Wednesday, 4 December 2019

274. December again..!

31st December (aka Saint-Sylvestre here). I just noticed that France play England in Paris on 2nd February in the first weekend of the 2020 6 Nations rugby tournament. Not long to wait then this year!

Here we are again - as the closing hours of 2019 tick away. For many, it's an occasion for letting rip one last time before the New Year presents itself with bills to be paid (or to be tucked behind the clock on the mantelpiece!).

We're off out this evening - to Restaurant Larralde, Ascain - as they've put together an interesting-looking menu for this evening. This means that I'll have to limit myself to a couple of glasses of wine during the course of the evening - but this is honestly no longer the hardship that it might once have been a few years ago. I'll be quite happy with a glass of Jurançon doux (the wines of Domaine Cauhapé are a current favourite) and one of velvety Irouléguy Gorri d'Ansa (right).. We're taking a friend who would otherwise be on her own. 

For others, this time of the year is often a difficult hurdle to surmount, especially for those who have lost a loved one during the previous 12 months and before. Each New Year is a reminder of loss and it marks a further distancing from the passing of a loved one - and for those out there for whom this applies, try and seek comfort in the bosom of your friends and/or relatives. Tomorrow is a new day and life continues afresh - if not exactly as before. Remember that quote: "The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, moves on.."

I was out early this this morning to the bakers in town before Ali Baba (& friends) sweep through and hoover up everything out on display. (I remember this scene from childhood a long time ago - it starts at 9.45)

Coming back, the whitewashed Basque houses glowed yellow in the slanting rays of the early morning sun.   

30th December. It was a crisp 2°C this morning.. but at least we had cloudless blue skies.

Boudins blancs with sauté'd apple
I forgot to mention that Madame made our favourite boudin blanc aux pommes for lunch yesterday. These were the truffled boudins blancs from Montauzer in town.. but as they're a seasonal dish that appears only during the Christmas season, perhaps that's why they don't feature on the website. If you are tempted to try them, whatever you do, don't buy them from a supermarket - find a good charcutier who makes his own.

Verdict? They were absolutely de-lic-ious! (my mouth's still watering with the memory!)

29th December. This morning I took the pooch to the coast for a run and according to the car it was 3°C (37°F).. When I got down to the beach there were some quite big breakers rolling in - and here's the thing - the sea must have been warmer than the air above it as steam fog (or sea smoke) was forming and rolling off the waves in billowing clouds.. I've seen it once before here on the river Nive - but this was the first time I'd seen this phenomenon at sea.

As 2019 rumbles on towards its end, it's maybe time to review the past 12 months - or maybe not! Whenever I turn on the TV or the radio, or open a newspaper, the first thing that catches my eye are the inevitable lists of the 10/50/100 Best Whatevers (pick from Teams, Cars, Books etc etc) from the last decade, or yet another reminder of those who have shuffled off to pastures new in another world - most of these last being 'celebrities' I've never heard of!

To spare you from having to read yet another list, let's look instead at one or two highlights. The political uncertainty of the last 3½ years since the Brexit referendum had been a constant reminder to me of the potential fragility of my position here. I decided to find a solution that could mitigate any downside of Brexit from a personal perspective - and so I applied for French citizenship.

I think the single event that pleased me the most in the last 12 months came when I learned that my application for French citizenship had finally been approved. This means that my position here is now secure, regardless of what happens on the Brexit front, especially if the UK leaves the EU on WTO terms, ie, "No Deal" - as I think it will. (Here's a brief guide to WTO terms).

One of the side benefits of my being a bona fide French citizen (albeit one with dual nationality) is that I can now vote here. I duly applied at the Town Hall to be added to the registered list of voters. It's not an automatic process - for some reason, my request had to be approved by the Mayor of Bayonne. However, all's well that ends well as he did approve it - so now I can vote in elections here.

Does my newly acquired French ID card mean that I won't ever return to live in the Independent Coastal State (as the EU now likes to characterise the UK) that lies across the English Channel from Calais? I can think of few scenarios that could force me to do so - but one possible scenario might be if the value of the £ sterling vs the Euro were to plummet to a point where it became unsustainable to continue to live here.

Who was it who wrote: "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this Independent Coastal State"..? Here's the original.  In classifying the UK as an Independent Coastal State, the EU has succeeded* in removing the magic from the title of Bill Bryson's first great book!

