"The evolving Francophile..."

My husband Jack has always wanted to live in Paris and learn French. I thought it would be good for him to achieve his life time dream. Hence, we moved to Paris in 2008. My first year was difficult. I started "missives" to relieve some stress and chronicle my life so friends back in the US could read what I am experiencing. I currently write about my food and travel experiences, which is my passion.

It is definitely a challenge to live here, but each year it gets easier, and quite enjoyable, in large part because I value friendships over locale. I have a love/hate relationship with Paris as do most Parisians, mais La vie est belle (but life is good)!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Our misadventures in Biarritz

Our friend said she needed a vacation, I’m all for that, with my hectic retired life I needed one too?  imagine that. She tried to find a place in San Sebastian Spain, but accommodations were slim pickings, guess it must be high season.  Fortunately, she found a lovely apartment right on the beach at Biarritz, once a haven for the rich, famous and beautiful like Saint Tropez or Cannes is today.  Biarritz is still beautiful but is more a haven for the young surfer dude types.

July 18 --  The night before, our friend asked if I could make fried chicken, so we could have a picnic on the train. So I did. As I was making the fried chicken I realized I didn’t have enough oil and the stores were already closed. Then I remembered that Ina Gartner, the Barefoot Contessa, had a recipe where she crisps the chicken in a small amount of oil than finishes it off in the oven, great, I could do that.

Our train to Biarritz leaves at 7 a.m.  As most of my friends know, it’d be a miracle for me to get out of bed before 10 am. As miracles would have it, I was able to wake up at 5 am in time for the train, or did Jack yell out "let's go eat", so I jumped out of bed almost immediately, imagine that? Granted I wasn’t quite awake.

We got 1st class tickets since our friend wanted to bring her dog and the carrier is difficult to fit in second class seats. We got one of those booths and was hoping that we’d be the only 3 in the booth. And, we figured if a sole French person was in our both, they’d probably run away.  I digress, it seems when Americans get together and there are French around them, the French seem to want to haul ass like there’s some plague. I think they probably are uncomfortable that #1 we’re so loud, #2 we’re speaking English and they want to be nosey and understand what we’re saying, and #3 they’re herders and want to be with their own kind. Just an FYI, we’re also sitting in the “quiet” car, I guess Jack wanted to make sure we wouldn’t be blabbing all the way to Biarritz, 6-hour train ride. On the SNCF (French trains) you have cars where you can be on your cell phone, chat as much as you want etc., or be on a quiet one as we were. As an ex-Buddhist, I tried a 48-hour silent retreat once, it lasted 10-minutes, oh well, at least I tried, but I did do a lot of whispering.

We got on the train and noticed a woman sitting by herself. We said our hellos and assumed she would look for another seat. It was odd that she wanted to seat in a booth for 4 when there clearly are seats for 1 or 2 along the sides.  Anyway, we figured after hearing loud Americans, that would be us, what a surprise, she’d leave, no such luck. She passed out as soon as the train left and was sawing logs louder than any human could possibly make. In addition her mouth was wide open, so un-lady like, I could have played basketball using her mouth as the hoop, and I don’t even play sports, go figure?  It wouldn’t take long before Jack joined her and was knocked out cold.

An hour later, we all said almost unanimously that we’re hungry. We looked at our watch and it said 8 am. C’est pas possible (it’s impossible), we made a pact that we would wait til at least 10 am. Well that didn’t last, it was 9:30 am and we decided to head towards the public seating area in the “café” car and have our picnic. Plus there you can be as loud as you want.

We found a table right across from the conductor’s station. We asked if it was OK, and said, “a bien sur” (of course).  We tried to quietly open the bottle of champagne she brought. Well it didn’t’ work. There was such a large pop that the conductor peeked out and started laughing. The stewart was bringing down his tray and heard as well and said, Bon appetit!  If we were in the US they would have said you can’t do that ‘cause you didn’t buy it from us, or worse charge us corkage fees.  Ah, you gotta love the French when it comes to food. I offered the conductor some champagne, he smiled and said no thanks, I don’t think it’s because he’s working, but because it was too early.

We ate we drank, we ate, we drank and drank and drank, and before we knew it we were almost to Biarritz. So we cleaned up, and went back to our compartment. Needless to say, I was a little tipsy, go figure? 

