It takes a few minutes when I wake up to realize it’s Wednesday. That’s a relief. It’s tomorrow evening that I have that dinner at eight with Hervé and Courtenay. So, today is all mine.

         That’s food for thought. What was I planning on doing? I can’t remember.

         I’m still lying in bed. My carefree visit to Biarritz has been taken over by these people.

         The last time I was here, as Covid seized the planet, I fled quite literally at the crack of dawn to get out of Ustaritz, to get home. I’m not going to do that this time. Plus, there were other factors back then, like restaurants and cafés being closed? Yes.

         So now?

         I think I’ll go to Bayonne. For lunch. I know it’s around twenty-five minutes by city bus. Bayonne to Biarritz is pretty much one big urban sprawl. I’ve heard Biarritz referred to by denizens of Bayonne as “their beach.” They have a point. And I usually take the Paris train to Bayonne, get off there, and take that bus. Frequent buses. Just as fast or maybe even faster than taking the less frequent trains that stop at Gare de Biarritz, where the buses to the center of Biarritz are less frequent. Well, now I know the route a bit better since I got the info from the woman at the desk downstairs when I went to Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Anyway.

         Get up.

         I peer into the terrace of the brasserie as I walk past. This is level ground. I take my time. Is that Yvonne sitting at the back alone having a café au lait? No. It’s Wednesday, and it’s a bit after ten-thirty in the morning. Plus, her chauffeur took her to Ustaritz after our cocktails, right? Anyway, kind of a dead time for café life. There’s absolutely no one sitting in the back row against the front of the café. I was playing with shadows in my mind’s eye. The bus will leave from behind the city hall in ten minutes. Get a move on.

         This is a funny kind of bus. First, but not so unusual, it’s electric. But it’s surprisingly long so that it feels like a tram. That’s the illusion that is meant, I’m sure. Roomy too. I sit back.

         After ten minutes I notice that we’ve changed towns. We’re in Anglet. Anglet? I pull out my smartphone and find that this is just the southern bit of a town that is a beach district north of Biarritz, also a magnet for surfers. Everything looks like a slightly urbanized suburb. Most of the older buildings are only two or three stories, and are very Basque looking: that red and white thing. And then there are fairly nondescript apartment buildings with nice big balconies: This doesn’t look like public housing. There are shops, and there’s a big supermarket with an ample parking lot. But mostly there are shops. Nice-looking pastry shops. Boulangeries. And little cafés where it looks like you can get lunch. And then we go around a traffic rotary, and it’s Bayonne. I think I’ll make the covered market before it closes at 13:30. Easily. I don’t have something I need to buy, do I?

         It’s definitely time for lunch. Wandering among the stalls in the market has made me hungry. As usual, I only put a croissant in my stomach and a grande crème at breakfast. I’m not far from the Michelin-listed restaurant famous for its machine that cuts Bayonne ham super thin. I’ve been here before. It’s where I think I first saw Alize and Jordí, or at least their prototypes. Actually, didn’t I think Léonie was that woman?

         The lunch crowd is not huge, and there’s a table for me alone. I sit. The lady hands me the menu, and I know without even looking that I’ll have some of that Bayonne ham. As prosciutto is to Parma, this ham is to Bayonne. And this place is evidently its basilica if not cathedral.

         There’s a menu, that is, three courses for a set price. This is one of the glories of eating lunch in France: the lunch menu. I’m aware that generally tourists try to eat lots at some hotel breakfast buffet and then grab a sandwich for lunch and sit on a bench staring at some tourist landmark. Poor babies. Later, they will go out for a big dinner and spend twice as much as what I’m going to have to pay for this lovely three-course lunch. So be it. Or ainsi soit-il. So, I think most of the people eating lunch here are French, if not locals even. The woman who seated me seems to know half of them. Regulars. Like Biarritz, Bayonne is not poor. I’ve been told that Basques do quite well for themselves and look after each other.

         I remember Ustaritz. Now those nineteenth-century châteaux were and still are super showy, and they were built by Basques who’d made fortunes in North and South America. But that was the Belle Époque, which I’d now say invented bling. But what about the Sun King himself? Yes, but that was bling for the aristocracy. The grand bourgeoisie of the day was careful to dress in black. You see pictures. Quite striking. No doubt those bourgeois didn’t want to make the aristocrats they leant money to ­– so they could buy their over-the-top frocks for the court of Louis XIV – jealous, envious? Or they might have been Jansenists, which were Protestant Catholics in all but name. If only the Huguenots had been as clever as the Jansenists.

         Do I care? No. Huguenot, Jansenist? Nasty penny-pinching puritans. Let’s hand it to the Roi Soleil for his contribution to art and partying. And music. And opera. And very fine dining. Not to mention grand fountains and Versailles.

         And there on the menu, which is charmingly called Le retour du marché, what the chef brought back from the market, he would seem to always find fine Bayonne ham. That’s a fixed possibility for the first course. Bingo!

         Now we really hit the day’s market. Second course is fish of the day, seemingly always prepared in a tasty and intriguing way including the addition of shellfish. I know piment d’Espelette, but what would piment d’Anglet taste like? I’ve just travelled through Anglet South on that bus.  And then there’s the Plat du jour, which couldn’t be fish. Mysterious. The nice lady will tell me.

         Piments d’Anglet are long, thin, dark green peppers. They’re sautéed. Gorgeously vegetal. A touch spicey. Perfect with the fish. I ordered the fish of the day. I think it was dorade, which Brits call bream, I remember. It’s a light, white fish: delicious. The plat du jour was a special kind of pork. I love pork. But I wanted fish, I guess mainly because I was interested in the piment d’Anglet. I’m not disappointed.

