Friday, April 30, 2010

Art for Art's Sake (La Gacilly)

I've been meaning to write about some of the more agonizing moments of French culture (our sighting of a bumper sticker on a city wall that read "No mosques in Brittany" in French and Breton; the politicized worries over the French language), but I don't seem to have the wherewithall. There doesn't seem to be a place for it, or a way to make sense of it within the burgeoning of spring and the loveliness of so many things. Of course that's the point, is that these issues grate against idylls, real or imagined. I say all this by way of apology and promise, in that I hope to come to these topics soon. Undoubtedly when work picks up again and the frame is that of history and research, instead of wisteria and cobblestone, there may be an operative frame for this conversation. What beautiful, incredible La Gacilly offered instead was a utopia the likes of which I'd never seen.

Watching my mom claim her Brittany and her happiness here has been amazing. She already has her favorite places of return: the famed "bleus Breton" such as the ones you see here, or a good Breton beer at the end of the day (yea, mom!), or the news at 8 p.m., or the pause café on a sunny day. I think that that is why it's so hard to think of OFII issues right now - it's hard to imagine not being able to make all this your own. There's a gentle openness here for one very special reason. Well, 34 very special reasons, actually: and those are the 34 artisans who (live? and) work here and whose shops are also their studios. We've been in just enough little towns to admire how each one has found a way to survive: for some (Rochefort-en-Terre) it's charm itself and the pleasures of being in a town of 700 people. Josselin has its castle (and its 2500 people who bring their own flavor to the city). La Gacilly has its artisans. They line two long, meandering streets in town and I'm oh so sorry that I can't show you any pictures because in almost all of them photography was not allowed. Woodworking, stained glass, sculpture, ceramics, clothing, children's toys, oil paintings on leaves, silver spoons and forks made into lampshades and jewelry (a lot cooler than that makes it sound - I now have a very cool necklace from this gentleman - oo! that I bet I can take a picture of that! soon soon). I had to think of the people themselves working in their studios - yes, it had a touch of the medieval work structure to it, but one that contributed beautifully to the whole "out of time" feeling of the place. There was a bumper sticker on some of the windows from the city that read: "Les artisans de La Gacilly. La magie au bout des doigts." (The artisans of La Gacilly. Magic at your fingerprints). And it is! The woman who makes pottery using medieval techniques (she also paints medieval manuscript pages!); the man who makes enormous hanging sculptures of stained glass medallions strung together with the most delicate metal wire; the husband and wife team who paint on leaves together.

What was there to do except enjoy a coffee together before meandering back into the fray? Actually, Mamie had a hot chocolate and I had an infusion involving apples and mangoes. As the sky clouded over outside, this was the warmest, most welcoming place to be. It seems very coherent, this part of this little town - the feeling of one place to another seems to carry over: the care, the close attention, the love of detail, the unique beauty, and the expertise gained through the materials themselves all create a mood in which there is both admiration and possibility: admiration for doing these wonderful things, and possibility for wondering if we might be able to participate in some of this magic. There are distances to be collapsed for everybody.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Mac and Mamie (Rochefort en Terre) and Eleanor's French Face

Wow, eh? This is the beautiful little town of Rochefort-en-Terre that Mac and Mamie went to see today, while I accompanied Iris and her class of Maternelle Grande Section to the pool (more on that soon). Seeing this beautiful little town through Mac and Mamie's eyes is nice, too - I find myself looking for the familiar, a foothold in the pictures of their experiences. Rochefort-en-Terre shares a "Petite Cité de Caractère" sign with Josselin, but has about 700 inhabitants and has survived simply ("simply") because it is so beautiful. It is there as a site of beauty, a respite and an escape - and then there are the 700 inhabitants of the town who have a different tale to tell. We think that the gorgeous purple plant above is wisteria - it snakes along the Mairie's (town hall's) facade as well, and is just amazing. So feathery against all that stone.

I think often of the powers of oral tradition in medieval travel - of how consistently good stories of travel and discovery had to be to encourage so many people to take on such far-flung travel. Now we have the added benefit of lush photography to make us want to go places. Here is the collégiale (the collegiate church) of the town, beautifully adorned in the classical Breton style (Gothic Flamboyant, or, as a friend of mine says: "isn't it all pretty flamboyant?")

The element that got me were those little monkey serving up the cathedral from their posts atop the column beneath the (wooden!) vaulting. There are so many of these smiling and twisting their way round capitals and along wooden beams - art history's demands for purity and coherence led them to Burgundy, where the 12th century Romanesque could still be found beneath just a layer or two of other styles. Here, I'm not quite sure when our monkeys were put in place, but they scurry now, calling out their little joke of imitation and aping.

Mac really liked this guy (who knows where a modernist's medieval taste will take you?) - it's a 17th century statue, surely repainted, of saint Mathurin, a saint particularly helpful with exorcisms. Here he is holding a holy book and a stick with which to spray holy water (good for exorcisms). Wonder if he played a major role in any pardons held here. It's interesting to see the preacher's canopy on the opposite wall - as though the figure of the saint and the figure of the preacher were both suspended in mid-air in mid-conversation. There are lots and lots of these painted statues in Brittany, mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries and all beloved enough to receive fresh coats of paint.

Mamie and Mac had a coffee and came home to find us with six enormous brioches from the school bake sale. We had ordered them before spring break as part of the fund raiser with the usual American tremulousness at wondering what, exactly, a 400gram brioche looked like. Turns out it's about the size of a great big loaf of bread. We have six of these to eat before May 28th - care to join us? :-) Good thing Oliver has decided that they are the absolute best thing in the universe. They are, too.

