Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Deepest darkest Brittany

Bonjour tous et toutes,

Just about at the end of my stay here in Brittany - on Saturday morning it will be necessary once again to faire le menage at the gite and catch the train to Paris where I will meet friend Nancy and hang out for another six days before it's time to go home. At the moment, both French and English feel like second languages as it takes me a minute or two to switch. It has been all French all the time. Yesterday we were taken to the home of relatives of one of our group and welcomed as if we were family ourselves. It was wonderful to spend time in a private home as that can be pretty hard to pull off as a tourist in France in my experience. The French value their privacy and without a connection of some kind, it's difficult to get access. Today the owners of our gite invited us for an aperitif at their home at noon so it has been an embarassment of riches.

The weather has continued to be horrible but we caught a break yesterday and it seems to finally be spring here. It is 24C today and not a cloud in the sky. Since last writing we have explored Guerande where the salt we can buy at Ottavio's is made on acres and acres of marées salants as the salt pans are called here. One can buy a huge sack of salt for 10 euros. Of course getting it home is the trick. It weighs about what an equivalent size sack of gravel would weigh. The city of Guérande is a very pretty medieval town with intact walls and a moat and not too much tourist development. That has been saved for nearby La Cruisic which is a beach town with all that implys.

Yesterday the family I mentioned earlier took us to the Chateau Roche-Jagu sitting high above a river called Le Trieux and is surrounded by beautiful gardens and trees. (See photo above). The house has several towers and corbelled chimneys and is unfurnished - the rooms are huge and it has some interesting modern art installations that go rather well in the space. In summer the place hosts a full schedule of theatre, music and other performing arts events.

We continue to enjoy the local food and drink - galettes and crepes, farm made cider, local cheese, Breton desserts like far and koeign amann - a puff pastry and sugar affair drenched in butter. Normally I would be worried but with all the walking we're doing it's not a problem.

The French is going well - sometimes I get on a roll and can understand everything and respond but other times I'm completely lost. I have little problem asking for what I need in stores, understanding directions and ordering food and have most of the politesse down. My favorite thing is to be able to speak French in real situations although occasionally I talk myself into a blind alley from the verbal point of view. All the same, I have the sense that this trip has really been a leap forward in the conversational skills department.

My next post will probably be from Paris - every other day seems to be a holiday here. For a secular country, they seem to honor every feast day in addition to the stores being closed on Sunday, Monday and when the owner feels like it. That's part of what makes it France, I suppose. Time to head out into that sun...à bientot...

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Like many a traveller, I'm having some trouble getting the blog thing together. It doesn't help that computer access is limited en plein compagne. Today I'm at a public library that is only open for one hour! That aside, this is a very beautiful part of the world. We passed the first week at Cherrieux near the northern coast of Brittany near Mont Saint Michel. The weather has been mostly horrible and we heard that there was a mini- tornado west from here. Rain, crazy windy, power outages, we,ve had them all. But we remain optimistic. The attempt to speak French continually leads to some interesting group dynamics - occasionally nobody seems to be in agreement about what is happening next. But it certainly gives a radical boost to vocabulary and verbal skills. For me, the most interesting thing so far is learning about French customs around food and social activity. Lots of pitfalls there. As for the gite experience, it's amazing. The accommodations are pristine, modern if not downright luxurious. They fairly isolated as things go with a bit of a hike to the nearest village, but splendidly tranquil and picturesque. Lots of dairy farming here and in the stores and restaurants there are lots of Breton specialties. The group favorite is the Breton galette, like a huge crepe with cheese or sausage or mushrooms or eggs or various combinations of the above. Seafood is available on the coast and its fresh and wonderful. In fact just about everything is like that in the food department - food as religion almost - so French.

The first week we visited Mt. St. Michel and the weather was almost warm that day. After that was St. Malo where we saw the spot where Jacques Cartier received his marching orders to find the New World. It isn't hard to believe that many of the early settlers came from this part of the world since the buildings are all in the same style.

Tomorrow we visit the Foret de Paimpont, Merlin's hangout where Arthur received his sword from the Lady of the Lake. Legends abound as one can imagine.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007


This is it - the last day at home and I should be packing. And what am I doing? Why I'm creating a blog and ignoring the heap of stuff that has to go into my small suitcase. Being a blog virgin, this is taking longer than it should.

The idea for this trip arrived in the course of having lunch with my friend and former French teacher Françoise last December. I graduated from the French Diploma Program at UVic in spring of 2006 and was fretting about not having much opportunity to practise and could feel what little facility I had slipping away. Françoise told me that a group of current students in the program were putting together a holiday in France with a view to creating a French immersion experience for themselves. They were hiring her to accompany them and arranging a couple of gites in Brittany to stay in for a three week period. "Sign me up" I said.

In due course I met some of the other participants - the main organizers Brian and Susan, anaesthetists at a local hospital; Paul, Françoise's petit ami who also works at the university; Lisa, another student in the program. There are several others whom I haven't met as yet who are dropping in for one of the three weeks. We average out at around six participants at any one time. I signed on for the whole thing, what the heck! It's a long way to go and I might as well make the most of it.

We will be staying first at Cherrieux in Brittany on the coast near St. Malo and Mont St. Michel. After that we move to Maxent near Rennes, pretty much in the middle of Brittany. We will have a car and do lots of exploring, walking, shopping for food, trying the local restaurants and perhaps even a day of thalassatherapie at a spa. I'm on the lookout for the some cul noir, a particular kind of pottery made in Brittany although how I will get in home in once piece, I don't know. At the end of the three weeks I'm heading back to Paris to spend the final six days with a friend from England. It will be my third time there and probably not my last. It's still my favorite city on earth after Victoria.

Well, time to print up those copious notes (I'm a demon researcher), wind up things at home and get ready to hit the proverbial road. I will try to post often but I'm not sure how the access will be in the wilds of Brittany. And then there is the learning curve of the non-qwerty keyboard...the first few posts might of necessity be very short. Okay, time to get going...