Tuesday, August 11, 2009

La Bretagne

Brittany, or la Bretagne, or Breizh, is a western region of France, jutting out into the Atlantic. One of the few parts of France to have maintained the language spoken before French was introduced, it has a distinctive regional culture, an identification with other Celtic parts of Europe, and a small independence movement. It's a pretty region: very green, slightly undulating hills, stone houses with slate roofs and blue shutters, geraniums and hydrangeas growing enormous, and a ragged coastline fringed with small islands.

Brittany has produced two particularly noteworthy things: the creperie and, it would sometimes seem, half the population of Paris. MCM's family hails from Brittany. The French secretary and the one French teacher at my school are both Breton. In one of the companies where I teach, 5 of my 16 students are from southern Brittany. "Why does everyone in Paris seem to be really Breton, or at least from a Breton family?" I asked MCM. "I never meet that many people from Picardie, or the Auvergne, or Normandy." He didn't know the answer, but we think it boils down to a few things: Brittany is close enough to Paris, it's a largely agricultural region and thus a lot of people migrated for work, it can be reached in 2 hours by train from Paris, and it's a place people are proud to say they are from. Unlike poor Picardie.

In fact, Stuff Parisians Like could easily satirise how so many Parisians, I suspect, play up their Breton relations to emphasise how they are so not like those other Parisians. They are authentic. They are more pure than other Parisians. They have an exotic, Celtic, mariner side - even though they cannot pronounce Breizh and are allergic to oysters.

Brittany is also a place where many French people choose to take their holidays. It's relatively unknown to American tourists most visitors seem to be French, German or English. MCM and I recently spent the weekend at his parents' house. They retired to southern Brittany, a 4-5 hour trip from Paris. It's a pretty area and reminds me very much of the Irish coastline or my beloved Martha's Vineyard.

It also has the Irish weather which, in my (narrow) mind, is its great failing as a summer vacation destination. A typical summer day might be 64 degrees fahrenheit and partly sunny. Before we go for a walk on the beach MIL usually tries to convince us that we need scarves, sweaters and, on our last visit, a rain bonnet. I'm pretty sure that if I spent my whole summer there I would have seasonal affective disorder. But I know people who hate the heat - for example, an Irish couple with little kids, who like that they can go there, hang out at the beach and not fry.

Our visit coincided with the annual village summertime fair. This involved: a procession from the village to a large field where there were tents and food (lousy food, the ILs warned), a performance of Breton dancing in the traditional black velvet costumes...

AND, best of all, a display of antique and modern tractors, all souped up for the big event:

I'd recommend a visit to Brittany as it's a quintessential French experience. If you like walking, sailing, or looking at the ocean it's a very pleasant place to be; it's not a great destination for wild nightlife or sunbathing. Leave your black Parisan gear at home and pack your walking shoes, a navy striped nautical jersey and a primary-coloured raincoat to look like a local. We had a little wander around the pretty town of Auray, which would make a nice base for touring; unfortunately I forgot my camera that day, but their tourist office has some nice photos.

1 comment:

  1. You are so paralleling my French experiences in many ways. I spent two summers working in Brest, and hauling American teens around the area on day trips. Some of the best summers of my life, I must add.

    There's a crêperie somewhere outside of Brest that's in the top of one of those giant water towers. Fantastic views of the countryside, plus you get to work off all that whipped cream on the stairs.

    My first summer in Brest, I only brought one sweater, and it was truly chilly and damp almost the entire time. The second summer was a heat wave--I think that was the year there were several deaths in Paris due to the heat. I still liked it better than wearing the same dang sweater every day for two months!!


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