Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fur-nishing the nest

Munson fur in nest [Jean's pic]

Munson has been blowing his winter coat over the last few weeks. Jean found this nest near the house which has been very obviously using the many bits of undercoat fluff blowing around. It’s just as well that the chicks are unlikely to be desensitized to the smell of tree-climbing malamutes.

That doesn’t really give a proper idea of the scale of the process by which a malamute lightens its load of woolly undercoat. Jean’s find prompted me to pull out the box in which I had been collecting everything I’ve taken off Munson this month.

Amazing isn’t it? Munson doesn’t look very different after it’s all come out, just a bit less full in the rump. I’m thinking of spinning it all up into wool for a future knitting project.
2011-06-29 Munson fur

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sun and sky

P1040240-245_stitch sunflower field
7.30am: I’ve just completed a 3 hour round-trip to Toulouse airport.

Just before I reached home I saw one of the first full fields of blooming sunflowers. Over the last week we’ve spotted a few yellow discs that appeared, seeming so lonely among their thousands of green siblings in each field. The drought has taken its toll and they’re struggling to catch up in numbers and height.

The skies reveal that the traffic above is uninhibited, contrails criss-crossing the Gers at a great height. At lunch today I met someone who moved to the Gers in the early 90s, when the roads were less busy and not regulated by radar. Then it took only an hour to get to the airport  - it takes half as long again now. One has to be very lucky to get an effective speed of more than 60-70kph on journeys between towns.
Munson under the contrails

Friday, June 24, 2011

SAN SEBASTIAN Morning in Donostia

20051111 Bondi on La Concha (4)

In 2005 I spent the month of November in the city of San Sebastian on the Basque coast of Spain.

To go there, Bondi and I had cut short a two-month stay in Salamanca where I was learning Spanish at one of its many language schools. It was that experience which gave name to this blog as El Loco & El Lobo since so many of the (much much younger) students thought I was basically a crazy guy with a wolf. A later, more delicate reading of the title might have rendered us as “lone wolf with his crazy big dog”. The blog was relaunched from its MSN-hosted predecessor on my first day in San Sebastian, starting with a few short single photos – all that Blogger allowed at that time. Looking back at my reportage from that time, I see that that posts were pretty terse in text and image, partly due to having little internet access.

Kursaal, Zurriola

The last time that Gustav came to stay I had planned a drive down to San Sebastian, but the weather diverted us to Bordeaux instead. After today’s 3 hour car journey, I’m glad of that decision as it’s been spectacular weather all day.  All in all perfect for Gustav’s first visit to Spain, and my re-entry to San Sebastian after five and half years. I really really really wanted to bring Munson, but I’m still driving a terribly clean rental car, so he’s at home with a very large bone to distract him.

It’s quite a compact city and yet I was staggered by the amount of new construction, particularly the high-rise apartments lining the auto-via as we drove in. Within ten minutes we were in one of the underground car parks close to the waterfront and it was just shy of 10am, many of the cafes putting out their tables and preparing for a long day.  We immediately crossed the mouth of the river Urumea into the Gros precinct, walking around the Kursaal congress centre and along Zurriola surf beach.

P1040108-109_stitch Gustav on Zurriola
Pukassurfeskola - Surf school  Zurriola clocksurf lingo
In the Basque language, San Sebastian is rendered as Donostia which means the same thing: Dono/saint + Stia/diminutive of Sebastian.

The table on the left shows a number of beach and surfing terms in Basque, Spanish, French, English and German. Unlike Spanish, Frence and Occitan, Basque (Euskara) is not a Romance language and in fact precedes other European languages. Reading signage here with the characteristic abundance of k,z and x characters, you are linguistically adrift, much like encountering the Magyar language in Hungary.

2011-06-24 San Sebastian
Crossing back into the old part of town, with the huge La Concha bay overlooked at its mouth by Mounts Urgull and Igeldo we passed some fresh produce markets and stopped for coffee and chocolate muffins oozing with berry jam.

