It was not rain threatening on the horizon after all. It was fog.
We sit at an oval table. My wrists sink into the thick layers of fine linen tablecloth. The silverware looks silver. The plates are porcelain, I’d say, and their design looks Empire. Whether First or Second is a bit beyond me. Let’s say Napoleonic. I look beyond Hervé at the double doora out to the terrace. We are in a cloud: sky, land, and sea are one. Is it the same outside? Has traffic come to a halt in this pea soup? No way to tell. The Palais is out on a promontory, far from city noises, cars, buses.
The two male service people in white jackets and black trousers came out on the deck and removed the ice bucket and the tray. With us in the lead, they followed. Actually, they were like sheep dogs and we were the herd, moving us deftly into the dining room, where we decided who would sit where. I say we. Hervé decided. As well he should, I think. Nothing much has changed. I’m seated next to Tata, on my left, with Courtenay on my right, facing Hervé. Was that the head of the table where he was? I could be the head of the table. Oval is good that way.
There’s still some champagne. All our glasses have been refilled by one of the waiters. Let’s call them waiters, even though this is not a restaurant. It is private dining. I sip my champagne. There has been no real conversation up until now. Bustling, comments about seating, but nothing on-going, so that now there is a lull. That moment in the French language when “angels pass.” I suppose that’s what makes me want to get up and walk to the double doors, maybe even open them, and step out into the cloud. I’d love to do that!
A waiter proffers what I suppose is the wine list to Hervé. He reacts dazed. I suppose the list is huge, as fitting this sort of establishment. And then his face lights up. He reads out: “Accord mets et vins.” I hear him say and do what I would have done under similar circumstances. He decides for a choice of wines to accompany each course. I see Tata smile; she is proud of him.
Courtenay’s eyes sparkle at Hervé. I know she has no idea what he’s said, but she has picked up on Tata’s approval. “So, what are we eating?”
Tata raises her flûte to Hervé: “We are at the mercy of my nephew. But don’t worry, he knows his food.”
“Oh, I know that. I’ve already learned so much from him about French food. I’ve even learned to eat oysters raw without tabasco sauce or anything. He said, ‘imagine the sea’…” She bursts into a growl of a laugh that normally would be called a belly laugh, except that with her there is a saw-toothed edge to it. Her hand goes to her throat. Is she going to choke? No, but a little cough comes out, a chortle: “Men,” she adds, and then she takes a sip of her champagne.
I get it. Oh, oh, this is pretty gross. I glance towards Tata. Her face is imperturbable. Maybe she doesn’t have the dirty mind I have. Surely she does not have the dirty mind I have. Or? Do I see a look in her eye now? I think that look means that she totally understands what Courtenay means and is laughing about it. That look says: You slut. And then suddenly her face cracks, and Tata bursts out laughing, her eyes directed toward Hervé. And how does he react? He looks proud of himself, very proud.
“That’s perfect, Courtenay, because if I remember we have oysters as a first course.”
“Yum!” she says and bursts into a lighter laugh this time but one that’s even sharper-edged. It could cut glass, shatter glass. I look at the array of three crystal glass expecting the worst. Nothing happens.
There is a perfunctory ring of the doorbell, and two waiters enter, one pushing a cart. I think two waiters: It turns out one is the sommelier. He introduces himself, in English. The waiter inserts the round metal rack in the middle of the table and then sets a great tray of oysters on top. Underneath, the usual: sauce mignonette, small slices of brown bread and a tureen of butter, a plate of sliced lemon. This is not what I would call cuisine, but I love oysters and I love them this way, unfiddled with. I’m with Courtenay. We have small plates. We have small oyster forks.
The sommelier presents a bottle. It is a white Côte du Rhone. Nice choice, but nothing extraordinary. He pours for Hervé. Hervé seems surprised and very pleased. The sommelier moves around the table. He puts the bottle in an ice bucket and withdraws. So does the waiter. Where do they go? I listen to hear the door to the suite open and shut. I don’t hear that. So, they are waiting out of sight in the salon? Nice touch. Hervé lifts his glass in a toast. I take a sip. Oh, I understand Hervé’s reaction. It is extraordinarily good, and a surprising paring with oysters. The buttery undercurrent is going to be amazing with an oyster. I take one. I loosen it with the oyster fork and then fork it into my mouth rather than letting it slide from the oyster shell. I chew. I sip. Oh, I’m right. Even more delectable than I expected. And then my eye goes to Courtenay. She has loosened her oyster in its shell, but then with her eyes fixed on Hervé lets it slip from the shell onto her tongue and then her mouth closes. And she swallows. I can see no sign of chewing. Her eyes are sparkling at him. Hervé, cued, takes an oyster and copies her. Their eyes are glued to each other. Embarrassed, I turn to Tata. She is in the middle of doing to her oyster as I did, but she’s watching the spectacle with what looks like great pleasure tinged with amusement.
Soon the oysters are gone. We are four oyster lovers. And no one has touched anything below the stand. In seconds, the waiter reappears and clears everything away. The sommelier does not reappear. So much for my hearing: He must have let himself out.
“I think it’s safe to say we all love oysters,” I say. Courtenay shoots me a funny look. Tata and Hervé grin back at me. I want to ask what’s next on the menu but don’t.
“The next course is…” Hervé is fumbling, “pigeonneau. Ah, squab.” Courtenay is giving him a funny look, and he smiles back at her. “You nominated me to choose the menu.”
“What’s this squab… skwahhb?” She is looking skeptical, and her voice is serrated again. “In French you said something that sounds like pigeon to me.”
