Tuesday, 15 December 2009

38. It's a sign!

Sitting in traffic this evening I felt my attention being drawn to a hypnotic green neon sign for a Pharmacie (chemist). The green cross design was sequencing through a mind-boggling series of rotations and flashes, including displaying the time and the temperature before going back into the flashing cycle. It reminded me of yet another difference in daily life between this side of the Channel and the other. Some French shopping institutions have evolved their own particular street signs - here are a few for the pharmacy.

The other distinctive ones I can recall are for Tabac (Tobacconists) and (this is where it gets slightly curious) Chevaline - horse butchers. You might wonder why they bother but if you happen to be looking for a specific type of shop they do make finding one that little bit easier.

I was trying to think of the UK equivalents.. and all I could come up with was the red and white spiral-striped barber's pole and the three golden balls for the pawnbrokers. Chemists sometimes had a gold mortar and pestle sign.
video
The illuminated Tabac sign is said to resemble a double ended carrot, often with TABAC spelled out.. Apparently the 'carrot' symbol stems from former times when pipe smokers would keep a piece of carrot in their tobacco pouch to keep their tobacco moist. When I used to smoke and I was gasping for a ciggy, the illuminated Tabac signs were a godsend.
I can understand the need for a easy-to-spot sign if you've a desperate need for a pharmacie or a Tabac - but a horse butchers? The sign for a horse butchers is a gilded horse's head that juts out from the wall. How many times have you found yourself dashing out of the house, all of a quiver for a horsemeat steak ("Just gotta have one!").. running around town with wild eyes looking for a shop with the gilded horse's head sign..? Exactly.. Here's a somewhat battle-damaged horse butchers (above right) from what looks like the immediate post-war years - and, incidentally, I don't think I'd be busting a gut to step inside this shop, would you? I'm reminded of the butchers in the film "Delicatessen".. 
I'm not sure that many Brits would ever contemplate the idea of eating horse meat - I think most would find the whole thing quite repugnant - but I must be honest, having tried it on 2 occasions, I have to admit that they were two of the best steaks I've ever had. I tried it once knowingly in France and the second time, in Italy, unknowingly. I won't be doing it again though.

During the Balkans conflicts in the mid 90s, over a period of 4 years I probably spent half that time based in Italy, just to the north of Venice. Madame came out a few times and, on one memorable occasion, we were out having dinner in a traditional restaurant in town with J, the wife of a colleague who was working. I'd become reasonably adept at decoding Italian menus and, being all pizza'd out, we decided we'd go for a meat dish. Feeling like trying something different, looking at the meat section, I spotted filetto di puledro.. It was clearly a fillet of some kind of meat so we ordered three. They arrived served in a reduced red wine sauce and we enjoyed them very much.. When it came to the bill, I asked the waitress what they were and eventually she said the word for a horse in Italian (cavallo) and then said 'piccolo' - meaning little.. ie, a foal. Eek!

Neither Madame or I felt too happy about that but our unease was as nothing compared to J's. I should have mentioned that she was a keen horsewoman. She went white and so I quickly ushered her outside as I thought she looked very close to a spectacularly lavish demonstration of projectile vomiting..

Moving swiftly on, while we're on the subject of Italy, one year I found a delicatessen in Italy that stocked two of Madame's favourite things combined into one.. It was a tin decorated in an ornate fin de siècle style that contained marrons glacés* that had been dipped in plain chocolate. To say that these hit the spot would be understating the case. And needless to say, I've never been able to find them again since.** And, coming back to the Pays Basque, last Christmas I went around all of the specialist chocolatiers in Bayonne hoping that one of them might have them, or might make some for me. I described what I was looking for but I met with the same universal response - or rather, lack of response - everywhere. No-one was interested in dipping a few marrons glacés in dark chocolate for me.. It was a demonstration of French culinary chauvinism -

"We don't do them like that here.."

Yes, I know that, but could you - just this once?

"If you want marrons glacés like that, you'd better go back to Italy.."

Etc etc.

Back to more domestic issues, we're having our Christmas dinner here at the weekend before we leave next week to go up to Paris. Commander-in-Chief (Home) has decreed that a Christmas pudding might just be on the agenda. Be still my beating heart!

* The brand was La Castagna Glassata Di Majani.. ricoperta di finissimo cioccolato fondente..

** Just found another site in Italy that has them! Guiliani I'll order some when we return in the New Year.

Friday, 11 December 2009

37. One to try at home

I'm not sure where this story fits in the overall scheme of things but I'll leave that for you to work out. Down at the rowing club one of the rowers is M.. He used to play scrum half for Aviron Bayonnais (the local top 14 rugby club) and he's a bit of a character. We were all out having a social event somewhere - it was a standard French night out, the red was going down well, everyone was talking, no-one was listening - when he suddenly came out with his patent method of how to return safely to the marital bed in the wee small hours after a late night out on the town.. on his own.

He said what he does, if he wishes to avoid a prolonged stay in the:
is to open the front door of his house ultra quietly, then tiptoe slowly upstairs before getting completely undressed in the spare room. (Been there, done that) Now this is the part that made us all laugh - he then backs slowly into the marital chamber. The idea being that if his wife wakes up and puts the bedside light on, all he has to do is to stop dead and freeze - facing the door - which is when he claims that he's just got up to go for a Nelson*. Works every time apparently! His demo (clothed!) had us all crying with laughter!

Nelson Riddle (Cockney rhyming slang m'lud)

I picked up the new car this evening.. and I must sit down and give the handbook a good read because there's a daunting amount of technology in the thing. Problem is the handbook's in French so the VW dealer said he would order one for us in Anglo-Saxon and give it to us free of charge.. (that has a pleasing ring to it!)

Tonight we're having a real winter's favourite - Potée Auvergnate. This is real comfort food - and it's guaranteed to make you feel better.

It's a French country dish from - well, several regions have staked a claim to it - but the Auvergne probably has the strongest ownership claim. A joint of gammon, sausages various, potatoes, Savoy cabbage, carrots - all braised in a rich stock.. Add a splodge of grainy moutarde à l'ancienne.. and stand well back while I get to work.

This picture is the closest I could find to Madame's version. If you're thinking that I'm spoiled, then you'd be absolutely right! Wonder why we didn't have Savoy cabbage as kids? It's delicious.. We once went to a restaurant in Paris that specialised in country cooking from the Auvergne and Savoy cabbage featured quite heavily. Forget the terminally boiled soggy cabbage of school dinners of days of yore - Savoy cabbage lends itself to all kinds of imaginative and tasty recipes.. not least of which is the one above.

I'm going to drift downstairs now and see if I can get in the way of the chef.. so talk amongst yourselves for a while!

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

36. Computery stuff

A little bird tells me that Père Noël (aka Father Xmas), in the form of Madame, might just be popping a mini camcorder into my Christmas stocking in a few weeks time. I managed to sneak a quick peek at the packaging to read the all-important system requirements. (system meaning my PC) I appear to be OK for space on my hard drive but it looks like I'll need a Pentium 4 2.8 or equivalent CPU as my current one won't be up to the job. What I know about CPUs could be typed, double spaced, in a large font, on the back of a postage stamp so I've just spent the last few hours researching the subject on the internet. This saga is slightly complicated by the fact that my processor isn't a Pentium - it's an AMD. Figuring out the equivalence and whether my motherboard can take a hot new processor is a riveting way of spending an afternoon.. I won't bore you with the details except to say that they are offered on ebay around the world at fairly hefty prices but I managed to find a local chap in Anglet (5 mins away) who has one for sale at a reasonable price.

