Tuesday, 4 April 2017

241. April showers in the Basque Country

29th April. A new word for my reader(s) - quockerwodger - I'm sure you can think of a politician who fits the description without needing any help from me.  

21st April. An "unknown ancient reptile roamed the Pyrenees" is a headline from the BBC's news page. You could be excused for thinking that they're talking about a rare sighting of DSK.. but no, the bruised Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been maintaining a suitably reptilian low profile - but it seems that's not low enough for even Hollywood to ignore. There's a film proposed on his travails.. but as yet, no director or cast have been identified. I would think this film would slither easily into the "Wouldn't touch it with a bargepole" category, no matter how much you pay anyone. Wait for: "How much? Where do I sign..?"

17th April. Sorry for the hiatus here.. Both of us have been suffering from an odd cough that refuses to go away. There's a suspicion that it might be pollen related. We've been gulping down the antibiotics, cough mixture, inhalers et al but to no avail. The antibiotics are doing a great job of sending us to sleep in the afternoons. I'll be glad when we're free of it. We've also had to cancel a holiday in Croatia we'd booked in May - due to other factors. All in all, not a good start to the year.  

8th April. It's all set for a steamy weekend here according to the forecast: 27° for today and tomorrow (80°F). This means eating out on the terrace at midday and possibly again in the evening. The downside? The dreaded shorts might have to be brought out!☺

2nd April. This morning, Madame was putting together a little treat for Sunday lunch - blanquette de veau - which admittedly is a bit of a time-consuming dish to make, and so I was released to go for some fresh air along the boardwalk at Anglet. On arrival, I found it was busy with all manner of joggers, sportifs, waddlers and stumblers (your guess as to which category I fit into).

We'd had a blowy day yesterday and this morning a gusty wind was blowing out of the north west over an agitated sea. However, the sky looked clear of rain and so I set off southwards on a brisk 30 minute walk to Le Rayon Vert, a beachside café, just to the north of Biarritz. Once there, I didn't hang about as one or two grey clouds had appeared on the western horizon. I turned around and headed back to the car while keeping a watchful eye on the low grey rain clouds that had formed up out over the sea.  It wasn't long - no more than about 10 minutes - before I felt the first drops of rain. Despite thinking "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" - within 5 minutes I was completely wet through - as in drenched. Was I glad to see the car!

Blanquette de veau
Once home, I stood dripping in the hall, my nose twitching with the wine-rich smells drifting out of the kitchen. A couple of minutes later, I had dry clothes on and I was enjoying an eyes-closed moment as I inhaled the steamy aromas rising off the blanquette de veau (left) that Madame had set in front of me. I poured two glasses of Haut-Médoc and set to work. I love Sundays!
We were looking at electric bikes the other day. at Newteon, Anglet - they had a good range of electric bikes available to buy or hire. (Map here) Madame hasn't been well lately and she wants to get out on her bike again but I think she'll need some assistance - so possibly an electric bike will be the answer. (by the way - that's Bayonne from 0:43 to 1:00). We'll probably rent a couple for the day to see how she gets on with one. (Pedego Biarritz here)

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

240. Spring in the French Basque Country

31st March. Here's some more of that gypsy music that I like listening to:

Café Bleu
It was like summer here yesterday - 27° - I dusted off a pair of shorts for the first time this year and we enjoyed lunch out on the terrace. This is more like it! The palm trees down the garden have pushed out pods which have burst out into yellow blossom (left) and the maple is suddenly red with leaves. A couple of pairs of blue tits have discovered the bird feeder and the feed level seems to be going down steadily. We went for a stroll around Biarritz later on and had a coffee at the Café Bleu that overlooks the Grande Plage. The beach was well populated with people trying acquire that first tan. Very pleasant and borderline hypnotic watching the waves!

29th March. Ignoring all the political chatter this morning, it must be noted that Spring has arrived here with a bang.. (a term to be used advisedly in the Basque Country!) We were out and about in the car yesterday and in a week, the countryside has turned green..

27th March. When the British government activates Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon on Wednesday 29th March, it will start a process that will enable the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union. All I can say is - at last! No doubt there will be some who confuse my view with being "anti-Europe". Far from it. I think Europe contains more cultural riches of the human story per square kilometer than any other surface in the world. It was from this soil that civilised society grew and flourished. It was from here that many of the fruits of Western civilisation first appeared. Its culture remains the reference for modern day Western culture. 

However, the political expression of Europe's identity - the European Union - leaves much to be desired in my view. I won't delve deeply into the arguments here but suffice to say the 'democratic deficit' lies at the heart of my concerns. Millions died in the twentieth century to preserve democracy and yet somehow the UK, with its proud democratic parliamentarian history and love of freedom stretching back hundreds of years, allowed itself to become embedded in a profoundly undemocratic political construct. No doubt there will be a price to be exacted from the UK for leaving the EU. To me and many others like me, regaining our sovereignty is paramount. I look forward to the next few years.   

25th March. How many of you have tasted Saint-Pierre (or John Dory - more here on its origins)? In the opinion of your scribe, it's one of the finest of all sea fish. It's expensive in restaurants - because it's an expensive fish to buy. However, earlier today we went to the Leclerc supermarket at Urrugne and I was surprised at the extent, range and quality of the fish and seafood on display. My eyes lit upon a display of pale golden Saint-Pierre and out of curiosity I checked the price.. it was only 11 euros and something a kilo! In contrast, the price at our local fishmonger is usually somewhere between 25-28€/kg. In fact, many of the prices were significantly lower than we're accustomed to paying in Bayonne, no doubt due to the proximity of the fish market (known as La Criée) at Ciboure (1km away). We bought one and enjoyed it with a beurre citronnée sauce.

