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?    

Saturday, 9 January 2016

strawberry towers forever!

I  managed to squeeze in a site /networking visit this week - between all the administrative and and hunting visits. Here's Alain Darroze's 'strawberry tower'. A one metre or so high, and the same in surface area, 'tower' made with hazel branches and twigs and filled with compost. There are 250 strawberry plants in here (on 1 square metre of land). Different varieties of course. And they will ripen at different times according to their aspect to the sun.  Permaculture in action!  Stacking, minimum use of resources and labour, maximum output.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Administration blues

In 'Platform', Michel Houellebecq wrote that, after the age of forty, life becomes little more than administration. How true that sounds!

Here's two examples from the past week.

I bought a printer on Tuesday for my work and writing. I went to set it up yesterday and found the cable between the printer and PC / laptop is missing (yes I checked the dustbin to see I didn't trash it by mistake).  Telephone customer service at FNAC  doesn't work,  And I really don't want to do a 70km  round trip back to Bayonne to claim a cable.  So  I guess I will cut my losses and buy one locally (but most shops are shut for three days).

As a result of the missing cable I had to ask the secretary at my tennis club to print out my new car insurance certificate (the old one expires tonight).   To get there I had to phone my insurance company in Belgium to get them to send me an electronic copy of the certificate. The mail addressed to me at Poste Restante 'Hendaye Plage' went to 'Hendaye Ville'!  The clerk in the PO in 'Plage' was very helpful , knowing that I had passed by three times in the past week to find my mail. She  called the office in 'Ville' and called me back within an hour to let me know my mail was there. But it was too late to get to collect it before the holiday :-(.

I'm not complaining about crap customer service or inefficient postal services - though there are good reasons to do both. What I do see is that I spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with, and worrying about, malfunctioning administrations (and often not in my native language)  - and technologies that I don't understand. This saps my creativity.   Do my readers have the same problem and how do you keep it under control?  I veer between being hyper alert and trying to keep everything under control or just ignoring issues until the red lights flash. Neither strategy is very helpful  to leading a balanced life.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Keep on rocking in the free world

I went concert-hopping in Hendaye last night.  The plan was to go and see Gani Mirzo, an Oudh player who blends Kurdish and Flamenco styles, doing a benefit concert for Syrian refugees.  I arrived way too early, so went walking around town and dropped into a bar that was having an open mike session with people playing Galician (Basque?) pipes,  a tambourine and a didge.  The vibe was lovely, the tapas first-class and some drinking buddies from Hendaye Plage were there.  It had a Cambrian mountain trance –fusion feel to it. This is the zonard zone and I feel at home.  I was really tempted to stay but had a ticket to see the Oudh player.

The Church of Saint Vincent (watch the video for great footage) is very impressive, possibly the finest church I have seen in the Basque Country (though I haven’t made a point of checking them all out).  In typical Basque style it has balconies above the main knave – for the men.  Most of the churches in the region have one balcony – but this one has three, elaborate and imposing.  The acoustics are great, the musicianship superb and on any other night this would be the place to be.   But it just feels a bit too staid. This is a night out for the liberal, worthy-cause-supporting, world-music-loving bobos of Hendaye. 

At the break I go outside for a cigarette and hear singing from a cafe across the street. I wander over to check it out.  What happened next was probably the most authentic and moving world music moment of my life.  Inside the bar there was a four piece band playing (two guitars, two accordions) and a group of maybe sixty people singing their hearts out along to them: in Basque.  The 'pop-up choir’, ranging from young mums to beret clad pensioners was grouped in a semi-circle around the band, ten deep into the bar area and stretching out onto the terrace: hands on hearts, belting out their favourite Basque songs.

I ask one of the audience what the songs are about.
'This one is about two Basque brothers who climbed Mount Everest and who loved the same girl’ comes the reply.  

I can (more than) live with that. True, the band did sound like a second rate oompah band that one might find in any European bar of a weekend. True, every song did end like ‘Hey Jude’, with innumerable ‘la-la-las’. But this felt like a genuine and spontaneous expression of cultural identity.  Nothing like the cultural evenings that are put on for tourists or visiting academic dignitaries at conferences in remote regions. I've never experienced a 'cultural event' like this. It's raw, spontaneous, authentic, participative. 

I made a short video clip but it's too big to load onto the blog.  Take a look at it here. I stayed, till the wee hours. This felt so much more authentic than – well anything I can remember.  At some point a hokey-cokey broke out, led by one of the accordionists.  Then it was dance time and I jived with one of the pensioners who had been singing her heart out earlier.  I went home with my pulse racing – having joined the mailing list for details of the next get together.

One night out, three concerts, three very different social groupings.  There’s diversity to be found here. 