Quick diversion: the cartoon below shows what you can easily end up doing on the internet if you're not careful..



Saw a car sticker here today that made me smile: "No ABS or airbags - I'll die like a man!"

If you feel in the mood for some escapism, I suggest you look no further than the following clip from "Out of Africa":
Madame spent some of her formative years at Brazzaville in the Congo - her father was in the French Air Force - and we've often thought about going back there. The sticking point is that Brazzaville has for many years been top of the list of the world's most dangerous towns, along with Pointe Noir on the coast where she used to have holidays. While she has many fond memories of Africa I'm not too keen on the idea of having a one-way conversation with someone who's idly dangling a rusty machete at his side and so we're now thinking of visiting Kenya instead one day.. I'm tempted by Lamu on the coast.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

35. Seasonal thoughts

At this time of the year, our thoughts are inevitably drifting towards Christmas. We're going to be staying with family and friends in and around Paris over Christmas and the New Year and we've been thinking of what we can bring them.. One thing springs to mind as a "cannot fail" crowd-pleaser and that's champagne. The famous quote by Tante Lily Bollinger (right) of the eponymous champagne house says it all.. In reply to the question posed by a Daily Mail journalist, "When do you drink champagne?" - she offered this very memorable answer:

"I only drink champagne when I'm happy, and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty."

I wouldn't argue with a single word of that.. except to add I wish I could afford such largesse!!

The following summer after Madame and I were married, we were driving back up to England from the Pays Basque after our first holiday together there and we'd been invited to break the journey with P & A, two of her good friends. P was the marketing manager for Mumm champagne.. (you can see where this is going already can't you!) Anyway, we arrived at their lovely house at St-Maur on the banks of La Marne just outside Paris in the late afternoon to find P & A sat around a table in their garden with their two boys. After much vigorous kissing and handshaking, P disappeared inside the house, emerging moments later with a bottle of Mumm and some glasses.

"Pop"
went the cork, glasses were clinked, toasts were drunk and Madame and I soon started to unwind after the long hot drive from the Pays Basque. It wasn't long before the bottle was "morte" and P went off to fetch another.. I'd not been accustomed to drinking champagne in quantity before - normally, a glass or two at a wedding, or maybe a bottle between friends... but this was different. It seemed P had an unlimited supply of the stuff in his cellar because when we went inside for dinner, another bottle appeared on the table. And I think another one or two after that. In fact, we drank nothing else from the time we arrived to when we finally (much later) crawled gratefully up the stairs to bed.

With it being available in such quantity, I felt able to experiment with different methods of drinking it. Firstly, the discreet economical sip (as practised at weddings - when there's some doubt as to whether or not there's going to be a refill). Then there's the "go for it" method, taking a large un-English mouthful and gulping it down. Or filling one cheek and squirting it from side to side.. Or, as in a personal fantasy of mine, filling a washing up bowl with champagne and going face-down in it! (one of these days!) The possibilities were endless.. This was another one of those "I could get used to this" moments. The perfect drink on a warm summer's evening.

I remember once overhearing a couple of women re-stocking the drinks shelves at a supermarket in England. One said to the other, "What do you think of champagne..?" to which her friend replied, "Well, it's only glorified apple juice innit.." I must be honest: years ago I never used to be that struck on it because my experience of it was limited to sipping it warm at wedding receptions.

If, for some reason, I had to be limited to only one drink for the rest of my life, it would be champagne. I just wish I could afford to indulge in a bottle* every day as Winston Churchill is reputed to have done.

* Winston's favourite was Pol Roger.

Other champagne-related quotes - but who said 'em? (Answers below)

1. Three be the things I shall never attain: Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.

2. In victory, you deserve Champagne, in defeat, you need it.

3. There comes a time in every woman's life when the only thing that helps is a glass of champagne.

4. Champagne is the only wine that leaves a woman beautiful after drinking it.

5. Champagne's funny stuff. I'm used to whiskey. Whiskey is a slap on the back, and champagne's a heavy mist before my eyes.

6. My only regret is that I did not drink more Champagne.

7. I drink champagne when I win, to celebrate . . . and I drink champagne when I lose, to console myself.

8. The feeling of friendship is like that of being comfortably filled with roast beef; love is like being enlivened with Champagne.

9. In success you deserve it, and in defeat you need it.

10. I'm only a beer teetotaller, not a champagne teetotaller. I don't like beer.


Finally: how not to open a bottle of champagne:

Although why not!! Now where did I put that washing up bowl..?
________________________________________________

Answers:
1. Dorothy Parker
2. Napoleon
3. Bette Davis (from the movie Old Acquaintance)
4. Madame De Pompadour
5. James Stewart (from the movie The Philadelphia Story)
6. Lord Maynard Keynes, on his deathbed
7. Napoleon Bonaparte
8. Samuel Johnson
9. Winston Churchill (sounds like no 2 to me!)
10. George Bernard Shaw

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

34. Jura service

/contd. The next day we finished the long drive to Dôle, in Jura, where Tante S & Oncle M lived and checked into a nearby hotel. The celebration kicked off at midday on the following day at the local church where we met up with all their family, relatives & friends. This being the first time I'd met them all, the introductions took a while. Afterwards there was a vin d'honneur.. following which we all set off to where the lunch was being served at a hall in a park high up overlooking the town.

A great L-shaped table had been set up in the hall with M and S sitting at the corner angle while all the other places were seated by age order.. "Oldest on the right, youngest on the left.." I think there were about 50-60 of us. M knew his wines and he told me he'd been saving up his best bottles for this occasion. One of the wines that was new to me was a wonderful vin jaune (yellow wine) from Arbois, a neighbouring town. As each course was demolished, the next one was brought in by the traiteur. I don't think there's a direct equivalent in the UK for a traiteur - perhaps an upmarket caterer. Traiteurs provide fine food for meetings, weddings, receptions, etc.

We were sat next to Madame's cousins from Belfort (in eastern France) whom she hadn't seen for years. As the wine disappeared, the jokes, the singing and the dancing started.. I think I must have danced with every female member of the family.. Unfortunately I can no longer recall what we ate - except that it was all superb. The wines too were memorable - the taste of the Graves lingered long in the memory. With the coffee, unlabelled bottles of rocket fuel appeared from under the table and were passed around. At 5pm, we ground to a halt and we all got up to go for a short walk around the park before reconvening back in the hall for Part 2 at around 6pm...!! (Only in France!)

It all started again - except this time it was dinner! I seem to remember saying to Madame at about 11pm that perhaps we should be heading back to the hotel soon. Being France, you just can't get up and leave - we went round everybody (repeat handshakes & kissing) to say au revoir before finally driving (yes I know!) back to the hotel.. By this stage we'd been eating and drinking more or less continuously since midday and we were more than ready for bed.

When we arrived at the hotel there wasn't a light to be seen. I tried the front door only to find it was locked. Ringing the bell proved fruitless. There was a phone box across the road but again, no response.. So we got back in the car and drove to S's house where we parked on her drive and, putting the seats back, we fell quickly into an instant coma.

