Is it a blog or a novel?
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.
Get up. Open the curtains. Put something on – last night’s clothes lying there on the chair where I’d dropped them last night – and go downstairs. Did I at least brush my teeth before falling into bed? I think so. Can’t tell now.
One thing about me and champagne: rarely if ever a hangover.
I stand up. Well, a little thick in the head there, a little dizzy. Deep breath. Much better. Clothes. Outta here.
There’s no one in the breakfast room cum bar/lounge. The woman at the desk has rushed after me into the kitchen. There’s a multi-choice coffeemaker. I do a cappuccino and find a seat, one near the window. As I sit down, she rushes out with a lone croissant. “Voilà, Monsieur. Je l’ai mis à côté pour vous, Monsieur.” I give her an effusive Merci Madame. She has been kind. And then she brings up my room request. Basically no problem. She betrays a bit of desperation. And then people are at the desk, so she rushes back to her post.
People are checking out. But are they clearing out? I can hear a Brit accent out there. Well, probably foreigners are. I haven’t met any of my fellow guests, so have no idea of the national makeup. It is off-season, so the hotel isn’t full up as it would be in summer, for sure.
A sip. A bit too hot. These machines make scalding coffee. I tear off an end of the croissant and pop it in my mouth. Oh, very nice croissant, perfectly light and buttery. Shame there’s only one. But it’s my fault. And so attentive of her to save one for me. I am grateful. She is lovely. And Léonie. She said she’d come by to pick me up at noontime. I guess it would all be on foot. She implied her place was within walking distance. I look out to a gray day. March. The view is on the square, but there are very few people out crossing it. Did the Prime Minister also call for a lockdown, as in, stay inside? I don’t think so. Otherwise how could Léonie come after me?
Real sip of cappu. Oh great! I can almost instantly feel a shot of caffeine, which I sorely need.
Oh shit! I get halfway up so I can pull my iPhone out of my pocket – the pocket where I’d normally have my house keys. I hit the SNFC app, OUISNCF. I am ripped through, from head to throat to gut, with anxiety. I put in for a train to Paris on Wednesday. Voilà! Oh yippee. There are still all the usual trains. Delete. Now to Toulouse on Wednesday. And there’s the train I’ve booked. But didn’t Léonie tell me there’d be no restaurants open in Toulouse? Yes. So there’s no point. I need to call the hotel, the sooner the better, and then cancel my train to Toulouse.
Done. Well, not the hotel. I’ll need to call them after I shower and shave. Time is flying. Attack this croissant. Sip this cappu.
I need to be downstairs and charming at noon.
The desk clerk is quite sweet. I wonder if she’s always like that. Probably early thirties. Professional polish. Attractive, chestnut hair in a bob, though not that doyenne kind like Léonie’s, gray wool dress, blue-and-green silk scarf from Dior. She’s probably worked at other hotels in France, but she’s just told me that she’s originally from Biarritz. If I knew Léonie’s last name – did she tell me last night? I think she did. I’m terrible with names – I could have dropped the name as the person I was waiting for, and then see her reaction. But no. I do mention Place Clemenceau to her, and her reaction is like purring: BCBG, bonne classe bon gout. It’s a good address.
Did I give Léonie my full name? I must have. Must have. You don’t invite strangers to lunch on a first-name basis. Why can’t I remember hers? How am I going to find out now without being embarrassing? I think maybe that in the heat of the champagne we did not exchange last names. Last names require an awkward formality, a kind of pause in the bonhomie (we were all three just “guys” like kids these days say, okay, guys, when half the group are women): I remember no such moment. So Léonie is picking me up here without even knowing my full name?
I will sit her down.
I’m checking Fucking Facebook, which is its cognomen these days and which you do when idle, as I sense a presence approaching. I look up. Léonie launches a broad smile in my direction as she crosses to where I’m sitting in the little lounge area between the door and the front desk. “Bonjour Monsieur!” Her tone is jaunty, but a bit ironic. I like this new twist to her persona. I grin back. “Sleep well?” She is wearing a Burberry’s trench coat, belt cinched and tied, and a deep purple silk scarf wrapped high under her neck. Her cheeks are slightly ruddy. It must be a bit chilly outside then. She’s wearing sneakers! Somehow I imagined her always in high heels. How wrong you can be. Still, her group at lunch yesterday were dressed to kill: All the women wore high heels. Or did they? Did you check out their feet under the table?
I move over a bit, a gesture that she should sit down, although there’s plenty of space on the couch. My face is stretched wide in a smile; I am charmed at her presence. She sits down. “I did. I’m sure that without your generosity I’d have had nightmares. By the way…” I reach out my hand and give her my full name. She grips my fingertips gently.
“Léonie, which you know… and it’s de Boyard. Alize, Alize Etxeberri. Etxeberri means new house in Basque, but her family is a very old one.” She sees me frowning at trying to picture how that’s spelled. “In French it’s just Echeberry.” She spells the French.
“Like Berrichon.” Why did that pop out? Because I once knew someone who kept referring to himself as a simple Berrichon, when actually he was a Parisian film editor. She looks at me oddly but smiles. “Did Alize sleep well?” I’m being a bit cheeky asking. Implying that she was drunker than we were. Well, Léonie had insisted she not take to the wheel.
“Oh, Alize always sleeps like a… log. Un pieu. She is used to staying over at my place. She wanted to come with me to pick you up, but I insisted she stay and help Jordí out and set the table. I was quite bossy.” She bursts out laughing. I join in softly. Now they are sounding more like an old lesbian couple. Maybe I was right. Again, though, I remember the muscly man. “But you should know it’s not always me bossy. I often spend time at her farm near Espelette. Lovely place. She keeps meadows full of sheep, does it all herself. And then she bosses me around. Good for me.”
A rush of air and steps. I turn to look up at the desk clerk. She is smiling at Léonie as she approaches. “Bonjour Madame Boyard. Vous ne venez pas voir les comptes, j’espère ou…” She stops. I note that she hasn’t used the noble particule. Boyard, not de Boyard. And they know each other. She’s referring to the hotel’s books, for chrissakes! Does Léonie own this hotel?
Léonie explains quickly that she has come to take me under her wing. The desk clerk smiles and is deferential, though not smarmily so. Of course someone must own the hotel. It’s not part of a chain, which was one reason I booked it. Plus it had history in Biarritz. So I am to be taken in hand by the proprietor. What else does Léonie own or manage in Biarritz? This is taking bien tomber, falling well, to new heights of lucky devil. And she seems like fun to boot.
Léonie stands up. “Shall we go? It’s a nice walk, mostly downhill. You must have noticed that Biarritz can be steep.”
I get up and stretch as invisibly as I can. I note that Léonie just bounds up. She’s a walker, evidently, and she’s right, Biarritz can have some steep climbs. “The street up to the restaurant yesterday was quite a surprise.” I will not say I arrived panting. She just smiles and then shrugs, that Gallic shrug. “Keeps you fit.”
“We should go.” I can’t read her face, because she’s turned and is heading for the door. A bit abrupt. At first I follow her and then overtake her so I can hold the door open for her. “Merci, Monsieur.” She doesn’t seem at all surprised. Matter of fact. Expected. And what if I hadn’t? What if I’d continued following in her wake? I sense that no way would she have paused and waited for me to get the door for her. She’d have barged out, probably not even worrying about the door slamming on me, expecting me to fend for myself. But then I don’t know that.
It’s chilly outside. Overcoat feels good around my knees. I can smell the sea. Wind is from the west then. Since it’s high noon, the sun is overhead and bright when not cut short by the occasional cloud. The square is not deserted. In fact, it’s now bubbling with people carrying packages of food and drink. I can see as we cross that the covered market is teeming. So Monsieur le Premier Ministre has not closed down the food markets yet. Still, I would have been in a nasty position food-wise with no kitchen, etc. There’s a feel of celebration in the air. Is that how it always is on Sunday at noon market time? To an extent, yes, from my memory of French cities, but there is a tinge of the manic I’m picking up here as if… “The market is still open.”
“For now,” says Léonie.
“They’ll let the supermarkets stay open, certainly. People won’t be left to starve.” She says that but doesn’t sound too convinced. I pause to peer into the market to see if most stalls are open, but she keeps on moving. I’m trailing her again.
The stalls look all open from outside the covered market. I can make out the café restaurant from last night: it’s decidedly closed. Dead looking. Makes me feel uneasy, a bit queasy. I turn to catch up with Léonie. She’s moving along but not at an abnormal pace. A few long strides and I can catch up with her. But I don’t want to. Suddenly I don’t know what I’m doing with her. Who is she? What does she want from me? I could call after her and say I’ve changed my mind, that I’m going back to my room and pack, that I’ll get the first train to Bordeaux and then Paris. What am I doing here after all? The whole trip has exploded in my face. Get out! Get out! Before worse happens. While you can.
And then I feel an emptiness in the pit of my stomach. I feel so empty I feel like laughing. I’m starving. This woman is taking me to her home for Sunday lunch. Are you crazy?
She seems to be slowing, realizing that I’m not on her heels. Her trench coat is tightly cinched. She does have an older woman’s behind, but it’s not gross. Who cares? I catch up with her. “Sorry. I was looking at what was going on in the market. Looks normal. Our restaurant from last night is shut.” I’m now right alongside her. She turns to smile and then shrug.
“On ne peut pas nous priver de nos repas de dimanche quand même!” She lets out a nice laugh. Of course not. The Sunday lunch is sacrosanct. That’s why it’s usually so hard to find a restaurant open. “This was Vichy France during the Occupation. Nothing changed, my parents told me. They meant eating and drinking.”
“Ah!” I do that, hoping she’ll tell me more. I’m always curious about life under the Nazis. How banal it could become. People get used to anything. Instead, she heads in a direction, downwards, on a street I didn’t expect. I’m having to catch up again, my hands pushed down in my coat pockets, partly because they’d felt cold. And then she pauses just a bit to take my arm. I’m suddenly escorting her. We are a couple.
I’m expecting a steep walk, but no. I don’t exactly have the map of Biarritz in my head, but we seem to be walking, once we’re slightly down from the square in front of the hotel, on a fairly level sidewalk. It’s a shopping street. This part is pedestrian only, beautifully and smoothly cobbled. The buildings are modern looking, most of them white. And then I look down a side street to my left and see the sea gleaming at the end of it. We are walking along a geological ridge. The sea is somewhere down below us. Now we emerge into a long lozenge of a square, trees planted and carefully spaced. The center looks newly renovated in general, paved, trees and vegetation. I’d seen postcards of the old Biarritz, daguerreotypes and later, 1890s or so, and Biarritz didn’t look like this. Of course there were horse and carriages, few cars; people walked in the streets. Oh, there’s a branch of Galerie Lafayette! Looks much the same as the Paris one, similar architecture. So this is not really a residential neighborhood. And then I see the buildings, the old grand apartment buildings. They are red brick trimmed in limestone or some similar stone. Style is like the ancient Place des Vosges in the Marais in Paris. Seventeenth century. Henri IV? Something like that. I obviously won’t stop and Google it now.
But I do say: “Looks like something from the Place des Vosges.” We’re still walking, her arm tucked in mine. She stops.
“But that’s the thing. The Empress loved that style. Her palace was built in that style. So all these old apartment buildings copied her, of course. No Eugénie, no Biarritz as we know it.”
“I do know that.” She’s started up again (she’s the one leading even though she has her hand tucked under my elbow). She’s heading right for that building. Oh nice. I wanted to see it closer up. And I notice that it’s just one, with others just like it running down a side street toward the sea front.
“So.” She stops and detaches from my arm. “Here we are.”
“Oh!” I just say that. Can’t think of anything else to say. She lives in one of the original nineteenth-century buildings. Fantasy of mine come true. Léonie de Boyard.
“You’re surprised? It’s just a short walk to your hotel. About five minutes.” I go to look at my wrist again, still one of Pavlov’s dogs. No, I’m not going to pull out my iPhone to check. And then I watch how, just like Paris, she taps in a door code, presses a button, and the door opens.
I follow her and push the door shut. A light goes on. She’s hit the minuterie, that French light-timer device. I could be in Paris. And there is a grand semi-circular staircase, looking like white marble, a red and gold runner going up the middle, pilasters of stone urns wrapped in grapevines. Again I could be in a Haussmann apartment building in Paris. Nestled in the curve of the staircase is a wrought-iron cage elevator, polished dark wood interior exposed. I love it. I head that way and realize that Léonie is taking the stairs. Okay. “J’habite la première étage. Take your time.” She bounds up the stairs like someone who could do it blind. Of course. The first floor is the étage noble, the one with the highest ceilings, lofty windows. Now that I think of it, funny that there’s an elevator at all. There are only two more stories, and both are in the mansard: a big mansard and a smaller one on top of that. I’d seen that it wasn’t a tall building, so not Haussmann really at all. And Haussmann didn’t do brick with limestone trim. I wonder why? Haussmann was Second Empire, no? Paris would look totally different if he’d had the Empress’s taste: all Place des Vosges.
Unlike Léonie I go up the stairs with one hand on the balustrade, not gripping it, just to steady a climb on strange stairs. She’s already opened one side of the double doors and is standing waiting for me. I’m not exactly panting when I reach her, but I feel my heart working. Thump-thump. Hats off, Léonie. You’re in better shape than I am.
What’s that funny little smile around the corners of her mouth? She turns and goes in. I follow. And I’m in a dark anteroom of some kind. No time to make out; if there are lights, she hasn’t bothered to switch them on, because she’s made a sharp left in a hallway that’s a little more visible. Walls painted or papered deep oxblood. Small framed pictures on the walls: watercolors? Whoa! She’s in a hurry.
A shaft of light pours in at the end of the hallway, and she steps into it. “Et voilà, Monsieur!” Her arm goes out. I’m supposed to go first? Yes, I am. When I step into the light, I catch laughter in her eyes. And then I turn in the direction she’s pointed. And… good grief!
“Léonie!” I’m entering a vast room, ceiling meters and meters high, huge tall windows with sashed brocaded curtains, divans, Recamiers, round inlaid tables of mahogany and ebony, elaborate sconces poking out of the walls, two massive crystal chandeliers. I can’t even begin to take stock. “This is a museum.”