So the pool with Iris was both terrific and poignant. Terrific to see Iris mingling with her little buddies, poignant to see her apart at times as well (when the French just got too fast and too hectic - plus, I was there for her to retreat to, so she may not be that poignant on her own). Terrific that, hey, they were taking 34 kids to the pool, and poignant to see my little one look up at me and say "Can I swim free?" when the swimming was not only structured (four actions to perform at each of four stations) but also graded. I was the parent on the outside of the pool that had to write down the assessment of the kid with the parent inside the pool. It's rather elaborate - especially compared to Iris's desire to "swim solo." But it looks as though at this point they're looking for comfort level for each kid: how easily do they go in? how far beneath the water can they go? and so forth. This was a completely different way for Iris to experience the pool. She asked me to find out when "free swim" was and, indeed, that is my next mission. The pool turns out to be public - yea, France!

In the ecstasy of sharing stories of Rochefort-en-Terre, brioches, and the pool, I was able to ask Eleanor about her French face - here are the farcical results. You have to imagine her doing that face without being aware that she is being funny. She's now added some flourishes, both gestural and linguistic - you can hear my sigh of exasperation at the end: I don't know what a "tootie" is exactly, but it sounds naughty, non? :-)

Iris had her own contribution she wanted to add. Here is what she calls her "French talent."

Well, and while I'm on this video clip roll, here is Eleanor speaking full Eleanor-ese, a combination of French and French-sounding syllables (liberally sprinkled with her sparkle) - we hear a lot of this around the house.

Et maintenant - bonne nuit!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


We received a phone call today that we thought we'd get about three months ago. The French Office of Immigration and Integration, whose logo of assimilating silhouettes I find infinitely fascinating, finally called about the follow-up to our visa. The agonies and intricacies of French bureaucracy are, of course, legend, and others have written about it more eloquently here, here, here, and even here (also, there's a Facebook group called "I Hate French Bureaucracy!!!!!" I just found out in doing this quick search), so I won't express my own views on the baroque mysticism that fuels it. I will, instead, register both my sullen resignation that now we must jump through these hoops (despite the fact that the OFII waited until we are practically gone), and also my creeping sadness that, oh yes, I remember now, we're not French, and we don't really live here forever, and this is our "France Life," not our Forever Life. Sigh. It was a sad reminder. I'll try to get excited about the titre de séjour (which Mac and I can have, but not the children - for them, we have to go to a préfecture in Lorient - whereas Mac and I have to go to Rennes - ack! and so it begins).

But then we had a hair appointment for the children, thank goodness, and that made everything feel like home again. Madame Pascale made Oliver's Tintin haircut totally rad with some red and gray. He wants to keep it for school tomorrow which makes me inexplicably happy - his quiet confidence allows him to pull off stuff like that. He was cracking us up all day, my little guy, right up to bedtime. That red put some zing in his step!

Eleanor was inspired to be a "coiffeuse" (hairdresser) herself when we got home. I love her little pixie cut. All of the hairdressers at Claude Coiffure completely get the kids' personalities and give them corresponding haircuts - wait until you see Iris's haircut! It's moments like these that it's hard for me to grasp that we'll really leave here someday - being here has been so complete, and there's so much promise in the air with spring everywhere. I can't help but be a little melancholy - and cling to favorite scenarios that getting haircuts for the kids.

When in doubt, eat a "galette" (a savory crêpe). Here is Eleanor, absolutely triumphant, because she finally scored what it turns out she's been wanting for weeks and weeks: "une galette complete." A complete galette has ham and cheese inside and a sunny-side up egg on top. She just sat there and sighed and looked at it and sighed, then smiled some more. And ate every last bite of it.

Iris, meanwhile, got her first trans-lingual pun! It was on her Breizh-Cola glass (big treat to drink that stuff - sweeeeet), which reads: "Le Cola du Phare Ouest." This is funny for three reasons, as my brother would say: 1) because the "Phare Ouest" means the "Western Lighthouse" - which is a nice way to describe Brittany, 2) because the "Phare Ouest" in French sounds like the English phrase "Far West" in English and 3) because Brittany is the Far West of France. Hee hee! (The bonus here is Eleanor's look of utter concentration upon her prized galette).

Our leisurely lunch was followed by a walk in the Bois d'Amour which is also now an entirely new landscape, one I need to dedicate an entire series of photos to: they were planting new plants even as we were walking all around today. Here are the girls poring over a book from the library, another favorite series of my childhood, the Martine books. Iris wanted a "non-fiction" (she specified!) book on how to take care of babies, and Maman, petite maman certainly fit the bill (I didn't tell her it was fiction). I think that being with the kids keeps me living in the present (sometimes in the minute) so much that today's call back to Global Reality came as a bit of a shock. Even the kind of thinking that I do for work calls me to suspend reality, or at least the reality of time. So yes, I was reminded today that our time here will end. But I was also reminded, or rediscovered anew (which is sweeter somehow) that we have made a life here.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fleur de Caramel (Vannes through adult eyes)

Wow! It turns out that it's not only a city coming into spring that makes it look different, it's also visiting it with not-kids. My mom and I spent a delightful few hours in beautiful, beautiful Vannes, popping in and out of the many boutiques we must have scurried past when we were here with the kids; having a long, leisurely lunch in a terrace; window-shopping (one of my favorite French terms: "lèche-vitrine" - literally, window licking!). Note, for instance, my photographically recorded presence in a Fine Epicerie, a type of shop known for its multiple glass jars. :-) The bottles on the right, those gorgeous blue ones, are of a liqueur so exquisite-sounding that I wanted to record it - Fleur de Caramel: liqueur de caramel salé. Mac and I are in consultation about whether or not to buy it. Stay tuned.