Some time after 1.30am, we were awoken by the sound of returning cars. After explaining to all and sundry what had happened, S said that one of the neighbours had a spare room all prepared in the event of an emergency overspill.. We drove around the corner to the house of S's friend where we parked outside and went into the house through the basement garage before tip-toeing up to the bedroom earmarked for waifs and strays on the ground floor.

The next morning I woke up with an urgent need to see a man about a dog.. Madame was vehement in her demand that I shouldn't as she was convinced that I'd wake up the family but after a short passage of time I persuaded her that it would be in all our interests if I went..!

I stood there in the bathroom with one of my Dad's wartime expressions running through my mind: M for sema, N for mation, O for the garden wall before getting to P for relief..* Opening the door quietly I crept out only to find a lady standing there looking at me.. with a quizzical expression.

Using the complete gamut (at the time) of my French language skills, I ventured a "Bonjour madame!" Hearing that, Madame sprang out of bed and took over.. (phew!) The lady and her husband had seen a car with a GB plate outside and put deux and deux together.. She'd been shushing her husband too in case he woke us up so it was fortunate I broke the circle.. He'd been out and bought fresh croissants too.

We had breakfast and before long we were chatting like old friends.. they were a charming couple. It was a bizarre experience though to wake up in a strange house with no idea who our hosts were.

* The other letters go like this: A for Horses, B for dinner, C for miles, D for ential, E for brick, F for vescence, G for police, H before beauty, I for nate, J for dollar to spare, K for teria, L for leather, M for sema, N for mation, O for the garden wall, P for relief, Q for hours, R for Bitter, S we have no bananas, T for two, U for mism, V for La France, W for a bob, X for breakfast, Y for mistress and Z for the doctor..
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Answer to November's quiz - What was it that Audrey Hepburn could have done all night, and still have begged for more..?
While most of you got the correct answer - which was of course "danced" - there were one or two colourful suggestions that I won't repeat here. But thanks anyway!

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

33. Christmas countdown..

25th November 2009. With the erection of 40 or so wooden chalets (aka garden sheds) in front of the Hôtel de Ville in Bayonne - ready for the Christmas market - there's now no hiding from the fact that Christmas is coming. The lights aren't up yet though.
When I was over in England in September, the previously mentioned Major Bloodnok was kind enough to make me a present of 2 large Christmas puddings. They've been sat in the cellar ever since and each time I go down there I'm tempted to bring one up into the light of day and sweet-talk Madame into heating one up. (Fat chance!) She does like them - but only at Christmas. (Rats!) I think that, as a food item, appreciation of them is usually limited to those of an Anglo Saxon origin. We're going up to Paris to stay with Madame's brother for a few days over Christmas and, for a few crazy moments, I thought that one of the Pudding Brothers would make an excellent contribution to the Christmas fare. That is, until the mental image of a table full of chauvinistic Gauls swam across my mind - each regarding their steaming slice of pudding with the utmost suspicion, poking and prodding it with looks of disdain as if it were still alive.. reluctantly tasting a morsel that could be harbouring e-coli at the very least. And this from a nation wot eats andouillette!! No, I don't think I'll bother. The French have a great expression for this: donner de la confiture aux cochons.. or to give jam to pigs!

At the risk of annoying those who live to the north, I must mention the unseasonably good weather we've been enjoying here for the last week (after the storms!). Temps of 24C and today it must be ~18-20C.. with matching blue skies.

With my knees giving me gyp at the moment, it's clear that our Golf is too small for us (ie, me) if we want to visit Tante S, Madame's auntie who lives in the Jura near the Swiss border (830kms away) as well as doing any long trips of exploration into Spain and Italy. After an hour's driving, I need to extend my legs which, in the Golf, I'm unable to do. So for the last few months we've been looking at all the options. We've test driven all kinds of cars and now we've homed in on the VW Tiguan as being the most suitable. With a little luck we should have one in time for our Christmas jaunt up to Paris..

Mentioning Tante S reminds me of the time when she and her now late husband were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary one summer in the mid 90s. They'd decided to have a celebratory dinner and had invited a representative from each part of the extended family (to keep the numbers down to a manageable level) and so we came to be invited. We'd planned our annual visit to the Pays Basque such that at the end of it we could drive up & across to the Jura to arrive in time..

We wanted to avoid the boredom of the autoroutes so we thought we'd simply "straight-line it" across France - going by the Departmentale* roads - thus seeing a bit more of the country. After driving all day on lonely roads through mountains, forests and villages we stopped overnight at a village called Bourganeuf (between Limoges and Clermont-Ferrand) which is as near as dammit in the centre of France. We quickly dropped our bags in a 2* "Logis" hotel in the centre and then went out for a swift leg stretch before dinner. I remember being amazed to find a fish shop still open at 7pm. What's more, the display of gleaming fish on ice under the lights looked as fresh as could be and - remember - this was in a village 200 miles from the coast..!

We returned to the hotel and went into the cosy and heavily beamed dining room. Looking around, it was clear that this was the real France (aka la France profonde). After browsing the menu for a few minutes I realised that this was somewhere that took its food seriously. All the classic dishes were there. Madame often says that food is the second religion in France but I'd go further and say it's the first - as more people go to restaurants than go to church. Looking through the wine list I couldn't believe what I was seeing - most of the wine was priced at somewhere between £200 and £800 a bottle.. There were some fabled wines there that I'd only read about - Château Palmer, Château Gruaud-Larose, Château Haut-Brion and Château Yquem - and this in a un cheval village in the middle of nowhere.. Who was buying this? Needless to say, we had a bottle of something far more modest!

/to be continued..

* Autoroutes (motorways) are A roads.. as in the A63 from Bayonne to Bordeaux (UK equivalents? The M1, M5, M6 etc).
Nationale roads are N roads (as in N7) - these equate to the A roads in the UK.
Departmentale roads are D roads - and are equivalent to the UK's B roads.
Hope that's cleared up any confusion there may have been!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

32. Spain

We went across the border to Irun in Spain today as Madame was in need of some retail therapy. Her "SHOPPING" low level warning light had been indicating steady red for a few days!

On arrival, we stopped for a hot chocolate at a cafe we'd been to before.. These are the real thing here - made with dark chocolate melted into hot milk - and are highly recommended. Looking around at the clientele of the cafe, it looked like they were auditioning for a Pedro Almodovar film.. There were a couple of middle aged guys who looked suspiciously "light on their loafers" and a number of excessively well dressed women who looked like they each had a story to tell (for a small down payment!). After that Madame went loose to look at clothes various - an activity which I was mercifully spared from - so I walked the pooch around.

I wished I'd brought my camera with me to take a few pictures of things that caught my eye - such as a shop that declared itself to be a Zapateria (a shoe shop in case you're wondering), a shop (in the main street) that curiously just sold domestic internal doors, a bar that advertised strep tease (yes, it was spelt like that), and a cafe that offered hamb urguesas (no prizes for guessing that one). There was a very pleasant square there with plenty of shade provided by plane trees that still had their leaves.