San Sebastian - old part
We circled through the streets of the old part – me trying to unpack my memories of the place and take in the substantial changes. In off-season, rainy November there was a very different, less-friendly mood. A bonus for us was that hardly anyone here seems to smoke now – on a day like this in Toulouse, about 80% of the people outdoors have cigarette in hand, regardless of age or gender. Here you really have to look to spot the smokers. I remember that being quite different in 2005 when some of the bars looked like they were occupied by clouds with feet.

Near the rear of the quarter are stairs leading one up Mount Urgull, once heavily fortified and more recently capped with a 12m statue of Jesus, surveying La Concha much like its counterpart in Rio de Janeiro (whose patron saint is also Sebastian).

P1040132`-134_stitchP1040135-145_stitch La Concha

You don’t have to ascend very far to get quite spectacular views over the city, fishing port and bay. On the Atlantic-facing side I used to go to watch gigantic waves roll in across of the Bay of Biscay and smash into the sea-wall, but on a day like today the surf is gentle and one can approach the water’s edge without getting drenched.
Tucked inside the bay is the fishing port, which is now much slicker-looking than a few years back. It’s lined with seafood restaurants and is also home to the city aquarium. While there were a few fishing boats in the port, the only real activity I saw were hombres fishing from the dock with loose lines hooked with bread pieces. Dozens of large fish could be seen circling the baits but no takers today. The bay is clean and shallow enough to swim around here or possibly even walk out the few hundred metres from the La Concha beach.

San Sebastian

Downtown San Sebastian is greener than I remembered, although that may be a seasonal thing. I was curious about the pretty pink-fringed trees lining many of the squares. I thought they were a conifer, but they’re actually tamarisks or salt-cedars which are noxious invaders in the USA.

Believe it or not, everything I’ve posted so far was from our first two hours; I said it was a compact place! I’ll post our afternoon pictures separately.

SAN SEBASTIAN pintxo bakarrizketak

2011-06-24 San SebastianGustav was salivating for a seafood lunch, so we picked a place by the port more or less at random. (I thought the place serving Hay Paella catered more to farmers like Brent.) We had a crab entree followed by “sea-bream for two” – both were cooked well, but really there was barely enough flesh on either creature to serve one person, let alone two – and with no side dishes available to order we expected vegetables to arrive with the main dish. Not only did we not get any accompaniments, we were billed for the rather ordinary bread they kept dropping off. Quite an expensive tourist sting: be warned!tanning zone - looking to Mt Igelda
We didn’t have too much lunch to walk off, so headed back to the car to get our beach gear. Pretty much everywhere we went today was never more than about 15 minutes from the car, which was very convenient. The streets and beaches were all packed so it was just as well we got in this morning before the car stations were similarly filled up.
baginaren bakarrizketak<<< This is how I worked out the Basque word for “monologues”.
P6240002-003_stitch La Concha bathers
P6240007-008_stitch La Concha under the archesMichael @ La Concha
Swimming in La Concha is a bit like being a large salty lake with a gentle fall of waves on a sandy beach, a very crowded sandy beach. I haven’t seen one so packed since my last summer swimming at Bondi Beach in Sydney. The surrounds make it seem more like the Manly beaches (Sydney again). Gustav was very pleased to plunge into Atlantic waters after our visit to the beach in Bordeaux proved to be too wild and chilly for a dip.

My little Olympus tough camera finally decided that it wasn’t going to be waterproof anymore and the pictures in the collage here are its final gasp before going to digital heaven.

La Concha - more toes (and Gustav)

After we’d bathed, burnt and booked by the bay for long enough it was time for coffee and gelato. Gustav was a bit dubious when I passed over a few heladerias because it looked like they sold commercially-packaged product. Finally I found one in the old quarter that looked right. I had to spend some time decoding the untranslated flavours for us – although some like the one of the left below needed little explanation. Who was it said that the recent royal wedding “would have more blue blood than a Smurf disaster epic”? I passed over the pitufo sangre flavour for a mix of “violet” and choc-orange, both exceptionally fine. Gustav declared his selection to be the best he’d ever tasted.

