Tuesday, July 31, 2018

"But our love it was stronger by far than the love...of many far wiser than we"

Today my love and I celebrate 25 years of marriage. Here is a spot that has always been special, a place where we first camped, as practically children, many and many a year ago, in a campground by the sea...

This is where we were with the kids, just before catching the train to Spain, along the "Corniche" near St.Jean de Luz.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Gastrointeritis in France

...or something equally unpleasant, has invaded our days and nights, only one child, for now, for two days, but there is not much else occupying my half-awake brain this morning. Prayers and thoughts are most welcome. The weekend started out well enough; a delicious, cloudy day turned sunny at the beach, with us and almost nobody else around. 

It was actually raining when we left, but, you know how the coast is; (no worries, I don't either, living in the middle of Iowa, as I normally do), nevertheless, the weather can be completely different 10 miles away, so we drove on. We had, after all, shopped, and packed and made a picnic, and one of us was bound and determined to go THAT DAY, it was not me, but naming names is not kind. I guess it's a good thing we did, the ways things turned out. The weather was, in fact, a little different when we arrived, it was even cooler than it had been at home and it was still raining. It was actually freezing, hoodies were dug out and donned. Undaunted, we trudged up the dune with a light(ish) step and were rewarded with the view of a magnificent ocean; all grey and wild, crashing and throwing up so much spray and mist that the coastline faded in the near distance. I love the ocean like this, but putting on a swimsuit and going into it was not in my plans just then. A cup of hot tea under the beach cabana...yes, please! Half of us had a warm drink, the other half (or maybe only third) went swimming. 

The weather shortly cleared up and we joined them on the beach, installing parasols, coolers, towels, bags, books, etc. (Yes, my knitting was in the et cetera, though I barely touched it that day; the sea was so gorgeous.) It was mesmerizing, it wanted to be gazed upon and walked along and to creep along the sand to my toes. The girls read; we were with my sister-in-law and her little family, as well as our friends from Toulouse, G and S. Even the men did not last long in the water, but they stayed by the shoreline and supervised the non-bathing children. S. devoted her afternoon to helping Gael and Remy (small cousin) build a sand model of Carcassonne on the beach; magnificent! 

I took a long, long stroll along the almost-empty beach, toes in the water when the rising tide was not forming quick-sand puddles two feet deep. It was still cloudy and the world looked like it was covered in a distant brume, rising from the waves. I could see for miles and miles up the coastline, yet the details were poetically blurred. The ocean rolled and roared and crept in further and further. I wandered on. Later we would roll ourselves; with laughter, as the newly-arrived-with-the-sun tourists were soaked, towels, picnics and all, by the fresh waves of the rising tide, whole groups of them, and not just once. Rotten locals. 

Like that, but with much bigger waves and clouds in the sky and all grey and mysterious...needless to say, I did not carry my camera or even my phone into the rainy mess that was the beach when we left the car. Darn it.

We were all settling in for our picnic when my little guy started to shiver, ask for more sweaters, still shivered and wanted to have a nap...a nap! on a towel. This did not look good. We stayed a little longer to watch the sunset together. This was another magic in itself. The few folks left on the beach gathered in couples and small groups or all alone, along the edge of the receding ocean to see the sun burn out its last light of the day in glory. I turned, at the end, and found that up on the dune, more people had joined us in watching the sun set, in a communal act of admiration and awe. There was a feeling of togetherness, unspoken, unintentional and completely universal just then, and it was better than the sunset on the beach.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Finally...Spain and Children

Once upon a time a girl left Iowa to see the world; this time to the north of Spain; Euskal Herria. The first time she left, she had been 18 and ready for adventure. The second time she knew a secret she had not known the first time; there was a whole world out there she knew nothing about, and had never even imagined. Enter the San Sebastian chapter of life; one, short, too short, semester abroad in the loveliest place I have ever seen. 

Twenty-some years later, I was able to share Donosti (the Basque name for San Sebastian) with my children. I have waited for years and years! It is mountain and ocean, grandiose plazas, luxury hotels, beaches and tiny, 6-floor walk-up apartments (some things we do not forget), shared with three Basque women and one New Yorker. It is cooking meals for five every night and hollering down to the gas truck on delivery day; "Senor! 6th floor, por favor!" 