So, if you intend visiting here and wish to take advantage of the above, this self-explanatory video (no sound) shows how to fillet a Saint-Pierre:

However, if you don't feel like getting "up close and personal" with a Saint-Pierre (as above), then the Saint-Pierre at Chez Pantxua at Socoa is highly recommended. (Needless to say, I have no connection with Leclerc or Chez Pantxua other than as a satisfied customer).

24th March. British journalist Andrew Neil spoke out yesterday in the wake of the terror attack in London that saw the death - among others - of Police Constable Keith Palmer. 
PC Keith Palmer
In a moving tribute (video here) to PC Keith Palmer, he said: 
Keith Palmer had been a copper for 15 years, a husband, a dad, brother, uncle, public servant. Before joining the police, he’d been in the army, defending our nation. Yesterday he was murdered defending our democracy, defending the very heart of our democracy from a barbarian at the gate. Just doing his duty, reminding us of something we badly needed reminding of, that the most important people in this country are not the rich, the powerful, the famous but those who run to confront the enemies of our civilisation while the rest of us are running away. First responders like PC Palmer. Brutally stabbed to death by a jumped-up jihadi, not fit to breathe the same air as the man he killed. 
Now I know there are still some ‘Jihadi Johnnies’ out there who think they will eventually triumph because their love of death is greater than our love of life. Do you have any idea who you’re dealing with? This is the country that stood up alone to the might of the Luftwaffe, air force of the greatest evil mankind has ever known. If you think we’re going to be cowed by some pathetic, Poundland terrorist in an estate car with a knife, then you’re as delusional as you are malevolent. Yes, you have the power to hurt us. Sometimes the hurt is more than we can bear - but you cannot defeat us. Because for every brainwashed, brain dead Islamist you send to do us harm, we have thousands upon thousands of Keith Palmers. You find them in every walk of life and in every part of the land, they come in all shapes, all sizes, all colours, all faiths. They are the British people and against them you will never prevail.
Well said Andrew.

23rd March. This is the time of the year when the temperature fluctuates. The other day we had 25°. Tomorrow? The forecast is for 3°.

21st March.  Here's something else that's guaranteed to brighten up your day!

20th March. I'm afraid no words are possible to describe "Intro Outro" - by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band - except to say it always put a smile on my face. See what you think:
Looking at my desk, it's clear that I must be keeping the makers of Post-Its in business. I think moths have been at my short term memory. I'll be downstairs and think of something I need to google on my PC upstairs.. In the time between having that thought and finding myself sitting before the flickering screen, I often find that the inspiration for the trip upstairs has evaporated. It must be the stairs!☺ The worst are those stairs with a landing half-way up. Pause for a second, and you can't remember whether you were on the way up or.. Perhaps a high speed chair lift is the answer - to get me to the top before I've forgotten what I came up for! So now, we (OK, I) keep a block of Post-Its in the kitchen to make a note of that transient thought.

I believe goldfish have the same problem. It's claimed that they have a 5 second memory. Anything that happens longer than 5 seconds ago is deleted. Life must be hard for them swimming around the goldfish bowls - each time they come across that bridge, they must think "What's that??"

19th March. I read this morning that Chuck Berry has passed away.. A real original and the father of rock 'n roll. I was lucky enough to have seen him live in the sixties and that memory will stay with me forever. In addition to the long list of rock 'n roll standards he wrote, he also made famous his "Duck Walk".. and he could make his guitar emulate the lonely wail of a train siren as it rolled through the night across the lonely prairies. A true giant who didn't owe anything to anybody. RIP Chuck.
One of Chuck's songs featured memorably in "Pulp Fiction":
18th March. Another video for you that shows why the Pays Basque is gaining in popularity.. I'll watch it in slow time after this afternoon's rugby marathon has finished! It's the last weekend of the Six Nations - and England have everything to play for in Dublin.. 

La Concha
16th March. The forecast was for a sunny day here so we decided to go to San Sebastian. It's always a pleasure to go there - it has real style. The pavements are wide, there's no shortage of shade when it sizzles and there are some cafés worth visiting - plus there's La Concha, an almost circular bay with its golden crescent of sand to contemplate should you feel the need. It has more than its share of individual shops where it's possible to find unique designs. I've long admired the stylish apartment blocks in San Sebastian and I finally got around to taking a picture of one in the centre of town - and yes, that's a blue cloudless sky.. According to the car, it was 25° and what a pleasure it was to feel the sun on our backs again. Take a look at San Sebastian for yourself here.

14th March. I've finally started the process of requesting dual nationality. Why? When I look at the political pygmies (you know who I mean!) who straddle world stage today, I wouldn't put it past any of them not to make life more difficult than it need be for those of us who live in the EU in somewhere other than their country of birth.

One of the first delights I encountered was a requirement for me to attach a UK Criminal Record Certificate (CRC) along with my application, testifying to all and sundry that I'm a model of sobriety and an all-round good egg. The software gurus who designed the CRC application form have, in their wisdom, made it impossible to save it - to enable it to be completed in stages. Plus - once I started completing the online form, it wasn't possible to go back to the page of instructions - and the lengthy form had to be completed within 60 minutes, with all the scanned material attached, otherwise all the data on it would be deleted. Nice touch!

So there I was - having dutifully assembled all the required documentation as briefed - scanned passport photos, two scanned proofs of address and other supporting (scanned) documents - and I clicked the website to start completing the form. The first shudder was caused by the fact that straightaway I was asked for information that hadn't been called for in the instructions on the previous page (aarrgghh!) - including various key identifiers that should have pinned me down uniquely, such as my UK National Insurance number. You might be excused for thinking that this alone would have been enough - but oh no - I also had to state my UK Drivers Licence number - despite the fact I no longer have one. This had me dashing around the house frantically opening drawers and cupboards - before I could lay my hands on my old tatty out-of-date one. Perhaps UK government agencies aren't as joined up as we sometimes might believe. I won't bore you with any more of this but it was one of the most stressful 60 minutes I've had recently.