Hervé is that proverbial deer in headlights. “Yes, but it’s not the kind of pigeon you see running around in the street.” I think: Someone in New York called them flying rats. I won’t say that. I know what Hervé means; he’s right. And they are delicious.
“Pigeonneau is quite the delicacy,” says Tata now to Courtenay. “You won’t find it in the supermarket. Do you like quail?”
Courtenay is trying to be polite, but her face is dark with disbelief. “We had a vice-president called Dan Quayle. He wasn’t great at spelling.” She glances at me for corroboration and then giggles. This is the first time I hear her actually giggle. It’s quite endearing, nice, childlike. I wonder if she grew up in a world of overwhelming wealth. I wonder if she went to college and, if so, where. The giggle has humanized her.
“I remember Dan Quayle. He was made fun of for being a bit thick. How times have changed,” I say, smiling to her.
“Oh, I don’t remember him, just heard stories about spelling potato. I’m still not sure myself, about the spelling, I mean. Who cares?” Her smirk is back. I’m trying my best: It’s not working. I look, I think Bitch. “Auntie, no, I’ve never eaten quail, but I have heard of it. In Texas these honchos go on quail shoots.”
What does she mean by “honcho”?
“Trust my nephew. You will love it.” I think Tata is going to reach across the table and pat Courtenay’s hand and maybe she would have, but Courtenay has both hands in her lap. She shoots the sweetest of smiles at Tata.
Signal. The doorbell gives one ring. Waiter, trolley, and sommelier enter.
The service begins: pure theater. Everyone’s reaction is slightly different. I’m in heaven. Tata watches all with a dreamy expression: Memories are intruding no doubt. Hervé watches with the acuity of expression of a gang foreman; this must be perfect and impressive. Courtenay smiles passively, hard to know her thoughts or reaction.
The sommelier has come up with a light red from Bergerac, with a hint of cherries, he notes. I always think of Cyrano, who doesn’t? But I know better. I missed the name of the vineyard. I trust him. And then: Who am I? He uncorks the bottle seamlessly, a beauty to watch. Hervé gets first taste. His face lights up; he looks up at the sommelier and nods. Tata is next, and then Courtenay, and finally myself. The sommelier bows out. The cart is wheeled away. Hervé lifts his glass. He has an amused expression on his face. “À vos souhaits!” and, looking at Courtenay, “May our dreams come true.” Her whole face explodes in a smile of pure pleasure, an almost childlike innocence that I didn’t expect she had in her.
“Well said, my dear,” says Tata and takes a sip. “Oh, very lovely.” Her appreciation translates immediately to pride in Hervé, although what does he have to do with it?
I take a sip. Ah, I see what she means. I take another. It has already opened, evolved, deepened. And then I look down at my plate. The breast of the squab has been sliced in half and separated to a right angle. The meat is a deep red and the same from top to bottom. I slice with my sharp new steak knife. There is a deep purple-black sauce. I dab the slice into it and pop it into my mouth. Oh. Rich and succulent. The sauce is berries, maybe currents, butter and veal stock, black-peppery. And now for a sip.
Gorgeous. I want to laugh out loud it’s so good. I don’t. But I beam across towards the other head of the table at Hervé. He grins at me. I realize Courtenay is very quiet. I see why. She is attacking her squab with the gusto of a kid with pizza. She notices I’m watching her. She pauses. “This is so good. You like it?”
“Oh, it’s delicious.” I take up my glass, toast towards her, and take a sip. She takes up her glass and does the same.
Ah, united in food, we are. Maybe.
There are perfectly cooked haricots verts, a bit of purple parsnip, some grilled padrón peppers, and two long small white potatoes, which I think at first might be turnips but are not. There’s a tiny squab leg and thigh. Finger food surely. I look to my right. Tata has taken hers up in her fingers and is now close to sucking on the tiny bone. I do same. She notices my look: “Dieu nous a donné les doigts. Un jeu de fourchette et couteau serait grotesque.” She states this as a verdict. Hervé is doing the same now. Courtenay? She attacks the tiny leg with knife and fork; she pulls off a bit of meat and puts it in her mouth. She set the fork down and takes a sip of the wine. And then she looks around the table; she sees. She picks up the leg in her fingers and starts gnawing at it.
Good girl, I think. Could I be more patronizing? I’m ashamed of myself. For a minute. And then she turns to me and says, caws at me, “Just like barbecue, right? KFC?” Is she mocking me? I chuckle and wipe my finger tips on my napkin and check for a finger bowl. There are no finger bowls.
Do you know the story of the Queen of England and finger bowls? I’m ready to begin with that but then stop. It’s a state dinner and the president of a Commonwealth country sees a bowl of water with a piece of lemon in it and picks it up and drinks from it, so the Brit story goes. And, typically, of course Her Majesty picks up her own finger bowl and sips from it. Noblesse oblige. To not embarrass her subject.
I’m glad I haven’t told that story. Courtenay licks her fingers. And then Hervé grins and licks his.
Awful. I need to pee again. It’s all that Krug. I slide my chair back and get up. Tata looks up at me and smiles. I’m off.
As I leave the room, I hear Courtenay say, “Is there something wrong with him?” And then I’m through the salon and in the foyer, and opening the toilet door. I shut it behind me.
Oh, blessed relief. It’s a torrent. This is insane. Hundreds of euros down the toilet, I think again. I chuckle. I flush. I wash my hands. The perfume of the soap is… Not your supermarket soap. And then I see it is Chanel. Of course, Coco Chanel set up her atelier in Biarritz during the First World War. Nice touch then.
