Monday, March 31, 2014

Il y a anguille sous roche

"This eel pâté is amazing," said Chick. "How did you come up with it?"

"It was Nicolas who thought of it," said Colin. "There's an eel - or rather, there was an eel - that kept getting into his sink through the cold-water faucet."

"That's weird," said Chick. "Why would it do that?"

"It would stick its head out and bite the tube of toothpaste to suck out all the contents. Nicolas only uses that pineapple-flavored American toothpaste, and it must have been irresistible."

"How did he catch it?" asked Chick.

"He put a whole pineapple on the sink instead of the tube of toothpaste. Normally when the eel had swallowed the toothpaste it could duck its head back in the pipe right away, but with the pineapple, it didn't work, and the more it tried to pull back, the deeper its fangs sank into the pineapple."

- Boris Vian, "L'écume des jours" (1947)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Weekend At The Sea: Labenne

Yes, that is a whole block of homemade foie gras on the table for lunch. Marie-Morgane and her mother and grandmother put it up in 2012 with salt and pepper and cognac, so it was nicely aged and wonderful when spread on my toasted gluten-free bread. The whole weekend was filled with good things to eat, and none of it made with butter or cream or flour (except at the restaurant - that was pretty buttery). Marie made squid stuffed with spinach and rice in a tomato sauce for Friday dinner, and the leftover rice turned into a salad that we had for lunch the next day with ham. She roasted chickens with spices from the market for our Sunday lunch at the table in the sun, and Sunday evening we finished the foie gras spread on the last of the toasts, followed by fresh foie gras crisped in a hot pan with salt and pepper, with prunes in Armagnac for dessert. It's a good thing we went for long walks that weekend.

Others were taking walks as well through the pine woods bordering the dunes, including the newly-awakened hordes of Pine Processionary caterpillar larvae that are causing increasing problems in the Landes region and moving inexorably northward. Local governments use spraying to try to kill the nests before the caterpillars emerge, but usually not until April; the milder (if very rainy) winter and early spring has thrown that schedule off this year. Marie kept calling her dog away from the squirming lines and loops and snarls of chenille-knitted knots, because the spiky hairs cause breathing problems and rashes in animals - and in people as well, as she warned me when I crouched down to take a photo. We talked about invasive species for a while, and climate change, and our hopes and plans for the future and whether those hopes and plans would come true, global weather patterns permitting.

We were headed towards the old Centre Hélio-Marin which was run by the mayor of Labenne, Jules Bouville, in the 1930s to house people with breathing problems and rashes: lepers, according to Marie. At one point, anyway. It was more generally a "cure by the sea" location, not for tuberculosis (you went to the mountains for that) but for other ailments that sun and saltwater might help with. I'm not sure what it did for the lepers. There's a new fancy Institut Hélio-Marin now closer to the town, where wealthy older people and injured sports stars get treated, and the old building is now falling down under the ownership of the State, who has it up for sale at an unspecified price. The woman guarding the property with the help of a ferociously-barking dog didn't know the price, in any event, and when she saw my camera she said it was forbidden to take pictures because it was the property of the State and not allowed. Which I thought was odd, given all the places in Paris that are the property of the State, and guarded besides, that I've taken pictures of. Marie said it was just that she was being officious and probably bored, stuck out there on the dunes all alone but for a nasty-tempered dog and a gun, and that in general if there's a woman official, you'll get read every last footnote of the regulations and maybe some made up on the spot just to show you who's boss, but if it's a male official they'll wave you on to do or see whatever it is. I put my camera back in its case and we moved on, but on the way back I snapped a quick photo through the underbrush. If you don't hear from me any more, please check the French national prison system, Aquitaine region.

1930s, 1830s, 1130s and even farther back - you can't escape history in France, even in the most modern settings. A friend of Marie's mother, whose family traces its lineage back to the court of Henri IV, I was told, gave her this memento from the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle. It's a larme batavique (Dutch Tear, or Prince Rupert's Drop). The cover of the small box says it's a "lentille en cristal de roche fondu" or "lenticular crystal of melted rock" and I was fairly excited about that, thinking that it was a unique natural formation, but then after I squinted and deciphered the spidery lettering on the inside, saw that it's actually something that you get when you drip hot liquid glass into cold water. Which is also pretty neat, but not something you'd come across on a field trip, so sorry, Mom, no geology expedition this time. But I was prepared to take notes.

