And Life got in the way...
It was thirty years before I came back to France. Most of what happened during those thirty years is fictionalized in my first novel The Silicon Lathe.
I was in the midst of a divorce (though I didn't really know that yet). A few years before, I had sold my second startup to an Israeli company whose stock had plummeted before I or my team could touch any proceeds. That company was suffering and so were we. I was depressed, and I just needed a break. I decided to take some time away from the stress of my crumbling life in California to work remotely from France.
I flew into the Biarritz airport and easily found my way to Guethary and the small hotel across the street from my former studio apartment. I was greeted by an ancient Basque woman who had difficulty understanding my French. I knew I'd lost quite a bit over thirty years, but I hoped I could at least be understood.
She showed me to my small room with a superb view of the Pyrenees to the south and the ocean to the west. I quickly unpacked and went out to explore. For some reason, I expected that not much would have changed. And while the village hadn't grown in size, many of the old Basque homes were now apartment buildings. The ornate casino on the beach (which was closed for the season when I had been there 30 years before) had been turned into condos and the building was run down. The world-renown hotel next door sported broken bottle glass windows and peeling paint, and it too had been turned onto condos. Only the surf breaks looked the same, but it was windy and rainy and unsurfable.
I made my way to my magical point break to the south and discovered homes built in the field where I used to have lively discussions with the farmer. I turned north and drove through Biarritz to see if La Barre was still there. As I passed the Biarritz lighthouse, I was shocked to discover that miles of empty sand dunes had been turned into an endless array of expensive homes separated from the beach by a park with a paved running trail that extended the two or three miles from the lighthouse to the Adour river. There were at least a dozen seaside restaurants along the path with nearby parking areas. Worse, they'd build a huge jetty exactly where the famous La Barre had produced perfect waves years before.
A few days later I made my way up to Hossegor where I discovered that although there had been tremendous development, the huge dunes that ran for 150 miles up to Bordeaux had been turned into protected zones with pathways for beach access. Areas to the south near the Adour River had remained surprisingly untouched over the 30 years. The surf was perfect.
Over the course of my five-week stay, I met a lot of people and made friends. Weirdly, several of the older French surfers claimed to have seen me surfing there in 1974. Somehow this earned me some respect in the huge surfing community. And it was huge. The breaks were much more crowded than I could ever have imagined, more crowded than those in California. But the waves were good and the place was still magical. I hiked the Pyrenees, kayaked the whitewater of the Nive river, explored the small villages in the interior, and even found the old mill that ground its own grains. My French improved.
I returned home to try to face up to the fact that my marriage was over while I struggled to decide what to do with my Israeli-owned business as our parent company battled their own demons. It was a transitional year where once again, I renewed my goal to return to France.
If you read my post about My Miraculous Wife, you know I met my future wife Karen during that year.
In 2005, I brought Karen to an IETF meeting in Paris where we danced along the Seine. She told me that she wanted to live in Europe again (she had lived in Spain for several years). Starting in 2006, we spent three to six weeks each year in Guethary, staying in one of the condos in the former hotel, four surf breaks and spectacular sunsets visible from the windows. We hiked, surfed, danced, and got to know people.
I bought my startup back from the Israeli firm and worked with my team to build new technologies and products. In 2008 we sold the company to Citrix, this time in a deal that wasn't all stock. I could see that after my 3 year employment agreement expired, if it didn't work out at Citrix, I'd have enough money to take some time off for the first time in my life to give writing a try.
In 2009, on one of our trips to France, Karen and I started looking for a place to buy in Guethary. We thought about a house but decided that upkeep of a house was substantial if you're only there once a year, so we decided to look for an apartment instead. In France, you can buy an apartment - it's the equivalent of a condo in the States.
We quickly rejected the many apartment/condo complexes and ultimately found a work in progress on the second floor of an old Basque house. It was in a very quiet area about a 7 minute walk from the main surf break, had a small ocean view, but was surrounded by rolling green hills and stately Basque homes. It was a bit dark and needed lots of work, but the price was right.
Seeing our simultaneous interest and hesitation, the realtor called an architect who showed up within 20 minutes. We told him we were looking for a place that was open, not a space that had small dark rooms. He listened carefully and noted our requirements, then excused himself and went into the crumbling kitchen. Thirty minutes later, he returned with sketches. He showed us which walls could be removed, where beams would have to be rebuilt, and laid out what to us appeared to be the perfect apartment, rebuilt from the bare stone up. Then he quoted a price which was shockingly low. He said the work could be completed in two months.
The next day we met the owner of the apartment, the nephew of the original owner who still lived on the first floor. We finalized terms, shook hands and found a consultant who could help us manage the final closing and be our liaison to the architect/contractor once work began. We left France excited, knowing our next trip would be to pick out everything - kitchen, bathroom, flooring, tile, fixtures - we were going to be busy.
Little did we know that the nephew was the black sheep of the family. He had done the unthinkable. He had just sold his part of the Basque family home to two Americans. The rest of the family was outraged. Little did we know...
Link to Our Place in France - Part Three