“It’s the grand salon. We’ve kept it intact. Cleaned, restored, but untouched since the 1860s. This is your Second Empire. The Empress would have felt quite at home.” Léonie doesn’t bother with false modesty. She’s stretched out both arms to embrace the glory and munificence of this room. I wonder who “we” is but don’t ask. I take that stretching out of arms as an invitation to enter and walk around this magnificent room. Well, I’ve been to Versailles. Visited. You can walk around those rooms. But this was something quite different. I’d always thought Second Empire was crowded and florid. Well, not with a space as lofty and expansive as this. And the furnishings, gorgeous and rather classic in a Sun King kind of way. “On a faim, Monsieur!” She bellows this at me. We’re starving… Huge grin. Sure. I can feel my stomach growling. That croissant is long, long digested. Definitely time for lunch.
“Can I… sit on this furniture? That Recamier for instance?” I don’t expect it, but she smiles and nods. Now that’s something you can never do in a museum. I approach the chaise longue with a kind of awe and then turn and gently sit down on it. I don’t dare put my legs up, not all the way, but enough to sit back in it. And then I look up. The ceiling is decorated, painted, no putti – this is not the Vatican – but modernized versions of classical gods and goddesses. Daphnis and Chloe would be happy gamboling about up there. And the comfort. This Recamier is extremely comfortable. “This furniture is meant to be enjoyed.”
“Absolutely. In the season my ancestor gave her salons. You know people would come down from Paris. What the Brits call the Great and the Good. But she favored artists, musicians. Especially musicians who would play for everyone, composers who would give you their latest sketch.”
“Straight out of Proust.”
“Indeed. He is quite accurate. You know that. I seem to remember Cocteau lounging around in this room, when I was a very little girl.” She emphasizes the “very.” Of course. But when did Cocteau die? She sort of answers me. “He was very old, a very old wispy man. It was the late fifties.” She’s standing there lost in thought. How I’d love to be in that head and see those old memories! “Come on now. Let’s not make the chef annoyed with us.”
“Heaven forbid.” I get up, stifling the groan I normally make when on my own. Funny the little comforting noises you make for yourself, noises that make you laugh. Oh well. Chipper, it is.
“Oh! Silly me. We need to hang up our coats. I was so eager to… surprise you. We’ve got to go back. I’ll put on the lights this time.” She’s laughing. “Silly me.”
I take off my overcoat as I follow her.
She’s ahead of me as usual and has turned on the lights in the vestibule. “Oh, Léonie, these are marvelous watercolors. But…” Nothing 1880s about them. Not even Impressionist. Abstract mostly, though some are figurative, landscapes but wild colors, nice washes… “These don’t look nineteenth century. They look contemporary maybe? Who did these?”
“Me.” She points to where I can hang up my coat, a proper coatrack with nice wooden coat hangers, the kind you see in fancy men’s stores. Dark wood. She’s turned towards the coatrack, but as I move forward to take a coat hanger, she turns. No expression. I’d have thought a little smile?
“You are an amazing artist.” I hang up my overcoat and turn. She’s right in my face. A glint in her eye now.
“I do it for me.” I’m about to say… “I’m not interested in showing my work. Not at all. I’m too much in the limelight here as it is.”
“Oh.” Silence. What can I add? I can see her point. Suddenly the old term noblesse oblige takes on a nasty twist. If she’s going to live here, she must obey the rules, the special rules for her social station. Obviously she’s accept this but…
“Come on, love.” She pokes me on the shoulder. “On a faim!” I laugh. Love! She’s a real card, this Léonie. I try to think of something equivalent in French, a way of joking, but can’t think of anything. Too late anyway. She’s back walking swiftly through the grand salon.
“J’arrive. J’arrive!” Okay that’s sort of funny. And she gives me a little laugh but doesn’t let up. Okay. If only she could read my mind. Sounds like some squeal from a porno movie: “I’m coming. I’m coming.”
I catch up with her, and we’re now in a hallway. We’ve turned right. Funny. I thought I’d figured out what they floor plan of this apartment was. I saw the outside of the building and.. But now I have no clue. But this hallway is not long but ends abruptly. Oh. There’s double doors now on the left. She steps ahead and opens both of them rather grandly. Whoosh!
Dining room. Magnificent dining room. Large. Chandeliers. Painted wallpaper full of tropical plants and birds. A carved marble fireplace at one end of the room; the other, a great floor to near ceiling double-window opening on a shallow balcony fenced in by curlicues of black wrought iron, so typical of those Haussmann-type apartment buildings everywhere in France. A long mahogany dining table with placemats of, I think, white linen. I bet the dining table can be extended… The table has been set with two knives, two forks to each side of small white porcelain plate set on a slightly larger black porcelain plate. A dessertspoon and fork topside. A simple white wine glass and a great goblet of a red wine glass. Set for a feast. Am I salivating? And the table is set for four. Who’s the fourth?
From a distance behind closed doors: “J’arrive!” And double swinging doors explode outwards into the room and from them emerges Alize. “Bonjour, Monsieur. Vous avez bien dormi? Pas de soucis? No worries now. You can see that you are in good hands with the good Léonie.” Did she have a change of clothes here? She is stunningly dressed in a puffy white silk blouse and black velvet trousers, timeless. Matching her face, those black eyebrows and silver gray hair pulled back in a kind of ponytail. Her eyes are sparkling at me. Léonie starts laughing. Alize joins in. What can I do but laugh with them? I don’t know what’s particularly funny, but I’m always good for a laugh. “Quite smart of you in that blazer.” Alize comes out from the other side of the table as if she’s going to get up close and have a feel. Instead, she just joins Léonie. Tweedledee, Tweedledum, I’m thinking. But no. They’re statuesque and handsome women. Glad I had enough sense to wear the blazer. But I’ll probably have to take it off at some point. Already I’m feeling a bit warm. I wonder where the heating is coming from? I don’t see radiators.
“Merci, Alize.” Are we going to speak French or English?
“Alize loves complementing men. They usually get all flustered,” says Léonie answering my unasked question.
“Well, you don’t look flustered, Monsieur.” I shrug and smile back. “You’re a gentleman used to dressing well, I think, no?” Oh, she’s going for me, going for the fluster.
“At a certain point in life it’s wise to travel with a blazer in your bag. I never where one at home.” I’m going to add that I’m never out of cargo pants either but stop in time. No need to go into all that. I’ve got my phone in the left pocket of the blazer. How will I know what time it is when eventually I take it off and drape it on the back of the chair? These are traditional mahogany straight-backed dining chairs. Oh well. I’m with these ladies. It’s all timeless. As Alize said, I’m in their hands. Time? Who cares?
Which reminds me of that Sunday dinner I was invited to in Mâcon by the parents of one of my students. Picked me up at the Lycée in their deux-chevaux. They were not exactly peasants but had a small vineyard. Their one-story bungalow was in the middle of it. But it was brand new. They were very proud. Wine selling well now. They were ascending to the bourgeoisie. Still, very kind and generous and simple people. Liked them immediately. My French was still, if not in its infancy, not exactly mature. But I wasn’t expected to tell anecdotes or anything. I was meant to be entertained and well fed. I remember an amazing bottle of Saint Amour, which I already new was a Beaujolais. It’s the moment when I learned how a red wine could be deliciously peppery. Funny that he started with that. Later we would have one of his bottles, a very hearty Mâconnais. We sat first in the salon for an apéritif. I couldn’t quite understand what Monsieur was saying or what he called it, but I gathered it was a local white wine, sweet. It was great. There were little white cracker bits to nibble. And then it was up, glass in hand, to the dining room. Style rustique. Rustic modern: I’d run into it all over France in simple households after that. I was told where to sit. I sat down and suddenly Madame appeared with a huge platter of charcuterie. Cold cuts as Americans like to say. Well. Yes, cold but… I didn’t ask. I just sampled every single kind. And they beamed. A skinny kid has a good appetite. One of them, which I now know is tête de veau got me a little squeamish. It was obviously tripe stuff. Never had had trip either but knew what it might taste like. Those odd innards from, okay, bowels. I’m still a bit squeamish about the provenance but am now a huge fan. And then next came… what? Can’t remember. What I do remember was that there were about twenty kinds of cheese: another learning experience. And then a cake thing with Grand Marnier. We sat back. And then I learned about Marc de Bourgogne. Monsieur did most of the talking, punctuated by Madame. My pupil would smile and then blush and then… but never looked me in the eye. My French was good for complimenting everything. And I had to listen carefully. Monsieur had a bit of a burr to his local accent. I pretended I understood everything, laughed on cue when he laughed. It was slowly getting dark. The dining room had French doors going out to a terrace. Madame got up suddenly and switched on small lights. There was a chandelier, modern stems and lights, no crystal, over the table, but fortunately she did not put that on. Not yet anyway. I had a wristwatch back then. Everyone did. I remember glancing at it and realizing that we’d been seated here around the table for almost five hours. Suddenly swinging doors, much like here at Léonie’s, opened up and in Madame rolled a cart with… a quiche? A bowl of salad? New plates. And she switched on the chandelier: Wake up! We had spent only an hour or so around the table not eating. And now we started in again. Monsieur saw my surprise. I wouldn’t get my supper when back at the Lycée. It would be too late.
Funnily enough I tucked in, as the Brits say, and, well, the quiche was delicious. Whoa! I could never do that today.
Oh no! Was this going to be like…?
“Sit down now. You there.” She pointed at me and a chair, head of the table, facing the windows onto the little balcony. I went to it and stood. She didn’t direct Alize. Alize evidently had her place and it was opposite me. Léonie took the place opposite the double swinging doors with the fireplace behind her. Seamlessly she pulled the chair out and sat down as did Alize, synchronized. I moved quickly to sit down myself and then remembered.
“I’m going to take off my blazer, if you don’t mind. It’s not cold in here.” Léonie nods immediately and then both of them watch me as I take off the blazer and hang it on the back of the chair. I can feel their eyes on me. I’m looking studiously at what I’m doing, hoping I’m choreographing it all correctly. I glance over at Alize before pulling the chair out and sitting down. She is beaming at me.
“A nice black shirt suits a gentleman,” she states. It also hides paunch a bit. Anyway.
So now we’re seated and ready. The play can now begin. And – this is crazy – the swinging doors part and in steps a middle-sized man, maybe late thirties, all in black, carrying a massive tray. L’entrée!
He sets it down, leaning out, his arms tensed. I can make out triceps. Oh, shit, is this the muscly man from Bayonne? I never saw his face, just the back of his head. I look at the tray. I’m about to exclaim: “Pinxtos!” But I don’t have time. The “muscly man” does that himself with an air of triumph and then a deep, hearty laugh. He pulls out the free chair and sits down, no nonsense, and beams at the women and then with a bit of reticence at me. “Monsieur, this is my chef, Jordí. He speaks Spanish and Basque.” Jordí nods at his introduction to me. I nod back with what I hope is a very gracious look on my face. Seems to be enough. He turns back toward Léonie, waiting for her to continue. Does he understand her English? She gives him a smile and turns to me. “He can follow us in English. English is a bit clearer for the ear, n’est-ce pas. He’s working on his French but… You know the expression, ‘il parle français comme une vache espagnole?’ It actually was or should have been ‘comme un Basque espagnol.’
I chuckle that I do. Jordí turns towards me with a sly grin and shrugs. He’s amazingly good-looking. Whoa! His eyes are twinkling blue at me. His hair is sandy colored. Alize’s eyes are coal black. Who are Basques? Obviously they don’t all look alike. But didn’t Léonie tell me that she’d “imported” him from Spain, from San Sebastián? Her toy boy? And then I look at the array of spectacular pinxtos. There is also a corner of ham, no doubt Bayonne ham, but the pintxos are extremely innovative. Bits of different kinds of fish, shrimp, maybe lobster. Egg. Red peppers (I’m thinking now of Alize and her farm near Espelette). Octopus. Squid. Is that some sliver of smoked duck? And foie gras? There is one with this iridescent green foam. One thing: there are four of every kind. We’re meant to all have a taste of Jordí’s culinary expertise. I notice that it’s not just me doing the feast for the eyes thing. And Jordí is sitting back, his chest inflated with pride. Suddenly he jumps up with a grin and sparkle of those blue eyes: “Txakoli!” And he’s gone, back through the double-hinged doors. For just a minute. Not enough time to even make eye contact with Léonie to show my amazement and appreciation. Back, he plunges a corkscrew into a long necked bottle and pop! Is he going to…? Yes. He raises the bottle high over, first, my white wine glass and fills it from a height. It fizzes. He does not spill a drop. Next comes Léonie’s glass, and then Alize’s, and, last, his own. I discovered Txakoli in San Sebastián. It’s a young white wine, a bit acidic, not too alcoholic but goes right to the head, due to the fizz I guess. His pouring expertise deserves applause. Will I? I do. I clap, and he turns and nods at me. Alize bursts out laughing. And then she claps a few times, mainly for me, it looks like. She’s smiling at me then. She’s not paying much attention to Jordí. Odd. She seemed about to eat him alive in Bayonne. So I figure it was discretion. Jordí lived here, didn’t he? Was he Léonie’s… well, bed partner? I’m not thinking toy boy anymore. Jordí is an accomplished chef. When can we go for the platter?
As if reading my mind: “Bon appétit!” There’s a large serving spoon and a large fork, both silver, and she hands them to me. Okay. I’m the guest.
“Merci, Madame.” I take them and then look at the platter to decide which to start with. Too much choice.
“Merci Léonie, please. Being called Madame ages me. Unless you’re thinking of it as the older woman keeping a brothel.” She pauses and then chuckles.
“Merci, Léonie.” I’m not going to go for the bait. I take four pinxtos at random and then a slice of ham, and pass the fork and spoon back to Léonie, who then passes them to Alize. Alize quickly takes six, no ham, and then passes them to Jordí.
“Ah, mais non!” That was spontaneous French. He hands them to Léonie who doesn’t hesitate. She takes six too and passes them back to Jordí. Jordí watches as we all start eating. He’s looking at my reaction. I’ve taken the foie gras one first. Creamy! There’s a touch of old balsamico splashed on it, and something else, so touch of compote, a fruit I can’t quite place, and it sits on a crispy wafer of… cheese? Some of that local sheep cheese? Whatever. It’s scrumptious. I hear a little growl of pleasure from Jordí – as he’s seen my reaction – and then he starts in himself.
In minutes he’s back up on his feet refilling our glasses with Txakoli, from a height, and still not spilling a drop. As he leans toward me I can smell a strong scent. Good grief, is that patchouli? Patchouli. Patchouli.
