Tuesday, January 02, 2007

pays basque

(click on images for larger view)

We had discussed going to Portugal or Spain but the closer we got to the break the further away those places seemed...so we decided to explore our backyard. In retrospect, we made a great choice. Three hours by car from our house.
We had lived for so long (3 months) on flat land that Beth and I were a little giddy to see some relief in the form of hills and then, in the distance, mountains.

We drove south to St. Jean Pied de Port in the foothills of the Pyrennes mountains in southern France....pays basque. In nearby Osses we rented this little house for four nights. Renting places like this is a much more economical alternative to staying in hotels. Also, we cook our own meals here and save on food costs too.

During our stay, I kept track of the weather reports and was pleased to discover that we were in the warmest spot in Western Europe (I checked the weather reports)...temps in the upper 50's and low 60's. An added bonus: since this is low season in pays basque, we had the place to ourselves more or less.

The first thing you notice in a car is the appearance of Basque language on signs. Because they're bilingual there's twice as much to read. When you have a French road map and you're looking for St. Jean Pied de Port for example, you either train your eyes to find the French, usually the top line, or you learn the Basque name, usually on the line below in an elaborate script/font...or both.
It reminded me a bit of my visit to Wales years ago where I remember seeing road signs in the Welsh language, long proper names bristeling with consonants. Another similarity - signs of discontent, in both Wales and here I saw countless road signs where the "official" language had been effaced by spray paint, leaving only the local variant legible to those passing by. The basque separatist movement ETA has adherents here and on the Spanish side. Indeed, the newspapers carried accounts of a car bombing in Madrid had been credited to ETA.
Another political issue that got some play by the local graffitti artists is the proposed freeway project that seeks to bisect pays basque and join more directly northeast and southwest corners of the region. The locals call it the coulour a camions, the truch corridor, and while we were here about four thousand people, many of them farmers driving their tractors occupied the city center on Dec 30 to rally against the proposed highway project. It's hard to imagine how a region where your as likely to find sheep and bicyclists in the road as you are automobiles is not going to lose something distinctive and valuable if the truck corridor does indeed come to pass. Getting from point A to point B around here is almost never a straight line proposition and unless you're a crow there's little to gained from thinking in those terms.
Everyone we talk to here is friendly and quick to smile. When I tell people here that there are quite a few people in our part of the US with basque origins, they always smile and tell me they have relations somewhere in the western US. They seem very aware of how they have projected themselves into the world...one guy laughed and said to me how those sheep herders had wandered pretty far around the world...in the next breath he points out with obvious pride how Basque people have projected themselves into all strata of modern life. Geographically speaking basque country is not very large, and in addition it's economy has embraced tourism to such an extent that the entire place seems poised to pose for outsiders to snap its picture, but the geography also enforces a sense of a world apart. You don't have to drive or walk very far to find yourself ensconsed in a pastoral dream. Back in the world of popular culture, Basque television carries matches of pelote (handball) and jai lai. Every little village has an outdoor handball wall in its center.
We explored the region by car and on foot, keeping to secondary roads which lead up and down the many valleys and ravines quilted with pastures. Sheep and cattle abound here. One of our our favorite car games was calling out sheep(mouton) /cow (vache) alerts left and right, and also noting if they had spots (tache) or horns (corne). Tess loves this sort of thing, she thrives on the combination of repitition and improvisation.
"moutons/vaches a droite/ gauche!
Il y en a beacoup. Ils sont partout.
Ou sont-ils? Je ne les ai pas vu.
Ils sont derriere nous.
Les vaches, ils ont des taches?
Les moutons, ils ont des cornes?
Colm, his reticence to verbalize French notwithstanding, has found himself obliged to take it up more and more as a means of playing with his sister. On our first day in pays basque he even corrected Tess about left and right.
"That's not a gauche, that's a droite."
She disputed his claim but Colm persisted...he was right too.
Some of the barren hillscapes are a bit reminescent of northeast Oregon. There are trout streams here that have that mountain fresh look to them...boulders, clear water, stone beds.

The forests by contrast are a mix of deciduous and coniferous. One of our walks took us through deep layers of leaves newly deposited on the ground. I'm curious to know a bit more about the history of the forests here, I suspect that a very long time ago there may have been more extensive forested lands...a couple of people I asked about it could only say that there hadn't been forests there in recent history.

Pyrennes ponies, most of them wearing bell collars wander freely about in the upper reaches of these hills...I saw some signs asking people not to feed them.

Here's another interesting bit of signage. We went a few kilometers up a very narrow road. Just when we wondered whether we had fallen prey to an elaborate practical joke, we saw this sign.

The advantages to having a car include the ability to follow up on things like this. We eventually found the local producteur de fromage de brebis...sheep cheese....dry and sharp. I like it quite a bit.
On our walks we see a grand total of maybe ten people, and only five of them close enough to say hello....it's not like this in the summer. The evidence of an intense tourist trade is everywhere...bed and breakfasts, hotels, campings but for us this whole thing is a bit surreal...it's the end of the year and we're in our shirtsleeves in the Pyrennes with the whole place to ourselves...
Our days here are leisurely, late breakfast, out of the house at around eleven. Drive into some ridiculously charming valley, park, and walk for a couple of hours...carry Colm on my shoulders for the last half hour or so. Picnic lunch outside. Drive somewhere else, shorter walk.

