Remembering Biarritz

Trip Start Sep 02, 2010
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Trip End Jun 13, 2011


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Flag of France  , Aquitaine,
Friday, May 20, 2011

As we moved south through France, Dan and I headed for Biarritz, a Pays-Basque beach town near the Spanish border. Biarritz holds a special place in my heart. When I left Williams in September 2001 to spend my junior year in France, Biarritz was the first stop on the itinerary. We flew out of JFK on September 7 and landed in Biarritz the following day. I remember the day was sunshine-y yellow and hot, and I was elated at the prospect of spending a whole month here: taking intensive French language classes, living with a host family, going for long runs along the coast, and spending the evenings with wine and friends on the beach. Our program director had the right idea to start us off with a month in Biarritz before we all headed to fast-paced Paris, where we'd spend the rest of our nine months in France.

Biarritz was also a magical place for me because of its position in the Pays-Basque region of southern France. As Dan and I had been together for about three years by the time I'd left for France, I'd become interested in Basque culture: the traditions of his grandfather's family, whose last name looked somewhat familiar in this region of France and northern Spain. When my friends and I learned a traditional Basque dance and ate the delicious Gateau Basque, I'd really wanted to share those experiences with Dan.

Ten years later, when Dan and I stepped off the train and made our way to downtown Biarritz, I couldn't believe how much of the town I remembered. We dropped our bags, and I went walking. I felt my body move through the town as if on autopilot. I quietly made my way to the house where I'd lived with my first host family. From there, I turned and went along another road, made another turn, and found myself at the school where I'd had my first phonetics and language classes. It had been almost ten years since I'd been here last, and I didn't even have to think about the route to school; my body just took me there.

When I stood in the grass and looked up at my school, I felt more nostalgic than I've perhaps ever been. I remembered some of the funny moments with my friends during our phonetics classes. Our nerdy teacher, Naima, was the target of various jokes. We'd roar with laughter when she would squeak out the alphabet sounds or when she'd seem appalled by our stories of drinking on the beach and buying our first cork-screws. I remember the moment when she went completely pale: my friend Nicole had explained that she'd worked the previous summer at Nike, up in Portland. Poor Naima almost fainted. That was the day we learned that "nike" is an unsavory French word; often used in conjunction with the word "mother," it's quite the insult. We laughed and laughed.

We didn't laugh so much the day we left Naima's class, walked out onto the grass, and heard some troubling news. I remember we'd just been listening to a friend give an oral report on the Taliban. As I'd listened to her talk, I took notes and thought that I'd vaguely heard of them before. I didn't realize that in just a few minutes, I'd be learning a lot more about the Taliban. And more and more and more in the coming months and years.

On that beautiful Tuesday afternoon, we stood on the grass and tried to understand what our director was explaining to us, in fast and furious French. I remember understanding her as a slow-motion process...and then collapsing under a tree as I frantically called Dan and my friend Becky, both of whom lived near the World Trade Center. Dan and I had lived two blocks from the Center that summer, just a month before I flew to France.

In the subsequent hours and days, my time in Biarritz was filled with mixed emotions and paradoxical cultural experiences. I was elated to be in such a beautiful, foreign city and also distraught to be so far from New York. I tried to assimilate into my French host family's culture, but I was also so obviously singled out as American. Dinner-table topics weren't so much about the usual little lessons in French culture but more on lessons in American, New-York-City culture. Or updates on the news. I remember eating enormous meals because I was always starving; I needed to nourish my brain, to keep pushing along so I could understand what had happened in New York. And then there was just the normal process of trying to experience life in a foreign land, where you want to appreciate the mundane moments of grocery shopping (such a cultural experience!) or asking someone for directions. Those moments, too, seemed just as important to my learning as did watching (and understanding!) the sensational news on the television. (And our program was one of strict immersion; my director made us watch the news in French, discuss the terrorist attacks in French, mourn in French....) So everything I did and saw and felt seemed to be of enormous importance. And that's probably why, after a week or so of this, my friends and I decided to spend more time at the beach and in the bars...and less time watching the news. We kept up our French, but we were more inclined to learn vocabulary words such as "ivres"--and less inclined to learn more about the Taliban.

Ultimately, then, Biarritz was a place that brought me great joy, where I found life-long friends and immersed myself in a culture that I adored. It became a place to watch the hippy surfers ride the waves and to try sangria for the first time. To learn how to effortlessly open a bottle of wine and to watch games of pelote. And to go back again and again to the beach, which seemed so blissfully far away from New York City.

Going back to Biarritz with Dan, this year, helped me enjoy all those things that I loved and still love about French culture. It also brought me back to September 2001. But most significantly, it allowed us both to carve out a new cultural path for ourselves, one that led to something that runs deeper and older than New York City or Biarritz or even France herself: Basque culture. Dan's heritage. Traditions and histories that we could create and uncover together. So we kept heading south, and we crossed the border.
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Comments

nicole d. on

Oh, Naima! Such fun memories from those classes, although I don't think she much enjoyed us. I don't know that I'd be able to find my way back to the school as easily as you did, but maybe I should just plan a trip to Biarritz to test my memory.

barb on

Your first Paris entry made me cry - nostalgia for you and for me and for us and for my family, too... And, of course, this entry made me remember, as we regularly do, that September month 10 years ago. Your cellphone bill that month was several hundred dollars (couldn't just text about the emotional upheaval and there was no Skype). And, of course, no where is exactly safe... not only the lesson from 10 years ago but also this month in Hamburg, Germany where people are mysteriously dying from e-coli infections, and Joplin, MO and other places where nature took its toll. The message: get the most out of life and give back as you can. xoxo

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