As the captain lowered the belly of our aircraft to skim the thick layer of cloud which obscured our view of England's south coast the frame of the thing shuddered with turbulence, but it felt like a shiver of cold. When we had boarded at Bergerac 90 minutes ago, the temperature was in the low 30s Celsius; at Southampton, we were told, it would be 16 degrees. Welcome home!
The heat was a major feature of our recent holiday in the Pyrenees and in the Dordogne. Avoiding it (long drives in our air-conditioned hire car to spend lingering visits in cool museums and chateaux), studying it (figuring out when "Le Méteo" would be broadcast, and trying to pick useful nuggets out of the weatherwoman's gabble), and enduring it, mainly.
In the Dordogne, particularly, we were under daily assault by insects and allied trades. Large wasps of several species were working the old masonry of the house, finding their way in through the shutters and cruising the internal airspace like French teenagers on mobylettes. At night, enormous spiders and sensationally ugly leaf-shaped centipedes came out of the cracks in the stonework. At any hour of the night, the cry "Dad!!" would get me out of bed to despatch yet another of these monsters menacing my children from the wall. I ended up sleeping on a hair trigger, which led to interesting dreams but little relaxation.
Oh, and mosquitoes... My eyesight and concentration are not at their best at 4:30 am, so pursuing these little blood-sucking bastards round a high-ceilinged farmhouse was a nightly challenge. Give me a spider the size of a saucer any day.
Southwest France and the Pyrenees is a good spot for birds. One morning, we stepped outside to see a "kettle" of 50 or 60 table-sized Griffon vultures stacked up over our garden. Large raptors of many species are commonplace, but as we only had a "travel weight" bird book and had omitted to pack any binoculars identification was speculative; you began to understand why Victorian naturalists reached for a shotgun as a way of eliminating uncertainty. "Yup, that's a Short-toed Eagle alright! Shall we leave it for the vultures or have it stuffed?"
My favourites were the Honey Buzzards, rather shifty raptors with a clear admiration for crows, who hang around on the ground in ploughed fields, hopping from clump to clump looking for tasty invertebrates. A previous visitor had seen a Hoopoe in the garden (one of the more memorable Latin names, Upupa epops), but we didn't. At night various unfamiliar owls screeched and whooped in the trees.
A tradition of our family holidays is the Owl Incident (see The Wol of Minerva), and this time it occurred on a Pyrenean backroad returning from a trip to San Sebastian in Spain. We had a French left-hand drive hire car, and I have never driven such a vehicle before. I found it to be a major exercise in overcoming reflexes and muscle memory: in tight spots, I would find myself grasping the window winder rather than the gear stick. Also, a diesel Peugeot 207 "estate" is not, shall we say, my car of choice, but it is what Mr. Hertz chose to loan me. Luckily, French and Spanish roads are virtually empty most of the time. (It occurs to me that the treble shock of driving on the left in a right-hand drive car and nose-to-tail at 80 mph in a traffic density greater than a car park may account for the comparative paucity of foreign visitors to our own fair country).
Anyway, the Owl Incident. Somewhere on a sequence of tight and narrow hairpin bends that, in the darkness, put one in the state of mind appropriate to a challenging but repetitive video game, I dipped the headlights in courtesy to an oncoming driver, only to find that when I undipped them they went out: I was driving in complete obscurity on a mountain road with a failed electrical system.
The only way I could get the lights to work was to pull the lever onto "full beam flash" and hold it there with one hand, thumb hooked around the steering wheel, and steer and change gear with the other. I am a good man in a crisis, and I felt like Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III as I eventually glided us safely into a layby. No need to cheer, folks, just doing my job. I felt rather less heroic when I discovered that there had not been a catastrophic failure of the Peugeot's electrics, but that I had simply turned off the headlights when I dipped them. Doh!
As I turned the lights back on, they lit up a Barn Owl standing on a road sign, turning its head from side to side as it checked us out. We checked it out in return for some while, before getting into gear and heading for home. Of such incidents are family memories made.
The Basques are an all round curious bunch of people. Occupying the French and Spanish western borderlands since possibly the last Ice Age, they speak a non Indo-European language with no known relatives. Or, at least, some of them do. A few, anyway, allegedly. It's a damnably difficult language to learn: I know, because I bought Le Basque pour les nuls ("Basque for Idiots") to entertain me in the evenings. I quote from Wikipedia:
A Basque noun is inflected in 17 different ways for case, multiplied by 4 ways for its definiteness and number. These first 68 forms are further modified based on other parts of the sentence, which in turn are inflected for the noun again. It has been estimated that, with two levels of recursion, a Basque noun may have 458,683 inflected forms.Forget about it! People say that when a language dies, so does a whole universe. Well, if Star Trek is to be believed some universes are terrible places with monsters (like 458,683 inflected forms of a noun -- can this really be true?) and it's not surprising nobody wants to go there any more. Few languages look quite so much like they have been made up by a committee of Vogon poets, either. My book Le Basque pour les nuls gives some splendid examples:
Txoria ibilten da elurrean ("the bird walks in the snow")
Maitek artoa txoriari eman dio ("Maité has given the maize to the bird")
Non da Donibane Lohizuneko hondartza handia? ("Where is the main beach at Saint-Jean-de-Luz?")
Despite the fact that, according to the evidence of my ears, virtually no-one speaks Basque in public in either the "French" or "Spanish" parts of the Basque homeland ("Euskal Herria"), the limited degree of autonomy won by the separatists in Spain mean that many road signs there are in Basque. It really does help to know that San Sebastian is called "Donostia" in Basque, for example. A hot foreign man driving a hired Peugeot 207 could easily get lost and very cross indeed.
Long-standing readers may recall my post "The Italian Job", in which I discuss the way awkward bedfellows are brought together by nationalism. The Basque Country is a perfect example of this phenomenon.
In "France", Basque-ness seems pretty much entirely cultural. A uniformity of custom and practice is found that is almost disturbing. Everything -- but everything -- is coloured green, white and red, the Basque colours. All farmhouses conform to the "traditional" regional design to the extent of all facing in the same "traditional" direction, like churches. Every village has a pelota fronton, like a shabby drive-in cinema. Above all, there's that ubiquitous bloody Basque typeface. Does any other cultural group have its own typeface? It would drive me mad (or French) to have to live with that depth of branding.
In "Spain", by contrast, Basque-ness is deeply political. Although joyous and inventive Spanish typography is everywhere, and the houses and farms look like houses and farms anywhere in southern Europe, the terrorist separatist campaign of ETA rumbles on, and in the back streets of San Sebastian you will find pro-ETA sentiment without looking too hard.
For example, this wall of posters appealing for amnesty for ETA convicts is next to a bar called, ominously, The Belfast Irish Pub. I didn't hang around.
I've never seen so many digital cameras around as I've seen this holiday. Not just point and shoots, but mighty top-end Nikon and Canon DSLRs with battery packs and heavyweight zooms, toted by family guys for holiday snaps. The chiropracters must be rubbing their hands.
I settled on the Panasonic GF1 with the 20mm plus the collapsible Olympus 14-42mm. Bright sun, tourist traps and unfamiliar landscapes are not my territory, photographically, so I didn't expect to use them much. However, the scruffy street furniture and graffiti of Pamplona, Bayonne and San Sebastian proved so compelling that I filled several cards (about 500 images, an awful lot by my standards).
Paradoxically, when I started processing the files, I also rediscovered a taste for the monochrome image, which may or may not be a passing fad.