It is, above all, representative of a Spain that literally lives in the streets almost all of the time. Night and day there are bars open with people going in and out of them, discussing everything from politics to the price of pasta to the weather, eating a bite (a pintxo, no "tapas" here), usually standing up, having a tiny beer or a half glass of wine, and moving on to the next one. I miss this street life, vibrant even in tiny villages and towns. I miss the Basque culture, in which I steeped and stewed for five fabulous months. (It rains a lot).

Those are hams hanging from the ceiling; in every bar. And the wide, delicious variety of pintxos meant that even my vegetarian daughter had a choice of items everywhere we went. There is just the smallest amount of Basque vocabulary left in my head, enough to warm the locals to my requests. This bar tender said "yes!" to a photo with good grace in the middle of a busy pre-lunch hour. 

Another couple offered to take a picture of the whole family; I find the people here some of the friendliest anywhere...almost as good as in the Midwest. Everywhere you look, there will be someone giving a tourist directions, with big arm gestures and a million explanations. If you look really lost, you might find your arm tucked under theirs as they walk you to the place you pointed to on the map or tried to pronounce.

It really is not far away, but logistically, there was always a reason for abstaining from one more thing on my "to see" list. If you do not wish to drive and tempt fate with a French license plate (the Basque would notoriously set fire to cars daring to approach their territory in a French car at one point in time), not to mention traffic, limited parking and long lines, there is an easier way; the TOPO, or tiny train from Hendaye to Donosti, a 30-minute ride. I was finally able to gather all items needed to make this little trip happen, at least for the five of us. The older kids...will have to return with me or on their own another time. We drove the two and a half hours down the coast, parked in a secure parking lot with video surveillance now, for a whole 7 Euros for the day, and hopped on the TOPO two minutes later. 

The streets of "La Parte Vieja" where the pintxos are the best and it is all happening, unless you are looking for the A-crowd in the chic part of town. Even many of them will be here too. Note; the tables on the right; OUTSIDE of the bars.

The square outside of the station in Donosti:

Along the docks of the old port; we sat and watched half a dozen people dive from the edge into the bay; right in front of the "NO DIVING" sign. The rebellious spirit of the Basque people is alive and well.

I studied Basque at La Universidad del Pais Vasco with one of the kindest, well-educated professors I have ever known. There were five Americans, and that was the whole class. We learned the language, geography, the struggle, the poetry and the music of Euskal Herria, or Basque Country. Singing is a serious part of being Basque. It was one of the ways the people could express their discontent, hopes and ambitions for their country. We visited churches, museums, towns, and attempted to learn this very particular, non-Indo-European language that sounded like nothing any of us had ever heard before. The love of my life lived a train ride away in France and visited often. It was the best semester of my life as a student anywhere.

Here is the main beach/boardwalk of Donosti; La Concha, I have memories of walking home from the Parte Vieja, late, late at night with friends, filled with wonder at the moon beams shining on the beach...

Sunflowers and Sea

Photos brought to you by budding photographer, Valentine, below:

Valentine had the idea for a photo-shoot amid the field of sunflowers down the road. It was one of those sweet, sibling moments, where they left, with the cousins in tow, to spend a minute together on their own. All that sunshine and heat was not my speed that day, so I reluctantly handed over The Camera to Valentine, who had a blast taking a hundred thousand photos of her sister and of flowers. I'm glad I did. She's pretty good! Photos of Valentine, credit to Cate, who captured her little sister really well!

Full of her newly-found confidence as photographer, Valentine continued to find reasons for more "portrait sessions" while we were in Pays Basque, Spanish and French sides (another article, but here are a few of her shots):

And her take on the sunset over "La Corniche"cliffs and ocean, that I had renounced trying to capture:

She made me sit for pictures too; and had the good idea to make sure I took off my ugly and comfortable shoes after the first couple of shots. Port of San Sebastian...more on this tomorrow.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Gone Visiting

For a "short" trip, this one packed so much joy, including what I did not think I would be able to do; see friends! It looked complicated, and it's not exactly simple, but how fantastic it has been to spend time with friends that are only dearer now that it has been so many years. 