This day brought a Tiny Insight: most of my European experiences have been without children. I will always treasure Brittany most of all because I discovered it with the kids. But today was reminiscent of the kind of discovery I used to have: different pace, conversation, goal, result. It was the first time that that difference struck me, and I wonder why I've never had it before. There are moments of absolute sameness: the kids would have been glued to the cheese display at the wondrous Halles des Lices as we were (and that was just the goat cheese side - there was an entire other side!).

They would have gasped, as we did, at the various crustaceans moving about in their bubbling baths beneath their already cooked compatriots above.

And they might even have marveled with us at the multi-layered fashion that we saw in the windows for spring.

But stepping into a used bookshop? I haven't done that, coupled with actual browsing, in a really long time. And of course what did I buy but something for the kids! There was a huge collection of Sylvain et Sylvette comics at the house of one of my mom's cousins in Switzerland - a marvelous, sweet and gentle woman named Jacqueline. Seeing the book cover was such a shock: instant Proustian transport to those happy summer days spent poring over the books. I chose one about the hunt for a duck and read the first half of it tonight to the kids - great success!

There were many other surprises (and things I want to show the kids when we return for the early June (oof that's late!) opening of the eagerly-anticipated Musée d'Histoire et d'Archéologie) such as this excellent 17th century statue of the 12th century Saint Isidore the Laborer, in the Cathedral Saint Pierre, who is undoubtedly here because his later compatriot, Vincent Ferrier preached and died in Vannes in 1419.

Here is Vincent Ferrier's head reliquary (can't you just hear Oliver exclaiming that he oh please oh please wants to see it?). Pretty remarkable fellow, if you have time to read the linked page. The reliquary itself is from 1956 and has such lovely, clean lines. Vincent Ferrier was known for a lot of things, including treating plague victims, but most famously, he was known for his preaching. Being a Dominican monk, he was of the orders (along with Franciscans) who lived in cities. Both St. Dominic and St. Francis had their urban-dwelling monastic orders approved by the pope in the early 13th century, and completely changed not only the urban fabric of religiosity: they appealed broadly to the urban population (by, among other things, commissioning fantastic and amazing works of art) and presented a very real challenge to the traditional monastic orders (those who lived "off the grid" in isolated monastic communities). Why am I telling you all this? Because I am fascinated to think of Vincent Ferrier (from Valencia, Spain) preaching in the streets of Vannes, which are laid out today pretty much the way they were in the early 15th century. The city welcomed their miracle-working preacher and commemorate him in style.

Wouldn't we want to know the story behind this beautiful ex-voto boat? Mac says that he saw a painting at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Quimper that depicted such a votive offering. In gratitude or for insurance? Either way, it's a perfectly executed model of a schooner of some sort. I hope that they made safe voyage.

The rampart gardens (which turn out to be have been created in the 17th century - so early!) were in full glory. I love the decision to go with the eggplant-colored tulips - they created this marvelous effect in the wind: being taller than the plants around them, they lilted more than their short companions, and thus seemed to dance above the heads of those little floral attendants. There is a photography exhibit up against the rampart walls - the space continues to be used for aesthetics early modern and modern.

And at the end of the day, to pick the kids up from school, ebullient and full of stories, and to find that Mac had a good work day (more on the articles and book chapters I've downloaded and started to read about François Ier and the Turks soon soon) - le bien-être (well-being) indeed. We had fish for dinner, having eaten by the port, and the kids ate it all up. It was morue (cod) and very delicate, with rice and a leeks and carrot combination I made. I'm once again co-ordinating menus with the school's (saucisses - sausages - today, with the usual ups and extras). The caramel sucker pictured here is extra. :-)

So all of the thinking about beautiful Vannes and its history and its site as the parliement of Brittany prompted me to make a purchase I've been contemplating for a while but have resisted because it is so absurd and cheesy (yes, those are precisely the terms to use here). On March 15 the double DVD of the (brace yourselves) rock opera based on the life of Anne de Bretagne came out, and it's in every Breizh (Brittany in Breton) press shop you see. I couldn't stop myself from "Breizhing up" (as we call it whenever we engage in Breton-pride behavior) and so... I bought the DVD! The website for it all, says it all: it is the most earnest and melodramatic and at times positively awful rendition of a monarch's life in rock operative form that you will ever hear. And you know what? I don't care! I'm so thrilled that Anne de Bretagne is so incredibly alive in the current imagination. Of course Mac knew all about Fairport Convention, the British folk rock band which somehow wound up fueling the guitar licks for this. Rock on, Anne of Brittany!

Monday, April 26, 2010

A New Country

Sometimes now when we walk around, we have to stop and literally smell the flowers because we feel like we're in a different place than the one we arrived in back in late December. As closely as we've been watching every leaf and blade of grass, the flowers seem to have sprung fully grown from the earth. It's so wonderful to look at the perennials and know that they were lying there in wait throughout the winter. Spring is the season where it's easier for me to imagine a humanity in common: everyone throughout all time surely must marvel at a sight such as this one. (Mac would give you a lot more on the historical specificity of the tulip and its importation from Turkey and the tulip follies of the Netherlands, but let's just go universal on this one for now).

At the risk of being repetitive of the same scene, here we are in front of the same idea of flowers. We decided to start out wanderings close to home today, visiting Ploermel. Mom wants to play the Combat des Trentes board game (!), so we felt that a visit to Ploermel was absolutely necessary. We went to what is officially my favorite restaurant there, the Jardin des Saveurs (really nice owner, cool little innovations involving things like polenta and sweet potatoes) and then tooled around, winding up here facing the World War I monument with Saint Armel church behind us.

