Just telling stories.

Discussion in 'The Late Night Cafe (off-topic)' started by papa, Jun 4, 2001.

  1. papa

    papa

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    Dear Friends:

    I was going through some of my old files yesterday and I came across a story that I wrote when I was living in France. I thought that some of you might find it interesting.
    Here is my story. I hope you enjoy it.

    We arrived in Benodet at midnight, a Saturday in the middle of December, exhausted after a ten hour trip full of mixed emotions. We had rented a one room apartment, and we had made arrangements with the real estate agent to leave the door unlocked for us. We found the apartment to be small and cold and we put our blankets to immediate use. There was no telephone and no television set installed. For the next three months we lived there learning to depend on our radio for news and entertainment. We spent many evenings listening to the “BBC World Service” and wondering if we really knew what we were doing. All our friends in California and Belgium kept asking us why we are moving to Cornouaille, and all the Bretons we met here kept asking us why would anyone leave America for Brittany. If that is not enough to make anyone feel insecure, top it with renovating a house in a strange land and having to use a language that neither of us had mastered.

    It took about a week for Candice and I to fall in love with Cornouaille. A beautiful combination of a wild countryside, the most incredible sky light, an untamed coast and people with an incredibly rich culture which is demonstrated everyday in all aspects of life. These people celebrate every moment of life as only sea people, who have experienced life’s unpredictability, know how to do it.

    The Bretons “are born with the waters of the sea flowing around their hearts” as a well-known proverb says. From the linguistic and ethnic point of view, the Bretons are closer to the Irish, Welsh and Scottish people than they are to the French. They are Celts whose ancestors arrived in the peninsula in the sixth century BC and named it Armor which means “country of the sea.” Before their arrival, other people, about whom very little is known, had settled here leaving us their many mysterious megalithic monuments. Caesar conquered Armor after he destroyed the fleet of the Veneti, the most powerful tribe in Armor, in the year 56 BC. For four centuries Armor absorbed the Roman civilization. Armor was named Little Brittany, which was later shortened to Brittany, by the Celts who came here after being driven out of Britain by the Angles and the Saxons in 460 AD. Cornouaille was named after Cornwall in Britain to remind the new settlers in the continent of the country they were forced to leave.

    The Breton soul has always been inclined to the dreamy, the fantastic and the supernatural. This explains the astonishing abundance and persistence of legends in the Armor country. Myths such as “The Round Table and the search for the Holy Grail,” “Merlin and Viviane,” “Tristan and Isolde,” “The town of Is” (the capital of Cornouaille which was so beautiful that when the inhabitants of Lutecia were seeking a new name for their own proud city, they chose “Par-is” or “Like-Is&#8221 ;) are famous all over the world. This attraction to magicians, fairies and demons that characterized the early Celts has also created more haloes than any other part of France. Their Saints are counted by the hundreds mostly adopted by the people as such and fewer recognized by the local bishops. Only a handful of Saints is canonized by the Vatican authorities.

    The jaggedness of the Breton coastline with its islands, islets and reefs, is one of the most beautiful characteristics of Brittany. The many colored, scarred and carved cliffs crumbled by a pounding sea, as well as a chaplet of islands and a multitude of reefs along the 750 mile coast, is the most vivid memory left after a visit to this land of sea people.

    Being sea people, the Bretons consider the sea to be the beginning point of all rivers. Benodet, or Benn Odet as it used to be called by the locals, means the “head of the Odet”. It is a small seaside resort that lies in a beautiful, verdant setting at the mouth of the Odet estuary. With a population of three thousand it manages to stay peaceful the biggest part of the year. During the summer months its population increases to thirty-five thousand thanks to its fine beach and small harbor which is used by most yachts that are sailing the Atlantic coast and as a marina for “The Yacht Club de l’Odet” with its 137 members. The small local casino adds to the cosmopolitan flavor of this picturesque town. The town’s small cathedral dedicated to St. Thomas was built in 1232 and it competes with the tall lighthouse for the dominance of the town’s skyline.

