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Finistere

by Francaise 

Posted: 28 August 2005
Word Count: 2628
Summary: An excerpt from "A Perfect Circle"
Related Works: Excerpt • 

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As the day advanced the cold wind (yes, it was definitely cold despite the mild Breton climate) resurrected itself, and on an improbably green sea a lone yacht rocked on curly white-tipped waves. We crossed the departemental boundary into Finistere, literally "the end of the earth," and followed a road lined with trees in virgin green leaves until we arrived in the town of Morlaix, which is dominated by a towering viaduct.
It wasn't this 62 metre high edifice that had lured us there, but what was glowingly described in a magazine published by the Brittany Tourist Board as possibly the oldest chili palm in Europe, even the world, standing twenty metres high and with four metre leaves. Despite the palm's height we couldn't find it by driving around, so headed for the Tourist Office, which closed for lunch as we arrived at the door. We found a small creperie in a sheltered sunny square, facing a row of tall houses crowned with saggy slate roofs, with gulls dancing on the ridges and self-installed plants growing around the chimney pots, and sipped chilled golden cider and lunched on galettes, mine filled with soubise, the lovely onion sauce, and Terry's with tomatoes, onions and herbs. Lemon and apple crepes rounded off our meal very satisfactorily. To walk off the effects of the cider while we waited for the Tourist Office to come back from lunch, we wandered down the quaint cobbled alley called Rue Angle de Gennisac and into the L'Echoppe Artisan, the hat shop to beat them all. Creations of straw and ribbons, chiffon and silk, flowers, artificial fruits and jewels, so light, so colourful, so absolutely delicious they'd have looked at home in a Parisian patisserie. If you want a beautiful hat, try this shop first. Take lots of money with you.
Back at the Tourist Office there was an odd lady ahead of me who asked innumerable questions of the only member of staff in the office: had the list of concerts for the following year been published yet? Were they printed in Morlaix? She kept plucking brochures from stands, flicking through them and asking peculiar questions that were nothing to do with them and dropping them on the counter. I thought the girl behind the desk was very patient. After more than five minutes of listening to the lady's enquiries I prepared to give up and walk out, but as I reached the door the Tourist Office girl finally untangled herself and asked how she could help.
"We've come to see the chili palm," I explained.
"Ah yes, there are many chili palms. You can see them in Roscoff."
"But we'd like to see the one in Morlaix."
"You'll have to go to Roscoff."
"But where is the palm in Morlaix?"
She shrugged. "There are many big palms in Roscoff."
I wondered if her brain was addled by her previous customer, and showed her the magazine from the Comittee Departemental du Tourisme du Finistere and the article mentioning the great palm that lived in Morlaix.
She read the article, looking non-plussed.
"I don't know where that palm is," she said, "so it's probably privately owned and not open to the public."
"Are you sure? Could you possibly find out whether we can go and see it?"
"No, I'm afraid not." She began rummaging through a pile of booklets on a shelf behind her, from which I deduced that she'd finished with me.
"We've come quite a long way to see the tree. Perhaps you could suggest how we can find out how to view it?"
"Yes," she replied. "Go to Roscoff."

