Thursday, 7 December 2017

250. Christmas here we come!

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31st December. First thing this morning, I nipped out to the fish shop to pick up our order for this evening. Luckily, it's only a 5 minute walk from here. While waiting my turn, I was eyeing up the oysters and I thought - why not..? I added a dozen Spéciales de Claires N°3 to the list. These are fairly small - I find the bigger ones test my imagination too much! (There are some about the size of a horse's hoof.. ugh!) I just squirt some lemon juice on them and voilà.. Perhaps a piece of buttered brown granary bread as well.. and a glass of Chablis.

Last night, we watched the final of "Prodiges" - a programme on France2 that featured young musical talent. There were 3 finalists - each of them having won one of the following three categories: Instrumental, Song or Dance. In the instrumental category there was Maxime, a gifted 10 year old cellist. Here he is playing the Theme from Schindler's List:
 And here's 16 year old Roxane with her interpretation of Alfredo Catalani's "La Wally"..
Finally, there was 11 year old Jasmine with Maurice Jarre's "Lawrence of Arabia":Watch the videos and decide who you think should have won. The result is at the end of this post.

After suffering a succession of shoes bought here that claimed to have been manufactured in my size, all I can say is that there must be a mismatch in equivalence between UK, US and Euro sizes. The other day I bought a pair of Timberland casual boots from Amazon (France) and by adding a Euro size and a half to what I normally take, I've finally managed to find a pair that fit me.  What a relief..! Without being too specific, my feet are "generously proportioned" - they are beyond the standard size range stocked by mainstream shops here (they generally top out at 45). At the seaside, shoes in my size usually come with an outboard motor!    

I was able to take my ebike out yesterday for only the second time over the Christmas period as for once it wasn't raining. It was a cloudless sunny day and the temperature was up to 19°! I rode out along the banks of the Adour before turning south to follow the coast down to Biarritz. Beachfront cafés at the curiously named Chambre d'Amour* (just outside Biarritz here) were packed to the gills with people taking advantage of the break in the weather. It was high tide too with a strong sea running - and so the waves and the surf were pretty spectacular.  
* Bedroom of lurve!
There's a low stone wall outside the house topped with a rusting metal fence. As it's more or less only the paint that's holding the fence together, it's about to be replaced with a low maintenance aluminium one in a few days and so it was a good opportunity to clean the wall prior to its arrival. Earlier yesterday we rented a Kärcher pressure washer and I have to say I was astonished at how easily it removed the accumulated grime of decades. It was akin to one of those adverts for a liquid cleaner for tackling problem work surfaces in the kitchen.. that, with a magic sponge, cut a swathe through baked-on grease in one pass. It now looks like we have a new wall.

Christmas 2017 wouldn't be complete without a photo of Nutty in festive mood..! (an admirer sent him the tie!)
29th December. Off to Biarritz in a few minutes to see the lights (more here) and have a drink.. (though perhaps not in that order!) Short of time? Fast forward to 2:04..

Bernard Laporte, president of the FFR announced a couple of days ago that Guy Novès would be replaced by Jacques Brunel (right) as coach of Les Bleus - the XV de France. It doesn't give him much time to influence matters ahead of the upcoming NatWest 6 Nations tournament. However, I'm sure that the FFR's sights are fixed further ahead on the RWC 2019 in Japan - where France and England are matched up in Pool C! I wish him well.

28th December. Here's another beautifully photographed slideshow from local photographer Alain Miranda - this time it shows a wintry Pays Basque as it was on 1st December:

27th December. It was a wild, wild night out there last night.. I awoke at 4am to the sound of the roaring west wind as it blew straight in from the Bay of Biscay, thrumming and shuddering over and around the house. I went downstairs and let Nutty out as he'd been woken up by the wind as well. Normally, he's reluctant to return indoors until he's good and ready (unless there's food on offer) but today he was at the kitchen door after no more than a minute outside. The beach should be a sight to behold later on! Difficult to tell but Biarritz doesn't look so bad at the moment  - whereas the beach (la plage des Cavaliers) at Anglet - dog walking territory - looks as though it's taking a pounding.

I took him down there later on in the morning to be greeted by a continuous mighty roar from the sea (reminiscent of a civil jet taking off!). There were very few walkers on the seafront path.. as there was much wind-blown sand interspersed with the occasional showers. The sea was a mass of boiling white foam, maddened surf and crashing waves out as far as the eye could see - which wasn't very far. For once, there were no surfers in evidence. After 15-20 minutes, honour was deemed to have been satisfied and we headed back to the car.     

26th December. In about 10 minutes, we'll be interviewing another serving of Monsieur Montauzer's famous truffled boudins blancs..

If there's any justice in this world, someone one day will offer me a Bentley Mk VI on a week's trial.. (I think I'd sleep in it in my pyjamas!)

24th December. That creak you might just be able to hear is the fridge door opening.. Inside, there's all manner of good things: coquilles Saint-Jacques, boudins blancs, Brillat-Savarin cheese and more besides (I'll be changing into some elasticated waist trousers shortly).
So, before the fun starts, I'd like to take this opportunity to wish my faithful reader(s) a very merry Christmas and above all else, a happy and healthy 2018.. Thanks for reading!
23rd December. "Echappées Belles" is a travel programme produced by France 5. Here, they take a protracted look at the Pyrenees-Atlantic - the western half of which is, you've guessed it, the Pays Basque.. <George Clooney voice> "What else!".. ("Quoi d'autre!"). If your French isn't up to following the presenter, just enjoy the view:
I've previously mentioned here the "Jacobite" steam passenger train that runs between Fort William and Mallaig on the west coast of Scotland through some of Britain's most stunning scenery.. Don't just take my word for it. Take a look at the short film that Arte made about this the other evening while they were investigating "Harry Potter's fantastic Scotland".

I was out on my ebike yesterday and what a pleasure it was to be able to sail up hills with an ease that might previously have had my heart pumping into the red zone! You would never guess that the bike weighs about 25kg. The whole point to an ebike isn't that the bike does all the work - it's that you can go further & faster with one.