Apologies to everyone for the fuzzy picture; I couldn't get the light and focus to cooperate.

Mieulx est de ris que de larmes escripre,
Pour ce que rire est le propre de l'homme.

- François Rabelais (1534)

The dirt road we were following leads to Capbreton, as does a paved bike/pedestrian path that runs along the Boudigau, and it's all flat so an easy walk or ride, another reason why this area is so popular with tourists. Maybe I'll do the 14-kilometre loop next time I visit, because it looks like fun. I do hope there's a next time. And in checking the distance along the bike path, Google maps has helpfully highlighted all of the other bike routes, and (with occasional forays onto major roads with crazy French drivers) there's a way to get all the way up to Bordeaux by bike. I'll bet a lot of people do that trip, too.

But on our walk we didn't go out of Labenne, and we stopped at the Chapelle Sainte-Thérèse not far from the (possibly) former leper colony and sanitarium. Bouville had it built in 1931 to accommodate the religious needs of the growing population of Labenne. There's another older church in the center of town, the Église Saint Nicolas de Labenne, originally built at the beginning of the 13th century but extensively remodeled and rebuilt in the 1860s. I didn't visit that church, and we couldn't visit this one either, as it's generally closed to the public. There's an old concrete-walled convent, now also closed, between the chapel and the sanitarium, that dates back to the 1930s as well. I imagined the sisters ministering to the people in their iron-framed hospital beds facing the sea, then walking back to their own hard and narrow cots in the evening, following the path through the sand towards the chiming of the chapel bell.

That morning, the bell was silent, and all I could hear was the sound of the wind through the dune grass and the shush-roar of the waves below. The four-wheeler tracks on the sand indicated that it wouldn't always be such a quiet place, but for a while the ghosts of the nuns were left in peace.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Weekend At The Sea: Nightlife In Anglet

The quiz show that we watch every day at lunch chez Bergeras had a tricky question yesterday: "Which of these towns are 'bathed by the sea'?" The list provided included Brest and Bayonne, but I didn't recognize any of the other names. I thought Bayonne was one of the correct answers, but actually it's not a seaside city; the seamless conglomeration of Biarritz, Anglet, and Bayonne does indeed run its expensive houses right up to the beach, but Bayonne is the inland part, spanning the Adour river that divides the Pyrénées-Atlantiques and Landes départements.

We drove to Anglet on Saturday evening to the Jungle Café restaurant, for a surprise belated birthday party for Marie-Morgane's mother. I keep expecting events like this to be in traditional French bistros - Sebastian's birthday party was at his favorite all-you-can-eat Japanese/Korean restaurant - but then have to remind myself that what's exotic and special to me is different for others. I'm planning to go to a traditional French bistro in Paris in May, just to get my fix. But in Anglet, surrounded by gilded thrones and painted doors from Indonesia, maybe, and statues of Buddha and elephants and the wicker knick-knackery of a century of colonialism, we had drinks while waiting for the guest of honor, and I tried to explain what a martini is.

"A mixed drink made with vodka and a dash of vermouth," I said. "You know, like James Bond drinks. Some people add an olive or two." I got blank looks. "Oh, you mean a gin-and-tonic?" someone finally said. I let it go, and sipped my glass of Martini rouge, the Italian vermouth created in 1868. I prefer Lillet for my apéritif, the fruity-bitter blend of Bordeaux wines, citrus liqueur, and quinine invented in 1872, but the bar didn't stock any. "That's an old-fashioned drink," the grandmother sitting across from me said.

And then we had red wine from Tours with our meal; I chose the sautéed shrimp with fresh ginger for my entrée, and salmon with fresh tomato salsa and stir-fried vegetables for the main course. I swapped the rice on my plate for all the vegetables from Kevin's plate - Marie-Morgane's boyfriend is even more meat-and-potatoes than the students at Hasparren. Birthday champagne arrived in a bucket with lit sparklers stuck in the foil around the cork, which I thought was pretty fun. And since all the desserts were wheat and dairy (and I was stuffed anyway) I opted for a final glass of a Basque berry liqueur I'd never seen before, Patxaran (pronounced PATCH-ar-an). It's a sort of sloe gin made by macerating the berries and leaves of the Prunus spinosa bush in an anise-tinged alcohol. It's been a traditional drink since the Middle Ages, here in what was once called the Kingdom of Navarre.

