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.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Predictive texting

Predictive texting can  be very useful and very troublesome.

Tonight I randomly picked up some Talking Heads tracks and realised how David Byrne was  'predictive texting' almost forty years ago.  Listen to these two songs (lyrics attached for non native English speakers).   For me they capture more than anything else what is happening in the world today.
Life in wartime.  Lyrics here
And Listening Wind  (unfortunately no video copy easily accessible).
In former times David would have been called a prophet or a seer.

I do just really hope that there is a brighter future than that which a few militant fanatics (and a migrant crisis of an unparalleled scale since WW2) really pose a threat to: closing down Schengen and the 'common Europe' plan (Yes I'm one of the few Brits who subscribe wholeheartedly to that project).  It feels like there is an awful lot at stake at the moment.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Shedding Skin

A second great weekend at my permie friends' place in Les Landes. It began (again) at 'the tree'.
 It went on through a mantra  session, a dance routine devised by Gabrielle Roth, shamanism/Tibetan singing bowls, building a nature mandala and an 'anthro' study in the metamorphosis of plants and people.

This being France it wasn't a 'vegan slop permie' weekend.  There was a charcuterie board with half a dozen choices: oysters and another shellfish that I' am not yet French enough to know the name of and 17 (count them) hand-crafted pizzas baked in a recently-renovated wood fired communal oven, which would have been the focal point of this forest dwelling hamlet a hundred years ago.  Not only that but we were lucky enough to have Stefan, professional pizza boss (and  ex surfer boy)  doing the honours.

The table was long and at different times fitted between 9 and 17 people. And they mostly drank like Brits!! I was starting to feel at home!

  We finished with a 'skin shedding' exercise that was sent to me at the turn of the year by Ruby May and then symbolically burned what we wanted to shed in 2016 in Bea and Gilles' turbo-designed wood burning stove.

To finish we symbolically planted some seeds to celebrate the coming spring. Everyone took home a sprouting chestnut seed from 'the tree' to propagate it's health and longevity throughout Acquitaine and we all left feeling a spring in our lives (and some of us nursing a hangover)

It was a real 'DIY' event. We didn't pay for a 'trainer'  everyone bought talent and gifts and food and we all looked after each other.  A lovely weekend. Thank you everyone who was there for being there and 'sharing'.  


Sunday, 28 February 2016

Seed holder

I've become a seed holder: entrusted to save seeds from this rare 'Hungarian blue' pumpkin.  It looks like a heart. Thank you Caroline

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Drinking in the Basque country

It happens quite a lot

Day 1: In a  bar in St Jean de Luz that Hemingway used to frequent (so they claim - more on in him later).

Day 2: Basque chansons in a hard -to-find bar in by an old frontier crossing point a few km up river from Hendaye

Day 3: a traditional cidriere across the border : 30 Euro for all you can eat and drink: those barrels hold ca.  8000 litres of cider: Eat you heart out Oak

All photos by Caroline as I managed to trash mine :-(

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Hendaye Diaries: Life in the fast lane part 2

It’s been quite a week – I’ve had a friend from Entre-Deux-Mers stay all week.  We talked about permaculture, biodynamics, Hemmingway and loads of other things.  I learned loads of new cookery and gardening tips. She’s a good influence on my life.   She subtly ensures that I go for a long walk on the beach every day, keeps me away (or more distant) from the bottle and through watching/listening to her I am learning a great deal about the ‘touchstones’ for communicating effectively with the locals.  

