10. We’re having a heatwave…….



…. a tropical heat wave, the temperature’s rising, it isn’t surprising, she certainly can can-can….Irving Berlin wasn’t referring to the weather when he composed this. It would not be PC to write this many years on when the summers seem to get hotter and hotter and the damage to property and wildlife is more widespread ( and the danger to life).

Not so far from here 100 hectares of pine forest were blazing yesterday near Anglet by Biarritz. How did it happen? That is what the authorities need to establish. It only takes a spark to cause a conflagration. Almost exactly three years ago a discarded cigarette end is believed to have caused a massive forest fire that destroyed 800 hectares of land in the south of  France. More than 800 firefighters and 210 fire engines were drafted in to tackle it.




Three houses near Anglet were completely destroyed and 100 people evacuated. Firefighters from Gironde, Landes and Lot-et-Garonne were called in and reinforcements later arrived from other departments. Two water bomber planes from Bordeaux made 18 drops.



On a more mundane level our  garden is bone dry and the grass various shades of brown. The high point was 42°C, a temperature not reached before in our years here. There is no sign of the heat dissipating any time soon.




Marc’s field just below us is drier than he’s ever known it. At first we thought a fire had started in the corner, until we saw his tractor come out of the cloud of dust.


Madame went into town and the car was parked for an hour. When she returned the temperature inside was nudging 50°C. Just before the lockdown the air con stopped functioning. The garage closed for the duration and was so inundated with work when it re-opened that it took three weeks to make an appointment. It has, mercifully, been repaired but at considerable cost.

The hens are looking dishevelled. They pass the day in a copse at the end of their run venturing out to lay, which they are doing with surprising regularity; 140 eggs in July from 5 birds is remarkable in this heat. The nesting box has a metal roof, designed to withstand the fierce hail storms which can hit you without warning here; trouble is that it gets so hot you could fry one of their eggs on it. Not advisable to leave eggs there all day in case they become hard-boiled. Bizarrely the speckled grey has taken to producing large, corrugated eggs that an ostrich would be proud of.


The advantage of living in an old Basque house is that it is cool in this weather. With walls nearly a metre thick at the base, and with heavy shutters, the heat is kept at bay (and the warmth in during the winter). I say ‘old’ because the house is to us, but 200 years means little here. Its name has berri tacked on to the end which means ‘new’ in Basque.

Madame and I went to lunch recently with a French couple who live in a modern house, well-built, double glazed and with all the bells and whistles you’d expect.  When we arrived all the curtains were drawn, blinds down and the lights on. What the house lacked was air conditioning, but you need a deep pocket to keep that on.



These two scented candles, which had been lit the previous evening to keep mosquitoes away, changed shape during the day. 42°C was more than they could cope with.


The cats are splayed out on the terrace hoping for any breeze that may come their way. The vegetables are wilting but we’re not allowed to use the hose. The only effect of a brief shower was to kick start the weeds which are taking over the garden. One plus is that we have not cut the grass for more than three weeks. At this time of year it’s usually once a week. The acorns and beech nuts are dropping early and crunch underfoot when Madame and I  walk down the lane, something we’ve done on a daily basis since the first day of lockdown.

Next post 11. Knobs……and nobs


NOB1 (2)







9. On parade

IMG_7023 (Edited)

What do these people have in common? Charlotte Church, the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, Sting with Pavarotti, and  Kiri Te Kanawa?  Not much you might say, but they have all recorded César Franck’s captivating setting of Panis Angelicus, part of a hymn  written by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi (the body of Christ for non-classicists). Even the most sceptic must surely be inspired by this moving  hymn. If you are Catholic you will appreciate the significance of this day, but the celebration of this feast is not restricted to the Catholic church.


The main feature of the celebration is the triumphant procession in which the sacred host (the wafer which has been consecrated during the Mass) is carried out of the church for all to make their public profession of faith.  The host is displayed on a ‘monstrance‘ protected from the sun by a canopy (as below).

End of sermon.

Fete Basque








This year Covid-19 has succeeded in postponing or proscribing this centuries old celebration, performed worldwide from eastern Orthodox churches to the Church of England to Catholic South America. One country intent on honouring the day was Poland, which was determined it should take place (and masks were worn).

Poland fete

It is down here in the far south-west of France, in the devout Pays Basque, that this celebration is in danger of withering on the vine. In a perfect world the priest would be local, and Basque. The days of  large families are no more and there are few, if any, surplus sons destined for the priesthood. Last year it was touch and go as to whether our local village could celebrate it; one priest can contend with so much and no more.