The CRC is but one of the many pieces of paper required by the French authorities. A whole host of assorted documentation is required for the process - all of which has to be translated by a sworn translator (ker-ching!)

Soon* though, if all goes well, I'll be in possession of a French passport and I too will be able to stop anywhere for an al fresco pee.. or go sailing blithely around roundabouts while indicating with my windscreen wipers. (oh yes, and be able to vote!) I found out by chance a few years ago that I will lose my vote in the UK once I've lived outside the country for 15 years - despite the fact that I pay my income tax there. (Remember "no taxation without representation"?)
* Soon = <12months!

However, I don't anticipate that, even with a French passport in my sticky mitts, I'll ever be able to enjoy a steaming plate of tête de veau or andouillette. While I have to confess to enjoying frogs legs, I doubt if I'll ever be hungry enough to eat a snail! I'll always support England come the Six Nations rugby. A French passport will simply provide me with an additional "belt 'n braces" layer of security regarding my stay here.

12th March. If, like me, you never tire of walking in (or simply looking at) the more remote parts of the Pays Basque, then you'll enjoy these two films.

More here:

11th March. Look away now if you're not a fan of England rugby.. They demolished (there's no other word for it) Scotland today 61-21 in the 4th round of the RBS 6 Nations rugby tournament.. A match that some commentators thought beforehand (in their dreams) might go Scotland's way. This was the first time this year that England really clicked - and they were scoring tries at will. I've long been a fan of Scottish rugby but today it was no contest. England - sending Scotsmen homewards tae think again since 1983. To be fair to Scotland, they lost their likeable and influential playmaker Greig Laidlaw a couple of weeks ago and today they lost their dangerous full back Stuart Hogg through a head injury. But - these things happen in rugby. England were without 4 key forwards at the start of the 6 Nations campaign and they're still without Chris Robshaw and George Kruis.

It's a pity that Vern Cotter is nearing the end of his contract - he's made Scotland into a much more potent attacking force - but sadly, for those north of the border, not today.

I read somewhere this morning that "Life's too short to drink cheap wine" and I suddenly thought, you know, the man has a point. Old habits die hard - I've usually bought wine in the past that sits somewhere between having to clench your teeth when you drink it and wine that makes you grit your teeth when you buy it.. In real terms, in France that means I've been paying between 5€ to 10€ a bottle. The trouble is that wine money is different to whisky money, plus - I could, without much effort (not that I do), drink a bottle of wine in one swell foop, oops, I mean in one fell swoop. Whereas a bottle of Scotch gives me more pleasure for longer. Where is my money better invested? I've always tended towards buying better whisky. I think the person who came up with that maxim though about cheap wine did hit upon a truth. I'll start buying wine from above the bottom shelf!

9th March. We went out to Chez Pantxua at Socoa for lunch today. Our waitress asked us where our cocker was..(she always made a fuss of him) and so she heard the sad story of what happened to the poor lad. She took our order and minutes later, she returned with a couple of complimentary sangrias and some nibbles. We've known her for a good few years and her gesture was greatly appreciated.

We sat outside under a blue sky in the sunshine and enjoyed a whole sea bass between us, eased down with the aid of some Jurançon Sec.. We opened the roof of the car on the way home and watched as the temperature crept up to 20°..

The temperature is slowing creeping up here - the forecast is for 19° today. I'd better start dubbining my legs in preparation for their annual re-appearance under a pair of ex-8th Army "Desert Rat" shorts..

8th March. That Emmanuel Macron is being talked up as a serious contender for the Presidency is worrying.. I fail to understand how any thinking person can seriously consider voting for Macron and at the same time say ".. quite what he will bring is unclear."? (quote from a newspaper) We've just lived through 5 years of a do-nothing, lack-lustre president - in my view we need 5 years of a Macron Magical Mystery Tour like a hole in the head..

Summer's on its way! This morning, I spotted a couple of camping cars (camper vans in English) with number plates from northern Europe making their way through town, each towing a small trailer with a motorbike. I wonder how many retirees are in motion on the roads in Europe? Plus those who wander the Mediterranean footloose and fancy free in their yachts? Very tempting!

Further to the ongoing Fillon story, we were watching the news last night and I said to Madame that now Juppé declared his intention not to be considered a presidential candidate, it won't surely be long before someone digs up some more dirt on Fillon. I had less than a minute to wait..! The next news item was a story that, according to Le Canard Enchaîné, Fillon had received a loan of 50,000€ from someone. And so it continues..

7th March. Another short film for you that shows a slice of life in the Pays Basque:

Plus this week's special offer:
6th March. In yet another twist in the panier des crabes (the literal translation makes it clear: a basket of crabs) that's French politics, Alain Juppé has decided that he should not be considered a candidate for the Right in the event that François Fillon were to step down. I don't think Juppé has the stomach for what would inevitably be a bruising campaign for him - the media would dig deep into his personal life and, if he lost the election (which would be likely), he would have to suffer months of media speculation, intrusion and attacks for nothing. His decision eases the "do I stay or do I go" dilemma for Fillon as the Right now has no alternative candidate to fall back on. I think there will be more twists to come in this story.   

The main candidates are now (from Left to Right): Benoît Hamon, Emmanuel Macron, François Fillon and Marine Le Pen.

5th March. Having decided that my PC was long overdue its spring clean, I started deleting all the rubbish that I've allowed to accumulate on my desktop.. In doing so, I came across this (right). I apologise if I've posted it before - but it caused a wry smile to appear briefly on my wizened features! (click to enlarge it)

I was driving along the Adour this blowy morning while out to buy a baguette, and I noticed the river was very high (it's tidal here) so I carried on down to the coast to take a look at the sea. Getting out of the car at the Plage des Cavaliers, I was struck by the deafening roar coming up from the beach.. What a sight..! The sea was breaking high up the beach and the first 50-100 yards was all seething white foam, with a confused mass of waves breaking in different directions. Rain-laden grey clouds were scudding low overhead and so I didn't stay there long as there were intermittent showers. (photos here) My old dog would not have been tempted to stay a while either - he'd have stood there with his ears horizontal.. sniffing the air.. before trotting back to the warm car and home. He liked his comfort..

