The Spanish border is a 20-minute drive from here, Bayonne. Yet it's another world: language, food, architecture, history and of course people. They talk a lot louder than the French, gesticulate a little more, look serious till you ask directions and find friendly people who can't be helpful enough.
They drink more, too. The French love wine, but they love talking about it more than actually drinking very much. Spanish red wines are excellent and inexpensive, $5 a glass, max. A good bottle costs $NZ8. The Rioja region is beautiful and has superb wines.
From 1936-39, Spain was in a civil war. The fascist dictator Franco's side won and he reigned what he called "a totalitarian state" until his death in 1975. Nearly two centuries before that, in 1789, France had a revolution against its monarchy, the nobility and, significantly, the Catholic Church.
Catholicism is alive and well in Spain. On its knees in France, close to death by the thousandth stroke. Except at soccer and rugby games the French are quiet and sober. In Spain, they go into a frenzy at football matches and bull fights.
Spain's tapas culture seems a reflection of a snacking culture. In Madrid obesity seems the norm; maybe seven in ten are fat to podgy. From our first-floor abode in the busiest street in Bayonne we get to observe humanity. "That lot are Spanish," I say at a family or group of waddling blimps invariably munching on something.
Not the French. They don't do but a light breakfast with coffee - admittedly with sugar. There are no snack outlets anywhere on our streets. One Subway, a single burger chain outlet, and that's it for fast food here.
Numerous bakeries - called boulangerie - have a feast of pastries and sweet cake creations and irresistible breads. But no such thing as a sausage, meat pie, sausage roll, lamb shank, fries, white-bread sandwiches. Not any of the stodgy selections Kiwi bakeries offer.
The French mostly are slim. Fatties stand out. They just don't do the snack thing. French children go to bed way later than New Zealand kids, but not as late as Spanish kids who you can see running around after midnight in Madrid. With parents, of course. The single-mum syndrome has yet to hit both countries where families hold fast together.
Except at soccer and rugby games the French are quiet and sober. In Spain, they go into a frenzy at football matches and bull fights.
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Neither country does drunk like we see in Enzed or Oz. No such thing as calling into a petrol station diner at 6.30 a.m. and seeing workers - or hungover drunks - having a "feed" of steak, eggs and chips. I went with a Maori friend to Canada and at a posh restaurant in Calgary he ordered a steak "with three fried eggs, please." The waiter came back with the chef who insisted he'd never heard such an order. My mate was not very pleased. The chef was flabbergasted.
In first-year intermediate school I lived with my uncle, aunt and six first cousins at Whaka in Rotorua. Uncle lit light the stove fire at 4.30am and put on a leg of mutton to roast while we all went as a family to have a hot bath in the Whaka thermal domain. Ah, the sweet memories of adults singing in harmony, the laughter, the closeness of naked bodies, the bowl of stars above us.
Back home in time for slices of roast mutton accompanied by thickly buttered slices of white bread (no precut in those days) and off to school. Other mornings we had sausages - drowned - in beef fat. Inevitably, obesity was the norm in that household and throughout the village.
To this day I am capable of tucking into a reheated roast meal with five veges at any early hour of the morning. Food doesn't interest me much at night. In every bar, café and restaurant in Spain they have a vast range of incredible tapas. France? At best, a small bowl of salted peanuts or pretzels. But usually zilch. Tell the French our "feed" word and they puzzle. "Iz what you give to animals, oui?" Non. Our "animals" have two legs and tend not to go much by ceremony at the dining table.
Kiwis, don't come and eat in France or Spain with that tuck-in mentality to a good feed. They just don't get it in these parts.