Monday, April 30, 2012

Basque sheep

These seem to be of two different kinds, the all white all over ones in the photos, with little or no horns (though maybe they de-horn them?), and the ones with black faces and speckling, and really impressive long twirly horns.  There were some like that a bit further down the road, but it wasn't an easy place to stop, and also, they had been shorn - or is it sheared? - so they didn't look as beautiful in the fleece department.  (I don't know as much about sheep as I do about cows.)

Those below were the kind that lived directly around the house where we went for a walk up the hill in the first day or two we were there, my three nieces, my sister, Molly and I.  They had lovely long fleeces, as you can see, and they delighted and amused us when they first saw us by running skittishly away from us with stiff legs, their woolly locks flowing and bouncing as they went (they soon settled down and turned back and regarded us with curiosity, so we weren't guilty of sheep worrying or anything).  A few farmers' vans went up and down, one of them driven by a very dour-faced character, who barely nodded and certainly didn't essay a smile when we moved to one side of the lane for him.

'He looks very unmoved by such a collection of beautiful women,' said Niece-Who-Makes-Me-Laugh. 

We went on to conjecture that perhaps women weren't his thing; perhaps he preferred his sheep.

'Ah like ma sheep' said Niece-Who-Makes-Me-Laugh, in her best cod French leery accent 'zey 'ave the beautiful long 'air, and zey shake when zey run...'

Well, they certainly were very pretty sheep anyway (not a bit like maggots, thank you Plutarch),

some of them had bells on, which it was easier to hear than see,

and they seemed very loving and affectionate, at least with each other.

And the cheese made from their milk is delicious, especially with black cherry jam.  I've still got some I brought back in the fridge, I think I might have some now.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Home from the hills

And the hills were truly splendid. 

But they were a long way away from here, and, notwithstanding a stop in a comfortable bed and breakfast run by a very nice English family, the road through Les Landes, currently being made bigger, with its great trains of lorries from every corner of Europe grinding their way down to Spain (what can there be to be taken to and from Spain in such quantity?  Hothouse-grown and out-of-season fruit and veg, I suppose, coming from, but what do they fill up with from Mittel-Europe, the Baltic and Balkans and the old Soviet bloc, going there?), its contraflows and palimpsests of erased, altered and temporary road markings, its pocked and patched and roughened surfaces, was very long. Imagining the shepherds who stalked on stilts across the landscape two centuries ago, communicating in whistles and propped up with their knitting at rest, and wondering at the expanses of pine trees all filling the bricolage stores of France with two-by-one and tongue-and-groove, went only some way to alleviating the dreariness of it. 

But we got there, in time to pick up the flying members of the group from Biarritz, and made our way carrying Australian brother, his hat and an extra backpack or two.  We stopped at a supermarket just short of our destination, bought bread and buns and I tried to 'phone the owner of the house where we were staying.  I eventually spoke to, or tried to, an elderly (-sounding) man with an incomprehensible Basque accent and became thoroughly confused, but we made our way there to find our landlady waiting for us anyway, with the heating on.  When it comes to finding suitable and not too costly accommodation for eight people and a dog, beggars can't really be choosers.  Mme Eyheracher (a good Basque name) did everything she could to make the house comfortable, and was kind and friendly.  There were a couple of washing machines (it was really two separate appartments) and a dishwasher, none of which we used, decent fridges, plenty of crockery and glasses, coffee machines and toasters, and to our pleasant surprise, teapots and mugs with handles - standard French arrangements often include only small coffee cups and large bols without handles, which serve for cereal and hot drinks both; I actually quite like drinking milky coffee out of one of these, but tea isn't quite right.  There were, however, no kettles, so water was boiled in saucepans.  Everything was very clean and smelled of furniture polish, and there was abundant hot water, for which we were thankful.

It was called, it seems, Arrossagarayėnia.  I should have collected some photos of Basque signs and names. We wondered what a Basque Scrabble set would be like, presumably it would contain a lot of zs, xes, ks, and js which would be worth very few points.