I open the door and am face-to-face with Tata. “Ah, Monsieur. C’est une bonne idée si on s’en va maintenant. Le couple vous dit bonne soirée.” She then just stares at me. I suppose it’s because of my reaction. She thinks we should leave? Hervé and Courtenay have wished me a pleasant evening? What did I do?
“J’ai fait quelque chose?” What did I do? The bottom falls out of my stomach.
“Non, non. Pas du tout. Pas du tout.” She reaches forward and pats my arm. So, it’s not something I did? “C’est le champagne. Et quand on lèche ses doigts…” she starts laughing. “On quitte les amoureux, non?” Champagne and finger licking. So, they must have gone off to the bedroom. A bit gross, I think. And then I think again. Why not? It’s maybe not just me who is the foil, but Tata and me. We can go now. We’ve served our purpose.
The doorbell rings. We stand back to let the door open. There is the waiter with the trolley. He looks shocked to see us standing there. It’s cheese. It looks like an amazing assortment of mainly Basque cheeses. Behind the waiter the sommelier looks confused.
Tata glances back at me after taking in the cheese and the faces of the waiter and sommelier. “Ça vous tente? Pourquoi pas?” She smiles at the waiter and sommelier, and takes my arm and leads me back into the dining room.
We take our seats. At the two other places lie rumpled napkins. The waiter and sommelier have frozen in place right inside the dining room. “Ah, messieurs, vous pouvez nous servir. Merci.” They literally spring into action. The sommelier explains that he now has a wine from Loupiac, sweet to go with the Basque sheep cheeses.” So, I wasn’t so far off with my choice back at my lunch in the Clos. While I was in the toilet, the table was cleared. There are four fresh glasses. That means that the “couple,” as Tata calls them, decided to decamp to the bedroom after the table was cleared and reset. I wonder how this was negotiated with Tata.
The sommelier is standing waiting. Tata takes a sip, nods, smiles, and he’s gone along with the waiter and the trolley.
“Je les ai excusés. Hervé a dit, mais non, mais j’ai insisté. Vous aurez dû voir son sourire. Grand gamin.” So, Tata had let them off the dinner hook? She’s looking forward to little nieces and nephews? She is unfazed by Courtenay.
I smile. I don’t know what else to do. This is none of my business. I take up my glass and have a sip. Oh, sublime. Another sip: I’ve got to take a picture of this bottle. I must have some, buy some. I pull out my phone. “C’est permis?” I’m not being serious. Especially with the sommelier out of the picture, I can do what I want.
“En effet. C’est extraordinaire. Et je ne suis pas grand amateur de vin moelleux. Et avec le fromage Basque?” While I take a few snapshots, Tata takes the small knife and fork to the wedge of cheese, puts a sliver in her mouth, and then takes a sip of the Loupiac. “Ah, Monsieur, ça va vous régaler. Mon dieu!” That crystalline laugh comes out of her, so the opposite of Courtenay’s caw.
I can’t wait.
The small array of only Basque sheep cheeses is a revelation. I suspect that one of them is the famous one that was nominated as best sheep cheese in the world, the one that is a carnival of tasty twists-and-turns with each sip of the Loupiac. I could have eaten, savored, eaten, and sipped, forever, or until all the cheese was gone, but Tata keeps glancing to her left at the great sliding doors. We are trespassing. We are not supposed to be here in the dining room. Beyond those doors is the bedroom. I picture it as huge and centered on a king-size bed, or do they come even larger in a place like this? It would be a large room, but, still, we are seated within earshot. Maybe, though I don’t hear anything.
And then Tata pauses. She puts down her knife and fork in mid piece, and takes a sip of the Loupiac. “I think we must go.”
Has she heard something? And then I do: It is a muffled squeal. I put down my knife and fork, and do as Tata has done, take a last sip of the sublime Loupiac. “We must flee Paradise,” I say, which sounds silly the moment it’s out of my mouth. She gives me an odd look. And then in seconds, unsmiling, she is on her feet. I jump up. The squeal has cut my appetite. We move quickly into the foyer, pass the toilet, and are at the door – she grabs her cane – and then I am shutting the door behind us, all in a matter of seconds. Do I need to pee again? Too late.
We do descend the stairs. The staircase is monumental and maybe one of the most beautiful architectural features of the Palais. She edges her small hand down the railing, taking one step at a time, savoring the opulence, using her cane as more a prop than an aid. I’m at her side. If she fell against me, I’d go tumbling, but I don’t worry about that.
The manager is nowhere to be seen. Tata doesn’t pause to look for him. I think she’s not that keen on his offer of a guided tour. We go out the revolving doors into the cloud. This fog is thick. Never seen anything quite like it. We can only see maybe ten meters ahead of us, enough to see our path. We are just retracing out steps after all. I’m sure there is sound, traffic, all the usual city noises, but they are muffled in this fog. “Je suis contente d’avoir vu leur meilleur appartement, mais je n’ai pas envie de me faire trainer partout dans cet établissement. Ça suffit. Qu’est-ce que vous en pensez?” So, I was right she has seen enough. Funny how she calls the suite an apartment, but I suppose that was the original idea in days gone by. People of a certain class would decamp to apartments in grand hotels for a month or more in the “season.” I know that from Proust, well, not just Proust. Travel was different in those days: arduous, time-consuming; once the trip was made, one stayed put for a while. No one would think to do that nowadays, would they? Or is that Hervé’s plan for Courtenay?