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Sitting on the Dock of the Bay

My first impression of Hendaye Plage was ‘wow, I feel at home here’.  It feels like Borth, but with palm trees, more sunshine and better food.  And the Basques have the same cultural sensibilities as the Welsh. There’s a definite ‘Sitting on the dock of the Bay’ feel here – which is appropriate because that was one of the songs that I sang at my leave-taking karaoke party in St. Catherine’s three months ago. 

Hendaye is a place where drifters blow into – and sometimes never leave.  There are a distinct number of eccentrics wandering around town: some ‘old money’, some ‘no money’.  There’s a surfing beach battered by waves and 250 metres inland there is a placid saline estuary that looks like a lake from every angle.   It’s a place of edges.  One where mountain, sea and river meet: where the GR10 begins (or ends). where two counties meet, where one can cross the border for cheap petrol and pastis and late afternoon tapas.  

I found a minuscule flat (25m square) with a kitchenette and a click clack (fold up fold down) couch and hunkered in on there for a month to do some writing and resting, fulfilling my fantasy of a literary equivalent of ‘doing a Matisse or Picasso’  (an extended working stay in a pretty place). The longer I stayed the more I liked it.   I started to accustom myself to being in tune with the rhythms of nature: high tide go watch the surfers on the sea front, low tide go bird spotting in the estuary, sunset go watch the sun set behind the Spanish Corniche. And I  thought this might just be THE place.  

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Molenbeek Blues

Last night (last Saturday) I get a text message from my flat sitter about the ‘Paris bombers’.  Who? I’d been off line for 36 hours so I hadn’t heard anything about this. I ask in the local café and am told that there were seven suicide bombers, 129 dead and many more injured.  I’m mortified.  

Only two days ago (on Thursday 11/11) the French authorities imposed month-long border controls, ostensibly to prevent trouble-makers from disrupting COP21 - but that’s still two weeks away! The residents of Hendaye and Irun, who are used to doing regular commutes across the river border for work, school, love or (for the French) cheap fuel, fags and liquor, were not happy.  I thought to myself that something doesn't add up here. I thought maybe it is as a disguised attempt to keep the Syrian refugees at bay (Sweden, the most tolerant of EU nations,  also 'closed' its land borders the same day).  But it was something deeper: much deeper. The French authorities clearly knew something was afoot.  They just didn’t know what. 

As the details unravelled I became increasingly personally engaged in the horror. One of the suicide bombers and - it turns out later - possibly two of his accomplices - lives/lived in my neighbourhood - almost opposite my apartment.  It takes several days for the weight of this to sink in. 

For a couple of years I have felt a distinct sense of mal á l‘aise in my neighbourhood.  I’d put it down to me suffering from the ‘grass is always greener’ syndrome, the Mathelet plan – which had made my flat virtually uninhabitable in summer months with flights going over my apartment from 0600 to 2300 every five minutes; the vous m'avez entendu? boys on their quad bikes (supposedly illegal in Belgium) circulating the neighbourhood every five minutes; Brussels’ seemingly interminable grey skies and the lack of swimming pools that are actually open. 

Teun Voetenn's eloquent article sums up most of my experiences of living in Molenbeek; the lack of opportunities to socialise, the inability to buy a newspaper (or alcohol) in my locale.  The very reasons I moved to Brussels, to lead a civilised , French lifestyle   

After several days reflection I realised that my discomfort with Molenbeek might have deeper causes,  of having – for several years - been in the immediate proximity of angry young Muslim men planning acts of terrorism, of indiscriminate mass murder. The lesson learnt is that I should listen to my heart a bit more and not try to rationalise away my feelings about the ‘vibe’ of a place.  

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Journey over

My trip across the Pyrenees is over!  Now time to sit down fo six weeks and write up and organise my extensive travel notes and put roots down in one place after weeks in and out of camp sites, hotels, friends houses and chambres d'hotes.  A welcome change

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Say it in Broken English

A sign seen at a bird 'sanctuary' in Urdax yesterday.  Check out how the English translation mutated!

But it has to be said that it's not such a spectacular faux-pas as this one (also from Spain) reported in the Guardian today

Monday, 2 November 2015

A transcendental walk

 Had a transcendental walk yesterday along a 15 km ridge at between 750 and 1100m, following the French / Spanish border north - south.    There was a sheer drop of 300 m cliffs on one side for the last 4 km!  The light was fantastic: I saw vultures, kites and a golden eagle - plus an egret and kingfisher in the streams at the start of the day.  I'm starting to get the birding thing, keeping my field glasses close to hand all the time.  Looking back I could see a line of mountain peaks stretching to the east, and to the west the Atlantic for the first time - reminding me that my journey's nearly over.  The descent - of 750 m in less than 4 km - was brutal and i was glad to be back in the valley after 7 hours on the tops.