Friday, June 30, 2006

interrupting daily tribulations for the sake of daughters

I never quite got into the 4th of July. Rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air – I understand patriotism, but feel that those particular images are not altogether something I can wrap my soul around. I tend to more get into the food of it (so predictable): tarts with blueberries and raspberries over the years have played well. July 14th (Bastille Day) is cool as well, considering all the food options (if you can get yourself to not think about how many times the word "blood" and its derivatives appear in the words of their anthem).

In Poland I celebrated July 22nd with the rest of the pack (one way to do it: purchase lots of sweets from a Polish chocolatier that carries the name "22nd of july"), only to have the national holiday switched on me when I left the country. I'm not even sure which date acts as the new "flag was still there" equivalent, but it does not matter -- I am not going to be swept away into a feverish belief that on that day my allegiances should be to Poland and Poland only, though I am happy to honor her many victorious moments of the past by eating, say, poppyseed cake.

Still, this year, I am hot on the 4th bandwagon. It is a loooooong week-end if you take Monday off and so people living far away can actually come and visit you. I'm especially thinking of daughters, the ones who live on the coast.

I was waiting this afternoon for my latte at the local café and I noticed for the millionth time the poster right there, by the counter.

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A girl giving a gift to her mom. For me the gift is her arrival. Their arrival. The blog post will be (mercifully?) shorter today. All spare minutes are devoted to the preparation for, cooking for and being with daughters.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

wild things: prologue

I’ll go to Sicily with you if you hike the Rockies with me.

Four months ago, I appear to have heard only the first six words of that sentence.

Then, a few days ago:
We’ll fly out of Chicago on July 8th and we’ll get to Calgary by midnight and the next morning we’ll set out for the wilderness trail and we’ll sleep under the stars and eat Ramen noodles by a mountain stream.

My God.

Ed, my easy-going, tolerates-everything, including blogging, traveling companion in Sicily is about to get back at me, hard.

You don’t like the Ramen noodles, do you? Is it because the first listed ingredient is salt and the second – MSG? They taste great when you’re starving after a day-long hike!

I never want to be so starving that a container of Ramen noodles would taste great.

Please, can we consider other options? Can’t we hike in the day and then make our way down to an outstanding little bistro with crusty bread and a great little rose wine? In the alternative, can’t I pack crusty bread and a great little rose wine?
I suppose we could pour some rose into a little plastic flask…

The horror of it!

Surely campers eat something other than Ramen? And drink something other than water poisoned with iodine?
Yes, yes of course, let me bring out the saved food from my last camping trip.

Ed digs into his cabinets and comes up with this:

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I need to sit down.

Stroganoff with beef???? How can you have Stroganoff with beef? Stroganoff is definitely not fresh and honest. It’s not even a food! Have you ever seen anyone selling Stroganoff at the farmers market? It’s a vice, a poison and we will have none of it!
But, it’s perfectly good still…
When is the expiration date?? Your last camping trip was centuries ago!
Ed searches. It doesn’t have one…
He says this as if it were a good thing.

There is no way in hell you will get me to eat Stroganoff with beef. And do not even think about sweet and sour chicken in a crumpled bag. Je refuse!

So begins our planning session for the trip. I know, I know, I will survive. Those stars better be damn good over the Rockies.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

milling, music and men who engage in both, though not at the same time

I went to live karaoke last night. No, not as opposed to dead karaoke. Live, in that the accompaniment was live.

And here’s a truth to mull (as opposed to mill) over: better is not necessarily better. Live is inherently better than recorded, but live means that the noise level is set at “loud.” Or maybe even “very loud.”

There are a lot of guys out there who can really scream it out when given the chance. Women as well, but the men are louder.

I thought about noise levels and how sensitive I am to them. In the village of Pierrerue, where the walls were built of stone, so thick that the room never warmed up, not even on the hottest, sunniest days, I could still hear my neighbor cough in the morning. I wished he’d quit smoking and take care of his cough.

In the loft, I am surrounded by quiet types, which is good because otherwise I would most certainly move out.

You may think that this pull toward silence is age related. Maybe your eardrums do get sensitized when the gray hairs come out. But I have always liked quiet moments and gentle music and sounds of rain and all the other low key stuff.

It’s tougher to do quiet well. If you like loud crashing music I would think you could not possibly tell if something is excellent or just very good. With quiet music, you can hear fatal flaws. And so perhaps it is good that karaoke leans toward the loud. These same dudes would fall flat if asked to tone it down by maybe 500%.