I’m back in New York City. East Village. A tenement with a bathtub in the kitchen. All sitting around on the floor on cushions. The Doors playing? Passing a joint. Patchouli. I wasn’t wearing any, but everyone else was. I was visiting. The girls drank all this herbal tea. The guys? I guess they drank coke? Don’t remember. Didn’t drink tea.
Could patchouli be back? I’ve lived too long.
No I haven’t. These pinxtos are umami taste treats, each and everyone. I finish the last one with a courgette base, slivers of shrimp, egg, an anchovy, aioli? But subtler. The others have devoured all of theirs. Jordí jumps up, seized all for entrée plates, and goes through the doors, back to what must be an amazing kitchen. I’ll ask to see it later.
“Jordí is a man of few words. Great chef. And…”
“If you spoke Spanish or Basque, you’d find he has lots of things to say. He’s quite the fiery nationalist,” says Léonie. She glances at Alize. Alize nods. I wait for more, but she has nothing more to say, though I feel she has lots she could say. Just a feeling. She’s been very quiet so far.
But then: “You’re about to taste something special. Agneau au lait des Pyrénées. It’s from my own farm.” Alize has a sparkle in her eye. Pride. Can’t help wondering if she butchered the baby lamb herself? She’s opening her mouth as if she might actually explain all that, but then shuts it again. Is she reading my thoughts? No. It would be normal to wonder, since it’s from her own farm. I don’t want to know. No. So, thanks, Alize, for that second thought. I bet Jordí did the deed.
And then it hits me that maybe he’s some kind of terrorist, hiding out in France? Except I remember reading that they arrested the “last” one, so said the media. The Basque Liberation people had made peace. Oh, way back. At least a decade, I think. But I really don’t know. I have a feeling that they would discuss the whole thing with me if I asked. “Fiery nationalist” was a real conversation trigger.
I really don’t want to know. In fact, I’m feeling that weirdness again, like I felt as we were walking past the covered market. Who are these people really?
I hear a kick. Jordí has opened the door and is now carrying a large platter with a small leg of lamb in the center of it. He sets it down in front of where his dinner plate is. “Voilà!” He beams down at it and then up and around at all of us, one by one, pausing to give me a special nod. But this couldn’t have been made in my honor. They didn’t know I existed until last night.
“This,” I snap my head away from the leg of lamb to Alize, “is one of four. I sell the remaining lambs.” I think she thinks that because the animal has four legs that there are four legs of lamb. I don’t think so. Aren’t the front legs called something else?
“We have a different name for the front legs: jarret d’agneau,” Léonie winks at me. She’s read my mind again. “This is a true gigot d’agneau. A hind leg.” Jordí clears his throat. Is he bored because he doesn’t follow what we’re saying? No. He places both hands on the edge of the table, ready to stand. “S’il te plait!” says Léonie, and he rises to his feet and takes hold of the fork and carving knife. Then he stops.
“Mais le monsieur?” he looks toward me. Me? Me carve the leg of lamb? Is that it? Is this meant as an honor? I’d take it as an ordeal. I smile back and shake my head. Ah, he looks relieved and starts carving.
It’s this Sunday lunch thing. Bourgeois. The pater familias stands to carve the roast. Head of the family. Head of the table. Oops! I guess I am sort of at the head of the table, opposite Alize. Anyway. He’s quite a master with the knife. Beautiful thin slices are piling up all around the leg. Perfectly pink. One solid color from outside to in. How do you do that? Never quite mastered it myself. There’s a trick, I know.
Alize stands up and heads toward the swinging doors and is gone. Only for a minute. She’s back with a platter of veggies. Oh, it’s not Basque at all. There’s a mound of flageolets, the traditional green kidney-like beans. Drenched in butter. Some whole baby carrots. Some whole baby leeks. And there’s a sauceboat. I bet that’s where the specialty of the chef comes in.
Jordí is done. The entire leg is sliced up except for a part fore and aft. The leg is like a boat or a harp now. He looks toward Léonie for instruction. She makes a nod toward me. I sit back with pleasure as I’m served.
I don’t know what I was expecting. It was a very, very traditional French Sunday lunch. Although when it came to the bottle of Bordeaux, it was out of the ordinary. Cru Bourgeois. A Moulis en Medoc. I was served by Jordí, but I noticed the year was 2005. Didn’t quite get the château name. I was a guest. A guest who barely knows his hosts. Discretion. I normally would have grabbed the bottle and examined it once I’d had a taste. It was out of this world. Quietly I just vibrated on it. Beautiful lamb. Lovely taste. I’d heard of the lamb from the Pyrénées but never tasted it before. Was it one from Alize’s farm? Slaughtered for us, poor baby? Again, so many questions. But reflexively I just spoke when spoken to. I gave them a very, very brief curriculum vitae. It wasn’t that I wanted to seem boring. Léonie must have thought I was interesting enough last night to invite me today for lunch. To sort of take me under her wing. Now she knows I’m also staying in her hotel. That’s really being under someone’s wing. But she didn’t know that last night. No, she was being generous to a stranger left in the lurch.
Anyway she wanted to hear about living in New York City in the 1970s. I could have told her I was a devotee of Andy. Andy this, Andy that. She could never check up. I could have spun great stories of life in the Velvet Underground. I just dropped that I went to Studio 54. I didn’t tell her it was just once. The other thing is I didn’t want to get into my sex life. That’s hard to do when you talk about New York in the seventies, because it was all about people’s sex lives.
I was telling the story in English. So at one point when it was obvious that Jordí was getting annoyed, she paraphrased the last thing I said in French, staring at Jordí, pokerfaced. He brightened up and burst out laughing. It was the gay bit, the one about the downtown scene in a sex club that was pushing the S&M envelope. I’d mentioned going and finding a man naked and handcuffed to the bar. Men in leather outfits would be drinking beer and, needing to pea, they would… That’s what got Jordí roaring with laughter. I was feeling my face bright red at that point. No, please, let’s not pursue this. Jordí turned his laughter in my direction, gave his handsome face a little tut-tut smirk, and then laughed some more and winked at me. Totally non-sexual. Léonie started laughing at all of us then. Alize remained very quiet, but she was smiling. And then Jordí gave my glass another splash of Bordeaux as a reward for my funny story. Funny. That’s what they all found it. Maybe they thought I was making it all up. Okay, who cares?
The cheeses were not that traditional. That was the Basque moment. Just like it had been for lunch on Saturday. The cheese platter was all from Alize. Not that she made cheeses. But she made a point of buying locally and knowing all the best cheese makers. Most of them were sheep milk. And with that unrivaled Bordeaux? Ecstasy.
Dessert was also not that typical. Jordí had made a traditional Basque lemon tarte. My hotel had that (I wonder if it was Jordí’s) available for breakfast. I’d had a slice. Saturday morning. No, his was much better. And then from Alize came a dab of local raw milk crème fraîche. Coffee was served from a pot. It was nice, but I would have loved to have a little Italian ristretto. Nope.
Suddenly I had this desire to get out of there. I was sick of sitting. I was also thinking so far, so good. Jordí got up to start clearing the table. Léonie jumped up to help him. Funny, I would have thought Alize would do that, but she never budged. Maybe it was Léonie’s turn? After all she’d said that she’d left Alize to help Jordí out with lunch preparations. So, I took the opportunity to pull my phone out of my pocket – that little half move up from the chair so I could get my hand into the pocket that was not a cargo-pants pocket – and saw it was after four o’clock. Good grief! Time had flown. Alize had told stories about how and why she’d bought the farm near Espelette. In French. At this point everyone spoke French. All for Jordí, although when he spoke, it was obvious that his French was a bit limited. But he seemed to understand everything all right. I got to show off. My French was better than his. Well, of course it was. And no one had expected that mine wasn’t à la hauteur of a native speaker. Still. I confess I did like that tiny feeling of superiority. There was Jordí, a handsome devil and accomplished chef. Now I’m thinking: very tiny feeling. Fact is, I could identify with Léonie and Alize. But Jordí was in another world. For me. That’s how I felt anyway. I felt intimidated by him.
I was on my feet when Léonie came back into the dining room. She’d looked genuinely surprised. How long did she think I would stay there then? I ignored all that and thanked them all – Jordí entered the room after her – thanked them all profusely for a fantastic lunch and such hospitality. All three smiled graciously. What to say next? That I wanted to stretch my legs? I did in fact want to stretch my legs. I wanted to walk down towards the Casino, maybe even onto the beach itself. The sun was still strong and bright. Suck some salt air into my lungs.
But I didn’t have a chance. “What are your plans for tomorrow then? We,” Léonie only glanced at Alize, “don’t want you to go hungry.”
“Why don’t we all jump in my car and go to the farm tomorrow. I’ve got to get back anyway. You have to keep on eye on lambs.” She gave me a wink at that. I laughed, couldn’t help it. She smiled back. So, she’d meant to be funny. Good. And instantly I thought it was a great idea. Would it be all three of us? “Léonie hasn’t been for a while and Jordí will get to examine my kitchen and see what he can do.” Jordí perked up, hearing his name, but had no idea what she was planning for him. Ah, she then turned to explain in – oh, gawds, that was Basque! – he grinned from ear to ear. This was a chef that liked a challenge.
And then all three of them looked at me, waiting.
“À quelle heure?” They all burst into a communal laugh: It could have been a choir. Léonie would come and get me just like she had today.
“Ten-thirty? Or is that too early.” Normally it might have been but not this time. What was I going to do with myself? Hit the town tonight?
I’m thinking that right now. Well, right now I could have a little nap. Out comes a yawn. The walk was not on the beach but on the paved esplanade. I didn’t want to get my shoes sandy. Gorgeous light. Sun had felt great on my back. There were people also walking. Distancing. We were nicely distancing. Pandemic precautions had been explained everywhere. I walked all the way to the end, which turned into a tunnel through a rocky protrusion, and then out the other side so that I was right in the shadow of Eugénie’s old palace. The hotel was closed. Its grounds were empty and locked shut. Seems the renovations had been hurried up enough to welcome the G7, but then they shuttered up again in September. Did have some guests afterwards though. Prices for rooms were steep but not insane. There’s that Monte Carlo hotel that gets five thousand euros a night? Not in that range.
Yawn. Let’s just stretch out here on top of the bed. Clothes on. Belt loosened. Another yawn. I chortle. I pull the spread down off the pillows and put one of them on top of the other so that I’m a bit propped up. I lie down and fold my hands over my tummy. Oh, fuck, I must look like a corpse lying in state. I let one hand slide onto the bed.
Lamb’s eyes. Lashes. They have eyelashes? A bell. Around its neck?
I open my eyes. The room is dusky but not pitch black. Bell ringing again. It’s an electronic kind of bell. Oh, it’s the room phone. I reach out and grab it.
“Oui?” What else does one say? Oh. The receptionist is explaining that… “Oui. Je descend maintenant?” Jordí – I assume it’s Jordí – has stopped by and left a box of pinxtos for me to nibble on. The receptionist will open a bottle of something for me. I’ll have the breakfast room to myself. So. Any time I want. I don’t have to go down now. I look at my wrist. Fuck! No idea what time it is right now from that bare skin. Oh! I’ve put my phone on the bedside table. It’s 18:20. Am I hungry? Not really. I suggest that maybe 19:30 would be good. As you wish, Monsieur. And then she mumbles that she’s not going anywhere. The night clerk will come at eleven. She’s bored. (She’s being very chatty; is it because I’m “friends” with Léonie?) Seems I’m the only one left in the hotel. That’s a spooky feeling.
The train down to Biarritz was from Bordeaux. Can’t remember much about the land, the lay of the land. Must have been mostly flat. But checking on Google Map the route you’d take from Biarritz down towards Espelette would be getting hilly if not mountainous. Pyrenees. Foothills thereof. So I’m looking forward to some interesting terrain.
I’m tearing apart an excellent big buttery croissant earlier than I normally would. I have the breakfast area to myself. Coffee machine set humming for me. Same young woman at the desk, chirpy good-morning greeting, but she didn’t leave the desk. Everything was already laid out for me. She remembers what I eat in the morning. No cornflakes. But also no Basque tarte. Miss that. But there was fresh orange juice coming out of this marvelous juicer.
I know. Having breakfast at 9 isn’t early. I think Léonie said she’d be here around ten, right? Or was it ten-thirty?
I knew I should have packed a jacket. So here I am sitting here waiting for Léonie in my long black overcoat, for citadine but not very countryside stroll. Oh well. Cargo pants would have come in handy too. Never again will I let myself be bullied by fashionistas. So I have rise up from the couch to pull out my iPhone and check the time. It’s already nearly twenty past. So Léonie must have said ten-thirty after all.
Drive. Car. I wonder if there’s a train from Biarritz to Espelette? Pull out the iPhone again. Ouf. (Fun to make French noises in France.) Dab the ab. Up it comes. Now type in Biarritz and then destination Espelette. Oh! Not exactly Espelette?
Noise of a car pulling up and stopping. I look up to find a black SUV. Very George W. Bush. Are they legal in France? I mean, the carbon emissions…
“Bonjour Monsieur!” The door of the SUV has let out Léonie who is now fast approaching. I stand up and smile a Bonjour Léonie as she interrupts. “Bien dormi quand même? Pas trop tôt en fin de compte?” Machine-gun French hits me and then she switches to the language she says she prefers. “I should have mentioned it yesterday. A trip to Chez Alize is usually overnight. How about packing what you’ll need? No need to take your whole suitcase. What do gentlemen need? Shaving kit? Change of underwear?” She winks.
Well that hits like a bullet. Do I want to go and stay overnight? Is it really that far? Well, it certainly is by train… with changes or something. But with a car? That car? She’s not giving me time to decide either. What if I say no? Does that mean lunch is cancelled? She sees my hesitation. “Plenty of guestrooms Chez Alize. If she were so inclined she could turn it into a B&B but…” That benign smile she has. So soothing. She’s sort of gotten to the heart, the quick of it. So not much different than my hotel room.
Behind her arrives Alize. “Bonjour!” It’s that cheery high-pitched variety. And then behind her comes Jordí. He just grins and nods. Isn’t Jordí Spanish for George? It translates to something like that. It’s very popular in Catalonia. I grin back, almost ignoring Alize but then remember to pipe up a Bonjour for her. She confuses my smile at him to one meant for her. Two birds with one stone.
“Okay,” I hear myself say. “Should only take about five minutes.”
For a minute it looks like Léonie is going to go upstairs to my room with me, but no.
