You happen to be traveling in France in March of 2020. You know about this epidemic that started in China and has spread to Italy, but this is France. And this is Biarritz. What could go wrong? You’ve had a fantastic lunch, and now it’s Saturday night.
Now published with Amazon, enjoy this fast and tasty read that begins to explore Biarritz and the culinary wonders of the Basque Country – under the cloud of the Covid pandemic just starting to loom over us all. The narrator is “saved” by two unusual women, or so it seems.
For the US click: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09KNGJ9RC
For the UK click: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09KNGJ9RC
For the EU click on either Amazon France: https://www.amazon.fr/dp/B09KNGJ9RC
or Amazon Germany: https://www.amazon.de/dp/B09KNGJ9RC
And now for a little taste of Biarritz No Longer Serves Food:
BIARRITZ NO LONGER SERVES FOOD
I put my foot up on the seat of the uncomfortable wooden chair of great modernist beauty to retie my shoelace, and remember my grandma. She would have me on her ample knees and, my back resting on her bosoms, would reach around and tie my shoe as if her arms were mine. I would watch her fingers. And then I’d try it myself.
So, it’s not just Proust who can trigger memories from shoes to grandmothers.
I’ve just finished reading that passage about grandmother and shoes (in Sodome et Gomorrhe, of all tomes!), reclining on the double bed in this oddly comfy hotel on the promontory of Biarritz, what used to be the original Basque fishing village seemingly, and felt a growl of hunger. The time on my iPad, used only now as an e-reader, told me that it was easily dinnertime: vingt heure trente, I’d said to myself, still attuned to Marcel’s prose. This is France, not Spain, time to get up and get a move on out. Restaurants here were in high swing at nine p.m. I haven’t made a reservation.
Unlike Proust’s remembrance, though, my own grand-maman has been gone for a good fifty years. I feel no guilt that I hadn’t seen to her in her declining years. There had been none. She’d had an acute bout of peritonitis… and died in around ten days, having lain in bed for a week, too afraid it was cancer to see a doctor. It had been a shock, her death, not believable for months, or maybe years, because only recently a sudden bout of ill fortune that had miraculously turned around made me think she was still watching over me. Yet, her death had synced with the eruption of adolescence. Perhaps we would have moved apart, dunno.
Meantime, I put my foot back down on the carpet and reach for my overcoat, a long black thing meant to go over a suit but trendily now worn over any old thing, shirt and jeans, sweater maybe. It is March, and it is nighttime.
Downstairs, I leave my key at the desk – the clerk is in the back watching something on the TV – and step out. The great square is fairly empty. Actual stray cats notwithstanding. And there is a brisk breeze. Down towards the market area are plenty of restaurants, all serving pintxos, aping their more fervently Basque fellows on the other side of the frontier. Ah, Donostia-San Sebastián, foodie heaven!
The stalls are shuttered but the restaurants glow, and one glows more than the others on this Saturday night. You could hear some thump-thump – Basque pop? – and there is a lively crowd around the bar. This will do nicely.
My lunch had been four courses at one of the best places in town, as signaled by both Michelin and Gault et Millau. So I feel more peckish than hungry. Pintxos! And there are rosters of them. They didn’t pile them up on the bar as they do across the border, but the menu is illustrated, and some things are already known. That Bayonne ham is good. Very. Two days before in Bayonne itself I’d sampled the very thing in the restaurant famed for it, with its own specialized ham-slicing machine. I’d made a phone photo of the contraption on the way out. Had forgotten to do the usual “food porn” number, the iPhone pic, on the starter and main course and dessert. Oh well.
I look up from my corner table to scan the customers. People are well into their meals. I look like the late bird. And then I see her. Isn’t that the same striking middle-aged woman from the Bayonne place, the one with the sharp features, tight skin, black eyebrows and salt-and-pepper hair pulled back? And she’s alone. In Bayonne she’d been conversing animatedly with a muscly man, who I’d only seen from the back, short sandy hair, but who’d been wearing a tight black t-shirt to show off triceps. Sometimes she’d be laughing and sometimes nearly mournful. The dude had not moved much, seemed stolid and calm, and would occasionally laugh with her. Yes, it must be her.
I look away and up into the pleasant face of the waitress. Oh, the menu. Just close your eyes and choose at random, except for some of that ham again. “Jambon de Bayonne.” She seems to be checking it off on something like an iPad but not. She looks up. She leans down as I start pointing. Faster that way. She’s checking with a stylus. “C’est tout.” I give her a broad smile. She seems surprised. “Ah, et une fillette de…” where is the house wine again? Ah. “Cahors.” Nice smile then. She is young, pretty, unremarkable in a standard French way; she will not grow up to be that decidedly Basque woman there in the back near the bar. The pitcher size “fillette” is marked on the menu. That was so funny. I’d learned that one in Toulouse. Never seen it before. “Little girl.” It’s between a quarter and a half liter. And then, lo-and-behold, I’d started noticing it just about everywhere that had house wines. In Toulouse that waitress had told me fillette was local, but it wasn’t. She’d just grown up with it. Fact is, it was just not Parisian. Except… now it was. Anyway.
“Merci, Mademoiselle.” She puts the carafe and glass down, and then she’s gone. She seems in a rush. She didn’t pour so I pour some into my glass. Nice deep ruby color. I was surprised to see Cahors as a house wine. Now to sip. Oh! Very nice. And a bargain. Of course Cahors is sort of in the region, isn’t it? So maybe that’s why. I bet they’ve got a barrel of it downstairs in their cave.
