Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Low-hanging fruit

I walked past this fruit tree today. the branches so loaded with plums that they are almost touching the ground.  Taking a photo opened a conversation with the old man who lives there which went from talking about the fruiting habits of plum, apple, fig and walnut trees, to him asking me about where I live then telling me that the Mayor sometimes comes around to help himself to plums.  'They're still green but will start to ripen in about ten days time.  You're welcome to come and harvest some.  I can't eat this many'.  Anyone got any good recipes for preserving plums ?  Hendaye je t'aime.

Monday, 15 August 2016

La fête des fêtes


There are more fiestas along the two banks of the Bidasoa than one can shake a stick at.  When I was here in the winter they came thick and fast, every weekend.  Since I've been back the same pattern continues: the festival of sardines, of tuna, of octopus, the fireman's ball (something a little Pythonesque about that one?). Two weeks ago I was with Jakob on the other side of the river for the Fiesta de Compostella.  That was impressive. Little did I suspect that this is the 'big one'.  

DAY 1 

There are some things that I have learnt about Basque festivals.  The first is that all the catering and 'beer- tent' concessions are given to local associations.  These are mostly, but not exclusively, 'musical associations', though they also include rowing, other sports groups and many others.  The result is fair prices and conviviality. No-one tries to make a fast buck here.   (I could, and should, comment on how  Vriejheidsedag in Wageneingen has been completely taken over by commercial interests, to the point you can no longer bring drinks into the city centre on 5/5.  There is a good point in banning glass and bottles, but banning cans and plastic bottles is just pandering to the interests of the evil-Heineken franchises.  The same is true of Cafe Couleur.  I didn't go in my last two years in Brussels because of their  policy of over-protecing their francishees).  At the reggae-on-the-beach festival wto weeks ago Jakob commented that we were buying the cheapest drinks he has ever enjoyed at a festival in Europe (and he goes to Serbia and Poland often).   Full marks to the Basques on this one.

Second there is an unspoken dress code, though outsiders will be lost trying to understand it.  In Bayonne and Pamplona it's red scarves or sashes, so I hunted something out from one my cupboards.  I assumed the Basque country is relatively homogenous: only to find out to my embarrasement that blue is the colour of choice in Hendaye.Faux pas numero uno.(tbc)




Ah here we go - we can do this all evening....


Day three

Nearly everyone is dressed in 'national costume'.  Except it's not 'national costume'.  Its extremely specific to Hendaye.  This is the traditional peasant cothing.  Note the shoes that the little boy is wearing.  Everyone and his brother was sporting these. 

Basques: Catholic and Pagan at the same time. I want to know the story behind this.  Six hours ago these guys were probbably celebrating Mass. 

The more-refined dancers at the head of the procession

And a touch of tradition. The school ma'am?

Carnival by the sea

Hendaye has at least twelve marching bands.  For a town of around 15,000 people that's pretty incredible. Here comes the first!

The dancing gets a bit less decorous (but everyone seems to be having fun!). 

'And you don't cheek you mother like that'. 

Hawaii style.

Les rapaces!

These people might have been drinking since breakfast-time.

'Let's see if there is enough alcohol to keep us going through the afternoon'.

If not we're going to send someone across the river to pick up some more.

After all the fun and games were over I headed to the beach to cool down in the ocean.  The water was perfect, barely a ripple.  I had a bottle of wine in a chiller, enjoyed a doobie and stayed until the sun went down and it started to get cold. For once in my life I felt really present, not thinking backwards or forwards but just being where I was.  Eventually I found my bike with the intention of heading home but instead ended up at a party on a large-open balcony overlooking the sea, picking up a Djembe and drumming a thank you to the ocean, lindy-hopping with elegant black girls, eating roast duck and quaffing pastis.  The night ended  horizontal on a sleeping bag on the sand watching the fireworks and then hoping to see the Perseids.

Hendaye Je t'aime.  Where's the Paracetemol? Where's my bike? How do I get the sand out of my sheets?  Where's that girl's e-mail address?