View from our apartment
Got to Biarritz and got in line for a taxi. I couldn’t stand, I think I was coming down with something, it’s called champagnitist. Got our cab, went to our apartment, but got there early. The property manager was scheduled to meet us there at 1:20, but we got there at about quarter to 1.  The apartment is on the 2nd floor (US=3rd). Got to the top with all our luggages. Jack decided to go out and get some provisions, and I gladly volunteered to stay in the landing and wait for the property manager since I was suffering from champagnitist, I laid down, and soon I was sawing logs with my mouth wide open.

1:30 pm I was awakened by Edouard, the property manager. He was probably shocked that I was spread out on the dirty landing passed out, oh well, we silly Americans.  I got in and fell in love with the place. Not that it was anything out of architectural digest, but there was a huge kitchen and a washer and dryer.  Shortly thereafter Jack showed up.  He showed us around, and all I wanted to do was my finish my nap.  I both looked lovingly at the washer and dryer and said, let’s do a load, but we’d have to wait til we had some dirty clothes to wash. I know as you’re reading this, you may we have a washing machine/dryer fetish, but you’d understand if you live in Paris, a washer/dryer combo is very rare!

Pictures of our washer/dryer and the lovely kitchen, nothing by American standards, but to us luxury!

Our living room, by Parisian standards a mansion

We decided to rest before venturing out into the city; after-all, it’s Sunday and not much would be happening. As the others unpacked,  I finished my nap, we took a walk. What a cute city is all I have to say. Granted nothing was open, and then as we got closer into town, we saw that Galeries Lafayette was opened, go figure, on a Sunday too!  And, I thought wait a minute, Galeries Lafayette in Paris has a grocery store, and sure enough, there was a Monoprix grocery store down stairs.  Fresh produce was slim pickings, but we got some food for dinner and some other provisions.

We decided with our groceries in tow that we would walk back to our apartment via the beach, of course. All I can say it was just a beautiful walk and would’ve even been more beautiful if we weren’t lugging around groceries.  As we turned a curve, I kept seeing women’s tatays and I’m thinking is my Champagnitist also affecting my vision, then I realized this is still France, and women go topless.

Random photos of the beaches

Beautiful walk then got home to the apartment.  Jack said he bought some shrimps and scallops and some olives and octopus. I opened the bag, and asked Jack, didn’t you say you bought shrimp, and he says yeah! I thought how odd, their shrimp are gigantic almost like langostines…, wait a minute, in fact they are langostines. So, had a nice simple dinner of ceviche, pasta with squid, salad, and cheeses for dessert, then off to bed for an early start of exploration the next day.

July 19 – Got up and it was simply a beautiful day.  Jack and I decided to explore the city. As we walked around the different “districts” of Biarritz, one thing was evident, they have some pretty big houses here, we’re not in Paris anymore for sure. We kept, walking and walking and realized we’re almost half the way to Bayonne which is the largest city in the area.  When we realized this we headed back towards the beach.
We walked and saw a magnificent building, it was the Hotel du Palais, where apparently Napoleon had once slept. We continued walking along the beach and found little fortresses and cute beaches, some crowded some almost deserted.  Then we walked along an area that had some cute beach front restaurants. I took a mental note and said we must stop here for dinner tonight.

So, we got back to the apartment around 4-ish, we all rested before heading out to dinner.

We had aperos on a little cliff overlooking the ocean before heading out to dinner.  Got to the restaurant Chez Albert and saw that it was filling up. We asked if we could be seated al-fresco; unfortunately, they were all booked so we took a table inside.  Check out the food we had for dinner.

July 20 – Another beautiful day. We decided to put our wash in the dryer, unbelievable, the washer is broken and doesn’t drain well, so our clothes were sopping wet.  Jack tried to do another spin cycle, still didn’t work. So I rung them by hand before putting them back in the dryer.  So much for our fantasizing about doing a load the American way, oh well.

After breakfast we took the bus to the train station. We have to take 2-trains to get to San Sebastian. First one is a local train to Hendaye, which would take about 30-minutes.  I kept bragging, wait til we get on the Spanish side, because their trains are really lovely, clean and best of all they have bathrooms.  The train ride to Hendaye was uneventful. We decided since we’re transferring into nice trains with bathrooms to San San Sebastian, we could wait until we got on the train rather than going to the bathroom at the station, plus it would only be 5-minutes before the train takes off to San Sebastian.  Got on the train, and be still my heart, it was a commuter train, similar to the “metros” in Paris, and NO bathrooms, oh well, it would only be a 20-minute ride.