I can stuff two pairs of underpants into my toiletry bag. Just enough room. The toothbrush should stay charged. Shaving stuff: I need to pat it dry a bit. Okay. I always wondered what good that loop of material at the end of the bag was good for. Now I know. I wait for the elevator, dangling the bag from my left hand. Oh no! I run back to the run keys in hand, unlock, I grab my iPad so I have something to read before bedtime and slip it into the iPad-size shoulder bag and then strap on shoulder. Done. Outta here.
There’s no one in the lobby as I get out of the elevator. Oh, there’s a little wave at me from Alize as she gets into the driver’s seat. I go out. Léonie pushes the back door open for me. Big mother of a car. I sort of step up to get into it. Roomy inside even with three of us in the backseat. Léonie is separating me from Jordí. He leans forward and grins at me, and then sinks back. “You have everything you need in that little bag?” I feel she’s not skeptical or questioning me but more complimenting me. And then I smell and am in the miasma of Léonie’s perfume. It’s not an unpleasant scent. Quite the contrary. Quite elegant. But it is all encompassing. No idea what it is. I know nothing about women’s perfume. My mother would wear Chanel No. 5. Can’t even remember now what that smelled like. Maybe that’s what Léonie has no? But no, I think if it were it would trigger memory. That petite madeleine effect, sort of. Not that I’m about to shoot into that sinkhole of my childhood and adolescence.
“Well, unless I fall into a mud-hole, I should be okay.” I say “mud-hole,” which really doesn’t exist or have a standard meaning, does it? But it came from “sinkhole” in my mind. Funny the brain. Anyway Léonie is chortling at that. And then I think: Are there going to be long country walks? The farm certainly has to be outside of the town. Espelette, isn’t it? I’ve looked it up and see pictures of Basque-style low-slung three story buildings with red shutters. In one pic there are festoons of peppers hanging out to dry from upper floors. That would probably be in autumn after harvesting. Not now in March. So country walks or a country walk after lunch will most likely be in the cards. Hence risk of mad splattering not so off the wall.
Alize turns the ignition and slowly off we pull from in front of the hotel and off along the edge of the Place Sainte-Eugénie. There are a few pedestrians, people coming up from the covered market area. We are heading in the opposite direction we took going to Léonié’s house. But maybe not? Because we’ve reached the Rue Mazagran, which I remember as being the long street leading into downtown and to Léonie’s. But Alize takes a right. Opposite direction, in fact the only direction possible with the car I now see. Paid no attention to the fact it was one-way yesterday. Figures.
And then she takes a sharp left into this narrow street, up a hill, down another sharp right, and then a sharp left again. She’s taking a shortcut. And then I see we’re going onto a boulevard along the backside of the promontory: It’s a whole new vista of the sea and Biarritz. Breathtaking. Perspective de la Côte des Basques. Indeed. Whoa! “What a spectacular view, Léonie.”
“Ah, so you haven’t been to this side? You really don’t know our Biarritz at all, do you?”
“Nope. I confess. Guilty.” Should I explain when I arrived – just the other day in fact, right from Bordeaux, had checked in and gone straight to that place for the great lunch, the place where I’d first seen her? But she’s turned to Jordí and is telling him something in Basque. Funny language. Despite all those x’s in the spelling, it sounds a bit like Spanish to me. Definitely not French sounding any way. Suddenly Jordí bursts out laughing. What?
Léonie looks like she’s ready to pat me on the knee but thinks better of it. “I told Jordí just now that I bet you think food is more important than sex.”
“Ah.” What am I supposed to say. I’ll just let it hang there. She doesn’t seem to be fishing for an answer and is back talking to Jordí. He’s nodding now to her. “You’re quite fluent in Basque, Léonie. Didn’t you say you were terrible at it?”
“I am terrible at it. My Basque is awful. Jordí is being kind. He’s a very kind man, our Jordí.” Jordí now leans forward to give me a quick smile and then sits back again. Has he understood what she said about him? Thought he didn’t speak English. Or maybe it’s just because he heard her say his name.
This drive is still spectacular. Down below is another boulevard stretch. Very elegant that runs parallel and has direct access to the sea. The sun is not high yet, but it’s reflecting like signals off the caps of tiny waves. Well, they look tiny from here. The sea is a bit rough – and then I remember that this is the coast the surfboarders love. Probably huge then.
Remember paddling out after a storm. As a kid. Paddling toward a wave still far off but moving in, faster and faster, gaining height. Paddle. Paddle. I knew what to do. Head right into it and let it crash over you. Pop up on the other side.
Correction though: Those were not surfer waves; these down below are.
Shot of adrenaline.
I feel Léonie is watching me looking out the window. I glance back, smile at her, she smiles back, and then look back down. But that little burst of adrenalin is gone. It was no stronger than a first sip of coffee. “You like the sea.”
I don’t turn. “Yes, I do. This is a surfer’s paradise down there, right?”
“That’s what they say.” She chuckles. I look back at her and then lean back. “I think the Empress Eugénie would be quite shocked.” She’s gotten us both giggling for a minute. Suddenly Jordí barks something to Alize. Alize barks back without turning. Very good that she’s keeping her eyes on the road. We’re leaving the coastal highway and are headings toward a roundabout. We’re in traffic. It’s a residential area. Fairly modern. Bushes. Trees. Short driveways. Ah, Avenue de Londres. So a bit grand? Maybe it’s named after Brits, expats living around here south of the center? I pronounce the name.
Léonie laughs. “I think real estate developers went a bit wild.”
“Looks like a pretty affluent area.”
“Petit bourgeois, mon cher.”
She makes this declaration with little emotion. It’s not a put-down. Don’t know what it is. But I’m not going to ask.
About half the houses have those Basque red shutters. Otherwise there is not much of a national stamp on this part of Biarritz. Not particularly French looking. But perhaps this a just because it’s a new part of the city? Anyway, it’s also beginning to look less urban out the window. Where are the slummy parts of town? Could be there aren’t any? Nah. Somewhere, somehow, there have to be. But then this highway is taking us into the countryside. Alize has this farm place.
Why am I going to a farm? I’m no lover of the countryside? Who are these people?
Léonie is speaking Basque to Jordí again. Alize is paying attention to her driving and the road.
How would what’s happening to me be any different from a subtle kind of abduction? A kidnapping (I’m no kid)? Who knows that I’m going off somewhere I have no idea of where. The desk clerk? Ah! Yes. So if the police come looking for me… Why would they? I could just disappear without a trace.
I pull out my iPhone. Léonie throws me an inquisitive glance – I’ve bumped her side as I make that move to free the smartphone in my pocket – and then, understanding what’s happing, returns to something she needs to discuss with Jordí.
I press the Oui.SNCF app. I check my return train. Oops! That’s a return from Toulouse. Must cancel. When do I want to head back up to Paris? Get out of France before everything goes lockdown?
I feel a pat on my arm. Léonie. “So sorry, my dear. I’ve been very rude. But you seem to be entertaining yourself with your smartphone?”
I click off. “No problem. I was just checking on trains. My travel plans.”
“That’s annoying, isn’t it, that you can’t go on to Toulouse as you’d planned.” Pat-pat on the arm. I smile, a kind of sad-sack smile. Pat-pat again. “I hope we can make up for that just a little bit. Alize purchased this farm only a few years ago. Before that she lived in this rather grand château. Not an old château. You see Basques are great adventurers, and some went to South America to seek their fortunes. Some even to New York.” Pat-pat. “And a few returned with great wealth and built these Belle Époque châteaux. Alize’s family was connected to the original owner of one of these, who died without direct descendants, so they moved in. Recently the town decided to buy it and use it as a cultural center. Alize bought the farm with the proceeds. Poor Alize. She’s the last of her family. She was an only child.” I’m about to ask… “Just like I am. Two little orphans, Alize and me,” she is giggling now. I can’t see Jordí. He’s leaning against the backseat on the other side of Léonie and being very quiet. I can make out his neck and cheek. He’s looking out the window on his side.
I remember I should now chuckle. I do. Léonie gives me a wink now. “Are you an only child?” she’s asking me. What should I say? Do I want to start in on my personal details? I could tell her anything I want.
I could make up this gaudy persona for myself. Invent ancestors. Family. I’d have to stay away from true notoriety, something she could Google. Does she have a smartphone? Not seen any sign of one, but she doesn’t seem surprised at mine. Anyway everyone has Internet access these days, one way or another. She knows my last name. Lucky I didn’t make something up when we met. She could have checked with the desk clerk. That would have been embarrassing. So if I’m going to go crazy and make up stuff, I’d better watch my tracks. What a something web we weave when first we something to deceive. “What are you smiling at? I suppose my question is a bit cheeky. You don’t have to answer that. It is none of my business.”
“No. No, Léonie. I just had a thought that made me smile.”
“My, you are a mysterious gentleman.”
“Oh, not really.” I chuckle for her. No, compared to you and Alize, I’m quite ordinary. Nothing aristocratic in my family tree. Though, you never know about past lives. A minor Egyptian pharaoh? Or a sex change: Cleopatra? I’ve always liked things ancient Egyptian from the time I was a little tike. “Back in my New York days I once visited this psychic with a friend of mine, a girl who was into that sort of thing. The psychic took one look at me and declared, ‘Your Divine Highness.’ Seems I was the reincarnation of… Can’t quite remember who or even what. Maybe one of those divine Apis bulls that they’ve found mummified and in great sarcophagi in Saqqara.”
She is blinking at me. “You know a great deal about Egypt.” She sighs suddenly. “Oh, I would absolutely love to visit there again. But you know. The politics. I wouldn’t feel quite comfortable at the moment.”
“Oh, I agree with you. Me neither.” I sort of agree, don’t I? Haven’t thought about it in a while really. As a tourist, how much would the politics affect me? Never did back in the days when there were still no diplomatic relations. Nasser was already dead by the first time I visited but still… And then badda-ba-boom there were diplomatic relations. And then Cairo started changing. Building boom. This hideous overpass. Traffic jams. “I was a kid the first time I went to Egypt. The tourist industry was dead in the water. I had the Temple of Karnak almost to myself.”
“Oh, how wonderful! You were way ahead of me then. Boys could be so much more adventurous back then.” She’s alluding to a time and place that she assumes I share with her. I suppose she’s right. And now times have definitely changed.
“So much has changed in the world since those days.” She smiles at me benignly now. Yes, we are kindred souls of a kind. Is that it?
She pats my knee. “You’re probably a bit curious what I was discussing with Jodí.”
Did I flinch when she patted my knee just then? I felt like flinching. “Oh,” I summon a chuckle, “not too much. I don’t mind people having private conversations.” They could have been talking about me, but who cares? Well. Now I do. “So you’re going to tell me now.”
“I am. It was about lunch. Or rather, we’ll have something to nibble on and then have an early dinner. Jordí wants to prepare txuleta. But it’s in the freezer right now. He says he can defrost and prepare it for dinner. I’m amazed myself, but he never disappoints.” What’s that funny glint in her eyes? Embarrassing, because I think it’s a sexual reference. I don’t want to know.
“Not quite sure…”
Her eyes laugh at me. “So I’ve stumped you? I feel very proud of myself.”
And then I remember vaguely from Donostia. I give her the inquiring look she’s expecting. She’s waiting for me to say something. “Not quite sure.” I’m about to say, something in the beef world. But then I say, “But you’re going to tell me. That was my reason to come to Biarritz. So it’s a learning curve.” She gives me a funny look at “learning curve.” She doesn’t know that expression?
“It’s really more a Spanish Basque specialty. It is beef. A particular kind of beef. You might say,” she starts chuckling, “it’s an old cow.” Got me there, Léonie. I’m not going to laugh. Maybe just smile nicely? Yes. “Or as they say, we age the beef alive. Extraordinary flavor. Yellow fat. You will never be happy with a simple côte de bœuf after you’ve had it.”
“Txuleta,” booms Alize. Startling that voice. Ending in low registers. Loud and gourmande. She doesn’t take her eyes off the road.
“Oh,” a plane is landing to our left, “an airport? Biarritz has an airport?”
“Airport, he sounds so surprised, Léonie. If you are in a hurry. If you have your own plane.” And she starts cackling now, her eyes still fixed to the highway. Mucho traffic. Glad of that.
“Of course. You think they could have the G7 in a place without an airport?”
“I never thought.” I hadn’t.
Suddenly the SUV stops. Alize sets the directional lights to the right. She sees a break in traffic (there are no traffic lights) and guns it. In minutes we are driving in rural territory: open fields, farmland, and stands of trees, woodland. You can sense that the Pyrenees are not that far away, not that I’m sure how far away they actually are. But the terrain is uneven if not hilly. It must be very lush in summer. Now it’s a bit bleak.
Nudge. “A penny for your thoughts?”
“Léonie, you’d be overpaying. I was just noticing the terrain. Getting rougher. Quite different from the stretch between Bordeaux and Bayonne. Or Bayonne and Toulouse for that matter. I suppose it’s the Pyrenees factor.” She rewards me with a smile.
“They promise to extend that TGV you enjoyed from Paris to Bordeaux all the way to Toulouse. Promises, promises. I assume you came down from Paris.”
“You assume correctly.” She smiles. I smile back. I’m expecting that she’ll ask me about Paris and what, if anything, came before Paris, but she doesn’t. She’s studying the back of Alize’s head, preparing a question?
“Alize, on doit expliquer que…” She turns to me. “See that sign up ahead? Ustaritz?” I nod. “We’re turning off here. Alize’s property is near Ustaritz. I know we talked about Espelette, but we’re actually going to Ustaritz. We can go to Espelette tomorrow, if you like. You like it hot, pepper I mean?” Oh, that wink now. She’s referencing the Marilyn Monroe movie. I grin.
“How hot is it? I didn’t think Basque cuisine was particularly…”
“No. It’s not India. It’s not Mexico. Basques are quite the adventurers and brought those peppers back from Latin America. Not sure from where exactly.”
I know that but pretend I don’t. I nod dutifully. My rule of thumb is never to say, “I know, I know,” because that then cuts off a lot of information you won’t be told. Always best to play dumb. Most Europeans think Americans are a bit thick anyway so… Of course, these days they’re being proved correct.
Alize puts on the directionals. Whoa, they are noisy: click, click, click! “So what’s the story of Ustaritz?”
“I can’t tell you. That’s for Alize to tell you. You’ll have to wait.”
