Surf Dad: My Father’s Journey from Paris to the U.S. Mexico Border

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Guatemala 1974. My little brother Nicky on the left and me on the right.

There was never a time when my father, who immigrated to America to escape the Nazi occupation of Europe, wasn’t loading up our Ford station wagon and taking us to the beach.

In 1939, at the age of six, my father traveled to the United States from France with my grandma Lotti and his brother Roland.

“In France as a little tyke, I played on a beach covered by pebbles and round pieces of wine bottles rounded by the surf,” my dad Michel Dedina recalled from his home near the Tijuana Estuary in Imperial Beach.

“I was scared when we came to America because my big brother Roland told me America had skyscrapers and one would collapse on me,” he said.

“In New York we visited the beach at Coney Island. It was crowded. Wall to wall people. But there was great corn on the cob.”

After the war my father moved back to Paris. Some of his family had been sent to concentration camps or killed by the Gestapo.

“Everyone was tired of the war and nobody wanted to talk about air raids, combat and concentration camps. There were no medals for those who suffered,” he said.

Later my father joined the American Air Force during the Korean War and met my mother in London while he was stationed in England. They married in New York City where my father published two novels. Mom and dad eventually made their way to California and settled in Los Angeles.

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My mother and father in the 1950s.

“Your mom and I had visited and liked California. Liked the beach, but found the water cold,” Dedina said.

My parents never camped in Europe but discovered the value of outings at California State Parks. On our first camping trip in the late 1960s we pitched a borrowed Korean War-era military surplus tent at Carlsbad State Beach.

Mom and dad were cold and miserable in their homemade sleeping bags stitched together from old blankets but my little brother and I were in heaven and never wanted the trip to end.

We lugged that tent up and down the coast of California, giving rides to hitchhiking hippies while enjoying coastal campgrounds from San Diego to Big Sur.

In 1971 we moved to Imperial Beach where life revolved around weekends at the beach and picnics in the Tijuana Estuary.

Meanwhile dad earned his Masters Degree in television and Film at SDSU where he studied with Desi Arnaz.

After grad school dad purchased a 1974 Ford Econoline van, loaded it up with camping gear and our clothes, and we drove south to El Salvador where he had a job with the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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Lake Antigua, Guatemala, 1974. My little brother Nicky is in front, I am peeking out behind my dad.

“I should have been more scared than I was during our trip,” he recalled. We had to deal with crooked customs and immigration officers. I learned to pay the bribes. There were more honest officers than crooks.”

It was during our year in El Salvador that I first wanted to be surfer. The Californians I watched strolling down the beach to surf tropical waves looked incredibly cool. I wanted to be just like them.

That year we camped on white sand beaches and explored indigenous villages and jungle ruins in Guatemala, Chiapas, Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Belize.

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Somewhere in Mexico with my dad 1974-1975.

I started surfing after our return to Imperial Beach and convinced Dad to take me and my friends to Baja California in our rusty 1964 VW Van. In Baja we surfed perfect point waves while Dad cooked up pots of spaghetti with lobster sauce.

With my dad in central Baja in 1979.

With my dad in central Baja in 1979.

In the early 1990s, when my wife Emily and I lived in a 14-foot trailer in Baja’s San Ignacio Lagoon to study gray whales, Dad drove down with my mother to visit.

Dad was in heaven when the local fishermen called him, “Don Miguel.”

“I’d been waiting my entire life to be called ‘Don Miguel,’” he said.

With my dad and my sons more recently.

With my dad and my sons more recently.

Later when Emily and I had our own two sons, Israel and Daniel, Dad foraged the streets for old surfboards and wetsuits and took our kids to the beach to surf.

“I stood Daniel on a wide, long surfboard on tiny waves,” said my father. “He surfed and remained standing.  A guy came over and asked, ‘Who is that kid?’ Nonchalantly I replied ‘My grandson.’ Guy asked, ‘How old is he?’

I replied, ‘Four.’ The guy said, ‘Wow. Four years old.’”

Despite a good life in America, dad never forgot what the Nazi’s and their French collaborators had stolen from his family. He applied for a settlement from the French Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliation [because of] anti-Semitic Legislation in Force During the Occupation.

“I could not have lived with myself if I had not tried to fight for what we had lost. The first verdict was against us. So we appealed. I went to the appeals tribunal in Paris. There were five judges one of whom it turned out was against us when they deliberated some weeks later. I can only guess why or how we won.”

At the tribunal, dad’s cousin Lisette corroborated my father’s testimony. The Nazi’s murdered her parents. Her brother Bernard Fall fought in the Resistance and later worked at the Nuremberg Trials.

“Our award was small which was shared by Roland’s family. It wasn’t about the money.”

