Thursday, 1 November 2018

261. Autumn marches on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* they seem completely unconcerned by the process.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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