Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Universal Health Care

These cold winter days, I load my Vermont Castings stove with dry oak at night, and the fire is almost always still alive in the morning. I open the top, use the little broom to sweep down the ashes. Beneath the spent fuel, a glowing coal, the heart of the fire. It all starts from there.

Today I took my daughter to the doctor because she had a cough. It is one of the reasons I live in France; universal health care is different than anything an American can imagine. After over a decade here, it still amazes me sometimes: My child is coughing so I take her to the doctor, just a few minutes away in the little village. I never wait to see if she gets better; I never consider the time of day or the expense. There is always a doctor "en guarde," a pharmacy open all night, an emergency room in the Clinique de Saint Jean de Luz where there is no wait, where the nurses smile and bring you a cup of coffee, where you are seen almost immediately.

One Sunday I picked up a broken metal lamp and got an electric shock that cut off the 220 volt electricity to the house. I called the doctor on guard to see if I should be worried, although I felt okay. He said I had to come in to get my heart tested, but that I couldn't drive. They sent an ambulance for me, taking my daughter and dog to the hospital as well. They had me hooked up for the electrocardiogram ten minutes after I arrived, and they kept me four hours under observation. Then they drove us home to Sare, a half hour away.

This is a different way of looking at the world, the general understanding that medical care is a right, not a luxury. It is more wonderful than springtime. One feels safe and cared about. It is impossible to hope for in America, wealthy county that it is, because Americans have never experienced it and so cannot imagine it. Once having known universal health care, it is difficult to imagine life without it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Winter is the best time to see the bones of the mountain. Even in early spring, the spiky tuya is covered with lemon yellow flowers, the willows blosson, and green things start to grow. By mid-spring, the omnipresent eagle ferns called fougere uncurl their lacy heads, soon to mount higher than my 5'6" frame. Eventually the native trees--oak and beech and birch--move toward leaf and resculpt the face of LaRhune. But in winter each peak stands stark against the sky, each rise is visible, each gulch, each pottok path. The beautiful slabs of rock are visible too, as as the scars left by men who mined them from the heart of the mountain.

My house is made from stones from LaRhune. It is an old bergerie (from the term berger, French for shephard. Its walls were built dry, just stone on stone, over a century ago. LaRhune is dotted with bergeries--rough stone buildings used to house sheep. Only a few were renovated before it became illegal. Many have stone slab roofs, like mine. The three foot thick walls are warm in winter and cool in summer.

Each house in Basque Country, including bergeries, have names. Mine is Etcheverrygaraykoborda, a long name for a little house. For years, no street numbers identified house locations; everyone knew the houses by their names. I still don't have a street address; my house is called by its name, a name everyone in town recognizes. I myself am not so lucky; after twelve years of living here, I am still referred to by almost everybody in Sare as L'Americaine, the only American in the area.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


The only way to find good weather in the Pays Basque is to live here. Some years Januaries are so warm we regularly eat at the picnic table outside my the little stone cottage. This year, that is not the case. Snow arrived for Christmas, stepping lightly on the very peak of LaRhune, then creeping closer each day. Last weekend the road was closed, a couple feet deep in snow. I don't mind. I have enough wood to keep warm, enough coffee for a fortnight, and my novel in progress demanding attention.

LaRhune sits on the border between Spain and France, my bergerie is on its French flanks. A fifteen minute walk up takes me into Spain via the contraband route. The hike to the top is sometimes forty minutes, sometimes a couple of hours, always magnificent. Pottoks roam the hillside, round-bellied basque ponies left to fend for themselves on the mountain. They grudgingly share the path mornings, when I run.

I have lived here, overlooking the little Basque village of Sare, for over a decade. I have changed over the years, but it has not. LaRhune remains mysterious and engaging, dangerous, compelling. I am happy to share its snow and its destiny.