Throughout the ride, I kept adapting the degree of assistance provided by the Bosch motor. It has 5 settings: OFF - zero assistance mode; ECO - it adds 30% to the rider's input; TOUR - this setting doubles the rider's effort; SPORT - adds 180% to the rider's effort; TURBO - adds 250% to the rider's effort. Clearly, the use of the higher power settings reduces the overall range and there's a neat computer display that indicates what the effective range is at the selected power level.

I got home knowing I'd been on a bike ride. Great fun! I was sceptical prior to trying one - but I'd would say that a quick demo ride changed my view of ebikes completely. Go out and try one - and keep an open mind.

19th December. This is the ebike that I have on a week's trial. (Yes, I know it's a far cry from a Bentley Mk VI!☺) I hope the weather stays dry over the Christmas period.

This illustration reminded me that in the mid 90s I was once that close to buying an old Bentley. I'd spotted a 1950 Bentley Mk VI (similar to this: right) sitting in the corner of a country garage and it appeared - to me at least - to be in immaculate condition. I made the mistake of sitting in it - a move with only one possible outcome (on a par with going to look at puppies!). The car spoke to me through its leather seats, Wilton carpet, solid burr walnut dashboard and door caps. Everything about it breathed quality like no car I'd ever owned previously.

The garage owner lifted the louvred bonnet (hood) to reveal the long straight six engine that wouldn't have been out of place in a Spitfire. It looked purposeful with its massive cylinder block, copper oil pipes and shiny brass fittings. He started it and after it had warmed up, he reduced the rpm to a barely audible rustle via a hand throttle mounted on the steering wheel. There was no visible rust on the car.. It had belonged to a local doctor.

I had it all worked out on the drive home - we'd drive the Bentley at weekends for pleasure at zero depreciation (at worst), and buy a used Golf (or similar) for everyday driving. Once home, I mentioned to Madame that I'd seen a car in a local garage that I thought we should look at.. so off we went. As we neared the garage, I was more specific and I started to outline the plan to her. At this point she started shaking her head.. and the shaking intensified as we neared the garage. And no - she didn't want to even get out and look at it. I realised then that I was flogging a dead horse and that some things are worth far more than an old Bentley. (sigh...!)            

15th December. I heard this song on the radio earlier. I was never a fan of Elvis but I think this song of his from 1956 has (just about) stood the test of time:
I forgot to add that the French govt will reimburse Madame to the tune of 200€ (one of my favourite tunes!) for purchasing a new electric bike. This is a measure designed to stimulate the development of electric vehicles in the Hexagon (as they love to call France here). We're squeezing in under the wire as this largesse will be discontinued as of 1st January 2018.

The bike shop man is bringing the second hand one around to the house this afternoon for me to try for a week. Should I end up buying this "pre-owned" e-bike, it won't qualify for a partial refund. Needless to say! 

13th December. Madame's electric bike arrived earlier.. so once it stops raining, we can launch her off down the road. I'm considering getting one as well. The man in the shop had a second hand one in his workshops that he was selling on behalf of a customer - it's been checked over and serviced - and it looks as good as new.

Off to Spain today for lunch with some friends - they know a Chinese restaurant there that apparently is the biz.. (I doubt that figgy pudding will be on the menu!)

Nutty aka 'Bulldozaire'
We weighed Nutty yesterday, our 6 month old cocker pup (known as "Bulldozaire" by Madame!) - and it's difficult to be accurate as he wouldn't stand still on our bathroom scales for more than a second - so I weighed myself with and without him and even then he was wriggling for England, but I'd say he's somewhere in the region of 13-14kg.. I suspect he's not fully grown yet. I think he enjoys being known as 'the destroyer of worlds' - as he's an inveterate sniffer, licker, nibbler, chewer, biter of anything he can find.. He has one or two other unsavoury habits - but as this is a family show, I'll draw a veil over those..☺

My interest in, and understanding of, modern consumer electronic products took a fatal hit a minute or two ago. I was flicking through ebay's deals and I came across this item: "Sphero Star Wars BB-9E App-Enabled Droid with Trainer Droid". (and only £150 too!) If I knew what any of it meant, I might want one too - but I doubt it! No doubt there are millions 'out there' who'd welcome the thrill ("Wow.. a BB-9E!! Thanks Santa!") of finding one of these electronic gizmos in their Christmas stocking.. but not me. I can still remember the thrill of waking up on Christmas morn to find that Santa had left an electric train set at the bottom of my bed. Ah well..

Launched in 2010NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory has been recording images of the Sun in astonishing close-up detail. The spacecraft is in Earth orbit at an altitude of some 22,000 miles (35,000 km) and presented here (below) are the highlights of 5 years-worth of solar activity - as you've never seen it before.. NASA link here. Best in full screen.
12th December. The Leningrad Cowboys.. what can I say...? This act would have been unthinkable in the good old, bad old days of the Cold War - but this shows us that they are just as capable as we are of doing something totally bonkers.. <John Wayne voice> "Put that M16 down nice and easy, Pilgrim, and set a spell..". This is a Finnish rock group!

11th December. Madame found a source for mince pies the other day.. and I'm hoping that they'll soon emerge from hiding! For me, memories of Christmasses past are often conjured up by tastes or smells that I grew up with. What are the triggers that do it for me? The smell of a roasting turkey in the late morning, the taste of a warm mince pie, a glass of sherry at midday, the rich taste of a Christmas pudding (oh yes!).. In talking about food that they've encountered on the other side of the English Channel, many French people curiously recoil in horror at the memory of jelly.. As a child, I often enjoyed it with fruit and I don't recall anyone disliking it. What's to dislike?   

Living here, I've acquired some new triggers - such as the taste of Vacherin Mont d'Or cheese.. or the smell of boudin blanc (from Montauzer in Bayonne) frying gently, and served with sauté'd apple. There are more but I'll stop there as I'm starting to drool..

8th December. I read somewhere earlier that someone called Ed Sheeran was recently awarded the MBE for services to music and charity. I've got no idea who he is - and there's something about his photograph that makes me want to keep it that way. (If that means I'm very shallow - so be it.) I remember a popular music combo in the sixties known as The Beatles being awarded the MBE. Does that mean Ed Sheeran and his music is right up there with them? <Tin hat on - awaiting incoming!>   

Caves des Pyrénées, Bayonne
Just back from a flying visit into town to buy a nice bottle of wine for some friends for tomorrow lunchtime - and also one for us for Christmas at an excellent little shop - Caves des Pyrénées - in Bayonne.