* Only here in this blog! I did it just to emphasise the EU's sterile vocabulary and lack of imagination - remembering that it was this particular small Independent Coastal State (supported by the Commonwealth and the Dominions) that stood resolutely alone in 1940 until the United States entered the war in December 1941. The Anglosphere Allies enabled freedom and democracy to be re-established in continental Europe. I know it's unfashionable and perhaps insensitive of me to remind people of this inconvenient fact - but it does need re-stating from time to time.

If you haven't read Bill's valedictory review of the island that had been his home for some 10 years, I would urge you to do so. It's a very, very funny book indeed.

25th December. Our very best wishes to all of you out there.. I hope this is a happy time for you with family and friends - but just remember that, if they're in short supply, tomorrow's another day. (Maybe Dr Glenmorangie can make a house call!)

22nd December. Another noisy night here on the Côte Basque with strong winds and rain lashing down all night. We have a weatherproof cover on the table outside - hope it's still there! Gusts of 140km/h (85mph) with 9 metre (30ft) high waves..

20th December. On the lunchtime news today there was a report that a maximum wind speed of 207km/h (128mph) had been recorded during the night at Irati.. I went to sleep last night to the various sounds of shutters rattling, the roof creaking, wind whistling and howling around the house etc etc before falling into my usual coma! For some reason, these sounds kept Madame awake! 

The weather forecast for Saturday does not augur well for the mass release of thousands of Japanese lanterns planned for tomorrow evening - strong winds and heavy rain are forecast. Great pity as last year's event was a real triumph. Here's a video from a practice run they had on 8th December.. (we didn't attend - thinking that we'd go to the one planned for 21st instead). I suspect tomorrow's release will be cancelled or postponed.

(The singer in the above video is the legendary Luciano Pavarotti, the song is "Caruso"..)

Yesterday I attended the funeral of the mother of one of our Basque mountain guides for an association I'm involved with - she was 97. The funeral was held in the church of Saint-Etienne in the beautiful village of Espelette. While waiting outside, I was talking to an elderly Basque gentleman and he happened to mention the village of Villefranque. I told him that we'd stayed in a gîte there for five months upon our arrival in the Pays Basque in 2007. It turned out that the owner and propriétaire of the gîte - Mr D - was his brother-in-law! Small world. 

The church was packed and the service was all in Basque. As is the custom here, all the Basque hymns were sung with a gusto unknown in England - especially for those of us brought up in the Church of England tradition (I was its sole representative!). What could be better than to leave this world to the sound of these ancient songs, sung with such force and passion? It must be a great comfort to the family.

Afterwards, I was invited to join the extended family at a restaurant in the hills for the traditional post-funeral meal. The communal spirit was quite remarkable.. and it's one of the reasons I love the people here.    

18th December. This morning we drove to Peyrehorade (about 45 mins away) to meet up with a friend to look at the Christmas market.

Walking through the crowds, it was clear that we were in la France profonde heartland! As is usual with these markets, there was an optimist who was trying to sell mattresses (there's always one!). I've never understood this.. It seems that "going to the mattresses" means literally that in the Pays Basque! (maybe we've misunderstood "The Godfather" all these years!) I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that a mattress is the last thing I'm thinking of when I visit a market. (I must be missing something!)

The real reason for our trip to Peyrehorade was to pay a long-awaited visit to "Au Bon Coin aux Pieds de Cochon". This unpretentious restaurant is something of an institution in the area - it serves authentic regional food cooked in the traditional manner.

pièce du boucher
la grande dégustation..
One of the items on the à la carte menu was something called La Grande Dégustation (left). It comprised almost all of my personal nightmare dishes - all on one plate! There was tripe, a calf's head with sauce gribiche* and a pig's trotter. A portion of andouillette would have completed the nightmare for me. Like the mattress, how many people leave home thinking "I fancy tripe, a calf's head (with sauce gribiche) and a pig's trotter for lunch"! We safely avoided la grande dégustation and instead ordered a pièce du boucher - an un-named cut of beef (above) while our friend chose an omelette au cèpes.

* this was said to be one of the late President Jacques Chirac's favourite dishes.

Looking around the busy dining room while we waited, locals were tucking into prodigious quantities of food and the room resounded with many animated conversations in the unmistakable twang of the south west. I'd like to return someday and try some of the other dishes. Here's what someone else thought of it (in French).

16th December. How many more chocolate shops can a small town of 40,000 support? Two new ones have opened in Bayonne (however, there may be more that your scribe is unaware of).

Perhaps the better-placed of the two is Puyodebat (opposite Monoprix at the intersection of Rue de la Monnaie and Rue Orbe..). The shop, a former jewellers, has been re-styled and really looks ultra-chic with some spectacular-looking chocolate products.