1935 fete

A celebration that started in the 13th century will  have been modified over the centuries and the protocol of  la Fête-Dieu (or Besta Berri) depends on where it is held.  It is still a predominantly male occasion, as this old picture shows, but  a concession is made to young girls who scatter flower petals before the monstrance. Even the uniforms vary between villages. The significance of the uniforms and the role of the wearers has  blurred over the centuries. There is a hierarchy for entering and leaving our church; normally the mayor accompanies the priest but not in our village where he is a ‘sapper’.



fete dieu


We asked monsieur le maire what the significance was of the leather apron, the axe and the mirrors on the majestic  bearskin, or busby. He hesitated but it was generally agreed among them that they represented the sapeurs, or engineers. That doesn’t explain the bearskins or mirrors, although there were bears in the mountains and the mirrors may symbolise the sun. There must be a long forgotten reason for them to stand guard at the altar.





claudeThe captain in command of the soldiers, leads them in to the church, accompanied by drum beats and, in our village, an accordion or pipe, and where they line up on two sides the length of the aisle. The baton carrier then leads in the flag bearers who execute a dance as they progress towards the altar.  At crucial moments of the Mass the captain barks out orders to present or shoulder arms. Some call them Swiss guards and others Napoleonic soldiers, who reputedly guarded the priest in the days when churches were attacked.


Fête Dieu Cambo 2010 8

Flag bearers







Music and dancing is a crucial part of the celebration. As they parade in front of the fronton, or pelote court, the drum major (makilari) throws his baton into the air hoping he will catch it when it falls.


Watching these jubilant celebrations one is left with unanswered questions about the protocol and the uniform, and so on, but does it really matter? It’s a religious festival to be enjoyed. Christianity came late to the Pays Basque but was embraced with fervour when it did.  In Basque mythology the main figure was the female character of Mari. It’s a short step to Mary. The rituals of the ancient Basques did not survive the arrival of Christianity, but you do speculate if there is something of the pagan past in the present.

fete dieu2



Chino Bloise

On the other side of the Atlantic, in centres like Boise and Bakersfield,  the Besta Berri tradition is prospering.  Where Basques have settled there will always be music and dancing, kept alive by groups like the renowned Chino Basque Club.

Basque dancers USA

US basque

Next post 10. We’re having a heatwave……….




8. The bank with no money

money pink coins pig

Is cash out and the contactless card in? The French bank notified us that we can tap up to 50 euros, which is a giant leap forward in a part of the country where people delve into their bags or pockets for their cheque book.  Technology moves slowly in the deep SW and a cheque-less society is not anticipated any time soon. That doesn’t mean that someone could steal your card and go tapping around the country. Haven’t ascertained yet whether ‘tapper‘ is now a French verb. ‘The immortals’, as the members of the Académie Française are known, will no doubt lose sleep over that one; the “deadly snobbery of Anglo-American”, as one member mocked last year.

IMG_2342 (2)

The local ATM ejected an unwanted 50 euro note which was not requested from the machine. Went into the bank to change it and were confronted by Monsieur Maggot. When we opened the account it entailed signing several sheets of paper, and a written affirmation from monsieur le maire that we existed. The manager’s signature was unreadable. It looked like ‘maggot‘ so subsequently that was how we knew him. Please could he change the note for smaller amounts for the local market.

‘Mais, non.


‘We ‘ave no money.’

‘But you are a bank.’

‘Ah, but we keep no money ‘ere – sécurité.

There was no answer to that. This negative reply is not unusual when, say, one is trying to order an item in a shop that is not in stock. Someone who had made a study of the French psyche said that it gave the respondent time to think. To say ‘oui’ allowed for no w(r)iggle room. While we’re on fatalism who was it said that France was paradise inhabited by people who think they are in hell? Google it and you’ll get plenty of response. Apparently it’s all to do with France’s generous social security system.

The government was offering grants for home insulation plus an interest free loan spread over ten years. We asked Monsieur Maggot for details but he said the issue was so complicated that we would be better off taking a loan from his bank at 4.5%!


This  is the eusko; over €1 million worth of euskos were in circulation here in the Basque region of France by the end of 2018. Why? Ostensibly to support local businesses but also to generate enthusiasm for Basque culture. It’s hard to find reliable statistics but there are supposedly more than forty micro-currencies dotted around France.  According to the BBC the eusko is the most successful local currency in Europe putting it  ahead of the Bristol Pound. Paris toyed with the idea of introducing its own micro-currency but haven’t yet seen evidence of its use; appealing designs though.


Suppose you are now allowed to go on holiday where micro-currency is used; how do you know that the banknote in your hand is genuine? Well, there are involved instructions for you to follow. As briefly as I can make it here are two of them:

TOUCH: there are tactile marks for the sight impaired

LOOK: there is a water mark and a thread, visible if held up to the light.

http://www.ertzaintza.eus will give you the full monty.

By the way this is not where the expression originated.