On another note, I promised Ocean policy changes: comin’ up! Look for them on July 2nd, an anniversary of sorts for me.

As for trips and adventures: July 8th starts one.

In the meantime I am doing what I do best: a little of this a little of that. If asked how I spent my free time today, I would answer that I got the loft ready for week-end visitors, studied recipes for Basque cakes and worked on my newest project: setting up workshops for guys (come on: name me one female who would spend money to do this!) who want to learn CNC milling and are willing to travel to Madison to grind away with great precision at heavy metals.

Specifically, I visited the workshop of this person – one of Madison’s best machinists – to see if space was to be had in his expanding shop:

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No one ever accused me of having a limited range of interests.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

bleeding hearts

If you want raspberries, come pick mine. I have a bumper crop. I cannot cope.
Thank you. As for those which I wont pick – freeze them.
Actually I am more interested in the challenge of producing a bumper crop than in the harvest of it. So go ahead, pick away.

Such a genuine invitation. I cannot turn it down. I head for the farmette of Ed, known to some of you from Sicily days this spring.

Ed, where are the paths that will lead me to the center of this…jungle?
There are, for the most part, no paths.
How do you reach the canes in the center?

I wear long pants and I have long arms.

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I am not wearing long pants and my arms are average.

After the season, I will do you a tremendous favor: I will clip and cut until there are paths as beautiful as the Boulevard St. Germain.
I can’t let you do that.
It’s okay, I owe it to you. You are generous with your berries.
No, it’s the clipping and pulling out of healthy canes. I cannot do that to them. They are producing fruit – it is unfair to punish them for this.

I think about that. Who on this planet feels sorry for extra vigorous raspberry canes? A bleeding heart plant liberal, that’s who. The same person perhaps who cannot eliminate seedling tomato plants – hundreds of them – because, well, they are growing.

I remember my garden last summer, the one planted by me over the years outside my suburban house. I knew I was about to leave it and there was something that told me it would be okay – I would only be passing it along to the next young family moving in. Over the years, I had been incapable of eliminating vigorous perennials, so that the garden had become very much a jungle of flowers, one towering over another, blooming with abandon but without order, all spring and summer long.

The family that bought the house took a plow to the entire flower bed, taking down everything, even the very beautiful bleeding heart plant that had lived and flourished for more than a dozen years. A gift from my daughters' elementary school for work I had done there. Gone now.

I plowed into the raspberry field with my body only, sweat pants covering my bare legs, short arms reaching for the closest berries. I said nothing more about creating paths or making improvements for future seasons.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Blame it on the train. Or the rain. Or people without a purpose or destination.

Watching the numbers on the digital clock, I noted that time moves slower if there is no hour hand making its way from one, to two, to three.

If I slept last night, I did not notice. It seemed that I did not. Except if you do not sleep, you also do not awake and at two, quite suddenly, I was aware of being very much awake.

My loft looks out onto railroad tracks and I have found that to be a good thing. It’s not as if there are frequent trains zipping by on their way to interesting places like the Mississippi or the beaches of Lake Michigan.

But at two in the morning a train did pass by at the agonizing speed of .05 miles an hour. At most. It was a freight train, pulling a load of coal to a nearby power plant I think. And it screeched. And the cars banged against each other, or the tracks, or obstacles on the tracks -- who can tell anything beyond that the banging was pronounced.

Each time the train approached a street crossing, it let out a hellish warning – as if these tiny residential streets had traffic moving through them at this hour! The crossing gates were closed in any event and I could tell this because a closed gate adds an extra shrill and clang, warning drivers who perhaps are blind and cannot see, that the gate is closed.

And then the train stopped. Not the hissing and hooting part, but the moving along part. It stood there to torture every last resident in the Bassett downtown neighborhood of Madison, daring any of us to scream out the window to get moving already! Iron monster, indeed.

Eventually it did move and I went back to my nonsleep.

In the morning, after teaching a seminar downtown, I walked along State Street under the cover of an umbrella. Madison has artsy cows promoting our dairy industry. I remember when, several years ago, Chicago had artsy cows on display on Michigan Avenue. I had wondered then if they were also promoting Wisconsin’s dairy industry, manifesting pride perhaps in the accomplishments of Illinois' sister state?

There are many cleverly painted and decorated cows around the Capitol Square and on State Street, but the one that caught my eye was Ms Moo right outside the Art Center. She bore the title of Moonlight over Madison and she reminded me of how little sleep I got last night. The photo below shows off not her loveliness, but the wet drops of rain on her hide. You'll note that although her colors are yellow and blue, the emphasis is on shades of blue.

