Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Everything Else

I would be remiss if I did not chronicle a bit more of our trip to Basque country.  The food alone is certainly blog-worthy.  The Basque have their own version of tapas, called pinxos (pinchos).  At lunch and dinner time every day, the countertops of all the bars in every town are covered with platters of pinxos.  You wander in, pick up one, two, or three, and enjoy the tasty morsels with a glass of sidre (hard cider), beer, or wine.  Somehow the bartender knows exactly how many you've eaten, even if there are 20 other people standing alongside the bar with you. 
Pinxos in San Sebastian

Pinxos tend to revolve around either fish or pork, which in general are the two most common food categories in the region.  I cannot possibly tell you what is actually on any of them as they are all combinations of tapenades, vegetables, fish, etc.  The first day we ate pinxos for lunch, I said to the bartender, in my best high school Spanish, that we had never eaten pinxos before and we were unsure how to eat them.  What I meant was that I didn't know whether we ordered specific items, or if it was an all-you-can-eat situation, etc. The bartender took it to mean that I was a total idiot, and looked at me with a strange expression on his face as he replied, "Put them in your mouth." 
More pinxos in San Sebastian

The best part about pinxos is just the camraderie and ambiance in the bars.  Don't let the word "bars" make you think this is just for adults - strollers were everywhere. I have never seen so many grandfathers taking care of their grandchildren, and on top of that making sure to enjoy a drink and a pinxo with another grandfather-nanny.  On Sunday afternoon in Bilbao, we stumbled across the Plaza Nueva, a square lined with bars and restaurants serving pinxos and drinks to hundreds of families, 20-somethings, grandparents, and everyone in between.  Many of the bars had hand-printed signs stating, "Hay calamares", explaining that they were also serving hot fried calamari.  This was clearly the most popular dish with the Sunday afternoon crowd judging by the number of people we saw popping calamari bits into their mouths around the plaza.

With its location on the rough Atlantic coast, fish of course plays a huge role in the local cuisine.  On Saturday night, we headed to the seaside town of Getaria for dinner.  After a drink in one of the bars (with two other strollers present, and one pregnant woman drinking beer), we headed to dinner at Elkano.   We didn't realize at the time that some of the most renowned chefs in the world have eaten here and declared it the best fish restaurant in the world. We also didn't realize that it was a pretty fancy place.  Nonetheless, we showed up with our baby and toddler in tow.  Unfazed, the hostess supplied us with a booster seat for Baby Oil - apparently it is commonplace in Spain to bring very young children to very expensive meals! 
Getaria harbor

And then we found out about kokotxas.  Kokotxas, a Basque specialty, is part of the chin or throat of a deep-sea cod called hake.  At Elkano, they offer kokotxas served in multiple ways - lightly battered, grilled, and with "green sauce" (seemed to be garlic and butter).  Rocked. Our. World. And our mouths.  Both of us took one bite, looked at the other and said, "I have never tasted anything like this before."  It was, simply, awesome. 
Kokotxas three ways

The grilled hake was also some of the best fish I have ever, ever eaten.  So fresh, so tasty, so perfectly prepared on the outside grill located on the sidewalk outside the restaurant.  Baby Oil and Mademoiselle were also perfect - though Baby Oil declined to eat anything but bread, and we decided we would forgo caring about his nutritional needs for one night - so we successfully pulled off eating one of the nicest meals we've had in Europe with two small children. 
They are cute small children!!

On the French side of Basque territory, the food is more...French.  We chose to focus on desserts, which are vastly superior in France compared with Spain.  Paries and Adam are probably the two most well-known patisseries in the Pays Basque.  Paries features mouchous, which are a type of macaron with no filling, and kanougas, which are caramels (unclear if anything is actually different or unusual about them).  Adam features one simple macaron - one layer, no flavors save traditional almond.  The Adam macaron is chewier than Parisian macarons but it is seriously delicious.  Both shops offer touron, which is made of honey, sugar, and almond paste.  Frankly we found the tourons too sweet for our tastes, though we tried a few flavors.  Since it was raining for 2 days straight while we were in St Jean de Luz, we decided to spend most of our time eating. 