4th March. A blustery start to the day with sudden, quick showers blowing through from the sea - it's known in French as a giboulée.. (another word to let loose when it all goes quiet in the snug!)

Here's a film I found that focuses on the Basque coast - orientated towards the 'beautiful people'! For me, the interior of the Pays Basque is equally attractive, especially up in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It's in French - but there are some nice images here:
We have a few palm trees down the bottom of the garden. My knowledge of things horticultural is exhausted once I've called them 'palm trees'. A quick google tells me that ours have fan-shaped leaves or foliage (take your pick). There's also a much bigger one in the front garden that must be between 40-50 feet high. Every so often we have to call in someone to cut back the dead leaves - he scrambles up the swaying tree (with no safety net) like a rat up a drainpipe - as the saying goes. I tried it myself once and got halfway up before deciding discretion was the better part of the Accident & Emergency Unit. The ones in the back garden are only about 15-18 feet high.. and I spent some time yesterday cutting back the leaves there. They're attached to the tree by a sturdy stalk (known as a petiole) about 4-6 feet long. Rather than give you a thousand words, here's a picture. I think Trachycarpus Fortunei - or Chinese Windmill Palm - is its correct name:

3rd March. The French media has seized upon the Fillon story with great relish as it involves a politician from the Right - something that always guarantees a feeding frenzy by the Left-dominated media. Politologues (what a word) are heavily and endlessly involved on TV with the décryptage (another mot du jour) of the story as it unfolds. The focus on Fillon means that the other candidates for the presidency are left untouched, while the major player in French politics - ScooterMan - remains in the Elysee doing President impressions.

1st March. This was always a favourite for a late night stumble around the dance floor:
The attempted political assassination of François Fillon is coming to the boil. The carefully orchestrated timing of this murky attempt to discredit a political opponent reveals the depths to which some will go to win an election. Whoever is behind it, this action is completely unworthy of a modern Western European democracy in 2017. Remember: Cui bono.  

I'm starting to fear for the UK in the negotiating process with the EU that will start once Article 50 has been triggered. One of the issues that could affect me directly is the question of UK citizens living in the EU. I was astonished to read this morning that a cross-party amendment in the House of Lords (where the government does not have a majority) to guarantee - in advance of negotiations - the position of EU citizens living in the UK is expected to secure the backing of most peers. However, it is expected that the Commons will reject this amendment. Ye gods. This is surely one of the key negotiating cards and it makes me question the sanity of those gentle, well-meaning, but hardly worldly-wise folk in the House of Lords. If this amendment was to be accepted in the Commons, the offer would be swallowed in one quick gulp by EU negotiators with no quid pro quo. Why on earth would anyone turn a valuable negotiating card face up on the table before the talks have even started? More here. And according to this report, the negotiations won't start until the UK has paid a 60bn€ exit bill. Time to start investigating dual nationality I think. (Procedure here in English for others who may be thinking of doing likewise. Here's the official French site).

The title of this post* is a fragment recalled from Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" - those long hours spent in dusty English classrooms were not, as I thought at the time, entirely wasted.

* I'd originally called this post "Can Spring be far behind?" - but I changed it to something banal.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

239. Politics à la française

28th February. The long-awaited (by some) extension of the TGV line from Paris as far as Bordeaux was inaugurated today. Up until now, the high speed track was only available from Paris to Tours - but this newly laid high speed track will enable TGV trains to reach Bordeaux from Paris in 2 hrs 4 mins - which is about 1 hour 10 mins less than at present. I understand property prices in Bordeaux have rocketed during the past 12 months in anticipation of this new line, thus opening up the possibility of living in Bordeaux and commuting to Paris. Thankfully, travel from Bordeaux south to the Pays Basque is still via the old rail tracks and it takes almost 2 hours. The thorny question of building the new track down here has been put off for a few years in the (vain) hope that local tempers will have cooled. Some hope!

In my view, the Pays Basque needs connecting to the high speed rail system like un trou dans la tête. Developers and builders are everywhere - buying up old properties, flattening them and then constructing multi-occupation residences on the cleared sites. The sellers get the top price, the Town Halls are happy because they can demand more tax from the same site and the developers and the builders make a profit.

The problem is that the Pays Basque is a 'destination' area - it seems that there's no shortage of people who want to retire here. While it seems that every square meter of available space is being built on, the roads are becoming increasingly congested. Where one property formerly had one or two cars, erecting a residence in its place guarantees that it will result in at least 5 times as many vehicles. The Pays Basque is noted for the charm of its white-painted properties with Basque rouge shutters, topped by gently slanting overhanging roofs. Sadly, the old Basque properties are being squeezed out one by one and replaced by ugly concrete and glass monstrosities, like here (below) in Bayonne. What on earth were the planners thinking of - apart from the increased receipts from taxation? (I think I might have just answered my own question).

And here's more of the same in Anglet. Appalling monstrosities. They add nothing to the environment but everything to the coffers of the respective Town Halls.

For many, the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games are remembered chiefly for Jesse Owens' astonishing feat of athleticism in winning gold medals in the 100m, 200m, the 4x100m relay and the high jump events.