Having failed to find the chili palm, we climbed into Tinkerbelle and set off on the next leg of our journey, pleasantly mellowed by lunch, sunshine and the anticipation of whatever new experiences lay ahead. The traffic lights caught us on the red, and as Terry braked Tinkerbelle gave a horrible shudder and made a very bad clunking sound.
"Oh hell," I groaned, "has somebody hit us, or have we burst a tyre?" Terry climbed out and walked around to the back, where he stood looking perplexed. In the rear view mirror I saw the driver of the car behind us waving to him, and pointing. Terry lay down in the road and vanished under Tinkerbelle. When he reappeared he was clutching something large. The lights changed to green, and cars behind hooted. Terry brandished the thing he was holding, and as they overtook us drivers smiled and waved. The large item was part of Tinkerbelle's exhaust system, which she'd chosen to discard at this embarrassingly inconvenient location. My heart sank; this was only the second day of our trip, and how were we going to manage without an exhaust? There was already the developing problem with the gearbox. Was the entire vehicle going to drop to bits? Our funds were very limited, with almost no margin for emergencies.
"Don't worry, it's no problem," Terry reassured me. That's his usual response to any catastrophe. "We'll just keep going for now, and as soon as we find a breaker's yard, we'll pick up a used part."
Oh good. Off we drove, noisily. To our right in the beautiful bay of Morlaix the inshore waters were palest turquoise, darkening into the distance to a deep aquamarine. Everything about this area was reminiscent of Cornwall: the lushness of the vegetation, the narrow winding lanes, pretty stone cottages and the Celtic road signs.
In compensation for her exhaust having fallen off, Tinkerbelle's gearbox suddenly seemed a little more co-operative and was going more or less where Terry directed it. He mentioned casually that the brakes weren't quite what they should be, but that I shouldn't worry about them, so I tried not to.
Beside us in a field was a tractor towing a device behind it on which men sat, planting artichokes. Different men were picking artichokes from the next field. Then there was a field of potatoes. And then more artichokes. Artichokes covered the land right up to the horizon, and to the horizon after that.
Roscoff was a postcard scene of a pretty harbour front lined with slate-roofed stone cottages, people drifting around in the sunshine through narrow streets, a bridge going nowhere into the sea, quaint and picturesque, touristy but charming. We wanted somewhere peaceful and unspoilt to spend the night, and found it in the Bay of Legends at the Sainte Marguerite dunes, a stunningly beautiful location in the abers.
Gulls floated overhead, and a single fishing boat with its traditional Breton red sail skirted the rocks jutting from the sea. Patches of seaweed matching the red of the sail formed a playground for legions of sand hoppers, and all along the beach were nests of beautiful pebbles, so smooth, such subtle colours, so tactile - if only they didn't lose their soul and fade once taken from their natural environment; so we stroked them and put them back. The only other life form on the beach was a young man with a black Labrador tied on a rope, which gazed wistfully at Tally and Dobbie playing on the rocks. Making our way back from the beach at dusk we almost stepped upon a large green and buff-coloured toad camouflaged on the sandy path, and it scrambled clumsily out of our way making indignant tutting noises.
We went through the evening ritual of moving the dogs, their beds, blankets, toys and water into their night-time accommodation in Tinkerbelle's cab. Before doing so we had to remove from there anything chewable: camera, maps, guide books, pens, mobile phones, ropes were all grist to Dobbie's insatiable mill. If he could get his jaws around it, he'd chew it. He'd already demolished the washing up sponge and a plastic storage container screwed to the wall. By the end of our trip we should be fit and supple because we were constantly crawling or climbing around, burrowing under seats, dismantling the table to make a bed, dismantling the bed to make a table, dragging cushions out of Dobbie's reach, poking things into cupboards, pulling them out, and shoving them back in again.
The night was absolutely still and quiet, and as the light faded away into darkness over to our right we could see the sweeping flashing white light of the Phare de la Vierge. Lighthouses are very competitive: they strive for the title of the tallest, the oldest, the longest beam, the widest sweep. At 82.5 metres the Phare de la Vierge holds the 'tallest lighthouse in Europe' record.
Next morning was announced not by the song of the larks, but the persistent rapping of a woodpecker. As soon as Terry opened the cab the dogs leapt out and hurtled straight in through the open door of a neighbouring camper that had arrived during the night, to visit a tiny poodle who stood her ground and sent them packing. Shrugging off this antisocial rebuff they dashed down to the beach. This was the greatest freedom they'd ever enjoyed, and while we breakfasted they made the most of it, spending the next hour chasing each other along the sands and through the dunes.