         The Bayonne ham was heavenly with a nice glass of white from Gascogne. I read earlier that Gascogne was some Germanized (Visigoths or something?) version of the word for Basque country. I wonder if the Basques still dominate in what the Brits call Gascony?

         I look up as I finish the fish and savor the last piment pepper. A bit of commotion. There seems to be a last-minute seating? I pull out my smartphone. It is exactly 13:30. Yes. But the lady is seating this couple. In fact, they’re already sitting at a table in the far corner of the restaurant from where I’m sitting. I do a mental double-take. Is that Alize? It couldn’t be because she’s behind bars. Or is she still? Didn’t Yvonne say it was a short sentence? I don’t really remember. In fact, I realize I don’t really remember what Alize looked like. This time the woman is seated with her back to me facing a pudgy man in a black suit. Could be a lawyer. The back of the woman’s head was that short salt-and-pepper hair style. Maybe she’s just been released. Is there a prison in Bayonne? My smartphone is sitting next to my plate. I check. Yes. Well, maybe. There’s something called Maison d’Arrêt de Bayonne. There’s a picture. It doesn’t look very high security, more like a local lock-up. Shudder at that thought: She might have been transferred there, from something bigger, and today freed. That could be her. Her lawyer is taking her out for a nice lunch after months of prison grub.

         The man has seen me staring. I turn back to the safe haven of my smartphone as if my eye had just haphazardly drifted in his direction.

         While I was finishing my fish, they had entered and crossed the room. If it is Alize, she would have seen me. Wouldn’t she have stopped, come up to me, something like that?

         A thought gets me looking around the room at the other diners.

There. There’s a woman with the same hair. I smile.

Of course, I remember now that this is a pretty common hairstyle for Basque women over forty. They do look stunning.

         I need my dessert. There’s rice pudding or the dessert of the day. I don’t feel the need for the stodge of a rice pudding. I look up and catch the lady’s eye. “Le dessert du jour?” I smile. She smiles back. Ah, she starts off with “fromages,” and I stop her right there. “Fromages Basques?” She nods and smiles, seeing my delight.

         I can’t get enough of these remarkable Basque sheep cheeses. She’s off, but I call after her. “Et un verre de vin moelleux Gascogne?” I get a “Oui, Monsieur,” along with another conspiratorial smile. Foodie conspiracy rules. So nice. I’m not the only one who has discovered that the slightly sweet Gascogne white makes for a richly satisfying dessert with Basque cheeses.

         I decided not to have my petit café in the restaurant but to get out and walk around the medieval center of Bayonne. I ask for the bill. The lady appears with bill and the machine for my bankcard. Lunch has been so reasonable that I can swipe my card on the machine, and the bill is paid without entering my pin number. Nice. I get up, stretch my legs for a minute, and then notice the pudgy man in the black suit taking note of me. I don’t look directly, but I see he’s saying something to the woman. She looks like she’s ready to turn around and have a look at me. No. I turn quickly and get the hell out of there. I’m taking no chance that it is Alize.

         Outside, I stand for a minute. Why my personal uproar?

I just don’t want to get involved any further with Alize or with Léonie.

I start walking. I need to cross the small river Nive to get to the old center. Ah, water. Bridge. Gorgeously picturesque quayside, mostly the red and white Basque buildings, but also plenty of nineteenth-century beige stone buildings, more copies of Bordeaux than of Paris Haussmann. There are other pedestrians, but it is a Wednesday and it’s not tourist season quite yet, so not a lot of other people.

         I take a deep breath. I love it. I’m glad I decided to spend the day in Bayonne. The museum is closed, maybe in the aftermath of Covid, but it’s beautiful weather, and I’m not in a museum mood anyway. I pull out my smartphone and get the map up. Ah, so the street facing me will lead to a cross street, which will lead to the square in front of the cathedral. There, I’ll certainly find a café, where I can have my little café.

         I stop, once off the bridge, and look around behind me. Do I think Alize is following me? Why do I think she wants to have anything more to do with me? Ah, it’s because Yvonne stated that Léonie was unhappy that she wouldn’t see me.

         Why do any of them want to see me again? I mean, I left them without thanking them or saying goodbye. Rude bastard.

         I start laughing to myself.

         Well, I don’t know about Alize, but according to Yvonne, Léonie wants to see me again. Maybe she wants to bite my head off for being such a rude bastard?

         No, obviously not. Maybe she’s just curious. Really, if she wanted to see me that badly, she would have jumped in her car (Oh, that was Alize’s car back then, wasn’t it? Does Léonie drive?) and come to track me down in Biarritz. She didn’t. She evidently told Yvonne she could bring me along. I was invited.

         I’m getting that trapped feeling again. I start walking.

         Chocolate. Chocolate. Chocolate. One shop after another. I’m reminded that Bayonne was the center of chocolate in France starting in the seventeenth century when Sephardic Jews were chased out of Spain and brought their recipes here. I stumbled on this when checking out Bayonne just in the chance that I’d spend some time here when in Biarritz. Who doesn’t love chocolate? I wonder if it tastes different, is better, or should I just go into one of these shops and buy some? I’ve bought chocolate in Antwerp. I’ve bought chocolate in Paris.

         Maybe later.

         I yawn. I need my little espresso.