“J’aimerais voir le bar un jour,” I tell her. The bar was supposedly the offices of the Emperor. I’d love to see it.
“Ah, tiens. C’est une idée ça!” she has turned and is grinning up at me. “Is it a date?”
I burst out laughing at the wide-eyed comic face she is making: “Of course it is.” She grabs my arm and leads me onward, thrusting the cane forward to pierce our way through the fog.
To our right is a vast gulf of cloud, but I know that down there lies the Casino. I wonder if the surfers are still out there bobbing around. Seems unlikely and not very safe to be surfing in the fog, but, again, what do I know?
And then we are standing in front of her building. The building.
Tata gives my arm a little tug: “Perhaps my little nephew or niece is being conceived right at this very moment.” She has stopped so that I turn and look down at her upturned face. She is serious.
Why the English suddenly? What am I supposed to say? Am I supposed to say something? I open my mouth, but she turns away to look forward, and I feel another tug. No. I’m not meant to comment. That’s a relief. “Comme je vous ai dit, ça ne doit pas être une question d’argent pour Hervé. Vous, comprenez-vous l’attraction?” Statement, reiteration: Hervé doesn’t need the money. Do I get the attraction to her?
So, does she want an answer from me?
Will she ask me in?
“Bonne soirée, Monsieur.” No to both questions. She proffers her cheek for a kiss and then the other for the second. I do as expected. “I would like that drink in the bar. I will send you a texto tomorrow.” And then she is carefully descending the slope and the stairs, using her cane more seriously now. I watch her go down. I want to make sure that she’s okay.
At the entrance she turns to give me a little wave. She knows I’m watching. And then she’s inside, gone.
Send me a texto? That’s very Generation X of her. She’s continually full of surprises. Texting me sounds vague. And she has no idea how long I plan to be in Biarritz. One thing: I have her phone number because she called me earlier, so it’s not so one-sided anymore. And then it strikes me that she has proposed a drink in the – what’s it called? I take out my phone and google. I laugh then – Le Bar Napoléon III. Not many bars or cafés with that name around, I bet. There’s a photo. It’s a reminder: I already saw it, which is why I suggested it. The décor looks interesting, more interesting than I found Courtenay’s suite to be. Lush. I suppose that’s bleu Empire on the walls. Lots of gilt. Bust of the Emperor.
I put the phone back in my pocket. The fog is still thick. I’m tempted to walk around in it. I hesitate and then head back to my hotel.
She didn’t mention including Hervé and Courtenay in that drink. So, I’m supposed to answer her question over a cocktail? My answer to her question is only postponed. But I have no answer for her.
Saint-Jean-de-Luz. I keep hearing about it and googled up information about how to get there before going to bed. It’s not the first time I’ve checked this all out. It’s not so easy. Not if you don’t have a car. You can get a train there from the Gare de Biarritz, but the Gare de Biarritz is nowhere near the city center; you need a bus to get there. Once on the train, it’s only fifteen minutes. It’s a day trip. A place to go for lunch. I google up restaurants. It’ll be Tuesday. Most restaurants are open. Saint-Jean-de-Luz, I’m told, is really and truly Basque. It has a huge long beach. It’s beautiful. I need to see it.
I wake up thinking about it.
I’m going. That’s what I’m going to do with my Tuesday.
I mention going to Saint-Jean-de-Luz to the young lady at reception downstairs. Her eyes light up. I mention about buses to the Gare de Biarritz. And she tells me where to pick it up. I have to laugh. I’ve been doing a mountain-out-of-a-molehill thing, making this excursion unnecessarily complicated. Hmm. Do people still say: Piece o’ cake?
I step outside onto the terrace of the hotel’s café, beautiful morning, and have my grande crème and my croissant. No big breakfast. My focus is always a big lunch, right? And where will that be today? Google time.
In fact, not all restaurants are open on Tuesday. Few seem to give you lunch if you arrive after one-thirty.
Better check the train schedule.
Ah, the latest train I can get from Gare de Biarritz is at 12:22. In thirteen minutes, I’m there. I can do this.
Now back to the restaurants. Michelin. Oh, why not?
Because money doesn’t grow on trees?
But you only live once.
And then there’s the age-old: Living well is the best revenge.
Revenge for what? I suppose revenge for the idiotic Prohibition those American ex-pats with fat wallets were fleeing starting in January 1920. The Lost Generation, Hemmingway quoting Gertrude Stein, says Google. Lost in champagne and cocktails? One can get lost in the labyrinths of Google, deliriously so, and thus lose track of time.
I’m back to the here-and-now. I finish my croissant.
Okay, there’s a Michelin star. There’s a special fixed-price lunch menu. I can handle that. Life does change when you spend a late afternoon and early evening slurping up Clos du Mesnil. I laugh now at myself peeing it all out.
Oh! It’s open for an hour at lunch? That must mean you have to get there between 12:30 and 13:30!
And then my alarm diminishes, fades, and vacation calm returns. I can do that, or, as they say these days, I can do this.
There’s a phone number. How large is the place? I can’t really tell. I better call now to see if there’s a table for one.
For a minute, I watch the website’s video showing a black slate of salmon cubes with salmon roe being set up on a slash of green something and then surrounded, dotted, with tastes, drops of flavored gels, a few edible flowers, a granular substance. All foodies know this genre of cuisine. It is palate teasing, eye entrancing, and it makes you slow down and appreciate each morsel of food prepared to tantalize. This food is noted as being Basque, but it could be Japanese. Your plate is a canvas for art.
