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