I've been wanting to write about Saint Armel for a good long time. This incredible wooden vault alone would be enough, but the church has fascinated me for a long time. First, from the outside, where its stones virtually writhe with winsome and whimsical creatures, and now, from the inside, where more fantastic beings creep along the wooden beams and grin to each other across the vault. Ploermel is a wonderful stop on the way to the Broceliande forest (this is what I did with Gretchen during her visit), which is the home of so much Arthurian legend itself rooted in pagan lore, and I can't help but think, when I see these wonderful carvings, that the forest, its nature, its legends, and its folklore are not too far when one is here. Can you see that the ends of every beam are held within a snarling dragon's mouth? Harder to see, but oh they're there, are the musicians and acrobats and peasant women, the two-headed dogs, the crouching dragons, and the comical bulls.

There's clearly been some wonderful renovation work done here (the entire central vault and most of the aisle vaults have been restored I would think), but this one beam seems to have been left as is (very much so: do you see the cobwebs?). It forms what may or may not be a structural column that joins the wooden vault to the stone column below and depicts a dragon vomiting forth a wooden column which is then "picked up" by the crouching angel in the capital. It is so rare to find a wooden vault in such marvelous condition, let alone this vestige here. To me, it speaks to just how alive these edifices were: architectural elements whispered to each other, sections yawned and stretched to find each other, and the entire space became an enormous, alive creation, housing and reflecting the wonders of divine as well as mortal creation - and, perhaps most importantly, commemorated the creations in between the divine and the mortal: those of the human imagination.

I need to bring the children inside Saint Armel someday. For today, it was such a joy to pick them up from school - Iris is to the left jumping up and down with excitement (it was chicken cordon bleu for lunch and the weather was gorgeous and they're still learning a little bit more about Africa, so hoorah!). Iris and Oliver both had a bit of a "cafard" this morning (hard getting going, hard letting go) - Eleanor on the other hand, was raring to go. Language note: both girls came home speaking up a storm of French - it was like 0 to 60.

We walked home past the goats and Iris, who favors the little one and was trying to give it some dandelions, said to the big one "Non, c'est pas pour toi, c'est pour la petite." (No, it's not for you, it's for the little one). Because these goats speak French, you know. Isn't that great? So it's this sunny day, and we're in this beautiful new country where there is sunshine and flowers line your every path, and I'll confess to missing the coziness of the Brittany that we made ours in the winter months, but oh the worlds that await us now!

And so I leave you with more flowers, here framing the Colonne des Trente (not even remotely the same site that we visited in January!). We missed the anniversary of the Combat itself (mid-March I think it was), but now..... to the board!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

La Floraison du Château (Josselin)

Ooo, but it's good to be the duchess! Or at least the little pretend duchess that, as soon as she enters the castle ground for the annual flower show finds herself being able to take a pony ride. Can you believe it? While Mac and Mamie and Oliver went down to the English garden to explore the floral displays (and by the way, a new rose was launched here today: "La Lune Rousse" - the Red Moon), Iris and Eleanor took in a pony ride. I don't think that the two of them ever stopped smiling.

Eleanor had that grin on her face the entire time.

So clearly, where there might be children, there is face painting. And that awesome, excellent very well done face painting. This level of fun causes me rethink my Big Insight of the vacation a little bit. I hadn't written out the Big Insight, but it worked at trying to understand why French children are just so good. My previous theory had been that, in modeling their dignified and reserved parents, they themselves were dignified and reserved (thereby consigning my kids to a lifetime of goofiness, should they happen to model themselves on me, but giving them a shot at dignity should they model themselves on their father). But then, during the vacation, after the Incident, and watching parents and children move together in the streets of Quimper, I started thinking that part of the reason French children are so well-behaved is, unlike in the States where the desired state of being is childhood and eternal youth, here in France, the desired state is adulthood. I think that Adam Gopnik wrote (or must have written about this) at some point. French kids model themselves on adults because here being an adult is cool: it has multiple perks and freedoms and privileges. In the States, it's being young and childlike and a kid that is prized. Think of the one of the most treasured values of American society: fun - associated with kid culture, youthfulness, a good time as had by a kid. Now consider the linguistic fact that there is no word for "fun" in French. There are many words for "funny" ("rigolo" is Eleanor's favorite, and it is "rigolo" when she says it, too), but none for fun. And it's not that French people don't know how to have fun ("le fun" gets plenty of airtime on television and in advertising and in spoken parlance), they do; or that they don't laugh, they absolutely do. It's just that it's on different, more adult terms: wit, I would argue (and perhaps falsely about a much smaller group of people than I know), "wit," I would argue is as prized in French culture as "fun" is in American culture in terms of a cultural value that is invigorating and satisfying and reveals the smile of a culture. So, I don't know if every soccer fan in France prizes wit over fun, but from this little observation post of French culture, wit (and its sophisticated adult framework) is highly prized and, I believe, is part of the larger desirability of being an adult in France. Thus (Big Insight) why French children lean towards the dignified rather than the goofy. What do I mean by goofy? Exclaiming at everything, finding things wondrous when maybe they're not, being overly demonstrative - stuff like that. I love both cultures, both the kid culture (although it's louder and has serious issues with self-restraint) and the adult culture (although sometimes I miss the exuberance and can't keep up with the cool demeanor). I think that it's watching Eleanor put on her "French face," too - the way she purses her lips (and I will do everything in my power to get this on video) is simply more reserved and demure.

