||ell, here is the American!" This is how my father will welcome me next summer. I know that, because for more than 20 years, he has persisted in calling me "the Parisian," as I was living in Paris, far from my family home in Brittany. It is his usual affectionate way to celebrate my return to the countryside. It is his manner of reminding me that, wherever I am, my roots remain in Brittany. Whether I want to believe it or not, he is right. Living now for more than one year in beautiful California, I have discovered that the place where my whole family lives is a big part of me, as I am a part of it.
Brittany is this north-western spit of land disturbing the simple outline of France. Not an island, only a peninsula, Brittany seems to throw itself into the ocean. Scattered isles and big rocks, wandering like lost children, surround Brittany, while points, promontories and capes arise from its disheveled head. This suicidal jump is contradicted by blond beaches, secure anchorages, peaceful bays, harmonious gulfs consoled by gentle waves. Sometimes beaten by storms and gusty winds, sometimes adorned with a foamy neckline festooning its coasts, endlessly ruled by the law of the tides, Brittany oscillates between a dangerous passion with the ocean and a secure affinity with the continent. This is the reason why there are two Brittanys, named in the ancient -but still spoken- Breton language, "Armor, land of the sea" and "Argoat, land of the forest". The Armor, the coastline, frames the Argoat, the green tender heart of Brittany. But at the extreme point of Brittany, called "the end of the earth", the Armor enfolds the Argoat, as if to spare it from the ocean's rage, and to conceal Ouessant, the most remote island, doomed by the old saying, "The one who sees Ouessant, sees his blood."
Brittany's granite stands firm to the persistent pressure of the encroaching ocean.
Granite is found everywhere: in the cliffs and steep rocks fringing the coasts; in the chaos of enormous boulders forgotten by a certain glaciary period; pebbles on the pathways, inviting children to play hopscotch. We see it in the middle of the fields, offering a seat to the weary peasants, and in the forest, as a perch for vipers and lizards.
Granite is the memory of Brittany.
For millennia, overlays of granite constructions have recorded the history of Brittany's inhabitants. Carnac's alignments, thousands of silent standing stones, attest the presence of early primitive civilizations; Roman paved roads echo the galloping of Caesar's legions on their way to Britannica; watch towers contemplate the ocean in search of Viking invaders; feudal fortifications resonate with the turbulent fights of the rising nobility of the Middle Ages; squat ruined castles, abreast docile churches, keep an eye on their surrounding; harbor-cities dream of fleets of vessels once flying away toward new worlds. Small towns and cold cities, homes of the provincial bourgeoisie, show off their gray monuments. Crowds of houses, escaping from loneliness, huddle like a flock of sheep under the village church tower.
Granite gives its colors to Brittany.
From pink to gray-blue, the natural pigments of the local granite, a whole rainbow of coloration -gradating in shades and tones according to the location, the oldness of the stone and the weather- fans out over Brittany. The pink rocks of the North Coast become orange in the sunsets, but shift to dark purple when shadowed by threatening skies. The blue stones reach a pale gray when they are coated with ancient lichen; they reflect a yellow tint with fresh lichen. In winter, the granite stones mirror the palette of earth colors -a large range of dark brown, sepia, bronze and reddish colors- thus achieving a final fusion between the ground, the habitations and the inhabitants.
Granite gives to Brittany an air of eternity.
Each time I visit Jugon-Les-Lacs where my family lives, I am charmed by being transported into a 15th century Brueghel painting, where time and modernity have no impact. Inside an immobile composition which displays hushed houses piled up under a dam retaining a still lake, the presence of life is barely discernible by the occasional straight trajectory of a car, by the relentless rotation of the mill-wheel, by the smoke-exhaling chimneys in competition with TV antennas, and by the slow motion of colored spots which may be either human beings or animals.
There is a kind of resignation emanating from this stillness, as if the tumult of large tragedies has been converted into daily little death. Ubiquitous church towers emerge from the roofs pointing the only possible path toward the ultimate paradise.
It is hard to escape from this heavy load, where life seems to be an essence of death. Maybe it is why our family ties are so strong, like invisible threads resulting in a resistant and durable net, able to support and to witness each stage of the life of its members.
In spite of its conventional facade, I have very often been surprised by the great ability of my family to accept exuberances and singular behaviors, each as a necessary quality to its own balance. Since I have fled this land at the age of 17, my life has been followed, discussed and recorded in family reunions. Each time I visit Brittany, I am invited for coffee or cider or a dinner, asked questions and then informed about the latest news as if conversations were the occasion to update the family's history.
I remember the amazement of Paul, my American husband, when I introduced him to my aunts. First, he was surprised to find quite old people still living in the house in which they were born. Then, as he was trying to start the pendulum of an old clock, which felt on the floor -interrupting my aunt's conversation- he understood that in Brittany old objects are not restored: they are kept in houses in order to celebrate memories of the family. Finally, when one of my aunts burst out crying, I had to assure Paul that, in spite of appearances, she was happy we got married; her tears were no more than a sign of great affection, and maybe of concern too, because that time, like Ouessant, I was leaving my family for a very far away destination.
I must admit I had the same reaction when I saw in the cemetery of Mission Dolores, in San Francisco, the grave of a woman from Brittany, buried there at the end of the 19th century. I felt sad and compassionate for her, thinking she was forever far from her land and her family. I surprised myself hoping it will not happen to me. I was stricken to realize, for the first time, that if Brittany has not been for me a place to live, I cannot consider another place to die. One day a granite stone will remember who I was: nothing more than a part of Brittany.