    Seven miles north of Benodet is the city of Quimper (55,000 p). It lies in a pretty little valley at the junction of the Steir and the Odet rivers. The boat trip from Quimper to Benodet is worthwhile as one can enjoy the view of the woods and castle parks, which lie along the river forming a fine, green landscape.

    At the end of the 19th century, many artists discovered the timeless dominance of the wind and the water over the land of Cornouaille. By 1880 the small town of Pont-Aven was the most famous and crowded artists’ colony in Europe. This part of Brittany was first discovered by a group of American artists, headed by Robert Wylie who arrived here in 1866. Gauguin came to paint here in 1886 and he became the focus of such artists as Emile Bernard, Charles Laval, Paul Serusier and Maurice Denis. This group became known as the “Pont-Aven School”. They favored the use of pure unmodulated colors to express emotions and ideas rejecting the naturalism of the Impressionists. In 1917 Guillaume Apollinaire in one of his poems wrote: “Je vous aime ce soir ou monte la maree; Bateaux de Benodet a la voile azuree;...”. The Breton coast will always attract those who still watch the clouds in their travels.

    ALMOST A YEAR LATER

    It is September and autumn is just around the corner. Benodet is changing on us in so many ways. The first yellow leaves have fallen on the ground and the clouds that come from the Atlantic are full of rain and thunder. The tourists left Benodet ahead of the swallows. The older fishermen are spending more time at the “Cafe du Port” exchanging happy stories from times passed when “the sea had enough for everyone.” The younger ones with the larger boats will be leaving again soon to harvest with their nets the warm waters of Western Africa. The town is once again finding its tranquil character for which we loved it in the first place.

    Benodet is not only the charming seaside town that we fell in love with anymore. It has become our home. It is a feeling that came as a relief after three years of constant traveling through change and cultural struggle. Ever since we decided to make our home in Europe, we learned to trust the unknown and our instinct.

    This turned out to be the best month for us. We had a wonderful “Indian summer” that helped us catch-up with the things that we missed all summer. We spent time enjoying the still warm waters of the Atlantic. We visited the nearby towns of Concarneau and Pont-Aven to discover that no town has the monopoly of beauty in Cornouaille. We spent our evenings on the beach watching the migrating birds passing by the hundreds in a horizon colored by the most breathtaking sunsets that it would be hard even for a painter to describe. The beauty around us is overwhelming to all our senses. The colors of the sky and the trees, the scents of the lavender and the rosemary, the feel of the sand in our feet as we walk the long deserted beaches awaken new primitive forces in us. I have completely surrendered to the natural beauty of Brittany. It has invaded every part of my soul and my spirit.

    September gave us the gift of time. Time to be alone, time to feel, time to rediscover each other. October brought the changing of the seasons. Autumn in Brittany never comes alone. It brings with it the morning fog, the calm after the storm, the need for warmth and the presence of melancholy.

    Melancholy is everywhere and it is always with us nowadays. It is hanging from the leaves with the morning mist, it is surrounding the town with the morning fog, it is circling the afternoon sun with the clouds. It sticks on our skin with the moist air and runs down our hearts almost as fast as the sweat I feel running down my back every time I work in the garden. One thing that one learns quickly here in autumn, is to enjoy the rain. We go to the front gate to pick up our daily mail with the rain, we go for a walk or do our grocery shopping with it. We can’t avoid it. It is like a friend who makes sure that his presence is always felt. Sometimes it comes strongly full of wind and thunder, sometimes it just hangs out with you like a nosy neighbor who watches every move you make.

    This is the month we fully appreciated our house. Spending time by the fireplace, reading a good book, and listening to Celtic music whose sounds are tamed so skillfully to pass the myths together with the tunes. You can hear the storm in the sound of the bagpipes and the drums, and the rain in the sounds of the harp.