The other new kid on the block is Chocolat Pascal that has taken over the former shop of Montauzer (at the intersection of Rue de la Salie and Rue du Pilori).

We stopped off for a hot chocolate (5*!) at Kalaka Café.. Highly recommended.
15th December. As today was sunny with blue skies, we headed off to Biarritz that dazzled us in the bright sunshine. We had a good walk along the sea front on the Grande Plage that was protected by a barrier of sandbags. Imagine a row of sturdy canvas bags full of sand, each about 4 feet x 4 x 4, all ratchet-strapped together - and you've got it. In previous years, the sea has come up onto the promenade and smashed a few windows.. This solution looks capable of withstanding most of what winter might throw at it. Unfortunately, the Bleu Café (our favourite) was closed up for winter so we found a table at Le Georges, a café in the Place Clémenceau.
14th December. Into town straight after lunch and the outside terraces of the restaurants and cafés were full of people! The temperature was 18°C.. not bad for just before Christmas..

The centre of Bayonne (particularly near the rivers) will be at risk of further flooding today if this video (filmed yesterday) is anything to go by:
 This (below) was the Nive at Bayonne this morning - at low tide - and the level is still dangerously high.. but it takes more than floodwater to stop the Basques from singing (see 1:06):
Villages further inland look set to be troubled by rising floodwaters - though not, at the time of writing, on the same scale as was seen recently in south east France:
Fortunately, we're on higher ground so zero flood risk - but, with Christmas looming, my sympathies are with those who are faced with rising waters.

13th December. Listening to Classic FM earlier, I'm sure I heard the presenter announce the next piece of music as coming from Wagner's Rinse Cycle..

Just back from town on a last-minute shopping expedition for a few odds and ends to top up Madame's Christmas stocking. As we walked back on a very blowy morning, we faced a prolonged headwind that felt like at least 80km/h (50mph) that made Nutty's long ears stand out horizontally. I was convinced that they were actually producing lift!  

Following the outcome of the UK election, at last we have a government with a substantial majority that will, after the log-jam at Westminster that's dominated politics since June 2016, enable the country to move on with the #1 issue on the agenda. There are many issues with the Withdrawal Agreement that is essentially the one that Theresa May negotiated - minus the Irish backstop - but that's all for the future. This result completely changes the political dynamic in the House of Commons and opens the door to further progress. That's all I'm going to say.

11th December. We had blue skies and sunshine at midday and we'd hoped that perhaps we'd seen the last of the squalls out of the Bay of Biscay - but earlier this evening once again we heard heavy rain lashing against the shutters and the sound of water running in the gutters. Even the dog limits his time outside to the bare minimum required!

"The World's Gone Mad" Department: German banks have now started charging retail customers for their savings. Now I'm a self-confessed financial pygmy but for the life of me I cannot understand why, given that, anyone would want to deposit money in a savings account in a German bank. There must be some hidden warning implicit in this but I haven't the economic insight to say what it could be. Will this policy trigger a rush towards gold? Has the ECB started printing money - aka quantitative easing (QE)? Here's the Bank of England's take on QE - and the ECB's guide to it. They make it all sound so benign.  

This Peter, Paul and Mary song (1969) came up on the radio earlier and it took me straight back to 1967 when Madame and I met - and before long, we were conducting a long distance relationship.

It was a bittersweet time for us as it seemed that we were forever waiting at airports or windswept railway stations to either meet each other or to say goodbye till next time. And when we were together, the time flew by.

Then there were the postal strikes and expensive international phone calls. If only we'd had email, Skype, VoIP phones*, the Eurostar train or Ryanair back then - but we didn't. This song captures that period.

* We pay about 7€/month for our VoIP phone - and that gives us unlimited phone calls throughout Europe and North America.

9th December. I've just noticed that there will be another spectacular mass release of Japanese lanterns in Bayonne on Saturday evening, 21st December (details here). We went to last year's event (here) and it was a great evening! If you are planning on coming, it's highly likely that the drifting smells from foodstands will give you an appetite. In that case, it's probably a good idea to book a table somewhere in advance for afterwards. I think the police estimated that there were 50,000 people present in 2018. Just to remind you, this was 2018:
Some wild winds during the night and looking outside now there are only a very few leaves left hanging on. I could hear the muted roar of the sea in the distance when I let Nutty out. Might just swing by the beach later on for a look.. it's always an impressive sight.