Back to our house for card games -the kids have learned Go Fish and War - and maybe a little tv. One night we watched a documentary about lions. The film presented a pretty unsentimental look at their lives as hunters. Once again, Beth and I wondered if we had wandered lazily into a parenting mistake. It was pretty obvious that some cute little wildebeast calf was destined to become dinner for a pack (tribe?) of lions.
Tess sized the whole situation up instantly, cutting straight to the chase, "Are they going to eat it?" Once she had that piece of the puzzle in place, she seemed okay with the killing part. Later that night she even enjoyed pretending to be a lionesse by grabbing my legs and biting my kneecap...lesson for youngsters, don't dawdle at the edge of the herd.
Tess is generally fascinated by the subject of mortality these days. There is a church right across the street from our house. It is surrounded by the graves of ancient parishoners. Tess wants to know their names. She also declares that she intends to be buried as well. I start to point out to her that there are alternatives but a bemused look from Beth causes me to reconsider and wait for another time.
We put Tess and Colm to bed for the last time in 2006 in a little house in Pays Basque in the hamlet of Osses. I lie down next to Colm on the lower bunk. Tess and Beth occupy the pull-out bed on the floor...the top bunk is empty, not suited to a family of sleepwalkers such as us.
I tell them a story about a boy and a girl who lived on opposite sides of a ridge, one had cows, the other had sheep. They lead their animals up the ridge to pasture together. One day the boy loses a sheep. He and the girl search for it by walking along the ridge line. They can't see it so they descend into the thickets of trees where at lenghth they hear its cries. At the end of the story the boy and girls stand atop the ridge, their homes in view at the base of each slope. They promise to see each other again the next day and they go home to a warm fire, dinner and dreams of green pastures..
.stories like these usually put me sleep even as I tell them but both kids are still awake so Beth and I take turns singing songs, folk songs, lullabies, standards, pop tunes...we go on for a long time. Colm, who at bedtime appeared to be the least likely to fall asleep, falls asleep first.
Tess is silent but awake. She has a hold of each of us. I listen to Beth sing, I am surprised by the variety of songs she has committed to heart. I love being surprised by that. For myself, after the first familiar songs, I'm never quite sure what I'll remember next, but always there is something, when it's time. Songs about all sorts of things but all of them are different expressions of the same longing... the longing that makes us open our mouths and cry, that empties our hearts and then makes us breathe in more deeply than we ever imagined we could. Back and forth, we sing...finally, Tess too falls asleep.
Beth and I go to the kitchen, pour some Bailey's and resume our card game. These moments, their passing, each of them is a life into itself, and each one, therefore, represents a passing, and so we are perpetually swinging between love and grief. It is one of the things that binds the two of us - we tend to register happiness simultaneously with despair...
On the thirtieth, Beth and I began a game of gin rummy - the first one to 2007 or the one with the most points by 2007 wins. I commenced to enjoy a string of good card luck such as I have never known before. By the time it is 11:45 pm on the thirty-first I feel a bit like Rosencrantz in Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead whose string of flipped coins coming up heads has become commonplace to him and profoundly disquieting to his companion. There is time for one last hand so I propose that the point values be multiplied by a factor of ten...no point in revealing the precise score is there? Beth accepts warily. Then she proceeds to go out after only two or three plays. Game, set, match. I am dethroned, my memories of my lucky run already dissipating.
We go out on the balcony with a glass of wine and a cigarette. I had come out here right after sunset to snap a photo of the moon on New Year's Eve. It had seemed to me to be an evocative image of time passing and time past...I would have preferred that the clock read twelve but neither the clock, nor the steeple, nor the arcing moon would consent to such an arrangement. So I took what was offered me at the moment. Six hours later the church tower obliges us by ringing...down the street we hear some laughter, this is a sleepy burg though...not much in the way of revels here.

There is nothing like New Year's Eve to cause one to meditate on the arc of life. The thing about getting older is that the trajectory of one's life appears increasingly arc-like. I look up and locate the moon...it appears to have slungshot itself around the steeple and is sailing off in an entirely new direction.


Anonymous cjones said...

Ahh, you bring back luscious memories of our Pyrennes vacation-within-a-vacation last October. Even then, the lack of travelers was impressive.

Happy New Year to All.

(and, if you haven't heard, BSU beat Oklahoma [Fiesta Bowl] in the most exciting football game I've ever seen -- and am quite sure will ever see. UNBELIVEABLE! )



4:02 PM  
Blogger kc said...

It might be a long time before Oklahoma schedules a west coast opponent again after what the ducks and the broncos did to them

7:08 AM  
Anonymous cjones said...

True. Or perhaps what the Broncos and Oregon's Pac10 officiating crew did to them. Did you get a chance to see any video of the final minute and OT? I'm still seeing those in my mind.....

5:43 PM  

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