Smurf blue and violet gelato
We whiled an hour or so in the local FNAC (book/media store). As I was checking out I remembered that it’s the only store I know anywhere that needs photo ID to make a purchase. Last time I had to leave a large pile of CDs and DVDs on the counter as they demanded a passport that I didn’t have on me (and my Australian driver’s licence didn’t cut it). This time I had my French licence with me so I passed muster.
P1040223-225_stitch Kursaal across river
We crossed back over to Gros to look around some more and to find a peluquero para caballeros so I could get a haircut. My long forgotten Spanish was creeping back, one word at a time. That haircut was very nicely managed, one of the ladies letting me burble on in my Español para tontos fashion before revealing post-haircut that they had perfectly serviceable English. They probably spoke French too, being so close to the border; I guess many people here have at least Spanish, Basque, French and English under their belts.

Zurriola beach looked to be even more packed than La Concha (see below, click to enplayanate). While browsing in one of the sandy-floored outlets of  Ipar Hego, the Basque Surf Company, one of the sales-chicos asked where we were from. ( I think we stood out everywhere as two of the tallest people around.) On learning that Gustav was from the south of Sweden ( and me  fractionally so by ancestry), he said we should look up some of the references on Viking visits to Gascony and the Basque country prior to the 11th century when the monastery of San Sebastian was founded. I’ve poked around on some forums which have speculation that above-average levels of blondness amongst the Basque may come from Norse contributions to the gene pool, and many placenames  derive from Nordic names: e.g. Bjarnihus –> Biarritz. Read more here, or for coverage of Viking raids in Gascony and in particular the area where I now live: here. 

P1040226-228_stitch Kursaal on river

The Basque region is well-known for its cuisine. The bars of San Sebastian have a variety of tapas known as pintxos (pinchos). I dimly recall that Friday was the day for them in the old town, but maybe that was a seasonal thing and they’re available every day now. In any case I engineered this to be a Friday visit for that reason. The plates of seafood delicacies that we plucked for consumption over a beer and very silky temperanillo (my favourite quaffing red) were much better than our lunch deal. How's them eggs?

The chart above is typical of those displayed outside tavernas in the old part, but we actually ate at Gandarias. Do not confuse the pintxos with the more touristic dull fare shown >>>, with its huge spam-exclusive selection…

All dined and done for the day, we were home in the Gers just as the sun was setting, an excursion helped greatly by the solstice hours.

Txu Txu (choo choo train)

Happiness is the field

Munson the malfalfamute

A few months ago I was chatting to someone online and they mentioned a French film that was set in this part of the Gers: Le bonheur est dans le pré or Happiness is in the field. Made back in 1995, it’s a comedy about a man who gets the chance to reset his life by taking on the guise of a foie-gras producer near Condom. The star Michel Serrault is perhaps best known for his role as Albin in La Cage Aux Folles (1980) and its sequel. The other name familiar to me was Carmen Maura, the Spanish actress best known for her roles in early Almodovar films, although not really used to her full capacity in this case. In fact both of these fine actors play their roles fairly straight and it’s the supporting cast who get to chew the scenery.


The French-issued DVD is surely one of those super-rarities: a French film with English subtitles!  The only other films I can think of with them are Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le pacte des loups) and Renaissance.

When I finally got to watch it a few weeks back I was amused to see the Condom characters complaining of a drought – it really made me feel like a local. I mentioned the film to Peter at lunch on Saturday; he felt sure that some of the market scenes from the film were actually done in Vic-Fezensac, so  I’ve gone back and looked again, and yes it’s very obviously the location. I’ve grabbed a screen showing the central street area very clearly.

Happiness is in Vic Fezensac

Gustav in the vines
Today’s happy little field exercise for Gustav and myself was retrieving vine posts. The posts will greatly help my project to assure another year’s supply of firewood.

The rented vineyards here are – after many delays – finally undergoing arrachément as our neighbours had done back in March. The intervening months of dryness and vine-growth have made the process much harder – the posts are so much harder to remove that the machinery has broken down twice this week on a single vineyard.