This was unlike my lunch at the Clos Basque, totally unlike that lunch, and even a world away from Courtenay’s “entertainment” dinner.
I think I’m ready for this lunch, though, especially since it boasts that it is the Basque version of the genre, not that it actually mentions that it is a genre. It will be, should be, in quite sharp contrast to what I read is the earthier, more Basque Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
I click back to get the phone number and call by a tap of my finger. It rings. My smartphone is now a phone again; I put it to my ear.
I take a last sip of my now-cold café crème, which suits how I feel. The place is booked. Sorry.
Scramble. What’s next? Oh, there’s a place open much longer. From 10:00 to 14:30. You could have breakfast there? Who cares. There’s a great lunch menu for twenty-five euros. Hard to beat or equal these days. I check the general menu. Varied, Basque, modern. I can see from the pics that there is unlikely to be a Conchita waiting on me like at lunch yesterday.
Lunch yesterday. I’m realizing that I ate like a horse yesterday. Big lunch, and then Courtenay’s surprise “entertaining” thing. And yet. And yet, I felt fine when I woke up and am feeling a tinge of hunger now for that lunch in the offing.
I call the number. I make a reservation for one in the afternoon, explaining my train arrival. I could be earlier. The guy is jovial: “Pas de soucis, Monsieur.” I like hearing a Frenchman say no problem. On the other hand, did I sound worried, anxious? Maybe. But I now feel elated. My day is planned.
I look over, something seen out of the corner of my eye. There is large seagull, a presence, I even think of the bird as “a toddler” except that the bird has more command over his domain than a toddler would. He or she barely moves, oblivious of the presence of humans, indifferent to be exact. He or she is white with a few black markings. His or her beak is curved sharply at the end and is orange, a vibrant, waxy orange. The bird is paying no attention to me examining him or her but then turns – Is it to take me in, take my measure? – and studies the space below my table and then proceeds to walk over and pick up a piece of my croissant, a crumb, really, that has fallen while googling and with a few quick jerks eats it, turns, and walks away back into the sunshine.
I’ll be having a down-to-earth Basque lunch in a town free of the toniness of Biarritz. So they say. And yet I bet that Courtenay is a bit let down if not bored by the lack of bling in the Palais. Biarritz, where is thy bling or even toniness for that matter? The Saint-Trop parties the poor girl is missing!
Does anyone say “toniness” anymore?
If I get a move on, I’ll soon be seeing what is meant by the more authentic Basque experience of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. One thing I know from the tourist pics is that it’s one vast town of whitewashed buildings with red shutters. I’m not sure I find that appealing. I wasn’t really wild about the look of Espelette.
I linger in that memory for a second before censuring it.
Let’s not go there.
People do still say that!
I chose the TGV inOUI. This is the train that starts in Paris at the Gare Montparnasse and takes you to Hendaye, the Spanish border, where after nearly two centuries of train travel one still needs to change trains because the rail gauges still don’t match. I know my trip is scheduled to last for 13 minutes. TGV means reserving a seat, though. First class is cheap at around five euros. But what a joke! I would hardly have time to get used to my singled armchair seat and look out the window at the woodsy countryside before it is time to get up and off. I won’t go back to Biarritz this way. I’ll take the unreserved local train and go Second.
The station is small and unremarkable: red brick with white trim. I am through it from the track and on the walking route into town and to the restaurant after a brief halt to bring up the Google Map on my smartphone. I walk past a marina chockful of medium-sized motor yachts. Turns out it is called the Port, the Harbor of Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
On the opposite shore is the town of Ciboure, where Ravel was born. It extends over a steep hill, in contrast to the flat Saint-Jean-de-Luz. The Bolero aside, over the years I’ve become a great fan of every bit of music Ravel ever composed, so I mourn his relatively early death. I stand and stare. He was born in this Basque village, but this port was not his childhood: He grew up in Paris.
It is a gorgeous day. Some of the decks are bedecked with tables and chairs, and people are eating lunch in the sun. I might have liked to dawdle, check out the marina and the people on those yachts more closely, but I need to get to the restaurant. Flat as opposed to very hilly Biarritz, I effortlessly head down the narrow, pedestrianized streets of the old town with its half-timbered houses: whitewash and bull’s-blood-red shutters and timbering, massive buildings with slopping, gently peaking red-tile roofs, flattened pyramids, classic Basque, just like the tourist pics. It’s easy walking; I am liking it. And, yes, reminiscent of the part of Espelette that I saw. Basque red: bull’s blood, Espelette pepper red, barn red. White shirts and red bandanas: The buildings are like traditional Basque men, speaking prowess: great barns of buildings.
This is running through my mind as I head for the restaurant. And then I’m there.
Rustic. This dining room is rustic. And it’s as relaxed as the guy was on the phone. There is a lunch menu for 29 euros. I knew this, but to actually see it printed on a menu in front of me as I look around at the place with plush white tablecloths makes me ravenous and very happy. There’s a massive brick and stone-block fireplace beneath a long oaken beam (I suppose oak, since oak is very Basque, if I remember) – no fire today of course. Must be gorgeous on a winter’s day. One wall is stone stacked up like a wall is stacked in a field, though it’s been smoothed and more or less flattened.
I am not regretting not eating al fresco. And I think I was wise to make that reservation: Most tables are taken.
I order the tuna as entrée from that lunch menu. I can see from the description that there’s competition with the Michelin star place that had no room for me. It’s going to be a feast for the eyes: the genre.
