As I sit here writing on the second floor of an old Basque house, gazing out at the lush green hillsides peppered with coastal Basque homes and their red-tiled roofs, the wind blown waves of the Atlantic in the background, I can't help thinking about what it took to get me here. It started almost exactly forty years ago.
In the spring of 1974, I was going to school at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Although I officially took over 20 units per quarter, I spent most of my time surfing and a bit of my time working enough to pay my tuition and support myself. When the surf wasn't too good or there was a midterm or final, I'd usually make my way to one of my many classes. It seemed like an ideal life.
On the other hand, I really didn't know what I wanted to do with life. Every subject interested me and I couldn't imagine focusing on just one. My mother's brother, who had started from nothing and become quite wealthy in the construction industry, asked me what I liked to do best. I replied that I loved to surf. Without blinking an eye, he asked if there were any money in surfing, and after careful reflection, I had to admit that there really wasn't. It was the 70s and surfing hadn't become the commercial phenomenon that it is today.
He suggested I go somewhere to get surfing out of my system - surf until I got sick of it. Then my mind would be clear enough to choose a career.
A few days later I dropped into the local surf shop to buy some wax and saw the cover of Surfer Magazine. At first glance, I thought I saw a picture of Banzai Pipeline, but on closer inspection, I discovered that the perfect left-breaking barrel was in France at a place called La Barre, just north of Biarritz.
I decided to work the summer, saving every penny, and to spend two school quarters in France to get surfing out of my system.
I arrived in France on my mother's birthday, the 17th of September. I took a train from Paris to Biarritz where I'd reserved a room in a pension for three weeks. On the train, I met a young Canadian woman who spoke no French and had no place to stay in Biarritz. The train was scheduled to get in after 11pm and she had no where to go. She spent a few days with me sharing my room before moving on to continue her European adventure. That's another story.
My first full day in the Basque region of France, I found my way to La Barre. I put on my full wetsuit and proceeded to paddle out into perfect 6-8' waves. The only problem was that the water was 75 degrees and I was dying in my wetsuit. I hadn't brought any trunks with me so I had to sweat through the session of perfect waves. I was the only one out.
Transportation was a problem. Hitchhiking with a surfboard worked, but the waits for a ride were often long, causing me to miss the right tides.
I didn't have the money to buy a car, so I bought a Mobylette - a moped. It was a small motorbike with pedals to help you get up steep hills or to continue moving when you ran out of gas. I was then able to travel pretty much anywhere with my surfboard under my arm. I explored the beach breaks north of Biarritz up to Hossegor (now famous). Unfortunately, on many, if not most days, the swell was too big for the beach breaks to hold. Some Australians I met suggested I check out the surf further south and I discovered the reef and point breaks of Guethary.
Surprisingly, I met very few French surfers during my stay and those that I did meet were pretty much beginners. There were no surf shops and finding equipment was almost impossible. On the other hand, I met Mickey Dora, Richard Harvey (the world champion at the time), and Nat Young (the Australian former world champ, not our local ripper from Santa Cruz). In fact, most of the surfers I met were from Australia. Aside from Mickey, I met no American surfers. Nat had a car, so for the duration of his stay, I showed him the many breaks up and down the coast and I had a chance to surf every day with a world champion.
I found a studio apartment in Guethary not far from the two of the best breaks I'd ever surfed. It was part of a well-kept Basque house owned by the Subras, a stunningly beautiful Basque woman and her husband. As winter approached the village grew very quiet. When there was no surf, I explored the countryside on my Mobylette riding through rolling hills at the foot of the snow-capped Pyrenees.
Surprisingly close to my studio apartment, I found an old mill. They ground their own grains with a water-driven millstone, and made bread on site twice daily. This became my primary source of excellent bread and started a love affair with French breads that has lasted all my life.
One day I discovered another point break south of Guethary. On my way back home, a farmer waved at me and I stopped to talk. Of course he asked about surfing, California, Richard Nixon, and Kissinger's threat to drop a nuclear bomb on the Middle East if they didn't end the oil embargo - something that made the front pages of all the papers in Europe, but which, as I learned after my return to the States, was never reported there.
Over the months that followed, he and I had countless political discussions where I learned a lot about French and European politics.
At Christmas, my girlfriend came to visit. I met her in Paris and we came back to my studio in Guethary. I made my traditional Christmas Kugelough from an old recipe given to me by my Swiss grandfather, and gave a mini version to my landlords who demanded the recipe. Although I tried to explain that I didn't know how to convert American volume measurements to European weight based measurements, I couldn't convince Madame Subra that I wasn't just being difficult about giving her the recipe.
When it was nearing time to leave, Monsieur Subra proposed I give him my Mobylette in exchange for my last month's rent. Apparently, he had lost his driver's license due to a drunk driving incident and a 'free' Mobylette the only way his wife was going to let him back on the roads.
Over the course of the 5 months I stayed in the Pays Basque, I surfed constantly, usually alone and often for six or seven hours a day. I met countless Basque people who welcomed me warmly, and I had more fun than anyone deserves to experience.
My uncle was right. My trip to France did help me understand exactly what I wanted to do with my life: I wanted to earn enough money to return to this idyllic place to surf and write full time.
Unfortunately, life got in the way.
more in Part 2...