In the middle was a chap sat in a ONCE* booth not much bigger than an old-style red phone box selling tickets for the fabled Spanish lottery. La Loteria Nacional is played every Thursday and Saturday; the Bonoloto, which is drawn every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; la Primitiva, which is drawn every Thursday and Saturday and the large jackpot, El Gordo de la Primitiva, or "the Fat One" as it's known, is drawn every Sunday. The main prize is a dizzyingly huge number of euros.

Spanish pedestrian crossings are quite novel and show a countdown in seconds of how much time to wait before the display changes from an animated Pacman-esque green one to a stationary red figure.
Back in the car, the outside temperature was reading 24C as we passed through Behobia on the border.. which I thought was very reasonable for 19th November.

Hmm, I think I've just worked out why Madame sometimes refers to me under her breath as El Gordo..

* ONCE = Organizacion Nacional de Ciegos Españoles (Spanish National Blind Organisation)

Sunday, 15 November 2009

31. Vocabulaire

Another observation on how words are used here. For some time I've been aware at a subliminal level that the state and the media uses words for public consumption that we would never dream of using for the same audience in the UK and elsewhere in the Anglo-Saxon sphere.. While these words are completely correct, they would be judged by those who judge such things in the UK to be too highbrow, too technical or incomprehensible to yer average Brit. Or all three.. In France, there is a precision of expression - an absolutism - that mandates the use of a word that is totally correct (even if only a small percentage of the public is likely to understand it) in preference to a more widely understood simpler but less precise one. We appear to have swung in the opposite direction in the UK.

Let's take the TV weather forecast for starters. Here, instead of saying it will be cloudy - or "nuageux" - they talk of increased "nébulosité". Compare this with the baby talk by UK weather presenters – bits and pieces of rain, gorgeous sunshine, weather pushing up from the south, or weather lurking out in the Atlantic waiting to attack us. I’m not making these up! And Arctic conditions when it's -1C..! Meanwhile, back at the Météo in France - another common one is to talk about a "perturbation" in the weather when all they really mean is a blip or a change in the weather is imminent - usually for the worse. "Luminosité" is yet another one.

And what is plain and simple in Anglo Saxon - for example, a ring road - becomes the périphérique in French. In the UK I somehow can't imagine White Van Man referring to the M25 around Greater London as the Peripheral Motorway.

Sometimes the centre of a road here is blanked off by a metre-wide strip of red paint to indicate that motorists cannot cross it. This is known here as the axial which I'm sure means nothing to a large percentage of the populace.

Catherine Jentile, the resident TF1 (the major French TV network) correspondent in London always refers to the English language as la langue du Shakespeare (the language of Shakespeare) rather than as English. And the UK/Britain/England becomes la royaume de sa gracieuse Majesté - the kingdom of her gracious Majesty. They often use this indirect form of address when referring to someone or something - for example, someone from Biarritz will invariably be referred to not by their name but as the Biarrot. Every town has an identity form which can be used like this. I'm not suggesting that any of this matters much.. but it's interesting to experience a different slant on how things are viewed. Broadcasters will not dumb down. In the UK, some cultural activities are perceived to be of interest only to a minority - such as the theatre or ballet - whereas here in France they are routinely reported in the television news both in the mornings and evenings.

And if you’re ever considering putting your foot in your mouth, French is the easiest language in the world to do it in. Ask me how I know..! “A”, one of the girls at the rowing club, said during an outing on the river that she had a spare ticket for the local rugby derby match between Biarritz and Bayonne. Later, in the mens’ changing room, when the subject of the game cropped up I mentioned to the others (in French) that “A” had a ticket for me.. This produced howls of laughter..! Apparently this means that I have a crush on her! Another ‘foot in mouth’ moment occurred during an outing on the river, when I was attempting to explain to one of the girls in the crew the technique at the finish of the stroke for getting the oar out of the water and feathering the blade all in one smooth action. I remembered my old coach talking about rolling the handle of the oars (oars = les pelles in French) so I translated this into French as “roulez les pelles” which again produced a gale of laughter. This means to kiss with tongues..!

Meanwhile, some French humour that's doing the rounds..

Jean Pierre trouve sa prof d'anglais tout à fait à son goût, aussi il lui envoie un texte message:

"Douillou sink it is envisageable crak crak wiziou this ivening?"

Scandalisée, elle répond: "Never!"

Alors Jean Pierre, en joie, lui renvoie: "Splendid, disons never, never et demie!"

(Be still my aching sides..!)

Some useful vocab:

mon amour my love

mon ange my angel

mon bébé my baby

ma belle my beautiful (informal)

ma biche my doe

ma bichette my little doe

ma caille my quail (informal)

mon canard my duck

mon chaton my kitten

ma chatte my cat (familiar)

mon cher, ma chère my dear

mon chéri, ma chérie my dearie

mon chou my pastry (informal)

mon chouchou my favorite, blue-eyed boy/girl, pet* (informal)
*as in "teacher's pet"

mon cochon my pig

mon coco my egg

ma cocotte my hen (informal)

mon cœur my heart

ma crotte my dropping (also refers to a small, round goat cheese)

ma fifille my little girl (informal, old-fashioned)

mon grand / ma grande my big guy / girl

mon jésus my Jesus (when talking to a child)

mon lapin my rabbit

ma loutre my otter

mon loup my wolf

ma mie literally "my female friend," but used to mean "my dear/love." (This is a somewhat old-fashioned term contracted from mon amie > m'amie > ma mie. Note that mie also refers to the soft part of bread - the opposite of the crust.)

mon mignon my cutie

mon mimi my pussycat (informal)

mon minet / ma minette my pussycat

mon minou my kitty

ma moitié my half

mon petit / ma petite my little guy / girl

ma poule my hen

mon poulet my chicken

ma poulette my pullet (informal)

ma poupée my doll

mon poussin my chick (informal)

ma puce my flea (informal)

mon sucre d'orge my barley sugar

mon trésor my treasure

mon trognon my (fruit) core (when talking to a child)

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

30. Optional read: Two wheel interlude

The 500cc Matchless G80CS was a competition motorcycle aimed squarely at the US market where the model was arguably the one to beat in off-road events such as hare ‘n hounds, scrambles, desert races and enduros in the fifties and early sixties. It could never be described as a lightweight, as it was always rumoured that Matchless kept adding 3lbs of metal to the frame where it had broken in competition until it stopped breaking. The result was the almost bullet-proof, highly reliable, late model G80CS which, in its final incarnation, weighed in at some 380lbs.

This was the image (below) that sustained me during the long search for my bike and then again during its subsequent restoration. It belongs to Dave Campbell up in Alaska and is the perfect example of the model. 

After searching in vain for 8 years in the UK for an affordable G80CS, I finally stumbled upon one advertised as a basket case in Walneck’s Classic Cycle Trader magazine while on a lengthy business trip to Seattle in 1998. Belonging to magazine proprietor Buzz Walneck himself, Buzz had bought it from the estate of the first and only owner. It had been dismantled many years before and had apparently been dry stored in the first owner’s basement ever since. I called Buzz in Illinois (1500 miles to the east) and asked him how complete the bike was. He told me that it was 98% all there. I then asked him if the engine would turn over and if there was compression? The answer was yes to both of these questions. Finally, I asked if gears could be selected – again, yes.

