Wednesday, 23 November 2011

170. Dark nights in the Pays Basque

23rd November 2011. This morning I was at the coiffeurs getting coiffed (that's a haircut to you and me..) by the coiffeuse when I asked her about a nice old house across the road that had clearly been standing empty for a long while. In the few years since I'd first noticed it, it had been looking increasingly forlorn and severely in need of major restoration. Apparently it had belonged to a notaire but, for some unfathomable reason, he'd allowed it to go to rack and ruin. However, over the past few months, it has been finally getting 'the treatment' from a small army of artisans who have been hard at work putting it back in order. The word is that it's going to be a bank and I was told that it had been sold 'à la bougie' (English translation here) at the Town Hall.
I had to look this up as it was a new term to me. It seems that this is an ancient method, dating from the 15th century, of controlling the sale of property at an auction. For voluntary sales, properties are commonly sold à la bougie. Whoever is running the auction lights a small candle to start the bidding. This burns until the last bid is made, at which point another candle is lit. Both candles must then burn out without another bid being made, then the final bid is considered as accepted.

There's another of these run-down properties, a large Basque house dating from the '20s, just around the corner from here which is receiving armloads of TLC.. I shudder to think what the final bill will be as there's been a constant to-ing and fro-ing of specialists of all kinds with their ubiquitous white vans outside for at least 4-5 months. The first thing to go was the roof - all the tiles came off and then all the old roof beams were junked before a new roof was built and tiled. My guess is that the new owner won't see much change from a million euros. I remember the asking price wasn't far off half a million - unrestored.

With just over a month to go, you'd be hard-pressed to spot any sign of impending Christmas here - I haven't seen any Christmas lights up yet. It's far from the cash register churning event it's evolved into in the UK with the nature, trend and volume of retail sales being reported, analysed and talked to death by 'retail experts' in the main evening news. Here, I see that the Christmas village for kids is being set up in front of the Town Hall from 1st-24th December.
I had to resort to ordering some Christmas cards via the internet as greeting card shops are thin on the ground here. In the UK, greeting card shops are embedded in every High Street and there's a card for every occasion. A different story here - there's not much choice when it comes to Christmas cards as the custom is to send New Year cards rather than Christmas cards or, heaven forbid, Happy Winter Holiday cards - don't start me off!

Christmas is more of a family-orientated day here with practically none of the razzamatazz that seems part and parcel of it elsewhere. Christmas dinner takes place on Christmas Eve which is all well and good - until Christmas Day arrives.. It's absolutely no hardship at all for me to sit down to a groaning table on Christmas Eve - the difficulty comes when you're faced with relative abstinence the following day, particularly after a lifetime of being programmed to eat Christmas dinner on Christmas Day! Solution? A French Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve and an English Christmas dinner on Christmas Day - followed by a call to DynoRod®..!

One thing I do miss about Christmas in the UK is the annual showing on TV of "Where Eagles Dare" - without which no respectable senior programme editor would deem the Christmas period programming to be complete - though I've never quite seen the seasonal link between it and Christmas.. (PS One of the best openings of any film!)

I'm away in the south of France next week for a few days for a meeting with my customer. I've just dispatched an almighty wodge of work (technical term!) to him and so next week, I'm hopping on the TGV to Paris - yes, Paris! - before changing stations and catching another TGV to come all the way back down south again. While we're talking about TGVs, here's a reminder of the current world record holder at just shy of 360mph..(yes, miles per hour!) 
Having looked at all the options (air, road, train) it turned out that this was the optimum method of doing the journey.. It's only when faced with planning a trip like this that you realise just how Paris-centric the transport infrastructure is. (Note to self: need to brush up on how to knot a tie again!)

Looking out of the window in the last few minutes, it seemed to go dark suddenly in the space of a few minutes. As the sun is well over the yard arm I think the time could be ripe for an 'attitude adjuster'..

26th November 2011. A cold and misty outing on the river this morning in a coxless IV. There was a good turn-out and we managed to put out a couple of VIIIs and maybe 5-6 IVs. As we gained the upper reaches of the Nive we entered a monochrome world - not of black and white - with a weak sun breaking through the morning mist and lighting the scene in the palest of yellows. At one point we looked behind us and an VIII was silhouetted against the golden light as the crew turned it around and - as one - we all wished we'd had our cameras with us..  (14km)

Into Bayonne this afternoon with the dog looking for ideas for Christmas. Spotted a few likely candidates - such as these marrons glacés - and one or two other things.
Forgot to mention that SaxMan™ is back in town.. he was standing outside Galeries Lafayette playing another endlessly repeated riff.

Here's something to take your minds off the cold weather.. this was the absolutely mesmerising intermission act during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin.. Warning: Don't try this at home! (especially not in your slippers!)

This next one launches into a series of Riverdance clips.. I've heard that many people on the internet are reputed to have the attention span of the average goldfish☺but if you've never seen 'Riverdance' - stick with it.. you'll be amazed! Step forward to around 1:15..
We saw the 'Riverdance' show in the UK and what an unforgettable experience that was..!

