Friday, 12 August 2016

234. Back in town..

31st August. "It gets earlier every year" Dept! This morning, I received an email from a Christmas card company showing their latest offerings. A card showing Santa's sleigh swirling on high through the wintry streets (right) caught my eye. Can the first sighting of an Easter Egg be far behind?

I can't believe that both July and August have flown by so quickly. It was near the end of June (but it seems like only yesterday) that I said to Madame that the summer season was about to kick off here with the great annual influx of visitors. With all the uncertainties of foreign travel, I think we saw more visitors from elsewhere in France than ever before here. Still, September is the best month to visit the Pays Basque in my opinion. The great wave of summer visitors (plus kids!) have returned home and now it's the "silver tourists" who remain. The temperature will settle down at a comfortable 25°C, the skies will be blue and parking will once again be possible in Biarritz and Saint-Jean-de-Luz and elsewhere along the coast.

28th August. It must be at least a week (!) since I've posted anything of Mark Knopfler's - so here's one of his timeless tracks:

Madame came out with another one of her colourful expressions a day or two ago: ménager la chèvre et le chou.. Strictly speaking, the literal word-for-word meaning is "to arrange (or satisfy) the goat and the cabbage"! But the expression really means "to have it both ways", "to keep a foot in both camps" or "to try and please everyone"..

Then there's vouloir le beurre et l'argent du beurre - this literally means "wanting the butter and the money of the butter". Or as we'd say in English: you can't have your cake and eat it.

There are many of these expressions that stem from France's rich agricultural heritage. I'll try and remember to include some more.

Then there are odd ones such as "beau comme un camion".. which means "beautiful as a truck/lorry". Or, more usually: "you're looking good!".

26th August. We're off out this evening to try and find a bar on a beach somewhere where we can drink something exotic and watch the sun go down. Surprisingly, there aren't as many as you might think - and those that we know of, switch to serving more profitable meals in the evenings.

25th August. Give your French a work-out with this documentary (below) about the French holiday routes of the middle decades of the 20th century over which a number of nostalgia addicts (code for obsessives!) re-enact the summer treks to the south (including "retro-camping") in a variety of period vehicles. They even go as far as re-creating traffic jams - complete with a François Hollande lookalike acting as a fake gendarme! (at 1:20:40). You couldn't make some of this up. Health Warning: Their re-enactment strays into retro-kitsch at times as these dotty collectors proudly show off their 'vintage collectibles' - such as formica guitars with built-in clocks! Think of it this way: for every obsessive living the 60s dream out on the road in his rare caravan, another hospital bed is freed up! (I'm joking - it's all harmless fun..)

The French revolutionised camping in the 50s and 60s when they pioneered lightweight aluminium-framed tents with zip fasteners, mini Campingaz Bleuet stoves, lightweight camping chairs and set up fully-equipped campsites (with hot showers, shops & entertainment). The tent we had at home in the early 60s was supported by sturdy wooden poles and it was made out of heavy duty canvas that was designed to ward off everything a British summer could throw at it - whereas the French equivalents were made out of modern lightweight waterproof fabrics designed to keep out nothing more threatening than a stray mosquito. The Campingaz stoves (right) were a revelation as well.. the starting ritual was simple: turn on the gas, light it and start cooking. My father had a Primus paraffin stove (left) and I remember it always being a struggle to light the blessèd thing - especially on a windy evening. A ring of methylated spirits had to be lit to pre-heat the jet out of which the pressurised paraffin spray would emerge. Occasionally it would light like a military jet afterburner which always amused us children! Keeping it lit was another challenge - if it went out on your watch, it was a good time to hide!

Don't worry if you struggle to keep up with the French - just enjoy the scenery (you might want to skip from 10:10 to 20:52). The old route from Paris to the Pays Basque - the N10 - is featured at 1:01:17 and the Pays Basque itself comes in at 1:30:34:

23rd August. I was out at the déchetterie (tip) earlier this afternoon and it was h-o-t.. the car thermometer was indicating 39½°C..(had to convert this one: 103°F)

The summer is passing by too quickly. I can't believe we're already in the last week of August. We had some visitors last week and after we'd taken them on a lightning 1½ day tour of some of our favourite Pays Basque hotspots (Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Ascain, Sare, Ainhoa, Dantcharia, Saint-Etienne-de-Baïgorry, Bayonne, Biarritz), we finished up in a gift shop in the beautiful border village of Ainhoa. There was a stack of berets there and, as no-one was looking, I tried one on. Miraculously it fit - so, after almost 10 years here, I finally bit the bullet! I now find myself the proud owner of a beret Basque. They come with quite a large overhang thus allowing for some individual styling. All that remains now is to mould it into a suitable shape (right) for my 100% Anglo-Saxon (with perhaps a dash of Viking!*) head. I'm slowly being transformed into an alien..! I also recently had to exchange my UK driving licence for a French one. I was surprised to see that it doesn't entitle me to stop anywhere and have an al fresco pee..(another avenue of pleasure closed off!☺)

* with apologies to Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock!