    Taking walks on the coastline we are amazed by the richness of the wildlife. We were excited to see the cormorants, the kingfishers and the terns in Benodet, and see the white-fronted geese fly over Pont Aven. There are reckoned to be up to 150,000 birds on the Breton coast in winter, about half of them migrants. Huge flocks of waders, especially lapwing, golden plovers, puffins, gulls, ducks, whooper swans, shelducks, razorbills, herons, woodpigeons, doves, swallows, skylarks, stonechats, whinchats, buzzards, green woodpeckers, lapwings, bee-eaters, jays, goldfinches, starlings, blackbirds, snipes, woodcocks, thrushes, robins, **** , treecreepers, magpies, ravens, owls, and peregrine falcons. I am also enjoying the last fly fishing days of this year. Atlantic salmon, brown trout and pike are in abundance in the local rivers.

    The Bretons consider California cuisine as it is implemented in our household to be “strange but good”. It seems that the latest is the local general opinion about everything that my wife and I do. This summer we worked hard in our garden. We planted corn, sunflowers, pumpkins and all different kinds of herbs. Palms, to our surprise for a town that is so far north, are very common in Benodet so we decided to plant twenty two of them in our front yard to remind us of California. Two pines, an olive tree, several thuyas and a cypress together with camellias, rhododendrons, aucubas, heather and hydrangeas completed the picture. Being inspired by Monet’s garden in Giverny, which we had visited during our scouting through France, we also planted some two thousand flower bulbs which added plenty of color. I think we were trying to grow roots and feel that we finally belong here. Our friends and neighbors kept telling us where we could get fresh vegetables thinking that so much work and hard labor cannot be but the result of a hypochondriac attitude towards French markets. We quickly discovered that they were right about one thing, though. Growing corn was so much work and required so much water that we abandoned the idea of growing it the following year.

    The local markets are impressively good considering that we live in one of the most rural areas of the country. We do all our grocery shopping in Benodet apart from during the summer months when prices increase tremendously compared to the markets in Quimper. All of the markets are reasonably well equipped with products from all over the world. I was glad to find Budweiser beer here and at least five different types of bourbon. Unfortunately that is the only American representation in the local markets. One could think that America’s only contribution to the world of international cooking has been alcohol! The Bretons are very proud of their cuisine and, like most French, are very opinionated and expressive. They will immediately question the quality of California’s wine and its cuisine although they will as easily admit that they have never tried either of them. One thing that the Bretons can be proud of for sure is their seafood. It is excessively consumed in any form, shape or type. It is always available everywhere from the local markets to the port of Benodet every afternoon when local fishermen bring their catch for sale directly to a very demanding public.

    It was last May that one of the construction workers we employed, invited us to join his family and friends for what we call the “French dinner experience”. We arrived at his house at eight o’clock in the evening as scheduled. His house was an example of the artistic qualities that this “artisan” possesses. The stone floors, the wooden beams on the ceiling and the walls and the fireplace created a warm and very inviting environment. Getting to know his family and his vibrant and explosive personality was a real joy. I strongly feel that the best way to get to know the French is to have dinner with them. As the hours on the clock kept changing we found ourselves relaxed from the wine, the quality of the meal and a company that was speaking in French so fast that it was impossible for us to follow. The Bretons take pride in the high speed of their speech. When confronted they will admit that they speak fast and continue to do so with a lot of pride. When we left at three o’clock the next morning we were exhausted and happy it was finally over. Even to someone who appreciates food as much as I do, seven hours of continuous dining is closer to my idea of a script for a Frederico Fellinni movie than a pleasant evening. It was an incredible dinner that started with oysters followed by lobster, crab and shrimp. The main dish was veal with vegetables which followed a necessary break with sorbet and calvados. Salad, cheese, pastries and a strong cup of coffee completed this truly spectacular dinner. The selection of wine included local Muscadet to accompany the seafood, red Bordeaux with the main dish and champagne with dessert. The conversation kept moving passionately among politics, wine, music and traveling to lands of beauty and significance to us. Our host, although conservative and with strong opinions about the protection of the French culture from an Anglo-Saxon invasion, had a great appreciation of the American music of the ‘60s and the ‘70s which accompanied us on the CD player throughout the evening. The French are born critics. Our host kept criticizing the quality of his own wine as easily as he kept criticizing American foreign policy. I imagine that the critics in Washington who claim that the current administration has no set foreign policy, have never spoken to a Frenchman about it. On the way home that Sunday morning we found the streets of Quimper crowded. It made us realize that not everybody sleeps on Saturday night in the French countryside. No wonder our construction workers were always late on Monday mornings!