“Voilà, Monsieur.” Oh! It’s a whole plate of the ham. Overlapping petals of pink. Nicely arranged and spread out. Knife and fork wrapped in paper napkin. Basket of bread. Butter in a little ramekin. A bit of bread, a dollop of butter on it now at the ready, I slice a bit of the ham and pop it in my mouth. Maybe a bit coarser in texture than the famous place but just as much flavor. Now for a bit of bread and butter. And now for a sip of Cahors. Vive la France. Yes, it all worked. I slump back a bit in my chair and look around the place vaguely. More people now at the bar. A bit packed in, no? What about this Corona thing? Well, I’d checked the region before coming. Hardly any cases. Seemed safe enough. Trains ran there normally.
At lunch everything had been much the same as the first splendid discovery time six months ago. Biarritz had struck me as so relaxed, so old money. No bling that I could see. Not that kind of money. So why feel any surprise at seeing this place packing them in around the bar? Noise level up. Great! Saturday night. Hello!
I wonder how Madame is doing. Would that man or another man appear and sit down with her? I look over and our eyes meet. Oh shit. Caught! I focus downwards, and take up my knife and fork. Nonchalant. Piece cut. In mouth. Bite off a piece of bread and butter. And now a sip of Cahors. So, so good. Rich and a bit peppery. I think I prefer the rougher cut to the ham here than in the fancier place with its famous machine. The thicker the chewier, and hence a greater eruption of flavor.
I glance up. She’s watching me eat. Oh, flying fuck.
And then I have to laugh. She’s examining me just as I’d examined her back in Bayonne. Touché. But do I want to make contact? No. The very thought is making me turn inside out. Laugh! Wouldn’t that be a pretty sight, entrails all wiggling. One of those BBC sci-fi creatures. Always a bit of tongue-in-cheek with the Brits: Doctor Who.
The place is filling up. Odd. It’s getting toward closing time, no? Certainly for food. But they’re filling up the spaces around the bar. Pop! Whoa! Opening champagne? Now I know I’m in Biarritz. A cheer as many wine glasses, not the more suitable flûtes, are filled. And now: Pop! Another one? Did someone win the lottery? It’s a jumble of voices. Impossible to make out what they’re saying. Oh well.
There goes the last sliver of ham. This time no bread and butter, but a nice quaff of Cahors. This is the nicest Cahors I’ve ever drunk, not that I’m an avid Cahors hound. I do like it though. Had it first in a good place in Montréal. Whole bottle. Dirt cheap. Well, not dirt. Very reasonable. Was that the late eighties or early nineties? Quite a few very good French bistro type places opening up at the time. Never been much of a fan of Québécois cuisine. No poutine, please. But the locals were startled when you spoke French to them. At first. And then, as one said bluntly at the Parisian accent: “Ton français me casse les coquilles.” Okay. A bit la-di-dah, like a posh Londoner in Manhattan, let alone Brooklyn or the Bronx. But did they really expect foreigners to speak jouale? Come on, babies. But there was this one waitress I kept running into whenever I went to this one place. She would make a beeline. And then she would just purr: “J’adore votre français.” So there. Her eyes would go all dreamy as if I’d been singing Piaf to her. So she liked it a bit posh. Guess so. I’d explain it was the only kind I knew. That made her even more excited. Funny.
Sweet, actually. Just like they all were in that town. Yes, great memories of Montréal. Not a very pretty city but… Well, there was the part up the hilly area, McGill? Very English looking and comfortable. Grand. Never got out of the car, though, so I didn’t test whether anyone spoke French there. And then there were the Jewish delis. Did they speak French? No idea. Why go to a Jewish deli in Montréal? But of course everybody knew about the severe language rules. In France signs on the road said Stop; in Québec they said Arrêt. Now that’s always good for a chuckle. Can’t blame them. The English walked all over them for centuries, kept them corralled and ball-and-chained by Holy Roman Catholic Church. No Reagan born-again stuff there. Loved seeing all those churches turned into condos.
Oh there, she does see that my plate is finished. She’s crossing the floor balancing three small plates on her arm. Very clever for such a kid. Big smile as she sets them down.
So what did I order? No clue now. One plate looks like a wedge of tortilla española, that potato pie thing, okay, omelet they say, but… Why did I order that? After a concert to which I’d been invited by a very florid Parisian who always got free tickets, because he wrote reviews on the side in some medical magazine, I’d been asked how I liked the concert – no memory now of what had been played, though certainly classical there in the Salle Pleyel – I’d said it was like a tortilla española, meaning hearty and a bit bland. He’d frowned. I’d insulted him. Oh no! Well, he was supposed to be writing a review. So that’s an opinion? Was he a sponsor? Was it his orchestra? Was it his protégé at the piano? No. And then the first time I’d seen it written, I’d thought it was Mexican. Loved Mexican. Instead out came this omelet potato pie. It could be a kind of potato quiche when there were bits of Ibérico ham in it. There’d been no ham in that first one. Very disappointed on first bite back then. But even without Ibérico there were better versions. I knew that. So I stab it carefully with my fork and wrench off a crumbling layer. Quick into mouth. Quick, just in case, a swig of Cahors. Oh! Now that is great. I try another piece without the wine. Okay, a bit bland but velvety and rich with egg. Is there some of that amazing Basque cheese in it?