I’ve lost track of the enormously beautiful experiences I have had this week. 
  • Eating fresh clementines from tree in ‘my’ garden.
  • Standing on the edge of the jetty that is the most south-westerly point in mainland France and watching the surfer boys and girls do their acrobatics from an oceanic view point,
  • Singing Basque songs (mostly -I was told about ‘love gone bad’ - in an old coach house, 25 metres from the border crossing.
  • Visiting a cidirie close to San Sebastian, where they tap the cider straight out of 8000 litre barrels (and do a mean steak, big enough for four to people to share)
  • Picnicking on the cliffs of St Jean de Luz and seeing the waves resemble dolphins - while aware of snow-capped mountains behind our backs. 
  • And much more.
But it’s also been a productive week. I think I have found the flat that I want to be  chez moi for the coming years, and have made considerable progress towards getting  a business structure established and opening a French bank account. As anyone who has been, or is, an ex-pat these are incredibly time consuming and frustrating exercises.  And I have work coming out of my ears,  editing projects on the fuure of agriculture in the EU, seed dissemination in Africa, coffee supply chains in Ethiopia and berry supply chains in Latvia and Serbia.  The wheels kind of fell off of my truck six weeks or so ago – when a flat I  wanted fell through and the complexities of registering a business here seemed insurmountable .  I have only just managed to put them back on :-)   The only down side to all this is that I haven’t touched my book in the past week L

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Administration blues

It's been a slack period on the blogging front.  I can't remember if I ever stopped blogging for a whole month. my stats will be down for months now.The last few weeks have been challenging.  I got stuck in an impasse with my move to France.  A lot of agencies and landlords don't want to rent to me because i don't ahve a French employment contract or two year's French tax statements and I can't register my business here until I have a fixed address.  The perfect double bind!  In addition I have had a wave of work - which I can't invoice for until  my business is French-registered and I am also seriously focused on my book which means any spare hours I have for writing are dedicated to that and not blogging (I have done at last an hour a day every day over the past week and am finding that the continuity helps).

Nevertheless there have been joyous moment and I think I have found a way through the perfect bind!

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Life in the fast lane

Thursday was a full on day. Driving up the - work in progress -  motorway from Hendaye to Bayonne in the pouring rain with a half-functioning Tom-Tom (no sound – cant get the speaker to work– its not talking to me – like the prelude to a divorce) to  visit the Chamber of Commerce (CoC).  It’ hard to focus on narrower than normal lanes, lots of big trucks and my -  only visually working - Tom Tom simultaneously when in a  fog of  rain and mist. 

The toll booths on this section of the motorway don't take notes and foreign transactions on my UK card (the only one the French péages accept) always incur a surcharge even if it si only a few eurocents its still annoying.  So I have started thinking half-like a local and always keep large amounts of change in the trays of my car.  (To be a full local one should get a telecharger – but one needs a resident’s permit to do that and that’s not yet within my grasp).

I‘m early for my appointment at the CoC and I realise to my embarrassment that I don’t have a name for the person I’m meeting.  Confusion follows as I am asked about all different types of acronyms of organisations that I don’t understand.  I have 45 minutes to kill and try to pass it with an impromptu English language table with the receptionist – who also happened to be VERY pretty – in a Dutch kind of way.   Her colleague was a bit miffed at me distracting ‘V’ from her work and suggested I take a seat in the reception area and wait there.  Message taken!

I get a very informative presentation on all the options of setting up a company in France.   Like many French things it’s a bit philosophical and theoretical at the outset – but we soon get down to nittty-gritty  and identify the most appropriate legal structure for registering my business in France.   We identify the most appropriate legal model and then discuss the financial implications (the levels and thresholds for tax and social security / health insurance contributions).  They’re not as a Draconian as I had been led to believe.   

I leave with the flow chart. 

I ask a few non –related questions before leaving. One of them is where to get French coaching. Henri suggests I ask V at the reception desk as she co-ordinates that work in the mornings.  So  leave the CoC with her (work) phone number and a business project to work on.  Game on!

I rush back to Hendaye again along the motorway -  for a flat viewing that doesn’t happen. “Hellas, my colleague rented the appt out three days ago”.  I realise that it’s a sellers/renters market here (the population of Hendaye has grown by 10% in the last 15 years).   I do a tour of every estate agent in Hendaye Plage (there’s a lot of them) and get a spontaneous viewing of one flat.  Superb views over the harbour, south facing balcony, mezzanine area for an office.      The next day I go back for second viewing and say I want it.  This weekend I have been putting together a portfolio of references, tax statements and declarations of earnings.  Game on?