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The International Writers Magazine: What I did on My hols:

Summer in France
Sam North

Twilight in Hasparren
© Sam North

The idea was perfect, look after a good friends house in the country for July whilst they went to Canada.

It had benefits; it's 25kms outside Bayonne in the South West of France, it's beautiful there and all I had to do was feed the dog, cat, chickens. I mean how hard can it be? Plus they threw in a car. I mean, that's a brilliant deal right? Almost a whole month at the hottest time of the year, all that great food, the wine.

Arrived via Ryanair - is there any other airline aside from Romanian Airlines with more grumpy staff? Standsted is a nightmare airport to get to and the lines are horrid, as are the security searches. Next time I am definitely catching the train. Unfortunately someone had a nasty bug on the aircraft and within 12 hours I was hardly able to breathe and spent the first ten days coughing my lungs up. Nasty and making anyone understand you need drugs that actually work, -impossible. Pharmacies in France can sell make-up but that's about it. Meanwhile dogs had to be fed, cats too and chickens.

Ok, Lionel forgot to mention the sheep. Just two, but two sheep still need care and food and water right. I tried pointing at the green stuff in the fields but they just couldn't seem to get the idea at all and even though dog and I got them out of the barn most days, they snuck back and lay on rotting hay and literally chose to starve to death. (One actually died). Meanwhile, everyday I got up - dog wants out at 4.55am on the dot - Cat wants in about the same time, there seemed to be one less chicken. Heads get bitten off. There is a chicken serial killer loose. I mention this to the neighbours and they too had four hens killed. Nothing eaten, just the heads bitten off. Dog and I patrol but Fox is sneaky and can hear me coughing a mile off.

Went to beach (30 miles away) to let the famous Biarritz waves beat the infection out of me. Got sunburned. But hell it was worth it to be able to breathe again. Biarritz and Anglet beaches are the best in the whole of Europe, with waves packed with surfers. Swimming can be a bit tough with incoming walls of water some 10 foot high, but it's fun and if you can stand the crowds go to St Jean de Luz further along the coast and there won't be a wave to be had. As we left there was some Basque separatist activity with bomb alerts but don't let that put you off. It is the best area in France to live and holiday.

So, meanwhile back in Hasparren, seems I am also, in addition to being vulnerable the cold virus, allergic to chickens and sheep. Cat is a bit off with me despite carrying out specific feeding instructions. Cat gets same as dog, only half portion. This, rather oddly means I have to boil-up some rice, serve up rice, add dog or cat food, mush it around ( I add some biscuits as I know this is good for their teeth) and place on floor. When Lionel and Catherine returned from Newfoundland they were astonished to see the cat eating rice. Seems I had slightly misunderstood the instructions. No wonder the cat took three weeks to talk to me. Dog also eats Gateau Basque (Cream or Cherry), toast, cereal, anything that goes near my mouth.

I am now down to one horrid, quite vocal Coq that is lonely, having spent much time looking for the dead hens. Foxes don't kill Coqs apparently, particularly this one which is vicious to say the least. Dog and I feed it corn at a rush.

Living in the countryside also means there is absolutely nowhere to walk. Seems there aren't any footpaths across fields and no sidewalks, so you walk dog along roads where French drivers have never seen such a thing and seem to aim for you, clearly used the game of chicken. Dog is more agile than I at diving into ditches. There are no Starbucks or Cafe Nero's in the countryside and to be frank, even when you do drive all the way to Biarritz to get a decent Café Grand Creme, it still tastes like mud and they just WONT understand about lattés. Café has to taste like mud in France and that's it. They do make exceedingly good cakes though. I reckon one could make a fortune in Biarritz opening a Cafe Nero and serving UK or US sized coffees with muffins. You'd need security to keep people in line and STILL the French wouldn't get it.

Of course the pound and the dollar are completely worthless over in France and I was paying over three pounds or six dollars for a cup of mud with a trace element of UHT milk. Dinner for two is around 30 Euros each at a prix fixe restaurant add wine and you are looking at around eighty quid a meal. Serious money for moi. I ate at home a lot with the dog watching the millions of flies swarming outside. The countryside is full of flies. Who knew? They don't mention this on the brochure, or the vultures. Vultures circle the farmhouse all the time, they can smell dead sheep from miles away. Luckily flies sleep at night and here is where the countryside comes into its own. Dog, cat and I sat on the lawn staring at the fantastic stars and milky way. Still there, just like I remembered from childhood. (Not really seen since then). Shooting stars, the works. Wonderful.

Bayonne was off limits for a few days as they have the annual Fete. A million people swarm on the city dressed in white and red and drink wine and eat ham for five whole days. They all look very happy and cars are parked on every patch of grass everywhere and after a few days the whole city reeks of pee, but it is all fantastically well organised and good sprited.