We also sampled quite a bit of gateau basque, or traditional Basque cake.  Again this features an almond filling - they really have a thing for almonds down there in Basque country - but in a delicious crust, and the traditional kind has cherries in it.  A great gateau basque is excellent.  Our favorite one was from a small bakery in the town of Espelette.  This little town in the foothills of the Pyrenees is most well-known for piment d'Espelette, a specific type of chili pepper used in many Basque dishes.  In Espelette, you can find everything with piment d'Espelette, from cheese to chocolate and anything else you might want.
Sheep's milk cheese with piment d'Espelette, in Espelette

In addition to the food, I should also briefly mention the bright and beautiful world of Basque textiles.

Ubiquitous throughout the region, ranging from cheap touristy items to upscale fabrics, you can find towels, tablecloths, robes, napkins, bags, portfolios, and much more in these lovely patterns.  Our favorite shops included Artiga, Tissage de Luz, and Euskal Linge

While the beret is a worldwide symbol of France that you never actually see in Paris, it turns out that the beret is a Basque symbol of victory in the world of Basque rural sports.  We almost bought a Basque beret for Baby Oil but instead just took this photo.

Despite some feelings of loyalty toward France, I have to say that the Spanish side of the Basque region felt significantly more Basque. The French side felt more like France with a Basque veneer, and better desserts.  I am truly glad we decided to explore this part of Europe, even if we ended the week declaring that we would never go on vacation again with small children.  Which is why we are headed to Scotland in two weeks. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Boulder Pulling

As you drive through Spanish Basque country, the landscape feels rugged and wild.  You feel isolated, seeing few people but many sheep.  This quiet wilderness is turned upside-down once you experience the life in Basque country, where the people are warm, welcoming, and live life to the fullest in their remote corner of Europe.

No experience better captured the vitality of Basque life than watching the gizon proba in Deba last weekend.  Gizon proba is one of the traditional Basque rural sports.  It literally translates as "man test", and consists of 8 men attached to a metal harness dragging an almost-2000-pound "boulder".  For a set amount of time (about 30 minutes), the men pull the weight back and forth across a proscribed distance.  The number of lengths is recorded on a scoreboard as hundreds of locals cheer on the men.  When the first group is done, their competitors warm up and attempt to best the first team's score. 

The idea of 800 or more people standing around in the rain on a Saturday afternoon, shouting and cheering as a bunch of guys lugging a giant weight for half an hour sounds crazy and even a bit boring.  The reality is certainly unusual but completely engaging.   The home team, from Deba, went first.  Almost the entire crowd was from Deba, so the cheering at each turn, and the encouragement as the task became increasingly difficult, was deafening at times.  Local kids watched with the same intensity as American kids watch the NBA finals. 20-somethings stood in the back, alternately cheering and drinking.  A quartet of EMTs were on hand in case of injury.
And they're off!

The coach keeps them going strong.

This is serious stuff.

The first 20 lengths or so come across as child's play.  Soon enough, however, it becomes clear that this thing they're pulling is really, really heavy. 
Yeah, this is hard.

And finally, time is called.  The team literally collapses in relief.

Then the next team warms up. They were from the neighboring town of Mendaro, and could not hold a candle to our Deba team (we stayed in Deba, so of course felt a natural affinity for the home team).  The man we rented the apartment from later suggested that the event was rigged, but I think it's hard to give anything but your most in this environment.  Plus, I was there and both teams were working hard.  Deba won, 40-35. 

I have never experienced anything like gizon proba before.  Not just because it was so foreign to us, but because we felt we really experienced an authentic community event, the kind that regularly marks the lives of the Basque people.  Afterwards, we walked back to the center of town with what felt like every person who lives in Deba, and we ate at the restaurant in the town square with dozens of other families and townspeople, all basking in the excitement and energy of the feat of strength we had all witnessed.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Ce n'est pas des vacances

We arrived back in Paris today after 9 days in the Basque region of Spain and France, seriously questioning our sanity in taking this trip with a 28-month-old and 4-month-old.  It turns out that traveling with kids is not actually a vacation - as one French woman we spoke with in Biarritz said, "C'est du travail!" - it's work!   Good friends of ours who also recently had a second child are planning a trip to Club Med in Turkey in a few months, and throughout our trip, we thought, "Gee, that sounds like a good idea."