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I love European trains. I rode maybe about 100 of them in the last two months and with perhaps one exception, I enjoyed them all.

But I do have a new respect for people whose homes are within spittin’ distance of a TGV (rapid train) track. Though perhaps the torture time, condensed to the two second zip, is significantly less than that of a screaming freighter that parks outside your window.

Close to campus, the rain ceased and the cows took on brighter Ocean-like colors.

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In the afternoon I called my landlord to ask if they were thinking of putting up benches outside the loft buildings. I would like to believe that on dazzling sunny days (and I have faith that there will be dazzling sunny days) I can take a coffee and a croissant and eat them outside. Front step will do, but I think asking for a bench is more reasonable.

The management sighed deeply and explained that they would very much like to put up benches but they are concerned that they would attract not residents wishing to savor a morning coffee but those without much purpose or destination in life, looking for a comfortable place to ingest something considerably stronger than coffee.

For the most part, it was a drippy kind of day.

Sunday, June 25, 2006


Day is night, night is day, sleep comes and goes, hours are a jumble of mismatched moments.

Someone called me the other night – I had been fast asleep. She asked me to call a friend of ours and I responded that I could not – my money on the phone card had run out. Indeed, my money on my phone card had run out on the last day in France. The startling truth is that I do not need a phone card in Madison.

Sunday comes and I ask friends to come over for lunch. Goat cheese on toasts over a salad and rosé wine (Coteaux du Languedoc. I am your advocate, your mouthpiece here. I walk with images of your vineyards in my head).They indulge me and break up their weekend to be at the loft. I pick berries early in the morning and search for baguette substitutes at the store. I am happy. Sunday afternoon, at home, with goat cheese toasts and friends. And two saved Basque cakes – one with cherry preserves and one with honey and spices.

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It’s blissful to have this more leisurely approach to the day and indeed, when the last person leaves and the last dish has been put away, I take a nap.

I wake up two hours later – it is not quite dark. Have I missed a post? Should I be at work? No, it is not night turning into day, it is day turning into night.

I drink coffee nonetheless. I think I should have a croissant with it. I know not to go in to the office, I know that much.

And I did not miss an Ocean day, I am here, at the computer and I know to write. There are a few certainties to my days right now. But only a handful. On most fronts, I have been sucked into a sea of confusion.

OCEAN TEASER: this week, look forward to announcements concerning a brand new Ocean policy and a forthcoming trip into the wilderness. Ah, the wheels of change!

Saturday, June 24, 2006

entre deux

Entre deux. Between two: between mountains and sea (like Pierrerue), between two worlds (like me).

Madison’s Saturday market. It’s my first this year. Slow going. The foods are good though. But it’s different than back in St. Chinian. There, one cheese guy would sell ten, twenty different artisanal cheeses. Here, each producer displays her or his own. I note one but want to check out another. I have to backtrack. Where you begin the “circle around the Square” becomes quite strategic.

On the up side: the flowers today are magnificent.

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In St. Chinian, I wanted to buy flowers for my Sunday lunch hosts. I thought, perhaps, that bringing a bouquet of 15 roses was overkill so I asked for something smaller. The flower seller shrugged, pointed to some lesser flowers and went on to form his giant bouquets. It took a while to convince him to do a smaller one for me. Here, the mix and match opportunities are infinite.

But oh, do I miss the olive stand. Spicy, garlicy, herbed, dried, brined, so delicious, served at every meal I ate in France, Sicily and Croatia. Missing from our markets here. Face it, Wisconsin can never become the olive capital of the world. It’s fussing with vineyards, why I do not know. We should stick with cheeses.

On the up side: we have the greatest number of artisanal cheese producers in the country. We let California pick up more and more of the mass-marketed stuff (go for it, California!), but we are leading in the beautiful chevres, sheep’s milk camemberts, cows’ milk beaufort-like aged tommes.

I go to Steve’s Liquor to stock up on rose wines.

What great rosés do you have from the Languedoc region?
There’s one good one. We try to promote them, we really do.

I sense the frustration.

I see you heard about the EU discussion of wine subsidies this week. [10% of French wines do not get consumed and I’m sure the percentage is higher from Languedoc. It winds up being converted to industrial-grade alcohol. Producers receive subsidies, but the writing on the EU wall says: no more.]
Don’t make me feel bad for promoting Australian wines today!
I think any time you promote quality, you are doing a good thing. It’s when people buy cheap new world stuff that the moderately priced old world producers suffer.

