Fiona Freer

Writer, historian and speaker

Nothing ever happens in Brittany!

 

My friend bumped into her ex-husband at the beginning of the summer. “Are you off to Brittany this year?” he asked. When she shook her head he said, “I don’t blame you. Nothing ever happens there!”

Well we went of course, and had rather a lively month. Steve’s cousins came to stay, and we took them for a walk around Huelgoat. Kay and I were in front, and a lady walked past us who seemed to be carrying a small puppy inside her T-shirt. We didn’t take much notice, but Steve and George both stared at her more closely. Steve realised that the animal she was carrying was not a puppy at all. “Is that a kangaroo?” he asked her.

She admitted that it was, and took the tiny Joey out of her bra. His mother had died, she explained, and he had to be fed four times a day and kept very warm. He regarded Steve very seriously, as Steve looked at his tiny pointed face, soft fur and thick tail. “Aww – Brittany,” our daughter said when we told her the story, “Well known for its kangaroos.”

Two days later we were on the bridge again (heading for the boulangerie of course) when a procession of World War Two jeeps, motor bikes and lorries roared round the corner towards us. Girls in forties’ frocks were perched on the back of the vehicles, waving American flags madly, and the men were dressed in U.S. army uniforms. They were waving at us, and I half expected them to start throwing chewing gum and nylons into the watching crowds. What an incredibly welcome sight they must have been in 1944, when American soldiers liberated this area. It was a hard won fight though; there are memorials in many villages and towns, commemorating the soldiers who were killed by the Germans as they fought for the French people’s freedom.

We hardly ever hear sirens in Brittany, although they seem to be wailing continually where we live in Devon. But this was about to change. One steaming hot afternoon there was a knock at our door. It was one of the carers who come twice a day to see our neighbour. “Have you seen him?” she asked us. We had been chatting to him during the early part of the evening before, but the carer told us that he had not answered his door that night, or in the morning, and there was still no sign of him. She was clearly very concerned. “He is ill,” she said. “I think I will have to phone for the pompiers to break into his house.”

Now I had spotted our neighbour arriving home in a taxi a few days before, with two large boxes of wine. “Perhaps he has had a drink,” I suggested, “And is sleeping it off.”

But she could not ignore the problem, and we saw her making phone calls at the end of our lane. Shortly afterwards we heard sirens approaching on the main road, and soon a fire engine and ambulance had swerved into our hamlet, and six fire crew and paramedics leapt out by our gate. They hurried down the lane to our neighbour’s house, walking round the building to ascertain the best place to break in. The carer had one more try and knocked again on the door. A breathless silence while the fireman readied themselves, and then the old wooden door creaked open and our neighbour peered out. His carer was furious and let forth a stream of angry French, to which he just shrugged and shut the door. The ambulance and the fire engine turned round with some difficulty, and then drove off in clouds of dust.

Les Pompiers! In our very own hamlet!

A few days later we were driving to Huelgoat when a gendarme held up his hand and stopped us at the bottom of our road. We must wait for the cycle race, he said. A cycle race! These are common in Brittany and seem to be just as serious and exciting as the Tour de France itself. We did not have to wait for long. First came the big cars, and I do not understand how they manage to drive at EXACTLY the right speed to keep immediately in front of the cyclists. Nor do I know who travels in these cars. Are they the press? The medical team? The relatives? Then the cyclists themselves, tightly packed, crouched low and practically flying, and finally the support vehicles. These have as many bikes standing on the roofs as it is possible to squeeze on, and I always wonder how one of the riders manages to extract himself from the hurtling pack and request a new bike. The whole cavalcade whooshed past in minutes, leaving us feeling exhausted. The gendarme politely waved us forward and we carried on to town, half wishing we were flying along on bikes.

The Fest Noz in our village consisted of a celebration of wood, and there were displays of gigantic, monstrous machines which gobbled whole trees as if they were eating a feast. The highlight of the summer for me was the Pardon at the Abbey Relecq. We joined the procession around the abbey grounds and then I went inside for the Mass. It was truly magical, and one of the most spiritual experiences I have ever had, even though I could feel the prickling disapproval of all my Huguenot ancestors as I took my seat at the back.

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And then we had to sail home to Devon. Devon – where nothing ever happens.