A couple of days later a set of photos arrived from Buzz that showed the dismantled G80CS in all its glory - underneath a thick crust of thirty year old mid-Western topsoil - and they are the ones in the first 55 seconds of the following slideshow:

After taking a long deep breath I decided to buy it (while the bike might have been 98% all there - was I?). When I finally got to inspect the various parts after its arrival in the UK, it looked like the first owner had in fact raced it because all the quickly detachable (Q/D) parts - headlight, silencer, rear light, chainguard, speedo - were like new. The speedo showed only 603 miles on it when I bought it.

The bike is one of the very last of the illustrious line of Matchless competition singles to be made – it was manufactured in April ’67 before full-time production ceased a month later. Tall, slim, & functional, it was lent an additional massive presence by that beautiful all-alloy short stroke engine. It oozed charisma (but not oil!)(well, not much..) and had character in spades.

With the original Amal 389 carb fitted, starting was always something of a lottery despite following the approved procedure. Starting from cold, I used to tickle the carb until petrol showed. I would then pull the exhaust valve lifter and turn the engine over a few times to fill the cylinder with mixture. Retarding the ignition a tad, I would then administer the traditional “long swinging kick”. It would usually start within 5 kicks - provided there wasn’t an audience! Anything after this caused my leg to grow weary due to the 8.7 piston so I would revert to a “run & bump” on a nearby hill. I fitted a new carb body and a chrome slide from Hitchcocks which did improve things a little but even then I was never able to achieve predictable starting and a satisfactory tickover.

Out of the blue, a colleague at work offered me a new Dell’Orto PHM40 carb at a price I could not resist. I wanted to fit the Dell’Orto in such a way that originality would not be compromised. I asked a friend if he could make up a new manifold that would allow the original Amal to be re-fitted if necessary. A skilled precision engineer, he did a superb job of machining a new manifold from solid alloy billet.

With the Dell’Orto now fitted, starting at last became reliable. The routine was then: petrol on, retard ignition a tad, open air lever a little if cold, give the twist grip a couple of turns to squirt some neat petrol into the cylinder, followed by 2-3 long slow strokes of the kick starter with the exhaust valve lifter lifted. Following the first serious kick, it usually boomed into life and settled down quickly to a slow even tickover.

The clutch action was light (to me) and gear selection was foolproof. Finding neutral was simply done. The engine smoothed out once the heavy flywheels were spinning and the faster the bike was ridden, the smoother it got. It sat comfortably at 60-65mph with snarling power instantly available beyond that. I had it up to 80mph for the odd brief period but wind pressure made life uncomfortable at that speed. Cruising at 60mph was far more preferable and sustainable. The exhaust note was a constant source of pleasure to me but some bystanders might have felt that its healthy crackle to be excessive by today’s standards. A plodding Matchless single it wasn't! The riding position suited me – the seat height was 33” and I didn't feel cramped at all. As far as roadholding was concerned, potholes or white lines didn't disturb its line through bends and it never shook its head. I think that, in common with most other bikes of the same era, its braking ability was the only aspect of the bike that showed its age in the cut and thrust of modern traffic.

Best bike I ever had.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

29. Winter's here (I think)

Sunday, 8th November 2009. More storms last night.. I woke up in the wee small hours following a loud crash of thunder only to find that we'd been joined in bed by the dog (who was shivering for Britain). I lay there listening to all the hullabaloo outside for a while before dropping off back to sleep again. There's something curiously satisfying about being wrapped up in a warm bed while listening to Mother Nature doing her worst outside. It's even better in a tent. I think there must be something about this experience that's tied up with some early folk memory in us that harks back to ancient times. The storm lasted through till around 10 this morning when the clouds cleared to reveal a bright blue sky. While the worst of it has blown through it's still very windy. I think we'll drive to Biarritz this afternoon to see the waves crashing against the rocks..
I walked into Bayonne this morning to pick up the bread and there were very few people out and about. Opposite the Galeries Lafayette someone has set up a hot chestnut stand ("Marrons Chauds") that looks like a small steam locomotive. Winter's here. We've started doing chestnuts at home during the last week or two. Just back from a good blowy walk around Biarritz. I've been meaning to mention something for a while about the pavement (sidewalk for US readers) rules of the road in France.. In England, there's no rule or set side for which way to let people pass who are coming towards you on the pavement. In fact, quite often it's all too easy to end up in a pavement tango.. where you both step the same way left and right and left before finally saying "I'll go this way.." I had it drummed into me as a callow youth that I should always pass on the outside (ie, the road side) if approaching a lady. This can complicate things. Here, the rule of the road applies.. you always let people approaching (regardless of gender) pass to the left.. Easy.

We went to Biarritz straight after lunch where the sea was running very high.. with boiling surf and huge breaking waves that crashed with a sudden explosive whumph against the foot of the cliffs by the lighthouse. We weren't the only ones there.. and parking space was at a premium. The dog's ears were horizontal as the wind caught them! It's quite sobering watching a stormy sea - even though in real terms the waves weren't that big compared with, say, the Southern Ocean between Australia and Cape Horn. At times like this, my admiration for those solo round the world sailors knows no bounds. After watching the violent sea for a while, we walked down into Biarritz and along the promenade that we'd been sunning ourselves on - only a week ago. This time, the sea had thrown up on the beach great wobbling banks of foam or spume (good word for after lunch!) about 2 feet thick that rippled in the wind. We found our way to the Hotel Plaza (an ornate Art Deco hotel) where we had a hot chocolate each. This is (another!) one of Madame's favourite places as they make them from real chocolate here.

As we left Biarritz about 4pm to return home, the roads leading into Biarritz were solid with glassy-eyed post-Sunday lunch traffic all eager to see the sea.

Monday, 9th November 2009
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Last night we had the last of the thunderstorms and now it finally looks as though the week of rain is over. This afternoon the skies are blue and the pavements are drying out.

One good thing - my new grass is growing.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

28. It never rains but it..

5th November 2009. I’ve been confined to barracks for a couple of days – last Tuesday the rhumatologue administered the final injection (last of three) of 'gunge' into my knees to act as a cushion in the joints. After my knees have stabilised, I’ll then have to see a physio for some “re-education” as they call it (sounds a bit Maoist). Rowing looks to be ‘off’ for the foreseeable future – it will probably be around Christmas before I can start again.

The Indian summer we’ve been enjoying up last weekend has suddenly segued into a week of most un-English rain. Fortunately, window shutters here in the South West are solid wood – they’re not the effete louvred jobbies beloved of impressionist painters – and, as always, there’s a very good reason why.

The Vieux Port, Biarritz taking a pounding.
Here, rain doesn’t manifest itself as a gentle drizzle that lasts most of the day, or as dancing showers that spatter the windows for a few minutes and puts a short-lived shine on the pavements. No, rain “à la Pays Basque” sweeps in directly from Ye Famouf Olde Baye of Bifcay (Purveyor of Torrential Downpourf to SW France fince Time Immemorial). Rain that, if it were any heavier, would be solid water. Rain that seems malevolent and blows in visible sheets that hit the ground and bounce back up again. Rain that drums in rising crescendos against the roof, walls and shutters, swept in by wailing winds that buffet and swirl around the house, rattling the tightly fastened shutters as if searching for the weak point.
Approaching storm at Anglet
Last night was a particularly bad night I’m told. While I was deep in my usual 3am coma-like oblivion, apparently the world as we know it was ending just the other side of our shutters and Madame feared for the house. This phenomenon probably explains why hanging baskets are rarely if ever seen here.. they'd be blown away in one of these storms.