         I turn the corner, and I’m in the place shaped like an apron around the front of the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie. Gothic thing. I should go in, but I won’t, because already I’ve spied a chair and table just waiting for me to sit down and have the petit café. The table I like is back toward the bank of glass windows that let you look into the bar and vice versa. So, as I sit down, I can turn around and signal, if I have to. I don’t. A young guy in a white apron is heading out toward me. But on the wall inside I see this big poster advertising – Is it in Bayonne? – bullfighting. Yes. “Un petit café, s’il vous plait.” The kid turns to go back inside. I want to ask him about the bullfighting, but better to ask when he delivers the coffee.

         He smiles and lets out a little laugh in response to my question about bullfighting as he sets the coffee down on my table. “Effectivement.” He does a poker face that breaks into a grin. Yes, Bayonne has a bullfighting arena, and, yes, there are bullfights. There will be bullfights in July and September. “Ça fait partie des Fêtes de Bayonne,” he adds. Part of the famous Bayonne festivals in the summer. I know about them. I caught the music at one a few years back in June; it was the very first time I also visited Biarritz to have lunch at the Clos Basque and got a bit smitten with Biarritz, right?

How was that Fête de la Musique again? Crowds of people milling around the narrow, medieval streets ­– probably not far from where I’m sitting now – wandering in the semi-darkness as the late sunset of June came down. Nice atmosphere, I remember. Party! Musical groups at every square or any place where there was room to set up. Why didn’t I notice the bullfighting element? I do remember seeing bullfighting posters. I guess I thought it was about Spain. It wasn’t evidently.

         He’s off back inside. I’m the only one sitting on the terrace at the moment. I’ve missed my chance to ask him more. Was he a fan? Do younger people go to these corridas? He probably would have engaged in this conversation, but it’s too late now. I’m not going to chase after him into the café.

         I pick up my coffee, and its half done: two sips. Un petit café. There’s a bit of chocolate on the saucer. Oh, very nice: dark, not too sweet, rich aftertaste. Bayonne chocolate I see from the wrapper.

         I ponder over bullfighting in Bayonne. Would I go? I hear the music that accompanies bullfighting in my head. Trumpets. Just about everyone has heard it. Famous. Marches. And then the colorful, sparkly outfits. The horses with riders with long spears. Picadors? I even find I know these names. We all know toreador thanks to Carmen. Bayonne is very truly Basque, but Spanish?


         Ah, good grief. It’s a tradition going back to the fourteenth century. Even up in Bordeaux. There’s an arena in Nimes. Of course, the old Roman one where there’s theater in the summer. Ahem. Bullfighting also, evidently. There’s so much info, so many articles about bullfighting in France I feel like an idiot.

         Ah, here’s why. There’s jumping around with the bulls in arenas in the Landes and in the Camargue. I did know about that. And everyone knows that bullfighting has been banned in Catalonia, but that’s Spain.

         Now I read that it’s all Eugénie’s fault. It’s as if Yvonne is ranting at me. She is supposedly responsible for bringing bullfighting to France in the nineteenth century. She missed it; she was from Andalucía. Now I get that this article is making a point that it’s not really a French tradition at all, despite the fourteenth century bull running and slaughter stuff. Fun and games in the abattoirs. Those so-Christian Middle Ages loved their does of blood, guts, and cruelty. Flaying alive. Burning at the stake. Not a peep out of Holy Mother Church. It is what it is, she probably thought.

         I stop reading and finish my coffee. Pretty much cold. I look up and examine the façade of the cathedral. I’m sure it’s unique, but I don’t see it. It leaves me as cold as the espresso. Maybe it’s more breathtaking inside? Could be. I was astounded once at the height of the nave that soars in Amiens. And then everyone loves Chartres.

         Henry Adams? I google. Yes. Published in 1913. Did I read it when I was a kid? Was it on our reading lists in school?


         I check the time on the smartphone still sitting beside the coffee on the table. Time has flown. It’s a bit after three.


         What’s the best? I would love to ask the waiter, but he’s inside.

         A couple arrives and sits down nearer to the front of the terrace; they want to sit in the sun. Out pops the waiter. The man orders un demi, a beer, the woman un verre de Gascogne blanc. They seem to be locals. They know exactly what they want. And she knows her Gascogne white wine. The guy needs his beer. The waiter races past me. I’m not going to be able to ask him anything. My time with him is up, unless I order something else. I don’t want anything else.

         Back to Google. So, the best chocolatier is evidently a place called Cazenave. Oh, that’s TripAdvisor. Agh. But no. It’s the general consensus. Must have won some prize in Bayonne. It’s not that far from here. I might have passed it already coming to this café. Where is it on the map? I zoom in. No. I didn’t pass it. It’s up toward the river Adour, going in the direction of the city hall. But closer is this place with the oh-so-Basque name of Xokola Etxetera. I break out laughing. Chocolate Etcetera. The woman at the table turns toward me. Me? My laugh? No, the waiter is arriving at their table with her wine on a tray and the guy’s beer.

         I wasn’t that loud.

         But I love the humor of that name. I’ll hit that one first. I’ll go to several of them. I’ll collect chocolate!

         When I get back to the hotel, the desk clerk has something for me. A book. It is wrapped in old-fashioned brown paper that used to be standard for wrapping books. “Qui l’a laisse?” How did it get here? She smiles: UPS. I start laughing; she joins in.

         I think she expects I’ll unwrap it right then and there, but who knows what it is. Better take it upstairs with me to my room. Time to put my feet up anyway. Did a lot of walking in Bayonne. I’ve got two bags of chocolate to prove it.