At lunch I’d taken the cheese course since it vaunted local cheeses, Basque. And wasn’t disappointed. Surprise, surprise – none were quite like anything I’d eaten before. Most were sheep milk. One was cow. All were “hard,” “cooked,” cheeses. And each one had a different tang to it. Tasty sheep was easy, but the cow? Okay, there is the example of Parmagiano-Reggiano. And the stages of its ageing, from smooth to crackling with a visually liquid orange center that is not actually liquid. This Basque cow was not in that realm. But it was a crispy cow that ate very nice grass and was deeply rich. The sheep? Back off Manchego. Nutty without the nuts. What was the wine with lunch now? I’d had it by the glass. Red something. Some jewel from a young winemaker between Bordeaux and Bergerac. Immediately deep, a bit peppery, fruit? If fruit, then some kind of crazy purple plum, the Italian kind that got sticky sugary when almost over-ripe. I need to remember to write the names of these wines down and try to find them online. Duh.
Tortilla española gobbled up. I’ve surprised myself. And such nice wine. Is it my imagination or is the place getting even more crowded? Pop! Oh, not another bottle. Now it really couldn’t be champagne. I squint, trying to make out the label as the bartender flourishes the bottle. Fucking A, that is the unmistakable broad red sash of Mumm’s Cordon Rouge. Oh come on. Who’s paying for this largesse?
Sitting waiting next is a gleaming silver-skinned bit of fresh anchovy with pickled peppers: anchois et vinaigrette de piquillos. Piquillos: pickled peppers that Peter Piper never picked. For sure. Well, you never know. It’s on a slice of baguette. I take a bite. Oh, yum. Creamy and tangy fish – nothing like the salty canned thing – set off by pickle. Not that I’m surprised. Fresh anchovy is in another fish world from the salted variety. Learned that quite a few years back when I’d had them grilled in, not Lisbon or Faro, but in Sitges. In a restaurant on the beach of course. This anchovy itself has been lightly pickled, a kind of Baltic herring thing? But the pepper bits have gone through a bit of grilling and are sweet sour. The taste lingers. There’s a carafe of water and a bistro glass. Hell no. Let’s have a sip of Cahors to clean the palette. Ah! Oh, nice. Funny mix. Not bad at all. Could one call this an umami discovery? Probably not. It isn’t unusual to souse a fish in red wine: escabèche?
Time to finish off the anchovy pintxo and go on to the cheese slices. Looks like Manchego. The menu card is long gone, removed by the waitress for some reason. And then I notice that she’s tidying up, cleaning up and straightening up tables that have become free. True, tables are freeing up. The kitchen must close at some point, maybe eleven? Or probably ten-thirty, more likely. I give my wrist a glance, still do even though I’d given up wearing my wristwatch when the battery died. I always have my iPhone with me. Now I’ll have to fish it out of my pocket. Nah. Don’t care that much. Funny, though, more and more people keep piling in around the bar. Is this some kind of Saturday night hangout in Biarritz? A bar scene? It’s mostly male, though a few women, and the age range is impressively broad, so not a pick-up scene. Odd.
I check the corner where the mystery woman was seated, but she’s gone, the table already cleared but not reset. Oh, there she is. She’s at the bar near the back, not far from her table. I can only make out half her face. She’s talking to another woman around her age. This woman’s rear is middle-aged broad, so no kid. But no salt-and-pepper hair. Instead a doyenne bob-job, and a nice shade of blond, looked like, champagne blond, very discrete: an old-money denizen of Biarritz? There had been a woman like that, back at lunchtime, at a far table with several people. That blond bob: a modernized Sarah Bow, Louise Brooks. Quite elegant. Who knows, maybe it is the same woman.
How big was Biarritz? The center. Where were the grand nineteenth-century apartments? I should have done my homework. There was this section back from Eugénie’s old palace, now a grand hotel picked up by some American luxury chain, probably all gilded and glitzed to death, so I’d figured: In real-estate office windows it was called Quartier Impérial. On the news, though, I’d seen a bit of the inside of the Hôtel du Palais from the G7 extravaganza that Macron had staged there. The website showed rooms that, sure, were luxurious, but bland, no bling, billionaire wannabe old-money bland. Could have been anywhere. Where was the Eugénie kitsch? I mean, couldn’t they come up with billionaire bling that matched it? ‘Cause there was this international minimalist thing showing through. But a posh American hotel would be terrified to dare that. If I’d been asked, I’d have said: Do a total restoration. Wow ‘em! Show ‘em how bling began and who started the nouveau riche thing of “I got so much stuff I can barely move around for ottomans, pillows, drapery, rugs, vases like gargoyles and fruit, mantel clocks like gilded temples…” And then it hits me: That Second Empire stuff was itself a rerun of Baroque. As in “we are not baroque, broke, far fucking from it.” Haha.
I give the room a scan. No one has heard me chuckling my head off to myself. In fact, the place is getting a bit rowdy. Still more people around the bar. What’s going on? Of course, maybe this place turns into a watering hole on a Saturday night. What do I know? Zilch. Which is why I’m here. To learn to know Biarritz. To meet the cachet as it were.
Should I order something like dessert?