Here's a clip of the breakers smashing in to the rocks at Biarritz..
I've come to realise that France is greatly more politicised than England. French politics exert a huge influence on daily life here. The complete politicisation of French society surprised me when I first noticed it and it continues to surprise me. Politics are everywhere and just about everything on the radar seems to have a political dimension.

In England, the Royal Family is available to act as a distraction for the media but here in France, with no Royal family, the media in all its forms has the government of the day's actions under permanent microscopic daily scrutiny. Every argument has 2 opposing elements – Left & Right – and the airwaves are awash with programmes with political journalists arguing and chewing over every action by the government. Journalists of the Left and Right try to tease an anti- or a pro-government spin respectively from daily events. The apparatus of the State is visibly politicised to a degree unknown in England – although maybe in England it is there but it’s less intrusive. The power of the State cascades down through a formal system of Prefets, sous-Prefets and mayors - all the way down to idle wasters.. like me.

And so we sign off on this rain-sodden dank grey day with this uplifting reminder of the 1950s:
And if I'm not mistaken, I reckon the chicken giving its all for Pathe News is a poulet de Bresse - ze Rolls-Royce of chickens, at least here in France.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

27. All Saints Day

1st November 2009. Yesterday, I went to watch Aviron Bayonne, the local rugby union club, play Toulon (Jonny Wilkinson's new club). Unfortunately he wasn't playing as he's back in England training with the England squad in preparation for the autumn internationals. Toulon is coached by Tana Umaga, the former All-Black, so they are no slouches. I came by the ticket courtesy of one of the girls at the rowing club - she said that her husband Éric was going and could get me a ticket. We arranged to meet at the main gate at 2pm.. When they arrived, it turned out that it was a 'freebie' and, not only that, it was a VIP ticket as well with access to pre- and post-match hospitality. Yee-haar..!

We went in and headed towards the hospitality tent, spotting Amelie Mauresmo (the French tennis player) on the way. The level of support for the club was clear for all to see - just about everyone was wearing something pale blue - the colour of Aviron Bayonne. It seemed as much a social occasion as a rugby match with many elegant ladies evident. Entering the VIP hospitality tent, I was staggered by the quality of the offerings.. there were ~30 tables - each sponsored by local companies – laden with seafood and other delicacies. We quickly found the right table and, as it was very warm, we just had time for a cold beer before going into the main stand to find our seats. Bayonne are struggling at the foot of the Top 14 having just sacked their coach but despite that they were very lively. They could and should have put points on the board before Toulon did. However, as it was, Toulon were more clinical and it ended 8-14.

This is a video of the Bayonne crowd singing their "Hymne" - Vino Griego or "La Peña Baïona" - on another occasion. When Bayonne play at home and the crowd sing it, we can hear them at the house. Guaranteed to bring you out in goose pimples..!
After the game, we returned to the VIP tent and this time, every table had, as its centrepiece, platters of seafood and oysters.. and cheeses various. ("Only in France.." I thought) There were opened bottles of Bordeaux on every table as well which I just had to interview and there was a champagne bar which didn't appear to be doing much business after the loss.

After we'd drowned our sorrows a bit, we came back to our place and sat out on the terrace in the garden with some tea and cake that Madame had. All in all, a very pleasant afternoon.

Today is All Saints Day in France and it's the day in the year when families, friends and relatives set off to visit the graves of their loved ones in cemeteries all over France. Not entirely coincidentally, the weekend also rates very highly as a "Black Weekend" as far as road deaths are concerned as motorists take to the motorways in droves and embark on long journeys - to the town or village of their infancy - to visit the family grave.

Many of these drivers seldom travel outside their Department and so the prospect of a long road trip is more than usually fraught with danger. For the rest of us, it's a good weekend to stay indoors. For the last few days, the local regional TV news has been showing the Gendarmerie operating speed traps along the length and breadth of Aquitaine - all of which served to remind Madame to wag a cautionary finger at me - as my driving licence is hanging on - as they would say in the Eurovision Song Contest - by neuf points..

It is traditional to leave flowers at the graveside and the flower most often left is the chrysanthemum. (Warning: if invited to a French home, never be tempted to offer chrysanthemums.) Flower shops at this time of the year seem to sell nothing but pots of chrysanthemums (right).. I walked into Bayonne this fine Sunday morning - in shirt-sleeves (winter seems like another country) - to buy a couple of campaillettes (an extremely more-ish pointy-ended crusty baguette currently in favour with the Mem'sahib) from a baker with a traditional wood-fired oven in Petit Bayonne - just across the Nive. As I walked down the avenue, I couldn't help noticing the size of the chestnut leaves that have started drifting down - some were a good foot across. Our local florist had an amazing display of beautifully sculpted chrysanthemums in pots this morning.. as did all the other florists in town.

I stopped at a cash machine and when I'd finished, an old gentleman who'd been waiting behind me asked if I could help him. At first I thought I was being offered an opportunity to contribute to his lunch but then I realised he was asking me for help in operating the cash machine. I managed to get through all of this without asking him to repeat himself or without him asking me to repeat myself. All in French. Afterwards, I continued my walk feeling pleasantly pleased with myself. Another minor victory. I've had these unexpected conversations before where I've had to run up the white flag and confess to being an "Angliche" - being unable to dredge up the right words in time.

Into Bayonne proper at around 10am, the shuttered streets were fairly empty apart from a handful of chic Parisian tourists clutching their Guides Michelin. It was low water and looking down into the Nive, there were shoals of fat grey mullet hunting in packs for titbits. Over the bridge and into the bakers and the heady smell of hot fresh bread.. (Mmm!)

Job done - two hot loaves in hand - I somehow managed to resist the temptation to nibble the pointed end of a Campaillette on the return journey. Walking down the shopping street near home, I passed by 'our' estate agent.. Its window was full of property details and I noticed a smallish slim box with a slot in it affixed to the wall. It invited any party interested in a property to leave a Carte de Visite in the box. This struck me not only as an excellent idea but also a delightfully old-fashioned one at the same time - the assumption that a prospective house buyer would possess a carte de visite. How many people in England would have a visiting card - not a business card. Not too many I’d guess.

It's midday, the windows are wide open, the sun is shining and church bells are ringing all across Bayonne.

I don't know about you but I'm off downstairs to set the table.

Addendum. It turned out that Madame had other ideas. A pot of paint and a paint brush were waiting for me downstairs and she pointed me in the direction of the front door which needed another coat of paint before winter. She simply doesn't realise the importance of keeping this blog up to date!

We went for a walk with the dawg along the sea-front at Biarritz in the late afternoon as the forecast for next week is for showers (or bits and pieces of rain as the BBC weather girls say!). Although the car thermometer said 25C, it felt a few degrees warmer.. and there was quite a crowd out, with people swimming and surfing. It was still 24 at 6.30 when we arrived home - all this on 1st November!

