24 November 2009

Of Rest and Protest

This past weekend brought another grand adventure into the Breton countryside, by invitation of a fellow English teacher. In general, my coworkers at the high school have presented an interesting mix of reactions to my presence: I feel either relatively ignored or nothing short of adopted. Enter my new sister Amandine, who invited the three of us (we language assistants travel in packs, you know) to explore the northern coast of Brittany along the English Channel. Although it costs her two hours’ commute every day, I can’t argue with her attachment to the seaside.
Amandine chauffeured us home Friday evening for a quick meal and then her traditional end-of-the-week pool session. The sauna, steam room, pool and hot tub really marked the end of the work week—and made me miss my Michigan hot tub. Add it to the list of things I will enjoy when I’m home (yes, HOME!) over Christmas.
Then we were transferred to our weekend residence: the vacation home-turned retirement retreat of Amandine’s parents. The two, who are little older than my parents, were exceptionally welcoming and interesting. The dad is a former maître d of Parisian restaurant fame, while the mom regaled us with stories of her work as an au pair in England. My favorite part of the weekend was staying at the table until midnight, finally tearing ourselves away because, simply, conversation is impossible while sleeping! The three Parisian-size dogs fell asleep long before any of us!
Saturday we attempted to work off all the tasty calories we had already consumed by a long walk along the coast. The sentier des douaniers, or customs trail, is a marked path that follows almost the entirety of the Breton shoreline. The section we walked Saturday near St. Brieuc eventually meets up with the hike we took several weeks ago around Perros Guirec. We, however, stopped in Tréveneuc, a small village whose odd symbol is a red frog. Our hosts knew an impressive amount about the history of the area and showed us the old bakery, butcher shop, town hall, and manor. Now vacation homes are the main real estate, but the town maintains its character (whatever kind of character a red frog can have).
In the afternoon we stopped en route to see an old-style Breton mooring station. It involves full tree trunks kept upright by piles of rocks. The idea is pre-anchor, and I gather there are not many of these ports left:

Equally old and impressive was the seaside Beauport Abbey, which was built at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Without roof, windows, or doors, the building has been overtaken by vegetation and seems at times to grow right up out of the ground. The surrounding gardens and grounds meet up with—you guessed it—the sentier des douaniers.
Which we probably could have followed to our next stop, the town of Paimpol. Don’t be fooled: despite what the song says, there are no cliffs in Paimpol. “La falaise” mentioned in a well-known folk ditty about the port city refers only to a bar. The Medieval center of town was postcard-perfect, so that’s what I bought. However, I did find the Tourism Office worthy enough of a photo. Opened this summer, the new building contains one incredible fault: the outer door to the public restroom opens onto the adjacent canal. Doesn’t say much for Brittany’s environmental commitment!

The next morning, after a proper crêpe dinner, we attempted to work off the same calories by another hike. This time, however, the rain overtook us, and we spent the rest of the morning drying out. The afternoon included a short visit to the chateau of Roche-Jagu, which although closed, sported magnificent grounds and view over the Trieux River valley.
Our afternoon ended with a family visit to Mi-maw and Mi-paw Breton. Whereas in Alsace it was easy to distinguish native from other French, Brittany has proved difficult in this aspect. These were the first Bretons I’d met who still use Breton everyday, who learned French at school, and who spoke with an incredibly different accent. We snacked on crêpes with them in a farmhouse which, I observed, was older than the United States. This country never ceases to amaze me.
De retour à Pontivy Monday morning. It’s difficult to re-enter the real world when you leave a family like this:

One last note: I included the word protest in the title because today the French are doing what they do best…striking. All around the country teachers are on strike because of low salaries, teacher cuts, and large class sizes. I can’t blame them, but I always wonder if there is something more productive, more solution-oriented than taking the day off… Consequently, many students skipped school today, assuming their teachers wouldn’t be present. I had two complete groups, one with only two students, and a full four classes cancelled, all in the name of democratic education. I know a caravan of people left early this morning for the Paris protest, and a harmless group of students gathered outside of the high school this afternoon, but the results are yet to be seen. A subject to be examined further.

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