8th December. Struggling to find a Christmas present for a father/husband/son/brother/cousin? My father once gave me a copy of Eric Newby's first book - "The Last Grain Race" - and I think I wore the print off the pages by reading it so many times! I lent it to someone (forgotten who) years ago - and it was never returned. I bought a second copy a decade or two ago - and the same thing happened. I've just downloaded another copy onto my Kindle - it should be safe there.

"One hand for yourself and one hand for the ship.."
Eric was 18 years old when, in 1938, he signed on as an apprentice on "Moshulu", a Finnish 4 masted barque working the South Australian grain trade. He was the only native speaker of English on the ship - the rest were largely Scandinavian (Swedish or Finnish) - with a sprinkling of other nationalities. He has a terrific ear for dialogue and the book fizzes with laughter and acute discomfiture in equal measure. The characters he describes live on years after my first reading of the book - as well as the tensions that built up between the Captain, the Mates and the crew and how they were resolved - sometimes explosively. He's at his best when describing the sensation of being "op the rigging" and out on a spar in the middle of the night in a storm-tossed Southern Ocean:
At this height, 130 feet up, in a wind blowing 70 miles an hour, the noise was an unearthly scream. Above me was the naked topgallant yard and above that again the royal to which I presently climbed ... the high whistle of the wind through the halliards sheaf, and above all the pale blue illimitable sky, cold and serene, made me deeply afraid and conscious of my insignificance.
Eric joined the ship as a boy - and left it a man.  He appears to have been ravenously hungry, cold, wet, exhausted, and yet exhilarated all at the same time. The next meal assumed an importance for the crew that's difficult for us to comprehend today. Ironically, "Moshulu" is now a floating restaurant - moored at Philadelphia..

This short video gives some idea of what life was like on board one of these ocean-going windjammers:
I defy anyone not to enjoy this book - even if you've never sailed a boat or been higher than the top deck of the Clapham omnibus! This is one book I can recommend unreservedly. 

7th December. There's a new word in town - curated - and it's one I've been aware of reading for the past few months without it really registering on my cringe-ometer. I see the NY Times spotted it 10 years ago - a decade before it popped up on my radar. What does it mean? Simply means that objects in a collection that have been "curated" have been specially selected by 'one who knows'. In other words, it's more media tosh. You won't be reading it here.

4th December. Earlier today, I came across a curated list (aaargghh! See above..) of 30 things to love about life in France (here) - she gets most of them spot-on. See if you agree. My comments in red:

1. Café culture and people watching, it's a way of life in France.

2. Croissants: flaky, buttery, sweet and soft, the perfect start to the day.

3. Cheese: Camembert, Brie, Comté, Epoisses, Munster, Tomme - even Vieux Boulogne, officially the smelliest cheese in the world. + Brillat-Savarin & Vacherin Mont d'Or (we can argue about what it's called another day)..

4. Cakes that look like jewels and taste like heaven made by master craftsmen.

5. Eiffel Tower: meant to last for just 20 years, the 130-year-old Eiffel Tower is one of the most photographed sites in the world.

6. Wine: red, white, rosé and even yellow wine from the Jura region. There is a wine to suit all. and at affordable prices!

7. Banks where you get to speak to a real person.

8. I love that French bookshops are still going strong. Nothing wrong with buying books online but there's something reassuring about seeing books on shelves.

9. Champagne, of course.

10. Crêpes: thin, sweet and crispy or savoury galettes from Brittany, what's not to love?

11. Paris. As in point five.

12. Brocantes, vide-greniers, marchés aux puces: flea markets are a national obsession and a cultural connection for visitors.

13. Two-hour lunch breaks being normal! (not any more.. at least not in the Pays Basque. They make up for this by shops staying open until late.)

14. French language: croquer la vie à pleines dents literally means 'bite into life with all your teeth' but really it means, 'To embrace life to the fullest.'

15. Baguettes: Tucked under your arm, sticking out of a basket, nibbling the end, smothered with butter - a taste of France.

16. The French passion for heritage and deep-rooted support for the arts.

17. Christmas Eve dinner lasting until 5am. What?! That early? ☺

18. Community spirit in country villages. Yes! And in towns too.

19. Work-life balance - key to the good life in France.

20. Street markets being a way of life, ensuring local producers are supported and people can buy fresh, seasonal, local produce. Amen to that!

21. Shops that close at lunchtime and on Sundays, and are not open all night long. Used to be true - we have a supermarket here that's open from 6am - midnight. 