         Who would send me a book to my hotel? Never happened before in my life. Something from Hervé that would explain why I’m invited to this lavish dinner tomorrow? This is a thought the hits me as I’m going up in the elevator. It’s a small elevator. I suppose three people could fit in it. It’s wedged in the middle of the circular stairway. It’s not original with the hotel, couldn’t be; the hotel was built in 1859.

         It suddenly hits me that this hotel was built five years after the start of construction of Eugénie’s Palais. So, almost immediately Biarritz was on the vacation map.

         I walk along the hall to my room with the book under my arm as if I’m carrying a rifle, although I’ve never carried a rifle in my life. I’m just thinking this book is some kind of weapon.

         In my room.

Door shut and locked from inside.

I sit on the edge of the bed and start to unwrap it. La descendance de Napoléon III dernier souverain de France. The cover has an oval sepia photo of the Emperor with a young lad sitting on his knee. I’m struck by how it looks like one of those sepia photos being dug up these days showing gay men from the nineteenth century in “friendly”  couple poses. Funny. Nicely scandalous. I want to imagine the old codger with that goatee beard with a secret catamite. I love the word catamite. I start laughing.

         There’s a card. It’s from Yvonne. Of course.

         I realize then that it can’t have been delivered by UPS. The girl downstairs just said that to be funny and because I’m American. It has been hand-delivered by someone. It’s not in UPS packaging.

         So, is this book going to reveal how Hervé came to be a marquis?

         I open it. Oh, I don’t think so… It is pithy. Do I care?

         I take my shoes off and stretch out on the bed.

         That was odd. I never nap. But my smartphone says it’s eight-thirty-five. I’ve missed l’heure de l’apéro. So, I’m going to have to combine that with tapas, or more precisely pintxos, somewhere. There’s a Basque place on the corner that looks good.

         It’s packed. People are hanging around outside waiting to get in. There’s a place on the terrace outside, but it’s really too cool to sit outside now at night. Wait? Yes.

         Razor clams! And here they are in front of me, grilled, I guess, butter or oil, certainly a sprinkle of espelette, a sprinkle of parsley, and a slice of lemon. I’ve never eaten them before. They are gorgeous, slightly chewy, but that brings out the briny flavor. And bits of peppery heat from the espelette: subtle. I could eat this forever. Glass of Gascogne dry white. Price is right. Why drink anything else? I’ve ordered a half liter carafe. Bad. No, very good and my hotel room is less than five minutes away.

         There is a poster for a surfing school on the wall. The waitress is a surfer; I asked, and she told me she surfed any time she could. She has the impassive face of a Greek goddess who keeps smiling through glittery bright eyes. She is young and a lover of life. She is in near constant motion, serene, and indefatigable. She will surf in December if the surf is up. Yes, of course, she is Basque.

         And then again, I’m thrown into the mystery of the genteel symbiosis between the original Basque citizens and the old-money rich who so successfully run this town, no doubt in collaboration with a Basque elite. I conjecture.

Surfing is no doubt a drug. The surfers here all have this look of nirvana attained on their faces. How can they afford to live here? The prices of apartments are stratospheric; I’ve checked. One used to be able to dream of a pied-à-terre in Biarritz. I chatted with an older couple who were from Bordeaux. They had such a place. Oh! The woman laughed: “My husband inherited it from his mother. Who could afford it now?” We all laughed. But these surfers do find some place to live. They are not all locals by a long shot. Are they gilded youth with trust funds? They are not bling. They are not Courtenays. They are not the type to party on St. Tropez yachts.

         I order patatas bravas because I want to keep drinking the delicious white wine and want to be able to walk back to my hotel without zigzagging or, worse, losing my balance and falling.

         This modern world is amazing and glorious.

         I wake up knowing full well it’s Thursday.

         Leaving on Saturday. It will be a week in Biarritz. Enough? Enough.

         On the other hand, I could easily live here.

         If I had Courtenay’s bank account.

         I laugh. Quietly. To myself. Not out loud.

         I go back to sleep.

         There’re whole sections of Biarritz I have yet to explore. One thing: No big lunch today. So, lots of walking, a sandwich or some pintxos somewhere, back to the hotel around five or six, feet up, and then dress for dinner. I have a white shirt I haven’t worn. That should do it.

         And no cargo pants tonight.

         I know that the restaurant does not allow shorts or sandals. Cargo pants? They were no problem in the bar.

         I packed nice slacks. Just in case. So, they’ll get worn. Nice.

         I’m sitting having my grand crème and a croissant outside on a café terrasse near the hotel. It’s 10:30. And I am slowly realizing that this is going to be a beach day. Oddly, I’ve never had a beach day in Biarritz. I’ve always avoided coming here in summer. Today will reach 25 C. or 26, so says my weather app. I can feel it already. The sky is bright blue; it’s already warm sitting in the sun. I almost feel like moving to a table in the shade. I don’t. I extend my legs out in front of me and slouch back in the chair.

         I’ll spend the afternoon at the beach. There’s always a bathing suit in my bag, just in case… I’ll take a bath towel from my room, something to sit on; it’s unlikely that the water is warm enough for the likes of me to swim in. Surfers? They do have wetsuits and swim all year round. I know; I’ve seen it myself. But I will get my feet wet. Wading along the shore? I can picture that.

         I pay and wander off toward the parapet that looks over the main beach of Biarritz.

         The beach is filling up with sunbathers. It won’t be your packed summer beach scene, but I will hardly be alone. Still too early for me, though. I amble up the promontory. Where will I have my tapas lunch?

         I haven’t been here in a while: Halles de Biarritz. The night when the prime minister brought cafés and restaurants to a screeching close (though I hadn’t heard the sound!), I had gone to a café.