All this to say, we went to the face painting booth and had a glorious time watching Oliver (wo-ha!) become a bee, and Iris and Eleanor become garlanded with flowers. "I love France," Oliver said demurely (yes, demurely) as the painter was marking out little honeycomb shapes on his wings/cheeks. What I need to remember, and what Mac just reminded me of, is that, all told, the children have been in school 12 weeks (two 6-week sessions), and they still have 10 weeks (one long session) to go. I actually have no idea what changes await them. Eleanor announced this afternoon that she actually has three French faces. Wow!

And so what does it mean after my Big Insight that I can't resist posting this image of Oliver as a milk-swilling bee? Truth be told, I think it has nothing to do with either fun or wit, or dignity or goofiness, but rather the popping blue of his great big eyes. These pictures help time stand still just a little bit. After dinner, Oliver sighed and said "Well, back to reality" as he wiped the face paint off. He was totally jolly, though, as reality included a tarte from the boulangerie, and a whole lot of Asterix.

Festival of the Young Public (Saint Nolff)

And so back to "les délices" of everyday life in the Morbihan. This week, we will be enjoying the round little Saint-Félicien, and (continuing clockwise) a Pyrenées Trois Laits (as in cow, sheep and goat's milk, together at last - very, very good), a good chunk of Pont l'Evêque which Mac is very partial to, and our ever-favorite Beaufort de l'Alpage, which Mamie is discovering.

Mamie is here! Mamie is here! Through ash and incertitude, she made it! We'll be spending lots of time in terraces to recover, and taking "ballades." The rigors of the market and hair appointments await as well. :-) Being at the market after the Finistère had the feeling of a return, and, perhaps it was the spring day, but there was a warmth all around: longer conversations with the merchants, inquiries about the kids, and (wow!) a couple of extra merguez for the kids from the butcher (yes, the Cute Butcher, but my friend Donna assures me that all French butchers are cute and nice - lucky us!). I think I've never felt as at home as I did when I reserved a roasted chicken for next week-end from the excellent Roaster Man. Already looking forward to it!

The Big Event of the day awaited. On another market day, I had started talking with the mom of a friend of Iris's from school, and through further conversations and phone number exchanges (big step!), we'd agreed to meet up today to go the Festival Jeune Public in Saint-Nolff. We kept referring to it as The Festival of the Young Public Of Which You Are a Member which proved utterly maddening to the kids (and therefore entertaining to us). And it was awesome. Roxanne is a member of the Association Train de Nuit (there are only 15) which seeks to bring artistic and cultural experiences to kids. Hoorah! The idea is that they don't have to wait until the field trip to the theater or the opera to get out and experience culture. So how's about a drumming corps from Burkina Faso for starters? Wow! Lots more kids were to come after this picture was taken, and there were many, many Moments of Cultural Learning ahead.

Such as the Motricity Booth. Eleanor was overjoyed, for once it was for kids up to 3 years old - she was not going to have wait on the sidelines as usual! So in she hopped, and started bopping around, only to be immediately guided as to the "correct" way to do the activities - there was a precise order, and a precise way to do each station. But that wasn't the cultural learning (we know there's a way to do things, oui oui) - no, it was watching Eleanor's face transform as she took her instruction: softer, dare I say cuter, lips pursed, eyes wide open. I recognized it as the expression of little French children: attentive, quiet - one I admire so very much. I couldn't believe it was on Eleanor's face. I asked her about her "French face," on a hunch that she was aware of this transformation in her, and there it was! I haven't caught it on camera yet, but wow, do I love it. I asked her about the pursed lips and she said (no kidding) "It's how I hatch my French." Is that great or what?

The Face Painting was unparalled - have you ever seen anything like it? Kids were allowed to choose from a pre-selected list of options, but each face-painter had clearly perfected the list. Iris chose "La Chinoise" and her adorable little friend "Le Papillon." I absolutely adore the slightly worried or at least inquisitive expression that the eyebrows give Iris's face.

What an adventurous bunch, eh? Oliver chose "Serpent" - when his eyes were closed, they looked like the open eyes of a snake - cool!

Mamie was chosen by the Mime-Balloon Lady (the kids adored her) and received a most fetching white balloon bracelet.

She graced Oliver and Eleanor with these fantastic hats which turned out to make great head-swords. There were shows (an incredibly artistic one using shadow puppets and Indonesian dance describing the four seasons; a totally cool clown acrobatics show) and lots and lots of itinerant entertainment: an octopus on stilts (no joke), a bubble-blowing pirate, an accordion player, a sweets seller, a crystal ball juggler. It was wondrous - vive la France et tous les mômes!

And so it was the most natural thing to come home, cook the gigot d'agneau we'd bought that morning at the market, and watch our beloved movie, Le Petit Nicolas. Cheers!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

To the Ends of the Earth and Back (Finistère)

Ah for the days when you could subject your friends to hours of vacation pictures via a good, long session with slides on screen. Consider yourself spared, gentle reader, of the 495 pictures that we took during our sojourn in the Finistère. The limits of technology (and of human endurance) call for but a few pictures from these three incredible days. (But really, wouldn't it be nice to settle down to the whir of the slide projector with a nice martini and some olives?).