I’m going this September for the harvest. Are you?
No, September is a terrible month for me to travel, unfortunately. How is it? I’ve always wanted to go…
A lot of prostitutes on the side roads! They follow the pickers as they move up north with the harvest.

On the up side: we don’t get prostitutes in the States for the harvest. I don’t think. But what do I know – California is so far away. California, where 80% of the wine is made by 4 major producers. France, where in any one region you will find over ten thousand small producers.

Changes, I note that even in two months a place can change. Berries ripen, buildings get torn down. What happened to the corner building on Park and University? A new Bruggers’ Bagel store went up next to Starbucks. Ed, who had been with me in Sicily, is driving a new (but very old) truck.

The other one rusted out so much that the bottom was threatening to fall out. I wanted a small one and could not find one. This ’92 Ford Ranger has V6 engine and power steering. What can you do… I see gas prices are going down again. People will drive more and keep on using bigger cars.

Music, I hear music. Off to the side of the market, two couples are dancing in traditional costumes. Wait, I know that folk costume. It’s Polish. Polish pride, here at the Madison market. Basque pride at the St. Jean de Luz market.

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I check Ocean comments. People write such nice things! I see Carole and Jean-Francois from Aigues Mortes are commenting. I go to their website to see photos of their Camargue days. I am transported to the hour at their two-table eatery and wine tasting shop. If I could be anyplace right now (5pm, as it was then), it may well be there.

I unpack my Pierrerue neighbor artist’s paintings. I stand them against the wall for now. It will be a while before I can think about the extravagance of good frames. They deserve good frames.

Friday, June 23, 2006


In a Paris morning, one last sip, one final taste.

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Ready? Let’s go.

Except I am not ready.

I fight back the overwhelming desire to, well, cry. During the entire 10 hour (delays, bad winds) flight.

Back home I put on the newest French heartthrob that had been on my radio station throughout my entire travels through France, Raphael. I want to recall how it was when I was zipping through grape fields and past beaches, happy to be done with work for the day, happy with the afternoon ahead.

In Madison I do not bother to even take suitcases out of the car. Not Thursday, not Friday. Instead, I take Mr. B out for a spin: the day is lovely, sunny, welcome back, welcome back! Indeed, so many similarities here, just look for them:

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celebrating food

I eat breakfast late, on the lawn of Monroe’s central quare. The town is some 30 kms from Madison. It has good coffee, great coffee! So it’s okay, no?

I eat Basque Cake that I brought back with me from Southwest France.

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Beautiful scenery. Past pastures – see, they have pastures here! Past streams – look, dragonflies! Beautiful, all beautiful.

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Finally, the inevitable. I go to the post office and pick up two months’ worth of mail. I drag the suitcases upstairs. I unpack by throwing everything on the floor.

I love it here, in Madison. But... God, a bird has thrown a bunch of shit right on the window before which my computer sits.

And, like in Pierrerue, there are ants in the kitchen.
Now is the time for a good cry.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

From Paris: let there be music and a dog

Well, it happened that I missed my train from Bordeaux to Paris.

It was like this: I get up before 6. I finish packing, tightly, oh so tightly fitting things into two bags, one backpack, with an added painting and a purse swinging from whatever limb can bear it.

I pack up the car and wait for breakfast. I could have skipped this meal I suppose, but it is perhaps my favorite moment of the day to sit there over a café au lait with croissant and some other surprise pastry and I am not about to give it up for some random train reservation.

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Then, I fall in love with a placemat. Really, I think it is just an excuse to not go, but I actually take precious minutes to find out from madame if such placemats are to be had in her little village store selling cloths from the region. She checks. No, it is an old pattern. I would probably find it still somewhere in St Jean de Luz, but she no longer sells any here in Sare.

I say good bye and head out toward the highway. But before I reach the highway I pull over and think. I am a few minutes off schedule. What if I miss the train? There would be another one several hours later but there I would be, sitting awkwardly with my bags, killing time in Bordeaux, whereas I could be, for example, in the port town of St Jean de Luz (and by chance, if I find an old fashioned placemat, why, it would be fate).

And who would not pick St Jean de Luz over an afternoon in Paris?

So here I am in St Jean de Luz instead of Paris and loving every minute of it. The streets are crowded with shoppers, the ports have emptied out the fish for the day, the markets are brimming.