We once saw the "Riverdance" show at the Sheffield Arena in England and it was a stunning performance. It was a fill-in act during the interval during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin and they took the place by storm. (Health Warning: Don't try this at home!) Fast forward to 4:45 if you're short of time:

When we saw the show in Sheffield, we were lucky enough to be seated near to the very talented Irish band. I'd've paid just to hear them.. they looked like they were enjoying themselves and would have played for nothing. The one who stood out for us though was Davy Spillane on the Uilleann pipes:

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

26. River bank tales

25th October 2009. We enjoyed a lip-smacking dinner on Friday evening. J-Y, the husband of D (Madame’s painting teacher), had prepared a superb five course meal for all the class at the workshop/studio in the heart of Bayonne. He’d trained as a chef but found that he didn’t enjoy being shouted at by choleric chefs and so he abandoned cuisine as a career. However, thankfully, he’s continued cooking as an amateur. He and his wife are an extremely creative couple – we went to a soirée there about a month ago held to raise public awareness of foreign ‘jobless’ & students in Bayonne. There was a wide range of nationalities reflected in those present and they each presented themselves in their own language, with the aid of an interpreter if necessary. It was very well done and it succeeded in turning each one from the “jobless scrounger” stereotype into an individual.

As October draws to a close, the temps are bouncing around. Large leathery brown leaves from the chestnut trees are starting to drift down from on high in the avenue. The other morning it was down to 3C but this afternoon according to the thermometer in the car it was 25.. so we decided to go for a walk with the pooch along the Nive.
The Nive
We discovered this walk a few months ago and it’s become one of our favourites as the path is tarmac which helps keep the dog fairly clean. We’d originally planned on turning around at a small footbridge about 12km from Bayonne but having got there we realised that the village of our gite was just nearby. We carried on, only stopping at a farm shop to pick up a gateau Basque to offer M et Mme D. It was great to see them again and we sat outside in the sunshine before deciding to move inside as it was just too hot out there in the sun.. We had a couple of glasses of wine with the cake before heading back along the Nive to where we’d left the car.
One of the guys down at the rowing club has managed to find me a ticket for the Bayonne-Toulon game at the weekend.. Unfortunately Jonny Wilkinson won't be playing as he's joining up with the England squad for a month.

I started reading Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes today. Think I'd like to follow in his footsteps and bring the story up to date. He wrote it in 1878 when he was 28. The following year he travelled across the US to California before returning to Scotland. He went back to the US and then on to Australia before finally settling in Samoa. He was only 44 when he died.

I'd better start writing..!

Friday 30th October 2009: Just returned from soaking up the sun on the beach at Anglet.. where it was a warm 26 this afternoon. Our last visit for 2009? Who knows.. but I'm keeping a knotted hanky in the car just in case..

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

25. Smoking & Joints

21st October 2009. We’re the warmest place in France today at 21C.. Paris is down at around 12C.

I thought I’d give Madame a break from the kitchen today so this morning while she was at her painting class I prepared the lunch. I’d decided to make Jambalaya – which is a combination of many things we like – seafood, chicken, chorizo sausage, rice and hot Basque sauce.. It worked out quite well.. (if I say so myself!) If the finished product looks anything like this, you're in business!

(Gardening Dept: I’ve just finished re-seeding part of the lawn at the back of the house for about the third time.. Or, as it's known here, providing the starlings with yet another picnic.. This time I used a soil compound that was supposedly very rich in fertiliser and I hope this is the last time I have to do this particular job.)

Over the last few years I’ve had some pain in my knees when they’ve been immobile for a while – such as when driving or sat in the cinema.. The docs here sent me for MRI scans and X-rays and it turns out that I’ve got a touch of arthritis in both (aka the creeping march of time..). So yesterday I went to a Rhumatologue – a specialist who deals with articulation problems - and he injected both knees with a compound designed to cushion the joints. I’ve 2 more of these sessions to come then I should be OK again.

The issue of French manners seems to exercise many English people, but as I've observed before, manners here are different. For example, sat in the waiting room of the Rhumatologue, I noticed that everyone who came in said "Mesdames, messieurs" or what sounded like "M'sieurs dames" to the waiting room at large and the majority said "Au revoir mesdames, messieurs" to those in the waiting room on leaving. Now - correct me if I'm wrong - but this would not happen back in England.

Thought for the Day: I remember a doctor friend in England once saying that he was against living healthily with the aim of extending one’s life. His rationale is that the extra 5 years gained aren’t given back to you in your middle years – where you’d want them – but they get tagged on at the end.. where you don’t. He is a keen cigar smoker who smokes without guilt.

All of which brings me on to this: when Keith Floyd died, the holier than thou element of the UK media, aka the Fun Police, had a field day.. The headline in one English newspaper was “The pleasures of life undid him in the end..!” I would doubt that he had a single regret.. he lived his life as he wanted. Many don't. Here's to you, Keith!

Here's Keith in the Pays Basque bravely trying to make a Pipérade - against a constant barrage of 'advice'!

Right, enough of this, it’s a beautiful afternoon down here and it’s time to take the pooch for a walk. Then I'm going to have a drink on the terrace. Or two.

Monday, 19 October 2009

24. It's all go at the Rowing Club on and off the water

19th October 2009. I’m going to have to skate over the period from Spring 2008 to date, otherwise I’ll never get up to date..

I went along to the Rowing Club in Bayonne in September 2008 and joined the Loisirs (= Leisure) Section. I’d say that there is an equal mix of the sexes. We go out on the river 3 times a week – Tuesday & Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings. It’s a very friendly club - on arrival, the first arduous duty being to shake hands with all the mecs (blokes) and to kiss all the nanas (girls). This can take some time. The first Saturday I turned up to row, I was put in a quadruple sculler coxed ‘four’ (known here as a yolette) as the only mec in a crew of nanas. I was asked if I’d like to have lunch at the club and after checking with Madame that it was OK I said yes.

We set off up river and it wasn’t too long before the questions to the “Angliche” started coming thick and fast.. After explaining what I was doing in the Pays Basque, what I’d done before and what I thought of France etc etc we reached our turning point, and turned around to shoot down the river with the very strong current that was running. We did 16km that first Saturday and was I ready for a drink!

We sat down to lunch at 12 midday in the Salle des Rameurs (Rowers Room) which was lined with masses of silverware, trophies, pennants and photos. There were about 20 of us around the long table for lunch.. The wine appeared. Plates of charcuterie came and went, then some steaming great platters of cous cous, each with a mound of meat in the middle.. After that cheese (and more wine) before the tartes au pommes were wheeled out.. With the coffee, some bottles without labels were produced mysteriously from under the table – I’ve no idea what they contained but the contents of some of them could have powered the space shuttle. The lunch finished at 4pm (yes, a four hour lunch!) and was a great introduction to the club.

In November 2008, they had a Beaujolais Nouveau evening – which was another great success.. By the way, Beaujolais Nouveau here is a completely different beast to that which is sold in the UK.

Meanwhile the debate over the south western extension to the TGV network rumbles on.. I think the real issues are to do with preserving the status quo especially in the housing market.. ie, house prices pegged at their current level without the inflationary effect that would result from opening up the Pays Basque to affluent Parisians who could afford to buy a residence secondaire locally and commute to the capital on a weekly basis. Marseilles is now only 3 hrs from Paris by TGV whereas the Pays Basque is 5hrs.. I think the local view is that they don’t want or need an influx of outsiders and that this new line would benefit Parisians far more than it would them.