In talking to Mme Rabillon, the charming owner, we somehow drifted off onto the subject of whisky - and she scurried off into the back of the shop and came back with a miniature of "Bastille" malt whisky (no prizes for guessing where that's made!) that she insisted on giving to me for me to try.. Now, the question du jour - where else would that happen? Answers on a postcard please.. Highly recommended. (the shop, that is..)

Well, I've just interviewed the miniature of "Bastille" Single Malt. There was an initial hint of Islay malts with it (presumably the French company bought some old Scottish fishermen's socks and steeped them in the mash) but after that faded away, there was nothing left. No honeyed heathery tastes, no complexity, no length - just an anonymous watery finish. Don't just take my word for it - read this review (it's far more circumspect than mine but it essentially says the same thing). 

I don't like having to write this - given that Mme Rabillon was kind enough to offer it to me - but I have to say I won't be rushing out to buy a bottle - especially not at 60+€ a bottle. This is 12 year old Balvenie money - except the Balvenie would bring with it the added bonus of 20€ change! (enough for the down payment on a second one!) For 60€, I'd want to be looking at a litre of Highland Park from Orkney. Now that's a real Single Malt..

(By the way, Balvenie and/or Highland Park would make an ideal Christmas present. Just saying!) 

We were at the e-bike shop this morning - looking at one for Madame. While we were there, a gentleman pulled into the large forecourt in a large black car with a slippery-looking shape that I'd not seen anywhere before. It was a Tesla Modèle X (it's marketed as a Model X in the UK) and it's a 4x4 SUV. The driver pressed a button to open the rear passenger doors and - whoosh! - they disappeared skywards in a manner reminiscent of the legendary Mercedes 300SL "Gullwing". After showing us a few other features of this technological tour-de-force (such as adjustable ride height and the engine compartment), he got back in and in a startling demonstration of acceleration, he shot across the forecourt in almost total mechanical silence (the only sound came from the tyres). I almost jumped at how fast it was.. Spooky!

My concern with 100% electric cars has always been based on range - and the time taken to recharge the batteries. His answers: 560 km or 350 miles and 20 minutes! ("What Car" review here; road test in English here and en français ici)        

7th December. France is in mourning following the death of Johnny Hallyday, who died yesterday aged 74. He was a true showbiz phenomenon and he bestrode popular music in France for over 50 years - while at the same time remaining true to himself and his roots. A simple man from humble origins - he'd been abandoned as a baby - and yet he had succeeded in life beyond his wildest expectations. He'd learnt his trade coming up the hard way - for him there was no shortcut to instant stardom, like winning a TV talent show for example. He understood stagecraft like few others before or since. I remember watching his performance (below) from 2003 when he was a mere youngster of 60. Ever the showman, he made a spectacularly dramatic entrance looking like nothing less than a latter day Darth Vader - and he had the crowd eating out of his hand before he even sang a note. He never put less than 100% into his act and his followers came from all ages and backgrounds.. he had a universal appeal in France.

Of course, France being France, the politicised media chatterati were quick to point out that he was a man of the political right (as if that was of any significance!). In fact, one journalist said that "Johnny didn't hide the fact that he supported the political Right".. Why should he have done?

Anyway, moving right along, enjoy this video as Johnny gives "Que je t'aime" - one of his best songs - the full "treatment"! (English lyrics here..) I only have one question - where does he keep his house keys in that suit?! (to go straight to the song, fast forward to 4:05)
Here's an unlikely fact you can drop into conversation if it all goes quiet in the snug over Christmas.. Did you know that the parents of Johnny Hallyday's lead guitarist - Robin - were John Le Mesurier and Hattie Jacques..? (where's Michael Caine when you need him!)

3rd December. There was frost all over the car this morning for the first time as we took Nutty down to the beach for his Sunday run.. The alerts were chiming in the car: 2°C! And when we got down to the sea front, there were about half a dozen surfers out there. It was probably warmer in the water than out of it though. The air was crisp, the skies were blue and the grass was white with frost. Fortunately there was no wind. 

The winner was Roxane! (Me? Last night I thought Maxime should have won.. but having listened to Roxane again today with her voice like crystal, I think the judges got it right.) 

Friday, 3 November 2017

249. Micheline Dumon Ugeux - "Michou"

30th November. This slideshow of the Pays Basque in November is too good not to share.. Ascain was the village we used to come to every summer.
29th November. You're probably more familiar with Thelonious Monk's performance of his "Round Midnight" (that's since become a jazz standard) - but in case this breathy interpretation of it by Chet Baker's trumpet passed you by - have a listen. It gets my vote. See what you think:
28th November. A friend in the US has just sent me this picture of her lakeside cabin up in Maine.. It defines idyllic to me!

25th November. Back home after a few days away in and around Uzès (in the Gard) for the funeral of Micheline Dumon Ugeux (aka "Michou" or "Lily"), a genuine heroine of the Comet Line evasion network during WWII. She died on 16th November aged 96. She was awarded the George Medal (below) for her work in helping 250 shot-down Allied airmen return safely to England from occupied France.

We had the honour and privilege of meeting her three years ago and we spent a few happy hours together over lunch at her favourite restaurant in a village near her home. Every now and again, in talking of those dark days, her eyes would flash and show again that she still had that determination and strength of character that helped her to accomplish so much and to survive the war.

The beautiful old village church was packed for the funeral and her coffin was decorated with a Belgian flag, the Comet standard and a cushion with all her medals. A great lady from that greatest of all generations. RIP "Michou" †.

I made this short video-montage of some of the Comet Line's key figures a few years ago and "Michou" appears in it twice. (More on the Comet Line here)
19th November. You'll have to talk among yourselves for a few days - I'll be away at a funeral in Provence.

18th November. Stop press: Just spotted the result from north of Hadrian's Wall - Scotland 17 New Zealand 22. Now that would have been a sweet win if the Jocks could have managed it..