The vineyard closest to my villa is nearly gone, leaving long furrows punctuated by piles of rolled up vines, posts and wire,  all torn from the ground by the tractor. Extracting useful posts from these is not really much easier than pulling them directly from the ground as they’re so heavily wound with wires that have to be snipped in the right place before you can drag them out.

Nonetheless we wrestled maybe two hundred posts  just from the mounds at the top of the vineyard, and collected nearly half of them in the truck and deposited them in the wood store. Not a bad effort before cheese o’clock.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

LAVARDENS Watchtower Pub


I recently read about an English pub restaurant that had opened up in the Gers  and bookmarked it for an open day when guests were around. Even another (very welcome) rainy day detracted little from the beautiful rolling countryside on our way to Lavardans, about thirty minutes east of here.  Directions to its seventeenth century chateau are marked at every crossroads, making it extra easy to locate. Approaching from the west the chateau projects a beautifully imposing presence over the fields of almost-ready sunflowers below. I’ll get a picture of that prospect oen day when it isn’t raining.

The Watchtower Pub is located in the back of the chateau facing the eglise. I made the mistake of driving up the village’s main and nearly only street instead of peeling off to the right into one of the big carparks. Finally set right, we approached the chateau along the path above, noting that there’s a museum at the ground-floor level, currently advertising a ceramics exhibition.
Mozzarella saladGustav and I were the first lunch arrivals, but were quickly followed by at least another 3 tables’- not bad going for a wet Wednesday in the country.

The menu and staff are bilingual French/English and there’s a decent selection of gastro-pub fare with local wines and a selection of Guinness.  I started with the salad (left) while Gustav essayed a rather tasty looking plate of mussels and cuttlefish.

After our mains we were too full to try the desserts (next time!) so left for a short wander around Lavardens.  A castle built in the 12th century to house the Counts of Armagnac was rebuilt 500 years later by Antoine du Roquelaure, a close friend of Henry IV. The small village centre is charming and well-kept.

Lavardens Watchtower Pub
Lavardens Chateau and town

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Solstice sunset smile


We’ve reached the longest day of the year, the last light ebbing away a bit after 10.15pm. Munson was taken out for a late walk, but we found there was still plenty of activity on the farm. Brent had just finished his day’s hay-making in advance of a few days of rain, and Jean brought out Legend with a retinue of barn kittens for their evening walk.

Friday, June 17, 2011

MIRANDE Cordonnier Bottier Luckier Maroquinier

Mirande boot maker

I collected Gustav from Toulouse airport last night – a final visit to the Gers before he starts a summer job in Sweden at the end of the month. I’d picked up my rental car in Auch during the afternoon and continued directly to Toulouse for some shopping and an evening at the movies since his flight wasn’t in till just before midnight.

It was a toss-up between seeing the new X-Men movie and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, but X-Men: Le Commencement won my eyeballs tonight. As usual when I see undubbed (V.O. = version originale) films in France I always manage to pick ones with multilingual content. Consequently whenever the characters switch from English to German, Spanish, Russian etc the subtitles are actually in French (as they are for the rest of the film).  French dialog is not subtitled. Other “English” language films which have good chunks of extra-lingual dialog are The Pianist, Inglourious Basterds, and Lord of the Rings (Elvish!).

It’s a good way to pick up a bit more colloquial French, and last night I solved something which had been bothering me for some time. When I pay for something by card at the supermarket, the cashier invariably gestures at the card-reader and says uh-ray-zee. I’ve been trying to parse this in my head for months without clearing it up. Anyway, the film subtitles solved this for me with “Go ahead” subtitled as Allez-y, or more literally “go there”. I guess the swiftness with which it’s tossed off the tongue and the local dialect make it more difficult to sort out. One of the other features of the Gascon accent is the ‘g’ sound added to the end of words ending in ‘m’ or ‘n’’, for instance:

  English spelling pronunciation
  Condom (place)

  far loin loo-eng
  tomorrow demain demeng

This afternoon we drove an hour south to the garage where my comatose car is having its diesel injection pump attended to. I phoned yesterday to give them some warning so that it had a decent inspection before I arrived. The part was beyond repair and they indicated the cost of replacement – not pleasant, but when I total up the cost of towing and rentals in the interim, it feels less painful. If I was in another country I might have been able to get a salvaged part fitted at about 10-20% of the cost of a new dealer part (2300 euros!!) but French mechanics don’t seem disposed to this and there’s no economy in moving the car to somewhere that will do it. At least they’re getting in a Bosch part that’s only about 2/3 the cost of the dealer part, and with luck all the work may be done in a week.