We wriggled our way along the glorious coast, past a large flock of gulls standing in a field all facing in the same direction like some exotic crop, and villages with comic book names - Ar Stonk, Kroaz Konk. Around every curve was a new paradise, the beaches of dreams, the beaches of childhood memories. No busy promenades, ice cream vendors or deckchairs. Just fine sands patterned with birds' footprints and sprinkled with small, delicate shells, lapped by clearest waters and topped by cloudless skies. We stopped for a coffee at a superior beach-side restaurant. I needed to use the loo which was down some steep stairs in a sort of narrow basement. A large lady on crutches was being helped down by another lady, so I took the crutch-lady's spare elbow and we manoeuvred her to the bottom. While we waited for her to emerge, the other lady and I talked about the superb weather, and we wondered if it was too good to be true (it was), and if it would last all through the summer. (It wouldn't and didn't.) Down the stairs hopped the chef in his whites, and he went through a door next to the loo, reappearing a few seconds later with a large box of oysters. All the time we waited he popped up and down, collecting the oysters from their storage area next to the ladies’ loo and taking them up to the kitchen. I hoped Brussels wouldn't find out.
Cascades of bedding dangled from almost every first floor window in the villages we drove through, as folk took advantage of the sunshine and a nippy breeze that stirred the paddles of a cluster of windmills. We passed a hairdressing salon named Marine Hair, where the mermaids go when they need a new style, I think. There was little traffic. We followed two tractors, one towing a trailer loaded with new potatoes and the other a cargo of fragrant cattle-shed cleanout, and as we meandered slowly along the lanes several swarming platoons of cyclists in bright-coloured tight clothing whirred past, with sinewy arms and stringy legs. They were a scrawny bunch, I thought rather sourly. The hot chocolates and Breton food were already starting to wreak havoc: that morning I’d been unable to find a single pair of trousers which I could do up at the waist.
Across the sea to our right lay the Ile d'Ouessant, a haven for lighthouses: it has five, including Creac'h, the most powerful in Europe, and another known as La Jument, which has an interesting history. In March of 1904 M. Charles Eugene Potron, who had survived a shipwreck, bequeathed the sum of 400,000 francs for the erection of a lighthouse of the highest quality, equipped with the finest equipment, to be built on a rock in some of the most dangerous waters of the Atlantic coastline, off the Ile d'Ouessant. M. Potron's Will stipulated that if the lighthouse wasn't completed within seven years, the legacy would become void and the amount would pass to the Central Society for the Shipwrecked. One hundred square metres of rock, only accessible at low tide and during calm weather, was chosen as the site for the new lighthouse and construction began in May of 1904, in diabolical conditions. During the first year only 51 hours of work were accomplished, but the La Jument lighthouse was eventually completed just within the seven years. Twenty years after it went into service somebody fortunately noticed that it wasn't anchored to the rock, but simply perched on top of it and maintained in place by its own weight! Since then it had been secured to the ground by four high tension cables.
We reached picturesque Le Conquet, or if you prefer its funny Breton name, Konk Leon, on market day; the town was jammed with vehicles and holidaymakers and numbers of strutting dogs. Shoppers at stalls offering strawberries, pillows, fish, cheeses and vegetables, fabrics and jewellery, and bread in every possible shape turned to stare as we spluttered and farted, exhaustless, through the streets of the appealing little town. Once Tinkerbelle was tucked into a car park we set off with the dogs to explore the port. The morning's catch had been unloaded and despatched many hours earlier, and a few fishermen were picking out tiny crabs and small fish from the awful nylon nets which have replaced the traditional linen and cotton ones.
We bought two heavy, glossy slabs of the Breton cake known as kuign aman - literally "butter cake", made with lashings of butter, heaps of sugar and a teeny sprinkling of flour just sufficient to bind the two together, and two slices of a cake with a layer of seaweed in it from Denis Lunvan's boulangerie in Rue Clemenceau, and established ourselves at a table on a sunny pavement. Terry ordered a coffee and I had a glass of cider. If ever we should go and live in Le Conquet, I shall eat Denis Lunvan's kuign aman every day for every meal, until my arteries simply give up fighting a hopeless battle, which probably wouldn’t be very long. Oozing butter, kuign aman is lasciviously delicious and should carry a compulsory health warning. Terry couldn't finish his slice so I helped him, and he wasn't very keen on the seaweed cake so I had that too, because it would be a pity to waste it. We were entertained all the while by a very small, self-important dog swaggering about bringing the traffic to frequent abrupt halts, disinterested in its own danger and the irritation of lunchtime drivers, or in Dobbie's frenzied attempts to join in even if it did mean dragging our table and us with him.
Saturated with buttery cakes we drove on to St Mathieu's Point, where there's a monument to sailors who have given their lives for France, and a ruined abbey which has a lighthouse growing out of it. The abbey was built facing Jerusalem in accordance with tradition, by Benedictine monks and dedicated to St Mathew, patron saint of tax collectors, accountants and other leeches (only joking), whose relics (a piece of his skull) were brought there from Ethiopia by Breton sailors. Saint Mathew may have died naturally, or been martyred in the course of squeezing taxes out of people. Nobody knows how he met his end. If you examine a set of apostle spoons, you'll see that each apostle holds something in his hand. St Mathew holds an axe. Don't you think that's an odd tool for a tax collector?