Two explanations will do; there are probably more

The Sunday best three-piece suit from a high street tailor (the full Montague Burton) or the full English breakfast insisted upon by Field Marshall Montgomery.  Anyway, we seem to have drifted off piste.

Money laundering has taken on a whole new meaning. Allegedly people have been putting banknotes into their washing machines to cleanse them of the virus. Maybe apocryphal but you need to live where notes can stand that treatment. Australia prides itself on its dollar notes that can tolerate a day’s surfing. They’re totally waterproof and resistant to water and dirt. China, on the other hand, destroyed or disinfected thousands of banknotes to eliminate the spread of the virus.

So, where will all this take us?  Went down to the garden centre today to buy one small item. Confronting you at the entrance:


It was superfluous though because some customers still paid cash. I tapped in my paltry  €5 which was quicker. Went into Carrefour but used real coins; the first time for nearly three months. It was an odd feeling rummaging for the correct cash after so long. For virtually three months Madame and I have done our supermarket shopping  on-line and driven to collect it. No home deliveries out in the sticks.

Where now? None of us knows but a cashless society is now more probable than possible. We shall see.

Next post 9.  On parade

IMG_7023 (Edited)

7. Keep your distance

Keep distance

It ravaged London; trade and social life shut down. The royal court and parliament fled the capital until the epidemic subsided. The wealthy left for the country taking the disease with them. Sounds familiar? Plus ça change, meaning (broadly) that history repeats itself. We’re talking about 355 years ago this summer when the Great Plague struck.  People did not understand how or why it had happened. Bad air was one alleged culprit, but no connection was made with overcrowding and the appalling sanitation of the period. Doctors, if one could call them that, attended the sick wearing leather gloves, long clothing and elaborate masks, the beaks stuffed with fragrant herbs


Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

Dismissed by some as a nonsense rhyme it is believed to  refer to the plague. ‘Roses’ for the red rash, the ‘posies’ the aromatic herbs to ward off the plague and ‘atishoo’ the sneeze, the fatal symptom that preceded the disease. ‘We all fall down’ was what happened finally.

Ring a

Direct contact was avoided between traders and their customers, who put their coins into a bowl of vinegar. At parish boundaries, where there was often a demarcation stone, messages could be left if steeped in vinegar. At  our flower market one has to put coins on a long, narrow tray and the change is returned the same way. Afterwards I went to see Bernard at the droguerie to buy 95% industrial alcohol for wiping surfaces, today’s answer to vinegar. His shop is the kind that has died out in Britain – an ironmonger, hardware shop, whatever you like to call it. His is one shop that must not close; you can buy clothes pegs, paint,  mousetraps and much more. He buys his paint from over the border in Spain; it’s cheaper and superior to that in the large store. 

When Madame and I  lived in rural North Norfolk it was thought that an abandoned medieval hamlet was located somewhere under the fields. It even had a name on an old map. There would have been a plague pit to cope with the bodies as the population of the county was decimated; some estimates have put fatalities at 40% or more. This was the Black Death, a pandemic which reached the British Isles in 1348, carried along the trade routes from Asia by flea infested rats. When another epidemic returned to Norwich in the 16th century lockdown was enforced. The city  authorities ordered that contaminated houses should be isolated. They were  bolted from the outside and windows boarded up. Occasionally the occupants survived. Now, in several villages in the county  extensive research is being carried out to unearth artefacts of the  years  when epidemics struck; perhaps a plague pit will be discovered.


If all this sounds familiar it is – pandemic, isolation, lockdown. What about ‘social distancing?’ This is an acceptable way of saying avoiding; ostracising is too strong a word now but one that would have been used against lepers. Leprosy is spread by moisture droplets passed through the air from someone who has leprosy but is now treatable. It is not uncommon; 250,000 new cases a year is one official figure. There is evidence of it in existence in India in 2000 BC ( or BCE if you prefer).  In the picture a leper is denied entrance to a town.

Sufferers who came from wealthy homes could live in isolation; the not well-off, if they were fortunate, might be tended by monks in hospices, sometimes known as lazarettos or lazarets; presumably named after Lazarus the beggar. A few years ago an archaeological dig unearthed the remains of a lazaretto in Marseilles. This was a city vulnerable to any plagues that were circulating the Mediterranean, being on the major trading routes. Substantial hospices still stand like this one built in the 17th century by the Knights Hospitaller in Malta.


If lepers weren’t in these two categories above social distancing took on a more heartless form. Feared and ostracised they were frequently doomed to wander the country wearing signs, ringing bells or carrying a clapper to warn of their approach.



Infectious diseases, dispersed from one country to another usually by trade, remain today, as in the past, a threat to society. We do not know how COVID-19 will develop. Hopefully it will soon recede and a vaccine be produced. Until then we must keep our distance.