Mirande centre

On the way back to the farm we stopped for a quick look at the town of Mirande. In one month’s time it will be hosting one of the world’s largest country music festivals. I’ve only driven through before, so I figure it would be nice to see it “at rest” before 150,000+ visitors descend on the area in July.

It seemed a fairly typical French town of about 4200 people and there weren’t many signs of its country-music predilections other than copious signs advertising the festival and the very Nashville-esque window display shown at the top of the post. To translate the signage shown outside the store:

  cordonnier shoemaker
  bottier bootmaker
  luckier ??? ( a joke inscription?)
  maroquinier leather goods (seller or maker)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Feria? I thought he said furrier!


When it’s feria time in Bas-Armagnac

Then I long to be back once again

In old Gascony

Where we lived for today

Never giving a thought to tomorrow

To the strumming of guitars

In a hundred grubby bars

I would whisper je t’aime

- with apologies to Tom Lehrer

It’s the last day of the Pentecost feria in Vic-Fezensac, and as I drive into town with Munson in a borrowed truck, it seems like a scene from the zombie apocalypse. Hundreds of hungover or still drunk people are staggering through streets strewn with streamers and the detritus of a weekend of binge-drinking, back to campsites and blanket lined cars dotting the edge of the town.

There’s a bunch of old traditions that are tied up with this event. Pentecost (itself a Greek word referring to the event being 50 days after Easter) – Whitsunday as it’s known in the Anglican tradition – is not a saint’s day and is thus classified by the Catholic church as a feria after the free days of Ancient Rome. It’s supposedly the day when Christians celebrate “the gift of the Holy Spirit” but most of the celebrants here are gifted with more earthly spirits. Originally it was 50 days after Passover and is the Jewish harvest festival Shavuot.

Vic-Fezensac arena Vic-Fezensac arena (interior)

In this part of the world, Pentecost is the time of the corrida or bullfights. There is a local style of bullfighting is the course landaise where the bulls are dodged and leapt over by écarteurs and sauteurs. The sport is still a dangerous one for the humans involved and they’re all featured professionals, much like the steer-wrestlers at American rodeos. The bulls themselves are drawn from featured breeders. That said, I’m told the Vic corridas are closer to the Spanish-style with bulls being skewered by their opponents, and the humans’ horses may also suffer and die from being gored.

There’s a series of ferias and corridas across Gascony and Aquitaine at this time of year. Did I mention that a lot of drinking goes on as tens of thousands of people descend on Vic? A score of makeshift tavernas and cantinas has sprung up around town, some like the “Ski Club Vicois” are prominent on the main street, others are behind old wooden doors in the back streets where I can glimpse and hear dozens of the older residents partying hard.

2011-06-13 Feria Vic-Fezensac-1
Jean has brought the Munsoneers into town costumed for an afternoon parade. The main street is much cleaner than the routes to the campgrounds, lined with stalls selling Nutella crepes, churros, novelty tee-shirts and bull-kitsch. There’s also an exhibition of bull-themed art in some rooms off one of the arena’s vomitoria.

After parking on the edge of town and walking into the centre, I sensed the revelries had died down for a while as everyone gathered their strength for the final corrida and night of partying. Still there was some life in the old town: two young Toulousains who’d stopped to admire Munson actually tried to pick me up not more than a minute after we arrived!
2011-06-13 Feria Vic-Fezensac

In the end, I only spent a couple of hours in town, not having appetite for drink or bull-baiting, enjoying the local colour more. Munson made his own contribution to that. It was his first day off the farm in over a month and he was rather intrigued by the smell of unseen bulls and ponies. Someone was careful to point out that il n’est pas “beau” – il est magnifique!