However, it was an old and old-fashioned place, square and gloomy, single glazed, lino and formica and ugly patterned wallpapers and endless dark brown wood, shabby-sans-chic.  The central heating was oddly timed, and perhaps needed bleeding, so while those of us accustomed to more rustic conditions were OK, one or two of the family members, softened-up by urban British or sunny antipodean living, and with less flesh on their bones, were a bit chilly at times.  There was a dining area with a big table next to the kitchen, but no comfortable seating, so one was obliged to follow William Morris's injunction: 'If you want to be comfortable, go to bed'.  Unfortunately the beds weren't too comfy either, though they could have been worse. 

In a valley, it was hemmed in somewhat by a river on one side and a road on the other, the one leading up to the pass of Roncevalles.  We had a few hours of fairly sunny weather in the next day or so, and managed a walk up into the hills above the house, where I took a lot of photos of sheep, which perhaps will have  post of their own. 

After that, and as the predicted departure of the pilgrim contingent drew closer, the weather grew wetter and wetter and worse and worse.

We were obliged to make our own indoor entertainment (there was a little television set with French channels but we only used it for weather forecasts). We ate well,

Aussie brother made scrambled eggs most mornings (without the banana, that was just trying to get into the shot)

We chatted and shifted our bottoms on the hard chairs, and took our leftovers down to feed the two poor little half-starved hunting dogs whiling away the eight months of the year when they aren't out hunting ( and presumably terrorising the sheep) cooped up in a small enclosure at the end of the yard, with scant shelter, food or bedding - a fairly typical element of French rural living, very picturesque. I had hoped to get some maquette making done while there, but somehow the time seemed to run away, in cooking and other arrangements.  However, my sister had brought some origami kits at the last minute, so the rough paper and crayons and other things I brought was put to good use.  

(Left to right, twin nieces T and B, their mother my Lovely Sister, and K, the Niece-Who-Makes-Me-Laugh-More-Than-Anyone-Else, all origami-ing.)

At one point the origami took an aeronautical turn, and the room became filled with flying paper aircraft.  As I listened with half an ear in the kitchen to the discussion on 1950s plane design between my brother and Tom, one craft hurtled through the door and landed in Molly's dinner.  We left a row of origami penguins when we left, along with the wild flowers Niece-Who-Makes-Me-Laugh had picked, and the gold foil rose niece B had made from wrappers from the chocolate bunnies her mother had brought,

which caught a rare ray of sunshine just before we left.  

We all survived, and it was a good thing to spend time with my family.  Molly stayed well, and the pilgrims made it over the mountains and into Spain.  But that'll do for now, and I'll do some posts with more photos anon.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Eve of departure

'You never know,' I said 'we might all still be alive by this time next week and feeling quite happy.'

'Mmm, I shouldn't push it.' said Tom.

This trip to the Basque Country end of the Pyrenees has been somewhat hedged about with anxiety for many of the people concerned; our particular element of which has been Molly going down with a severe infection, quite unexpected and unrelated either to ears or lymphoma, which has entailed both horrible smelling and tasting antibiotics and an almost total and uncharacteristic loss of appetite and unwillingness to swallow anything on her part.  Further details I will spare you. I finally got the medicine into her by making up a sugar syrup, stirring the ground-up pill into it, then squirting it into her mouth with a plastic syringe while Tom did a strong arm restraint on her.  She would very suspiciously condescend to eat a few shreds of duck meat and a slice or two of broccolli stem a day, occasionally consenting to having these dipped in yoghurt ( though only the best creamy Greek style yoghurt, mind).