Next post:  8. The bank with no money

money pink coins pig

6. Pigs in fur coats


When is a pig not a pig? (and it’s not a joke from a cracker).  If you were Hungarian you might recognise this sheep pig as a Mangalitsa (several different spellings), a cross breed from, among other animals, the European wild boar. Prized for its meat it sells for about four times normal pork. Kept as pets on some farms because of their keen intelligence, owners say they have the ability to be trained like a dog.  Personally I wouldn’t let one near the house, or the garden, which would be demolished in very short order. Once there was a Lincolnshire Curly Coat pig, now extinct. Second unrelated fact;  if you ever find yourself in Madison, Wisconsin, you could fine dine  at ‘A Pig In A Fur Coat’.

When Madame and I were finally authorised to visit the local market we passed a group of hunters by the side of the road. This is not the hunting season; they were wearing the compulsory caps but not high visibility jackets.The season generally opens in September and runs until the end of February, but this is open to interpretation. They wouldn’t be welcome around here at the moment. Marc, our local farmer, is about to harvest his wheat and his maize is just poking through. Perhaps they were having a picnic to celebrate the easing of lockdown.

orange cap

The market was confusing and disorientating after lockdown. If you have visited IKEA you’ll know that you have to keep your eyes down and follow the yellow arrows. If you go against the flow you’re frowned upon. We went through a barrier where the town gendarme squirted gel on our hands and then it all went wrong. The arrows were red and easy enough to follow but finding the exit had us going round in circles until the pork butcher laughingly pointed the way.

We must buy our next joint (pork, of course) from her. Their farm is in our commune but Madame will have to explain to her that roast pork is not the same without crackling. My dictionary actually has a name for it – couenne rissolée – but Google says it’s  crépitement de porc. Back to the dictionary; yes, crépitement is crackling, but as in a sputtering fire. There could cause confusion at the farm. We need to consult Madame’s sister near Paris who seems to have no trouble buying the right cut, but down in the deep SW meat is prepared as it has been since time began.


Last year’s hunting season ended just before lockdown took effect. By the end of December eight members of the public had been killed by hunters. Despite strict rules and the compulsory wearing of high vis jackets and caps accidents still happen. The clothing may protect the hunters against each other but not the public. That is not to say that hunters do not kill each other because they do. One chasseur was shot by his dog  who jumped up and touched the trigger. Rifles are lethal and a bullet can travel up to a kilometre. Hunting has been a risky pastime since records began. Hunters could easily be injured or killed by accidents. They might fall from their horse, be pierced by an arrow, be mauled by the horns of stags or tusks of boars, or attacked by bears.


However, if you live in the country you have to accept that hunting is a necessary way of life. When families could number a dozen or so hunting was vital for survival; now it’s necessary to protect crops and prevent damage. There are those who move to the country and would like to put a stop to hunting. It’s a similar situation to town people relocating to the country in the UK and wanting church bells stopped at night and the cockerel next door dispatched.

Marc showed us the devastation that the wild boar, the sanglier, had done to his maize crop last year. Damage to agriculture can be extensive if the boar population is allowed to increase unchecked. There are reports of boar taking lambs and they will most certainly feed on any dead animals that they find, if the vultures haven’t beaten them to it. France seems to be the only European country that allows hunting on Sunday. It’s doubtful that President Macron will introduce tougher safety measures; it certainly won’t be banned. The hunting vote is important to him.

Boar 3

You do not want to meet this character, especially if there are young about. A sanglier  can stand a nearly a metre high and weigh 100kg. That’s unlikely though as they tend to be nocturnal. Madame and I have seen only one in ten years. They are tasty to eat;  one local fast food outlet will even offer you ‘boargers’.  Our generous commune provides a free annual lunch for the villageois(es).  One year the local chasse provided the meat which kept the bill down. The parish once served up tongue for lunch; couldn’t grapple with that. The bristles numbed one’s appetite, mine anyway. Everyone else seemed to relish it.

As a country France does not understand the term ‘vegan’. Down here in the sticks meat is a way of life. We’re surrounded by farms with Blonde d’Aquitaine  cattle, amongst the heaviest of beasts; plus fields of sheep, though their primary purpose here is to provide milk for brebis cheese, for which the Pays Basque is renowned. Not, of course, forgetting duck; cuisses de canard offered by almost all local restaurants.



A party of us had booked lunch at a local restaurant; the proprietors were well known for  rearing their own sheep, but we did warn them that one of our party was vegetarian. No problem; they could cope with that. First course was local salmon, except for our veggie who was offered assiette de charcuterie i.e. a selection of cold meats. That was easily swapped with a neighbour. Main course was, inevitably, home produced lamb except for our veggie who was served salmon, again. If you are that way inclined you will know the frustrations of being served at all. Not a problem so much now in Paris and large cities but elsewhere it’s touch and go. First get your head round the terminology. The words for vegetarian and vegan are virtually identical: végétarien and végétalien, just to make it easier for you.  I’ll steer clear of foie gras.