Monday, April 19 - Pointe de Penhir to Morgat Plage
Things have been a whirlwind around here, but now, in the quiet of a Saturday morning, I can report that, as ever for the past two weeks, the weather is beautiful, and that, amazingly, my mother made it through the international airport confusion - more on that in another post! For now, yes, that is the end of the earth you see before you! The Finistère ends in several long promontories, and we chose to venture down to the edge of the Pointe de Penhir which stretches out not quite as far as the famed Pointe du Raz, but has beautiful megaliths nearby (wouldn't want to miss that!). At what point, I ask you, do children perceive the Sublime? And by Sublime I mean the full-on Romantic rush of Beauty and Fear co-mingled into a moment that you never want to forget and yet feel yourself running from. Mac and I stood open-mouthed between bouts of alarmist calling out to the kids not to get too close to the edge (those cliffs fall quite sheerly below us to the sea). They, meanwhile, skipped and romped and laughed and were blissfully un-awed. In the greatest contrast of Great and Small, Iris adopted a caterpillar and tended to it throughout our excursions along the edge. I loved her for that - maybe it was her way of dealing with the grandeur of it all? I had no coping skills: I could have stood there riveted to the edge for the entire day. You really do look out into an endless ocean, to the reaches of human perception. Even now, sitting in my cozy kitchen, I can feel a little dizzy just thinking about it.

We're not alone here in our awe, as Pointe de Penhir is also the site of a Battle of the Atlantic Museum and this fine Breton Resistance monument, which stands at one of the cliff edges and, on its sea-facing side, has a quote from Charles Baudelaire "Homme libre, toujours tu cheriras la mer" (Man of liberty, you will always cherish the sea.). You can turn your head to the left and sea awesome endless Nature, or turn your head to the right and see a testament to awesome Human events. It's a powerful place. The kids helped us to the task of doing something as mundane as eating, which didn't seem mundane up there. We picnicked almost wordlessly on an open patch of weather-beaten grass, not dropping a single crumb.

About 1 km from the Edge of the World is a truly heroic alignment of megaliths. It's not the quarrying and the carrying (although wrenching megaliths can't have been an easy task), it's the site itself. The ocean is just over the knoll on the open end of the enormous "U" that the stones make (with the bottom of the "U" being flat, so no, not a circle shape), and I wonder if that was practical or intentional. Having seen the sea makes a big difference at this site. Those three enormous rocks that jut out of the water after the edge of the world look themselves like gigantic megaliths (mega-megaliths?) and for the first time I wondered about the mimetic nature of these stones. Are they in resonance with the strange sculptures carved out by the sea?

Eleanor kept calling this stone the "Old One" - as in the grandmother of the clan of stones all around. She may have a really good point: the abstract shape of the stones ("simply" vertical) has the potential for extrapolations both big (the enormous sea mountains) and small (a human form). It's the expansive capacity for meaning that keeps us coming back to these stones. That such a simple shape and straightforward arrangements (there are no mazes here) could produce so many ideas (of community, of time, of science) is endlessly amazing. A guide book snubbed these because of their proximity to a subdivision, and yes, it's hard to achieve the sublime with the sound of a lawn mower in the background, but the stalwart presence of the stones gives them yet another role to play: protector and playsite (tons of kids running around here). To live with megaliths, can you imagine?

So where do you go to recover from the Sublime and Another Set of Musings about megaliths? Why to the beach, of course! A mere 15 minutes away are lovely, undulating coves that have created soft beaches where the water, which crashed dramatically against the cliffs even on this calm day, laps ever so gently against the shore. In honor of monsieur entre-guerre Mac, we stayed in the big 1930s pile Le Grand Hotel de la Mer - it was taken over (clearly in the 1970s) by a vacation club chain which added a bit of a cheesy factor, but you couldn't beat the views from the large terrace (where we actually had apperitifs) and plus, it has its own grotto!

Here's Oliver approaching Tom Sawyer mode, ready to explore the grotto. It's a small one (thus the name "La Baignoire" - the tub), but had the thrill of filling as the tide came in. He had to rush ("rush") back out with his dad to make it back to land. Did I detect a note of relief in the kids' joyous laughter? Probably more from our nagging at the cliffs' edge than from the cliffs' edge itself. The kids ran in and out of the approaching tide and the sea itself decided when it was time for us to head in by filling the beach with said tide. It was time to wash off the sand and soak the sea-soaked clothes (a timeless and bothersome ritual, but one which means that you're at the beach, so hoorah!) and head into the little town of Morgat for dinner.

Check out the look of total concentration on Eleanor's face. She made short work of those mussels, I tell you. You have to love a place, a country, where the kids' menu includes a mussels n' fries option.

Oliver had an exquisite "Gratin de Calamars" which left him room for his new obsession: Profiteroles - these were stuffed with ice cream, not just cream. Wow! A day well spent.

Tuesday, April 20 - Morgat Grottoes, Beach, Locronan to Quimper

The day dawned bright and clear and after a leisurely breakfast in a sun-drenched breakfast room overlooking the sea, we set out for... Grotto Exploration! I love Kids in Boats - little hands gripping the edge, getting salty water splashed onto their face. Iris is always the first to clamber on, feisty girl. About halfway through any boat ride, you get an awesome hug from kids, too - maybe this is their Sublime moment?

I don't know which pictures to show you. These grottoes had it all: limpid pools, embedded amethysts, strange echoes, legends of Vikings (hiding out in them before they attacked), tales of sermons preached within (thus the Grottes de l'Autel - the grotto of the altar), multi-colored algae, grotto-dwelling birds. A geologist's dream come true and truly, I need to think of taking such a course (the Icelandic volcano has stirred many interests!). It was during this boat ride that we saw the first airplane streaks in the sky - absolutely everyone noticed and there were smiles all around.