It started with a short train ride, with my own seat; a set of four, actually, all to myself. The second train was an altogether different kettle of fish. It was all full of these things...other passengers. Not a free spot for eons. I did snatch a jump seat in the back, with my bags tucked around me, around other people's bags. I still had elbow room to knit; the essentials, right? At the first stop after I climbed aboard, an announcement let us know that the engineer needed to make a computer adjustment and this adjustment could only be done on an empty train, so everybody off! for "five little minutes" while he makes the adjustment/reset, whatever. All twelve hundred of us trudge off the train, into the hot sun on the platform, and although we were reassured that there was no reason to bring anything with us, most of us brought our luggage, because we were not born this morning. The five minutes stretches into ten, and the sun is sort of warm at 4pm. There is nowhere to go, because at any minute we will be told to get back on the train, so I just have to sigh and put up with the six hundred smokers around me, up close and personal-like, puffing as though their next cig was not going to be until 4:30 or some crazy time. Great journey, zero glam, but I got where I was headed. 

My friend was there at the station to meet me; fantastic! I had packed super-light, for me, and had only one backpack and a purse, containing vitals such as toothbrush, phone and knitting. We headed off on foot; across the bridge of many flags in Bayonne, to the bus stop we needed to get to the hospital. D's husband had had surgery the week before and was recovering there. After three or four buses...I lost track, because we were catching up non-stop the whole time, I just followed D wherever she headed next, we arrived at the hospital to see my friend, J. We had a nice visit, he looked happy to see us, so I was glad we could make it. D and I left in another bus, headed to Biarritz. In this town on the Basque coast; the view hits you with a force that takes away your breath; waves, crashing on rocks, beauty, savage and glorious, buildings hiding and revealing the beach off and on; then, a clear space with a view to make you never want to leave. We trekked up to their apartment, dropped off our bags and headed out to enjoy a night in Biarritz. We spent one lovely evening strolling the streets, glorying in the view as the sun set over waves, rocks and cliffs, and sampling delicious food in different tapas bars; squid, foie gras, tortilla (Spanish potato omelette), and rosé.

The next morning we did it all again in the opposite direction, deciding to splurge on a taxi to make sure we got to the train station on time. Unfortunately for the taxi profession and fortunately for the reputation of Uber, the taxi never showed up. I missed my train, but had an extra half-hour to hang out and have a bite to eat with D. In keeping with their reputation for excellent food and terrible service (which is not always true here), the place we chose to eat did not serve lunch before noon. Pressed; "Might you have a couple of packages of chips? Croissants left over from breakfast? Granola bars?" the waiter offered, halfheartedly, to bring us a plate of Bayonne ham; "yes, please!" 

The next best thing after Bayonne ham is Prosciutto, but equality with jambon de Bayonne? Not so sure. This was perfect; thinly sliced, almost shaved, and it had just been cut, perfectly salted, with just the right amount of fat striped through it in the right places, nothing hard that could not be eaten easily... magnificent. The grump even threw in a few French cornichons (a version of pickle not found in America). The coffee...was gross enough that we dashed next door, at D's insistence, for a real cup before crossing the street back to the station. 

The next train was a TGV, or a high-speed train. All seats have reservations on this type of train. D and I grabbed a set of four again and settled back for the half hour or so to Dax, where my family awaited to take me to see friends from Toulouse. It is hard to say good-bye, but what a fun visit!

Dax...and no family. When I call, they are still eating lunch downtown somewhere. You might know what time you walk into a restaurant, but you don't always know what time you will walk out in France. That gives me a minute to have a soda and a little bar of dark chocolate all to myself. Then I repent and buy a big bar to share with everyone, and I have one little square with my "Coca-Zero", still American at heart. 

Finally; after a ride that seems to last forever in the summer traffic, we are at our destination of Capbreton, on the coast of les Landes. My wonderful friend, N, and her amazing husband, JM are waiting for us, as they have been for over an hour. N and I have been friends since my very first months in Toulouse. We were both 21, the age of our daughters now. Like with D, I don't feel like this relationship has changed in the least. We always have new things to talk about, and on different sides of the world, we have made similar discoveries about life, about one's outlook, and happiness as something you produce yourself. We had a peaceful afternoon sitting under the parasol and taking walks along the beach, while the kids and Thierry swim and mess around in the waves. I really don't want to say good-bye again a second time in the same day, but again, it was so very good to reconnect that I try to have no regrets.