    It is amazing how much construction workers in Brittany have perfected the art of giving non committal answers that sound definite. A team starts appearing at the construction site at eight o’clock in the morning with its last member arriving at the site at a quarter to twelve which leaves one with barely enough time before the noon lunch break to change into his work clothes and then back to his normal ones -a procedure which usually takes about fifteen minutes and includes the necessary time that is required to greet every person present with a handshake. This is perfect because then the employer-client is forced by local regulations to pay for everybody’s lunch at the local restaurant! Candice and I were absolutely amazed at how people would routinely cheat you at the work place and then invite you for dinner or consider developing a friendship with you. They are very emotional in their business relationships but there is not much trust. Every business action is based and restricted within the boundaries of a written contract which they will break anytime they feel it is beneficial to them. They do not believe in full disclosure and they will distort the truth if they feel it is necessary in order to keep the client happy. This business attitude is so common that they will expect you to recommend them to others since they are not worse than the rest of their competition. In our case, we soon discovered through conversations with neighbors and friends, who had also undergone the traumatic experience of house improvements, we were very lucky to have chosen to use the services of artful masters of construction.

    I cannot imagine Benodet without Sainte-Marine. Sainte-Marine is a beautiful little town on the other side of the Odet river across from Benodet. Candice and I have spent many winter Sunday afternoons sipping coffee by the window of the enclosed cafes looking at the cloud formations and the change of colors over Benodet. It is as if the place to get the best view of one town is from the other. The little church in the center of the town overlooking the fishing port was dedicated in the sixteenth century to Saint Moran before the name was changed to Sainte-Maraine and finally to Sainte-Marine. This church holds a special place in our hearts. It is built of granite stone and wood and decorated with boat pieces that have been donated by the local fishermen in the memory of sunk ships and forever lost members of their fishing community.

    One would think that the two communities, Benodet and Sainte-Marine would be living harmoniously together. This is totally wrong. For the citizens of each of the two towns, the others are on the wrong side of the river. There are many explanations for this anomaly between the two towns, some more romantic and likable than others.

    In governmental structure Sainte-Marine is part of the “Pays Bigouden” and Benodet belongs to “Pays Fouesnantaises”. There are slight cultural contrasts between the two counties as illustrated in the differences of their costumes and the Breton dialects that they speak. The big distinction had always been sociopolitical. Sainte-Marine was always part of the country of the workers of the land and the sea while Benodet was the seaside resort for the Bourgeoisie of wealthy Quimper. This could be one explanation for the problems that face the relations between Benodet and Sainte-Marine.

    The explanation that the locals on both sides give is far better in my opinion. Following the belief of the rest of the world that the neighbor’s lawn always looks better than their own, the two sides arranged boat trips from their town to the other in search of beautiful women to express their amorous feelings. Each side blames the other for initiating these excursions which continued until the two sides of the Odet were connected in 1970 by the elegant structure of the Pont de Cornouaille (Cornouaille Bridge). I think that the warm blooded Bretons could not control themselves as their Catholic beliefs required them to do. Invading “foreign” territory was easier for them since they could not be recognized by family and friends and be criticized for their behavior. In the personal columns of the local papers I always find ads from men and women who distinguish their preferences by the origin of the mate they wish to find. This assures us that Benodet and Sainte-Marine will never mix but at least will tolerate each other.