         I remember now and decide to go back. It’s a bit of a steep climb. It will build up an appetite.

         There it is! I pull open the door and step inside. I don’t feel like eating on the terrasse. Ah, memories! Is that Léonie in the back near the bar? No.

         I find a table, though most are occupied. It is not the same table. I look around. I spot that table I sat at on that memorable Saturday night, but it is not free. Good. That would be spooky.

         There is a menu on the table, and I pick it up. It’s then that I notice that there’s an array of pintxos on a bar-like table, spread out and tempting. I see on the carte that they are color coded for price. I can serve myself? The waiter comes over, and I ask him. “Oui, c’est ça!” He’s surprised and pleased. I’m tempted to order a glass of Rioja, but this is France. I search under Bordeaux. What’s this Côtes de Castillon? Not cheap. I’ll get that and find out. But first I look it up on Google. Ah, it’s between Bordeaux and Bergerac. Interesting wine country. It will be surprising. I order it and see the waiter’s eyes light up. I’ve made a good choice. He’s off, and I get up and amble over to the bar.

         This is not Donostia, but the choice of pintxos is still alluring and plentiful. I start off with three, which is what I can balance easily walking back to the table. Something shrimp. Something egg. Something foie gras. A glass of red wine is sitting on the table waiting for me. I sit on the banquette side, nicely cushioned, and start, first with a sip. Nice. Spicey. Deeply velvet. Once again that region hits the jackpot.

         They must have brought in a guy from Donostia-San Sebastián: superb pintxos. The border is porous: This is the EU. I glance at the menu. I’ll have some peppers stuffed with cod, and that should do it.

         The sun is beating down like July as I leave the hotel for the beach. Luckily, I packed a pair of shorts out of optimism and have been proven prescient, as I’m enjoying thinking now. Actually, I threw a pair of bathing trunks in my bag years ago and never ever had the chance to put them on before. Is there some omen here?

Once again, I feel anxious about tonight’s dinner as if I may just have been invited to dinner by cannibals.

More people on the beach now. I find a post toward the outcroppings of rocks and tidal pools, as if they will have my back, away from the softer sand but sand cluttered with beach-goers.

         After no more than twenty minutes prostrate, I grow bored and sit up. I have the urge to put my feet in the tidal pools and explore the rocks and seaweed. And then it hits: I’m a little kid, and Grandma has taken me to the beach. I’m back. Proustian. I get up awkwardly and pad a few feet to the tidal pool. The salt water is warm on my feet; my toes sink into the sodden sand. I’ve left my stuff, but my eye is on it. I had planned this from the start without realizing.


There’s a tiny crab scampering into the seaweed, scared off by my entrance into his pool.

The sun is hot on my bare back. I’m fascinated by the micro world beneath me. I’m that kid again, who would spend hours building sandcastles, cities, on the rocks, damming the rivulets ebbing away with the outgoing tide. Mesmerized, lost in fantasy worlds.

         look up and around. I’m not that kid. I’ve already had enough and need to walk further, explore, but I can’t really. I have my stuff. Oh, for those halcyon days without a wallet or keys!

I’m chuckling away now.

I couldn’t wait to grow up.

         I can walk a bit more and still keep an eye on everything. The beach is peopled but not crowded. No doubt, like everywhere, there are thieves roaming the beach – but here? My New York City antennae say: not so much, not very likely, not here in Biarritz. But as New Yorkers also say: Ya nevah know.

         I go back to the towel and sit. I stare out at the perpendicular boulder sticking up out of the middle of the bay, a famed lodestar of a sort. Eugénie was no doubt transfixed by the site of it, could well have seen it as a sign for a palace to be built on the shore facing it. If she had nostalgie for Spain, this was not her Spain. Her Spain was Extremadura, Andalucía. I pull my smartphone out the pocket of my shorts and google: born in Granada in 1826; died in Madrid 1920. Her reign as empress was but a mid-term moment in an inordinately long life for those times. No doubt, it thoroughly colored the last half of it as being the last empress of France. Born in a world of coaches and horse-carts, she died to the honking of motorcars.

         She no doubt spent hours of her days here staring out at this protrusion of a rock. I can see why.

         It’s been an hour and already I feel that my untreated flesh is going to begin to burn. No thought to sunscreen. I stand up, pull on my shorts and a shirt, and head up to the shade of a café on the promenade overlooking the same view. I do not want to dine looking like the lobster that will be on the menu. I’ve seen the menu. There are two “adventures.” And one is called le fil de l’iode, which I’ve already decided I want: sea-oriented. I expect that I will be given the choice of menu; it will perforce be for the whole table. Or will Courtenay obfuscate? Out of spite? Is she spiteful? Spoiled, for sure, but spiteful? Toward me? Why? Just because I’m not a Texan? That could be reason enough: Texans can be like that; I’ve met the breed. But she parties in Saint Tropez. She’s beyond that in her bling billionaire world.

         Yet, don’t I feel that she is playing competitive with me? Oddly, yes. Can she read my mind? Didn’t I treat her with the most soothing of kid gloves?

         I’ve found that table. I have the view and I’m in the shade, a warm shade. This is a taste of summer today. A waiter approaches. I panic. I haven’t given a thought to drinking something. I am thirsty, I realize. I love pastis, but that’s too strong at this point in my day. I wonder if they have what Yvonne wanted to order, a Picon bière. I ask. They do. I almost but don’t chuckle out loud with pleasure: What a treat!

