Blasé is not what you expect to find in Biarritz. But, in addition to the lovely seaside beauty, stylish hotels and hearty food you may also encounter a Basque attitude which is equal parts pride and prejudice.
“They do not like us,” said a German who spends a month in Biarritz with his wife every year. “They don’t even like the French,” the German laughed.
The Basque region of France is located in the southwestern most part of the country very near the Spanish border. Charming French and fish restaurants scatter the coastline and are plentiful. The weather is wonderful and the scenery is just so pretty. You can shop in internationally famous boutiques like Hermes and Louis Vuitton. But what’s even better in Biarritz is that it also offers, thankfully, lovely local shops you won’t find anywhere else. It would seem that this unique tourist destination ticks off all the boxes. So it is reasonable that this community of 25 thousand people would prefer things to stay exactly the way they are.
“They want to protect their way of life,” said my new German friend. But there’s a catch. “So, they are intolerant,” he added.
An unpleasant taste of that intolerance came later that evening when we arrived at what seemed to be a popular ocean front restaurant which was only half full at the time. My unfailingly polite husband said to the waiter, “Good evening, we have a reservation.”
“You sit inside” came the curt command from our waiter who shall henceforth be referred to as “The Surly One”.
We explained that we’d prefer to sit nearer to the sea.
“Only those who have reservations,” The Surly One said.
Indeed, we were one of those “who have reservations,” but that did not seem to matter to The Surly One and he swiftly ushered us away from the shore and into the restaurant’s interior with a dismissive retort adopted by uninspired employees the world over. “I only work here.”
Instantly remembering a review of this restaurant I had just read which mentioned another mistreated customer I said to The Surly One, “Oh, I read about you didn’t I?” To which he shrugged and half smiled. Not at me I think, but at the thought of his growing notoriety.
Later when I was sure I saw pomme frites pass by on their way to a large table of locals I requested some as well. “No French fries !” The Surly One announced disgustedly. “No fine restaurant serves French fries,” he spat. For the record, we were in a casual fish establishment sur la mer not the Ritz, which, by the way, happens to serve lovely fries or almost anything else that would make the customer happy.
A simple “No, we do not serve them,” would have sufficed nicely.
Unsurprisingly, we decided to forgo dessert and asked for the check, which, after three requests and the passage of 22 minutes ( I counted) finally arrived.
“Is service included, my husband asked.
“Oui, Monsieur,” The Surly One said.
Can it be deducted then, I thought?
The restaurant should have just planted a big fat sign out front advising “Foreigners Not Welcome” because that’s exactly how the proprietors made us feel.
The next morning at breakfast we chatted with our exceptionally polite and professional hotel restaurant manager about our dining experience of the previous evening.
“Did you enjoy Madame?” she asked.
“The food was very good and the setting was very nice but the service was appalling,” I told her by way of explaining the waiter’s sub par behavior.
“I am sorry,” she said looking disappointed but not surprised.
“I do not go there myself,” she said.
Strange. Our German friend had given me the impression that only foreigners were disliked by some Basques.
“I’m German,”‘ she said.
Our hotel concierge was extremely friendly and professional too. Perhaps she was German as well?
“Are you Basque French,” I asked.
“I am…… now,” she answered.
“But I am from Paris originally,” she revealed.
That explained it.
It was strange and angering to feel so unwanted in a place we were visiting. I suppose it could only be worse if we actually lived there. I know of what I speak. Bermuda, for instance, has an undercurrent of resentment among some locals who seem to oppose the flow of ex-pats into their country despite the economic advantage of having us there. So, as in the case of The Surly One, rudeness is an effective tactic to keep you at arms length if not force you out altogether.
I do understand and support a people who want to preserve their own way of life. Cultures should not have to change to accommodate people from other lands. Newcomers must adapt to their adopted country. But host countries are going to have to do some adjusting themselves. Europe is already struggling with what to do with hundreds of thousands of immigrants fleeing war or oppressive regimes in their own homelands. People like the French Basque will undoubtedly soon have to face not only their discontent over the international traveler who only visits them for a week, but the desperate refugee willing do anything to establish a new home right next door.