I’m not usually a big fan of dessert. And depending on the dessert it could mean heartburn during the night. Oh let’s have a look anyway. But of course she took the menu away, didn’t she? Should I raise my arm, try and get her attention? Where is she? Oh, there she is way in the back, clearing salt-and-pepper things off the table. And – odd! – putting the chairs upside-down on the table tops. Maybe that part of the place isn’t used for lunch? Usually the table would be set for the next service, which would be lunch tomorrow. Ah, there, got her attention. She’s smiling at me as if she’s ready to burst out laughing. I give her a decorous smile back. Here she comes.
“Je peux voir le menu s’il vous plaît?”
She looks like she’s ready to burst out laughing at me. And then she seems to realize she’s being rude. She sobers up. She seems ready to launch into some kind of explanation but then doesn’t. Off she goes. A quick demi-tour and she’s back with the menu. “Merci, Mademoiselle.” I’m old-fashioned. I still say Mademoiselle even though it’s politically correct now to say Madame at all times. Well, come on, not when you’re face to face with a young girl, a kid, who couldn’t be more than eighteen or nineteen.
So, what do we have here?
Ah, the usual crème brûlée, ice cream… Oh, something called the “tarte du soir,” as opposed to an afternoon tarte? That’s intriguing. Maybe it’s meant to be super-digestible. “Mademoiselle?” Where is she? You would have thought she’d be hovering around waiting to see if I want anything. No. She’s just evaporated.
Good grief, more people marching in. What, has the whole city heard they’re giving away champagne? I can’t even hear the background music anymore, something that was a mixture of French and Basque, nothing familiar. I know there’s this whole repertoire of Basque songs, group songs, probably drinking songs, but the music had been too low to make-out.
Oh whack! Decibels up now. The crowd at the bar is cheering. And now the men at one end of the bar seem to be ready to join in. They know the song. They are joining in. Well, why complain: It’s the evening’s entertainment. The group singing has red kerchiefs around their necks and of course berets on their heads, not your Parisian beret but these big flying-saucer berets, much more authentic for sure. They looked red. It was dark around the bar so… And they were wearing white shirts. So, yeah, they were some kind of Basque fraternity or something. Hadn’t noticed them before. They must have been off to the right side of the bar in the back.
Ah! There’s our Mademoiselle! I’m waving my hand then my full arm at her, but she’s heading into the crowd around the bar. Just how late is it? I have my iPhone on me but stuffed in my left pocket. I’ll have to half get up from my seat to wriggle it out. When am I going to stop listening to these fashion victim fools that ridicule cargo pants? Not chic, my ass. Who cares? I’d already have fished the phone out of the side left-leg pocket by then and know the time. If I were home. But I’m not. I’d decided not to pack any. Okay: Suffer, fashion victim.
I straighten my left leg, rise up, and slip my hand into my pocket and pull the iPhone out.
Oh! It’s getting close to 11. No wonder. The waitress is probably off duty at this point. No doubt kitchen closed. Or is it?
Whoa! A tall guy has just emerged out of nowhere with a huge tray piled high with pintxos, the Donostia type. The throng around the bar is applauding as he makes his way through. The tray disappears, the guy too.
Now there’s this rapping. It’s coming from the front door. Seems they’ve shut the door. A mixed crowd of twenty-somethings want in.
Oh, wait, “Mademoiselle!” She’s passing my table in a flash and at the door. She’s laughing at them. She’s shaking her head at them. A good-looking young guy is making a sad clown face for her. What an easy mark she is. She’s opening the door and letting them in. Oh, they’re friends of hers. There they go: kiss-kiss. They stream past my table paying no attention to me, aiming for the bar. A cork pops. Mademoiselle shuts and locks the door. She’s coming my way with a silly smile on her face.
“Ah, oui, Monsieur. L’addition, c’est ça?”
I shake my head. She looks back at me dumbfounded. Right: What does this old geezer want then? “C’est possible la tarte du soir?” She’s a deer in headlights then.
“Ah. J’ai pas, Monsieur. On ferme. La cuisine est…” but she realizes I’ve seen the guy with the great flying-saucer of a tray piled high with pintxos. Or she seems to. “Je verrai, Monsieur.”
“Merci, Mademoiselle.” Do I want the tarte du soir? What the hell is the tarte du soir? Too late now. She’s going to the effort. She’s already way off in the back. Whatever it is, I’ll damn well have to eat it after all this.
I feel stuffed. There’s a bit of Cahors left in the fillette. Now there isn’t. Tchin-tchin. I take a sip. Okay. The thrill is gone. Cahors really needs food.
Actually maybe it would go great with the tarte du soir. Was this cherry season? People just love cherries when they’re in season. To me they always seem a bit sour, but who am I? Obviously the world or most of it loves them. So a tarte, that sugar-cookie crust kind, sablé, now with the seasonal cherries, pitted of course… and then a sip of Cahors? How would that go? I can imagine the Cahors with that crust.
So. Okay. Where is it? Where’s that girl? I need a glass of the Cahors.
Well, nothing that fascinating. The crowd around the bar is pretty big now. She’s out of sight, lost in it or rather lost from view. Pop! Good grief, who’s paying for all this good champagne? This is crazy. And everyone seems to have a glass in their hand. Maybe they all know each other? What do I know about the inhabitants of Biarritz? Nada. That’s one of the reasons I’m here. To figure this place out when it’s not tourist season, summer, that beach overlooked by the Casino full of sunbathers. There were a few surfers too, because you could surf even from that part of the coast, though the great wild surf was further down, so said the guidebooks. Not very interested, so not delved into that part of the city. But seems there were surfer hostels, the whole shebang. International, full of Ozzies and California beach bums. Surfer world. It was a real world. Dotted all over the planet where the surf could get wild. Warm waters mostly, you’d hope.