We head home again, stopping for dinner in a small village in a place that promises a menu ranging from pizzas, charcuterie, salads, and our favorite, normally; moules/frites (mussels and fries). The proprietor is super friendly but a little grubby, the restroom/broom closet is "sketchy" in Gael's words, "impossible" in my estimate. The mussels smell funny, so I eat fries (about 2 kilos) and some lettuce, leaving the mussels to Thierry. Valentine amuses herself analyzing the typical teenage behavior of a table of high-schoolers across the way, giving us updates as the meal progresses. By the time we leave, the rate of traffic has dropped and the road is easy.

We've been back home since Wednesday night, hanging out with a fun cousin who is here as well for a few days. She speaks excellent English and brings a whole, fresh perspective on life. Thank you, la cousine! Her sister came to visit last week with her husband and adorable daughter, Anna. It is a delight to see these girls as grown ups. I first knew them when they were toddlers. They sang a song for us at our wedding, and the middle sister (there are three) was married last time we were here. The setting and ceremony were both beautiful, photos here: French wedding

Photos of now? Sure! 

A stop on the way home from our first beach trip; more successful than the one described above!

Basque tapas; peppers, bread with tomato and anchovies, mozarella and olive for my vegetarian: 

The charcuterie plate:

Dinner in the back yard:

The vegetable patch:

Along my morning walk:

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Cows: Jumping/Swerving Contest

Another little competition has occupied our time the past few days; you know, the World Cup? It has been one big party!

On the same day, we were invited to a Course Landaise, the main idea of which is to either avoid, as closely as possible, or jump over, a fierce little cow with big 'ol horns.

It starts with the village band:

Yes; he just jumped and rolled into a flip.

The band plays on:

And the cow, unhurt, tears around and charges:

Friday, July 13, 2018

How About NOT Shopping (Intersperesed with Fun Photos)

I set out to run a few errands yesterday and today; partial success, and too hot to trot. Dang, it is warm, even at 10am, and to my irritation, most shops are not air-conditioned downtown. Since part of our errands included finding swimsuits for two girls, it was an endless succession of shops, waits and no swimsuits to speak of.

How about a shot of the ocean instead? There was an emergency and everyone had to clear out of the water for two hours, looks the way I like it; no people, no boards, no boogers:

Here is how it goes; sales start on July 1, maybe 10-30% off. On July 8, the second set of sales begins, 30-60% off. By the 10th, there is not much left. I shoudda known better. 

As for the "supermarket" (think big stores that sell food and everything else), there will be a line, always, and if you are dim-witted enough to not look up and understand that the "CB" sign means that the only payment accepted in this line is a French debit card, too bad for you, you get to stand in line all over again for the cashier who wants your cash.

Here are the flamenco singers from the other night:

You wanted to buy a fan because it's so hot no one is sleeping? You saw they were on sale at one store? Ha! Sucker! Of course those sold out like two hours after the ad went up. Sigh, but as I am leaving the store, the lady who originally told me there were none left comes to the rescue; "Excusez-moi, madame! I found one! The only one we have, it's back in aisle 15, and it's 65 Euros." "Um, thank you anyway. I was interested in the other ones." New store, new search, victory. But they must be hidden, because someone in the house, or half the population of the country, at least, scratch that, more like 90%, believes that a draft can maim, kill or at the very least give you strep throat. Must. Hide. New. Fans.

And the dancer; check out the video from a few days ago if you haven't, it is hard to take good photos with 300 or more other people crowded in, all trying to do the same thing:

Ah well, today's expedition ended in locating the yarn shop and then a cold soda (I know, how American of me; I did NOT drink coffee today!) at the cafe. It really is lovely to have even a soda here; served in an old-fashioned soda glass, bottle next to it, opened by the garcon/owner with a bottle opener. My French guy and me at the flamenco festival:

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Jardin, Foot (=Soccer)

I had to try to translate/explain "lying low" for my father-in-law today, to say why we were not heading back to the beach this week, for now. Sun burn is not a nice thing. There is no shortage of things to do and be done. A daily walk, shop, cafe, set the table, eat, do dishes, nap, work, play cards, knit, set table, dishes, watch soccer (a slight soccer obsession takes over the family every four years during the World Cup. this year is even greater, since France just made it to the semi-finals, such a rukkus!) Here is what THAT looks like here:

Thierry's parents' beautiful yard, and vegetable garden:

Go Blue.