Rugby can be cruel sometimes, and occasionally fortune favours one side at the expense of another. The England-Australia match today was one of those days when the tide of victory was decided by the finest of margins in favour of England and by the finest of margins against the Wallabies. On another day, the green and golds should have won and Michael Hooper, the Wallabies tireless captain, would have deservedly been named Man of the Match. We've all had those days when the decisions unaccountably have gone against your team and it's hard to take. It could so easily have been a 13-13 draw or a win.. instead of an improbable 30-6 home win. C'est comme ça..  
On the day when Scotland face New Zealand at rugby at Murrayfield, I think a quote attributed to the Duke of Wellington is appropriate:

"I don't know what effect these men will have on the enemy, but by God, they terrify me." - especially when accompanied by this. Good luck lads!

Bidart is a small village that lies midway between Biarritz and Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Here's a dreamy sequence from TVPI that shows the end of the day as seen from there:
I came across an excellent think-piece by Prof Sir Roger Scruton in yesterday's Times about the motivation that drove a majority of the voters in last year's referendum on the UK's membership of the EU to vote Leave.

He argued that "for many ordinary citizens, however, the question was not about economics at all. It was about identity and sovereignty. For such people, matters were at stake that the politicians had systematically marginalised, and which were more important to them than all the economic and geopolitical arguments. Their question was not: what will make us better off, but rather: who are we, where are we, what holds us together in a shared political order and on whom have we conferred the right to govern us? It is not only the British who are faced with these questions: they are the political questions of our time, and all across Europe people are beginning to ask them. Moreover, they are not questions that can be settled by economic arguments, since they must be answered before any such arguments make sense."

He included this (slightly) tongue-in-cheek gem:

"The philosopher Leszek Kolakowski summarised the difference among legal cultures as follows: in Britain everything is permitted unless it is forbidden; in Germany everything is forbidden unless it is permitted; in France everything is permitted, even if it is forbidden; and in Russia everything is forbidden, even if it is permitted. Kolakowski exaggerates, of course; but the differences here are real, and part of what has made our membership of the EU so challenging to successive British governments. Law, for us, is common law, the property of the individual and our protection against anybody who tries to boss us about, including representatives of our government."

Read the entire article here. It's 5 pages but well worth reading..

I suggested to Madame a couple of days ago that the fundamental difference between the UK and France is the concept of trust vs the lack of it. She reminded me that as France is essentially a revolutionary country, the French State views its citizens as untrustworthy - therefore they must always carry ID and if driving, the vehicle registration document and driving licence (it's an offence not to). Plus, as my recent encounter with the Civil Service demonstrated in connection with my request for French nationality, they required enough documentation to sink a small-to-medium size ship to support what should have been a fairly routine request. It is recommended that all important papers are kept in box files for 10 years. It is a common sight on French TV news to see a complainant sitting at their dining table with a box file and years-worth of papers in front of them. Ready for a surprise? Here's how long documents should be kept.

In the UK, there's a presumption that all are innocent until proven guilty - hence no need to routinely carry ID, or a wodge of papers when driving. If stopped by the police and you are invited to produce your driving documents at a police station, you have 5 days in which to comply. For many years, there was no driver photo on a UK driving licence (I think the latest ones do now). The police were normally unarmed as well.. but I think this has changed in recent years for some, not all, police. People are (or were when I left!) generally law-abiding - whereas here, some consider that their needs take priority over everyone else's and so you see people parking in the strangest of places, or driving the wrong way in a one way street - because it suits them.

I can't remember where I heard this but it made me laugh at the time. If ever there was a revolution in England and you were in a howling mob that was told to 'take' a railway station, we'd all buy platform tickets.. And if someone bumps into us, we say "Sorry..". It's the way we are.

15th November. One of the few players in an England shirt who was able to lift the spirits on an otherwise dank November afternoon over the weekend at Twickenham was Bath's Sam Underhill. He tore into the Pumas with a great display of powerful tackling. As the Guardian put it: "Underhill has the upper body of a cartoon superhero, with arms that seem to dangle at acute angles because his oversized muscles push them out away from his frame. His shoulders seem ideally suited for slinging things over: sacks, logs, hostages from pillaged villages, Argentinian runners."

Watch him (in the 7 shirt) in action here:
12th November. I came across this site earlier - and it shows the wide range of activities on offer here on the Côte basque. Prior to our move here, we wanted to reassure ourselves that the coastal region didn't close its doors and put up its shutters in winter as is the case in some other resort areas. We'd only visited in the summer months (and once at Easter), and so one December, we came down here for the express purpose of seeing if the Basque coast was still alive and well in the 'Low' season.. We needn't have worried!

Down to the beach this morning with the dog under grey skies, low stratus clouds scudding through bringing more or less constant flurries of rain. The sea was right up and roaring constantly. I doubt if we stayed there much longer that 10-15 minutes - Nutty was quite happy to scuttle back to the warmth of the car! There were just a few joggers - otherwise it was deserted. Hard to imagine Christmas is only 6 weeks away.

The sight of people walking where they shouldn't is an all-too-common one these days. The landward end of this jetty is always fenced off in rough weather as occasionally a wave will break right over it. And, of course, there are always those who feel they must walk out on the jetty - thus proving something or other.

I attended a local Remembrance ceremony yesterday.. and I must say that there are more and more attendees with every year that passes. I was asked to lay a wreath on behalf of the association I work with. It's always a very moving occasion there - we had a choir and a couple of local bands - plus all the civic dignitaries and the colourful standards. There's something about the dry rattle of the drums and the clarion call of the trumpets of the "Marseillaise" that never fails to send a shiver through me.

11th November. It's the first weekend of the rugby Autumn Internationals this afternoon.. and if you feel a few earth tremors in the next few hours, you now know why! Italy play Fiji, Scotland meet Samoa, England collide with Argentina, Wales are due for a spanking by Australia, Ireland will be striking sparks off South Africa and in the evening game, France will be looking to restrict New Zealand to less than a 30 point lead. (Good luck with that!)

10th November. This great Neil Diamond song came out of "The Jazz Singer" - and in my view, it's one of the very best ballads - and I almost wrote "to be recorded in recent years" here - but I was surprised to learn that it was recorded back in 1980.. Ouch! (link to the film here)
Extra points if you spotted a few well-known faces in this video (on the eastern side of the Atlantic anyway): British actor James Booth on the right in the control room (he played Private Hook in "Zulu"); then Lucie Arnaz (daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz); and another British actor Paul Nicholas in the red shirt.