I’m waiting. Boring. Funny décor here. There are these wooden barrels placed towards the bar. The bar people, the bar crowd is behind those. There are empty wine glasses on some of the barrels. There on the far wall? What is that? A picture of a famous matador? Very Spain, but are Basques into bullfighting? Is there an arena even in Basque country? I pull out my trusty smartphone and Google. Bilbao (that’s the major city in Spanish Basque Country) bullfighting…
Oh. There it is, a schedule of the bullfighting season in Bilbao. Vista Alegre. That must be the name of the arena.
So there you go. Something learned every day. Still, it’s doubtful it’s really there for Basques per se. Basques do that ball game against a wall with this curved basket on a wooden paddle. Let’s look that up. Basque game… Bingo! Pelota. Oh no. No, got that slightly wrong. Jai alai. That’s the game I was thinking of. Isn’t that a gambling thing in the US? Oh, I see: jai alai is a variety of Basque pelota.
Don’t see any of those basket paddle things hanging on the wall.
But there are plenty of red and white bandanas and pennants.
I need to stretch my legs under the table. There. And adjust myself in the seat. Where is she? The hell with the tarte, I’d really like to pay and…
Oh there she is. She’s emerged from the bar crowd. And she’s looking at me startled, like, why is he still there? Well, Mademoiselle, for starters I haven’t paid and…
She’s coming over. “Désolé, Monsieur. La cuisine est fermée. On ferme.” Kitchen closed. Okay. We’re closing. You’re closing? What, with all those people toasting and doing a bottoms-up thing with their glasses and then getting refills?
Out of her apron pocket comes… my bill. I get a hold of my wallet. I fish out the credit card. How much is it? Thirty euros something? Nice. She takes my card, sticks it in the card-reader (Where had that come from? Oh she has this holster thing hanging from her belt). Done.
“Bonne soirée, Monsieur. Je suis désolée pour vous quand même.” What? Why is she sorry for me? She’s turned and gone. Heading, no, diving into the crowd around the bar.
Well, at least I can get up now.
Stretching the legs feels good. Do I have everything? Phone? Wallet?
Do I want to leave? Go back to my room? I can’t say I do. The bar crowd is tempting. But I just can’t waltz over there. They all seem to know each other.
Ah, there’s Mademoiselle. And she’s talking to the Grande Dame, the one with the hairdo from the restaurant at lunch. Looking at me. Talking about me? And now they’re both smiling at me. Funny smile. Tinged with pity. Pity?
The Doyenne is smiling directly at me now. She wants my attention. I smile back. She’s making a little gesture with her hand. She wants me to come over? Do I want to go over? Not to would be rude. But I don’t know her. I could just smile and shake my head. She’d “get over it.”
Oh, what the hell.
She holds out her hand: “Bonsoir Monsieur. Didn’t we have lunch together, one could say?” Why has she switched to English?
“Bonsoir, Madame, Mademoiselle.” The waitress was by her side, grinning. As if they were in cahoots. Cahoots about what? Cahoots? “Oui, effectivement on a déjeuner dans le même resto, fabuleux…” She’s looking surprised at my French.
“Now, you’ll forgive me if we speak English. Don’t deny me this little pleasure. It’s not everyday… and I’m known as a bit of an anglophile. But I don’t think you’re British.”
“But I can see you’re no Trump. Or some Brexiteer. We live in a mad world at the moment, Monsieur.”
“But thank the gods for La France and now Biarritz. My lunch was one of the best. And those Basque cheeses.”
“Oh yes… I saw them teasing you, calling out ‘Les fromages pour Monsieur’ and you replying ‘Pas n’importe quels fromages quand même…’ It’s a lovely restaurant. We go there, my friends and I, at least once a month… for lunch. Lunch is better for the digestion, je trouve.”
“It is indeed.” For people our age, but we won’t talk about those numbers. Her coterie looked very pleasant. Definitely old money. And the place didn’t cost a fortune. Which is another sign of old money. Or used to be. Who knew now? “But here we are here, out for a bite.”
“Oh, I just came here to toast with the owner. Oh voilà…” she’s handing me a glass of champagne.
“Merci, Madame.” I toast her glass and take a sip. Oh, just as I thought. Mumm’s. “Very generous of the owner.”
“He’s a lovely man. I’d introduce you but he’s quite busy back there…” She nods direction delicately with her head. Oh, very nice. Elegant.
“Bonne nuit, Monsieur.” A nod, and off goes the waitress. I open my mouth to say “Bonne nuit,” but close it. She’s long gone.
“So, Monsieur, what are your plans? I assume you don’t live here or I would have seen you before today’s lunch. It’s a small town, our Biarritz.”
“Plans?” That’s a bit upfront! In your face. “Walk around, explore the city. I really only know the area around the restaurant and down to the Casino on the beach. Walked the promenade up to the Palace. Funny, not so funny, that it’s become an American chain hotel. Eugénie would not be pleased.” What a smile! And the twinkle in the eye.
The Basque-looking woman is suddenly there next to my Biarritz lady. Right, they seem to know each other. “Bonsoir, Monsieur.”