    This last year was a long and difficult one for us. We spent our days working hard to set up our business. We continue in our struggle to perfect our knowledge of the French language and adjust to a very different business culture. We had to overcome a bureaucratic red tape that traces its roots back to the time of Napoleon and an overprotective attitude of local customs that borders xenophobia.

    CLOSING

    I love rainy summer Sundays. People are willing to give up the countryside, the beach and the cafes for the warmth and the dryness of the local church. It is an opportunity for the bourgeois who vacation here from Quimper and Paris to mix with the local fishermen and small farmers. My favorite cafe is once again quiet and empty of the noise of young laughter and vacation energy that have stormed the little town these days. Sipping a cup of coffee at the “Cafe du Port”, I am watching outside the window an old fisherman who rests keeping his back to the sea and looking at the few of us who enjoy the view of the water through the large windows. I wonder what he sees in us that we can’t see ourselves.
     
  2. pastachef

    pastachef

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    How beautifully you write, Papa. Thank you so much for sharing this work with us. Have you been printed anywhere? It would be hard to believe if you said you're not.
     
  3. papa

    papa

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    Dear PapastaChef:

    Thank you for your kind comment.

    In answering your question I would like to say that until recently I had kept my stories for my friends only. It is also in that spirit that I shared this story with all of you here. The only time that I can say that anything of mine was published it was when I published my web site on the Internet.

    Thank you once again. I am glad you liked my story.

    :)
     
  4. svadhisthana

    svadhisthana

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    Thank You for sharing Papa.
     
  5. momoreg

    momoreg

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    It was thoughtful of you to take the time to post that story. You write so vividly, and make the place sound so idyllic; it must have been paradise. Why did you ever leave?
     
  6. mezzaluna

    mezzaluna

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    What a lovely narrative! I've been to France (mostly Normandie and Nord-Pas de Calais), but I've always wanted to visit Bretagne. You have painted an irrestable picture of the land and the people. I'll look forward to reading your memoirs some day, hopefully sooner than later.
     
  7. pastachef

    pastachef

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    Papa, why don't you look for a publisher? Surely you've thought about it.
     
  8. risa

    risa

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    Wonderful! I felt I was there in Brittany. I'd certainly buy a book you wrote, Papa. Your nickname certainly fits you well in many ways. Reading your narrative reminded me a bit of Hemingway.
     
  9. pastachef

    pastachef

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    See the warm and wonderful feelings your writings bring about in people, Papa? You really need to find a publisher and share on a broader scope :)
     
  10. papa

    papa

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    Dear Friends:

    Thank you so much for your kind comments! You have been a great inspiration and encouragement to me.

    I will try to answer your two questions starting with the easier one first. I have never approached a publisher. I never thought that my stories would be of interest to anyone but my friends. I do not even know if my writing is good enough.

    In answering the question about the reasons why we left Brittany, I would like to say that we had to return to the US because someone to whom we felt very close was diagnosed with a terminal illness. We did not know how long we would have to stay in the States and this is the reason we decided to make it a permanent move. We have fond memories of our life in Brittany. We learned a lot there especially about ourselves. Life is a constant exploration. We do not judge ourselves by our accumulations but by how we treated people and our beloved things while we were assigned as their keepers. There is a beautiful garden growing in Brittany that bears our spirit. The trees that we planted will outlast us. This is the best inheritance that we can leave to this world along with the happiness that we might have brought some people with our friendship.

    Thank you once again. I love reading your comments on my stories. Keep letting me know how you like them or how they can get better.
     
  11. papa

    papa

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    Now you know why I claim the World to be my Home.

    :)
     
  12. pastachef

    pastachef

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    Papa, you're way, way, way good enough. And with your involvement in the Olive oil industry publishers would sit up and listen. You're already somebody important to the world, so they'll listen! Don't lose the last paragraph of your last long letter on this board. It's too beautiful. Start sending out cover letters to publishers who might be interested in printing your kind of work. It's gorgeous writing!