8th November. Madame has been spoiling me today for reasons that we don't need to go into.. For lunch, she made confit de canard with pommes de terre sarladaises.. (sliced potatoes fried in goose fat until crispy golden brown, with garlic and parsley..) You'll find a recipe in English for the potatoes here - but don't forget to sprinkle some coarse sea salt on them at the end. This has to be one of the tastiest recipes known to Mankind. If you've not come across this great dish before, then if you do nothing else, try it..! It couldn't be easier to make - and you'll thank me for it. (video here)

We eased it down with some Saint-Pourçain Cuvée du Bourg rouge.. (right) This is a little known red that is our current favourite and it's far better than it has any right to be. You should be able to find it in your local Carrefour (if in France) or, if not, ask your local wine merchant if he can find a bottle or two for you. (or Google) The white is also good.. and is akin to Sancerre. Both the red and the white are highly recommended. (Notes on Saint-Pourçain here)

Warning: High risk of drooling when watching this video! She omits the garlic.. Personally, I'd include it!
One last thing (and then we'll get back to the Pays Basque!): if you were to ask me who was the greatest racing driver of all time, there would only be one possible contender.. Juan Manuel Fangio - the absolute master of car control.. his four wheel drift technique can be seen here: 

5th November. I've followed motor racing all my life and in my view, the sport has gone down a blind alley in recent years. Races are now won and lost in the pits instead of out on the track, and we have such 'fascinating' technical developments such as DRS (yawn) and complex energy recovery systems  (ERS)(an even bigger yawn); plus safety cars & virtual safety cars; I've lost count of the different tyre types we now have but their useful life is measured in tens of miles, not forgetting the frangible carbon fibre aerodynamic winglets that are guaranteed to "frange" (sic) during the first corner jostling. I also think that the dignity and inherent beauty of the sport has been fatally compromised by the rampant commercialism (drivers and cars all decked out in advertising trivia) that now dominates and, to cap it all, the cars all sound as though they're powered by outboard motors. And I shudder to think how many pages are in the Formula One rule book. This is no Golden Age.

My recommendation for what it's worth: return to non-turbo, non-hybrid engines (think Cosworth V8 of at least 2½ litres) and forget about F1 tipping its hat to political correctness.. How can we pretend that an F1 car is saving energy when its tyres couldn't survive a drive from London to Brighton..? This is Ecclestone's legacy. Time to move on. Back to pure racing.. with tyres that can last a race.. no DRS.. no ERS.. no radios.. a minimum of aerodynamics (no winglets, wings or diffusers: what read-across to road cars is there? Nil..) Let the drivers drive. Gentlemen.. Start your engines!

The Thirties were the Golden Age as far as I'm concerned - plus the decade that followed WWII. I put this short video together of some of the most unforgettable sights and sounds that motor racing has ever witnessed.. (To watch a documentary on Grand Prix racing in the Thirties, click on here and here) Ride with Hermann Lang in 1962 as he powers the 1937 race-winning W125 car with its supercharged straight eight 5.6 litre engine around the old Nürburgring circuit. W125 cars occupied the top four places in the championship by the end of the 1937 season.

Listen to the haunting wail of that V16 BRM as the supercharger kicks in at 3:00..      
That 3lbs of warm tofu between our ears works in strange ways doesn't it? While I was out earlier with the pup enjoying a very windy & bracing (almost wintry) walk along the coastal path at Anglet, something or other triggered a dusty memory of this warning in 4 languages I once saw above the window in my train compartment on a 4 day trans-European rail journey in the '60s. I spent much of that time reflecting on it!

It's a microcosm of Europe isn't it? In Italian, it sounds like a warning from an Italian lover (please not to come here after 7pm!) or, at the very least, a rustic pasta dish. The French version should be breathed in one's ear, preferably by a woman resembling Françoise Hardy in her youth, all legs and cheekbones (steady on!) - whereas the German version needs only the sound of a snarling Doberman Pinscher in the background.. The English warning is the only one that's devoid of any linguistic magic capable of occupying a young man's imagination for 4 days! I've been waiting for 50+ years to retrieve one of these phrases from my memory and drop it into conversation with a flourish - but, sadly, the occasion has never arisen.
In Googling for the warning sign, I found one of those old metal destination plaques they used to hang on the sides of the European railway carriages showing the routing. My trip took me to all the destinations shown above before I continued on to Sarajevo, Skopje, Thessalonika and Athens. When/if asked what I'd like for Christmas or a birthday, I usually have no idea.. However, one of these would be a great reminder of that trip. I'll have to start looking. 

3rd November. Don't tell me you don't learn anything here..! Who knows what a SJW is? This is probably old hat to Guardianistas and NYT readers.. but for those of you who aren't, it means Social Justice Warrior. (Yes, it doesn't mean much to me either) Apparently its first use in a negative context dates back to 2011. (only 6 years behind the times!)

I once wrote a blog post about how it's a common sight to see people walking home here with a fresh crispy baguette, still warm from the oven, and being unable to resist having a not-so-surreptitious nibble of the pointy end. And I said that a small fortune awaits the person who can work out how to make just baguette ends. I've been seeing this baguette (above) lately - it's known as a campaillette sarmentine - or, more simply at the bakers I use, une baguette herriko (this sounds like a local variation). A quick flash of the knife before it goes into the oven and - bingo - you finish up with 4 crispily delicious baguette ends instead of the usual two. Cunning devils!

I've had a reply concerning my request for French nationality that I mailed recently. (I'm seeking dual nationality - I'm not abandoning Ye Olde Englande!) I'm relieved to hear that they have all the documentation they require and now I'm waiting for the police to contact me sometime in the near future to check that I've not been engaged in criminal activities since we arrived here ten years ago (apart from a slack handful of speeding tickets). Once they're satisfied, we then have to go up to the Prefecture in Bordeaux for meetings with various people to demonstrate that I can eat a tripe sandwich as a starter, followed by a great steaming plateful of Tête de veau, garnished with a few slices of Andouillette!! Only joking! And assuming my application is favourably received, the whole package then gets sent up to Paris for the approval of the Ministère de l'Intérieur (equiv to Home Secretary in the UK). And if he approves it, I think that will be the day that we'll have a good reason to revisit La Tupina!