And before you start to worry about all that alcohol, this consumption occurred over the course of nearly six hours, so I was well within the "one per hour" limit. I will admit to being quite relaxed by the end of the meal, however. Relaxed, but not tipsy enough to feel like going down to the dance floor and joining the packed crowd that filled every square inch between the tables. There was barely enough room to move, much less dance, and so most of the dancing was a sort of up-and-down bob in time with the beat.

And what was the beat they were moving to? American pop classics from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, with "La Bamba" and "Sledgehammer" the ones I remember. I caught a glimpse of the DJ in his booth above the alligator and he looked to be about my age, or maybe a little older. There were French songs I didn't recognize but everyone else did, because they sang along and knew exactly when to stop and start and change rhythm. Just as we were leaving, the disco version of Cotton Eye Joe came on, and couples lined up to make an archway for others to dance under. Since there was still no room on the floor, it was more of a wriggle through than a dance under move, but they all seemed to be having a good time. Marie-Morgane says that the Jungle Café is popular with students from the University of Bayonne and anyone else who wants to extend their evening into the morning, as it doesn't close until 5am or so. As I fell asleep at 2am, the laser lights were undoubtedly still flashing above the crowd, with Buddha laughing above.

Weekend At The Sea: Capbreton

My friend Marie-Morgane had stocked her kitchen with gluten-free supplies, and so I was able to have toast with peanut butter along with my coffee as I checked my e-mail on that Saturday morning (wi-fi again! I apparently can't live without it [without much complaining, at any rate]). Her grandmother had given up her bedroom for me, a dark and quiet spot where I woke up to the sound of birds and the distant surf, dormitory life and French tax law just a bad dream I could leave behind. For a few days, at least.

We tucked Marie-Morgane's tiny terrier-like dog into the car and headed north to Capbreton, for the market and some sightseeing. There weren't as many vendors in the marketplace as there will be in summer, when the tourists move in. This whole stretch of coastline, from Biarritz to Bordeaux, turns into tourist hell - or heaven, if you're the one selling the goods - from April to October. I asked Marie about jobs in the area, and she said that if you're not in the tourist industry, there's not much of anything in the smaller towns. So we were able to walk easily between the booths and tables; Marie stopped to chat with a baker as I took pictures of an interesting cheese called "The Burned Cow" (the rind is seared before aging) and peeked in the crates at the fish stands.

Then we went to the end of the row, and bought spices from Christiane and Éric Philippot, a local couple who have been running their stand for decades, with a new website they just put on line last year. Marie bought a bag of a spice mix for making tagine, and I bought a packet of paprika-based rub for roast chicken to take back to the Bergeras kitchen and Jeanne's home-cooked (and -raised, and -killed, and -plucked) hens.

The church in the center of town, the Église Saint-Nicolas de Capbreton, was originally built in the 16th century and incorporated a lighthouse to help keep sailors off the rocky point below - or apparently what used to be the rocky point below, where the hills and sand now stretch out to the shore. The church and tower were damaged in a storm and then rebuilt in the mid-19th century, and only the statue of Christ now dates back to the 16th century. The interior decoration was redone on a maritime theme, with illustrations from appropriate bible verses, and an anchor mosaic on the floor at the entrance. Apparently the local sailors posed for many of the paintings. According to the brochure, the paintings were done by Jules-Bertrand Gélibert, but I'm not sure that it's the same person I found on a quick google search, whose output seems to be mostly paintings of dogs.

And it shall come to pass, that every thing that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live: and there shall be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters shall come thither: for they shall be healed; and every thing shall live whither the river cometh.
- Ezekiel 47:9

And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.
- Matthew 4:18-19

Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing. But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus. Then Jesus saith unto them, Children, have ye any meat? They answered him, No. And he said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.
- John 21:1-6

We drove down to the waterfront, where the Bouret and Boudigau rivers meet and form a narrow harbor packed with small leisure and fishing boats. The weather had been horrible for days, so we weren't sure if there would be fish in the market, but some of the hardier crews had gone out, and the Capbreton fish market was bustling. Hake, sea bream, John Dory (Saint Pierre), sea bass, eels, and shellfish of all sorts - the array of poisson was infinitely tempting after my months-long diet of pur porc. Marie-Morgane spoke of a possible moules frites dinner, and I eyed the oyster bar across the way, but decided that the peanut butter toast hadn't worn off yet.