My great plan was to write and to be honest, being ill I took this task seriously and wrote pretty much the whole foundation for the sequel to my new book. (Assuming I can read my writing. I handwrite everything.) It was a very productive three weeks I think, even though I came up with some glitches in the idea and characters needed more emotional range. Sequels are tricky. I should learn more from Stephanie Meyer I think. Fundamentally I also remembered what my old life was like. Doing this. Writing. Spent a good twenty years just writing, being poor, often on my own and I also remembered how easy it was in the end to give up the solitary life. Teaching is frustrating, often makes you angry and upset, but also is about being around young people and ideas and sometimes laughing or really meeting a mind that wants to learn and is excited by what they can do. If anything helped me be happier about being a teacher, it was being on this farm, at the base of the mountains and reminding myself that actually being on your own, even if you are accompanied by an excellent dog, totally sucks. I discovered, a little late in life, that I am a city boy.

When Kit joined me for the last week, getting off that train in Biarritz she met a wild man in his faded flip-flops. ‘You have reverted,’ she said. 'My god your hair!' Sam in a naturaly half-crazed state. It was near midnight, we went off in search of coffee. Didn't succeed, but it was good to have my good friend with me and we spent the last week on beaches, walking the streets, or even the farmland roads inhaling the mint filled hay and enjoying Pippas savouring being an English dog for a brief spell in her life.

PAU - August 2008 - Found this little boy racer near the Castle and Kit roamed looking for good shots.
We even managed a day out in Pau, where Henry of Navarre was born (eventually King of England) and there's a pretty bijou Castle to look at. Had a great lunch in the Royal Square and in the evening saw WALL-E surely the best and funniest film of the summer. (Even in French).

Pau was once rich, but is now a little frayed at the edges but worth a visit. One thing that spoils you in France is the fantastic state of the roads and the amazing fast trains. If ever a lesson could be learned by the UK or America it would be to look at how investment in infrastucture pays off to make a country efficient and pleasant to navigate. It really puts the UK to shame and when we face the inevitable debacle of the Olympics in London in 2012, we will wish it had gone to Paris and so will everyone else. (Having now watched the spectacular Olympics opening I am even more embarassed about what we will do in the UK. A pageant about our glorious history murdering everything perhaps. A pile of bloody bodies, some horses prancing perhaps, and some spluttering fireworks? I dread it. (Since learned they faked the fireworks and the little girl singing and the audiences, so perhaps we could hire Ridley Scott to do ours in 2012 and we can do it all in a virtual stadium and we can win all the golds. Everyone can just watch on TV and save the worlds carbon footprint.)

Pau also hosts a huge University and it is this that probably keeps the city going, although it is plonked on the outskirts and must be awkward for the students studying there. The Uni has just built a new campus in Bayonne for undergraduates in the old Castle grounds but Pau will still deal with post-graduate studies. Nevertheless, the buildings look great and I hear the academic standards are high.

One sad fact of modern life in France (as London these days) is the amount of graffiti. I hope they take a lesson from New York and realise that zero tolerance is the only way. Pau has a drug problem and graffiti seems to be a great signifier of that wherever you go.

We returned to Hasparren by the incredibly smooth highway. Not a single cone to be seen. Perhaps we could persuade the French to build our roads, take over our railways and nuclear reactors. Be good to have stuff that works for once...

Clearly I wasn't popular when my friends returned from Canada. Chickens dead, sheep dead, flowers wilted (hell I did water them but it was 30C most days) cat eating rice, we'd nicked the beach umbrella.... we tried to make amends, bought flowers, a decent bottle of wine, but you could tell when we left there wasn't that 'see you again' type of conversation and Sam the Farmer days were over forever. If we could packed the dog, we would have. Hell might sneak back when they aren't looking...
But a big thanks to Lionel and Catherine for letting me share their home for a month. Sorry everything died.

Arrived - drank lattés, dived into Wagamama and finally ate a meal for under twenty quid for two. Two city people back in the comfort of London.
'Canada next year,' Kit said. It had been decided.
Happy to see that the October issue of 'In Britain' has a six page feature on Cornwall by me. Buy your copy now.

Sam North - Editor 2008

Published Summer 2008 - Mean Tide by Sam North
'Extraordinary novel about a child's psychic awakening'

Lulu Press - ISBN: 978-1-4092-0354-4
'An engaging, unusual and completely engrossing read' - Beverly Birch author of 'Rift'
Order now

Sent to live with his spooky Grandma by the river in Greenwich, Oliver (12) discovers a whole world of disturbed people who are probably even crazier than the ones he left behind. When he finds a dog with its throat cut on the beach, everything changes.
Age range 12-16 and adult

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