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symbol of Basque pride at the market

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And because it is St. John’s Day (a very important day for most Europeans and for me: longest days are to be celebrated!) and I am in the town that sports this name, it is all rather festive.

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Inevitably I must get myself to Bordeaux and find another rapid train to Paris. It’s not as if Paris is a punishment after all. Still, I already miss the sheep and cows and goats. And vineyards. And cherries. And warm sands and mountain peaks… Oh, let me switch gears.

I look outside my tiny Parisian room and sigh. It’s an okay view, but I do not hear bees humming nor roosters crowing.

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Still, June 21st is a fantastic night to spend in Paris. December 31st gets the spotlight and the glamour, but this night outshines it. For one thing, it’s warmer.

Twenty-five years ago the Minister of Culture proclaimed: on this longest day of the year, let there be music in all of France! Everyone and anyone who can play anything can set up on the street, no permit, nothing needed except some amplifiers and a song or two.

And the crowds are out, filling every street, pushing cars out of the way, and the music is heard over the roar of city life.

I decide to skip the traditional meal at standby places and go to a more modern spot (Ze Kitchen Gallerie), ripped from the book of talented young chefs that Alain gave me back in the Savoie. The food is excellent, the atmosphere is city-impersonal.

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Shrimp, frogs legs, softshell crab, roquette, flowers of herbs

At the table next to me, a couple sits down with a monstrously big dog. It is hard to fit him in, but I tell them he can sleep on my leg, all 500 pounds of him. He is my companion.

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In every restaurant I ate during the last six weeks, I have been the only solo diner (in part, this has to do with the fact that I ate outside the big cities). Even though it goes against the grain of how I feel about dining (it ought to be a communal affair), I have to admit, I do not mind eating out alone in this country. French waiters treat me superbly. I get wonderful tables and attentive service.

But on this night, I welcome the warmth of the dog on my leg. I appreciate this city each time I am here. I love its vigor, I love the way young people find quiet spots for their own pleasure…

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But just this one time, I also liked having a dog on my foot.

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from Basque: let there be music

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

from Sare: pastures and peppers

Not that we are looking to make Madison a mega tourist destination. Certainly that would have its drawbacks. I already regard our farmers market as too crowded with south of the (Illinois) border types who think it’s quaint and charming and take up all credible sidewalk space each Saturday on the Square.

Nonetheless, wouldn’t it be interesting to pick something and make it a Madison special and really hype it up some and then the world would know that we were the capitol of, say, lilacs? We could have a lilac fair in May and we could develop artisanal lilac wines and cheeses, or at least bath salts and linens… No, that doesn’t quite cut it. Too matronly. Madison is hip. Maybe we could try growing extreme amounts of garlic. Garlic is cool across ages and cultures.

The little village of Espelette, some 15 kilometers from Sare, is the pimento center of the world. They not only grow the peppers, but they make them into all sorts of things and peppers have thus become one of the symbols of Basqueness. Everyone has linens with stripes at home, of that I am certain and everyone has towels or plates or something with three little peppers. It looks like a regular New Mexico here, with all the peppers.

I chose village and country hopping over hiking on my last full day in southern France, not because I was down on exercise, but because foliage is still dripping from the early morning rains. Good excuse, don’t you think?

And since I am so close to Spain, I know I also have to ride over and back, just to check things out.

It appears that it is a completely open border. I note that the booth stands empty, probably because I am driving to Spain during lunch time and no way is anyone going to choose border patrol over eating and napping.

It is not that interesting on the other side of the border as there is no village there and all I got for my efforts were road signs in several languages I did not comprehend (Basque and Spanish) and so I probably did the fastest visit to another country known to anyone: 90 seconds flat.

On the French side, I stopped at a flower designated village dripping with Basqueness (Ainhoa). Everyone told me I should see it and I am glad, because it has an abundance of older Basque houses, though one might observe that they are sort of similar and once you get the feel for them you can turn around and go home.

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Except that I did not go home. I went next to the capital of the pimento world (population: probably around 400). Before immersing myself in all things pimento, I searched for a place that would offer a warm chevre-on-toasts salad. No luck there. A café did sell Basque cheese with cherry jam and I thought this was a fine enough substitute. Especially with a glass of rose wine.

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It happened that the waiter got every part of the order wrong before he got it right, and there are not many mistakes you can make with “a plate of cheese and a glass of rose wine.”

I have observed that the French are very patient with poor service. Here, the couple next to me was getting a tad upset, but that was only because they had to wait for half an hour for a slice of cake and the place had only two other tables occupied.