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Comments by other Members



Dreamer at 00:02 on 29 August 2005  Report this post
Hi Susie,

Nice story, it evoked nice memories in me of traveling through France in the seventies with my parents. You have a nice way of noticing the small details that make the ordinary interesting.

There were a few things here which you may want to consider.

This, We found a small creperie in a sheltered sunny square, facing a row of tall houses crowned with saggy slate roofs, with gulls dancing on the ridges and self-installed plants growing around the chimney pots, and sipped chilled golden cider and lunched on galettes, mine filled with soubise, the lovely onion sauce, and Terry's with tomatoes, onions and herbs. Is full of lovely descriptions but seemed a bit long for a sentence. Would it work better as two?

I had a similar experience to yours with Tinkerbelle. She is introduced without describing her so the reader is left wondering and doesnt have a mental picture to go with her. We gather from the muffler that she is old but dont know anything more. I think a brief amusing description of the car wouldnt hurt. Im writing this as I am reading and I see now (half way through) that Tinkerbell must be a camper.

Tally and Dobbie are mentioned playing on the beach, but up to then we dont know any dogs are with you. In fact it is not until later that we find out for sure they are dogs.

Im not sure were you are going with this but the ending just sort of happens. There is no closure, the story just sort of ends. I feel this is probably because it is an excerpt.

Overall very nice. I hope to see more of your travels through France.

Brian.




Francaise at 07:52 on 29 August 2005  Report this post
Hello Brian

Thank you so much for your comments.

The passage is actually an excerpt from my next book, which will be published in February 2006, so that's why it has no proper end, nor beginning, and doesn't make a great deal of sense as a standalone! All will be revealed in February. It was posted in response to a request from another member.

I very much appreciate your taking the time to read and comment upon it.

From your profile I see that you are a "vet", and that you are collecting stories for a possible book. I shall read some of your work, as we are great animal lovers, and currently owners of a 39-year-old mare, two castrated goats, two dogs, two cats and a parrot.

WIth very best wishes

Susie

Dreamer at 16:39 on 29 August 2005  Report this post
Hi Susie,

That makes perfect sense now.

Sounds like you have quite a menagerie, much like we do here. Obviously you live in a rural area to have the goats and horses. Good thing the goats are castrated as a male goat has a peculiar odour that only a female goat finds attractive.

Brian


Francaise at 12:04 on 30 August 2005  Report this post
Hi Brian

Yes, we live in the deep heart of rural France.

Our goats are really adorable, so gentle and inquisitive. If only they didn't spend so much time breaking down the fences to get into the garden!

Susie

Account Closed at 14:06 on 09 September 2005  Report this post
Hi Susie,
A great read! I haven't visited any of the places you mention but I know the cakes only too well!

The tourist office sounded true to form!

Thanks for posting

Elspeth



Francaise at 20:47 on 11 September 2005  Report this post
Hi Elspeth

Thanks. If you get a chance, do visit Le Conquet, and don't miss the kuign aman from Denis Lanvan! I can't imagine there's a better example anywhere!

Very kind regards

Susie


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