“Bonsoir, Madame.” She is striking. Even more so close up. Those coal-black eyebrows. Eyes are just as black, pretty fierce. But she’s smiling at me of course. Very warm and generous smile. “Je crois que je vous ai vu…”
“I heard you speak English. I would love to do that. Léonie is far better at English, but I could use the practice. Anyway my first language is Basque.” Big wink.
“First? That’s quite amazing.”
“Not really. We spoke Basque at home. I was raised speaking Basque. My French was awful when I started school.”
“I should but I don’t speak any Basque,” Léonie says. “I can’t get my tongue around it. And when I can’t speak it, I can’t learn a language.”
“Oh. That’s the same with me. I was awful at Latin, even though I had four years of it.”
“Latin? Americans? I’m surprised.”
“I’m old. I don’t think it’s offered any more.” We get to chuckle together at that. I’d say all three of us are about the same age. Nice. Time to introduce myself. “I already know you’re Léonie.” The Basque woman speaks up: Alize. Yes, with a “z.” Sort of like Alice, but not. Pronounces very easily in French.
Now we’re on a first-name basis. Who cares about last names?
Someone passes the bottle of Mumm’s, and Alize tops off my glass and then Léonie’s. I feel I need to suppress a giggle. I never giggle. It’s the bubbly.
“It means noble woman, which I definitely am not, not that I know of.” Léonie pooh-poohs that.
“Il y a toutes sortes de noblesse, ma belle.” Different kinds of nobility. Alize is smiling back, not blushing. These women know each other well, probably over a long period? Curious. I ask.
“Not so long. Léonie really is nobility, or what’s left of it in France.” Léonie makes a little demurring sound but doesn’t deny it. “We met actually in a Basque language school here in Biarritz.”
“I was an absolute failure. Alize was very supportive. But I was hopeless. I suppose we have bonded over food. Alize is an amazing cook. I’m lucky to have an amazing cook.” Léonie chuckles. Alize now does blush slightly. Well, so Léonie is quite well off, it would seem.
“You both live in Biarritz then.”
“Léonie does. Not far from here. In quite the grand apartment. 1860s. Place Clemenceau. There was a time when the noblesse of the era decamped to Biarritz when Eugénie was in residence. If you think about it, the building must have looked quite strange as it stood out surrounded by this fishing village.”
“I have old pictures, from the 1880s. It still did then. Of course at that point the Palais had been turned into a grand hôtel.”
“Oh yes. Proust mentions the employees of grands hôtels shifting between Monte Carlo, Biarritz, and some others depending on the season.”
“You read Proust, Monsieur?” Alize’s coal black eyebrows are up.
“I try.” True. It’s not easy reading. Alize smiles back but doesn’t look very convinced. Léonie on the other hand doesn’t seem fazed.
“Proust is often a labyrinth. You must take time with some of those sentences. Hear them in your head.” I nod in agreement. She’s so right. So Léonie has read Proust for pleasure whereas Alize only probably got the dose in school?
I can’t help myself. “Is this local nobility, Léonie? I suppose something part Spanish although…”
She laughs, a light tinkling laugh. “Oh, not at all. Alize does go on. The Second Empire created a brand new noble class. Very few of the Ancien Régime were left alive. My family was given one of those. No grand estate. Just a title. My great-great-grandfather was a baron. They had to slip in the “particule”… so they did. But it was just a ‘de’ before the old family name. Great-grandfather helped build the palais for Eugénie. It was just a rather grand two-story mansion really. Barely recognizable in the hotel that exists now. There was a fire in 1903, and it was rebuilt into the thing we see now, more or less.”
“I’m not a great fan. I know I should be. By the way I would have to disagree with you. I think the Hyatt people have done a rather good job of it. The exterior is classified as monument historique, but they were free more or less to do what they wanted inside. I’ve been inside. During the G7. I received an invitation. What an armed camp that all was! But a nod was paid my great-great-grandfather. So I received an invitation.”
“Oh? You’ve met Macron?”
“Met? Not exactly. There was a reception line. I shook his hand. Nice grip. I liked him. He’s quite good-looking, no?”
“I suppose he is.” Of course he is. Why am I being so coy? “He’s quite the charmer. He’s good for the EU.”
“Ah?” Those black eyebrows have shot up. “You like the EU.”
“Especially given Trump, more than ever.” We all laugh together. Nothing like the ugly menace of the gross Trump to bond me with Europeans. Not the first time.
“Let’s not talk about that man.” So declares Léonie all at once. We all nod. More champagne? Yes, the bottle is back. This time I take it and serve them. “Merci, Monsieur.” “Merci, Monsieur.” I toast. Big sips this time. We’ve become thirsty.
“So now I’m curious, Alize. Where do you live?” Big grin. I guess I should have asked before. She’s glad to come out of the shadow of Léonie and her noblesse.
“I have a small apartment in Bayonne. You know, Bayonne is the French Basque capital.”
“No, I didn’t.” I wonder if Bilbao is the Spanish equivalent. That would not go down well with the inhabitants of Donostia-San Sebastián, so I heard when there. Fierce rivalry. People are funny.
“But I have a small farm near Espelette.”
“Espelette. Rings a bell.”
“Red pepper?” Her black eyes go totally glossy with mirth. “Not too hot.” She starts laughing. Léonie smiles, toasts Alize, and laughs a bit. Only I am not laughing. Come on: laugh. I laugh not knowing why I’m laughing, but they don’t care.
Good grief. Are they a lesbian couple? Who can tell these days? Léonie did make the overture to me. Very gracious of her. But now I wonder why.