Which is the vegan variety?

foie gras realvegan foie gras






Next post 7. Keep your distance………


Keep distance




























5. No Camino

IMG_2620Being the only man in a dormitory of females was not intended but, candidly, rolling out of our sleeping bags before dawn, walking by torchlight before breakfast and then carrying our rucksacks all day in the heat, we appreciated any bunk to crash on, no matter what the company. In the first dormitory on our walk we were a diverse sextet; an older couple from Alaska, two newly weds from Israel and us British.


At breakfast the following day we were joined by a French pilgrim who sat opposite us and, apart from the obligatory bonjour, contributed nothing else. Madame eventually managed to extract a few words from him. He was plainly not in a good place; it might have been marriage problems or business complications but we never found out;  he wanted to give up the pilgrimage even though he had only just started. Madame did manage to persuade him to at least continue to Roncevaux where he could catch a coach back to Saint Jean. 



We were on the last leg in France before crossing into Spain. As we were walking in the soothing shade  of these curiously bowed trees he bounded up behind us. He embraced Madame and said she had put new heart into him and that he would continue his pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint James. With that touching outburst he strode on ahead of us and we never saw him again.


It’s  easy to be judgemental about other pilgrims on the way.  You see them coming out of ho(s)tels with no encumbrances, apart from sticks and a small rucksack, whilst the rest of us lurch along like snails with their houses on their backs. That is our choice and if pilgrims want to send their baggage on ahead that’s their choice. They might not have been able to walk the Camino without help. The drawback of course is that you might not make it to the next point and be parted from your belongings. It’s a thriving business transporting baggage. You can cycle if that’s your preference but  the lower route via Valcarlos avoids the peaks.                                                                                             

A hot dayIMG_9278 (Edited)


The lockdown began the day Madame and I  should have set off for Spain on the Camino Francés, to join up the gap we’d left last year on the ancient pilgrim route. We’d reached Santiago de Compostela and were the proud possessors of the beautifully inscribed and coveted Latin certificate. Madame now has two certificates having previously completed the pilgrimage with a French friend.




The compostela is the certificate of completion of the Camino de Santiago and is issued by the Pilgrim’s Office.  The queue was already long when we arrived soon after dawn; you take a ticket and wait, in our case two hours. There are two types of certificate: one is in Latin, issued to pilgrims who declare that they walked the Camino for religious or spiritual reasons. Your name will  also be written in Latin. The second certificate is for those who did it for cultural or historical purposes.

If you live in France, as we do, there is a choice of several routes but most will probably join up at Saint Jean Pied de Port (Donibane Garazi). This is the popular choice of long distance pilgrims, who can fly to Bordeaux and then take a train to Saint Jean. Tours often commence here but, having read the literature of one of the companies, I did wonder  if it was based on practical experience. I quote;

‘Walking the Camino is not difficult – most of the stages are fairly flat on good paths.’

The path from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Roncevaux (Roncevalles) is challenging.  During spring the route can be treacherous due to snow and other hazardous weather conditions. Last year a group of pilgrims had to be rescued when they became disorientated in fog. Versions vary but the distance is about 25km. Madame and I decided to stay overnight at the upmarket, and only, hostel at Orrison, which is 8 km out of St. Jean, but even that is a steep climb. This is recommended for pilgrims who have been on a long-haul flight and whose bodies haven’t adapted to carrying a rucksack. It was a wise choice; a short distance maybe but you can appreciate the height from this picture.




Traversing the Pyrenees on foot is an unforgettable experience. A medieval pilgrim was conscious of being closer to Heaven and felt he could touch it. The day we crossed the sky was blue and the panoramic views had a rugged beauty, but there was a fierce headwind that battered our ears and sucked the breath out of us. The climb seemed endless.




To celebrate the second stage of unlocking, for want of a better word, madame and I decided to retrace previous steps starting at Gibraltar (no, not the Rock). Not far from Saint Palais is the Stele of Gibraltar. An upright  stone, it may not look imposing but it    marks where the paths from Tours, Vézelay and Le Puy become one.




We climbed up to the chapel of Soyarz. If you’re a pilgrim you can sit on the bench there and admire the Pyrenees and probably wonder how you are going to traverse them!



The path then takes you down through the trees to the chapel at Harambeltz. Not grand from the outside but the  meticulously restored interior takes your breath away.