Suddenly Alize is saying something loudly in Basque. It must be for Jordí, because he’s perked up and leaning forward. “She’s asking him for his advice. She could take a detour and show you a château once in the family, the place where she lived before buying the farm, but he thinks he needs to get to the farm first to start the defrosting. And then…” Léonie nudges me, “I’m starving! What about you?” The way she says “starving” makes me burst out laughing.
“And here I was afraid you could hear my stomach growling.” Now both of us are laughing like fools. Jordí flashes us a disapproving look and sits back. Léonie catches this and quickly explains why we’re laughing, again, in Basque. Ah, he leans forward and shoots me that smile of his. Talk about launching a thousand ships. I smile back. My face feels flushed, but that could be from laughing.
“Ritz. Ritz. Is that a word in Basque? I don’t think it’s referring to César Ritz.”
“You’re right. It’s a Basque ending that means ‘oaks’… Clever of you.” She pats my knee again. Is this going to be a habit? Hope not. “And you’re right. Nothing to do with César Ritz. You know about Proust and César Ritz, right?”
What do I know about César Ritz and Marcel Proust? Very little. Proust was friends with Monsieur Ritz. He’d get cold beer brought to his cork-padded bedroom from the Ritz kitchen. “Are you a Proust aficionado?”
“Isn’t everyone?” Her jaw drops theatrically and her eyes widen. I stop myself from laughing, at first, and then I do laugh. That’s right; that’s what she expected me to do. Good. “Unfortunately the Ritz has fallen on dark times.”
“You know, all those cheap billionaires. Nasty lot. When César opened, yes, he had moneyed guests, and, yes, they might have been nouveaux riches a few decades past, but at that point his clientele was quite bon ton as was Monsieur Proust, of course.” Léonie has this thing about new money, more specifically nowadays and billionaires. Can’t say I don’t agree with her, but I never personally run into them. They are on TV. They are ugly. Trumpster claims to be one, though I’m skeptical. “César Ritz would never have allowed your Donald Trump inside his premises.” Good grief! The woman has read my mind! “But that word ‘aritz’ is interesting, isn’t it?”
What is she getting at? “You say it means oak? Odd. Are those oak forests over there?” I give my head a nod to the right where there in the distance at the edge of a dull brown field is a dark stand of forest. “I didn’t see any oak forests in Biarritz.” I’m trying to be funny. She gives me a funny look but doesn’t find it funny.
“You know about the Druids and their sympathy with oaks.” Do I? “The Romans were quite fascinated by Druids and their rituals in oak groves.”
“Mistletoe?” I’m making another stab at wit. This time Léonie laughs.
“Have you ever been caught under the mistletoe? I bet you have. Well, my point is that there would seem to be a similar sympathie… Druids and oaks. Basques and oaks. Of course oak trees grow to great heights and have very deep roots. The ancients saw them as connections between heaven and hell or hades. Not that nasty Christian hell that’s all hot and fiery.” Her eyes have lit up.
“Never big on hell myself.” That gets her roaring with laughter now. A bit off-putting. I make a funny face. She reduces the volume of her laugh and then just smiles so nicely at me. “Hell. I think you have to go to the US to hear much talk about hell. Europeans seem to have lost interest.”
“Yes. I wonder if it was the Nazis that took the religious aspect out of hell. What do you think?” What do I think?
“I’ll buy that theory. Americans never lived through Nazi rule. Lots of religion now in the US. Can we connect that?” I have no idea where I’m going with this. Just making conversation.
“Alize!” whoops Léonie. Alize bursts into a major chortle. “You couldn’t resist.” I look out the window. Nothing on my side. And then on the other, beyond Jordí, there’s this massive three-story boxy building, a huge rambling house, tan colored, rows of windows with those blood-red shutters, roof of red tiles, with one segment shaped like a square tower, with that roof sloping up to a flattened out wide peak, not a point. “This is the Château de Haïtze.” I hear haze. It’s up on a low promontory. There’s no moat. Doesn’t look like a castle to me. “The original was burned down by the nasty King of Spain in 1523.” She has the precise date! “And rebuilt as what you see more or less in the seventeenth century.” I make a respectful noise. “It is Basque history. Tales of ancient kingdoms. Fighting the Brits who had gobbled up Bayonne. Aquitaine?” Yes, I know: Eleanor of Aquitaine, famous queen? A consort of kings, French and Brit. But I keep my mouth shut. Was that the twelfth century? How do I know this? A giggle comes out of me before I can stop it. “Not impressive enough for you?”
“No. No, Léonie. It’s obviously a major monument. I was thinking of Eleanor of Aquitaine.” At first she looks like she’s not going to believe me.
“That was the twelfth century.”
“Yes. Yes, that’s what I thought.”
“This is not that old. Maybe… Alize?” She barks a couple of words in Basque to Alize. Alize has stopped the car so we can look more closely. She shrugs without turning around toward us. “Alize doesn’t know how old the original château was. Could be that old. The Basques have always lived here. Always.” Last word falling like a thud: ta-dum.
Alize starts the SUV up again and turns around. I hadn’t been paying attention. She heads down a drive, one that we must have taken already, and then turns to loop back… is it north? Then she loops back down. It’s all very quick. In a few minutes, going through parts of town with houses set in fields or at the end of drives, all very suburban, sort of, and then she pulls up to what we can see from a far as we approach: Now that’s a château. Before I can open my mouth, Léonie announces: “Château Lola!” She says it like announcing a cabaret act. Now, of course this is the kind of wild and funny and delightful kind of mid to late nineteenth century châteaux that… “This is one of the grand American châteaux. American, you may ask? Because Basques who had made their fortunes in the US and South America returned and outdid each other by building these gaudy things, our Châteaux Américains. Alize grew up in this one.” I’m about to gasp, no!
“Oui, c’est vrai. Not that the family was one of those millionaire nouveaux riches…” Oh, no, there it goes again, that term. These women are obsessed. “My grandfather stepped in an bought it. It was starting to fall apart. He did some work on it. Decent plumbing. The locality bought it off me. With that money, I bought the farm.” I’m about to giggle. Does she know that expression, “buying the farm?” Of course she doesn’t.
Léonie has had her eye on me and gives me another jab of the elbow into my side. At least she’s leaving my knee alone. No, now I have no choice. I have to explain. “It’s American slang. ‘Buying the farm’ is a jokey way of saying someone’s died. ‘He’s bought the farm.’” Alize is watching me carefully. Oh no, it’s not working. And then and then, she bursts into a belly laugh.
“Oh those American expressions. I love this. I’ll try and remember it. ‘She bought the farm?’ so I’d be dead? Oh, that’s so funny.” She gives Jordí a glance. He has totally turned off. He looks annoyed. “Oh là, Jordí, on a faim quand même.” Yes we are starving. Jordí perks up. Alize turns and starts up the SUV. “Mesdames et messieurs, we are five minutes from the farm. Where we won’t be dead; we’ll be feasting!” She bursts into that amazing belly laugh again. Where had she been keeping that, I wonder?
She drives right around the Château Lola, now a cultural center, says a sign. It’s four stories, two mansard roofs, all in beige stone: lots of little balconies, carved stone decoration and yet quite elegant. Must have marvelous reception rooms. Shallow balconies. So these Basque guys were letting out all the stops. You had these grand mansions mostly outside of Paris, but sometimes in the sixteenth arrondissement, when it was the village of Passy or something. Anyway, it was the nineteenth-century interpretation of a château: no moat necessary. No château of the Loire, this. Still. I love it. I’d move in in a New York minute. “I’d move in there in a New York minute!” The women all burst out laughing. Well, that was easy. “Seriously. Very grand.”
“Yes, yes. Very grand. Beautifully pompous. Show off. I can see why you like it,” adds Léonie. Oh no. Is she interpreting this as a put-down of her own place in Biarritz? Because of course… And then she winks at me.
“Don’t we all long for the Belle Époque?” Do I? It just popped out. I know most French think of it as their finest hour. And then there’s Monsieur Proust himself: apogee of the Belle Époque.
“I have always been told that Americans are in love with the Lost Generation, those rich Americans who moved to France to drink like fish in the twenties, no?”
“You got me.” I just say that, but she has not. I don’t feel any particular affinity to Gertrude Stein and friends. But that’s me. What I’m really feeling now is empty. A croissant doesn’t take long to digest. I’m starting to feel jumpy.
“We’ll be at Alize’s farm in a few minutes.” Léonie is mindreading again. But maybe she’s also hungry.
“Jordí?” Alize is yelling. “On a faim.” We’re starving. Jordí bursts out laughing. He has a nice baritone laugh. He declares something in Basque. The women burst out laughing. There’s something a bit lewd about their laughter. What is it? Belly laughs? I look out the window. Yes, more rural looking. Countryside. I don’t want to make eye contact with any of them. I’m no prude, but there’s something about that laugh they’re sharing that makes me queasy. Or maybe I’m just hungry.
Oh! There’s a flock of sheep. Funny. They have black snouts. Some must be rams because horns. Curly horns. These aren’t your everyday sheep. And then I remember yesterday’s fabulous lunch. “On y est!” proclaims Léonie. We’re here.
Standing on the edge of the field near the sheep is a kid with a dog – I suppose one of those sheep dogs. It has a face like a wolf: Isn’t that what sheep dogs look like? “Is that the kid who looks after the sheep when Alize is away?”
“That’s the gosse who looks after the sheep, point à la ligne. Period,” explains Léonie. “Look, he’s waving at us.” Indeed he is. Tall and rangy. Big toothy grin visible even from here. “He’s a sweet kid. Not too bright. Inbreeding. But very, very kind. The sheep are happy with him and so is the dog. Happy.” Léonie sighs unexpectedly. Suddenly there is the farmhouse up ahead, two stories, stuccoed white, with those blood red shutters. You couldn’t get more Basque. Alize seems to be pulling the SUV around to the side, a side door. We’re not going in through the front door.
“Allez op!” Alize turns off the engine and jumps out of the car. I get the door on my side. Jordí is already out and up and standing next to Alize. Words exchanged, he bolts for the door. I bet it’s the kitchen.
“So!” Léonie has gotten out of the SUV on my side. She takes a deep breath; her cheeks hollow as she opens her mouth to gulp in more air. “I love the air out here.”
It is pungent. Green and… is that the smell of cow dung? Of course they would be fertilizing the fields at this time of year. And then next to and behind the farmhouse are a few tall trees. I bet they’re oaks. They would provide some shade in hot summer days. Although Biarritz is known for its temperate climate. Still, we’re fairly far from the sea at this point. I’ve checked my Google Map. I take a long deep breath myself. Léonie is right. It’s that smell of the country as it wakes up to spring. A bit like fall, but it’s in reverse. Imagine if we could rise from the dead. Oh, that old wish. “You’re right, Léonie. Although there’s that tang of the sea in Biarritz.”
“Have you forgotten something?” Alize has gone after Jordí. I look around. “In the car?” Oh shit. Of course. My toiletry bag. The shoulder bag with my iPad has never left my shoulder. I put it in front of me on the floor of the SUV. I nod. Luckily I haven’t closed the door yet. I bet it’s one of these cars that locks itself up. I reach down and fish it out. I dangle it by the loop. Funny about these bags, they all have these loops. I suppose so jocks can carry them into the shower room or something? Nah. I have no idea. “Let’s go in.” Yes, let’s. Can she hear that growl coming from my stomach? She holds the door open for me.
I was right. This is the kitchen entrance. Whoa! And what a kitchen. Huge. Chef level. And there’s our chef already doing something over the sink in the middle of a long counter. Huge room. In the middle is a great wooden table. Hey, I bet it’s oak. Alize comes in. “Je donne notre monsieur ta chambre. Toi?” She’s giving me Léonie’s room? Why? Maybe there aren’t lots of guest rooms after all. Léonie lights up. This is something they seem to have already discussed. Odd.
“Follow me. You can put your coat and your bags there. We’ll be eating here in the kitchen. Our chef will keep cooking things until we’re stuffed!” She whoops that last word. Stuffed!
I follow her through a door that swings both ways. Funny, Léonie’s dining room has a door like that to the kitchen, although I never got to see that kitchen. She holds it so it won’t slap me in the face. We’re in a long rather dark hallway. Ah. There’s the dining room beyond the first open door on my right. I glance in. Lots of massive furniture. Oh, I know, it’s the furniture from the château. But there’s no time to dawdle. As usual Léonie moves quickly. We pass other doors, but they are shut. Finally. “Voilà!” she turns the doorknob. I’m supposed to go in first. I do. She follows close behind me. Big windows, sun streaming in. Big double bed. A turquoise duvet. Whitewashed walls. Massive armoire: oak? I wonder if there’s an ensuite bathroom… “The bathroom is right across the hall.” Yikes, reading my mind again. I put the toiletry bag on the bed. I slip the iPad bag off my shoulder, take my coat off, and toss both on the bed next to the toiletry bag. That’s a signal. “Right! Back to the kitchen. Txakoli!” What? Cha-something. Cha-ko-li? No idea. Oh yes. That Basque very dry young white wine, with bubbles. They had it in San Sebastián. Poured from a height.
We barge into the kitchen. Well, Léonie barges in and makes sure once again that the door doesn’t slam in my face. Alize is standing next to the table, a corkscrew already in a bottle with a long neck. Pop! “Voilà mes amis. Txakoli!” She motions for us to pull out small chairs and sit down. The table hasn’t been set, but there are four glasses. And there she goes. From a height, she’s taken a glass and put it between her legs. I notice for the first time: She’s wearing jodhpurs. Does she have horses too? And then holding the bottle high she pours the wine right into the glass in a long thin stream. She doesn’t spill a drop. She hands the glass to me. Well, I’m the guest. She repeats with a glass for Léonie. And then she does another: Ah, it’s for Jordí. She turns and hands it to him. He takes it and, brief toast to the gods, downs the whole thing. Whoa! Back to work. Alize now pours one for herself. “Tchin-tchin!” We toast – it’s an old-fashioned toast I haven’t heard in a while – and I take a sip. Oh, sharp! It’s very, very dry. But now those tiny bubbles. I suppress a burp. Alize puts the bottle on the table, gets up, and brings over three medium-sized plates and a bunch of knives and forks. Napkins? Guess not. Jordí arrives with a platter of meticulously sliced ham. I can tell from its pink color that it’s jambon de Bayonne. Interesting. Léonie gestures that I take a slice, which I do with my knife and fork. Ah, interesting. Not as paper thin as the restaurant or as coarsely cut as the café, but something in between. I wait for the ladies to serve themselves. “Bon appétit,” I say. Oh, nice. I like this texture the best of all. I look over towards Jordí. His back is to us, of course, but I see him picking at a small plate of ham in between preparing something else. That’s how I first saw him, wasn’t it? From the back. In the first restaurant in Bayonne. No tee-shirt this time. Voluminous long-sleeved white shirt. No triceps visible. Off to his right a massive chef’s range stovetop, gas no doubt. Another oven, probably a combination microwave and hot-air fan. There’s a dial lit up. I bet he has the beef in there defrosting slowly. He hasn’t wasted a minute. On the counter are several open cans. Where’s the bread? Ding-ding! I laugh out loud. He turns and grins at me. And then he goes and takes a just-baked baguette out of the oven. So it wasn’t beef defrosting after all.