Since it was the off season still, it was likely only locals strolling down the path towards the jetty at the end of the harbor, and the open plaza and inevitable casino before it, at the start of the promenade above the beach. This past winter there were some incredible storms on the coast, and the jetty was closed because it had been damaged. We saw blocks of concrete that had once formed a border to the promenade walkway which had been pushed off their rebar settings by the waves, and the underground parking lot beneath the plaza and casino were filled with standing water for weeks. It was still fairly early in the morning, so there weren't a lot of people at the tables in front of the restaurants lining the outer curve of the promenade, but I could see it would be a lovely place to sit in the sun and eat mussels in curry sauce.

There is a statue of the Virgin Mary on the right-hand side of the harbor outlet (or the left-hand side, if you're coming in from the sea). There's another similar statue that has been in Capbreton at the Église Saint-Nicolas since the time of the Huguenots, the only other 16th-century relic there to survive wars and tempests. But the Capbretonais decided they needed a bit more protection from the wild ocean, and in 1937 they hired the local sculptor Lucien Danglade to create another statue, which was installed at the current shoreline and continues to watch over the boats going in and out of the harbor.

The weather and the water hadn't quite warmed up to bathing-suit temperatures, so the surfers were all wearing wetsuits. I imagine that in July and August you won't be able to see the sand for the people, unless you go to the beach very early in the morning. I suppose that's not surprising, given that (roughly speaking) the French coastline - and I'm only counting the Biarritz to Brest section along the Bay of Biscay, not the chilly northern English Channel part - is about the size of Oregon's, but instead of a population of 4 million headed there on vacation in the summer, you've got the entire nation of 65 million. Minus those who choose to go to the Mediterranean shores instead (which are probably even more crowded), but plus those who come from Germany or the cold Scandinavian countries. I'd love to spend more time in the area, and with Marie-Morgane and her family, but I think I'll stick to the fall and winter for my visits.

As long as it's sunny, that is.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Weekend At The Sea: Biarritz

Thank goodness for generous friends. After the first week of classes and dormitory life, I needed a break, and I got one, thanks to Marie-Morgane and her family, who welcomed me into their home near Bayonne for the weekend. She came to pick me up at school, where I was waiting on the front steps in the late afternoon sunshine (finally sunshine, after a week of rain and hail) and watching the lizards dart and squabble (or something; I wasn't going to ask for details, but they were very intense about it).

I threw my suitcase into the trunk and off we went to the west and the seaside, leaving the green hills for the sandy pine forests along the Côte d'Argent. We picked her mother up outside of Bayonne and drove to Biarritz for an apéro at a sunny café overlooking the promenade. Such a change from the mid-November visit to Biarritz I made with Florence and Michaëla, when we walked along the waterfront in the wind, watching the grey waves foam and crash.

That Friday evening it was clear and calm, the air warming but still chilly after the week of storms. I sipped a glass of dry Jurançon and watched the sparrows hopping between the tables, and the light glinting off the water, and felt my shoulders relaxing and my mouth turning up into a smile that would stay with me for the next two days.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Hands-on Education

There are three campuses that make up the Centre de Formation des Apprentis Agricoles des Pyrénées Atlantiques: in Montardon, north of Pau, where we were from October through January; in Hasparren, near Bayonne, where we were for two weeks this month; and here in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, where we will not have classes at all, which is unfortunate because if all the classes had been here it would have saved me a whole lot in time and travel frustration and possibly rent money. Oh, well. These three lycées are vocational/technical schools, an alternative to the university track. In France, general education goes through collège, which is what we'd call 10th grade or so in the United States, and then the 15-year-old student graduates (or not) with their diplôme and has to choose what to do next - or has the choice made for them if they haven't done well academically. The next level is the lycée, and this can be either more general education in either arts or sciences in preparation for going to university, or technical studies leading to a career in a specific field. This latter usually involves one or more terms of apprenticeship. The CFAA focuses on agricultural work, including food sciences, research in biology and microbiology, farming, tree-trimming, and lawn and garden care. Of the students in my class, some have defined goals, others (like me) are pursuing dreams, and a few are there, I think, because they couldn't figure out what to do after graduation and so are happy enough being paid to attend class with no real plans to use the information they're ignoring in the classroom. I expect that in the general student population, there's the same split. It must be hard for young kids to make the decision at 15 or so as to what they want to spend the rest of their lives doing - and for the most part it will be, as job-changing isn't as easy here as it is the US (in principle anyway). If I'd been set firmly on a road by the education system at 15 I'd be ... what was it at the time? Marine biologist, maybe, or perhaps I'd have gone for concert pianist. Or maybe I would have dropped out and married my high school boyfriend Walter. That was a weird year, 15.