Got into San Sebastian, we all hauled asses to go to the bathroom. As usual the women’s had a huge line and I got in and out of the men’s room in 2-minutes flat.

San Sebastian is a beautiful city. It’s like a mini-Paris with bridges over waterways. The beaches were beautiful and the architecture was just amazing.  Being the foodies we are, the first thing we thought was, “tapas”.  So we headed towards old town and found a great well known tapas place called Casa Gandarias.  Tapas in Spain works different ways.  In the Barcelona area, you pick what you want, place it on your plate and based on how many toothpicks you have, they charge you accordingly. In San Sebastian, you get what you want, show the bartender, and he opens a tab.  Needless to say, we not only chowed down, but grazed and drank.  Afterwards, we explored the city.

After all that walking, what does one do? We had more tapas. So, we searched for a tapas bar that did Asian or should I say Japanese fusion.  We walked by it earlier and we saw that they had little clay square cookers filled with one or 2 hot coals wherein you can heat up or actually cook your e.g., fish.  We literally went around in circles trying to find the place, and eventually found it.  Looks can be deceiving, it looked better than it tasted, but at least we tried it.

I decided I could not walk any more. My feet were killing me.  Jack wanted to go shopping for a man purse, imagine that, and I just wanted to sit at a café and people watch. So, Jack went off and we would meet up later at the train station.

Met Jack at the train station, and no luck, no man purse. So, we headed back to Biarritz. As we headed back to the apartment, we stopped by a pizza/paella place a block from us and decided since we were all tired we would eat there tonight. 

Went home and took a quick nap before venturing out to dinner.  The weather forecast said, rain predicted that evening. So, we got to the restaurant and got a nice al-fresco table.  Before you can say, “I’ll drink to that…” the rain came down. Luckily for us, the waiter got us a table pseudo-al fresco, it was outdoors but under a roof.

For me pizza is one of my major food groups, and certainly was comforting.  Had a nice evening and then called it a day.

July 21 –  “Where’s Chantal?” today we decided to go shopping. Not just window shopping, but we actually have a mission.  Jack to find a man purse.

We’re on our way to Bayonne, a larger city in the Basque region of France. But before we head to Bayonne, we decided to head to Galeries Lafayette in downtown Biarritz. Lucky Jack, he’s been searching for 3-months in the US and in France, and we found a man purse in 2-seconds flat that Jack fell in love with. Since it’s July and everything is on sale, we got it for only 55 euros, otherwise it would have cost well over 100 euros, imagine that.  We paid without incident, and then as we were heading out we walked by boxes of shoes, t-shirts, all sorts of basque costumes for the upcoming festival that’s about to go underway called, “BIG” yep, “BIG” like “Sex in the City….

Now this is where it gets surreal, and very French. The boxes had no prices. Jack and I fell in love with the red shoes, looks sorta like converse, but a little bull insignia.  Imagine all these boxes of t-shirts shoes etc., and no prices. So, I walk up  to a woman to ask the price, she responded, she doesn’t know and really couldn’t be bothered.  So, we asked a simple question, “if you wanted to buy these, what would you do?” So, she calls for Chantal.  Chantal comes by and says, she doesn’t know either, so we went to the cash register with her and she tried to scan it, but it didn’t work, so she had to call management.  Finally an answer and she said, it cost 15 euros, great.  So, I go back and get 2-pairs, one for myself and one for Jack. Chantal goes missing. We go to the cashier, and decided we said we should find Chantal since she knows the price. So, I’m looking for Chantal, going around the department store saying “Where’s Chantal?” just like “Where’s Waldo?” No Chantal. So Jack gets in line, and they can’t find the price, nor can they figure out how they should scan it. Now what? So, they call a woman, very, very nice woman, Donna, and she walks us to another cashier, but she too can’t scan it either, apparently Chantal was the only one who knew the price, keep in mind these are huge display boxes and a big department wide promotion. Anyway, Donna tells us just to wait and she’ll try the other scanner at the original place where we were at, and so we waited.  I decided maybe I’d have better luck finding Chantal. So I go back to where she was last spotted and starting chanting, where’s Chantal…. No Chantal, the other woman came back to us and said, we need to go outside?!?  Apparently she heard from Chantal and said it had to be rung up outside? Now we’ve heard it all.  So, Donna escorts us down the elevator outside of the department store where they have sorta like a market of “basque” items.  Funny, no displays of any shoes at the stalls, but she was able to ring us up. We broke out in laughter, because it was like an exaggerated scene out of Seinfeld. 