I take another slice of that perfectly sliced ham.
No one is talking. We are all starved!
Those clever little bubbles! Going right to my head. Empty stomach of course. Alize stands up. Her glass is already empty. She reaches over and grabs mine, well, almost empty and then does her number with the glass between her knees. Flawless again. Now she does Léonie. Again, not a drop spilled. She turns and says something in Basque to Jordí. He shakes his head. She then fills her own. Ah, she’s spilled one drop. Oh, thank the gods. There’s something awful about constant perfection. She sees that I see. We both give a little laugh at the same time, and she sits down. Just in time.
Jordí is back with a platter. This time it’s spears of pickled green peppers wrapped in anchovies with an olive at the sharp point. This is a classic, I know, because you see them always on tapas bars. Simple. And easy to eat. Jordí steps back for a second to watch us. You put the whole thing in your mouth and slide all the bits off with teeth and lips. Done. “You’re good at that,” says Léonie to me.
Yes, but who wouldn’t be? What’s that funny glint in her eye? Is there a double meaning? Jordí is back at the counter. I can see from the movement of his elbows that he’s speeding up. He has a collection of open cans and small plastic tubs arrayed before him – can’t see what – and is now reaching speed. I’ve seen them do this in San Sebastián. Impressive. He reaches over and lights the gas under a small wok. In a minute he sprinkles some oil in it from a can with very impressive curlicues of decoration and text: very good olive oil. I can’t see whether it’s Spanish or French oil. And then I can’t see what he’s doing. Suddenly there’s an explosion of hot garlic. And then there’s a sizzle. He’s put something in that wok. His elbows are churning away as he stirs. And then it’s over: He turns the gas off.
He turns slowly now, eyeing the three of us, as he grins down at the new platter he’s holding out. Léonie bursts into applause and directs a nod of gratitude, it seems, towards Alize. He puts that platter down in the middle of the table. On centimeter-thick slices of that baguette is a slice of something pink, no doubt smoked salmon, and then in wriggles on the top is a heap of grayish white tendrils. Angulas? No. I thought eating baby eels was forbidden for now. Evidently not. Léonie reaches for one of the pinxtos and carefully takes a bite of half of it. She rolls her eyes. So this is a delicacy now. “Et toi?” she’s talking to me. It’s a kind of reprimand. Okay. I pick up one and imitate her, saying a quiet prayer that I will be as neat as she was. Bingo! Success and then… whoa! The baby eels explode mildly with garlic, supported by the silky smokiness of the salmon. Oh! I reach for a sip of Txakoli. Those tiny bubbles do magic with the garlicky eels.
Léonie is watching me. I nod. My mouth is full. I’m chewing slowly, savoring. And then a couple of swallows. I still have half of one and there are more on the plate. “Merci, Alize!” She bows quite elegantly from the waist up: a regal bow. One can’t talk about expense, but it’s obvious that these baby eels may well cost more than caviar at this point. Léonie gives me a look of approval. I suddenly realize that Alize has not taken one herself. And now she does. She does not do a Léonie; she pops the whole thing into her mouth. And she chews, pure pleasure lights up her eyes. What’s she thinking? Because it’s not just the pleasure of the moment. I can see that this is also bringing back memories. I first had these baby eels in Barcelona in a traditional restaurant famous for serving angulas. Early nineties, I think. I had been told I had to have them. I got a whole white porcelain bowl of them along with a silver basket of sliced bread. It was obvious how you ate them. There was a fork and a soupspoon. The first thing that hit me was the garlic and then slowly the slightly fishy taste of the eels and then the whole as a textural experience. Amazing. I became more excited at eating them the more I ate. A year later I read that they were no longer available. Extinction alert!
Now they were available but at a price. A glance at the counter showed an empty can, not as shallow as a caviar can but in that style. It looked like Jordí had emptied it for us. And he’s still there, towering over us, pleased at our reactions. Now he reaches down and takes one. Like Alize he pops the whole thing in his mouth. “Harrigaria!” after lots of chewing. He turns to grab his glass of Txakoli and then bends down as he holds the glass out. Alize jumps up and fills his glass from a height. He toasts her and drinks half of it down. He looks at us all to make sure we all see his consummate pleasure. And then he takes another one. He chews this one slower. I’m fascinated by the movements of his cheekbones. And then he’s gone, back to the counter.
“You like angulas?” I nod yes to Léonie, just to be polite, because it’s so obvious I love them. I again remember my first mouthful back in Barcelona a hundred years ago, and it was what… is… this? And then something about the texture, the fatty little devils that are angulas, and the garlic, and I was hooked. “They are an ancient Basque thing. Neolithic.” She stops to let that word sink in. Images of ancient European farmers on the banks of rivers, catching fish in weirs… What am I seeing here? Some illustration from a children’s history book?
“That old. Yes, I know. I did a bit of reading before coming here. Although I admit I wasn’t quite ready for the full Basque experience. Funny. I was when I went to… Donostia.” I decide it would be cooler to use its Basque name only. “Here I wanted that Biarritz, the spa of the Empress thing.” Léonie is smiling. Of course. I’m talking about her house. I’m talking about her ancestors. It’s Alize and Jordí who represent things Basque
“It’s true that French Basque people feel much more comfortable in France than do their cousins across the mountains in Spain. You know that.”
“I do know that.” I reach for another pinxtos. I do like a Basque: whole thing in my mouth and major chewing. Oh, this is the right way. I pause to take a little sip of Txakoli. A bit of froth on the tongue and then… a tiny explosion of garlic and…? Because there’s something ephemeral about the taste of these baby eels. It’s something about the fat. That’s also true of the adults, the smoked eels of northern Europe, also rare and expensive nowadays.
I look at the tray. There are four left. That means one for each of us. One more would just be enough for me. They are delicious, amazing, but they are very rich. I take another sip of Txakoli. Alize jumps up: “Put your glass right down there.” She points to a place about a foot under the table, a place I can reach by extending my arm. She pours from a height. Flawless.
“Merci, Alize.” I give the glass a little toast gesture in her direction as she sits back down. She gives her glass a tilt toward mine. Hers is still half full. Mine is now almost brimming. How much is left in the bottle? Hard to check through green glass.
“On va finir tout ça, les gars!” Les gars? That’s pretty jaunty for Léonie: “guys.” Jordí splutters something in Basque. Léonie barks what sounds like an order. Jordí half turns his head towards her and barks back something that sounds like a no. Immediately I’m in Léonie’s sights. “You get two, mon cher. And rightly so. As our guest and all. And Jordí thinks so too.” I know from the look on her face that it would be silly to argue with her. She would take it as a phony charade. She has me pegged as a gourmand. But, really, it’ll be a stretch. I take a sip and grab a pintxos and pop it in my mouth without any drooling of the wine. Proud of my buccal dexterity there! Oh, that’s still very nice, still hits the spot, but do I really want another one? No. Alize takes one and pops it in her mouth. She empties her glass of Txakoli then, in three sips. Léonie does just about the same. Now there’s the one lone pintxos staring up at me. Well, not if I don’t look at it. I look around the room. “This would have been the farmhouse kitchen. And would everyone working on the farm get together here for lunch?”
“At this very table,” she snaps back. “But not anymore. The boy takes care of the sheep. Or I do when I’m here. No big farm luncheons here anymore. This table is used by the cooking staff to spread out their dishes on. That’s when I invite people. I don’t do that as much as Léonie. Don’t like it that much. But I have to give this and that réception, because it’s expected.”
“I told you Alize is the closest thing to Basque royalty,” chimes in Léonie. Suddenly both women burst out laughing. Jordí shoots us a glance backwards and then returns to the counter and to whatever he’s whipping up for us now. His eyes were sparkling and his grin was broad. Is there a subtext to this? I’m beginning to feel – what is it? – estranged? Well, I am. I’m a stranger. And I don’t really know any of these people. And I’m going to spend the night in this house. Am I crazy?
“Morcilla,” intones Jordí as if it’s a stage direction. It is. Alize jumps up, sloshing the bit of Txakoli that must be pretty flat now in her glass. Down the hatch: she knocks it back and is gone from the kitchen through an open door leading maybe to stairs to a cellar? Hard to see. Pitch dark in there. But then I hear her feet on stairs.
I don’t know what that word means. Morsel? Another bite? I must look worried enough that Léonie says: “Boudin noir.” She then repeats: “Boudin noir?”
Yes, I know that and love that. Blood sausage. Sounds so gruesome in English. I love the oniony variety. I nod to her.
“You like it, because some…?”
I stop her. “I love it. It’s one of my favorite things.”
“Ah bon! Because it’s the Spanish kind that has a bit of rice in it.” Suddenly I hear sizzling. I know some people just warm it up or even eat it cold, but I like my boudin lightly fried so it’s crispy on the outside. Looks like Jordí is doing that. And then the sizzling stops. I see his arms flapping wildly from the back. He’s composing the pintxos. Alize bursts into the room waving a bottle of what’s visibly red wine. I wonder if it will be Spanish. A Rioja? She sees me staring at the bottle and moves right over.
“Voilà Monsieur.” She hands me the bottle. It’s French. A quirky artsy label, artsy in a good way: young designer. Oddly there’s a stick-figure Don Quixote riding a stick-figure horse. Ah, but Don Quixote never wore a beret. “Aux alentours de Bergerac.” The Bergerac area? Is it Cyrano? Nah. No big nose. Bises des Moines. Charming name: Monks’ pecks on the cheek? A bise is no serious kiss: It’s that peck on the cheek hello or goodbye. While I’m reading the label, Alize has gone to the counter, pulled out a drawer, and returned with a basic corkscrew: twist it in and pull it out with a pop. She now looks at me inquiringly. I give her the bottle back. Pop! She’s got a powerful arm there.
“Monks?” She looks startled at my question. “Les moines?”
“The name, you mean? No. Nothing to do with monks. Maybe the vineyard is near a monastery, but I don’t know that. It’s maybe a joke? But the wine is no joke. Finish your Txakoli.” I do as told and hold out my glass. No gymnastics from a height for this pour. But she just puts in a drop. “Swish it around and drink.” Again, I do as told and hold my glass out again for a refill. She fills it up halfway. Perfect. I take it to my nose. Oh! That’s so nice: cherry thing but deep and rich, not much vanilla, the oak cask thing. Sip. Oh! Big mouth of fruit, as they say. And just a bit tannic. Ready immediately. “You like it?”
“It’s quite amazing. Sort of a Bordeaux but not.”
“But not. Yes. It’s Merlot but with a bit of Carignan. You know Carignan?” I nod. I do. That peppery touch. I take another sip. It’s even smoother now. Just enough tannin to brush the back of the tongue. I’ve never had anything quite like it, but it is decidedly Bordeaux style, though much less austere. Fruitier. Playful pleasure. I give it more nose. Oh, heaven! My olfactories are sighing, my palate titillated. A tiny sip. Yes!
And then Jordí is hovering over the expanse of the oak table with a new tray and leans over between Alize and me, and sets it down. I smell lavender. Jordí. Very old-fashioned masculine scent. Very Spanish, I think, because I don’t think most French men do lavender despite all those purple May and June fields in Provence, a haze of violet spreading as far as the eye can see. Lavender is an old-fashioned scent for me: Think Yardley’s. Does Yardley’s still exist? And then Jordí is gone. I’m torn between looking at the new plate of pintxos and following Jordí with my eyes. And then Jordí is back. With a chair like we’re sitting in. And places it between Alize and me, and sits down, throwing me a sly grin. “J’ai faim!” he declares to us all. Hungry! I bet. And… “Ah! Mon verre!” Alize bounds over to the counter and is back with his empty Txakoli glass. “Eskerak!” I guess that means thanks. Alize immediately fills his glass with the lovely Bergerac. “Monsieur?” Jordí turns to me and makes a full arm gesture towards the pintxos.
I’m afraid my cheeks are flushed as I reach for a pinxtos.
But decision time: Is it a one bite full? It’s in three layers: baguette slice, morcilla, something thin and white but not a potato, morcilla, the white slice, and morcilla. You must have to put the whole thing in your mouth or it’ll fall apart. I do. I feel their eyes on me. Oh! Hot and cold, greasy and dry, boudin and…? What is that? And then I recognize it: topinambour. Those so-called Jerusalem artichokes, neither artichokes nor from Jerusalem. I chew slowly going from the crunch of the topinambour to the rich mealy pâté of the boudin, the morcilla. I can finally, after one swallow, dare take a sip of wine with this. Oh! Don’t faint, dude! This is my dream of foodie paradise. Over the fucking top! Chew. Sip. Chew. Sip. Swallow. Sip. Swallow. I grab my glass: “A toast to the chef!” Léonie and Alize raise their glasses. Jordí looks confused and then startled and slightly embarrassed. Alize jiggles her glass towards him and gives a little bow nod with her head. His face lights up. He turns to me and repeats the bow now to me.
And then they all dig in.
Léonie is first to get her pinxtos in her mouth, starts chewing, raises her eyes heavenward, and makes a chortling sound. I have a feeling this is new to them too. “Jordí has made pintxos with morcilla but never with topinambour. You know topinambour?” Mindreading again, Léonie. Good fucking grief.
“I do. And I know they’re not from Jerusalem.” She looks confused for just a split second and then swallows, takes a sip of Bergerac, and bursts out laughing.
“I know that. Is that just American English?” Alize looked confused until Léonie added that question. “Tu connais ça? Ce machin de Jérusalem?”
“Vaguement.” I have a feeling that, no, Alize has never heard about Jerusalem artichokes, but she will not be less cosmopolitan than Léonie. No, never! I try not to smile too broadly.
“I remember as a kid seeing them once in a while in supermarkets. They kept trying to push them, but it never took back then. And the name?” I raise my eyes to heaven as Léonie had just done. She laughs.