However, against all expectations, another group of US athletes won gold in the Mens VIIIs. Don Hume, Joe Rantz, George ‘Shorty’ Hunt, Jim ‘Stub’ McMillin, John White, Jr., Gordon Adam, Chuck Day, Roger Morris, in front Bob Moch were the boys of the University of Washington’s 1936 crew who represented the USA in the VIIIs. They were the sons of loggers, shipyard workers and farmers, and they defeated the Italians, Germans and British oarsmen in the Olympic final in front of Adolf Hitler and other Nazi dignitaries.
Here's the short version of their inspirational story:
And the fuller account (the one to watch!). It also tries to explain the ethos of rowing:

22nd February. This short film (not always easy to watch) touches on the importance of wine in French life, showing how it's a central thread that runs through their lives, how the great occasions of life are celebrated hand-in-hand with wine, and how life's pleasures and sadnesses can be conjured up by the memories of certain wines. If the video refuses to run, click on this link and scroll down to launch the "Fil Rouge".
If you're an aficionado of chocolate in all its forms, then this link that a friend kindly sent me will surely have you drooling at the chops..! I've never quite been able to understand how a town like Bayonne, with only 40,000 inhabitants, manages to sustain so many 'high end' chocolate shops*. Much of the activity happens here in the rue Port Neuf (below) - so there's no need to waddle a great distance! (couldn't resist that one!)

* Just found out there are 12 of them..

21st February. This week's special offer! I know I've mentioned the great Dorado Schmitt here many times before - but if you'd like to listen to more of his work, then open this link and click on Videos.. There are also a few other samples of his under the MP3 and YouTube captions. 

Banjos.. I love this story!
I feel cold just watching this video of Bill Buchholz's beautifully built ice-boat out on a frozen Chickawaukie Lake, Rockport, Maine up in the north eastern USA. Wouldn't this make you feel glad to be alive..? Skimming over the ice at a fair old lick on a sunny day in winter in frozen Maine? I would willingly sacrifice an organ to try it! The boat is right up meine strasse.. with not a hint of carbon fibre in sight - just the honeyed glow of varnished wood:

That final comment made me laugh! More here.

20th February. I've just stumbled upon the photographs of Véronique Derouet.. this was the one that caught my eye.. along with this one (below). No prizes for guessing where it is! (best seen full size)

18th February. I've just discovered that an old fave of mine - Kitty O'Shea's Irish pub in Paris - has closed and has been re-invented as the Frog Hop House. Kitty O'Shea's couldn't have been more authentic - the friendly bar staff were as Irish as they come and the Guinness was well-kept. In other words, a great place to be trapped in.

17th February. At choir practice last night we tackled a new piece by Schubert (Tantum Ergo in C D739). All I'm saying is that we've a long way to go!
15th February. I went for a walk along the beach at Anglet (formerly known as dog-walking territory) this afternoon as it was a warm day.

We had 19° here yesterday. We'd planned to go out for a seafoody lunch at Chez Pantxua (just across the bay in St Jean de Luz) but, in turning the car around in the street the day before, someone* had contrived to pinch a tyre sidewall against the kerb and, in doing so, tore an irreparable split in it. I always carry a footpump in the car but this time it was of no use. Of course, VW discontinued the practice of supplying spare wheels for this model some years ago - so the car was completely undriveable - and, to cap it all, it appeared that no-one in town stocked this particular tyre size! I'll spare you the rest of the story - suffice to say that I picked the car up from the tyre supplier in town late yesterday afternoon after some 260-odd euros (breakdown recovery + new tyre) had changed hands. So Chez Pantxua will have to wait for another day. It's strange how your day can be spoilt by such a trivial incident.

* Yes, that someone was me.
13th February. And now for something completely different.. I heard of this recording earlier today - it's Keith Jarrett and his "The Köln Concert" - a concert recording of solo piano improvisations performed at the Opera House in Cologne on January 24, 1975. (this blog is nothing if not up to date!) The background to this recording is worth reading. I'm not sure I could listen to this for long.. but I could be, and probably am, wrong.
Going further back in time, I find "Round Midnight" by Thelonious Monk more to my taste..
12th February. Post match: Well, I don't think I'll be giving up my day job after my prediction that Scotland would win in Paris! Highlights here. (en français)

Just as my heart-rate has returned to normal after the thrilling match in Cardiff yesterday, the prospect of the 6 Nations encounter between France and Scotland this afternoon threatens to send it surging back into the red zone again! My money's on a win for Scotland.

After a pulsating match in Cardiff yesterday, England emerged winners after fashioning a sweeping try by Elliot Daly in the closing minutes. Post-Gatland, Wales have changed their style and were on top for most of this enthralling match - but Eddie Jones seems to have instilled a winning mentality into the English players. To watch the entire match in HD, look here. If it's just the highlights you want, look no further. (Extraits officiels en français):

Italy played host to Ireland in Rome on Saturday.. and the match turned into a 63-10 pointsfest for the men in green. Highlights here. (en français)

11th February. Farewell Joost van der Westhuizen.. a giant of Springbok and world rugby, regardless of era, who passed away on 6th February. He re-invented scrum-half play in his own fashion - athletic, never say die, a fierce competitor in both attack and defence, totally committed and a feared and respected opponent. A great loss at such an early age.

Joost van der Westhuizen, 1971-2017
9th February. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Scotland emerge victorious from their encounter with France in Paris on Sunday afternoon. They've been playing some fiery rugby and they look as though they're all singing from the same hymn sheet. They have some classy players and I think they'll do well against a French side that is slowly rebuilding.

6th February. For an update on that François Fillon story, here's a report on the press conference he had earlier this afternoon. Read on here.

The streets of Bayonne are looking a bit bedraggled this morning after the violent weekend storms - the pavements were covered in twigs, branches, leaves and other detritus. Storms down here are pretty intense.

This was the sea at Biarritz yesterday as seen from the lighthouse:

5th February. What's going on? A few minutes ago in the early afternoon, another wall of water came rolling in from the sea.. along with thunder and lightning, hail and rain (as though from a fire hose!), not to mention the shrieking wind. I don't envy anyone on a boat/ship in the Bay of Biscay at the moment!

For once, I was woken up in the wee small hours last night by the sound of a major storm blowing through here. We had the lot - torrential rain, winds howling around the house, shutters rattling, the sound of storm water in the gutters. Then I went back to sleep!