I order a glass of Txakoli. Will the waiter do the number of pouring this young white wine into my glass from a height. Good thing I glance toward the bar. Yes, but I catch the bartender doing it there. No theatricalities, no circus act. I admire him and the waiter who then brings the glass over to me.
I take a sip: nippy, super dry, sparkly, just as one expects. It goes right to my head. For a minute. And then I realize I’m thirsty. As I think this, the waiter arrives with a carafe of water and a basket of bread. The waiter is moving non-stop. It’s nearly a full house, abuzz with conversation. No shorts and sandals, not that its full summer yet, so I think this is no tourist trap. It’s definitely a foodie trap. Huis Clos in a good way.
The tuna arrives. Four cubes grilled nicely on the outside, surrounded by an assortment of dashes and dab and droplets: a myriad of flavors. I start in. Oh, yes; they are giving the competition a run for their money. Beautiful plate with a panoply of little tastes to set off the nearly raw tuna. Sip of Txakoli. I sit back in my chair to savor the moment. Ah, there’s another waiter. That’s good; I was afraid they were trying to do a marathon with mine. The place is much livelier than my Sunday Clos was. Is this a hint of why Biarritz is considered snootier? And next I think that it reminds me of restaurants in Bayonne, capital of French Basque Country. But in Biarritz there are places up around the Halles market that are pretty boisterous. Or is it all about the Empress and Coco Chanel?
The Txakoli has hit. Nice. I’m daydreaming; no, I’m free associating. Thoughts giving birth to more thoughts. Logic and reasoning is not the point: Pleasure is. Okay, I’m daydreaming.
I feel my smartphone vibrate. Today I’ve worn cargo pants, so now I can just pull it out of my leg pocket. Yesterday I had made an attempt at dressing up for Tata and the Palais, even though I really didn’t think I’d be going in. I’m still clueless as to why I was brought into the picture. As an American counter to Courtenay’s American? Was it Hervé’s idea? What did Léonie tell Tata about me and why?
I feel uncomfortable, because this is a texto, that text message, and, since anonymous meaning only a phone number showing, it can only be Tata. I press.
Bonjour Monsieur. Je pensais trouver le Bar Napoléon III vers 16h30, moins peuplé pour qu’on puisse apprécier mieux l’ambiance et causer avec plus de discrétion. Ça se peut? Votre Yvonne.
Yvonne? The mind reels. I don’t think I’ve ever met an Yvonne in my life. A very old-fashioned name. Silver-screen Hollywood? No, it was a popular French name probably when Tata was born. Obviously so. I’m deflated: I liked Tata, really. Thinking Tata. Now I have to think Yvonne. She doesn’t look like an Yvonne.
I’m chuckling as the waiter takes away my nearly licked-clean entrée. It was really good.
What? 16h30. Four-thirty? No. No, that’s crazy. I can’t let her wreck my first visit to Saint-Jean-de-Luz. I look at the top of the smartphone and read the time: 13:52. No. I won’t be through lunch much before two-thirty, more likely three. I don’t want to gobble down my lunch. And then after the second glass of something red – I’ve ordered an unknown Basque red, Irouléguy – to go with the braised pork main course, I’ll want my dessert, which is part of the menu, and then a hit of espresso. And then. And then I’ll want to get up and slowly walk out of this place, thanking someone for the lovely lunch, and take a walk to the seaside. To the seaside at least. I want to explore this town. Take a look at the beach.
I check the train timetable. There’s a train at 16:25, arriving at 16:36. The next one isn’t until after five o’clock. One more after that. And then there’s one that I suppose I would have taken on my own at 18:25 which arrives at 18:36. With that one, we’d be talking about a drink at the Bar Napoléon III at around seven-thirty. That would be around the same time I’d had my apéro on the Sunday.
I don’t know what to answer.
The waiter arrives with my main course. It looks dazzling. It smells great. A glass of that red from Irouléguy is set down.
I stare down at it all. It looks extremely delicious and also beautiful on the plate. Except my appetite has vanished. I pick up the glass of the unknown Basque red and take a sip. Nice. Very nice. Fruity, will go well with the pork. Maybe if I take another sip, my appetite will come back.
No. I have to answer Yvonne, the former Tata. I have to deal with this. Another sip, and an idea hits, and I start.
Bonjour Yvonne. Je suis à Saint-Jean-de-Luz en train de déjeuner.
I look at this. It’s just a statement of fact: where I am and that I’m having lunch. I can just leave it there. Why not?
I take another sip. This wine is nice but will be nicer when I start eating. I’m hungry again. Let’s just send this. It’s no more “abrupt” than her suggestion – more like a command – to be at Bar Napoléon III at four-thirty, which is ridiculously early to start drinking.
Yes. I’m right. What’s she thinking of?
I send and feel a real rush of relief.
How has this perfect stranger gotten me so wound around her finger that I even feel this relief?
I take up knife and fork, and dive in. The pork crumbles into soft shreds. There’s a bit of boudin noir that sparks it. There’s cauliflower purée, rich with butter and something else, not sure what, which is the perfect foil. What’s that Japanese word? Umami. A symphony of combinations becoming something else totally? A sip of Irouléguy. Just as I thought: doing tangos on my palate. Where am I? More bites. Another sip, which is even more subtle and almost something else again.
I have put my smartphone back in my side pocket, of course, but now I feel it vibrate. Oh, shit! Did I suspect she would be this relentless? Yes. Yes, of course I did and do. That’s part of her attraction.