“I’m going to say topinambour. They’ve only recently become popular in France. Last ten years?” She looks inquiringly at Alize, who nods and then looks inquiringly at me.
“Jérusalem?” asks Alize.
I start in with the story I heard recently. “Something to do with Italian greengrocers?” I’m suddenly doing that questioning lilt thing. Why? “Because they knew it was a kind of sunflower, and the Italian for sunflower is girasole. English speakers heard Jerusalem. And then the artichoke thing, because it has a kind of artichoke taste.” They listen raptly. And then there is a pause. And then Jordí, who obviously has understood nothing, reaches for a pintxos. And then we all are.
I’ve also heard them referred to as earth pears, but we’re not going there. I’ve had them fried like chips and as a purée. But I’ve never had them thinly sliced and raw like this. They are, as they say, a perfect foil. They absorb a bit of the fat from the morcilla, which then adds to their flavor. Plus the crispy thing. Sip of the angelic Bergerac! Oh, be still, my heart. I raise my glass: “Merci tout le monde.” And then I think again. “Merci mes amis.” A bit more generous on my part. Friends. Yes, friends in a pinch, friends for now, foodie friends. Of course they’re friends of a sort: I’m staying the night in this house, and this house is not a hotel. And immediately all glasses are raised to me.
“Aux plaisirs de la table!” Léonie pronounces this with a phlegmy richness that is almost sexual. I think the wine has gone to her head.
I’m being urged to take the last pintxos once again.
Alize jumps up as I’m chewing. “And now you will taste something from my own farm.” She’s at the fridge and already rummaging inside. Out comes a large ceramic bowl with a red stripe running around it, right below the rim. There’s plastic film over the top, which she rips off with abandon. She takes it up in two hands, turns, and ceremoniously approaches the table. Jordí, prescient, grabs the empty pintxos tray and slides it down towards the end. We’ve all been collected toward the kitchen side of the long table.
Inside the great bowl is this lumpy white substance. I guess a kind of fromage frais, cream cheese, but not your “with bagel” sort, not Philadelphia. I like fromage frais. It’s soupier than cream cheese. Makes a nice end-of-meal, home style, with a sprinkle of sugar or jam or… anything sweet. So what’s so special?
“Fromage frais de mes brebis.” Alize has answered me, or what was in my head. So it’s from her own sheep. Sheep’s milk. “I also give some to a fromager I know who makes superb cheese out of it. You’ll sample that tonight, Monsieur. Ah, bowls…” But Léonie has already gotten up and gone to the cabinets. What do the Brits say? These women are definitely in each other’s pockets. But Léonie has brought back four bowls that are just smaller versions of the big one. Obvious choice. And she’s grabbed four soupspoons. Are we going to eat this plain?
We are. Léonie takes one of the soupspoons and fills the four bowls. Nothing? Not even sugar? “We’ll start off plain so you can taste the milk. I then suggest a bit of sugar for the rest.”
“And I have some very nice fig preserve that the woman down the road makes.” That’s right: We’re in the countryside. Everybody is somewhere down the road. Could be a long road but… Alize sets a bowl in front of me and hands me a spoon. I’m urged to not wait.
Oh! Another surprise. It’s mildly reminiscent of the superb Basque cheese I had at that now famous first lunch in Biarritz. Richer in flavor than your usual fromage frais. Another spoonful. It’s a world away. And then I think… there some Bergerac in my glass and I take a sip with it. Oh marvel of marvels! My face must be giving me away, because both women burst into their best gourmand laughs. The wine enhances the fromage frais as it would a ripened cheese. I continue my ritual as the rest start in on their own bowls. I can hear Jordí growl with pleasure from deep in his throat, and there’s a sudden waft of lavender from him again.
Alize is up on her feet again and raises her hands: “Stop! Dessert time.” She goes to the counter and returns with a sugar bowl and a jar of what must be that fig preserve. There’s still a finger of Bergerac in my glass: down it goes.
I opt for the fig preserve, of course. Is this fig country? “Ce sont des figues de Amikuze. It’s about an hour to the west by car.” I suppose my mental questions are obvious; that’s why it seems these women read my mind. She opens the jar for me, stops, gives a little giggle, and then goes to a drawer under the counter and comes back with a teaspoon. She sticks it in the middle of the jar and sits down.
Often with hard cheeses people serve a bit of fruit preserve for an extra taste treat. I put a dollop of the preserve in the middle of the bow. And then, first, I take a little taste of the fruit with the tip of my soupspoon. Oh! Surprise! “Un peu d’Espelette. Ça vous va?” Alize explains a bit of hot pepper, that Espelette, the place where we were supposed to be going all along just for the day…
“It’s just perfect. I love the kick. Just a little kick.” Alize beams back at me, and then nods. I swirl it around and dig in.
I sit back and watch the others. All have chosen the fig. So that was the treat of the house. They’re taking their time, savoring. My bowl is empty. Alize gives me an inquiring look, and I shake my head. Basta!
Alize finishes, leans back in her chair, and pushes the bowl away from her. She puts both elbows on the table and cradles her chin vaguely in the palms of her hands. “And now you need to meet my sheep.”
My mental image of a sheep is this fluffy white creature. Kinky short hair. I see Australian sheep shearers. But those sheep are all white, okay, dirty white. Alize’s sheep bear no resemblance.
There’s a stiff, chilling breeze. I sink my hands deep in my overcoat pocket, which then brings the turned-up collar closer around my neck. The sun is out, bright and strong. I think of people sunbathing in winter on the ski slopes of, say, Megève. I’m suddenly seeing Audrey Hepburn wearing sunglasses. Where’s that coming from?
“A bit chilly, Monsieur? I command not the weather. Maybe a better idea to drive to Espelette?” Alize speaks. We all listen. All is just the three of us. Jordí is back in the kitchen doing what chef’s do, I suppose. We all got our coats from further in the house, mine from the bedroom that is usually Leonie’s, and we went out the front door. Vast rooms. Relatively low ceiling. Whitewashed walls. Red tile floors. Spacious. Elegantly but sparsely furnished with nothing that looked antique. The opposite of Léonie’s place in town. But we moved quickly and directly out the front door. It was not a tour of the house. No idea how many rooms. And there seems – I look back at the house – that there’s a second floor that remains a total mystery.
I start up again and almost trip. We’re following a footpath, a rutted thing, going into the field. “Attention!” admonishes Léonie and then cackles. I love her cackle. I snicker back. We’re walking like Three Musketeers, sort of, with me in the middle between the two ladies. As it should be.
Most of the sheep have black horns curling around long pointed white ears sticking out horizontally. They have snouts that are almost like a cow’s. And then I think cheese. These are sheep that make that incredible Basque cheese. They have drooping long mains of dirty white hair. One turns around and stares at me as I approach. What’s that triptych in Gent? Lamb of God? Famously restored so that the eyes are human-like. Scandal for some; amusing for me. How stupid did they think Van Eyck was? It’s allegory, people. Human eyes are accusing the sinners. Hello.
Suddenly the boy appears, a wavy crop of hair circled by nearly shaved sides. He had been sitting in the field. He’d been hidden by the flock. He grins at us. Sweet smile. Oh, he was having a picnic lunch, looks like. As we get closer his smile looks more and more painted on. It does not budge. His eyes have this mild look. Alize said something about a disability? Physically he looks quite perfect. Actually rather doll-like perfect. If he were wearing a cap, I think he might doff it. I know that haircut. Very trendy. Medieval. Not exactly tonsured monk, because no shaved bald spot. I see it on very young guys, usually strikingly handsome ones with great cheekbones. Alize says Bonjour to him. He replies with a Bonjour Madame. He only makes eye contact with her. You can see they have a rapport. He trusts her and she him. Of course, they have the sheep in common. Alize said she liked tending the sheep herself when she’s at home here. Wonder what that entails. Certainly not standing around in a field like this young man.
And then out of nowhere comes bounding a dog. The dog. The sheep dog, of course. It’s all too perfect. The dog gives one bark at Alize and then circles the sheep at a gallop. Okay, Monsieur Dog, you’ve made your point. You’re working. No slacking off. But I wonder where he was before. The field is on the edge of that forest that might be oaks. Maybe the dog was fooling around in there, looking for rabbits or whatever dogs like doing in the woods. While our young man was sitting in the grass having his lunch in the sunshine.
What’s the word here? Bucolic.
I feel a sudden pressure to say something. After all, it’s for me that we’ve come to see the sheep, n’est-ce pas? “I bet these sheep are for milking.”
“Ah, very clever of you. Of course you wouldn’t want to shear them. We bring them in the barn.” She points to a low ramshackle building behind the house. “The boy milks them. Not all of them. Only some are giving milk. But they are milked morning and evening. It’s the season. I’ve talked about buying a machine, but so far the boy won’t have it. I help him sometimes.”
“When you’re bored?” I know I’m being cheeky. She bursts into her hearty laugh. I can’t imagine living out here on a farm. She must sense that.
“There’s always something to take care of on a farm. More than I thought when I bought it. I couldn’t keep the farm without Pierrot. That’s not his real name.” Suddenly the boy makes a sound, a kind of giggle. He’s picked up his name. He obviously doesn’t understand English. “It’s Jean-Pierre. I think of him as Pierrot Lunaire. You know the character?”
I sort of do. I see a person with a red cone hat dressed in white pajamas. It’s also an inscrutable piece of music by Schoenberg. Bet she’s not referring to that.
She eyes me oddly. “There a musical piece, not often performed, by a German. That naughty Schoenberg.” Oh my god she does know. How?
I know next to nothing about these women. I thought I’d gotten Léonie pegged: the mansion in town and all. And then I thought Alize might be a Basque patriot of sorts. “I know Schoenberg.”
“You like?” I can see she’s ready to burst out laughing no matter what I say.
“Early is easier than late. I think he had serious problems with the Nazis.”
“So you think his later music is rough, violent, inhuman? What do you mean?”
“To tell you the truth. I don’t know.” I don’t. She laughs.
I can see that Pierrot is getting bored hearing all this English. He’s shifting his weight from one foot to another. And then suddenly, he grows rigid. He’s staring behind us. I turn. Ah, there’s Jordí coming along that rutted footpath. He’s working it like an old hand: no stumbling. I notice for the first time that he’s wearing sneakers, running sneakers. I don’t know the brands. Adidas? He sees me looking and gives me that grin. The women turn. “Hola,” announces Léonie. I know that’s Spanish. She’s been so quiet up until now. Jordí yells the same back to her.
And then he’s there with us. He’s put on a khaki jacket, that hunter kind with all the little pockets. And then I smile and, maybe to get away from his smile, I turn towards the boy.
The boy’s eyes are wide with fear.
For a minute I’d been afraid that Léonie would sit up front next to the driver’s seat, leaving me alone in the back of the SUV, as some kind of chauffeured twat. But no. Unspoken, Alize is our chauffeur and Léonie and I are sharing the great luxury of the backseat. We both have our windows. I’m looking out mostly since I’ve never seen any of this landscape. It’s not much different from the one between the outskirts of Biarritz and the farm.
That look in Pierrot’s eyes is haunting me. Chilling. And then I think of the leg of lamb we ate at Léonie’s yesterday. Could the kid have watched as Jordí slaughtered the lamb? Am I going to ask?
But it is putting Jordí in new perspective. Well, just the look in the kid’s eyes had.
Ustaritz had suburbs, but we cleared them in a matter of minutes. So fast I’m only realizing now what it was. Even the smallest town has suburbs these days, tracks of what once was farmland and now residential: relatively new. At least these are. Of course they’re all designed to look like old Basque houses. All the white stucco and red shutters. I’m finding it a bit too much, maybe even boring. I can’t say I love the look. Intriguing to an extent. I decide I’m indifferent. Would I want to live in one? Ah, no. No. I chuckled to myself.
“What?” Léonie is staring at me, an inquiring look touched with amusement. She often has that look, of course, at least with me.
“I’m thinking about the vagaries of life,” I lie.
“Ah!” She turns back to looking out the window. “We won’t be long. It’s only around fifteen minutes drive.”
“How long,” I can’t believe this is popping out of me, “would it take to walk?”
“Oh, nearly two hours.”
“That’s…” I am astounded. “That’s pretty crazy.”
“Really? It’s around ten kilometers. You can see. It’s not a very interesting walk. Just fields and bits of forest. I’m a city person myself. I’ll walk gladly in a city for two hours but not in the country.”
“Have to agree with you there.” I’m looking at her, but she’s said all this while staring out the window.
“I love the land.” Alize proclaims this from the driver’s seat as if on stage. “This is the land of my people. We have always lived on this land.” Silence. I can hear myself breathing. Léonie glances towards me and then moves to face me bodily. She just smiles. It’s a righteous smile. Does she think I’m going to make fun of Alize’s, what, patriotism? Never would dare. There is a blind fury in patriotism that I never want to touch with that ten-foot pole thing if I can possibly. Now, I feel much more strongly about cultures but… And then I think this is in a way what Alize means, so her words are not so scary.
“It is beautiful country,” I finally say. I can almost hear Léonie whisper bravo at me. A glance and I don’t think her lips have moved. That mental telepathic thingy again? I do not believe in mental telepathy. On the other hand, I can’t deny what’s bouncing between us.
The highway is pretty winding. And now off to my right are plainly suburban collections of freestanding houses, all with that Basque red-and-white touch. You’d like to imagine these are villages grown larger, but they are not. They’re clearly real-estate developments carved out of farmland. Could be anywhere. Anywhere where the post-war twentieth century has prospered, which is just about everywhere in at least western Europe. The American Dream.
Why am I making this trip? I should be on a train out of France, fleeing this lockdown, fleeing Corona, now being called Covid-19. Who are these people, these two women? Why?
And then there’s a sign: Espelette. We’re there. Almost. Alize has slowed the SUV in a way that makes me think she’s wondering where to park. Ahead on the left is this big, boxy two-story white building, laced with half-timbers painted red, proclaiming hotel-restaurant. Plenty of parking. Empty, of course, restaurants being closed. Alize pulls in and stops. We’re here?
She turns around towards me. “We can walk into the main village of Espelette from here. I think we will have the town to ourselves.” She’s right. I don’t see any people at all.