And finally, here's something I found earlier - a magnificent slow-motion clip (1,000 frames/sec) of an eagle owl about to rip to shreds that nice silk tie that Auntie Ethel gave you for Christmas last year - it's best in full screen!

Friday, 4 November 2011

169. TVPI - our local Pays Basque TV

3rd November 2011. I finished the latest large lump of work today. I've been working 12 hour days - and longer - to break the back of this job. Tomorrow, I'll have to start reviewing and checking all I've done. A satisfying feeling though.

If you've ever wondered what Bayonne is like (and come on, be honest, who hasn't!) then here are a couple of short films from our local TV station - TVPI. If you pronounce this in the French fashion it comes out as "Tay Vay Payee" - Pays being French for country. It's not an exact translation though as Pays in French has a strong connotation with the part of the country you're from - as in roots. Anyway, here's Part 1. If you speak French and you're wondering why you can't understand a word he's saying - the answer is he's speaking Basque.
Here's Part 2:
This short film concerns itself with the stone markers that delineate the border between France and Spain up in the hills:
And as we head into the darker days of autumn and winter, here's a reminder of summer fun at St Jean de Luz..
4th November 2011. I stopped off at Carrefour today to have a quick look at their wine dept to see if they stocked Château Bouscassé.. Interestingly, they did - but where the display should have been was a large empty space - so I'm obviously not the only one who likes it.. I fancied buying a few bottles before the Christmas shopping avalanche starts - although I might already be too late! (just found this link here to a UK supplier who stocks Alain Brumont's wines - including Château Bouscassé - give yourself a treat this Christmas!)  

5th November 2011. Around this time last year the rains started.. it rained every day for a month. OK, sometimes the rain arrived overnight but there wasn't one day for a complete month that didn't have some rain in it. This morning, at 6.30am it was raining when I let the dog out for his early morning inspection of his territory. Not sure about rowing yet this morning.. I don't mind too much if it starts raining while I'm out on the water but putting a boat out in the middle of a downpour ain't my idea of fun. We'll see.

We went across the border to Spain as there's a small shop there that makes copies of Hermès handbags at a fraction of the price of the real thing. Afterwards we were in St Jean de Luz in the late afternoon for a few errands - we (the royal we) were window-shopping here in the Rue Gambetta  (the main shopping street) when a rain shower blew through so we looked around and we noticed that we were only a quick dash away from Maison Etchebaster - a long-established (1909) pâtisserie and chocolatier and another good address (I hope you're making a note of all these!) for a hot chocolate and a macaron. Just after we found a table, other people came in dripping and suddenly the place was full. This was the first time I've had a macaron from here and it was deliciously heavy with ground almonds.

In keeping with the French predilection for occasionally giving their shops bizarre names - we saw a supermarket called Le Mutant up near Arcachon a few months ago - and on the way back home to Bayonne I saw a sign for the Café Bullimic (exactly as it was spelled).. I imagine they'd need security on the door there to keep the crowds out!

I mentioned macarons above and I should point out that these come in different styles. There are these that come in a range of luminous colours and are quite addictive. Paul make them as do Dodin; L Raux at Bayonne; Henriet, Biarritz; and there must be others.
Then there are the ones made at Maison Adam (below).. a delightfully old fashioned pâtisserie & chocolatier (established in 1660..!) in St Jean de Luz. Check out their surprisingly modern web site. You're going to hate me for telling you this but you can order online.. and with Christmas looming over  the horizon, why not give your lady an unexpected treat..?

Explaining what they all taste like is impossible in words so the only solution is to make your way down here and get stuck into some real hard work of comparative tasting. As the saying has it - it's a tough job but someone has to do it! My particular favourite are the pistachio flavoured ones from the multi-coloured range above. And maybe the dark chocolate ones. Well, you can't stop at two - which is why they come in boxes of 6, 12 or 24..

I must admit to being quite taken with the macarons we had this afternoon at Maison Etchebaster.. The price was a pleasant surprise too - at 1.60€ for two.

6th November 2011. Downstairs early this morning (~7am) to let the dog out - which is normally an occasion of great excitement for him. This morning? He poked his nose out of the door to the garden, sniffed the air for a few seconds which was full of rain lashing down before he reluctantly decided to step outside. Wonder if we're in for a month of rain like last year?

7th November 2011. Day 3 - still raining..

8th November 2011. Day 4 - it must have rained during the night as the terrace was wet this morning. Uh-oh.. we could be in for another wet November although it's forecast to be 21C here tomorrow - which probably only means that the rain will be warm..

I received the latest batch of work last night so I'm afraid I won't have too much time for the blog. You'll have to talk amongst yourselves for 2-3 weeks while I dispose of it.

At a time when financial pressures are squeezing French restaurants and some are being accused of 'dumbing down', lowering standards and serving bought-in meals, it's reassuring to watch clips like this one that featured on lunchtime's TF1 news today.. It makes me feel like jumping in the car and driving straight up there!