Monday, 27 June 2016

Post referendum Blues

For the past few days I have been in a state of shock, like a rabbit in the headlamps of a 27 tonne truck.  This referendum result hit even harder than the Tories scraping home a twelve seat majority at the last general election against all the pollsters’ odds.  That put me in a state of catatonia for three days.
But this time we don’t get ‘another go’ in five years’ time. ‘Leave is leave,’ as Junkers said, and there will be many in Europe who will feel it’s long overdue.  The UK has been wheedling concessions and exclusion clauses out of the EU for more than thirty years.  As a proportion of GDP the UK pays less (net) into the EU’s coffers than any other ‘major’ EU economy, much less than France – whose economy is smaller – a little more than the Netherlands whose economy is MUCH smaller. 
None of the UK commentators I have read, banging on the UK’s right to invoke Article 50, seem to have acknowledged how much resentment there is in the EU for the UK’s repeated repudiation of European values and solidarity. Whichever road the UK goes down they are not going to play softball. 
It’s interesting that Cameron broke his promise of immediately triggering article 50 if the vote went against continued UK membership of the EU.  This was one of the lesser dishonesties of the campaign. But it leaves the UK in an awkward position. Either:
·         Parliament exerts its sovereignty to announce it doesn’t recognise the validity of the referendum. There are several valid reasons for doing so but in practical terms it would involve thirty or more Tory MPs putting country before party. With the UK’s tribal political system that is unlikely – although some may wake up realising that the Conservative and Unionist Party has just contrived to destroy the Union (though they may not care anymore given SNP representation in the House of Commons).
·         The UK goes through a second referendum with stricter policing of the truth in the campaigns and possibly a higher barrier for a mandate for change. The nightmare scenario.  I can’t think of anyone who would want to go through the same shit again.
·         The UK accepts the (non-legally binding) decision and moves on, adopting the Norwegian or Swiss model if it wants to keep any significant trade with the EU. That for the information of leave voters, involves unequivocally accepting all EU rules, having no say in them, contributing to the budget and imposing no restrictions on freedom of movement.  That’s not exactly what those who voted out thought they would get, or what the leave campaign promised them, was it? 
In the national short-term economic interest and stability, the first two seem more appealing.  But if the UK went down either of these routes it would do nothing to quell the deep divisions in UK society that have emerged so decisively during this referendum – (partly because they have had no other outlet for thirty or so years). 
Some say this vote was determined by racism and xenophobia: other by a feeling of exclusion caused by globalization and the ‘London elites’.  But for most people ‘up north’ life has not been easy for the past thirty years.  They’ve not had an accepted or valid political identity for more than thirty years.  Which is why they are so angry.  The chance to bite to back was irresistible.
But if the UK went down either of these routes its long term credibility with its EU neighbours would be so tarnished it would be difficult to recover it (either way it’s going to be hard to recover).  Greece, Portugal, Spain, and perhaps even France, are all queuing up to leave Europe, though for very different reasons than the UK. Better perhaps to bite the bullet and leave with some short- to medium-term pain and let those who led this campaign of disinformation pick up the pieces.   

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Back Blogging

Google has an ability to block access to my blog. I havejust changed computers (and am using a different browser!) and can get back in again!

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Borage in abundance

My hosts in Redhill. Surrey, have Borage in abundance in their garden. The flowers visually elevate any salad you are making - tonight's is celery, cucumber, feta and some non-descript chili.

Sarah and Bryn have spent the last month running an election campaign to keep a Green seat in Redhill East. They were  successful.  400 votes ahead of the Tories!   This evening they're chilling (read sleeping off a post count, post six weeks' campaigning hangover).  I assumed the role of chef tonight: aware that they are moving home in two weeks time.  What can  I find in their garden and the  depths of their cupboards?

A gammon steak ( bought yesterday) with mustard sauce (a bit too german?)
Sweet potato fries
The salad above
a side dish of couscous / quinoia with chilis and raisins.

Pineapple with chili and sugar (a la Tamil) as  a desert

Lets go!

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The white elephant in the room

Everyday more of my stuff is going out the door. Cupboards, drawers and shelves are getting emptied. Old paperwork is being trashed and pictures coming off the wall. Five boxes of books that I (mostly) like but also know I won't read again are packed ready for a sale later this month.  

The one thing I haven't yet tackled is the box of 300 or so cassettes under my bed. Yes, they have been gathering dust for four years. Yes, they are of little use to me - especially since i gave my cassette player - with two tape decks for the purpose of um 'copying' cassettes - to the red cross yesterday. But almost every one of them tells a story. Compilations made by me, a lover or a friend, covers made of postcards lovingly cut down to size (CDs were too big to do this :-(.) Many I have already digitised, but I still really don't want to dump them, although I know they are of no economic value. Parting with my cassettes is actually more painful than parting with the remnants of my vinyl collection. They are (were) part of my life and identity. Anyone who has read High Fidelity will understand the importance of a hand-crafted mix-cassette.  


Sunday, 1 May 2016

Everything must Go

The Manic Street Preachers (MSP) are in Brussels tonight on their ‘Everything must go’ tour.   I sat looking at the poster for eight hours last weekend while engaged on my own ‘Everything must go’ odyssey.  I’ve spent five years building a beautiful space here in the centre of the ‘jihadi capital’ of the world. Now, its time to leave.  It means losing a lot of ‘stuff’.

The decision to go was made long before Paris 13/11/15 and before the Brussels bombings in February.  I decided some time ago that I need more trees, more open space, better weather, more outdoor swimming opportunities and less 0430 outbound flights over the city centre than Brussels offers.   The Machelet plan was the deal breaker for me and Brussls.  Two years ago air control starting sending out flights over the city centre every five minutes, from 0600 onwards, and twice as frequently at weekends.  For the last two summers it has not been possible to have the windows of the flat open in the summer months.

This winter, after two years of searching, I stumbled across ‘the place’: where the mountains meet the sea (to quote Neil Young), where people on the street meet your eye, say hello and start a conversation, where there is a ‘border mentality’. It’s like Wales but with palm trees, oranges, lemons and banana plants. I spent five months checking out if it could really be my future home. I decided, as sure as I could, that it could be.

