Sunday, June 27, 2010

Breton Panorama: Fête du Cheval (Guer - Ferme du Vauvert)

Mac l'Extraordinaire found out about the Fête du Cheval at the Ferme Vauvert near Guer about three weeks ago and we've been counting down the days ever since. It was all here: the music, the dancing, the horses, the food... the music, the dancing... :-) As I sit down to write, Mac sighs and says "Do you know what I love about Brittany? It's France with good beer and bagpipes." Indeed! And a parade, and a sunny day, and lots of hay on an open farm.

The poster alone is so cool. This was the 20th year of this festival, and they have perfected the experience. Even though it was off the beaten path, they had signs everywhere, they organized three music stands, multiple traditions, and great food, and there was a parade, and dancing and, oh yes, the horses. It was a panorama of Brittany and everywhere we turned was some reminder of some wonderful experience we'd had over the past six months. Merci, monsieur Mac! My little video recorder is low on batteries, so tonight, just the still images - then, fall exhausted into bed for the last packing tomorrow (the next tenants arrive Tuesday evening and we can't wait to play!). Iris says that she doesn't even want us to say the word "Friday," as that will be our last day here, the last day of school for her. She can't stand it. (She also spoke very eloquently at breakfast this morning about her mixed emotions: about sadly wanting this to never end, yet thinking happily of home).

So good thing there was a 1949 schoolroom set-up. I did a double-take at the date on the blackboard (and loved the "Moral" message about courage and truth) - 1949, not 1849? But then I realized that a lot of what we saw was from that great long Breton century, the one that stretched from the end of the 16th century to the beginning of the 20th. Poul Fetan showed us this as well: traditions (dance, food, clothing) as well as technologies (agriculture, fishing, laundry) had deep, powerful continuities. I still want to read more about Brittany's convulsive changes in the 20th century (and not just after/because of WWI). But this long century creates an incredibly stable base for Breton culture - I would argue that that's why these kinds of festivals aren't motivated by nostalgia for a lost time, but rather are visited or entered into as part of one of the most beautifully balanced relationships between past and present that I've ever witnessed.

So many of the dancers and musicians are young. Take the bagadou, for example, whom Mac could listen to (he said it this afternoon) all day and all night. Not only are there men and women (and look at that young kid second from the right!), but apparently, it's a mid-20th century phenomenon inspired by the bagpipes of Scotland! One year, I'll have to get Mac back here for the InterCeltic Festival in Lorient, which looks completely and utterly awesome (and this year is the 40th anniversary - we should all go!). So to what do we ascribe the youth of this traditional culture? This is something I'd like to also do more research about: many traditions actually have their revivals instigated by governments for patriotic or nationalistic reasons (Mussolini was notorious for this in Italy - the Palio of Siena, I recall a friend saying, was a medieval tradition that had fallen away by the 18th century, and was brought back by him - not mentioned in Wikipedia, but there you go). I wonder what the French government's relationship has been with Breton festivals? I don't see the Ministry of Culture listed anywhere in the financial partners page of the festival - it's all local mostly municipal organizations, and then many local businesses (opticians, pharmacists, radio stations, macons...). So am I waxing romantic in thinking that these festivals are completely owned by the people who are in them, that these are grass-roots organizations with independence of spirit and personal motivations for participating? I'm going to say I'm not - plus, there are simply too many people who know each other at these festivals: but if you've been going to Fest Noz's all winter trying to keep warm, a summer festival is the bets place to meet up!

A quick note about the titular attractions of the festival - when they say "Cheval," they don't mean racing horse or show horse, they mean work horse - these wonderful thick-set, low-to-the-ground horses who made Breton farms go until tractors came along (and apparently who still do at Vauvert, a farm, Mac was telling me, dedicated to teaching agricultural students the older methods - the list of "Anciens Métiers" at the festival is indeed impressive, and they could accommodate them all here). Look at the musculature on those guys! And indeed, they were pulling plows, and hay-making machines, and people, and haywains - all of it.

This didn't mean that there weren't other kinds of horses there. We saw incredible stuns being performed on these "Voltige" horses - riders hanging off the side of the saddler, upside down, going underneath the horse and coming up the other side, all the while the horse is going down the field at full gallop. Iris was completely enthralled and declared the guy on the white horse "her hero" (she was also fascinated by his funky beard braid). Looks like it'll be time to head back to Medieval Times in Schaumburg, once we're back in America (talk about weirdly distanced "traditions" - oy! but the horse show is terrific - and for $10, you can upgrade to "Royalty" status which, actually, really does make me love the place).