At the third table, another couple finally did get their order, and it was wrong as well and had to be sent back (he confused tea with coffee). Both of them looked our way and the gentlemen stretched his legs out, shrugged and smiled. “Can’t stress about it,” he said. Indeed, he looked very unstressed. I suppose if you take three hour lunch breaks routinely, a half an hour wait for a café isn’t going to make you or break you.

Anyway, the village was charming and it indeed had tons of pimentos and pimento products, though it will look even more colorful come fall and last year’s darkened peppers are replaced with this year’s red ones, strung out to dry.

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In the pimento town parking space I noticed that someone had backed into my rental car and cracked the tail light. Now isn’t that a bum deal? I have driven through Sicily’s tight mountain alleys, sped through the Languedoc and worked my way up and down to Pierrerue and incurred no dent or damage and here, standing absolutely still I get smashed into. A regular hit and run.

So what do I do? I go back to Sare, stretch out for a tiny siesta and listen to the bees outside. Can’t stress about it.

Later that evening I get motivated and take one last hike into the country. These photos may mean nothing to you, but for me, they are all about southern France and how I have come to know it – through villages and pastures and forests rather than towns and cities. Making friends with cows and sheep. I think I am rediscovering my agrarian roots (of course, ultimately, we all have agrarian roots).

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mountains in clouds, Sare in the background, sheep

My last country dinner is at the country auberge where I am staying. I like this place quite a lot. It is run by one big Basque family: brothers, wives, sisters of wives, even a cousin or two, all there, doing their various tasks. I don’t know if there are some rough spots, but as I sit downstairs in the mornings and work on my computer, I find it ever so pleasant to listen to them go about their business, calmly, confidently moving this great ship of food and rooms forward. Their young children are scampering about, except during the actual lunch and dinner service when they retreat with one of the many who are there to care for them.

I had Basque fish for my first course and Basque duck for my second one, with a Basque aperitif and Basque rose wine for the dinner itself, capped with a noisette and I wish I could say my plate is full but really it is quite empty because in the morning I have to speed like a demon to Bordeaux and catch the train to Paris so that the next day I can catch the flight back home.

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pear gratin, to finish things off

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

from Sare: turn of the century update on travel to southwest France

I am only 45 minutes by car from Biarritz and even less minutes away from St Jean de Luz, a major fishing town on the Atlantic. I’ve read all about the posh times when Biarritz pandered to the wealthy and came to have an international reputation for its glitzy hotels and promenades along the ocean front. I cannot be so close and not take a look.

Much to my surprise, that reputation not withstanding, I like the town. The twenty first century has changed it somewhat. The beaches here have a pounding surf and surfboards give it a California-like relaxed look. And, of course, women tanning their breasts cannot have been common in the early 1900s.

True, it is dangerous to place me in a French town with good stores, particularly as the weather isn’t especially beachy, but I tell myself firmly that I must stop after that cropped pair of pants and I hold (basically) to my resolve.

Lunch in an out of the way patio reinforces my belief that from now on, grilled chevre on a salad will be my midday routine. Okay, I’ll eliminate the rose wine, reluctantly. So long as there is no time for a nap, there can be no room for a midafternoon rose.

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It is, of course, unfair to compare the southern stretch of the Atlantic to the southern stretch of the Mediterranean, but who cares about fair – I do it anyway. That cool surf sure can knock you down flat here. And I miss the winds of Languedoc. And the way one village doesn’t quite hook into the next – there are stretches of countryside in between.

Still, Biarritz is pretty and I like pretty.

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But I like St Jean de Luz even more. If Biarritz has Basque allegiance, it seems rather forced. You want to say – yeah, sure, you’re as French as anything. If anything, you’re jet-setty which doesn’t quite fit with the authentic language bit and traditional Basque way of life.

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Biarritz Basque pride

St. Jean de Luz is an authentic and vibrant fishing town. Most of the houses are Basque houses.

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Store after store sells Basque linens – beautiful fabrics, plain white, with stripes of blue, red or green and an embroidered Basque cross. The food is Basque, the language on the streets is unrecognizable and therefore Basque, shoppers shout out adio rather than bonne journee at the end of a visit.

It’s also cheaper than Biarritz and therefore likely to pose a significant threat to my credit card, since cheaper means bargain and bargain means purchase and purchase means credit card debt. I am reasoning like an American already, I am transitioning to my home country.