Italy - Wales this afternoon!

4th February. Post match: Eddie Jones' England scraped home after a scruffy match with a narrow 19-16 win over a much-improved France under the likeable Guy Novès. Novès had selected a powerful and athletic set of players (Piano Shifters and Piano Players). In contrast, Eddie Jones was unable to field the Vunipola brothers, George Kruis, Chris Robshaw, Manu Tuilagi and Anthony Watson - all being unavailable due to injuries. The English forwards lacked conviction and as a result, England weren't winning enough ball at set pieces - plus, they looked rusty, short of oomph and they played like a team of strangers. In the closing few minutes Eddie Jones sent on Danny Care, Ben Te'o, Jack Nowell and James Haskell and the changes galvanised England - it was as though they'd switched to mains electricity after running on dud batteries for 70 of the 80 minutes - and Ben Te'o went over to seal the match with only a few minutes remaining. I think France will be feeling justifiably aggrieved at letting a Twickenham win slip through their fingers after having dominated the match for long periods. For England, it was their 15th consecutive win (a national record) under Eddie Jones - but it wasn't a pretty sight. This was winning ugly. France will win more matches than they'll lose if they continue to play like this.

I wonder how much of referee's Angus Gardner admonishments - delivered in Australian English - were understood by the French pack, particularly the front row. I could see some puzzled expressions among them yesterday. In the interests of fairness, perhaps it's time the IRFU provided referees who are bilingual. I think the respected Irish referee Alain Rolland was one of the very few (if not the only) international referees who were genuinely bilingual. If that's too difficult, how about introducing some codewords (along the lines of the ICAO phonetic alphabet) for specific instructions or penalties? With so many matches being decided by penalties, it's time to level the playing field.  

Well done Scotland! They upset the form book with a thrilling win over an Irish XV who looked curiously out of sorts. Resurgent Scotland played some beautiful flowing rugby with Stuart Hogg scoring a couple of cracking tries. This is how rugby should be played. Ireland came back in the second half but Scotland took the game with a 27-22 win. Hogg's place in the British and Irish Lions squad could be inked in now. He must be the Lions first choice full back.
Edited to add: good to see that the SRU has finally seen fit to play the "Black Bear" prior to the anthems..! Now all they need to do is ditch that maudling dirge "Flower of Scotland".

Today sees the most eagerly-awaited event of the year.. No, it's not the re-appearance of the boudin blanc at Montauzer's in Bayonne but it's the opening weekend of the 6 Nations Rugby Tournament. If you're new to this, the 6 Nations involved are - in alphabetical order - England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.

The opening match should be a cracker - it sees Scotland taking on Ireland at Murrayfield. Ireland are widely tipped to win the tournament this year but I don't see them having an easy ride against a much-improved Scottish XV. Ireland are without their talismanic Johnny Sexton so anything could happen. Players to keep an eye on? Stuart Hogg for Scotland and Simon Zebo for Ireland. I think Ireland should just shade this one.

South of the border, last year's Grand Slam winners England host France in what promises to be a mouth-watering encounter. The anticipation can sometimes be greater than the performance as 2 great teams can nullify each other. However, two years ago the match unfolded in spectacular fashion:
Elsewhere, Wales travel to Italy for their opening match tomorrow. Italy will be pumped up this game so I think the scoreline will be pretty close. I'm going for a Welsh win but not by more than 10pts.

Here's an unusual stat for you: the 6 Nations tournament is set to be watched by the highest average attendance per match of any tournament in world sport. This is truly an astonishing statistic. To me, I rate it higher than the Olympics..

3rd February. We realised with a start a couple of days ago that it was 9 years to the day that we moved into the house. I was just thinking of how much work we'd had done in the house in that time.. In no particular order: double glazing, new more efficient electric radiators, roof re-tiled, new front door, new paths (back and front), 3 major trees taken down, hall and kitchen re-tiled, new kitchen and bathroom, exterior of the house repainted, garage doors replaced, garage rewired, new door to cellar, old fireplace replaced by wood-burning stove, a forced ventilation system (VMI) fitted - plus many more smaller jobs. Then there are those ongoing battles - like the lawn! (Won't bore you with the details) I know it's an old cliché that time seems to accelerate as we get older but the last nine years really have flown by. It certainly doesn't seem like nine years that we moved in the house with its pristine paintwork everywhere.      

Penelope and François Fillon
1st February. I wrote a few months ago that I thought François Fillon would be the next president of France. Well, recent events may have proved me wrong. It was alleged in the Canard Enchainé - a whistle-blowing satirical French newspaper - that Fillon's (Welsh) wife Penelope had been paid 900,000€ for what was claimed to be fictitious work and that furthermore, two of his five children (who were students at the time) had been employed as parliamentary assistants, earning another 84,000€. I would have thought, perhaps naïvely, that as the Fillons had both trained as lawyers that somewhere in the mix that we could have reasonably expected to find a spot of integrity. I should add that, so far, these are allegations and that maybe he has a satisfactory answer for this story. I must admit that at first I thought this was simply a well-timed smear story, released by someone with the intent of derailing the Fillon presidential campaign but I have to say that the omens aren't good for him. It would be interesting to know who put the Canard Enchainé onto this story. 

I think this might well see the end of his presidential ambitions. If so, it leaves the field wide open as the other candidates are, with one exception, something of a dog's breakfast. Representing the Parti socialiste is Benoît Hamon, and he's cut from the same cloth as the UK's Jeremy Corbyn - therefore unelectable in 2017.

The far right Front National will be represented by Marine Le Pen. It's difficult to judge the appeal that Mme Le Pen has for the voters - especially in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Even if she makes it through the first, I'm not convinced that she could win the second round.