What a startling couple they make.
And then I remember the muscly man in the restaurant in Bayonne with Alize. There were times when she seemed to just eat him up. Or maybe that was my imagination.
Suddenly the group of Basque men burst into a cappella song. It’s loud, it’s hearty, it’s melodic, and then it’s over. Huge applause. How can you applaud with a glass of champagne in your hand? I see Alize take the lip of the glass gently between her teeth and applaud loudly. Léonie claps one hand gently against the one holding the stem. I copy her.
That burst of song has supercharged the bar. Another bottle pops.
My glass is refilled. I’ve lost count. Toast. I suppress a huge urge to giggle. Bubbles in my nose? I look at my two ladies and see that they are feeling the same silliness. I can relax. But no giggling. I make a stern face. They crack up. And then all three of us are laughing for no reason at all. Just the pleasure of laughing.
I catch my breath. “Vive le champagne!”
Léonie toasts my glass. “Belle Époque. Your Proust. All those silly operas and operettas where they sing about champagne. My favorite is Krug, of course, but who could afford to pop this many bottles of Krug?”
“Krug would be lost on us all,” states Alize immediately. Suddenly this is sobering for us.
It’s Saturday night. “Does this happen every Saturday night? Quite a place! Quite a city!”
Léonie gives me a look that tells me that what I’ve just asked is ridiculous. Alize now looks at her. She is sharing some kind of shock and surprise. “Given the moment and the times… Monsieur Gaston decided to attack his supply of Mumm’s. Word spread among a select few, who invited a less select few. The Basque men’s choir meets here every Saturday though. So you got part of that right.”
Alize suddenly glances at her watch. It’s a very tiny watch. Is it Cartier? I can’t see in this light. “It’s fast approaching midnight.” I laugh. “Is that poor English? I told you that my English is…”
“Oh, sorry. Please. Not at all. Whenever I hear about midnight like that I think of Cinderella. You know, carriages, pumpkins?”
Alize smiles but Léonie does not. Have I been too Disney? That is all I know about Cinderella after all. “At midnight all Biarritz, all France will turn into a pumpkin.” And then she bursts out laughing. There’s a touch of hysteria in that laugh. A bit off-putting. Alize winks at me though.
“Léonie is addicted to making grand pronouncements. It’s in the blood.” Léonie eyes her, friend or foe, and then bursts into laughter. Alize joins in. I smile but can’t really laugh. I don’t follow the joke.
“How long are you planning to stay in Biarritz, Monsieur?” It’s Léonie. She’s sounding and looking serious. If the light were better, I’d say her eyes were gray-green. I wonder if she was a redhead? Again, the light. Brighter, I’d be able to tell from her skin. But she has that champagne blond color that goes with the bouffant hairstyle of the doyenne.
“I’ve got two more nights. And then I’m off to Toulouse.”
“Two more nights? You mean two more days? And you think you can know Biarritz in two days?” It’s Alize.
“I thought maybe I’d get to know something, yes.” Now Léonie bursts out laughing. “I guess not?”
“Well, Monsieur, you have met us. You must sense that we may have the key to Biarritz. The real Biarritz. That’s the one you’re looking to discover, am I correct?” Whatever color Léonie’s eyes are, they’re definitely sparkling. “Vous êtes bien tombé.” I know I’m smiling a bit like a fool, but what a nice thing to say? And I’ve always liked that expression, something like fallen on your feet, but not exactly. More like lucky devil. Alize fills my glass and then Léonie’s. There’s only a splash for hers. Bottle empty. I look around. The bottles don’t seem to be appearing anywhere. So there is an end to the host’s largesse. I toast Alize’s glass: “I know it’s rude and Corona, but I could put a splash of mine in yours.” Oh no. She’s looking horrified. “Sorry. I’ve had so much…” I just let it all fall flat.
“I’ve had quite enough myself. And I have to drive home to my place in Bayonne tonight.”
“Oh, no you don’t. You will finally lose your license. The streets will be teeming with flics tonight. You’re staying over with me.” Her tone is an order. Alize nods dutifully. “I’m saving Alize from herself. She’s already been stopped a couple of times. I don’t drive anymore myself. Can’t stand the chaos.”
“Or the chaos can’t stand you, ma belle. Traffic is nasty here in Biarritz-Bayonne. Too many people who think they’re entitled, I suppose.” She’s saying this last bit to me. Léonie is smiling. And then she perks up.
“You can’t go to Toulouse, Monsieur. What will you eat? You should stay here a few days more. Between Alize and my cook, we’ll feed you. And you’ll get to know Biarritz beneath the surface.” She winks.
“The food in Toulouse is great. I love cassoulet. Not to mention the foie gras. Those are just staples. Toulouse has amazing food.”
“Did we say Toulouse did not have amazing food?” Alize is speaking for both of them. They’re confronting me.
“No. No, you didn’t. Not exactly anyway.”
Slowly, very slowly but surely people are starting to drift away from the bar and towards the door. Mademoiselle has reappeared and opened the door. She’s probably guarding it too, but I can’t see anyone outside trying to get in.
So these two women, these complete strangers, are offering to feed me if I extend my stay? Do they think I can’t afford to eat out?
Well, it’s very generous, very. A bit weird. I know I’m looking them over again for details of criminal intent. Right. Kidnapping me. You silly jackass. But no. What makes me uneasy really is that I don’t know them. And I don’t know if I want to know them that much better. It was fun to watch them separately and now together from afar, but I don’t think I ever wanted to meet them.