We had more than once resigned ourselves to the loss of the holiday, and indeed at times faced the thought of losing Molly herself, but, with every conceivable part of our anatomies crossed while touching wood, we look set to start travelling south tomorrow.  Mol is quiet and tired, but much better and more cheerful than she was last weekend, and has now extended her repertoire of acceptable foodstuffs to fish and chips, and even Healthy Doggy Treats but only if the vet gives them to her. She's on a different set of antibiotics now which don't smell so bad and seem to be concealable and swallowable in duck meat so, hopefully, those battles will be over ( I hope she's not reading this...).  Emy, the vet, says that the produce of the Basque Country is varied and interesting so we should be able to find something to tempt her.  She is eyeing the luggage accumulating in hall with excitement - the enthusiasm for a road trip will surely be the last thing to desert her, though there have been a few times when we, and others involved, have voiced the sentiment that perhaps it might be better to stay at home and spare oneself worry...  

We have a lot of road ahead, are scheduled to spend tomorrow night in a B&B in the Charente, then to rendezvous at Biarritz airport with my two brothers (one French domiciled with car and and one Australian, without), one sister and three nieces the following afternoon, whence we will go in a two car convoy to the town of St Jean Pied-de-Port, where we have rented a large and suspiciously cheap gîte.  This establishment has basic facilities and central heating, but no linen, so we are also carrying a suitcase full of sheets and towels, which, along with Mol's extensive equipage of home comforts, will make for a squeeze in the car, fortunately many of my family members are quite thin.

We are currently experiencing a brass-monkey cold April, colder than December, and snow is forecast in the mountains, during which time my brothers and one niece are planning to take off on the ascent and descent from St Jean to Roncevalles which makes up one of the most notoriously arduous legs of the Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage route. French brother has done most of this journey at one time or other, but mostly by bike and camping - introvert style - and says he is less fit than he was.  Aussie brother has been in training and is very serious about it, but has been training in heat and humidity, not devilish cold.  They are doing it extrovert style on foot and staying in hostels. They are both hovering around their seventieth year, and may have to rely on 30-something niece to carry them.

But they will be all right, because I have ensured they have a lucky pilgrim's scallop shell to take with them!  I commissioned this one specially from lovely, talented Chloe at Slightly Triangle ( that's her blog link, but there's also her website and Etsy shop, go there and spend money, but not necessarily much money, for there are untold and exquisite treasures to be had there for a song...).  I can't believe how much I love the things she makes, by painting and stitching, and she just turned to and made this one in next to no time and sent it to me to take with me.   She's another maquetteer, and a friend of Clive, which is how I found her.  I love blogging, even though I don't do it as much as I have done, for the people I still find and the things they do.

And although I am not intending to walk the Camino myself, or no more than a few kilometers of it, as an act of faith I have waxed my walking boots, a gesture of care and comfort they have not seen in a while.  I have had these boots for nigh on twenty years, and though my walking career has waxed and waned and had its ups and downs, and had its ups and downs, I don't regret buying them and they have proved their worth, though they seemed terribly expensive at the time, when life was often precarious and hand-to-mouth, much more so than it is now.  Though Mol will still be convalescent, and has really not been up for long hikes for a long time now, and though the weather may be inclement, and they may get an outing. 

We hope to visit the last vineyard left in the area at Irouléguy , and see funny long haired sheep with bells on, and wildly painted chapels, and visit an espadrille museum, and eat Espelette peppers and Bayonne ham and ewes' milk cheese, and not to have to go and dig people out of the snow, or look for a Basque vet...  

Fingers crossed, and anything else; we'll be back in about ten days.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Looking nature in the eye (and grouching a bit about Picasa)

Bits and pieces, all with something of an eye-balling theme.
Just as Tom was about to go out and check the post today, (we have external mailboxes here, of course, though ours is only a step from the house, and our regular posties tend to wait for us to come out and hand the mail over), there was an enormous thump on the window which made us nearly jump out of our skins.  It was not one but two squabbling cock chaffinches, so absorbed in their quarrel they forgot to look where they were going.  One of them landed, punch drunk, on the fence post outside the window.  At first, he was very wonky, his sides heaving, so knowing that having time to recover from shocks like this can make the difference between life and death for small birds, we waited for him to fly off at his leisure, before going out for the post.  

