Tag Archives: spain-france-2014

2014-08-12: Travel day

On the 11th, we took a PESA bus to Biarritz airport, where we rented another car from Europcar, this one a Fiat that was quite roomy inside. At the airport, Susan bought a detailed map for the region (1cm = 1.5km).

We then drove (without GPS, relying on Google’s directions) to Geus-d’Oloron, where the Americans attending the wedding were staying at Chez Germaine.

A word about GPS and map directions: The directions that we’re used to in the US are in terms of roads (routes and street names and numbers), and that is the style generated by Google, Apple, MapQuest, etc. In France, the street names and route numbers are not as readily visible when driving. At a roundabout, there are usually no street names at all, but the various exits have the names of towns (and usually a route number). If you have a detailed enough map, you can see which towns are along your route, and thus determine which exit to take. One feature of the roundabout system is that you don’t have to exit until you’ve read all the exit signs, and decided which is most likely to be in the direction you want to go; I sometimes have gone around three times. Also, the relatively frequent roundabouts make it fairly easy to reverse course when you do go wrong.

As we approached the hotel, we saw Betsy, Kristin, and Tim standing on a corner near the hotel.

Next: Pre-wedding Events

2014-08-17: Post-wedding events

On Sunday, we convened once more at the Saulue’s farm, for a barbecue of bacon, sausage, and duck hearts and livers; afterward we would go on a rafting trip on the Gave (river) de Oloron.

They set up a couple of games of pétanque (petanca in Occitan), which I quite enjoyed (though the team I was on lost). At the beginning, I wore my beret, in a jaunty style. One of the brothers came over to me and said that I was wearing it like an American, and should wear it like a Béarn. He adjusted it for me. It proved too warm to wear it while playing pétanque in the sun, so I removed it, with some regret.

The rafting trip was also a lot of fun. Forty-four of the guests had signed up, and when we arrived at the rafting site, they outfitted us with wetsuits, helmets, life vests, and a piece of string to hold our glasses. We had to sign a statement that we were capable of swimming 25 meters. When I asked if they meant upstream or downstream, everyone ignored me.

Then they announced that we should divide into four teams of eleven. This alarmed me a bit, and I told everyone I could that we needed to make an old folks team. In the end we did, though three of them were François’s father and uncles. They took positions at  the front of the boat. Our guide Alex announced that he would be our captain, since this was the English-speaking boat, but the Saulue brothers said, “Non!” So Alex said he would give orders first in French, and we could follow what the brothers did while he repeated the orders in English.

As the trip started, it became apparent that three of the teams had evil designs on the members of the others, and also the Saulue brothers in our boat seemed anxious to join battle with the other boats. Pretty soon, most of the party had been in the water at least once, though the older Americans in our boat adopted a defensive strategy of holding each others’ life vests in such a way that if one was grabbed, there was too much weight to dislodge us from the boat.

The rafting was good fun, and I’m glad I participated, rather than leaving early for Toulouse and my flight home.


2014-08-16: Wedding Reception

The wedding guests convened at the Saulues’ house for a group picture taken from their balcony, then we proceeded to Geüs for the reception. Somehow, Susan and I arrived first (with Betsy’s mother and sister). They went in and I walked to the hotel to pick up some items Susan wanted, and my beret. Along the way, the parade of guests in their decorated cars and blaring horns were going the other way. I heard later that the Americans were wondering what I was doing.

I returned with the beret hidden under my suit coat, and kept it hidden through the preliminary parts of the reception (games on the lawn, and drinks). Eventually Jacques approached me quietly and asked if I had a couple of minutes, and to bring my beret.

I followed him into the dining room, which was prepared for the dinner, including bread at each place. No one was supposed to enter until dinner, but a few people passed through to the restrooms.