After more than fifty years of marriage, dad lost my mother to cancer a few years back. Today at the age of 80, he maneuvers his three-wheel electric bicycle around Imperial Beach and religiously attends the surf competitions, water polo games, and swim meets of his grandsons. He also enjoys long visits with my brother Nick and his family in San Francisco.

Dad occasionally speaks out at local City Council meetings about preserving local beaches and parks.

I owe my sense of adventure to my father along with my determination to never waiver in the pursuit of justice.

After all, that is what my father taught me being an American means.

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Great Waves and Wine: Surfing in France

I didn’t expect the weather and ocean temperature to be warmer in France than in Southern California. But as I emerged from the Easy Jet flight in Biarritz after a long flight from San Diego via Paris, it felt like a hot Santa Ana day back home.

About an hour later I found myself at the Cote de Basque beach in Biarritz packed with vacationing families, stand-up paddlers and about 50 kids learning to surf in the 1- to 3-foot low-tide sideshore-offshore emerald waves.

Just another perfect fall day in southwest France, the best place on earth for a surf trip that combines great waves, outstanding food and cool cosmopolitan surf culture.

Surfing in the fall in France means enjoying the change of seasons with sunny skies and ocean temperatures that keep surfers in spring suits or short-arm fullsuits through the end of October.

I was in France’s Basque country for the second time in a few months. In July my sons and I had combined a family visit (my dad’s family is French and lives in Paris) and took a Basque country detour for five days to sample waves I had dreamed about surfing since I first read a Surfer Magazine article about France back in the late ’70s.

This time I had been invited to speak at the inaugural Global Wave Conference that took place in Biarritz and San Sebastian Oct. 24-25, organized by the Surfrider Foundation Europe.

So along with surf conservationists from around the world, I found myself overlooking offshore barrels at Biarritz’s Grand Plage from the Bellevue Conference Center.

“You should have seen how good it was in September,” said Gregory Le Moigno of the Surfrider Foundation Europe, who had invited me to Biarritz along with surfer conservationists from South Africa, Australia, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, New Zealand, England, Japan and the U.S. “It was perfect almost every day.”

My time in France only reinforced my opinion that Biarritz has emerged as the European surf capital. There are plenty of surf shops, arguably the best “surf” restaurant in the world (Le Surfing), hundreds of outstanding surfers, and enough breaks along the coast to keep the crowds down (compared to California).

For surfers, this is the place for you to bring your significant other to divide time between the water and enjoying the sights of the Basque countryside and taste of some of Europe’s best food and wine (Bordeaux is a couple of hours to the north).

With their red-tiled roofs, aqua shutters, outdoor cafes, and a laid-back surf culture that is Laguna Beach meets Paris (but in a completely unpretentious way), the small towns that lie north and south of Biarritz, Saint Jean de Luz, Guethary, Anglet, and Hossegor, provide a great respite for surfers seeking to balance a surfing holiday with something extra.

My base at the Hotel Amaia, a simple surf boutique hotel (with free breakfast and high-speed free Wi-Fi) a few walkable blocks to the beach, was a perfect location for nearby surf and day trips.

“I love visiting the little towns up in the mountains,” said Zach Plopper of WiLDCOAST, who studied here while an undergrad at UCSD, and spent a lot of time living in his car in the seaside parking lots while competing on the European WQS circuit. “After a great surf in the morning, it is nice to get away to and eat good food.”

The sandbars around Hossegor provide endless opportunities for empty offshore barrels. If there is a crowd at one sandbar, just walk down the beach to the next one.

Saint Jean de Luz and Guethary are home to reef and pointbreaks waves with wonderful cafes that overlook the surf and stunning coast.

While in the U.S. the stereotype of unfriendly and rude service in France still persists, I was pleasantly surprised overall by how friendly everyone was and how when I attempted to speak in French  (I speak passable “surf” French), most everyone I dealt with immediately switched to English.

During my last evening in Biarritz, I walked around the nearby Les Halles district, a short walk away from my hotel. I wandered into the inviting, warm and colorful Le Bistrot de Halles, with colorful early 20th century posters. I took a seat at the bar and ordered a grilled steak and fish soup.

The owners hovered around me and the other customers, taking time to chat, pour wine and provide a perfect French bistro experience.

After a long day that had started out with a great surf in overhead offshore barrels, I appreciated the hearty and delightful soup, a perfect steak and crisp frites, warm smiles and attentive service.

So make your plans now to enjoy surfing France next year, the best surfing experience that fall has to offer.

You won’t regret it.

Note on Travel: I flew to Paris on Air France and Biarritz via Easy Jet. Air France doesn’t charge for surfboards if they are under 6 foot 6 inches, but you have to “register” your board in advance (check their website). The service and food on Air France was excellent.