And that was part of Léonie’s attraction.
These women with major personalities that charm. That charm me.
Well, the smartphone can just sit in my pocket until I’ve finished. I put my knife and fork down. I take up my glass. I take a sip and scan the room, and I suddenly become aware of the buzz, a hive of happy bees. This place is a find.
And then I think that I’m bored with Biarritz and the fantasy I’ve concocted about it, that allure of old-money elegance. I mean: What real sign of it have I experienced? Okay, Léonie’s apartment was a kind of Proustian boudoir: I had been dazzled. The farm? Less so. Espelette? I can’t make up my mind about Espelette, and a judgement would be unfair considering that it was pretty much shut-down by decree.
This place? I like this place.
I pick up knife and fork and dive into what’s left. There are a few nooks and crannies that I have yet to explore. Oh, a tiny grilled leak!
I remember that there was mention of a tonka bean. I’ve read about this but never eaten it. Juice thereof, right? I can’t check, because the waiter has taken the menu away. There is a savor of something spicey like vanilla is spicey. A sip of Irouléguy with that.
My smartphone vibrates again.
I have this urge to laugh out loud. This Yvonne is relentless! Is it bad manners on my part to let her wait? Is it bad manners on her part to be so relentless? Does old money mean good manners?
I can feel I’m grinning. Fortunately, no one in the restaurant seems to be paying any attention to my existence. I am invisible. One of the two waiters has paused to chat with a table of three – two male, one female – the only table where they look under the age of fifty. Good-looking table. It strikes me that they must be Basque. I try to cock my ear, but of course from across the room it is impossible to hear the language. But lip reading? One of the guys has the floor and is amusing everyone. Those lips, the expression around the mouth? This does not look like French being enunciated. And then. And then he sees me staring at him. I turn away, but of course it’s too late. Oh, so what.
And then I reach into my pocket and pull out my phone. It’s a reflex. It’s a ploy to ward off the guy.
Oh. One message is from a friend wondering if I’m having a good time. I suppose that means I should have taken a picture, pictures, of my entrée and my main course. The entrée is a lost cause, and the state the main course is in now would make a disgusting photo.
The other message is anonymous. Looks like the same number… and… yes, it is, isn’t it? So, the second is a texto. Tata. Yvonne.
But it isn’t. It’s Hervé.
My excuses for the abrupt ending to the dinner and sorry not to say goodbye. We would like to make it up to you. Can you come to the hotel for dinner at the Table du Chef on Thursday at eight o’clock? It will just be the three of us. They warn the men not to wear shorts or sandals! 🧐 Bonne journée de la part de Hervé et Courtenay.
The smiley has me grinning. The three of us? What’s this all about? I feel my desire to eat at the new Michelin-star restaurant overwhelm my sense of a trap. Trap? What kind of Huis Clos could it be after all? But why has his Tata been excluded. Ah, maybe she’s busy.
Please, Hervé. You don’t need to make up for anything. But I would be delighted to join you for dinner on Thursday.
Ah, that’s not enough. Too stuffy.
No shorts and sandals, I promise.
I’m smiling as I add that. Good. Send!
Oh, I should have added a smiley like he did.
I look up to see the waiter standing in front of me holding the menu. Oh, dessert. “Abricots rôtis.” First thing on the dessert part of the menu. None of that Basque cheese offered. But I can’t complain. Three-course lunch menu from heaven.
Across the room the guy whose lips I was trying to read to see if he was speaking Basque is staring in my direction. The waiter leaves with the menu. The guy turns to the woman and says something. They all laugh.
The smartphone vibrates in my pocket. I think it’s Hervé. It is Hervé.
À demain et bon après-midi, Monsieur.
In French now and quite formal. I wonder if Courtenay had a hand in writing the first texto.
The dessert arrives. I’ve finished the Irouléguy. Should I do the glass of sweet-wine number again? “Il y a un verre de vin moelleux que je peux prendre?” I don’t have the menu. He looks at me blankly. I’ve said that correctly, haven’t I? No, I see that he’s understood. He’s thinking, or maybe he’s annoyed and trying not to show it. Relax, dude, the place is clearing out. And it is. Very quickly. The table of the three maybe Basque under-forties is empty. Amazing how fast the place is emptying out. That’s why my waiter is, I now see, annoyed. He wants me to eat up and leave too.
“Désolé, Monsieur. Un digestif?”
“Non. Non, merci.” And he flies off, set free. I call after him. “Un petit café, s’il vous plait.” That coffee. I need it. He’s heard me, turns, smiles, nods, and is off.
I remember as I eat. Apricots roasted with thyme and lemon: can taste that. A very sweet cake of nuts: pistachios? A bit of sorbet, apricot sorbet. Perfect. I didn’t need any sweet white wine. “Voilà, Monsieur.” Coffee set down nicely. I smile up and ask for the bill. I can read the joy in his eyes.
I wonder what’s happened to Yvonne? And then I can feel the smartphone. Spooky.
It is her.
Bonjour Monsieur. Je comprends bien que l’heure que je vous ai proposée est peu convenable. Mais peut-être plus tard? Demain je vais à Ustaritz pour voir Léonie. Voulez-vous m’accompagner? Ma pauvre Léonie serait sûrement ravie de vous revoir. Votre Yvonne.
I read it twice, as if a second reading will tell me what to do. It doesn’t. And yet in a way it does. The waiter is there with the mobile bankcard reader. I pay. “Bonne journée Monsieur.” I mutter thanks. I know, I know. I need to get up and out of here. But I also have to answer Tata.