Jacques, Joseph, and the other three brothers were standing there in their berets, so I put mine on, to their amusement, but apparent approval. They had copies of a lyric sheet for two songs: La chanson du béret (The Beret Song), and Jan Petit (John Petit). The beret song is seven longish verses, describing hats in general and the benefits of the beret in particular. Apparently the brothers sing it at such gatherings, as a way to maintain the tradition of this form of regional identification. They had agreed beforehand to invite an American to join them as part of the celebration of this cross-cultural union. As a result of the morning trip to the workshop, I was the one with a beret. The lyrics sheet included an English translation (by Jacques, I believe), but unfortunately I couldn’t sing the English, as its meter doesn’t match the French song. They seemed relieved when I agreed to pretend to sing along to the French.

Since they don’t sing it very often, first they ran through the lyrics and melody (to be sung a cappella). Then they ran through the gestures to illustrate the various points of the song, and worked out their differences. The we ran through the entire song with gestures. At one point in the song, each singer swats the singer to his right on the behind with his beret. I was standing at the right, and Jacques decided that wouldn’t do, as I had no one to swat, and he didn’t want me to be excluded. So he moved to the right-hand end.

We also went over the second song, a children’s song with much gesturing of dancing with the foot, leg, knee, etc. I don’t think they decided which or how many body parts they would include, waiting to see how the audience participation went. This song was in Occitan (of which Bearnish is a dialect), but the English translation could be sung as well.

As we left the rehearsal (with my beret hidden again), Jacques said, “If we do well, they will applaud. If not, they will laugh. Either way is good.” When I rejoined Susan, she asked what was going on, and I told her it was a secret.

After dinner started, one of François’s cousins narrated a slideshow of pictures from Kristin’s and François’s childhoods, showing how similar (in some cases dissimilar) their lives had been, though separated by thousands of miles. The last item contrasted fashions in the US and the Béarn, ending with the beret. The MC announced The Beret Song to be sung by the five brothers, when one of them shouted, “Non, six!”, and we all stepped up, to a murmur of surprise.

The projector showed the French lyrics, in case anyone felt like singing along. (I didn’t notice anyone doing so.) One of the family had a video camera on a tripod, so there might be a good quality record, but in any case Susan recorded the song with my iPhone’s video mode. It was from half-way down the room from us, and the lighting was dim, but with a bit of enhancement in iMovie it shows the six of us fairly well. You can’t really tell that I was pretending to sing, though it’s clear my gestures lagged the others’.

There was a little laughter during the song, but it was directed at the funny lyrics and gestures, not at us, and at the end there was quite hearty applause. Jacques was right: it was good!

When we later did the Jan Petit song, practically all of the Americans came up to dance, partly at my urging, along with most of the French; at least three-quarters of the party crammed into a small space, and we had to make room for all the dancers. After that song, one of the brothers said to me, “You are a good diplomat for America!”

Later, I thanked Jacques for inviting me, and told him it was the high point of the wedding events for me. He told me they all loved Kristin, and that they were serious about creating a cross-cultural union between the families. He said they were pleased that I wasn’t afraid to participate in the performance. He also told me that some of the French had been concerned that the Americans would come in and try to take over the wedding, and that they had all been pleased with how open and patient the Americans had been with their French ways. I complimented him and the others for creating such a welcoming atmosphere, and told him how much all of the Americans enjoyed Joseph’s hospitality. He suggested I tell Joseph this, because the preparation and hosting had been very stressful for him. I tried to do so the next day, but I’m not sure I was able to completely convey how much it all meant to all of us.

The thoughtful, playful, and welcoming way the Saulue brothers treated me made this day among the most memorable of my life.

Next: Post-wedding Events

2014-08-16: The Wedding

We met outside the church in Ledieux. Apparently, the French don’t have the tradition of hiding the bride’s gown until her entry into the church, but Betsy arranged things that way. While we were waiting outside, I noticed that the Saulue brothers, and some others, were wearing their berets. Jacques approached me and asked quietly if I had my beret, or if I could bring it to the reception. I assured him I would. He said that I should bring it, but keep it a secret for a big surprise. Only Susan overheard him.

The wedding was nice.

Next: Wedding Reception

2014-08-11: Donostia

Susan had booked a tapas (pintxos in Basque) tour through the tourism office. As usual, we were there plenty early; we took advantage of the extra time to buy an umbrella. It was raining (not too heavily) and we had raincoats, but it was a nice umbrella.

