As I progress West along the North coast, I grow more and more aware that I am reaching the end of my tour of Brittany.
I have gone back to my roots and met my spiritual ancestors; the painter Paul Gauguin and the writers Victor Segalen and Jack Kerouac, who travelled the world the world on their quest to know themselves. I have read the stories of Saint Goulven, the refugee from Wales, and Saint Matthew, whose relics saved their ship from a storm on their way from Ethiopia. I have gazed at the stories of the Bible, carved in stone at the request of Renaissance farmers. I have learned about the rationalist philosopher Ernest Renan, who advocated free thinking, unchained from religion.
In Perros-Guirrec, Côtes d’Armor (22), I have read a few strips of the comic Vanikoro, by Patrick Prugne. They tell the fictional story of the sailors who, in 1788, were part of the expedition led by La Pérouse, and were shipwrecked on the other side of the world.
Ploubazlanec, near Paimpol, is where Pierre Loti wrote the 19th century classic Pêcheur d’Islande: it tells the story of the local fishermen, who used to go to Iceland to fish cod. Between 1852 and 1935, the sea has claimed around 2000 men from this alone. In Ploubazlanec’s cemetery, there is a “Mur des Disparus“, “Wall of the Disappeared”, that lists the names of the ships, and the numbers of sailors, who didn’t return. The mind boggles and the heart breaks.
On a nearby mount, the sea view onto the famous island of Bréhat, “l’île aux fleurs”, the bay, and the oyster parks, is enchanting. There is even an inviting picnic table. But there is also a stark statue two fishermen’s wives, anxiously awaiting their loved ones’ returns. One faces the sea, defiantly hopeful; the other has shrunk around the misery of widowhood.
I drive past Saint-Brieuc to reach the Côte de Penthièvre; my final destination in Brittany and the land of my flesh-and-blood ancestors. In the cemetery, every fourth grave carries a name that appears in my family tree. After Ploubazlanec, I am grateful anew to have graves to visit and tend. I visit my grandfather’s cousin, the last of his generation still alive, and we catch up over a coffee. He was a kind of brother to my grandfather, as their parents raised their ten children together on the farm.
As in many places in Brittany, the heart of the village, le bourg, is inland and up on the hill. With its church, mairie, village hall, bar PMU, bakery, weekly market, and cemetery, it was where the farming and the fishing side of each family met. The historic village now has a seaside twin, developed during the 20th century. There is the beach, the sailing school, the restaurants, hotels, bars, souvenir shops and the fair.
The butcher’s in my family’s village is particularly renowned. It is a kind of family pilgrimage to go there, endure the awful, slimy jokes of the butcher, and buy several brasses de saucisse (i.e. the whole roll), slices of ham and pâté de foie (liver pâté). Usually, only a little gets eaten fresh by the buyer; almost everything gets frozen, dispatched and shared with parents, children, siblings and cousins.
My aunt takes me on a tour of all the family’s sites. I get lost in the maze of tiny, crooked country roads; after a while I also get lost in the family tree too. Each farm triggers a list of names, and each name, a life story. Each field, even if it has disappeared during the remembrement, has a history too. And that’s before we start the chapter on Resistance stories. As each elderly person dies in the village, they take with them their facet of History. For a storyteller like me, it is urgent to hear those stories in full and from the people’s mouth, so I can pass them on. We are all made of stories.