The folkloric dance wasn't only Breton, either - as this group from the Ukraine attests. There were actually three groups involved: four musicians (you see just a bit of one of the young men in his so-cool red pants), a group of young girls and boys, and a group of older women. And they were all housed by volunteers from the region. That's such a cool idea - and I couldn't help wondering how familiar or strange Brittany was to the Ukrainians, whether these young people came from agricultural regions as well, and of course, how each one had found his or her way to these traditions, paths back to local culture made so torturous and complex by the Soviet government.

It was under the cool shade of the lavandières' washing square that the kids took shelter from the sun and watched in fascination. They'd seen this "ancien métier" at Poul Fétan and, save Iris, had paid no mind to it at the time. This time, they couldn't take their eyes off of the women, and seemed to love their chatter (this seems to be the heralded thing about the lavandières: their very funny banter about society, their men, customs and morals...).

Iris go really caught up in it all and volunteered when one of the washerwomen called for some help! I watched my industrious little girl scrub away happily at a handkerchief with a soapy brush and then sway it gently through the water and wring it out with the woman and hang it up to dry - she was so proud of herself! Here she kneels, her position cushioned by some hay. And this is where the folklorist and the feminist have some things to say to each other, don't they? Iris would have thrived in this work society: she loves a project, loves t help, loves to lead a team. But am I glad that my daughter won't be lead washerwoman on a farm? I can't answer that without sounding like a humorless cad (because I don't think these festivals are about a comparison between modern (bad/good) and present (bad/good) - that's part of what I admire about the balance between past and present here), so maybe I won't, except to say that I'm glad there will be opportunities for her to work out her keen interests and talents in all things mechanical and engineered as well. Complicated. But she looks cute and proud and happy here - brava, girl!

There was a lot of "getting caught up in the moment" this afternoon - here you see Oliver and Iris dancing to the music of a group of dancers with multiple costume changes (which were executed seamlessly) who were illustrating the history of Brittany's long century (don't know where they started, but they ended with WWII) through traditional dances done up with a really cool edge to their music (I hope to give you a listen tomorrow evening).

But how can you not get carried away when all this is going on and your lunch consisted of a sausage wrapped in a galette (crêpe)? The galette saucisse is apparently gaining in popularity of late (I can see why looking at the (too busy of course) web site: it's just so handy! We each had one and the kids have decided this is one of the things I need to start making at home. After watching every mom at school yesterday wield the crêpe spreader, I know that my time to learn to make crêpes has come. Some kind of life passage thing. I've read that the batter is best after having been refrigerated overnight - I loved preparing food right before going to bed that will be ready the next day, so this may actually happen (after I practice all the right swooshing and swooping gestures with the spreader!).

We were reluctant to go, and so lingered past the old timey cars and this very terrific motorcycle that the kids enjoyed pretending to drive (love Iris in that driver's seat!). About halfway through the afternoon, the hot afternoon, the kids started asking about going to the beach at the Lac au Duc at Ploermel. Since we're not really saying no to any Brittany desires these days, 6:30 p.m. found us here...

On the beach in Ploermel where, despite the hot weather, the water is still cold enough to make Eleanor run out of the lake about every ten minutes and take a warming hug from a towel. Oliver was out pretty quickly, too, but Iris was ready to stay in much, much longer. Only the promise of school the next day (!) lured her out. Well, school, and the fact that Mac had these ready for us:

Our Sunday night desserts (surely we can keep up this tradition somehow): a good old chocolate eclair, (working clockwise), a "Trois Chocolats" (the name says it all), a millefeuille, and a pana cotta gâteau. It was a delicious way to go to bed after this incredible gift of a day. The kids spoke of the horses and the washerwomen the most at dinner (although the bagad scored an impression with Eleanor - ooo, I could just see her wielding a bagpipe, that one!). And then, Oliver did this wonderful thing: I hadn't been able to resist buying him Muddle Earth (nope, not a typo) by Paul Stewart at the English Book Shop the other day (gotta get that boy ready to Tolkein!) and he's started reading it at night to the girls - and they're listening and everything! Can one be so happy as to be corny? So be it.

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