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Published: April 12th 2006
Patrick Ross was the most interesting of my various, all to brief aquaintences. A burnt-out violin prodigy , with an oversized goatee. He teaches music in Vermont, and is, from my observations a borderline alcoholic. He disapeared sometime on a friday night, after babbling drunkenly in french canadian (which he speaks fluently) for an hour. As expected, I didn´t see him again.
There is a strange complicity that often develops among longer term travellers, an unconscious understanding that goes beyond the norms of conventional social conduct. Often a complete stranger will become your most loyal companion or most trusted friend, within the space of a few hours. Inevitably, as is the general idea when travelling, one of you moves on. Maybe email adresses are exchanged, or vague plans to meet up are discussed, but the unspoken agreement is that the association is a temporary one, and you probably won´t see them again.
This was hard to get used to at first and I became to attached. I felt like I was floating along, making the briefest impression, but ultimatly to be forgotten; maybe given longer, that impression would have become something more substantial, a permanent dent perhaps; but as
things remained, these relationships were nothing more than transient. But, I hardened, and began to understand that such affiliations exist precisely because they are temporary; and that they are born largely out of a situational need for companionship, that isn´t present back home.
It is easy to open up to a complete stranger if you know you will never see them again. Nothing is riding on the relationship. It has no future, so the "pressure is off", so to speak. Though these friendships mean nothing long term, their importance is not to be underestimated. I have found myself speaking to people who I have known for maybe less than 2 hours, with a familiarity that would seem surprising in another context; and similarily they have often responded with a candour of there own. Subsequently I have often found myself becoming friendly with certain people who, through shyness or prejudice, I probably wouldn´t go near back home. More often than not I have been surprised.
Before I arrived in Biarritz, something was missing. I was aware that I had actually left home, but somehow it didn´t feel like it. I had met only a few people since Paris, and
the bulk of my time had been spent wandering around, taking photographs and writing. While this all very well and good on an intellectual level, personally I felt unengaged. I was of course physically in a different country, but I felt like I was experiencing everything through someone else´s eyes and that it wasn´t actually me who was there. I was not living, but observing.
Things changed when I arrived in Biarritz, for a number of reasons. Most importantly the weather improved. Up to that point it had been largely miserable, something which never bodes well for my mental state. The day day I arrived, the weather was so good that it felt like the planet had decided to skip Spring and jump straight into Summer, all of a sudden I felt ecstatically happy, the future seemed to hold possibilities. I find it quite ridiculous that my mood is so influenced by the vaguries of the climate, but such is life.
While Biarritz was pleasant enough; there were nice beaches, the weather was good, and it was close to Bayonne, another town I was interested in; there was very little of interest in the town itself. It was,
Basque Language Sign
Try and Pronounce that
essentially a resort town, complete with large hotels and a casino. I imagine it be heaving in the summerm, but at this time if year, despite the weather, it was quiet. I´m not even sure why I stopped there. It seemed like a good place to break up the journey from Bordeaux to Spain and I was interested in the French Basque region, but Biarritz was hardly an authentic Basque town, indeed it was hardly a real town at all.
It turned out to be a good move though. Despite being part of the loathed HI organization, the hostel was a sociable place. There were other long term backpackers, something I had rarely seen in since Paris. The weather was good, and there was nothing in the town that I felt obligated to see. So I relaxed. I hung out on the beach, watched the surfers for hours and read my book. The hostel was located some distance from the town, so in the evening the bar was a lively place. On my first night, I hung around, drank pints of Heineken, and met some well-to-do English gentlemen. One of them went to Edinburgh university (which I have heard
is even more of a haven for toffs than Exeter) and spoke constantly about sailing. The other worked in an expensive clothes shops that I had never heard. He was called Sandy. They obviuosly had plenty of money, and at first I found all this very amusing. But I warmed to them, they were decent people and easy to get along with; something that I wouldn´t have discovered had my usual prejudices been in place
I spent most of my time with a couple of Canadians. For a few days I did almost everything with them. I cooked diner with them, I sat on the beach with them. I drank with them, and I almost got drowned by the incoming tide, with them (this is about all there is to do in Biarritz). They had such a relaxed attitude that I found it almost impossible not to adopt one aswell. In keeping with stereotype Paul said "eh" after after every sentance and Calep said "dope" (meaning good) constantly. In keeping with a different stereotype they had the maple leaf sewn onto their backpacks. They liked good music, so there was plenty to talk about.