         Dinner at eight. I wonder if Hervé knows the movie? That would be considered relatively early in Paris nowadays. I bet Courtenay comes from people that eat dinner at six. Stop: Don’t be snotty! She can read your mind. Your body language probably reeks of it.

The sun is heading toward setting but is not even close yet. I’m walking along the Place Clemenceau and then will follow the curve of the street above the casino, which will take me to the Hôtel du Palais. First, it’s called Avenue Edouard VII – that’s the stout Francophile Brit King who ushered in the Edwardian Age – and then becomes, what else, Avenue de l’Impératrice. Biarritz is very fond of her, despite Yvonne’s denunciation; first name basis, places are often just called Eugénie.

I can smell my Dior Sauvage. Perhaps I’ve overdone it. Black trousers, pearl gray shirt (if wasn’t actually a white shirt after all, but pretty close), and a jacket over my arm, because it is still around 22 C. now, but it will be much cooler and probably a bit windy as I walk home. How drunk will I be?

         I’m thinking now what a wonderful way to spend the day. Just sitting on the beach, toe in salt water, sun blazing down. My shoulders feel slightly sensitive. My face looked a bit red when I checked in the mirror. But what are they doing all day? Sunbathing? Swimming in the hotel pool? It’s been sunny every day since I’ve been in Biarritz. I have no idea what they’re doing together other than fucking. That is something they’ve shown an interest in. And that is supposedly why they felt they needed to “make it up to me” with this dinner invitation.

         What is the every-day life of the bling daughter of a Houston billionaire? You can only do so much shopping. Courtenay must already be bored stiff with Biarritz, although I don’t know anything about the nightlife here. There’s that Playboy Club in the basement area of Yvonne’s and Léonie’s building. I did google it out of curiosity. The Playboy franchise, I thought, was long gone. It seems to be a rather exclusive club now, with no bunnies.

         I go past the gate and enter the premises of the Hôtel du Palais.

         I ask at the desk and am pointed in the direction of La Rotonde. I’m feeling butterflies. How absurd.

         I confront the maître d’. I realize suddenly that I have no idea what their last names are. As I approach the man’s smile, I scan the vast dining room behind him. A wave of relief. I spot them. “On m’attend, Monsieur,” and I point in their direction. He is composure itself as he turns and sees Hervé and Courtenay seated in a far-off area near the windows overlooking the sea. The dining room is not crowded. They have been allocated their own sector. I wonder whether Hervé didn’t arrange this so as to spare Courtenay the stares of ruffled dinners at the caw of her voice.

I bet.

         The maître d’hôtel turns and smiles at me: “Oui, Monsieur, on vous attend.” And he leads the way across the room, abandoning me with a nod only at the outer edge of their sector, their domain.

         Hervé stands and blesses me with the handsomest of smiles. He is wearing a very crisp, very white, perhaps Egyptian cotton shirt that molds to his torso, emphasizing pecs that startle me now. Is that a wry look on the edge of his smile? An expensive shirt, skintight, perfectly molding Greek-god gym pecs: Wasn’t that kind of bling on his part? There was no pulling at the buttons; the shirt could have been tailored on his body. Courtenay turns and grins at me. She is dressed in a classic pale jade-green sheath dress that Marilyn Monroe could have worn if she wasn’t wearing dresses with skirts that could get blown up over subway vents. Both are bronzed like the gods, bronzés comme des dieux, which is French for major tans.

That was quick! So, they’ve been lounging by the pool. At the least.

         As I approach, Hervé points to a chair, the only other one at the round table. Hervé will be at my left, Courtenay on my right, and I will have the full panorama of the sea before me. Hervé extends his hand; I take hold of it, firm but not overbearingly tight as it grips mine. “Bonjour, Monsieur,” caws Courtenay in a surprisingly decent accent. She’s had some practice partying in Saint Tropez. She gives me a look: surprised ya. I give her a grin. I think, why not bow and kiss her hand? But she hasn’t gone that far and extended it to me.

         So I just say, “Bonsoir.” I realize immediately she will take this as a correction; it’s evening, so bonsoir versus her bonjour. I didn’t mean that at all. So, I move quickly to take my seat; a waiter has glided in and is holding it out for me. “Merci,” I say. In general. Well, it’s for the waiter but…

         I figure I must say something, but Hervé, smiling, beats me to it. “You’ve been on the beach, I see.”

         “I have. Yes. It felt so like a beach day. I explored the rocks and tidal pools,” I add with a laugh.

He smiles back. “You’re a big kid.”

         “You got me!”

Courtenay laughs at that, a nice laugh and not harsh. Is she taming her voice?

         The waiter is back and offering each of us a menu.

Let the games begin!

         We all open our opulent cartes, but I know we’ve all looked at the website. I’m right: “You are our guest. You choose our menu. I think it will be SUR LE FIL DE L’IODE?” Hervé’s baritone caresses.

         “You are a mind-reader.”

         “But you just gave it away with your talk of tidal pools, non?” He’s grinning. His teeth are startlingly white, what they call American teeth. I’ve just noticed this. Is it new? Of course not. It’s just that I have never been blessed by this level of his smile. Monsieur le Marquis shouldn’t have gleaming teeth or even smile, right? So, he’s prepared for Houston.

         Courtenay puts the menu down. “Hervé translated for me back upstairs. Funny, your sea menu is not the one with the oysters.” I can’t tell if she’s disappointed.

         “Yes, but it has local lobster,” I say.

         “I’m just teasing you. We’ve had oysters for two days straight.” She almost winks at me but instead turns to smile at Hervé. There’s something perverse in that smile. I’m feeling a bit embarrassed. I hope she’s not going to drag him upstairs in the middle of the meal.