At the appointed hour, the guide appeared, but another couple (English) had not yet arrived. After waiting a few minutes, the guide took up position in front of the tourism office and began with a history of tapas and Donostia, all the while scanning the sidewalk for the other couple (who never appeared).

Eventually, she took us to the market, and showed us some of the highest quality items. Some would have been good if we had a kitchen and ambitions of cooking our own tapas, but we couldn’t take advantage of those. Susan bought a few items that we could take home.

We stopped at three tapas bars, and sampled one at each, along with Txakoli and cider. All were very good. After the third stop our guide left, and we stayed and ordered some fresh tortilla patata that had just come out of the kitchen.

Next: Travel Day

2014-08-13: Pre-wedding events

The Saulue family farm (a dairy farm, surrounded by cornfields for cattle feed) is in the village of Ledieux (pronounced like luh-DESH), our hotel, Chez Germaine, was in  Geüs-d’Oloron, the nearest town is Oloron-Sainte-Marie, and the nearest city is Pau. Chez Germaine also handled the catering for the wedding reception in a building near the hotel.

Wednesday we drove to Lourdes for two reasons: first, to see a famous religious site; second, they have a Monoprix store. Susan hoped to find some of our favorite dark chocolate there. The shrine was interesting its way, but I’ve been more impressed by others. Monoprix didn’t have the chocolate we hoped to find, but we bought what they did have.

We also hoped to drive up the Col du Tourmalet, a famous climb often used in the Tour de France. Unfortunately, we would have been in cloud and rain, so we didn’t make that drive.

Wednesday was also Girls’ Night Out, which is not a French tradition. I assume the girls had a fine time. I had dinner at the hotel with Tim.

Thursday we drove to Pau, to pick up Betsy’s mother and sister, coming on the TGV from Paris. While there, we shopped for French children’s books for Ren, and had lunch at a Mexican restaurant. This was the first time we had Mexican food in France, and it was quite good.

Friday there was an excursion to the old city of Navarrenx, to see the remains of the citadel. Unfortunately, the information office was closed due to the holiday (Feast of the Annunciation).

Pipérade ? festival

On Friday evening there was a party for which Betsy and Kristin had prepared ten quiches and other food. The Americans and many of the French attended, but there was a distinct clustering of like-with-like. At one point, Kristin came around with François’s uncle Jacques, one of four brothers of François’s father Joseph. Jacques speaks good English. Kristin announced that Jacques was planning to tour the beret factory in Oloron, and wanted to know if anyone wanted to go. Now, one of the points of interest we had tried to see during our 1990 trip to France was a beret factory in Oloron, which was supposed to be the primary producer of berets; however, we had been unable to locate a factory or even a store on the day we were there. When Kristin announced this opportunity, Susan jumped on it with such enthusiasm that it had to be explained to everyone who heard her. She asked when this tour would take place, and realized it would be while she was helping with the decoration of the reception hall. Nonetheless, she volunteered me to attend, and commanded me to take pictures. No one else seemed interested, and I made arrangements to meet Jacques on Saturday morning.

Next: Beret Workshop



2014-08-16: Beret Workshop

In the morning, I met Jacques Saulue in the parking lot of LeClerq, and followed him to Denis Guédon’s MANUFACTURE DE BERETS workshop. The door was open, and Jacques walked in, with his wife and two sons, and me behind. I couldn’t hear (or understand) exactly what he said to Denis, but soon he had turned off the machine he was working with, and proceeded to describe the process of making a beret.

After the beret factory in Oloron closed, Denis bought the machines. He had been head of maintenance, so knew how to build and repair them. He manufactures a limited quantity (3,500 a year) of high quality berets. Though nobody else was there this day, I believe he has someone come in to do a step or two that needs good eyesight and coordination.

He showed us the operation of five machines for specific steps in the process, and there are also sewing machines that he didn’t demonstrate. He had several packing boxes of berets to be shipped, some of them to Los Angeles.

He explained that a beret starts with 5 euros worth of merino wool thread, and requires about 20 to 25 minutes of labor. He sells them for 16 euros.