After our purchase we took the bus to Bayonne, and made a quick stop at FNAC and Darty (department stores that sell PC’s) 

Bayonne is a really cute, cute, city. It was sprinkling, but that didn’t bother us. What does one do when you first arrive at a new town, eat of course. So, we walked along the water way and found a really, really cute restaurant.  All the seats were taken outside, so we ate inside and had to share a table, but that was OK. I ordered a dish of fried mussels, fish/cheese (that’d be right not fish and chips, but fish smeared with cheese) and fried squid.  Let’s just say everything was pretty much fried, just like in the South. Loved the dish, but I paid for it later.

After a 4-hour lunch, I got antsy, so we left and what does one do after lunch? Go shopping of course. I found a sweater.  So, off we go back to FNAC to pick up the laptop.  A bus ticket is good for an hour, and you can transfer from bus to bus around the Bayonne-Biarritz area. Well our hour expired and it started to rain when we got back to Biarritz, and I was not about to climb up the street, so I told Jack that I was taking the “free” (free shuttle service around Biarritz) bus back to our apartment. They’re supposed to be every 10-minutes, but it seems on the day we needed it the most it was every half-hour.  As we herded into the bus, by the way a very small bus, you would have thought the bus driver got his kicks by breaking really hard to see who falls first, not amused I held on to the 5-year old next to me. He seemed to have more balance than I did.

All-in-all we made it back to the apartment OK. Then I got really sick, could it be a flashback of champagnitist, but then I didn’t have any. I’m thinking was if from the food or just me drinking too much wine at lunch, so I decided to take a nap, and nap I did. Jack decided to see what the festival in town was all about.  At about 8 pm I woke up, and we ate a salad, chicken and some bread.  What does one do when one has a stomach ache, eat of course!  So, I had some food, and believe it or not I felt so much better, then went to bed.

July 22. Our last half day in Biarritz before we head back to Paris. We left at 1:15 pm and headed towards the train station.  The train was scheduled to leave at 2:30 pm. Got to the train station and first class was very empty. If you think about it, if you live here, trains leaving Paris are quite busy because of all the Parisians wanting to take their annual month long hajj, but going to Paris in July or August, not crowded. It’s pretty well known that Paris runs amok with American tourist in August and parts of Paris look deserted. In fact, we got a letter from the US embassy warning Americans that breaks go up in July and August, because most apartments are vacant during these months, go figure? 

The train took off and just after we took off from Bayonne, all the sudden we were at a stand still, the train comes to a complete stop. An announcement came on that we would have to return to Bayonne and if you wanted you can get off and try to catch trains going to other locations nearest your destination, and at minimum it would be a 2-hour wait if you wanted to wait it out on our train.  When we got to Bayonne an American got off the train and came back and told us that when we left Bayonne, apparently a man from an oncoming train jump in front of ours and committed suicide. Apparently, jumping off or in front of trains to commit suicide is very common in France, who knew?  Hence, they do not make a big deal about it in the news et.al.  I know that suicide is sad, and some may think I’m insensitive, but if you’re going to kill yourself, why inconvenience others? If I wanted to commit suicide I’d jump off the Golden Gate bridge, so that way I wouldn’t stop traffic, I’d be a considered that way, oh well.

Bye Biarritz, hope to see you again soon. The train left, it was empty. We went into a different compartments to sleep and I read. 

Got into Paris 2-hours after we were scheduled to arrive, not too bad.  We had a fabulous mini-vacation and I’m already searching out for our next adventure.

1 comment :

  1. You are so funny. Your comings and goings should be made into télé-réalité. -- I also love that part of the world from Bayonne down to San Sebastian. Every year D&I take a long weekend in Ciboure (next to St Jean de Luz).