We arrived at the campus and immediately started learning about new regulations coming up around labeling requirements for fresh and processed food, so we didn't get into the dormitories until 6pm. Actually, we couldn't have gotten in the dormitories earlier, because the dorms are locked down from 8:30am to 6pm. And the classroom buildings, including the only room with computer access, are locked down from 8pm to 8:30am. And dinner is at 7pm precisely, and you must go in a specific order by class designation, and oh my gosh there were so many rules. But when you're dealing with 15-year-old boys, that's probably a good thing. There were girls among the students, but not nearly as many.

We hadn't been told to bring bedding, but they scrounged up a set of sheets for me, which included a pubic hair from a previous occupant of the room. Between the restrictions and the dormitory and the no-computer situation (after I had been ASSURED that there was wi-fi available) I was frazzled and, frankly, rather a bitch that evening, and I ended up in a room of my own on a hard single bed. Though I did tell the RA that if another female student needed a place to stay, I wasn't that much of a bitch, and they were welcome to move in and use one of the bunk beds. Fortunately, I had the room to myself for both weeks. And I've requested a single room during the next two terms.

"So how was dormitory life?" asked Mom when we were chatting on Skype yesterday. Okay, once I got used to it. The private room helped. But the light-sensors in the toilets were not designed to encourage long visits, and I had to keep waving my arms over my head while I peed so that I wasn't peeing in the dark. I had to whack the shower button every five seconds to keep the water running, but at least the water was hot. The food was well prepared and tasty, which was good because they usually served the leftovers from lunch to the reduced number of students staying in the dorms (most students arrived by bus, car, or shuttle every morning for class). But it was starch and fat and sugar for breakfast, starch and meat and fat and sugar for lunch, and starch and meat and sugar for dinner. There were times when I was reduced to begging other students for the lettuce leaves under their sliced-salami or hard-boiled-egg entrées, just to get something green. I'd taken gluten-free bread and oatmeal, so breakfast was okay - the coffee wasn't great, but there was lots of it - but by the end of the first week I'd complained so much to the chef (okay, maybe I was that much of a bitch) about the lack of vegetables that he started putting aside extra for me. He was very nice, actually, that chef - he always had a piece of fish or something that I could eat when the main course was tartiflette (sliced potatoes with cream and bacon and melted cheese) or another gluten- or dairy-filled dish.

And the classes were more interesting, because they were more practical. We had several days of microbiology and nutritional analysis classes, and tested samples of piment d'Espelette for bacteria and molds and other nasty things. We got a chance to apply our marketing and communication skills to a project for the official AOP regulatory group, who want to do an outreach program for kids between 7 and 12 years old. My team came up with a trifold brochure using cartoon characters who walked a little Basque boy through the cycle of cultivation-ripening-processing-seed-saving, which I did up in InDesign, and I think it was well received by the AOP representative. We're into fiscal management now, not just accounting and bookkeeping, and I am learning (and promptly forgetting, the damn details just won't stay in my head) more than I really wanted to know about the French tax system. English words and phrases pop up at the strangest times and in the strangest ways; we were told at one point that profits are shared "fifty-fifty" among three associates. And we're finally starting on our personal projects, which I really need to do some work on soon, because there are only two months left to pull that together, and since my project requires responses from people I haven't even sent letters to yet, what the hell am I doing writing blog posts anyway?