At the moment, it's unclear who will be the candidate for Les Républicains - whether it might still yet be Fillon, or perhaps the septuagenarian Juppé will step forward and re-enter the fray. For those on the Right, Fillon now has a question mark over him - is he damaged irreparably? If Juppé stands, he'll be seen as a safe pair of hands perhaps by some, certainly - and by others as far too old and lacking in dynamism, especially at a time when France requires leadership. 

The one exception I referred to earlier is Emmanuel Macron. He is young (40 I believe) and he's relatively untainted by association with Président Hollande. He could well attract votes from those disaffected PS voters who feel let down by Hollande and who refuse to vote for the far Left Hamon. I think Macron must be well placed to make it through to the second round - and perhaps beyond. Here's he is in conversation with the BBC's Andrew Marr:
Macron is something of a wild card in the May election - and he's unencumbered either by a party or a manifesto. He's an énarque, a technocrat in the classic French mould and he's positioned himself in the centre of the political spectrum. Can he connect with the ordinary voter - enough for them to vote for him - that's one of the key questions.

Disturbingly for EU sceptics, he believes in more, not less, Europe. I read the other day that he is proposing that the EU adopts a common debt policy. This means that all members of the eurozone would be responsible for the debts incurred by member states. Have a think about the implications of that for a moment. Would I be happy about that if I were a German? I don't think so.

Another question to mull over stems from a legal phrase I once heard: "cui bono" - or, as we might say today - "To whose benefit?", or less politely: "follow the money". In other words, to find out who set this Fillon story running, we should look at who stands to gain the most from the revelation. I'll leave you to ponder that question. As Madame says - it's a panier de crabes! If you want to read more on the French political horror-show, look here and here:

With the French presidential elections this year as well as the German elections, I hope the outcome brings an end to the drift towards extreme politics. An extreme party requires another extreme party to oppose it - and we all remember what happened the last time this situation occurred.   

Meanwhile, in the UK, there is much hand-wringing among the usual suspects over the proposed State visit by President Trump to the UK. The figure below on the left is Jeremy Corbyn, who spent 30-odd years polishing the seat of his trousers on the back benches in Parliament before his surprise accession to the leadership of the Labour Party. He's a permanent member of the "awkward squad" (always outside the tent pi**ing in) and he's seen by many as unelectable. Thankfully.

The furore by the chatterati over the President Trump State visit is all meaningless froth in my opinion. Since when have we rejected, or even considered rejecting, a visit to the UK by the elected leader of the free world - and our chief ally? Sounds to me as though there are too many people with access to social media working themselves up to a self-righteous frenzy. Taking the dog for a walk would be a better option.   

Saturday, 7 January 2017

238. Greasy Joan weather

31st January. I hope I'm not tempting fate but today could be the end of the longest cold spell we've had since moving here almost 10 years ago. Today, the mid-afternoon temp was up to 20°.. We went to Biarritz and there was someone swimming.. and without a wet suit as well. Hats off to him!

Over the weekend, we went to the cinema twice to see two much-touted films. The first was "La La Land" and apparently it's received the most Oscar nominations of any film - ever. I'm afraid your correspondent thought it was the greatest, copper-bottomed, over-inflated and hyped turkey of all time. Yes, Ryan Gosling (he of the single facial expression) danced well and appeared to play the piano - and Emma Stone - I'm trying and failing to be positive - was in it as well. (that's the best I can do) But - I thought the two had zero chemistry (neither of them convinced) and it was hard to see what inspired the mutual attraction that we were expected to believe in. And that, for a film where the central theme was their relationship, is pretty damning. Royaume Uni - Nul Points.

The other film was "Manchester by the Sea". What to say about this shocker..? I'd say that if you're a borderline depressive and you're actively looking for something that will trigger that final surge of despair needed to push you over the edge - then go right ahead and go and see it - this could be just what you need. However, if, like me, you happen to be a reasonably balanced individual, then I'd say steer well clear of it. I'm afraid that I fail to see the point of films like these that wallow in the tragedies that occur in other people's lives.            

28th January. I went into town this morning with Madame to give her a hand with the shopping. Stopping off at Montauzer en route, we picked up some of his fabled truffled boudin blanc sausages.. (mentioned before here). These normally only appear around Christmas-time, so we took advantage of this unexpected bounty.. When served with sautéed apple, they can be safely guaranteed to stop all conversation for as long as it takes to dispose of them.. (They don't show up on his website for some reason) Here's a reminder of this mouth-watering dish that will have you drooling over your keyboard.. (Health Warning: I realise that we're in danger of stepping into the realm of food-porn with this photo)  

27th January. We decided to have lunch out today so we took the free navette (below) into Bayonne and made our way to the slightly-off-the-beaten-track Café du Musée. This is a cosy old bistrot ably run by husband-and-wife team Philippe and Sylvie Lopez (right). Philippe's cooking is always fresh and innovative - the menu changes daily - and there's usually a choice of 3 entrées, 3 main courses and 3 desserts. Sylvie runs the front of house and she takes a genuine friendly interest in all the patrons. If you're visiting Bayonne, this is a 'must'! If for any reason you're not able to reserve a table, and want to trust to luck, then I'd advise arriving early - every table was taken today.

Edited to add: We took the navette to come home and when we got on it, there was only one seat free - and Madame took that one. To my eternal embarrassment/shame, a girl of about 18-20 stood up and offered me her seat - and insisted that I take it. (Tell the truth time: It also happened when we were in the Underground in London in mid-December.) I must have that confused pensioner expression off to a tee!

By the way, the navette runs every 8 minutes on this circular route around Bayonne. It's the ideal way to see Bayonne as a visitor - and, what's more, it's free. (Courtesy note: it's usual for people entering or leaving the bus to say, "Bonjour" or "Merci, au revoir" to the driver.)       

I managed to find a higher-res recording of an ensemble led by the great Dorado Schmitt playing that jazz manouche classic - "Dark Eyes" - at the 2005 Django Reinhardt Festival in New York.. I know I've featured it here before - but it's well worth it in my view!   