Mac had quite the adventurous lunch of which there is no visual record. But we don't want to forget the Pierrade. My poor man. It was a lovely little beachside restaurant and of course we wanted fish. So he ordered a Pierrade (what could that mean?) with two kinds of fish and three kinds of sauces. Yum! After a couple of bits Mac looks at me and says "Will you taste this? Is this fish raw?" I did and it was. Strange, we thought - but we know the fish is fresh. Sorry it's not warm, love, but eat up! So he dutifully did and it was good because it was so fresh. When in Rome and all that, we thought. Nonetheless, at the end of the meal Mac claimed it had all been less than satisfying and that he really didn't get the gimmicky serving platter. What? That hot stone they put down when they brought out the fish and sauces. We looked at each other and at the exact same moment said "Pierrade, like Grillade" - the hot stone was not gimmicky! It was what Mac was supposed to cook his fish on!!!!! Who knew??? We laughed until the tears came and yes, the fish was fresh - Mac was fine and dandy all afternoon. Good grief. The afternoon was rambunctious all around, though. In what is now known as The Incident, we lost track of Oliver for about 20 minutes. Doesn't sound like much and really, what safer place to lose track of a kid than on a flat, secure beach? But ooof, that beach looked empty. Mac went one way and the girls and I went the other (wow can Iris below out a name!) and we looked and looked and he was nowhere to be found. Turns out he had taken off on his own to go dig a hole and he just didn't hear us calling out for him. We were totally addled and so grateful to find him - plenty mad, too, at his taking off without telling us. So he and I did a Reality Check in the car while Mac and the girls played on the beach. The Incident and Reality Check are now part of our parlance. Nothing like Living and Learning on vacation. My little guy - we must balance out the dreamer and the kid who lives in the world.

So it was in Locronan that we felt ourselves back in step as a family. How does a little town know to stay medieval? Locronan did it - somehow made it through the 18th century without the usual "adjustments" and now today is a rare and resplendent place. Everyone gathers in the old central square, today surrounded by quaint shops (see here), but as ever crowned by the beautiful 15th century church of saint Ronan. So smitten was he by the city that Roman Polanskky filmed Tess here, making Locronan the backdrop for the incredible sufferings of Hardy's heroine. The legend goes that he did his own adjustments (window frames and the like) to gently morph Locronan into a Victorian village. No traces of Polanski today, but we all remember the strawberry scene with a frisson.

One of the more whimsical street signs in Locronan. Yes, for a soapmaker!

And then it was off to Quimper! The heart of the region of Cornouialle, host of an incredible festival, and frequented city of Bécassine, the early 20th century Breton heroine whom you can still find today, but only in souvenir shops. More needs to be said about Bécassine, but for now, let me recommend Hotel Dupleix where we stayed (great location, never mind the early 80s everything of the hotel), and sing the praises of Mac's very cooked fish for dinner. Glorious isn't it?

We ate at the Brasserie de l'Epée, a famed old spot of Quimper (and right across the canal from our hotel) whose outrageous website doesn't do justice to its actual comfort and fun. I ordered a cotriade, classic Breton fish soup, but mine came with the additional flair of this, as we came to call it, "langoustine en supplice" (martyred crayfish) - look at that poor guy! "Take the lemon, please!" We would go on to have an huge, wonderful family laugh about this little seafood martyr at home the next time. Thanks, little guy. And he was delicious.

Wednesday, April 21 - Quimper, Pont-Aven, Le Pouldu
This day was our Footsteps of Gauguin Day. "No megaliths?" asked Eleanor (how do they know stuff like that?). Nope - all modern all the time. Another day dawned bright and clear and Mac made it to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper where he was to commune with many great works of art. I have to figure out a way to get back there myself. This painting alone, The Pardon at Kergoat by Jules Breton from 1891, would get me there. Pardons continue to mark time here: the coiffeuse told me just the other day that after the Pardon in Josselin (in September), the city completely quiets down. What exactly Jules Breton was marking remains to be discussed. I have become wary of dubbing events "nostalgic" in Brittany, because there is such tremendous continuity, despite the best efforts to centralize the region to the rest of France (even the resurgence of Breton has this lively pace to it, as witnessed by the kids' TV show in Breton!). So I wouldn't say the Jules Breton is here painting a scene of a by-gone era (and of course, the Pardon at Kergoat goes on). Is this painting then speaking rather within the discourse of Realism and Post-Impressionism? by 1891, van Gogh was dead and Gauguin was on the prowl in Brittany. And here is Jules Breton painting a painting with exacting detail, restraining emotions and tempering his palette. Mac should probably weigh in on this. He emerges oh so happy from his museum time.

And now wonder - check it out! It's the Combat des Trente by Octave Penguilly l'Haridon, a detail of which adorns the box for our most excellent board game, Le Combat des Trente. It's from 1857, quite a bit after the 1819 monument that weirdly commemorates the site of the combat. Great grip on the imagination that painting. For this one alone, too, I would trek to Quimper. Pilgrimage to consider.

There were so many others. I've chosen this one from Mac's fine assembly because it's relatively unknown, but speaks volumes. All of this guys (of Gaugin's generation) were looking for something far far away, one feels. This is a self-portrait by Emile Bernard, from 1894, with his Egyptian wife, Hanenah Saati. He'd been to Constantinople and Jerusalem before settling down in Cairo. There's a neo-Catholic motivation here, but also a tremendous yearning for authenticity - not just place and costume (the yellow turban stands out), but all the way to choice of spouse (let alone her representation as meek and mild, a Virgin Mary of sorts). We often discuss the birth of ideas around the post-impressionists, the new concepts they were consciously or unconsciously playing with. The primitive, for example (no such idea in the Middle Ages, I assure you - you really do need to wait for the modern period to even think about ideas of primitivism). And then an idea more closely related to Bernard here, authenticity. The really real, really there. As though one weren't unless one tried. We have thick layers of irony to cut through today, and even thicker layers of mediation (one need only pause for one second to think of all the human interactions that are mediated by one technology or another, this blog, for example, replacing our face-to-face martini and olives plus endless slide show evening). I'm not interested in the better-worst nostalgia game here, but rather, keen to feel the similarities and differences with Bernard. He and Gauguin had a falling out in 1891 - was it over authenticity and how to achieve it? The idea is that this is what he and van Gogh quarreled over, among other things.