After a bit he straightened up, and started to look around him, including at us through the window, and at the rival, presumably, he had been scrapping with, who was taunting him from the house guttering above.  He must have stayed there a good ten minutes, then I remembered that the surest way to make any creature move off is to try to photograph it.  I took half a dozen or so pictures of him, then sure enough he flew away.

One of the nice things about creatures, like chaffinches, which have clearly differences between genders is one can refer to them as he or she without feeling sentimentally or childishly anthropomorphic. The wall brown butterfly, above, on a dandelion (which seem especially early and prolific this year, but don't they always...) I couldn't have been so sure about; the butterfly book (companion volume to the seashore one a couple of posts back), told me

the male and female are quite distinct, the former having an oblique band of scent scales on the fore-wing, which are said to smell like chocolate cream...

Mm, scratch-and-sniff butterfly.  Even so, the pictures in the book weren't really clear enough to be sure, but the internet came to my aid.  This one's a girl.

If I could have got close enough to smell the chocolatey scent scales (which she doesn't have), I'd have moved that grass blade across the top of the wing.  There was a bit of an exchange somewhere recently about how we tend to feel slightly guilty about rearranging nature to suit our photographic purposes, even in small ways, and how that's really a bit silly.  I don't know how it compares with retouching the photo.

This Normandy cow is also a girl, of course, or she would be a Normandy bull.  I'm very taken with Normandy cattle, which are more and more unusual hereabouts, being superseded by the ubiquitous Holstein-Frisian black and white standard Common Agricultural Policy issue.  There is an old rare breed of native black and white Brittany cow, apparently, but I don't know any.  They are small with rather delicate, dished faces, and beautiful upswept horns, but though their numbers are healthier than they were, there are only somewhat over a thousand in existence, and they mostly live south and west of here.  (I could become something of a livestock anorak, I fear, I love rare breeds...)

I find it is often a problem photographing animals like cows and horses, as they tend to dip their heads down to look at us, and then there is a strand of electric wire across their faces.  In the above picture I touched it out, with Picasa's increasingly easy to use retouch button.  I did it very carefully with a small brush size, but I can still where it was.


Talking of Picasa, they've messed about with it again, so it's now Picasa 3.9.  It's no longer so evident how to make collages. The big collage button on the bottom menu bar is no longer there; you can collage every picture in a folder, by clicking on the small icon at the top of each folder, but it won't just collage selected, pinned pictures in the tray like it used to, which I liked because I could just flick through selecting the pictures I wanted then make them into a collage straight off. I feared I would have to export selected pictures into new folders especially, which would have been a pain.  Eventually I found you could do it as before by pinning them in the tray then going to the 'create' tab along the top, and then to 'Picture collage'.  It's only one extra click, so I shouldn't grumble, and doubtless I could have found it out quicker if I'd read the help forums or the blog or whatever, but I was slightly distressed to find the familiar button gone, it seems like not an improvement to a popular thing.  As to all the new effects - comic book, invert colour, Orton-ish, Holga-ish, posterize, heat map etc etc - they're quite fun, but mostly novelty and gimmick, so far I've only felt incline to use the 'HDR-ish' one and then only a little bit (in the photo of violet syrup last post).  I always rather liked Picasa because it was intuitive, I didn't have to be techie and clever, it wasn't Photoshop and the choices were limited.  Now it still isn't PS, because it can't do the really clever things that can, which actually take skill and know-how and aren't intuitive, like layers and levels and tools and so on, it's just trying to stick on some of the frilly bits.  Still, I suppose there's no harm in it.


And then the other morning there was one of those strange and rather magical low-lying mists, which made us feel as though we were a ship afloat, or dwelling in Avalon, or something (my charming sailing niece really does dwell in Avalon, it's a suburb of Sydney, a very nice one, mind, and she lives on a boat).  And the great eye of the sun gazed at us across it, and though one shouldn't, we gazed back.   

This from the bedroom window.