         “And so, how does the sunbathing compare with Saint Tropez?”

         She turns abruptly to me. “Boring. Not much eye-candy here.” She giggles then, as she sees my look of surprise. “Except for Harvey.” She does wink at me then.

         The waiter returns and asks if we have made our choice. Hervé states it and then asks about a wine pairing. The waiter nearly bows as he says, “Mais oui, Monsieur.” He takes the menus from us and is gone.

         “Ah! Monsieur,” calls Hervé after him. The waiter turns on a dime. “Une bouteille de Clos du Mesnil, s’il vous plait.”

         “Certainement, Monsieur.”

         “We can’t sit here waiting, now, can we? And we need to toast you. How did you find the Bar Napoléon III?”

         “Well, stunning.” I’m stunned at his question. “I think that’s the word. Elegant. A time-machine.”

         Hervé gives me a grin at the “time-machine.” Well, in more ways than one. Yvonne provided the vehicle. And she obviously told him all about it. I wonder what else she told him?

         The waiter arrives with the Krug. Hervé offers a toast: “To our esteemed guest.” What? Why am I esteemed? But Courtenay looks me in the eye, benignly, and seconds the toast. Aren’t we going to have any more wrangles between me, the Yankee, and she, Houston? Disappointing. As if reading my mind, she toasts me again and takes a long sip. Oops! I forgot to take a sip myself.

         Oh, what a rush! All over again. There is nothing more sublime than this champagne: Clos du Mesnil, again. I should bottle my piss!

         I try not to laugh.

         “What’s so funny?” Courtenay caws at me. Truce is over.

         “Oh, I was just thinking how sublime this champagne was… Shame that it goes through the body and comes out, in the end, in the loo.”

         “Loo?” She gives me deadly grimace. I notice that she is nowhere near as tanned as Hervé: Ah, deep tans are not good for the skin, so they say these days.

         “Sorry. I’ve picked up that Brit expression. Toilet. It means toilet.” She erupts in laughter and toasts me again, an excuse to down her flûte. Hervé immediately refills, though I see the waiter, standing in the background, jump to do that. Hervé has beat him to it. I see that this is a signal on the part of Hervé to the waiter that he must not constantly hover over our table.

         She takes a sip and brightens: “We went out dancing last night.” I am not surprised but give her an eager look so she’ll spill everything. “First, Hervé had to show me this old standby right underneath Aunties apartment. Funny. It’s called the Playboy, but there were no bunnies.” She caws out a laugh. The rest of the restaurant is behind me so I can’t tell if her voice is carrying and whether all eyes are on us. Maybe that’s part of the reason Hervé has seated me here. “But it was very sympa…” She pauses so that I can absorb her use of the French slang word. “A bit older crowd. Very eighties music. And then we went to Le Caveau, which Hervé warned me was sorta a gay place. I loved it. I mean – hello! – gay has been chic alors for decades now.” She pauses again so that I can appreciate another bit of her French. Or is it her allusion to how she accepts gay as cool? “And then he saved the best for last. Carré Coast. I mean, I could smell celebrity… but I don’t know the French celebrity crowd. There was that Russian oligarch with the house here, the one the Antifa people attacked? Way cool. Made me feel homesick for Saint Tropez. I’m getting all these tweets, like, when are you coming back? The parties I’m missing?” She glances at Hervé, who remains pokerfaced, and then bursts out laughing towards me, rather than at me, again.

         “Biarritz is old money,” I blurt out. Oh, fuck! I have cut her laugh dead. Her eyes are pure ice. “I mean, lots of rich old people. Not much fun.” Her eyes warm slightly. She takes a sip.

         “Biarritz doesn’t really have the international crowd that Saint Tropez does,” intones Hervé. He is looking at me. He knows I’ve slipped up and he’s patched it over. Courtenay is looking at him adoringly, as usual.

         And then two waiters arrive and a trolley.

         The feast has begun.

Caviar! This must be from Aquitaine, because all elements of the menu are locally sourced. Weep, Putin!

         We still have our champagne. How is this going to jibe with the wine accompaniments? And then the problem is solved, because we have finished the bottle, and the sommelier pours us a small glass of a very dry white… to help finish up with the caviar.

         Lobster. This is not your New England boiled lobster. It is a Japanese painting in two dishes. There are pickled beets. The lobster is in plump pieces, devoid of shell, and has been smoked with pine needles. Would I have known this without the description on the menu? Yes. And another white wine (I am not following the rapid patter of the sommelier), slightly fatter, some kind of chardonnay, which goes unctuously with the lobster and various preparations of beet. Kimchi is one preparation noted by the menu.

         I know these kinds of menus. We are going to be consuming art. And there will be umami moments where surprising or unknown ingredients combine for a moment of palate ecstasy. Brief moments, because we soon move onto the next course, with new tricks for our taste buds in store. This is a kokotxa, which is a kind of Basque bouillabaisse. Smokey little mussels. Chorizo. But the surprising element is the kokotxa itself, which is a fatty fish’s neck. It was the one thing on the menu I needed to google. It used to be thrown away but is now a delicacy. A move from trash to royalty. So many food treats like this these days. Cucina povera in Italy. All those crazy tripe dishes in Lyon. What once was discarded is now gold. This must constitute some kind of life parable, but I don’t have time to come up with one.

Courtenay says, “Spicy.” I don’t know whether that’s a compliment or not. I suppose she means the chorizo. Surely, she knows chorizo, although being Spanish it probably hasn’t figured in her TexMex upbringing.