Time to get out. Léonie gets out on her side. I get out on mine. Alize from the driver’s seat. And for a brief moment three doors are open at once. The SUV is like a ravaged Christmas present. And then all doors are pushed shut at once and the box is fortress whole again. I stretch. The air is country-fresh even in this town. There are agricultural odors wafting faintly if you concentrate. And then: Is that the smell of paprika? Of course it’s not paprika; it’s Espelette pepper. The place is steeped in and redolent with it. I start chuckling. Is it going to make me sneeze? And then I do sneeze. The women both burst out laughing at me. I fish in my pocket for the paper towel I carry as handkerchief, being careful not to pull out the smartphone with it. Dumb pants, again. My nose is dripping. I turn away. A good blow, and all is well again. I turn and grin at them, catching different but odd looks on their faces. Léonie has picked up on the paper towel; she finds it ungainly but curious. Alize’s face is still spread wide with mirth. I concentrate on her reaction and give her a chuckle, shaking my head. Warm smile in return. A glance at Léonie, and I see she’s moved on from her judgment of my propriety using a paper towel. In fact she’s not looking at me anymore. She’s staring down the street. “Normally this street would be packed with people, including lots of tourists. Now there’s no one. Of course,” she shrugs turning to face me. “But at least you get to see it. Picturesque.”
We start walking. Yes. I guess picturesque is the word. A whole small town built of Basque boxy white buildings with bull’s blood red shutters and those half-timbers, assembled in different juxtapositions, and a winding pedestrian street going through it. Ah, finally something open: a tourist shop, selling those peppers. “There are more of these the deeper into town we go,” says Léonie, reading my thoughts as usual. I guess that for her my every gesture, eye movement, is visible. As in: I’m an open book? I hope not. But I have nothing to hide from her. So.
“I suppose I should buy something.” Both women turn their heads to grin at me. “I’m thinking of the peppers.”
“You can buy piment d’Espelette in most supermarkets but…” Léonie.
“Not in my supermarkets.” I walk toward that shop. Oh shit, it’s full of little Basque flags and banners and scarves. It’s the sort of tourist shop that is a jumble of shit. I stop. “Is there a shop more exclusively food oriented?”
“Of course!” Alize.
So I move back and take my place between the two ladies, and we keep on walking. Gradually the pedestrian space is narrowing so that I’m feeling it’s a town in that I can look up two several stories. All at once I’m liking this architecture. I like it close up. “Do people live in these houses?”
“Why wouldn’t they?” snaps Alize. Obvious why I asked that: the noise, the tourist throngs? I look up. I see the shadow of someone at a window looking down at us. They vanish. On a day like today we must be the curiosity. It’s late afternoon, and there’s no one. Not a cat, as they say in French. Pas un chat. Without asking, both women take an arm: I’m escorting them. Okay.
I realize that we had arrived outside the old village and that the open area was a kind of agora of sorts, probably once the market for market days, right on the edge of town. There had been sprawling cafés, umbrellas, now empty according to law but still set up. The street here is fairly narrow now. And now there are shops. A nice big butcher and charcuterie store. A big fruit and vegetable store, open to the street, but empty: no shoppers. There’s a cheese shop! Should I buy some cheese?
When am I leaving? Am I leaving? Of course I am. In fact, I should leave as soon as possible, as soon as I can get a seat on a train back up to Paris. Tomorrow would be too soon. But the day after? So I could buy some cheese and take it home.
“You mind going in here?” Léonie gives me a nudge yes and then looks at Alize for her approval. She nods. “This shop meets with your approval Alize?”
“I don’t shop in Espelette, but it is no tourist trap. Let’s go in.”
The smells! Heaven on this very earth! And we’re the only ones in the store. In fact a grizzled but smiling older man has to come out from the back. He looks vaguely like he might have been napping. “Bonjour Messieurs Dames!” Jaunty, gravely voice. I reply with a similar greeting. The women just nod, making it plain that I’m the customer. I start in. Basque cheeses only. Sheep or cow. Sheep and cow, I correct. Your most interesting ones, Monsieur. He looks like he could be insulted some of his cheese might not be interesting but moves on. His eyes are alight. Wheels of cheese emerge. I’m given tastes. The ladies are offered tastes but demur politely. Further indication that Monsieur, myself, is the customer and the rightful center of attention.
He announces that he will begin with cow, for obvious reasons. I nod in educated agreement. First we try one at three stages of ageing. Rich and deeply creamy moving on to a bit sharp and dryer, reminding me of, not Parmagiano but Padano, a cheese delicious but not of the same “breeding”… I prefer the middle ripe one and ask for a wedge. Ah, no: narrower please.
When am I going to eat all the cheese I know I’m going to buy?
“Esquirrou!” announces the cheese man as he pulls a wheel of cheese out of the display case and sets it on top for us all to see. Alize bursts into a hearty laugh that bespeaks triumph.
“This cheese was crowned by the Americans in a big cheese contest in Wisconsin. Best Cheese in the World. Kukurriku in Basque. Cocorico?”
“Le Coq gallois!” I second for her. The crow of the French rooster. Nice-looking label. An almost chocolate brown. Two little sheep facing each other.
The cheese man is already preparing a slice from an open wheel. He offers me the slice on the tip of the cheese knife. Merci, and I take it and pop it in my mouth. Oh! Melting texture. Hint of hazelnut? A dried fruit like a prune? But. I’ve had this. It was one of the gorgeous cheeses I had for dessert in that restaurant where I first spotted Léonie with her ladies-who-lunch. Meantime the cheese man has offered Alize and then Léonie a taste.
“You should buy the whole cheese, Monsieur.” Alize is commanding. And then she asks the cheese man, “C’est combien la tome?”
Crazy! It’s only seven euros. Thanks, Alize. I’ll obey.
Monsieur le Fromager is about to give more samples. I shake my head. No, this is enough. “Mais pour gouter, Monsieur…” How can I refuse a sampling curated by a master? Léonie expresses her gratitude. Alize gives me another commanding look and nods with a smile of expectation.
I give in.
We stick to sheep milk now, the glory of the Basques. Funny. Some are characterized by one of the Esquirrou’s palate hits: hazelnut, but not dried fruit, grainy rather than smooth. I’m thinking that maybe it’s nice to have a cheese with just one or two highlights. But gradually I can’t taste anything but sheep milk cheese, that over-riding flavor that unites pecorino with Manchego. The category. I don’t dare not take the samples, but I’m not enjoying it much. Finally Alize raises her hand to stop. The women and cheese man laugh together. I smile.
Come on. Pack up my cheese, let me pay, let’s get out of here. The pungent odor of the shop is now getting to me. Fresh air. I say: “C’est trop gentil. Je peux vous régler?” The last word “pay” snaps our cheese maestro into another phase of his métier. It is indeed a profession that he has. I bow to his expertise.
He gathers the slice up with the whole small wheel of Esquirrou, oh best cheese of the world as decided in Wisconsin. The absurdity of that seems only to have hit me, not Léonie, not Alize, and the cheese impresario probably didn’t understand the English. He walks over ceremoniously to the back counter against the wall. There he begins successive wrappings. It all ends in being deposited in a plastic bag emblazoned with the name of the shop. I’ll save the bag when I get home. Already thinking of getting home again.
How will I get home with no place allowed to serve food and drink? Are the trains exempt? I guess… I guess I’ll have to pack things to eat and drink. No, no, I’ve got to get out of here before I’m marooned. Next thing you know the trains will stop running.
Panic hits my gut.
The cheese maestro has now moved to tally up and he’s put the bag next to the card machine. I pull out my wallet and extract my bankcard. I see on the small screen that he’s put in the amount. I also see that there’s a scan option. Let’s try it. I place the card on the window. Zing. It’s done. Oh the beauty of the Eurozone. I don’t even have to put in my pin number. Which makes me realize that I’ve got quite a bargain in this handsome bag. If it was more than twenty-five, I’d have to tap in my pin number. “Merci Monsieur!” barks the cheese man with a great smile. “Bonne journée à vous Messieurs Dames.” He’s stood back like an impresario. It hits me that, business done, he wants us out. He wants to get back to his nap or whatever he was up to in the backroom. Suddenly I pick up the sound of a TV.
“Merci Monsieur. Bonne journée à vous.” Léonie is speaking for us all as we turn and leave the store. A bell tingles as we open the door. I hadn’t noticed that, as we’d come in.
I shut the door behind us, and then a gust of wind hits, quick and tinged with ice, a reminder that it’s March, mid-March. I look up and notice that it’s now overcast. I’d been fooled by the sunshine earlier. The weather has changed while we did our cheese tasting event. If I had a wristwatch I’d know how long we were in there. I don’t. “There’s the official shop of the Piment d’Espelette right up there,” points Alize. Ah, I see it. Big sign. “It’s a good place to buy you some. You can get the ground dried kind and they also have strings of whole dried ones.” Her eyes are alight with pride and pleasure. Oh gods, a decision. Do I want a string of whole peppers? I’d thought of just the ground kind. Dilemma. I bet the whole ones are amazing. I think of Mexican chili peppers that you soak in water to reconstitute and then cook with.
We start walking. A young couple appears from the angle of the street up ahead. She’s got her hand around the dude’s waist. They snuggle for a minute. That gust? No. I haven’t felt anything, but I have put my collar up. So we’re not alone in this pedestrian street. They pass us by without a glance. It’s all about each other. Or is it because we’re old and hence invisible? As if to make a point of sorts, the women take my arms again. There is a slight incline. Up we go. Blood circulating. I’m enjoying this exercise. Especially with our goal in plain sight. And the shop looks open. Or does it? “Is it open, Alize?” Alize barks back an “of course” to Léonie. She almost sounds offended. And as we get closer I can see that, although the door is shut, there are lights on inside. In fact it’s all lit up, shedding light out onto the street. I wonder if it’s not around four. I could fish for my phone and look, but the women have my arms. And who cares anyway?
At the shop Alize opens the door for us. We march in after her. Nice and cozy. There are jars of ground red pepper of all sizes. There are stacks of small metal containers of the ground pepper. There are strings of dried vermilion red peppers. Aren’t they a match for the red of the Basque shutters and half-timbers of outer walls? I look closer and see there are jars of what is called on the label pepper jelly, or pepper paste, or purée of Espelette peppers. There are posters around the wall. There is a rack of books about Espelette. And we have the place to ourselves. And I’m on the verge of sneezing but suppress it.
Alize is taking control. She greets a young woman who has turned as we enter. They exchange greetings and discuss the apocalypse of no tourists. Yes, the tourists have fled. Of course it isn’t just Biarritz. Espelette no longer serves food.
The girl wonders if they won’t just close the shop. Alize and the girl share sighs, small grunts of displeasure, and Alize shakes her head. She notes that it is absurd. The Basque Country has no cases of this Corona.
Hearing this startles me. Silly. Because that’s why I travelled here in the first place. Why am I surprised to hear this fact repeated?
This may be the official outlet for the local peppers, but it is essentially a tourist shop, and it strikes me as forlorn even tawdry: a tourist shop without tourists. But the girl is cheerful and chatty. Alize is suddenly speaking to her in Basque. Time for me to examine the varieties of piment d’Espelette available. I immediately like the idea of the purée. I’ll take one of those for sure. And then rather than a big bottle or tin of the powder, I’ll take several smaller ones. I bet once opened the powder loses its aroma if not its bite. And then I have to get a string. Decoration for the kitchen. Oh, and there’s also fleur de sel with piment d’Espelette. The idea of aromatic sea salt with the pepper is not just seductive but a must. So one of those too.
I notice silence. No one is speaking; the three women are looking at me. Yes, okay. I launch a big smile: “J’ai choisi!” The girl is the first to launch a smile back. Alize and Léonie can be heard chuckling happily or I think happily. I suppose my announcement that I’ve made my choice is a bit childish.
I point out the things I’ve decided to buy. The girl packs them up. She tallies it all, and then comes the card-machine moment. This one, too, takes a swipe from the chip in my bankcard. Bingo! Done.
We leave. And then I burst into a fit of sneezing. So, that’s why I lost interest in exploring the shop. Subliminally I was stifling this sneezing from the pepper.
Okay. A theory. Perhaps a bit cockamamie. But once we’ve moved down the street toward where the SUV is parked, the sneezing is gone, nose wiped, eyes clear, and the sun, believe it or not, has come out again.
No, I’ve just had enough. I’ve lost interest in things Basque, at least for the moment. I never made this trip to see Basque Country. I made it to see Biarritz, which is this gorgeous old-money seaside resort. Period.
I am back in the middle. A lady on each arm. I don’t know why I’m here. And I’m suddenly tired.
Léonie lets out a yawn, which she only half stifles.
This synchronicity between my thoughts and her actions is totally unnerving.
“I would love a nice little half-hour nap back in Ustaritz.” She looks first at me and then at Alize. Alize shrugs. I smile.
The drive back to Alize’s farm seems to take no time at all. As we pull up to the kitchen door, Jordí steps out to greet us with a great smile. I take it that the Basque he spouts is announcing the successful thawing and oven-ready state of the Txuleta. He has not been addressing me, obviously, hence the Basque. But he stops, smiling in even greater satisfaction after his report on the state of the beef, and focuses on me: “Bonjour Monsieur!” The accent: Is that what they call parler le français comme une vache espagnole? Speaking French like a Spanish cow? Which certainly originally was comme un Basque espagnol. Speak French like a – most assuredly – Spanish Basque. That would be Jordí. I think he’s going to continue, but he doesn’t. His look at me is generous, on the verge of friendly in that he sort of knows me now. I’m familiar. He suddenly rubs his upper arms; I picture the triceps. Yes, it’s chilly now, and he’s come out just in his shirt, no jacket.
Wait! Where are the sheep? Where is the boy, the shepherd? I’m about to ask Alize and then I remember. They’re in the barn getting milked.
We go inside, all of us: first Jordí because he’s the nearest to the door and is cold, and then I am ushered in next, the ladies following. “Nap time,” announces Léonie as she closes the kitchen door behind her.
Yes. Alize stays behind with Jordí in the kitchen as I follow Léonie down the hall. At the door to her room, now my room, she announces: “À plus tard, mon ami. Beaux rêves.” And then she continues to the next door and opens it and immediately shuts it behind her. Sweet dreams? I open the door and go in. I actually am contemplating a bit of reading, propped up, my feet up on the bed. But who knows? Maybe reading will make me drowsy.
So glad I thought to bring my iPad. And. And to be free of these strangers for an hour or so. I’ve thought it. Yes. Strangers. If I were truly crazy, I could think that I’m living in a surreal scenario, that I’ll wake up and be back home in my own bed.