The lovely Adeline measuring in precise micromillilitres.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Under Our Feet

"In the Pyrénées Atlantiques, the subterranean karst springs are an important resource: the town of Pau is supplied by the Néez spring that wells up from one of the alluvial flows in the Ossau river valley at Arudy; Oloron is the tributary of the Ourtau spring which funnels the water from the mountains between Arudy and Lurbe; the uplands at Jaout supply the eastern and northern portions of Béarn from the Aygue Blanque spring; the spring at Ogeu is itself karstic. Spelunkers can help the regional water administration by inventorying and protecting these karst sources. In fact, it is only through geologic study and the explorations of experienced cavers that these underground waterways will be understood. However, sometimes it is possible to add non-polluting dye to a water source and trace the color where it reemerges, to attempt to map its underground route. The underground karstic water sources are very vulnerable to pollution, more so because karst, being full of large holes, cannot act as a natural filter. Hydrological resources must therefore be protected and watched over." - my translation of the informational sign at the beginning of the "karst hike" in the woods outside of Oloron-Sainte-Marie

The trails that lead from one cave opening to the next run much further than we walked that Sunday afternoon, Florence and Michaëla and I. When I heard that we were going to be going to see the gouffres I thought of the Gouffre de Padirac that I visited with Mom and John last year, and made sure I had batteries in my camera for underground flash-lit photos. However, though there might be equally vast underground tunnels honeycombing the hills where we were walking, many of the entrances to the karst caverns are only narrow cracks and body-width holes, only accessible to spelunkers with lines and bolts and hardhats, and much brighter lights. According to the tourist literature on hiking in the Basque-Béarn region, some of the openings are wide enough that they've built footbridges across them, and you can look down into the beginnings of the cave system, but the one we found (after some thrashing through undergrowth) was barely visible among the ferns. Michaëla got a better photo than I did, but she braved the muddy slope down to the stream, while I stayed up on the path.

We kept walking on the main trails instead of searching out other cave openings, following a route that would loop back to the farmhouse where we'd parked the car. Florence and Michaëla kept getting farther and farther ahead, because I stopped so often to try to take artsy photos of things. They're cousins, those two, and see each other at least once a week for hours-long visits, but they always seem to have more to talk about. It reminded me of visiting with Kate, and made me miss her suddenly, wishing that I could be back in Portland - or that Kate could be here with me - so we could take long walks together, and talk and laugh, or just sit comfortably together in silence and love. There are a few drawbacks to the vagabond life ...

Michaëla pointed out the blinds in the trees, set up for dove hunting in the fall. There are wild boar in the woods as well, and deer, the chevreuil and cerf that end up on the plate in puddles of wine-rich sauce. Now that it's officially spring, though, the French palate is moving away from the hearty winter dishes and towards lighter grills à la plancha and more vegetables, finally, thank you. Perhaps it's the millennia of farm-based living that informs the national diet here, and the fact that in most regions non-root vegetables were scarce in winter months, but it's incredibly hard to find anything green (other than chard) between November and February. I've gotten odd looks for making a meal out of a huge mixed salad on a cold January evening, while others tuck into bowls of stew or piles of roasted chicken. Not that I have anything against stew or roasted chicken! But I'm not used to a diet of mainly meat and potatoes - or rather, I am used to it now, but I stuff the refrigerator full of endive and spinach and arugula to balance out the day when I get home.

I kept my eyes open for mushrooms, but didn't see any that I recognized as edible. Hygrophorus marzuolus were out there somewhere, according to a local mycological website, but we didn't go off the path and under the trees to look for them.

As in England, private roads are open for public walks, as long as you respect the property and the signs and make sure to close any gates. When we looped back to the farmhouse, I saw a sign I'd missed on the way out: "Private road - free-roaming bull." I glanced quickly around for the looming horned menace, but he turned out to be not so menacing after all.

There were plenty of free-roaming chickens, but they weren't attack chickens, and the farm dogs were all ferocity and bark until we got up closer, at which point they decided that since we were there already, well, so be it, and how about a scratch behind the ears, please?

According to the tourist bureau, the gouffres were once believed to be the entrances to the land of the lamiak, the "little people" of Basque mythology. Sometimes they're described as dwarves (male), and other legends say they're beautiful golden-haired women with webbed feet who live in the streams. If any of the spelunkers has found one of their underground castles, they haven't brought news back up into the prosaic world of stone farmhouses and naked-neck (cou nu) chickens. We left the silent woods behind, and drove back to Agnos.