I eat dinner at the same place as last night, right on Sare’s main square. It’s run by an older Basque couple and the emphasis is on country food. It’s not a fussy place and I am tres happy to be here. The proprietor knows that I like the Basque aperitif and he brings me one right away. I order a mixture of appetizers and a grilled fish and a small pitcher of rose wine. All important decisions being made, I look around.

A family to the side is speaking American English. Unusual. I listen. The preteen daughters are vegetarian. They fuss at the menu which, indeed, would make a no-meat-on-my-plate person cringe. They fuss at the vegetables as well. The waiter fixes them special plates with lettuce, baby artichokes, white asparagus and little tomatoes and it turns out they dislike every item on said plate. They want fruit plates. Dad reassures them that every good restaurant will have a fruit plate. This place does not have a fruit plate. Bummer.

Only one daughter speaks French and it is the French of bonjour and merci. It does not allow for the cider that the mother wants, nor the boudin on the menu, which has her guessing wildly and very incorrectly. I want to suggest a great little food dictionary for further travels, but they all seem to have faith in 6th grade French language instruction and so I stay silent.

Having finished the complicated matter of ordering and rejecting foods, they notice me. And they begin to talk about me – why I would be sitting alone in a restaurant, why I looked their way (perhaps my look of horror as the girls licked the rims of wine glasses to see if they would make noise was too strong), on and on. As if I weren’t there. It really did not strike them that speaking French to the staff does not preclude me from understanding English. American English especially.

So I am transitioning already. I’m on French soil but I am letting go. I am accepting an inevitable return, truly I am. I like my home. I like that quality of life, however defined, matters for so many Madisonians. But on this evening, as I get up to leave the restaurant, I do the French thing. I say bon soir to the people on the left, bon soir the people on the right, and bon soir to the family of Americans in front of me. Why mess with their bubble.

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basking in Basque foods

Monday, June 19, 2006

from Sare: natural progression

It dawned on me that I have become physically lazy lately. For, faced in the past weeks with fantastic hiking opportunities, I wasn’t taking them.

Here, in the Pyrenees, things have got to change. There are trails. There are paths. There are maps. Get moving!

Still, I don’t exactly rush the morning. Eventually I do stumble down to this:

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…and by the time I finish and get around to putting up a post, the village clock has done its maximum number of hour clangs.

I do want to set out right then and there, I do I do. But everyone around me is eating the big Sunday lunch. It is my last Sunday in France. How can I not partake?

Reason prevails and instead of sitting down to a big four course meal, I go to a little café-bistro type place (“taberna” says the sing) and order a salad with grilled goat cheese and pine nuts. And I vow that in commemoration of my months in France, I will, hereafter, always eat a Sunday mid afternoon meal of a salad with grilled cheese and pine nuts. With a glass of rose wine. After which I will probably do the nap things. Sorry, I’m digressing.

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everyone eats

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I eat

I had the presence of mind to purchase a detailed map of the area, trails and all. But for my uneducated eye, it was merely a mess of lines on a piece of paper. I had asked the pretty little desk/waitress person (emphasis on young) where I might go for a nice walk/hike in the country and she told me (in her youthful enthusiasm) that there is this ballade I should take. It sounded so lyrical! Yes, definitely, the ballade is just the thing. How long? Maybe four hours…

As I set out, I think of the essentials: food. Just in case I lose my way in the Pyrenees and have to survive on nuts and berries and whatever else I will have brought, for days.

In Sare, it is crucial that you bring home with you baguettes and a Basque cake for the Sunday meal. For any meal, actually. They sell Basque cakes everywhere: flat, cookie like cakes, sometimes laced with cherry jam.

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And so I, too, must have a Basque cake-let.
And now off I go. But which way? The map does not fuss with the Sare streets and I get lost even before leaving the village. Remarkable. I ask the madame at the hotel (she is closer to my age and has less of that youthful optimism): which way is the path in the direction of the grotto?

Do you intend to walk there? She looks so incredulous that I think I am perhaps in over my head. It’s only four hours, isn’t it? I ask meekly. She shrugs and points in the direction of the mountains.

As always, these paths are easy at the beginning. I hum to myself, walk briskly, think of all the calories I am burning while taking photos of children playing, as parents dine, at picnic spots and in the shades of trees by their farms and homes.

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But then, quite suddenly, the path narrows. And obstacle number one appears.

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Can you identify the problem? I’ll help: a few steps back, there was a road sign that read: Watch out for the dog. I had noted it, thinking: wow, that must be some special dog, deserving of its own road sign.

