big garage just around the corner from the Municipal Theatre for four hundred francs. The car was to pick us up at the hotel in forty minutes, and we stopped at the café on the square where we had eaten breakfast, and had a beer. It was hot, but the town had a cool, fresh, early-morning smell and it was pleasant sitting in the café. A breeze started to blow, and you could feel that the air came from the sea. There were pigeons out in the square, and the houses were a yellow, sun-baked color, and I did not want to leave the café. But we had to go to the hotel to get our bags packed and pay the bill. We paid for the beers, we matched and I think Cohn paid, and went up to the hotel. It was only sixteen francs apiece for Bill and me, with ten per cent added for the service, and we had the bags sent down and waited for Robert Cohn. While we were waiting I saw a cockroach on the parquet floor that must have been at least three inches long. I pointed him out to Bill and then put my shoe on him. We agreed he must have just come in from the garden. It was really an awfully clean hotel.

Cohn came down, finally, and we all went out to the car. It was a big, closed car, with a driver in a white duster with blue collar and cuffs, and we had him put the back of the car down. He piled in the bags and we started off up the street and out of the town. We passed some lovely gardens and had a good look back at the town, and then we were out in the country, green and rolling, and the road climbing all the time. We passed lots of Basques with oxen, or cattle, hauling carts along the road, and nice farmhouses, low roofs, and all white-plastered. In the Basque country the land all looks very rich and green and the houses and villages look well-off and clean. Every village had a pelota court and on some of them kids were playing in the hot sun. There were signs on the walls of the churches saying it was forbidden to play pelota against them, and the houses in the villages had red tiled roofs, and then the road turned off and commenced to climb and we were going way up close along a hillside, with a valley below and hills stretched off back toward the sea. You couldn't see the sea. It was too far away. You could see only hills and more hills, and you knew where the sea was.

20th April 2012. I remember reading an old saying amongst carpenters, "Measure twice, cut once.." and for some reason I woke up this morning with it in my head. It struck me that that philosophy could be applied to many areas of life.

Before making the decision to move here from England, for example, I remember making a list of the pros & cons for making the move and another list of all the risks. The first list proved pretty conclusive in terms of whether or not a move was the correct decision. As for the second list, all the risks I identified could be managed - except one: the currency exchange rate. As most of our income was in £ sterling, and we were moving to the euro-zone, this had my full attention. I thought the worst that could happen would be that the £ would gradually decline in value against the euro over the years. We were prepared for that eventuality and so we moved across.

Soon after we moved however, the exchange rate turned out to be the very risk that bit us and it bit us hard. In Britain, Gordon Brown (an unelected nobody who was doing Prime Minister impressions at the time) let the pound slump in value - an unprecedented 30% drop - against the euro in a few short months. He didn't declare it a devaluation - he simply didn't call it anything. He just carried on sleepwalking as though nothing had happened. Fortunately, we'd done our planning and we had sufficient flex to be able to live through it - but the importance of planning wasn't lost on us.

If anyone reading this is thinking of making a similar move, I'd say the hardest part is not the move itself, but taking the decision to move. Once you've decided, the rest should happen according to your plan.

22nd April 2012. We've been having a fair share of rain lately and the garden is thankfully sprouting in all directions! I took the dog down to the beach at Anglet this morning - there was a fresh westerly wind blowing in a few showers from the Bay of Biscay, the slate green sea was rearing up in choppy waves and there were a fair number of surfers out there. All very bracing! Needless to say, the dog's ears were horizontal!

Sunday, 8 April 2012

181. April showers in the Pays Basque

6th April 2012. Forecast for the morning is for rain, but as they often get it wrong for this corner of Aquitaine, I'll take a peek out of the windows in the morning to see if rowing is on the cards. As it's the first Saturday of the month, it's also the day for an apéro..

Haven't played any Chet Baker in a while so - to put that right - here he is with Almost blue:
And another - Around Midnight - the classic late night jazz track that Thelonious Monk made all his own - but played here by Chet:
7th April 2012. A good row this morning - had an outing in a mixed VIII and we did 14km.. Stayed on a bit longer afterwards as it was that time of the month (1st Saturday) for an attitude adjuster! Still haven't got used to drinking whisky at midday though.. Had a quick word with Perle Bouge who was there having a vigorous work-out on a rowing machine. She said she'll be going to the Olympics in July. In case you haven't read previous posts about her, she was involved in a road accident I believe when she was 19 and is now confined to a wheelchair. Despite that, she took up rowing a couple of years ago and won a Silver medal at the recent World Championships  in New Zealand. She has a fierce determination to succeed and I hope her efforts will be rewarded this summer.

I know I included this track by Amy Winehouse fairly recently but I make no apologies for putting it in again. She had one of the best female jazz/blues voices of my memory. Such a tragedy that her personal life spiralled out of control the way it did.

Jardin Public, Biarritz (in 2006)
10th April 2012. Situated opposite the magnificent old station (now the theatre) in Biarritz, the Jardin Public used to be a haven of 'coolth' and shade even on the hottest of wind-free summer days when the heat can sometimes wrap the Côte Basque in a clammy embrace like a warm damp blanket. The square was a leafy green enclave shaded by some mightily tall old trees and it was the perfect place to pause on a bench after lunch in the tranquil shade offered by the canopy high above. The dog enjoyed the respite from the hot pavements too and it wouldn't take him long before he'd be 'paws-up' on the grass having a snooze. There were some ancient cedars that spread their limbs out high and wide and others (chestnuts perhaps?) that I couldn't name to save my life. Here it is (left) as it was in 2006.

Unfortunately, a great storm screamed in out of the Bay of Biscay in January 2009 and it devastated the coast from the Pays Basque up as far as Bordeaux - flattening 60% of the endless pine forests of Les Landes. It wreaked havoc with these majestic old trees in the Jardin Public as can be seen here:

Here's a tree going down in that great storm.. 
Now, the Jardin Public has totally lost its former oasis-like quality, as the removal of the trees has exposed it completely to the relentless heat of the sun. While it's no longer possible to sit there in summer and unwind in the shade, it remains a favourite place at other times of the year. If we could afford a house (haha!) or, more realistically, an apartment in the centre of Biarritz, something around here would figure high on our wish list. 
12th April 2012. It's been a while since I've featured a Basque choir and one of the very best is Gogotik.. Here they are with some wonderful images of the Pays Basque:
This particular one by Gogotik sends a shiver through me:
I've been meaning to mention the Musée Basque (English site here) in Bayonne for some time.. It is a remarkable collection - I believe the largest collection of Basque artefacts anywhere - and no visit to Bayonne should overlook it. It starts off with simple displays of the pastoral life of the Basques and as you penetrate through to the upper floors the scope gradually widens until the full glories of the museum's contents are revealed. (By the way, admission is free on the first Sunday of the month).

I've previously mentioned here the emblematic painter Spanish Basque Ramiro Arrue who captured the stylised essence of Basqueness in his work to such an extent that his vision of the Pays Basque is still shared by many and it endures here to this day. Here's a two-part video about him:    

This next clip features some of the distinctive headstones that may be found in the cemeteries here. They're not sad places, lying forgotten under a few dripping yew trees with weeds rampant - they're kept spotless (like the rest of the Pays Basque) and provide another insight into Basque culture.