The consequence of this is that I somehow have to get the contents of a 70m flat square into a 2 m square ‘truck’: shipping costs are extortionate and certainly exceed the value of the furniture that I own.  So I am shrinking back to almost the size of possessions that I bought with me when I came to live in ‘Europa’ 15 years ago.  It involves some difficult decisions. 

I was fortunate enough that there was a brocante (an urban car boot sale) taking place around the corner from my flat last weekend, fortunate enough that my lodger took me to an event in the local community centre where the organiser happened to be, fortunate that the pitch closest to my flat was still available.  And from that pitch I stared at the ‘Everything must go poster all day.  Everything? Well except 2 square metres.  That means losing a lot of books, a lot of knick knacks, tools and things that might ‘come in useful one day’.      I started stripping the cellar and hidden cupboards of all the stuff I haven’t even used since I moved here.  That bit was easy. One van load straight down to the tip.   Preparing for the sale itself involved a week of making decisions about what is of value to me NOW, and what is just memories, It took week of stripping out cupboards and shelves and putting things in 3 categories ‘keep’, ‘maybe’, ‘lose’.  I started getting stricter with myself about the second two categories.  I took almost a van load of stuff across the road, and sold almost as much (about half) as I anticipated, but for half the price.  The early morning trade was brisk and people didn’t haggle too much.  Late morning through lunchtime the trade went slack and the real penny pinchers came out to insult me.  Mid afternoon I just dropped my prices to Mickey Mouse levels. What’s leftover goes to Belgian equivalent of Oxfam.  Since then three van loads of furniture have gone out the door.  There are probably another eight loads left.   At this rate I will be virtually camping in my flat when I get there next month. As John said ‘It’ll be like starting over’.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Like a chance meeting with an ex-lover

It was a beautiful sunrise that greeted me on my last day in Entre-deux-Mers seen from across a sea of vines.  Two nights before there had been a dramatic distant electric storm that lit up the night sky, and got the birds starting to sing at 2 AM, adding a high counterpoint to the gruff croaking of frogs from a pond in the nearby wood.  

By eight o clock the car was packed and we were saying our goodbyes.  Twelve hours, one thousand kilometres, one and a half tanks of fuel and 75 Euros worth of péages later I catch a glimpse of the Basilique at Koekelberg.  It’s been the landmark for ‘homecoming’ for me for almost the past five years.  (A suitably impressive landmark as it is among the ten large churches in the world).  This time, after seven months away it was like unexpectedly running into an ex-lover on the street or at a social gathering.  You remember the things that loved about her (the way she bit her lip when thinking) and those you hated (calling you ‘hun’ all the time and making you feel you were playing a bit part in a American sit-com).  

Driving through the road tunnel that (sometimes) fast tracks you from Basilique to Sainctelette a wave of conflicting memories and emotions came flooding back.
Just to share a few (in no particular order).

Some things I love(d) about Brussels,

And hate(d)
  • The weather (statistical fact: it rains here more days a year than in London).
  • The run down state of much of the Metro. (I moved here in 2011 when work was afoot on upgrading Art-Loi, one of the two major hubs of the metro system where the north south and east lines cross).  When I left Brussels in October it was still a building site – I am willing to bet it still is).
  • The Wathelet Plan
  • The ‘Quad Bike Crew’ of the Quartier Maritime (these last two together have made my quarter unliveable over the last two summers).
  • A lack of trees and swimming pools.  (the two the closest to me have both been closed ‘for renovation’ throughout much of my four year stay here).
  • The ‘leave your trash on the pavement someone will take it away’ mentality of some local residents.

I guess there will be more.  What are you pet loves/hates in relation to Brussels?

Tuesday, 29 March 2016


I went to visit the Zugarramurdi Witches' museum yesterday . A shocking story of the witchcraft hysteria that gripped the Spanish Basque country in the early C17th. In five years more than 5000 inhabitants (more than 1000 of them children) from a handful of parishes were accused of witchcraft. Six were burned at the stake. Thirteen died in prison. Of those, six had their remains burned the stake. The methods used to extract 'confessions' were brutal. It made me think how harsh life used to be. Then I read today's news  about the techniques used by the CIA on the suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo And it made me wonder how much progress the human race has actually made. Substitute Islamic for witch. I don't see much difference.

The cave where the 'witches' of Zugarramurdi were alleged to have practised devil worship.

One positive thing came out of the Zugarramurdi witch hunt (for those who survived it physically and psychologically unimpaired).  The authorities that licensed the Inquisition were so appalled at its excesses that five years later it was stripped of all authority and disbanded. Every cloud has a silver lining. 

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Spring is in the air

Today I was honoured to be invited to the home and garden of the renowned Basque chef Alain Darroze, to hold some five day old, still-blind, puppies and to sign a 'promis de vente' on my soon-to-be nest in Hendaye. Things are rolling and perhaps a bit too fast.