9th November 2011. This morning the sky echoed to a familiar sound.. multiple straggling V formations of grues cendrées (cranes) heading south west on their annual migration to warmer climes. An inspiring sight and one that reminds me that the mystery of migration is another aspect of nature we don't fully understand.. Long may it remain so.
Meanwhile, Honda is continuing to develop its intriguing Asimo robot.. video here.. Think about the stunning technology that lies behind this latest iteration. And just think what it will capable of in future.. They could work on production lines doing endlessly repetitive tasks 24/7.. 52 weeks of the year. No need to pay them, no social charges, no pensions, no holidays, no sickness benefits. If that scenario ever came to fruition, how long do you think it would be before they were unionised!

11th November 2011. Beautiful morning down here in the Pays Basque so we decided to have lunch outside somewhere..

First though, this was the year we finally decided to have an artificial Christmas tree. I've avoided these things like the plague in the past - but the baggage associated with buying a real tree has become a pain - driving out to the garden centre to pick "the right one" from the thousands of hopefuls, squeezing it into the car, getting it into the house, persuading the dog not to pee on it (!), before removing it and disposing of it afterwards. Plus getting rid of all the needles from the house and the car..

It felt decidedly weird to be going out to buy a Christmas tree under blue skies with the temperature at 11am already climbing past 20+.. We ended up at Carrefour (where else?) where we found the one we wanted and, of course, it was Made in China. Is it me or is there not something slightly odd about the idea of a factory half way around the world in far off China churning out fake Christmas trees by the thousand - made by people who (presumably) have no idea of the symbolism and magic of Christmas? Another straw in the wind.

Artificial trees have come a long way since their introduction to the UK market in the 50s when they were made by - you'll never believe this - Addis (of toilet brush fame). This factoid wasn't widely advertised at the time (I wonder why!) - I guess the marketing men saw early on that this particular product linkage was a non-starter. They were quick to realise that the festive attraction of a 7 foot quasi-toilet brush occupying pride of place would have only limited market appeal.. And despite what it says here (scroll down to the 'Controversy' paras!), the Christmas tree will always be known as the Christmas tree in this house - not the Holiday tree. (Aaarrgghh!)

Anyway, where were we..? Oh yes - lunch! We headed south to Ascain to our old restaurant there.. Sitting at a table on their terrace overlooking the Pyrenees ½ hour later, it was hard to believe the date.. 11th November and, according to the car, it was 25.5°C (78°F!) They were still running their Autumn menu that features the best of local produce.. The starter? We both went for the Autumnal platter.. Jambon de Bayonne, some coarse pâté, asparagus tips, pan fried foie gras, some ventrèche, a few gherkins (or jerkins as Madame pronounces it!) and a few other bits and pieces. We started to make inroads on a bottle of Gorri d'Ansa Irouleguy.. Following the advice of C, the waiter, we'd both ordered wild boar for our main course and we weren't disappointed.. Butter soft and served with cranberries and potatoes sautéed in goose fat, things went quiet for a while.. As they say here - an angel passed.. After that, grape sorbet with Marc d'Irouleguy was the perfect antidote.. After a coffee, we re-traced the old walk we used to make around the village - up through the trees and winding lanes.  

12th November 2011. Down to the river this morning for an outing in a VII sculler - yes, a seven.. We went out with no-one occupying the bow seat - or 8 as it's known in France - as its riggers were missing. We did 16km on a warm morning. By the way, I'm not keeping a running total this year. I only did it last year because I was curious to see how far I rowed in a year. 

13th November 2011. Something reminded me of this brilliant advert for Carling Black Label lager this morning..

It was warm enough today (24C) to set the table and chairs out for lunch.. and it was shorts and t-shirt weather too.. in mid-November..!

After the usual trip to the déchetterie with garden rubbish, I'd gone on to the market at Anglet and bought a pain levain.. which had the crispiest crust of any baguette we've had for a long time. I opened a bottle of Château Peyros Madiran.. which was just right with a roast farm chicken. I'd be more than happy to drink this at Christmas.

Afterwards, I sat there in the sunshine, with a Greek coffee (and a cigarillo) - hard to believe that Christmas is only about 6 weeks away.

20th November 2011. An outing in a coxed IV yesterday morning - did 16km in perfect conditions - it was high tide on the river so there was virtually no current and while there was bright sunshine, it wasn't enough to make rowing uncomfortable. It was cool enough for most of us to be in leggings.. A newish member (Franco-American) somehow managed to go for an early bath as he was leaving the pontoon in a single sculler.. over he went - sploosh.. Luckily for him the current wasn't running otherwise the outcome might have been different. The river narrows here to pass through the town and sometimes there can be a fierce current.

With the approach of winter, here's a clip I found of Biarritz shot in December - when it's so different to the madding crowds of July and August. The hills in the background at the right are the Trois Couronnes (3 Crowns) and it was around these that the Comet Line evaders would climb en route to freedom.
At 8am yesterday morning I finished the first pass of the current instalment of work - 1,000+ PowerPoint slides on aviation meteorology edited and corrected. Last night I started the review process of all I'd done and I should be able to email it all away by mid week. Phew!