Seeing as it's autumn, here's a great song that's made for the occasion - and instead of Yves Montand, here's Jean-Claude Pascal's interpretation:

Friday, 6 October 2017

248. The pup!

30th October. The bay of Saint-Jean-de-Luz has never looked as beautiful as it does in this short video. It's not hard to imagine why we still pinch ourselves each time we waddle from the car to the sea front and let our eyes rest on this ravishingly beautiful bay. After a seafoody lunch at our old favourite ("Chez Pantxua"), we often take a walk around the small harbour at Socoa and on out to the end of the protective sea wall that saves Saint-Jean-de-Luz from the worst poundings of winter storms. Hard to believe when looking at these tranquil views that they exist - but they do. (take a look here. To give an idea of scale, there's a standard sized doorway in the small building at the end of the sea wall .. it appears at 0:18)

25th October. Readers with long memories may recall that in the intervals that remain unused between dog walking, lawn mowing, vacuuming, etc etc (hope I'm not sounding hard done by!), that I'm trying to learn the 5 string banjo. This cartoon of Gary Larson caught my eye:

The choir I sing with is going to be kept busy during the winter months learning this sublime piece (Cantique de Jean Racine, Op 11) by Gabriel Fauré, written when he was just 19 years old. I think it approaches perfection and I'm looking forward to the next few months.
Is it me? Over the past year or so, I've noticed that a couple of words started to appear constantly in general written usage and now it's hardly possible to read a newspaper (such as "TimeOut") or an article on the internet without running into them - and I haven't a clue what they mean.  I refer of course to "meme" and "trope". Am I the only one who had to look up the meaning in the dictionary? I won't bore you with the details.

A few years ago, "avatar", "iconic" and "eponymous" were used to death. And then there's "narrative". When I was at school, a narrative was an account of something that had happened. It's now been adopted full-time by the BBC chatterati and, well, I'll leave it there.     

24th October. Here's a tale of real life in France for you. On Saturday evening about 7.45pm, Madame went into the kitchen to prepare dinner and turned on one of the gas rings on the hob. In doing so, the piezoelectric igniter stuck and kept firing about once every 2 seconds. I tried some 'percussion adjustment' to no avail so I thought I'd switch off all the electrics via the master on/off switch to see if that would reset the hob. When I tried to switch the master power switch back on, the big press button was stuck in the 'Off' position and wouldn't budge. After we'd lit half a dozen candles, Madame remembered that there's an emergency phone number printed on the EDF bill - and so she made the call. To my astonishment, she was told that an emergency electrician would be at our house within the hour. 

Fifteen minutes later (!), there was a knock at the front door. The EDF man came in, took one look at our switchboard, tried to turn the power back on - couldn't - so he fitted a new master on/off unit and 15 minutes later he was all done. He told us that the intermittent switch action blockage was a known fault with that particular model of switch unit. For a fast, efficient service I don't see how this could have been bettered, especially on a Saturday night. What's more, it was free.. No call out charge, no charge for a new box, nothing. As he was a nice friendly guy, and he'd done a good job, and it was a Saturday night, I gave him a bottle of wine to enjoy when he was off duty.  

23rd October. Over the mountains into Spain this afternoon for some shopping.. the hills were ablaze in their autumnal colours - the fern-covered slopes are now a burnt caramel, and due to the altitude, autumn is more advanced up in the hills than down here at sea level with tree foliage dazzling in coppery hues before the onset of winter. The sharply sloped hills looked spectacular this afternoon under a burning blue sky. I made a mental note to visit the valley of les Aldudes (below) in the very near future - with my camera!   

21st October. "Young Frankenstein" (1974) was always a favourite Mel Brooks film of mine - lots of old jokes get dusted off in this great parody of Ye Olde Hollywoode Spinechillers - with an excellent cast: Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman & Madeline Kahn. Sadly, all four of them are no longer with us.

I had a pleasant surprise earlier when the post came - I received a welcome cheque from HM Revenue & Customs for several hundred of Her Majesty's Olde English pounds (and how often do you write that?!) To find out more, read this. To apply for this largesse, start here.

I've forgotten to mention a project that is affecting many of us in and around Bayonne - the start of the public works necessary to create the new Tram'bus service. This 130m€ project will connect Tarnos (north of the Adour) with Bayonne, Anglet and Biarritz. Tarnos is something of a dormitory town for many who work in Bayonne, Anglet or Biarritz. (Description of the routes here)

Those of us with long memories may remember the trolley buses of the 1950s - with their tangled networks of overhead wires. The vehicles of this Tram'bus service will be battery powered - with charging points at each end of the line - thus minimising the infrastructure requirement. 

Land is being developed (code for houses being flattened) in many places on the Côte Basque to make way for multi-occupancy apartment blocks, thus increasing the traffic density. The idea behind this tram'bus initiative is that it should ease some of the congestion on the roads that we see at peak times. This project coincides with another work in progress - the renovation of the Pont Saint-Esprit that spans the Adour.  There is a similar tidal flow of traffic between the main coastal towns Biarritz, Anglet & Bayonne) and the inland villages. A tram'bus park and ride scheme would do much to ease the traffic congestion at peak hours.  

Fronton, Ascain
One of the aspects I enjoy very much about living in this region is the proximity of the hills. We don't have to drive very far before we find ourselves on single track roads that wind up and up into the high country that few tourists get to see. I once read that 95% of the tourists to the region don't venture more than 10km inland. We were no different when we first came down here in the early 90s. We were seduced by the charm of the white painted Basque villages, each set around its church and the fronton (right). It wasn't long though before we found ourselves exploring deeper into the surrounding hills and valleys - and it was here that we found the real Basque country - not the coastal strip with all its hustle and bustle. In attempting to discover the routes used by wartime evaders fleeing occupied France during WWII, I've become familiar with some of the terrain shown in this video.. and have the scars to prove it!