Basque Barrels Part I: Surfing in France

The left at Alcyon

There is a photo from a 1970s era Surfer Magazine of a man leisurely sitting on a bench in the Basque Country of France. He is overlooking a perfect right—a blue-green bomb–peeling into an empty channel.

For me the photo encapsulated all the reasons to travel—finding empty beautiful waves in picturesque and exotic settings.

So two weeks ago, I was elated to find myself in exactly the same spot as the photo. I was above the legendary Parlementia reef in the picturesque seaside village Guerthary, France.

Just like in that historic photo, the waves were pumping.

Daniel at Alcyon

I had come to France to introduce my children to the country of my father, whose family still lives in and around Paris. The boys flew over with my dad first.

After they had spent a couple of wonderful couple of weeks in Paris and the French countryside, I flew over to take them south to the Basque Country—ground zero for the European Surfing scene.

After a couple of days of sampling the sights and bubbly delights of the Champagne country southeast of Paris, where my uncle has a house, the boys and I loaded up a 2002 Renault mini-wagon, with our surfboards and camping gear.

Israel, Vincent, Margaux and Daniel.

My cousins Vincent and Margaux accompanied us. Both had enjoyed spending summers in Imperial Beach (Vincent was even an IB Junior Lifeguard) and love the ocean.

Vincent has spent last year’s summer vacation in the village of Seignosse, home to what Surfer Magazine recently called the world’s best beachbreak and one of the world’s best waves.

Guethary and the beach of Bidart.

After an uneventful eight-hour drive, we arrived in Guethary that is located just south of the French surfing capital of Biarritz. The village is precariously perched above the Palmentaria reef.

While the waves were small, we could see waves capping and rolling on the reef.

At the Basque Surf Company Pro Surf Shop in Guethary, where I rented a 6’8” epoxy fun board and Vincent rented a soft-top, we met shop proprietors Romo and Esteban, both longtime locals.

Alcyon

“The surf is going to get big tomorrow, 8-10’. Palmentaria is the Sunset Beach of France,” said Esteban, who had grown up speaking Basque in Guethary and was of mixed Spanish and American ancestry.

The boys and Vincent paddled out at a nearby beachbreak. The waves were small, but the water was a balmy 68 degrees.

That evening we sat around our tents in a nearby campground eating pizza and imagining the waves we would surf the next day.

The following morning, the boys and I were up early. While a bit of south wind was making things a bit sloppy, the sets at Palmentaria were in the six-foot range and there were just a handful of surfers to sample them. We all caught a few rights and then paddled in as the wind came up.

Later that morning, we realized that there was another wave to the south of Palmentaria, a left called Alcyon, that is the “Big Rock” of France.

Alcyon is a grinding left that is best at low tide.

Israel at Alcyon

Israel paddled out and caught a few gnarly 4-6’ lefts. “It was super shallow and the takeoff was super tight,” he said. “Some guy started yelling at me in French, and I had no idea why he was angry.”

The next day the wind was offshore and the waves were pumping. The sets at Alcyon were in the 6-8’ range. Only a handful of guys were out.

Across the bay I could  see triple overhead peaks breaking over the Palmentaria reef. The scene reminded me of a winter-day at the Sloughs.

I snapped a few photos of the boys surfing Alcyon. Then I put on my rashguard, grabbed my board and paddled out at Palmentaria.

The waves were breaking close to a half a mile from shore. Big peaks came out of deep water and heaved across the reef.

An eclectic crew of hardcore longtime local surfers were out on 9-10’ big-wave guns. There were a couple of visiting Japanese surfers and one other American.

Everyone is friendly and stoked to be surfing an overhead swell in the summer.

I am completely undergunned on my 6’8”. But I manage to catch a few of the smaller set waves (I can’t even paddle into the larger ones), get caught inside and hammered. I appreciate why Palmentaria is compared to Sunset.

While I wish I had been able to surf on of my own big-wave boards, I was still glad to experience a wave I had dreamed about since I was a teenager.

On our last surf day, we headed to the fabled beachbreaks of Hossegor north of Biarritz. Miles and miles of sandbanks provide deep and often empty tubes for visiting and local surfers.

The world’s best surfers assemble here each fall to compete in the Quiksilver Pro France.

Daniel at Le Penon

The boys and I popped over the sand dunes of Le Penon in the village of Seignosse. The waves were 3-5’ and offshore.

“It is going off,” said Daniel.

For the rest of the day, we catch dozens of waves. Israel broke his board on a stand-up barrel.

At low tide I found a sand bar spitting out A-frames. One other surfer joined me, a local, who like me was mystified that on a Saturday afternoon during the height of summer, we were the only ones out.

I can’t wait to go back.

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