But of course now I have.
Which doesn’t mean I have to get to know them better, spend time with them. Am I that interested? Well, not interested but curious? But I am curious about Biarritz, which is why I came in the first place. So voilà! A chance of a lifetime. You’re not going to marry either of them. Fucking A. They’re generous. They’re fun company so far. What’s a few days? I’ll be staying in the hotel, that is, if they have a room for a night or two more, preferably the one I’m in. I’d have to change my train reservation. Luckily my Toulouse hotel has a cancellation possibility or…
“So you accept our hospitality?” Alize gives a sharp tone to this question. I’m meant to feel just a wee bit outrageous, decidedly foolish, maybe even offensive but she’ll forgive me. She suddenly purses her lips and then glances at Léonie. Léonie, on cue, lets out a sigh I can hear over the noise at the bar, although that noise has dampened down. The music is off, for one.
“I’m overwhelmed by your generosity. We hardly know each other. You’re like good Samaritans.”
“That’s exactly what we are! Not that either of us are religious, mind you. Alize is an out and out atheist. I prefer to skip the question. Why do we need religion? I know perfectly well how to act decently on my own. Still, I need to attend Mass a few times a year. It’s expected. Someone has to. You can’t let the cathedral go empty for Midnight Mass, now can you? All that wasted burned beeswax? I do have that title. It’s expected. Plus I love a nice Réveillon de Noël. I usually do it myself, now that I’ve found Jordí. I kidnapped him from San Sebastián ten years ago.”
“Not literally.” Alize adds. Has she read my mind, my earlier silly kidnapping fantasy?
“You’re both very generous.” I’m repeating myself. I’m sounding wooden, as if about to refuse. Am going to refuse? “It sounds like a wonderful idea to me. I’m a bit stunned. Have I said it? Thank you. I accept with…” I’m ready to say “all my heart.” “Great pleasure. But I have to do something in return.” That popped out! What can I do for them in return? “How about a bottle of Krug?”
Léonie blinks. I’ve confused her. “I do love Krug, but I don’t know if the shops will be open.”
“Oh, which reminds me. I have a reservation tomorrow at the restaurant where I saw you today… with your friends at lunch.”
“Oh? But that will be impossible.” She looks alarmed, downright shocked.
“You didn’t know? I was surprised myself, but it is open for lunch on Sunday. So hard to find a place for lunch in France on a Sunday. Sunday dinner – lunch the Brits would say. But I made the reservation today before leaving. I’d seen they were open on Google. Lucky for me that they had a place. It’s not easy to get a reservation for one…”
She is slack-jawed. I glance at Alize. She looks upset, confused. What’s so strange about what I said? They stare at me like twin somethings – like a double-barreled shotgun. I can’t help the nervous giggle that comes out of me. “What?” I know that sounds lame and even a bit childish. I add a little laugh to it, to smooth the clumsiness over.
“Everything is closing.” Léonie’s voice is over-the-top funereal, but I don’t lose my cool and giggle again.
“Everything.” Alize is adumbrating.
I go to glance at my wrist and then remember and pull my iPhone out of my pocket. “Right. It’s after midnight. Seems like a kind of early closing time for a Saturday night but then… What do I know about Biarritz?” I shrug. This makes them look more than shocked, alarmed.
“You didn’t hear the Premier Ministre?” It’s Alize. She has this look on her face now that indicates she’s figured something out.
“No.” They’re waiting for more. “Remember, I told you I was reading Proust.” This sounds hilarious to me even as I’m saying it. “I rarely if ever turn on the TV in a hotel room. Part of the joy of traveling to a new place is freeing oneself from the tyranny of the news.” I’m sounding pompous. “Well, actually I keep tabs on my iPhone.” I’m not going to be so gross as to add: in the morning when I get up and have a… which is what I do. While I wait.
Alize is giving me a harsh look now. Has she read the blanks, my potty thoughts right now, pictured the horror of it, like Trump tweeting on the toilet?
Léonie eyes Alize as she takes a deep breath and launches. “As of midnight all restaurants and cafés and bars in all France are shut until further notice.”
I burst out laughing.
“That’s ridiculous. How are people traveling going to get something to eat and drink?” Which is when Alize and Léonie shrug in tandem and then smile broadly at me.
“Oh.” There is still some champagne in my glass. I down it.
Luckily I’ve left my iPhone on the bedside table and charging. Light is filtering through the curtains. I grab it and press: Ten. That would be in the morning. What time did the veilleur de nuit, the night desk clerk say? Oh shit. I have a half hour to get down there and have breakfast: a café au lait and hopefully a croissant. He said that the boulangerie would be open. Food shops and supermarkets were still open. I quickly picture myself rummaging the Carrefour for stuff for lunch and dinner in my room, until I remember that I was in the safe foodie hands of Léonie and Alize. Lucky devil. And the night clerk had also checked the register on the computer, and I think he’d said that I could stay in my room for another few nights? The season was slow, he’d smiled. I’d then mumbled something about the sudden madness of the shutdown, the lockdown (I wasn’t locked down, was I? I could still take the train out of here and home, right?). He’d shrugged and grinned. “Bonne nuit, Monsieur.”
What was that line from Tennessee Williams? “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Blanche DuBois. Such a lovely line. Oh gods.
I can hear myself laughing softly in this empty room, no witnesses, my bedroom.