20th October. Well, I've gone and done it.! I've just launched into the French postal system another large wodge of documentation (proformas, original documents, sworn translations of documents and photographs) in further support of my request for French nationality. (I needed to add some documents to the previous collection I sent the authorities at the end of August) However, before you think that the old boy has lost the plot, I should say that I'm only doing it as a way of ensuring I can remain here in the event that the ongoing negotiations with the European Union turn pear-shaped - or more pear-shaped than they already are.

I use the word 'negotiations' but, in my view, an unsubstantiated demand for an unspecified number of billions (believed to be in the region of 60-100bn euros) just to enable the negotiations to proceed to the trade talks - with no guarantee of a successful outcome - appears to me to have originated in dreamland. Personally, I think the UK team should politely decline this generous offer and walk away from the table, spending the money instead on the infrastructure changes required for the UK to conduct global trade under WTO terms.

I voted Leave in the EU referendum (despite being in receipt of pensions paid in £ sterling and hence at the mercy of the exchange rate) out of my concern that the UK had allowed itself to become enmeshed in an undemocratic political construct that has, as its aim, 'ever-closer union'. This non-specific phrase means everything and nothing. It permits present and future EU politicians enormous freedom of action and if our EU membership continued, we would be committed to following their policies. I say 'following' because even though we are a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a nuclear power, a pillar of NATO, a member of the G7 (or is it the G8 now?) and one of the few net contributors to the EU budget, we have little (as in zero) influence on the direction that the EU is heading. It's a Franco-German stitch-up.

For example, one of the developments in Europe that greatly concerns me is that there is now a concerted effort to form a European Army. How could any self-respecting UK government allow its forces to be put in harm's way at the behest of unelected EU civilians? It's also clear that the long term aim of the EU nomenclatura is to turn the EU into the United States of Europe. This lofty ambition conveniently ignores the fact that the United States of America was, and still is, founded on democratic principles - and that the separation of powers is fundamental to the functioning of the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. The EU is continuing down a path for which it has no mandate - which is unsurprising because legislation originates in the faceless unelected ranks of the EU Commission where the politically motivated few are changing our lives by stealth and by underhand means.     

Back to my application for French nationality - nowadays, the requirement for a language test has been waived for applicants of my advanced years (think the waiver kicks in at the age of 60) so that's one hurdle I don't need to cross. All I have to do now is to hurry up and wait.

I'll continue to hold UK nationality but if my request for French nationality is granted, I'll be able to vote here and it may serve to help me remain here in the aftermath of the Brexit negotiations. (maybe!)

19th October. This is one of those songs that I've slowly became aware of.. (only 23 years after it was released!)
18th October. I've been listening to this Basque choir - and there's something in the distinctive timbre of their voices that puts me in mind of a Welsh male voice choir:
Years ago, I discovered the books of Garrison Keillor, an American author and humourist, who grew up in Minnesota. He had a regular slot on American national public radio for many years where he read the "News from Lake Wobegon" - a fictional lakeside community in rural Minnesota peopled with characters that quickly established themselves.. His gentle humour is very listenable to - and as each of his characters and locations take shape in your imagination, it becomes harder and harder to believe that they're all fictional. Take a load off, sit back and enjoy Lake Wobegon:
If you enjoyed your first visit to Lake Wobegon, listen to more news from Lake Wobegon here

In doing a small DIY job yesterday, I was reminded forcibly of the immutable Laws of Home DIY. I thought I'd update the list and bring them all together:

1. There’s no such thing as a simple job.
2. If it isn’t broken, fix it until it is.
3. If the screw isn’t going in, use a bigger hammer.
4. The drill bit you want is the one that’s missing from the box.
5. Never be tempted to change the drill bit in your electric drill with the power on. (I'll tell you the story one day!)
6. Measure twice. Cut once. (This rule can be applied to many areas in Life)
7. The best tool is a mug of coffee. Look at the job often - thinking time is never wasted.
Three from Lesley:
8. Anything thrown away will be required within the week. (So true!)
9. If you drop an Allen key, nut, bolt or screw it will always end up in the most inaccessible place.
10. As soon as you get your hands greasy you will need to scratch your nose or use the lavatory.
11. If you are in desperate need of one item to finish a job, the shops will be closed.
12. When the shop is finally open, the single item you want comes in a pack of six.
13. If it's your lucky day, and the shop sells the item you need in a single pack, they will have it in two sizes: too large and too small.
14. You've been saving something for 20 years knowing that one day you'll need it. When that day finally arrives, you can't remember where you left it. (happened to me yesterday!)
15. Never start a job on a Sunday afternoon.
16. You'll never find the thing you need until the day you don't need it.
17. Someone will have used the last bandage/band aid the day before you do involuntary finger surgery.
18. The only known supplier of the part you need closed down last weekend.
19. The most useless tool in your tool box is the wrong size Allen Key!
20. Superglue is a must for many DIY tasks - it is guaranteed to rapidly and permanently stick objects to things other than that intended.
21. Despite tidying up after a job and putting everything back in place on the right hook, in the right box, on the right shelf - things disappear.
22. If you have to remove twelve rusty nuts/screws/nails that have been untouched since the Spanish Civil War, eleven of them will unscrew/come out easily.
23. You have a couple of partitioned boxes neatly filled with every type and size of nail, screw and bolt known to mankind - except for the one you want.
24. You discover that the new lamp that you bought just before closing time on Saturday afternoon doesn't come with a light bulb (and this fact isn't mentioned on the box it came in). You then discover that it will only accept a new type of bulb - and none of your spares will fit.

We have a table on the terrace that stays outside all the year around. In winter, it's covered up to keep the rains off it. The top is made up of countless small tiles, all held in place by exterior grade mortar (right word?). We noticed that in one area the mortar had disappeared and a few tiles were loose. I used a powerful adhesive to glue the loose tiles back in place and then I set off to the big DIY shop a few minutes away to find a small pack of exterior grade grouting/mortar (you can hear what's coming can't you!). Imagine my surprise when after staring desperately at the shelves full of products that solved problems similar to, but not quite the same as, mine - the only one in stock that ticked all the boxes was of course big enough to grout half of Trafalgar Square! There was nothing for it but to buy the thing..