There are four houses in the hamlet. At one time you could knock on any door and be given the key to the chapel. Officialdom has taken over and only parties of 10 or more may book to go inside. Madame and I did attend Mass there one year and found ourselves on Basque TV.
What of the future?
You cannot walk the Camino if there is nowhere to stay and there is no evidence that ho(s)tels will open soon; tour companies are now looking ahead to next year.
2019 was a record breaking year. 347,578 pilgrims called at the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago de Compostela. Subtract the winter months and that’s a lot of pilgrims every day.
There’s no doubt that  the film ‘The Way’ was an influential factor, especially in the United States. We did find that there were places where you fell over people, especially at the weekend and it was advisable to book accommodation ahead, something you never had to do a few years back said Madame. If you live near the Camino why not walk a section just for pleasure? We do because we live a short distance from it,  but we wouldn’t figure in the official statistics.
The final word (or picture) goes to Perry Taylor, whose sketches of French life are humorous and perceptive. The pilgrim is reproduced with his kind permission.
Next post 6. Pigs in fur coats 




4. La rentrée



La rentrée; except that it isn’t; it just feels like the real thing.  It’s a fausse  rentrée if you like. Schools that have been closed for weeks are now starting to re-open, cautiously. What is missing is the frenzied rush to the supermarket or papeterie for the stationery that sets parents back a tidy sum each year.

The first sign of activity was the re-appearance of the primary school bus. This is driven by Jean. One word to describe him would be ‘substantial’. He  towers over everybody like an amiable bear; an  ours des Pyrénées. He often had something witty to say to us which we pretended to understand. Madame, who has  been a volunteer at Lourdes for several years, said he was a tower of strength on the annual pilgrimage for the old and infirm.  He owned the cobbler’s shop in the square (more romantic than shoe repairer’s). He didn’t advertise his opening hours. As a part-time fireman his hours were elastic. I use the past tense because Jean has just retired, but more of him later.

The authentic  rentrée  in September is regarded with as much deference as a religious festival. It’s not just an educational phenomenon; it marks the entire country’s return to normality after the summer break. Does France shut up shop before the  rentrée then, you might ask? Well, yes, in a word it does. The government ceases to function as usual, businesses and shops are en congé and people head for the beach or their second homes. If you stay at home you could find your favourite restaurant has closed. It might be different this year of course; how we do not yet know. Now might be the time to review the scholastic terms. France was a country of paysans (small farmers; not a derogatory term here). Labour was needed for the harvest. Perhaps it’s time to introduce a four term year?  Doubtful; this is France, which is resistant to change. The expression à la rentrée doesn’t just mean ‘back to school’, but more like  ‘See you in September’.

Back to Jean. His shop had that comfortable smell of leather and rubber and machines that needed a drop of oil. Chaos surrounded him but he could lay his hands on what he needed. Over the shop front was a sign with ZAPETATEGI on it.  For several years I knew him as Monsieur Zapetategi. It was in Spain that the penny dropped (sou or centime if you prefer). The Spanish word for shoe is zapato and only then did it register that the sign was his shop, not his name. He had reached 62 and decided to retire.


Jean’s business card

His retirement put us in a spot. It is not a thriving trade in SW France. In summer men prefer espadrilles, which are made locally. You can visit a factory in Mauleon if you’re down that way. In winter trainer type footwear is popular. It doesn’t wear out easily. The Spanish a short distance away over the border emulate the British fashion of conventional shoes, leather uppers and leather/rubber soles. The only repairer within a generous radius is in Saint Jean Pied de Port.  More about  DonibaneGarazi  in a later post.









We don’t know his name but he’s a craftsman and one of a rare breed. The town is on  the Camino de Santiago and a useful point if pilgrims have boot trouble. He keeps soles of all sizes. Two weeks before the lockdown we had taken shoes to him. On the Monday when  France started to close down we realised we hadn’t collected them and rang him. He opened the shop especially for us, but he was nervous that the gendarmes would come past and fine him. That afternoon the lockdown began. He has re-opened this week in the imitation rentrée. His is a vulnerable small business  that deserves to survive.


Next post: 5. No Camino

Being the only male in a dormitory of females………….



3. To get to the bottom of…………

i.e. to discover the truth about………

No prizes for guessing which supermarket shelves were cleared first.

Yes, these……….




………but followed by a short  head by flour. May seem odd, but down here in SW France home baking is part  of everyday life and those shelves haven’t yet recovered from the onslaught. Our neighbour, who is in a senior position at Leclerc, cannot obtain any for us, yet.

How much loo paper do we actually use? Well, if you trawl the internet you will come across  toilet paper calculators; yes, really.  One survey gives the total as 100 rolls per person per year. The statistics make sobering reading; to make paper you need trees.  If you cut down a tree it should be replaced by two more. In our part of the world that doesn’t happen. One pensioner, who remembered the shortages after WWII, said he didn’t know what the fuss was about. He had to make do with old newspapers. Only problem was that printer’s ink left its mark.


