Brittany is familiar and strange. Bilingual signposts, as well as place names, house names, and words in Breton remind me of home and of Scotland. I recognise certain words – ty, aber, and so on. Though spelled differently, I know their Gaelic counterparts. And only a short hop across the Channel from Cornwall, the landscape, the trees, and the rocks are reminiscent of the West Country. Culturally and geographically, we haven’t travelled far.
And yet we are, without doubt, in a different country. My schoolgirl French doesn’t get me far, but I’m picking up words and phrases every day – remembering those long forgotten, and learning new ones with the help of my trusty dictionary, and having to answer Lily’s constant question of ‘How do you say such-and-such in French?’.
It’s the little things that put a smile on my face. The commonplace architecture of houses and shops, the lilt of French women saying ‘Bonjour’ (I fear my ‘bonjour’ sounds gruff and masculine in comparison), the remarkable taste of coffee, the middle of the day closure of shops and businesses, an oyster shell midden outside a farmhouse.
We are moored up the Aber Wrac’h at the little port of Paluden. To call it a port is a generosity. A collection of mooring buoys – some for visitors (of which we appear to be the only ones) and others for local fishermen – lead to the small slipway and jetty. These bring the visitor onto a quiet country road, that leads to a somewhat larger road, that leads to the town of Lannilis.
I sat in the square in Lannilis late last week, drinking coffee and feeling incongruous in my shorts, t-shirt, trainers and baseball cap, amidst the elegant French women lunching at the tables around me. Still, the waitress was friendly and patient with my first hesitant attempts to speak her language.
Later, I sat in the cool of the church and was carried back to my first ever visit to France, twenty-four years ago when, as a sixteen-year old, I spent a few weeks working as an au pair for a family near Perigeaux. Being a good Catholic girl back then I insisted, much to the family’s amusement, on being driven to Mass in the nearest town every Sunday. The wicker-seated chairs in the church in Lannilis brought me back to that time, and I had to smile when I thought about that holier-than-thou sixteen-year old and wondered how appalled she’d be by her older self!
The colours are breath-taking. The blue of the sky, the green of the tree-lined river banks, the white-gold beaches and the azure sea. There is no half-heartedness in the colours of nature here. Everything demands to be looked at and held in awe. And the birds fill the summer air with their song. There are songs I recognise and others that stop me in my tracks for their strangeness to my ears.
The girls and I have been swimming in the deliciously warm waters at the beaches at La Palue. Swimming in the sea is one of my greatest summer pleasures, but it is a delightful change to slip into the water without a moment’s hesitation or a psychological preparation for the cold. A dip in the sea off the Irish or English coast requires mental resolve; here in Brittany the early summer sea is like a warm bath.
And after the swim? Well, there’s wine to drink, baguettes and cheese to eat, as we plan our next move. At the end of each day, suntanned and heady on fresh air, we find it hard to stay awake past sunset.