Basque country is a fantastic place to visit, even with kids. And I will write much more about the trip.  At this moment, I am just too exhausted to do anything but pen this note about our questionable decision-making, and about how we spent most meals trying to ensure Baby Oil didn't break anything at the restaurant, and maybe ate something besides french fries.  Only one meal got to the point of embarrassment, after breaking a glass, a plate, and rolling a baseball around the floor.  The silver lining was that seated near to us was a French family with a little boy a few months younger than Baby Oil.  At first I thought to myself, "Great, I will now watch this child happily devour spinach and cod and vegetable soup, while mine tries to jump out of his booster seat." 

But no, it turns out that French toddlers may not all live up to their reputation.  I watched this French child eat apple juice with a spoon, stick his hand in his water glass, and then only eat his fries.  I felt much better about life after this. 

The genuine delight and exuberance expressed regularly by Baby Oil did add to our enjoyment - how long has it been since you were thrilled to the point of shrieking at the sight of a crane? Or a dump truck? Or a really big car carrier? He quickly latched on to saying "hola" around Spain, which never failed to elicit a smile.

We did learn some important lessons about travels with children.  For instance, now we know that snaps on pajamas from DPAM will set off airport metal detectors, but Petit Bateau jammies do not.  We know that there are really big sharks in San Sebastian's aquarium, but an outside seal pool at the aquarium in Biarritz.  We know that after two days of rain in a beach town, your toddler may very well resort to poking his little sister in the eye as a new fun game.  We know that Spanish formula makes Mademoiselle spit up even more than normal.  We know it matters less whether the town you stay in is historic, scenic, or charismatic - the real issue is, how good is the playground? 

So we traveled Basque country for 9 days.  We ate incredibly well, and felt like we really got a feel for the region, particularly in Spain.  It was a great trip - but it was not really a vacation. 

More to come...

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Just when I think this city is done surprising me, I learn something new.

Today I learned that in Paris, canaries are priced by how well they sing. Which leads to so many questions, such as who is the judge of quality, and what if you disagree with your bird's abilities?

I also thought I was done with pregnancy-related anecdotes.  And then a friend went to her last appointment with her ob, three days before a scheduled cesarean.  The doctor informed my friend that the baby looked ready to go, and he was concerned she might go into labor.  "Please, do me a favor," he says. "Take a cab home, and lie down for the rest of the day. I have a reservation at a really nice restaurant tonight so I don't want to be interrupted by you going into labor."

Right now every interaction and experience is colored by the reality of our impending departure.  I have been eating so many baguettes in anticipation of no longer having ready to access to them that I may actually be baguette-d out.  (I say this every day, and it hasn't actually stopped me from eating one yet.) We have a bucket list of things we'd like to do before we leave, and we're heading on our last big exploration of France next week, when we go down to the Basque Coast.

I feel some regret about leaving just when Baby Oil is starting to speak French, and that Mademoiselle will have had so little time in her country of birth.  For a long time, it felt like our life here was simply a time-out from our "real" life in the States.  Somehow, along the way, this turned into real life. 

I get two more months of life in this city of sliding-scale canary prices.  Two more months of watching 10 year-olds zoom by on their scooters, holding tight to the baguettes under their arms.  Two more months of elderly Parisian women going ga-ga over Mademoiselle in the grocery store (seriously, this happens often). Two months to prepare for life in New York, a life about which we know nothing except where Baby Oil will go to preschool.  Which in New York, it turns out, is a major accomplishment given that we missed every application deadline.  Who knew that they were so deadly serious about preschool? The acceptance letter we received read like a university admissions letter - "We are pleased to inform you that [Baby Oil] has been accepted into our program."

Two months left.  What do you think we still need to do here?