Oops. I’m being catty again. And I’ve been proven wrong already on so many counts, her love for caviar and Clos du Mesnil, for starters.

And Yvonne assured me that Hervé was not motivated by great wealth. I suppose he finds her coarser aspects exciting. The dissonance of her voice – she must explode in hyper-erotic cries when they fuck – makes him smile. I saw that myself: that smile of his when she speaks. But he knows that it is not to most people’s taste in France, or anywhere else in Europe, I suppose. Hence the cordon sanitaire that he has arranged for our table here. Although Spain. I’ve heard harsh sounds come out of the women from Falangist families, Franco’s mummies, but that was the past, my past memories. How about those Almodóvar movies. The female voices in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown struck me more as excited parrots than caws of birds of prey. Right now, though, Courtenay is barely speaking. She is entranced with the food.

         Red tuna. I ate in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where this is supposed to come from but don’t remember it on the menu. Obviously, I missed something. It is red, well, very dark red, and is raw. Lively vinaigrette and a sea-brine mayonnaise. As usual in these restaurants, the little dabs of this and that sauce and flavor are essential but not easy to parse.

         Courtenay devours it. “I love sushi!” But this would be sashimi. Oh, okay.

         Change of wines. Our next course will be a grilled fish. Brill. I came prepared and looked it up. I was not helped: no idea what brill is. There is juice with small mushrooms. And there is hollandaise. Lovage, seasoned with lovage, which also didn’t give me any idea of taste. I’m a peasant in this world of fine dining. Lovage has added a lightening touch of celery or fennel to the hollandaise.

         Hervé has said nothing. He listens attentively to the waiter as each plate is served. He listens to the sommelier. And he nods. Of course, I say nothing. I am transfixed by the journey. And it is reminiscent of my childlike fascination with the life of the tidal-pool this afternoon. Quite brilliantly: If someone asked, I’d say I was eating that experience.

         I think an hour has gone by. Maybe more. Only Courtenay has really spoken.

         “Are you enjoying yourself,” says Hervé suddenly.

         “Oh, of course. This is really amazing.” He smiles. “I think it’s the sort of experience where you wait in silent expectation between each course. Sort of to not break the spell.” And then I realize Hervé has done just that.

         “I wanted to experience this restaurant. And Courtenay…”

         “I love it.” On cue, she continues: “It reminds me of how I came to enjoy oysters by chewing them.” We all burst out laughing. She has a point.

         “It is just like that, isn’t it? All these discoveries of the nuances of sea food.” Hervé beams at my remark. I hear my words float in the air to no applause and then fall away. “It’s hard to describe this experience.”

         Courtenay reaches over and taps my hand, which I’ve placed on the tablecloth. “I couldn’t have said it better.” Is she humoring me? No, she’s just being nice, I guess. Maybe, just maybe, I have exaggerated the, well, dissonance between us. Texas is always a bit overwhelming. And I know that her caw is not atypical of a lot of American women nowadays. I’m just not used to it.

         And then it dawns on me that she is no doubt paying for this extravagant experience, just like the mind-boggling cost of the Clos du Mesnil. And then I next realize that to her the cost is nothing, inconsequential, not important.

         I have never known a billionaire.

         Courtenay is that caw, but she is an alien. Billionaires are aliens, creatures not restrained by anything monetary, which I or people I know need to deal with. To her, thirteen thousand euros is like thirteen thousand pennies or thirteen thousand Monopoly money. I can’t grasp it. Not really. So, for her money has no meaning, no value, not in the sense I know it. Maybe her father has more of a grasp; he wasn’t born a billionaire. But Courtenay? She knows nothing else. She is an alien creature unrestrained by money. Money.

         Money is monstrous.

         And then the two waiters arrive with verjus. Wine before it ferments. It is in the form of a light sorbet. It is a cloud brought to earth. It has incorporated lettuce from the sea, as the French puts it, along with grape vinaigrette. It is the palate cleanser, the trou normand without alcohol; it is the summum of the iode experience. Iodine. But not the red tincture for wounds. Iodine as chemical ingredient in salt: essential sea. The kick from air by the ocean.

         I have stayed on barrier islands, on sandbars facing the open sea, where within an hour I’ve become drowsy, and not just from the whispering of the grass in the dunes or the lapping of waves on the beach. Iode. The sea’s drug.

         “This has been amazing,” says Courtenay. She turns to me, “Thanks.”

         I am startled. “I’m thanking you.”

         “No. I never would have done this if Hervé didn’t say, we’ve got to do something. We were rude. And so, we do this gourmet thing. An adventure. I’ve never had food like this.” She glances from Hervé, who she’s been addressing, and turns to look out to sea.

There’s no trace of sunset left; it’s an inky blue world out there at best.

She turns to me. “Funny… I know I’ve been somewhere. I felt it. But now I can’t really tell you where I’ve been.” She erupts in a caw of a laugh. I can’t see if other guests are looking at us. It is harsh. But I know what she means. The meld of ingredients is such that you only have an ethereal memory of the sensations and tastes and thoughts. This was not your grilled T-bone with chimichurri sauce, something I bet she loves. I love it too. And then Hervé joins in laughing, nodding. His laughter blends with hers and softens it.

         To her I say: “I know what you mean.” I admire her perception.

         “And there are two desserts, if I’m not mistaken,” states Hervé.

         And then they arrive, one after the other.

         “Let’s go upstairs,” says Courtenay. “Just look out there,” she nods her head toward the window overlooking the sea, “it’s depressing. A black hole.”