Up on my feet. I stretch and then head for the door. I turn to say au revoir but there’s no one in sight. The restaurant is empty.
I step out and am blinded. It’s a bright, sunny afternoon. City noises. People, lots of people, walking in all directions. I already have an idea which direction leads to the Grande Plage.
I walk and I just love this place. The first time I really appreciate the architecture, these stout broad whitewashed buildings with all that blood-red trim, the shutters, the half-timbering. Interspersed are buildings in pale beige stone like Bordeaux. Louis XIV. Of course, he was married here in the cathedral to the Infanta of Spain. Major move for the young king: Spain is the mega-rich country in Europe with looted Aztec and Incan gold and silver. There’s a sign for the Cathedral. No, I want the open vistas of the sea; I want to see the Grande Plage. I want to compare it to Biarritz. Already I can smell the ocean. I’m getting close. The street is opening up, broadening. And then I turn a corner.
I’m on a car-free promenade, vast expanse of sea, vast expanse of beach full of sunbathers, kids with pales and shovels, surfer dudes (I don’t think it’s that warm yet, but they all do) out beyond all that. Along the promenade, buildings of all kinds and heights, from Basque stalwarts to turreted mansions, but there are no cafés. I start walking and then stop. Nope. I see no cafés, and there are no cafés.
Yvonne. I need to reply.
No, not yet. But then when? I figured I’d walk along this promenade and sit at some café terrasse and answer her.
There are benches ahead. I make a dash for one that is free. Just in time, because I’ve headed off a young couple walking hand-in-hand, and now there is annoyance written all over their faces. I move over to show that there’s room for them, but they just walk by, pretending that I and the bench don’t exist. I get it. I don’t care.
I pull out my smartphone. Cargo-pants side-pockets are so great.
What am I going to say? Well, my idea of strolling along this promenade, sitting at some café, is only possible in terms of the strolling part. It hits that there really is nothing to do here, not in the sense that I had in mind. I check the train timetable. There’s a train at 16:25. It gets in to the Biarritz station at 16:36. That’s the time Tata originally wanted to meet for that drink. Funny. Or is that more ironic than funny? When’s the next train? It’s time to take control: I’ll decide when we should have that drink, and it shouldn’t be much before 6 o’clock. And, inshallah, there’s one at five minutes past five. I like that one. So, Allah does will it. I chuckle to myself at the vagaries of fate. I can now wander around the old town a bit, see that famous church where young Louis and the Infanta tied the knot – I hate that expression! – and then even sit at a café, which seem to be plentiful enough in the pedestrian streets of the old town, or not.
Pas de soucis, ma chère Yvonne. Je prends le train à 17h05 qui arrive à la Gare de Biarritz à 17h16. Et puis j’attendrai le bus. Le bus me déposera à la Mairie et de là je peux vous retrouver devant chez vous si ça vous convient.
Should I sign off on the trip to Ustaritz right now? No. Ignore that bit for the time being. I don’t have to give her details about my plans for tomorrow, just say I’m not free. But why put all that in writing?
I feel uneasy about addressing her as Yvonne, but then, should I say the name in my mind, Tata? That would be too silly. Or I could just not address her at all. I could start with the train time.
Another chuckle, and I just send it as is. I’ll be arriving at the Biarritz station at about quarter past five, get the first bus to the City Hall stop, and then go and sit before her building. Something like that. I think there will need to be another exchange of text messages when I get on the bus. Or we could actually just speak to each other. I’m thinking now I’ll probably do that.
Settled. I slip my phone back in that side-pocket and look around me. Babies! The French have been having babies. Strollers all over the place. Little families. Right! All that Covid lockdown biz. I enjoy another chuckle.
Should I get up and walk some more? The sun feels good on my face. You could pick up a bit of an early tan here. Quite a few people on this promenade: The season has started early. After Covid, people just can’t wait to go on vacation. I suppose I’m one of them.
There’s one stop at a town called Guéthary. Non-descript, well, in the sense that the station itself looks just about the same as the one I just left in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. A person could get confused: chuckles. I’m in a sudden good mood. I’m looking forward to seeing Tata. She’s such a character. She’s fun. Yvonne. Yvonne. Yvonne.
When I see her, I’ll paste that name over her face in my mind. I will see Yvonnes, silver-screen starlets, or something. I know: I’ll say, Bonjour Yvonne. Then she will become that name.
I jump up. The train is pulling into Gare de Biarritz. I’ve been staring out to sea. The tracks run along the coast along a promontory. Really nice. Of course it is: This is the famed Côte Basque.
I note how much fancier this station is. I guess it’s that Louis XIV neoclassical style, but painted brick with cornices maybe of stone or cement, tan with white cornices. There’s a wrought iron and glass awning to protect voyagers that is pure Belle Époque.
I walk through the hall and out to the street. There are cars parked along the curb, people getting out with luggage. This is a TGV station after all. You can go to Paris directly from here, super high speed after Bordeaux.
I look for the bus stop. It’s on a street parallel to this one. And it’s then that on the other side of the street where I’m standing, I notice a long black DS with a sweep of chrome, a classic Citroën car from the fifties and sixties, that rises up on suspension cushions when the motor is turned on. I haven’t seen one of these in ages. They are certainly categorized as antiques at this point.
I watch as the rear door facing me opens. Out steps Tata-Yvonne, who straightens, faces me across the street, and gives a little wave of her hand. She is wearing a jade-green Chinese jacket.