And now I know that if there is anything special about this dog it is his viciousness. The animal is growling and barking so fiercely that I stop completely and consider my options. I take a lame step forward (the path passes close to the house), the dog tightens his circle around me and growls louder.

And so I shout toward the house: excuse me! hey you there! The dog is barking, I am shouting, what’s the matter with these people?

Eventually the woman of the house comes out. Yes? Are you looking for the path? It goes behind the house.
But the dog! She shrugs her shoulders and says – he’s nothing.
And so now I understand: the road sign is there to protect not me, but the dog: "slow down, dogs playing." I walk past, the dog whimpers and goes away.

The path is, for the most part, well marked. Where there is a fork, a blue arrow points in the direction you want to go. I concentrate on the scenery, which is stunning.

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But it is hard going. Elevations change, so there is a lot of up and down. And there are the usual stones and muddy spots. Unlike in the Languedoc, where the wind moves the air around constantly, the air here is still. The sun comes in and out from behind a hazy sky. Flies buzz. I am the only hiker. I encounter exactly one living soul and it is her:

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She crosses from one fern field to the next and throws me a “what are you doing here” glance. After the dog encounter, I am bolder and throw her one right back: “I’m hiking, so move out of my way.” She does.

[Ocean warning: readers who are sensitive to blood and gore should maybe just skim the next several paragraphs]

Eventually, the path shoots down to a creek and bends in a wide arch around pastureland. I am in good spirit. I’ve had no mishaps but for a mud splash (I had been so preoccupied with a photo op that I missed the entire mess in front and thus went in ankle deep; a stream helped fix that one).

But now, right in my path, I see a bone. Rather large. Too big for a picnic discard. And there are many many flies. And feathers everywhere. As the path bends once more, I see right before me a dead horse. Or, rather, three fourths of one, fine mane, still glossy brown hide, but parts missing entirely, having obviously provided much nourishment to vultures and such.

No, I did not take a photo. It seemed disrespectful. And no, I did not faint or vomit, even after observing … well, the details of the dismemberment. I walked briskly past, making as big a loop around the poor thing as I could.

And only after I was well past it did I began to wonder: why is there a dead horse here? Why did he die? What (nearby?) beast attacked him to begin with? What the hell happened there? And: hadn’t anyone passing along this path noticed? Don’t they, like, remove road kill on signed paths?

And it is at that point that it strikes me that I had seen no blue arrows lately. I walk further. It is so still there between the ferns and forest. Bird noises, flies buzzing. Nothing more. Possibly, somewhere lurking, the beast that killed the horse.

Ten minutes more and I realize that I am lost. I have to go back, past the horse, that same dead horse that obviously was not on the path because this was not the path, this was some road leading who knows where.

I wish I could say it was, after that, downhill all the way, that I sped like lightening and got to the grotto in no time.

In fact, it suddenly turned uphill all the way. And after three hours of hiking it also became clear that this trail was not a four hour loop but a four hour final destination designation and the destination was not the grotto, but the summit.

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toward the top: where the wild ferns grow

In the middle of all these ferns, I came across a hut that acted as a shelter. A couple of French hikers were sitting enjoying a wine break (really). I asked about the location of the grotto and was told that I had passed it some 500 meters below.

I loop back, find the grotto, stare with amazement at this apparently ancient burial spot and place where cave people frolicked…

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…and start thinking about heading back. And this is where I completely show my hiking weakness: I hate retracing my steps over difficult terrain. If you don’t know what’s coming, you can pretty much hike through anything and either you die or you survive and blog about it. But reliving the experience? No. I opt for the paved road for a more relaxed 10 km jaunt back to the village, sidetracking just toward the end, to get some more of that Basque countryside, farm animals and all.

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regarding each other

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they all look basically like this

BTW, is there anything wrong with feeding a little piece of Basque cake-let to these guys? They came right over when I paused for a photo and I neglected to carry with me a carrot or a lump of sugar. They appeared surprised, as if they had never tasted it before. They sloshed it in their drippy lips for a long time and then nudged around my bag for more. They’re not allergic to cherry jam, are they?

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is there more?

Dinner is at an outdoor spot on the square. It is lively and brisk and absolutely delicious. Did I, the evening before, have trepidations about some of the foods in this region? All gone. I love it all.

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white asparagus, scallops

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fish, zucchini with egg

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Basque cakes

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looking up: a furled up France, a partly unfurled Union, in full glory: Pays Basque