During a visit to Sydney we took a tour around the Q Station. This austere barracks was open from the 1830s until 1984. Migrant ships arriving in Sydney with suspected contagious diseases stopped and offloaded passengers and crew into quarantine to protect local residents.  Could it have been reopened during the  lockdown?  Not realistically; the plumbing would rule it out and it’s now the site of a smart hotel.

This picture could have been taken in the dormitory of my boarding school, apart from the candle holder (we did have electricity!) Beds with iron frames are common enough but the china accessories you’d only find in antique shops now.  A set should include a basin, large jug, soap dish, tooth mug and, most important, the chamber pot; otherwise known as a jerry, pisspot or thunder jug. The task of emptying ours fell to an aged family retainer. Mabel was tall and austere and wore a long, severe black dress softened by a white apron and starched white cap. She was closely followed everywhere by her aged jack russell. He was endowed with a generous undercarriage which swung  dangerously close to the floor. He was also partly blind and bumped into the bed legs. Mabel didn’t notice.

While the bidet didn’t supplant the chamber pot it did add quality to the bedroom accessories of the aristocracy and wealthy. One of the earliest-known bidets was installed in a bedroom of the French royal family in 1710, but in all likelihood it was on the drawing board well before that. Present day dictionaries translate bidet as a horse, or, more precisely, a nag (and an old one at that). Pony, small horse, whatever you like to call it, it was plainly meant to be straddled, although it was up to the occupant to decide which way to face. French soldiers were known to have enjoyed  cleaning their sore undercarriages in basins of water after a long day of horse riding. It caught on in France and eventually you’d have been hard-pressed to find a hotel bathroom without one.


The bidet became fashionable in Britain when mass travel abroad was in vogue from the 70s.  To have one installed in your house, together with the avocado suite, was definitely one up on the neighbours. It was a short-lived fad though as new houses tended to be economical with space and the en-suite became a must-have.

The bidet did not catch on in America to the same extent. In a scene from Crocodile Dundee Mick  stands in the bathroom of his elegant New York hotel puzzled why the bathroom had both a toilet and a urinal. Coming from the outback of Australia he wasn’t familiar with modern trends in plumbing. American homes were more likely than European ones to install walk-in showers, so there was no demand for a bidet. Elsewhere in the world, particularly in Asia and South America, people would find it unsettling to enter a bathroom lacking a bidet.



Japan is the leader of high tech bidet/toilet units, with heated seats, hot and cold jets of water. a dryer and deodoriser. Tricky if you pressed the wrong button.



Should you be fortunate enough to fly first class when the airlines are back in the air you’d  find that onboard bidets are a regular feature;  more likely to be found in the gigantic A380  and far/middle eastern airlines.

Finally this gem, reproduced here  by kind permission of   the Royal Pavilion & Museums Brighton & Hove, tells you all you need to know what la perfide Albion thought of Napoleon.






Next post 4.  La rentrée 











2. A bad hair day?



Definitions of bad hair day………….

a day when one’s hair is  unmanageable

a day with many problems

Boris Johnson fits both definitions  unlike Macron                                               

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Emmanuel Macron in 2019.jpg






French towns you have visited will have had at least one coiffeur; probably more.  Our local town, population c 2,000, has eight! Will they all survive when lockdown is eased?  Some may not; small businesses that the coronavirus has destroyed


Les coiffeurs s’arrachent les cheveux pendant ce confinement; in other words ‘they are tearing their hair out during the lockdown.’    As they start to open again how will they cope with social distancing? No answer to that yet.



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Madame and I used to patronise Christelle, a medium sized coiffeuse in the town. Her time-keeping was erratic and we parted company eventually; opening time was, shall we say, flexible. A middle-aged woman of indeterminate age she had a penchant for high heels and short skirts. From a male point of view her leaning over, thigh to thigh, was a beguiling distraction. On the female side customers had to navigate a field of hair before sitting down. Sweeping up was not one of Christelle’s  priorities. 

Eventually madame asked if there was a possibility of my trying some hair colouring. As it happened I’d ordered a new set of paintbrushes before the lockdown, plus I had just finished painting some fencing, so I had my eye in as it were.  The paintbrushes were rejected as the smallest size was 2 cm. Eventually found a child’s paintbrush and madame issued me with a pair of thin latex gloves.


It was tricky; head over the basin. Make two partings, one longways back to front and one sideways, like a hot cross bun madam said.  Painting was uncomplicated, the partings  not so easy. Anyway it made a change from fencing. Only later did I find traces of blue and red paint on the handle  of the paintbrush. Madame might   have ended up looking like  the French tricolore.