26th January. Final visit to the rhumatologue this afternoon to inject the last lot of gloop into my noisy knees. It's hard to tell if this treatment is doing me any good or not - but from what the doctor tells me, I'll have to have this done on an annual basis from now on. 

Still very cold here - I'm sure the temps were sub-zero just now when I toddled off into town for the bread. There was a keen wind as well which felt as though my face was freezing into a rictus! All character building stuff! On the bright side, the skies are wall-to-wall blue with not a cloud in sight. 

This is the scene at Gourette, a winter sports station about 2 hrs to the south east of us.
Then there's La Pierre Saint-Martin, which is probably the nearest ski resort for people here. Unfortunately, as much as I'd like to go up there, I think it would cause terminal damage to my knees. 

22nd January. I had my annual health check with my GP yesterday. My blood pressure was right in the 120/70 groove and my heart rate was steady at 54bpm. After running through the results of my blood analysis, it appeared that I had some headroom in the area of cholesterol, so - seeing that we are still in the grip of very cold weather, we decided that a little winter treat was called for at lunchtime today.

Yes, it was raclette time! This is nothing more than a table top grill that - hang on, a picture being worth a thousand words, take a look here (left). Set it up on your dining table, turn it on and while it's heating up, assemble the following ingredients for a classic raclette: for two, you'll need 10-12 slices of raclette cheese, about half a dozen slices of mountain ham, a green salad and a few steamed potatoes and finally a crusty baguette. Slide two slices of raclette cheese under the hot grill and while you're waiting for the cheese to bubble up, ease the cork out of a bottle of burgundy and do the necessary. When the cheese is ready, slide the melted cheese over your ham or your potato (avoiding your lap unless you like living dangerously!). While you're eating the first one, put a fresh slice of cheese under the grill. Continue this until all food items have disappeared. This is real comfort food. Probably not a good idea to eat anything in the evening after this! Take a look here at other variations.

20th January. Frosty start to the day here - according to the car* it was -1°C.. Still, it's sunny with blue skies so mustn't grumble.

* A VW - so take it with a pinch of salt!☺

18th January. Still cold (0°C) here this morning. I was in town doing some shopping (a man's work is never started – oops, finished) and my hands were completely numb when I returned. 

17th January. Memory's a strange thing isn't it.. How is it that I can't remember what I came upstairs for and yet - listening to the opening credits of the BBC's "Maigret" series from the early 1960s is as fresh, timeless and evocative as it ever was.. It starts at 01:38..
14th January. There was a piece on the news this evening about a planetarium that's been opened on the summit of the Pic du Midi.. a peak in the central Pyrenees that's shy of 10,000ft by just a few hundred feet. Just added it to my 'must-do' list!
Mind you, I feel ill after looking at this video of the ascent by cable car.. (starts at 0:20) having been scarred for life by "Where Eagles Dare"..!

We drove down to Socoa yesterday intending to call in at our favourite seafood restaurant - Chez Pantxua - for lunch, but sadly they were closed until February. We had one look at the 23€ lunch menu proposed by their neighbour - Arraina - and seconds later, we were sitting in their cosy enclosed heated terrace from where we could watch the wintry scene outside in comfort.

The weather was disturbed - the house had been buffeted by wind and rain during the night straight in from the bay of Biscay - and while half the sky was blue, the other half appeared to feature every cloud known to man. The sea was boiling up and crashing over the nearby sea wall in towering explosions of white foam. The gusty wind was blowing seemingly from all quarters and occasionally contained large drops of rain or hail. Waves were making it through past the sea wall into the bay.

The menus arrived and our interest in the weather outside evaporated! An hour or so later we emerged blinking into the sunlight after a delicious lunch, happy to have found another restaurant to add to our list of favourites. Well worth a repeat visit.

11th January. Just back from a visit to the "rhumatologue".. For some time now, whenever I've stood up, my knees have sounded like practice night at castanet class - and so today the doc injected some silicon-based gloop into them. I've another two sessions of this in the next few weeks. On the bright side, I've been put on 'light duties' (heh heh!)..

Hundreds of thousands of ducks are being slaughtered here in south west France in a preventative campaign designed to arrest the spread of a virulent strain (H5N8) of bird flu (la grippe aviaire). It's believed that the virus is spread by migratory birds. It was reported on the lunchtime news that it is active in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques (that's us). Now, as to the question whether or not it's safe to eat the affected species of poultry, the World Health Organisation (scroll halfway down this link) has issued a statement: "The WHO and other expert bodies, therefore, do not currently consider avian influenza a food safety risk for consumers." Me? I think I'll try and avoid duck in all its forms for the next few months. This will not be easy, living in south-west France. If you experience any of the following symptoms: muscle pain, cough, fever and/or sore throat and you think you might have been at risk, it might be worth a visit to your généraliste (GP). More here.

7th January. The start of the 2017 RBS 6 Nations Rugby Tournament is drawing ever closer. Scotland and Ireland start this year's proceedings - closely followed by England v France on Saturday, 4th February at Twickenham. Unfortunately, Manu Tuilagi, the Samoan-born "one-man wrecking ball", is set to miss the entire campaign through injury. Great pity.. See what he's capable of here:
6th January. It's been an unseasonably cold start to the year here.. (I know.. nowhere near as cold as Wisconsin!) For some odd reason, these lines by Shakespeare, last heard in a dusty classroom many decades ago, are stuck in a recess somewhere in my head and single digit temperatures are usually all it takes to bring them out:
WHEN icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
(the rest here)
I'm not looking for sympathy but we seldom see temperatures down near 0°C here on the coast so the chill winds of the last few days have come as a bit of a shock to the system.. If I get knocked down, the Accident & Emergency Unit at the local hospital will think I'm sponsored by Damart! By the way, if you're scratching your head over the reference to 'Greasy Joan', take a look at the Shakespeare link!