This is the latest TGV which just broke the world speed record for trains at a staggering 574kph (356mph for us). I'd much prefer to use the fast train (when it comes here finally) rather than drive or fly up to Paris.. The advantages are obvious - city centre to city centre, turn up and go, room to move, no lengthy check-in and security checks (yet!), more relaxing.. I for one look forward to the day when all the major cities of Europe are connected by high speed trains. Look at the clip here at 1.25 for a good impression of the speed:

I think this is a technology that the UK could and should have been developing.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

23. Spring - Fête de Bayonne 2008

I think we'd been in the house for 2 months and we had just about got ourselves straight when our first visitors arrived.. By the end of September 2008, five months later, we'd had 21 visitors - and with Madame's health problems, this is something we won't be repeating - except for very special cases. She only knows one way to entertain and that is to push le bateau out.. She is a truly wonderful cook but for days after each set of visitors had departed, she would be absolutely worn out.. It was too much for her. So as much as we’d like to invite friends down here, I think for Madame’s sake, we’ll have to say come down by all means but we won’t be able to put you up. Which is a great pity but there we are.

We'd heard a lot about the famous Fête de Bayonne from various people.. This is the annual fiesta that takes over the town for 5 days & nights every year at the end of July/beginning of August. Last year, it was calculated that 1.3 million people came and this year was no different. Normally, Bayonne has a population of around 40,000 so you can imagine with well over a million extra visitors that the town was well & truly swamped. Many visitors come from the hinterland of the Basque region itself as the Fête is a celebration of their Basque identity but they also come from further afield. If parking can be problematic at normal times, then during the Fête it's a complete nightmare. In our avenue, people normally park on one side only and there’s usually always a space free.. However, during the Fête, cars were 'creatively' parked on both sides up on the pavement as only the French (and the Neapolitans) can do. This meant that we couldn't go out in the car because if we did, the chances of finding a space upon return would be z-e-r-o. It would be no use us putting the car in our garage as some eejits could always be relied on to block the access to it.
 
The Fête started off at 10pm in the main square in front of the Town Hall.. Fortunately we’d arrived there early and we’d found a shop doorway to stand in (which kept us out of the crush). After a few words from the mayor there was the mother of all firework displays – made up largely of explosive detonations that painfully rattled your chest.. Everyone was in white and red - white trousers, white shirts with a red bandana, and a red sash round the waist. Don’t ask why – it’s just how they do it here. Everyone – but everyone – was dressed the same – they all joined together in a display of pride in their separateness, their Basque identity, their distinctive Basque culture, their Basque music, their Basque dancing and their unique Basque language. Language specialists have no idea where or what the origins of the Basque language are – it’s like no other language in Europe or anywhere else. Here’s an example so you can see how different it is: Zuek egunkariak erosten dizkidazue. This means: “you buy the newspapers for me”. Knowledge of any other European language won't help in decoding this.

The Fête really was a spectacle.. Despite the bars being allowed to serve alcohol till 3am and stay open till 5am.. we didn’t see many drunks.. Many slept in their cars.. and cars were parked everywhere.. The town was full of little bars that people set up, each street seemed to have their own band and it was complete bedlam! The narrow streets were full of Basque marching bands beating out old rhythms with their drums, accompanied by the reedy shrieking of an instrument that sounds like a duck call..

One evening our local butcher (supposedly the best butcher in Bayonne) at the bottom of our avenue organized a dinner in the street.. We had to sign up and pay in advance then just turn up on the night. They’d put tables out in the middle of the road to seat about 100 of us.. The price included the menu, the wine and there was music provided by a small band.. It was supposed to start at 9.30pm but of course it didn’t start until 10pm.. The main course was boned leg of lamb – which was delicieux! Fortunately they came round again with seconds! I think we left about 1am..

They had a pop concert one night at the bull ring (which is about 200 yards away) – which was extremely loud.. They'd spent all afternoon doing imaginative sound checks ("Un, deux.. un, deux..") but as the concert finished about midnight it wasn’t too bad.

We’ve been continuing to tackle all the outstanding jobs – some big, some small – one by one. As the dining room shutters were a bit rotten at the top, we had to have some new ones made by Eric. He’s very, very good and not expensive. He’s got the Basque work ethic too..

He appeared one afternoon at about 1.30 with a stack of planks and by 6.30pm he’d finished. He’d taken all the metal fittings off the old shutters and re-used them where he could. Next day, I had the ladder out and I put on 2 coats of the Basque red that we’re supposed to use. All the woodwork of the houses in the Basque country is painted either blood red, dark blue or dark green. Now and again you’ll see a brown one.

So you can see that life here is all one mad round of fun, washing wine stains out the curtains, putting clean straw down, trips to the bottle bank and re-seeding the lawns after the starlings have been at it – AGAIN!

And now I'm just off to buy the newspapers in Basque.. or maybe not.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

22. Wide Loads

This morning we woke up feeling in need of a dose of adrenalin-fuelled high octane excitement - the sort that can only be generated by indulging in some cutting edge retail therapy - so we went out to buy a new toilet seat..! The one we inherited in the downstairs bathroom was past its sell-by date (enough information - it just was!) and was long overdue for replacement. You really haven’t lived until you’ve visited 3 DIY superstores to measure up the myriad toilet seats out on display. You do have to wonder at some of the ones we saw.. like the clear plastic one with barbed wire embedded in it - why?

We had a toilet seat problem.. and it's not often that you hear this discussed in a blog.. Perhaps the previous occupant(s) of the house were "wide loads" because for some unknown reason she/they had chosen to fit a special Godzilla-size toilet in the downstairs loo and not many seats appear to fit it. The only one that fit the bill was lavishly decorated with a highly coloured tropical scene from the Maldives.. Now we have to explain to everyone intending to use it why exactly we chose this particularly garish model..

On the other hand, Madame is absolutely delighted with her new kitchen.. she says it makes her feel like a star.. with everything to hand it’s all very practical. She’d had this idea for a tall wrought iron unit with glass shelves (for cookery books etc) to go in a corner and we walked into a lighting-cum-furniture shop and, “Stone me!” (in the immortal words of the Queen Mother) - there it was – the only one they had and in the exact colour (to match the walls) she wanted too.
More jobs crossed off the list.. put up the first aid cabinet and also tried to install the new small flat screen TV for the kitchen.. There was no aerial point in there so we’d bought an indoor aerial which turned out to be a waste of money. It didn’t seem to matter much where I pointed it, at best we got a black and white picture in a snowstorm.. but luckily the shop did say that if it didn’t work, they’d take it back. So no prizes for guessing where that’s going.. There’s an aerial socket in the dining room and now we’re thinking of taking a feed from that and drilling a hole through the wall to get it into the kitchen. However, I’m rather reluctant to do that as the walls are so pristine but I don’t think we have a choice.
This morning, I finally took the plaster off my middle finger – that was the one that was cut the worst – and it seemed to have healed over now. Unfortunately it was right on the knuckle where it flexes and the doc said I’d have to be careful to try and let it heal without doing too much physical activity.. (“Music to my ears!”) No, to be honest, it’s been a major limitation with all the jobs that needed doing.. I just had to try and avoid gripping things too tightly with my right hand.

I'm off now to have an arduous physio session with a bottle of Ricard..