This sort irresponsible behaviour
continued in San Sebastian; just down the coast, but over the Spanish border. I stayed out late every night, drank a lot, and slept in late; but I met more people in three days than I had in the previous three weeks. In the afternoons I wandered, lapping up the natural beauty of the place.
I stayed in a charming little hostel called "Olga's Place"; though to call it a youth hostel is an injustice. For three days I felt like I was staying with long-lost-relatives. Olga and Rapheal (her boyfriend) spoke no english, but this proved to be of little consequence. They were warm and friendly, and went to great lenghts to make sure everyone who stayed there enjoyed themselves. Ten minutes after I arrived, I was offered a plate of the most fantastic Paella I've ever tasted. There was enough for the family and plenty more to go around. I contributed two euros as payment for the ingredients, but would have payed thirty in a restaurant.
Around this time I met Nick. He was a person of confused nationality. Born in South Africa, he spent his first ten years in America, but now lives in Sydney.
His ambition is to start a record label, and, unlike many of my generation who have similar vague aspirations, he seems like he may actually achieve it. He studied Business at University and his Father used to run a world music label, so he has the background and the knowledge. He was as much of a musical snob as me and, suaprisinlgy for an Australian he was a big football fan. So far, he is the person I have connected with most on this trip, and I would have liked to have spent some more time with him. Maybe I´ll see hin again, but I doubt it.
On my first night I was out with some Australians I had met We were drinking in an almost empty bar located somewhere amongst the tangled alleys of the old town. An abnormally skinny gentleman with wild eyes tried to speak to us, but we soon realised this was impossible. He was drunk and spoke no English, but he persisted, much to our initial amusment and growing discomfort. One of the Australians remarked, jokingly, that he seemed to resemble the devil. Despite his lack of English, he seemed to understand, letting out
a wild manical laugh in response. The satanic resemblence was immediately confirmed. Continuing his disturbing laughter, he began to become physical, not violent, but uncomfortably clingy. We left swiftly.
The following evening, strolling down the central street, we heard an instantly recognisable laugh. The devil had found us. He was probably putting the laugh on for our amusement, so we would recognise him. It didn't sound like that. As we quicklyy walked away, his cackles grew more intense, and it sounded like he was laughing because there was no escape. The Devil was laughing, because we would shortly be joining him in Hell for all eternity
San Sebastian is a lively place at night. While out with a Bostonian from my hostel, I saw a guy wearing a cardigan within an England Flag embroidered on the breast.I commented on it, and we started talking. He was Spanish, but had lived in London for a while. He wasn´t Basque, but had lived in San Sebastian for most if his life. We talked about his home town, we talked about Xabi Alonso, and we talked about the Basque language. I struggled to hear him. The music was at ear damaging
levels, and consequently teh talking rose above it. He and his friends left soon after. He disliked the bar, It was much too quiet.
I was disapointed in the Basque country. That is to say I was disapointed at its lack of Basqueness. The Basque people are , so I am told, the original inhabitants of Europe. Their language is older than any other european language, and it has completley different roots from the standard Latin/Germanic language tree. I can´t think of any other nation who deserves their own country, mainly because their culture is so much older.
Yet somehow, it didn´t seem like it. Green, Red and White flags were displayed in every window and the bars and shops had unpronouceable names. In places there were vague shows of independence, a cautiously flown Spanish flag had been recently pelted with paint. But these displays of nationalism seemed largely contrived.
Bayonne, just over the French border from San Sebastian, was, despite the red an green painted houses, unmistakeably French. The cutely decorated shuttersm, couldn´t hide the Boulangeries and many designer clothes shops. Conversly almost everyone in San Sebastian seemed to speak Spanish.
I was in the
Basque country shortly after ETA had called for a peacefull solution to the separatist debate. Their commitment to a non-violent solution is to be applauded. But I can´t help thinking that maybe they have just given up. From my short stay, there seemed to be no unique, cohesive culture to fight for any more.
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