While Mac communed, the kids and I had a lazy morning and made it out into the city by 11 a.m. (!). The museum is only open from 10-noon before July, thus our arrangement. We took the little tourist train (choo choo!) all around the old city (no pictures, since Mac had the camera, but it was great - we crossed Quimper's three rivers several times, made our way through the city's hub-bub (always exciting for Iris), and thoroughly enjoyed the ride). We met up again with Mac in front of the cathedral (across from the museum, across the canal from our great hotel) and the kids rode the carousel (Iris is in the nautilus to the left of the picture) while Mac and I caught up. Sandwiches on the square, bit of running around, visit to the cathedral (with its most excellent tilted eastern axis) and it was off to Pont-Aven, second pilgrimage stop.

It was actually the little church site of Tremalo, just above Pont-Aven that was the pilgrimage site. Surrounded by the Bois d'Amour, it was a place where Gauguin came quite often, not to pray, but to paint the 17th century wooden crucifix painted bright yellow housed inside. It's still there today. (There was construction going on while we were there, so we could only poke our heads in, but there it was!). Pont-Aven itself is a lovely little town, but all the paintings and even hotspots of Gauguin are gone or have been transformed. I found myself thinking very fondly of an incredible woman I met about ten years ago who brought me here. I realize now that she's the one who planted the seeds for our current discovery and love of Brittany and I mourn that I'll never have a chance to thank her. She died very unexpectedly in 2004. This site has a beautiful picture of her (not sure what the rest of the site is about, but she was awesome in everything she did, clearly). My dean had arranged for me to meet up with her during a summer research trip so that I could learn about Brenguelven, a pig farm that she'd converted into a gorgeous home and art studios. She was so much fun: we tooled around the region, talked of everything under the sun, ate beautifully, visited Pont-Aven and generally celebrated All Things Brittany. Thanks, Carol - it's all come true.

Here's a not-so-good picture of the Yellow Christ itself. Ever since seeing Saint Armel church in Plöermel, I've started to notice what goes on in that space between the vault and the wall - here, in this oh so humble church, the faces and animals are painted (no elaborate wood sculptures here). I'm so happy that the church is being maintained. Just while we were there, four carloads of people came to see the site. Funny to think of Gauguin coming here to get away from the bourgeois crowds in Pont-Aven below.

Cranky looking guy, isn't he?

Thus why he left the "hub-bub" of Pont-Aven (and its dreaded bourgeoisie) and came to teeny-tiny Le Pouldu, a fishing and seaweed gathering village of 30 souls. Who knew that, after all we'd seen, the best was yet to come? We were to find out that La Maison Musée du Pouldu had opened a scant ten (10!) days before our arrival. Gauguin and Post-Impressionism pilgrims take note: this is a treasured and wondrous place. The Buvette de la Plage is where Gauguin stayed between 1891 and 1893 when he was eager to get away from Pont-Aven - when he wanted to go deeper into the wilds. The Buvette makes it big in art history classes because during the winter, Gauguin and pals painted the entire dining room (walls, windows, ceiling) - but we all thought that it was gone forever! Instead, it's been lovingly restored, top to bottom, and now you can go there and have a great conversation with Virginie Gorrec, the director, who is a fount of information.

Here is Mac's excellent shot of the dining room leading to the buvette (the little drinking place, where an absinthe glass has been set up in meticulous historical detail). As I walked the rooms, I started to wonder about this Marie Henry - what kind of woman would house three Paris artists, each more bohemian and crankier than the last? I pictured one of the hardy Breton grandmothers whom you see in 19th century photographs smoking a corncob pipe. Boy was I in for a surprise.

Look for yourself (wow!):

Here is Gauguin's bedroom (côté cour, of course). As much of a jerk as I tend to think that Gauguin was (looking down on Breton peasants as primitive, sleeping with various "wenches" hither and yon, bringing his financier (and fellow bohemian artist) with him on his escapades, never paying Marie-Henry and then suing her to get the paintings he left in lieu of payment back (she won the suit), I did feel the stirrings of an admiration for the man. I've always admired the art and despised the man, but looking at this tiny bedroom, with its lack of a fireplace for heat, imagining a cold Breton winter morning, and thinking of him loading up his palette and going out again and again to paint, alone and determined, I did feel admiration and even a pang for the loneliness of his existence. He had no idea he'd go on to be vilified and admired (well, maybe he did, actually), but dying penniless and miserable in Tahiti, he had to wonder what it had all been for. He never did stop, and if anything is going to test your mettle and your determination, a Breton winter would do it.

So think of Gauguin looking out upon Breton women bringing the seaweed in, of turning against the wind, of painting nonetheless, and of trudging home to a warm evening at the Buvette before sleeping in his cold room. I'm mad at myself for romanticizing the guy, but at the Ends of the Earth, what is one to do? Bravo, Gauguin.

And so while Mac and I alternated our visits to the wondrous Maison Musée du Pouldu, the kids played on the rocky sandy beach below. There were sea snails to discover (torment) one last time, and holes to dig (well within sight of mom and dad), and water to splash about. We left the region close to six o'clock in the evening and wound our way home talking talking talking about it all.

Merci, oh merci, beau Finistère.