I found this well-written article about the Pays Basque in the NY Times.. The author manages to say in one column what I've been struggling to say in 7 years! Worth a read. There's a slideshow as well (just give it a moment or two to load).

We were having lunch on our terrace the other day when there was a dull thud from above, followed by the sound of something plummeting down through the hortensias (hydrangeas in English). Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of something small as it shot by to land on the gravel path. My curiosity aroused, I got up to see what it was. Lying on the path, beak down with its backside in the air, was a young sparrow that must have knocked itself out by flying into an upstairs window. To my surprise, it was still alive so I picked it up and took it back to the table. It was its lucky day because it just appeared to be stunned.. After a minute or two, it hopped onto my finger and after a few more minutes, it flew off.

The following day, I found another less fortunate young sparrow lying feet up on the terrace. It was absolutely unmarked and it too had probably flown into a window but sadly it must have broken its neck as it was stone dead.

14th August. We were down at the beach at Anglet (below) early this morning for a good walk before it became too crowded - but it wasn't quite early enough as this weekend is probably the peak of the tourist season. Joggers were out en masse - and I saw one t-shirt slogan that I thought contained much truth: "The real workout starts when you want to stop"..

Today's forecast is for 34°.. Ouf!
13th August. What a great row by the British Men's VIII in Rio this afternoon.. fantastic performance..! It's the first time they've beaten the Germans in 2016 - so what a time to pounce! 

8th August. We're back home after a few days away in central and eastern France. It was really to escape the noise, crowds and bustle of the Fêtes de Bayonne but it was also a welcome break and change of air. This time, it was just the two of us - our little feller was greatly missed. 

We'd booked "demi-pension" at a number of country hotels (in the Logis group) choosing ones wherever possible that had "3 cocottes" (this is the highest ranking for food for Logis hotels). Our first night was in the Auvergne, followed by a few nights in Burgundy before finishing up in the Haut-Jura,  One hotel in particular excelled itself in the food department - and instead of offering us the standard set menu for those staying on demi-pension terms, they generously allowed us choose anything from their 27€, 37€ and 51€ menus.. We had no trouble sleeping while we were there..! That's all I'm saying..!

Route Nationale 7
At one stage during our peregrinations across central France near Moulins, we found ourselves on the legendary Route Nationale 7 (known as the RN7 or the N7), an old-style national trunk road that linked Paris with the Côte Azur before the advent of the autoroutes around 40 years ago. After WWII, the French economy - and car ownership - boomed ("Les trente glorieuses") and thus the stage was set for the N7 to become Europe's most dangerous road. For many, August was the traditional holiday month and the capital would rapidly empty during the first weekend as people in their thousands flooded out on to the roads, with the majority heading south on the N7. There were songs written about it, its dangers were discussed endlessly, there were colossal tailbacks, and accidents were frequent and violent.. It was soon became known as the "Road of Death". In short, during the hot summer months, it was a nightmare.

In the late sixties I remember driving from the south of France north up to Paris via the N7. It was totally uncompromising and unimaginably busy and it required all my concentration. My abiding memory of it is that there were a total of 3 lanes - one going north, one going south and one in the middle. This third lane could be used for overtaking by motorists heading in either direction! (Pause while you absorb the significance of that one!) Yes, the dreaded suicide lane.

 There are many similarities with the fabled Route 66 in the US that once was the main artery from Chicago to Los Angeles but which also went into decline when it was superseded by the US interstates. Roadside communities failed and became ghost towns. Nowadays, it's become fashionable for tourists to rent Harleys to ride on Route 66 to see the America of the early part of the 20th century.

Something similar happened here with the N7. Eerie is perhaps the wrong word for it but there was definitely a brooding sense of being in the presence of living history when I found myself alone on this broad ribbon of shimmering tarmac, lined with flaking restaurants, boarded up hotels and deserted cafés. This once-mighty highway unrolled before me in a arrow-straight line to a vanishing point that lay on the southern horizon. And the rear view mirror showed the same scene in reverse.

There were many independent garages (advertising bodywork repairs!) and large restaurants - the majority closed down - every few kilometres. The roadside restaurants and cafés were clearly once oases for the hungry traveller and his family - and each of them came complete with vast car parks that could easily swallow a few hundred cars - but which are now simply dustblown.

A nostalgic view of the N7 here - with a couple of very collectable cars in there.. like the Morgan 4/4 and the TR3. This video repeats at around 1:50..

Question du jour.. What on earth are the curly-wurly shaped "things" that are given out to each medal-winning athlete in the Rio Olympics? Each time there's a presentation, it appears that they continue to intrigue each recipient.. I wonder how many will end up on top of the nearest wardrobe once back home?