22. Bastille Day or le Quatorze Juillet as the French call it: fun, food and fireworks.

23. Politesse (politeness): saying bonjour when you walk into a shop, doctor's waiting room, shaking hands with everyone in the local bar. and saying goodbye to all when you leave.

24. French philosophy: Mangez bien, riez souvent, aimez beaucoup. It means eat well, laugh often, love abundantly... I think we all agree with that then!

25. Supermarkets that have an aisle dedicated to local produce.

26. La mairie (town hall) - the one-stop shop for all your questions about life in your village or town.

27. Beautiful châteaux.

28. Architecture: Baroque, Hausmannian, Le Corbusier, Auguste Perrett, French Renaissance, Gothic, Romanesque, Gallo-Roman, Beaux Arts, Belle Epoque and more… the fact that each region in France has its own distinctive architecture. There are no rows of cookie-cutter houses. 

29. Family values.

30. French people. It can take a while to make French friends, but once you do, it's for life. So different to the stereotypes beloved of UK media.

To this list I would add that, for me, No 31 would be the refreshing absence of sarcasm and / or irony - call it what you will. The constant drip of sarcasm in England masquerading as wit is tiring.. I'm fed up with people who say the opposite of what they really mean - because they're too emotionally stunted to talk plainly. As you can tell, I much prefer the warmth and directness of the French.. 

I would add another - treat waiters and waitresses as human beings and they respond with kindness and generosity. 

Another one is that they love their food and wine with a passion that doesn't exist across the Channel. I could write a book on this! 

The almost total absence of litter - especially noticeable out in the country.

A friend has just suggested: Modern and clean trains that run on time that get to useful destinations by reasonable routes at sensible prices. Agree 100%. 

If you have your own reasons to love life here, don't be shy - send them in to me! (via the contact form in the left hand column - or add a comment at the foot of this post) I'll add them to the list (no names!).

In talking to people here who went on school trips to England years ago, it appears that just as I have an aversion to andouillette and tête de veau (calf's head), there seems to be one thing, above all, that many French people remember with horror - and that's jelly! (jello in the US). I must admit that I haven't had any for years - but when I was a child, it was very popular.. With some tinned fruit (pears, pineapple or peaches) and a swirl of evaporated milk, there was always room for seconds! (this was the 1950s remember)

However, on a scale of 1-10, jelly for me doesn't get even close to the real horrors that are andouillette and tête de veau (both of these are solidly in projectile-vomiting territory). I've tried both andouillette and tête de veau once (you have to) but wild horses etc etc. I guess it all depends what you are used to. Naturally there's an association for andouillette. If I was forced - at gunpoint - to have to choose to eat one or the other, I think tête de veau would just shade it - by a millimetre or two. It would have to be a big gun though! If I'm honest, I'd rather go hungry. I don't care what anyone says - for me, these two dishes are the stuff of nightmares.

Next come the marginal dishes. There are several dishes in France that I've never been hungry enough to try: snails.. (and yes, I know the garlic and parsley butter is delicious); tripe - regardless of how it's been cooked; whelks (bulots here). Ris de veau (sweetbreads or pancreas) teeters on the brink (I tried this once - couldn't finish it). I've never had the opportunity to try a pied de cochon (pig's trotter). There are probably one or two more out there that I can't remember just at the moment - but, in extremis, I could - just - imagine eating something in this group.. maybe. Perhaps - when there's a 'k' in the month.

To try some of these specialities, you must pay Au Pied de Cochon (right) a visit. It's open 24 hours/day.. so it's perfect for night owls (and owlettes!). Their onion soup au gratin is legendary.. I had this once in the 60s at about 4am.. You'll see an eclectic and eccentric mix of  characters there too.. (menu here) I've added it to the map in the left hand column.

On the other hand, there are some/many specialities here that I really do enjoy: duck gizzards (gésiers de canard); foie gras (social suicide in some quarters to admit to this), calves' liver, frogs legs, oysters, mussels. I'll think of some more.       

1st December. Fingers crossed that December will be drier than the month just gone.

We've been talking about a trip up to Paris - not sure if it will be this month or next year in the Spring - but just writing that has made my mind up!


Anonymous said...

You have been already sent Best Wishes for Christmas and the New Year but here needs at least one comment before you move on to January! Lesley

Pipérade said...

As usual, Christmas passed by in a blur of days.. Took it easy this year - there were bottles earmarked for opening that stayed intact.. and I feel the better for it!
Hope your Christmas went well.. meanwhile, 2020 looms..
Best wishes