I’m thankful for a teaspoonful of Brittany: a small taste of sea, sand, sailboats, fortified castles, stone-built ramparts and a plate of delicious mussels served with a view of a pink cloud hovering above the bay’s rippling tidal water.
Imagine a young woman, an artist, in her twenties from Chicago moving to France back in the 60’s. She fell in love with a young, volatile painter and bought a run-down Breton farmhouse with outbuildings, all needing complete renovation with no floors, plumbing or electricity. The villagers’ lives had changed very little since the Middle Ages. The young couple separated, and the young lady was left behind in the hamlet with their child. Mom and daughter formed a friendship with a peasant woman despite generations of age difference, and no similarities of culture, or language. Marjorie Price lived these experiences and wrote her memoir in the book “A Gift from Brittany” which undoubtedly influenced my opinion of the region since I enjoyed reading the beautifully written story. I hoped that some of this era was still evident in Brittany except with modern sanitary facilities.
Another influence that affected my view of the region happened in the 80’s. I had the gift of a daughter – named Brittany. Britney Spears had no influence on the name since she entered the scene later. My inspiration came from a travel magazine with picturesque scenes of the French villages of Brittany and the colorful costumes with embroidery and lace used for festivals. I thought the name was beautiful, and I considered using Dinan, the featured town in the magazine, as my daughter’s middle name. But I rejected the name in favor of Elizabeth, her great-grandmother’s name, since I thought a spelling confusion with the name Diane could cause problems in the future.
My Brittany wore the typical baby bonnets with lace, ruffles and embroidery, but nothing to compare to the lacy creations by the Bretons in France!
In years past newborn Breton children customarily dressed in a bonnet, gown and apron. They continued dressing in this pattern until they were five or six years old. Breton clothing differed from one area to the next, and it was possible to tell the exact geographical origin of a person by their dress. In one area young women wore a small, flowery shawl; married women wore a shawl with squares; widows wore a white shawl, and when a close relative died, a winged headdress was worn. Unmarried men wore green coats, and married men wore blue jackets. The most impressive lacework headdress is worn by the Bigouden, which are nearly thirteen inches high! They are shown proudly on the heads of the older women on Sundays.
At the last of April of this year, Jim and I closed the doors of our rental car which was parked a short distance from the main entrance – Porte St. Vincent – a gateway in the walls which are twenty-three feet thick! A stairway leads up to the rampart walls, but we had coffee and croissants on our minds, not a long walk. That could wait until later. We had arrived early, snagging the close parking space by the quiet marina with its watery parking spaces for ships, yachts and fishing boats, colorfully welcoming us to St. Malo’s walled city. Inside the walls, the city was awakening with metal, protective doors sliding up and opening to glass shop display windows and awnings cranked in place. People rushed to work, and children wearing backpacks trudged to school. A modern boulangerie with lime-green chairs wrapped around a side-street; there we savored our wonderful coffee and flaky, buttery croissants. Then, we could face the many steps of walking along the narrow streets, through the square with the children’s play equipment, up the stairs, down the stairs, along the sand, on the massive rocks, up the stairs again, along the ramparts, down the stairs again, along the street by the many restaurants and to the parking lot. Back in the car we rushed away to Mont St. Michel – Jim’s favorite destination which I hope you saw last week. My turn for show-and-tell is this week.
Since I took you dizzily along the fast track of all of our steps, I will return to the walled city of St. Malo and drop a name you may remember if you were paying attention in history class. Do you remember the name you missed on the exam about the explorer who sailed from his native St. Malo in 1534 for Newfoundland? Here is a hint: he discovered the estuary of the St. Lawrence River and following the river upstream, he discovered Canada! The territory was named New France.
Yes, his name was Jacques Cartier. A statue is erected in his honor on the ramparts and his tomb is in the north chapel of the Cathedral St. Vincent, the one with all of the grimacing gargoyles. You say your history teacher resembled one of the gargoyles?
The history of St. Malo tells a story of fiercely independent people who accumulated great fortune. Privateers and ship owners became rich here, building grand private residences, and these homes can be seen today as proof. Almost eighty percent of the city was destroyed in 1944, but it was rebuilt in the same manner using much of the same building materials. There are many museums, historic monuments, sculptures, artwork and many discoveries waiting to be seen in and around this city, a place that is lively with interesting people, tasty food, incredible history and beautiful scenes in every direction. See it for yourself, if possible, or enjoy a travel magazine like I did when I named my last child Brittany.
Have you named a child, dog, cat or parakeet for a beloved location? What did you think of St. Malo? Do you like this location better than Mont St. Michel? Or, do you side with Jim? Careful with your answer!
Thank you for coming along with us? Jim and I always enjoy seeing your comments. They are truly the reward at the end of the story.
Next week will possibly be a vacation week for me with no post on the website. Stay safe, healthy and warm. Reach for “A French Opportunity” for your fireside reading during the winter!