For me Madame thought that I could have a top knot or a ponytail (Sean Connery had one, but then  he is rich and famous. I might just have looked eccentric). I rather fancied the ‘Peppery Texture’ as modelled by Richard Gere in ‘ 84 Sexy Hairstyles For Older Men’ in ‘Hairstyle on Point’s latest trends.  


It’s intriguing how President Macron’s hairstyle has  not  changed these last two months. Is his hairdresser always by his side and what about social distancing? Did he inherit President Hollande’s personal hairdresser, reputedly paid 9000 euros a month plus accommodation for his family? When this was queried by parliament they were told the hairdresser had to be available 24/7. When Hollande set out on his secret nightly  assignations on the back of a scooter did his hairdresser follow behind disguised as a secret service agent?

Hair cuts in my youth were simple affairs – short back and sides – take it or leave it. It was a short bike ride to Cyril’s ‘salon’, a shed on the edge of town, not even a barber’s pole to advertise his trade; inside  a  wooden bench to sit on while waiting and a table with old dog-eared copies of adult magazines. When you went to pay him Cyril would wave his hand vaguely in the direction of the neat tray of Durex discreetly stacked beside the till. 

‘Something for the weekend, Sir?’




Next post: To get to the bottom of………. 






1. Sacré bleu!

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Zut alors! The French are being encouraged, ordered even, to abandon a cherished custom. France is urging her people to cut back on the customary double-cheek kiss in order to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus. The health minister has advised the country to avoid this traditional greeting, known as ‘la bise‘.

A popular joke says that you can recognise where a person comes from by counting the number of kisses. It’s disconcerting to opt for two only to find that a third, or even a fourth is required; and where do you start – on the left or right? Right seems to win, at least in Paris, which means you home in on your left, but even the French can be confused. If Paris leans one way you can guarantee that the rest of France will, out of sheer cussedness, do the opposite, which is the case in the south. The accuracy of this bise map is not guaranteed!


Kiss map

How much of a cherished custom is la bise?  France 24, the TV news channel which takes  humorous digs at French customs, said that kissing outside an intimate social circle was restricted to the lower class; the tradition of young men and women kissing really dated from the mid-twentieth century. Now everybody’s at it. A spin-off perhaps of the swinging sixties in Britain?

Do the French, in times of stress, really say “sacrebleu!” (written like this according to my heavyweight dictionary), or is it a myth put about by ‘la perfide Albion’? Literally meaning “sacred blue,” but bleu was substituted for Dieu to avoid using the word God and upsetting religious sensibilities. One reason the British presume all the French say ‘sacrebleu’ could be blamed on the fictional Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. He was very fond of the phrase (and he is alive and well on French TV).

Two years ago the mayor of a town in eastern France said that she found the kissing ritual ‘tiresome’ adding that ‘I have had enough of giving la bise to dozens of people.’ She admitted to arriving late at meetings, or using a cold, as an excuse to avoid the kiss greeting, adding that she thought it was unhygienic. She may well have helped to avoid spreading the coronavirus in her town.

She was referred to as Madame le Maire, which would not go down too well in the UK. The strong-willed, first female mayor of Paris had other ideas. She defied the French language police and insisted on being called Madame la Maire and not, at that time, the grammatically correct male version. The custodians of the  French language, the Académie Française, officially established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu no less, are considering introducing new words to cover feminine occupations, but unwillingly one suspects. Only two years ago the academy had this to say  “It is unclear what the goal is and how it could overcome practical obstacles of writing, reading, visual or aloud, and pronunciation”!  Any change to the status quo will plainly not be universally welcomed.

The Immortals, as they are known, now have another thorny problem to address. Virus in French is a masculine noun so le coronavirus should logically be masculine. What the illustrious members might lose sleep over is Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease. Now, disease in French is feminine so what would be wrong with la Covid-19? Where is the problem? Perhaps American readers, if there are any, might like to reflect on la CIA and le FBI. Why not just abolish the definite article? 


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The ‘Immortals’ of the academy


A word of warning to the uninitiated; the verb to kiss, baiser, is a depth charge waiting to detonate under the unwary. While it means to kiss it is also a vulgar slang term, depending on the context. One example will suffice; if a woman says ‘il m’a baisée‘ it does not mean ‘he kissed me’. He might have done but, put politely, they made love.  Better to stick to ‘faire une bise à quelqu’un‘ or, even safer, ‘embrasser‘. Lesson over.

Soon it will be time for our leader to speak to us again (Emmanuel Macron, of course). The verdict on his first speech in this crisis by a British journalist was that it was ‘prolix’. Yes, I had to consult the dictionary as well. Was Prolix a relation of Astérix or his best friend Obélix? (Prolix for President perhaps). Just tediously lengthy was the answer.



Next post:  A Bad Hair Day?