It was a spin-off of Portland cement and it absorbed a surprisingly large quantity of water in a container before it achieved the right consistency. I then spread it over the problem tiles, smoothed it into place with one of Madame's rubber kitchen spatulas (she was out!). I washed it thoroughly afterwards and somehow forgot to mention it to her when she came home.. One of my better DIY jobs. 

15th October. Down to the green behind the beach (Plage des Cavaliers, Anglet) this morning with the pup - and as there were no other dogs in sight, I decided the time was ripe to unclip him from his lead for the first time. Always a nerve-racking moment but I needn't have worried - he'd wander off a little to investigate a rogue leaf or similar before racing back to me. There was the continuous roar of a big sea running so we walked up to the coastal path to take a look. 

It all appeared to be moving in slow motion - blue rollers would rise up and up and just as they broke, the strong southerly wind would tear the crests off them which spun away in a dazzle of silver'd spray. It was what used to be known as a Kodak moment! Forecast is for 29° today so we're meeting a friend for lunch out at Arcangues.   

Here's an interesting video that shows our part of the world as it used to be:

NB. The rowing club shows up at 1:35. The former indoor market appears at 7:54. This was an outstanding example of the 'brutalist' school (I made that name up) of French architecture. They seem incapable of occupying the middle ground in the way that British architects (or perhaps their patrons) are prone to do. The Sainsbury Wing (right) of the National Gallery, London is a bland pastiche of classical styles (beloved of Prince Charles!) designed to blend in.. anonymously. 

Here, in France, patrons seem willing to take risks with new buildings.. and the results can shock. The former indoor market at Bayonne fell into that category in my uneducated view. Equally however, they are capable of rising to the challenge and producing something sublime - such as the Louvre Pyramid (above).   

La Concha, San Sebastian
13th October. Madame had some positive health news this morning - so to give her a welcome change of scenery we decided to go to San Sebastian.. It was a balmy 28° and it seemed like all of Spain was out there, taking the air. Afterwards, I just had to google this to find out what was going on - and yes, yesterday - 12th October - was Spain's national holiday - Hispanic Day. It seems that many people had taken today off as well as the town's pavements (sidewalks) were thronged with people. I lost count of how many times passers-by stopped us to look at the pup - he really had the ladies of San Sebastian going! The beach was getting crowded too with sun worshippers while flotillas of stand-up paddlers were wobbling gingerly across the bay.

We talked ourselves into having a light lunch at Kata4 - a stylish oyster bar/restaurant around the corner from the Hotel Maria Cristina and ideally situated for people watching. We'd been here before and liked it very much. Our friendly multilingual waitress spoke Spanish, French and English.. and I suspect she had a few more up her sleeve. The menu changes often - have a look at the photos. I also put a couple of pins on the map in the left hand column for Kata4 and another favourite - a cider house/restaurant outside town called Petritegi (left).

12th October. I was out with the pup earlier and I took him to his usual watering hole - a tree-lined park just a few minutes away. Today, it was clear that Autumn was coming - the trees were showing a spread of colours centred around russet and, to punctuate the message, there was the occasional sound of acorns hitting the ground as they fell down from on high. I've set the kindling in our wood-burner in advance so that it's ready for that first evening when a fire is called for. We had a few trees taken down in the garden a couple of years ago and the logs have been stacked at the side of the house ever since to thoroughly dry them out before they get burnt. I think we're all set!

Yesterday saw us hit one of those once-in-a-lifetime anniversaries - it was 50 years ago to the day when I met my inamorata. Fifty years..? How could that be possible - but yet, it's true. For this date, we'd always talked about a trip to Paris and dinner at the legendary Tour d'Argent. This wonderfully situated restaurant has been on our 'to do' list for as long as I can remember - but the arrival of Nutty has meant that that particular ambition has had to be put on hold.

La Plancha
So, time for Plan B.. We decided to have lunch at the relaxed, unpretentious and friendly La Plancha, a seafood restaurant at Bidart. (to orientate yourself, look here) There's a terrace overlooking the beach and the sea and, for those cooler days, there are tables inside as well. If this restaurant was any nearer the sea, you'd have wet feet! After all the recent unsettled weather we enjoyed a perfect sunny cloudless day (with temps up in the mid twenties) sitting out on their terrace overlooking the almost deserted beach, although it did start to fill up later on. We started off with an Assiette Hispanique - which was a generous serving of thinly sliced jambon de Bayonne, chorizo, lomo and saucisson accompanied by some green chillies. This was followed by a rich, garlicky Zarzuela (a Catalan interpretation of Marseille's bouillabaisse that looked something like this). Suffice to say, it was just what we needed to celebrate the day. Here (below) is my photo from yesterday - apologies for the tilt! I can't find a menu online so step through these photos to get an idea of what else is on offer. Reviews here.
View from 'La Plancha'

6th October. Nutty, our new cocker spaniel pup, is growing while-U-watch! Here he is in the garden earlier this afternoon pondering the meaning of life (or maybe not), and taking a well-earned break from something or other - excavating for Britain, eating shrubs, racing around like a mad thing, jumping down the steps three at a time.. He now weighs in at a tad under 10kgs.. (he was 6.2 when we got him) 

1st October. A couple of days ago, I took Madame to look at electric bikes and she took a couple out for a spin. Just as I was a few months ago, she was delighted with the experience - she particularly liked the Kalkhoff Voyager Mover B8 (a name that trips off the tongue!) for its sit-up-and-beg riding position. Once the dust has settled, we might well go for one of these.

This morning I took GodzillaPup down to the beach for a leg stretch - the weather was dismal - constant drizzle under low stratus that was almost down to the deck. Looking at the sea, it was still very busy with breakers of around 3m or so - but the whole scene looked like 50 Shades of Grey.. with just a hint of pale green in the waves as they broke. It wasn't a morning for walking and the pup was glad (and so was I) when we turned around and headed back to the car.

We (I) came home to rabbit with prunes in a red wine sauce.. with a potato and celeriac mash. To help this go south, we opened a bottle of Saint-Pourçain red* (now stocked at our local Carrefour). I was riding very low in the water after this - but then Madame brought out some pears that had been braised in red wine. The challenge for me now is to stay awake for the rest of the afternoon!

*This is well worth searching out.