Monday, 28 July 2008

In France’s Cornwall

I've been on holiday for a whole month in a single place, a rented house in Finistère, Brittany, in a region actually called Cornouaille.

For part of the time I was on my own, for part people came and stayed and it worked well. I took my laptop and a writing task, on the principle that it’s no good going somewhere just to visit; you need to be there with something engrossing to do, and get to know the place just incidentally, by virtue of being there, when not working. Next year I'll take that principle more seriously: I'll really tell myself I'm working away from home, with the delights of the place there as a refreshing change for in between times.

A month somewhere is long enough to begin to feel you’re living there. It was long enough to watch an improvement job on the village street almost from start to finish, including the commune masons building low dry-stone walls for utility (to deny parking) and aesthetics (some retained flower beds; all would eventually have flowers like fuschias climbing over them; and they were beautiful things in themselves).

(I might do a separate blog on how they do pavements.)

I started to recognise the same cheese stall on markets in different towns, to meet the man with the dog on the green at the top of the hill several times

to get to talk (as my feeble French allowed) to the man who’d built his house in the next hamlet and was busy making a wall (the local speciality) for his garden. It turned out he was the same age as me, though his life had been rather different: born in the tiny house next door, he’d worn clogs and his grandmother had talked to him in Breton; then he’d been in the navy till he retired. He showed me round. There was one spacious downstairs room with a kitchen separated by a bar where he could sit ‘pour regarder ma femme pendant qu’elle fait la vaiselle’.

Finistère seems as if it’s largely gone back to nature: bracken, gorse, thorn-bushes, broom, ivy, honeysuckle, willow; rabbits, deer. Much of it may always have been that way. They call the terrain les landes which is translated ‘moors’; but moors for me are upland stretches, which these weren’t; coastal, rather, and not a particular higher type of zone but the whole cape.
There’s a coastal path (sentier côtiale) very like Pembrokeshire’s but less frequented and more colourful (heather, broom and lots more) with bird life that wasn’t familiar to me: yellowhammers and choughs, I thought I saw. Ten minutes drive away was a handsome estuary town, Audierne, still a serious fishing port, with old 3-4-storey houses along the quayside.

Ten minutes walk away was Plogoff, a large village that is the centre of the commune; and everywhere, where most of the population must once have lived from the land and fishing, there were hamlets connected by footpaths that were almost roads, wide enough to admit mowers and hedge-trimmers and clearly maintained by the assiduous Plogoff commune (which also provides summer jobs, e.g. as car park attendants, for all young people of 15 and over who want them in the school holiday). These paths provided endless scope for wandering, and each hamlet arrived at offered a fresh combination of stone buildings, blue shutters and a profusion of flowers. Viewed from a distance from high points, the houses were so loosely clustered into settlements than they looked more like scattered crofts in the Hebrides than organised hamlets.

Wandering up every day to the disused sailors’ chapel of Notre Dame de Bon Voyage, whose 19-year-old summer warden, Gleran (a Breton name, like that of his brother, Gwen) again on a commune work scheme, told me about getting the results of his bac and how les jeunes know at any time where all four of the cape’s gendarmes are; and then along the path through the bracken and gorse down to to join the coast path along the top of the cliffs was a restful daily routine. I found myself paying more attention to rocks, plants and birds and also to the music on my iPod, and in the third week when I drove to the département capital of Quimper the art I saw there--the cathedral and its glass, the Pont Aven School and other Breton paintings, had a more than usual impact on me, as if I'd built up a thirst.

I wish I'd taken more photographs. I was put off by looking at my early ones on the laptop, which gave me the impression they were no good. Now I look at them on my 21” monitor back home some don’t look so bad.

I'd like to have been on the internet, not for email--no way--but for looking things up (e.g. birdsong) and for the British news. And next time I'll take a radio that can get Radio 4 long wave. (I did not develop a taste for French broadcasting, even when I could understand it; or for their pop music.)

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