Jacques asked to buy one, and Denis took a few out of the packing boxes, to check the size. Jacques settled on one, and one of his sons also selected one. As Jacques’s wife opened her wallet, I inquired what size would fit me. They all got excited, and Jacques handed me his to try on. I put it on, with a bit of help, and walked over to a mirror. I thought I looked, and I felt, a little silly, but I was fairly committed by this point. I turned to look at the others and they were all grinning, and Jacques gave me a big thumbs-up. This confirmed to me that I looked pretty silly.

I paid for the beret, and told Denis the change was for the tour he had given us, which took about an hour away from his beret manufacture.

Throughout the tour, both Jacques and his wife tried to make sure I understood what Denis was saying in French. Jacques’s wife even entered a few words into her phone, and showed me the translation into English: thistle, mower.

The experience was interesting, and I got some iPhone movies of the machines in action, as well as some photos. Little did I know the consequences of this event.

Next: The Wedding

2014-08-10: Bilbao and Fireworks

We walked from the Pension to the open-air bus “station”, to catch the 7:30 PESA bus to Bilbao. The bus was very comfortable and on time. We sat right behind the driver, and I noticed several posted messages formed a sort of Rosetta Stone, repeating some messages in Spanish and Basque. I took pictures for later translation.

We arrived in Bilbao before the Guggenheim opened, and walked to the Basque museum. There we found many examples of the gigantes we had seen in Donostia.

We went through the museum, which is easily seen in a few hours, and has several interesting exhibits. I recommend anyone who visits the Guggenheim to also visit the Basque museum.

We then walked to the Guggenheim, and circumnavigated it, taking numerous pictures. It is certainly a striking building, considered one of Frank Gehry’s most important designs.

I found the interior somewhat less impressive, with a confusing mix of rooms. Also, I’m not particularly interested in the specific exhibits displayed when we were there.

The PESA bus return trip to Donostia was timely and uneventful.

There were more parades in the evening, and a fireworks show. The fireworks were launched into a dead calm, and the show was quite intense, 18 minutes long. After about 15 minutes, the cloud of smoke was so dense that some explosions could not be seen, only a dull flash through the cloud like distant lightning.

Next: Donostia


2014-08-09: Camino Highlights

We flew to Madrid and rented a car (Seat Leon) from Europcar, then Susan drove to Burgos, Santo Domingo de la Calzada, and to the airport for San Sebastian (at Hondarribia). San Sebastian is called Donostia by the Basques.

We enjoyed driving from Madrid to Burgos, finding the terrain agreeable. It was a sunny day, and you can see a long way in that country.

In Burgos, Susan showed me the gigantic cathedral, the largest I’ve ever seen and very ornate. I suppose the centuries of pilgrims left many donations.

In Santo Domingo, we entered the church and immediately smelled the chickens. The legend is a bit incredible, but they take it seriously enough to keep a cage of chickens in a well-lighted place for the tourists.

The route to Hondarribia passed through numerous tunnels. We found that the car’s lights would only stay on for about 10 seconds. We found an owner’s manual in the glove box, but could not read it well enough to determine the proper way to control the lights. Fortunately we reached the airport before dark.

Due to a festival in San Sebastian, there was a 3-night minimum for Pension Amaiur, which is where Susan and Betsy stayed in 2007. It turned out that the festival was a week long (Semana Grande), with fireworks every night at 22:45, and multiple parades and other events every day.

We arrived at the airport after the last bus, and caught the only taxi. The driver explained there were only three flights scheduled that day due to the festival, and the buses don’t “respect” the schedule on weekends. We felt lucky to get to SS. The streets in the Old City, where the Pension is located, were jammed with pedestrians in a festive mood, so we had to walk several blocks with our luggage. About three blocks from the Pension, the streets were jammed with marching bands and “gigantes”. These are ten-foot high models of men and women in traditional costumes, carried by men underneath the costumes, who dance them through the streets. It took more than a half-hour to move through the crowd to the Pension, where our room had a balcony directly over the street of the parades.

next: Bilbao & Fireworks