Saturday, July 02, 2016

on the move

I wake up to a receding cloud cover and a ribbon of blue sky. (Visible from my upstairs bedroom window.)

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Whatever this day brings, bad weather will not be in the mix. Cool temperatures, yes. But with a bright and crisp feel to it all. Sort of what I would expect on a nice day toward the end of September. Michel says -- we have a cold front passing through today.  And still, I love that perfect morning meal in the garden of Les Arceaux.

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But there is no time to linger. I have a Paris bound 9:53 train to catch. Time to say good bye to Michel and Francine, my superb hosts, who are so very important to my love for visiting Giverny.

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A last look at Francine's flowers -- this time at the ever dainty and yet so strong poppies...

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And then Michel takes me to the train station and I join the countless others who are traveling today.

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I didn't choose to spend the day in transit on July 2, 2016 for the same reason so many French people are on the move today. For me, it just fits into a wider schedule of travel. But I hit upon the first day of vacation for school children. (French kids have an eight week vacation -- only slightly longer than British and German kids who are off for only six weeks.) Many families will not go away for their annual retreat from work until August, but still, you get the sense that les grandes vacances have begun today.

Too, it is a Saturday and in Paris, where I am to change trains and in fact change train stations, families are simply out and about in the way we're all out and about on a fine day in early summer.

(At the metro stop, connecting from the Saint Lazare train station to the Montparnasse train station.)

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I note that everything seems to be running on schedule today and so I have a full 87 minutes between trains. Why, that's plenty of time to detour for a stroll in the park, no?

The best metro stop for this is the one that puts me on a block of children's shops. I pass a kid haircut store and note that it's very very busy. (Here's a boy who just had his done, probably asking his dad-- do you like it?)

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(How you dress, how you style your hair -- these things matter here.)

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Thoughts of Snowdrop all these days away from her propel me right into the stores where I sometimes pick up a dress for her. I'm tempted by two...

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It's hard to believe that I am already buying a size 2. My granddaughter is zipping through childhood!

The Luxembourg Gardens are right there... Should I go in?

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I cannot resist it.

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I pass by a merry-go-round where they have the guy standing to the side with the rings that kids try to hook as they spin by.

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It's a lovely day, really it is. But I've pushed my luck. I suppose it's somewhat reassuring that I am still tempted to do so, rather than growing too cautious, passing up a park in favor of arriving at the station with lots of time to spare. Today, I run.

Where am I going? To the southwest of France. To the coastal town of Biarritz.

If you're of the generation (older than me) who sees this as a casino town of grand hotels and popular beaches, then you would be surprised that I should choose it for a three night stay. But in fact, Biarritz is lovely and no longer has the reputation of a coastal play resort. That action has moved to the Mediterranean, where the sun shines on a far more reliable basis than in the oftentimes brooding Biarritz.

What can I tell you about it just by way of introduction? It's close to the border with Spain (about twenty miles from it)  and it is very much within the Basque region of France. I came through this way ten years ago and thought then that it was possibly one of the most interesting areas of this country (before I, too, was pulled away by the gentle waters and sunny skies on the Mediterranean coast).

Biarritz is small, with a stable population of about 25,000. But if luxury is no longer the draw here, what is?

You'll see in the days to come. I'll say this much: the Atlantic has crashing waves. Ever since surfing became popular in Europe, Biarritz has become one destination for those with surf boards.

I write all this as my train speeds south and west. It's not a short ride. If you look at a map, Biarritz is just about the farthest you can get to from Paris (as the crow flies) and still be in France.

I arrive at the Biarritz station just before 6 p.m.

Uncharacteristically, I'm staying in a hotel rather than a bed and breakfast. It's a wee hotel -- the St. Julien -- some twelve rooms spread over three floors, but still, it feels enormous after Michel and Francine's Les Arceaux.

St Julien is simple and older, but extraordinarily fresh (yes, and honest!). I think it's tremendously funny that I found it while leafing through an in flight Air France magazine. One of those articles suggesting a get away to the Basque country and a stay at a typical small family run inn.

And it is typical, at least in architecture. What I find so fascinating about various regions in France is that housing styles conform to their locality. You know you're in Brittany or the Basque just by seeing the houses that line the street. In older Biarritz and indeed, deeply into the mountains that taper off into the Atlantic, you'll see the white homes with the tiled roofs and most often -- a brick-red trim. Again and again. And it's all rather beautiful. (My hotel is a good example of this Basque style.)

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(By the way, my room is on the top floor and looking out, I see the mountains, a bit of the ocean and of course, the tiled roofs.)

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There's not much left to the day. I walk over to a restaurant suggested by Philippe, who I think is my host (or at least he has been corresponding with me) -- La Goulue. It's a short walk, but even within city limits (I dont care what they say about the size of Biarritz-- even though I could leisurely stroll to the airport if I wanted to, it's still a city in my eyes), I sense the profound change in vegetation all around me.

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It's a pretty enough walk and the restaurant indeed has good food (if you at all like foie gras and you're in the southwest of France, you're going to eat it: it's ubiquitous here and inevitably excellent; and the fish is too fresh for words), but I'm remembering now why I so fell for the Languedoc (the other south of France). It's earthy over there. There's no reason to blow dry your hair or iron your summer dress. You've come because you have a bunch of kids you want to let loose on the sands that stretch into the shallow and calm waters of the sea, or because you want some sunshine, and great and unpretentious wine and a place to hike. My kind of place.

Biarritz, despite what I felt passing through here ten years ago, still has a smugness to it that's not unlike that along the Riviera. Cannes comes to mind.

I don't smell the international buzz so much, but I smell the air of wanting to impress. Not from the people who live and work here but from the people who visit.

That's okay -- I'm in the enormously fascinating Basque region. I'll just have to do a few trips out into the hinterlands in the next two days if I want earthiness. Or I'll walk along with the surfers whose only goal is to catch that wave.

In the meantime, I stroll along the ocean front and I watch the surfers and the lovers and the young people and the older people, and the dogs and the kids enjoying the end of their first day of vacation and I smile at how we all just want that same bit of happiness that sometimes is too elusive in these days of fear and distrust.

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Happiness is having that drink or kicking that ball or riding that wave, but it really is more about having the freedom to set the parameters of your own destiny.

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Yes, I'm sure of it...

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And then I go back to my sweet little hotel and I open my computer and I try to put all this into something that you could understand.