Watch out for the Butter! / Diwall–an amann!

I realize that I haven’t posted enough (or perhaps at all, really) about food in Brittany–certainly, an important topic. A rather odd event this week forced me to sit down and introduce this topic finally, although not in the way I’d planned. Rather than discuss a delicious Breton food, I’m going to tell you about something that’s where it shouldn’t be: the butter in the river.

It sounds like an old folk song, or perhaps the name of an indie ska band; however, it’s an industrial accident that occurred Tuesday. Yes, butter fell into a river. A bunch of it. Hundreds of pounds, actually.

While it’s very unfortunate, and I’m imagining that it has caused a lot of people (and perhaps a lot of fish) problems, I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read the news because–if there was going to be a butter spill somewhere, it makes sense that it would be in Brittany: butter is essential to Breton cuisine. Bretons use lots of very yummy butter in their cooking–and especially in their baking. More on this topic another day!

Here’s what happened: a dairy processing plant accidentally spilled the butter into the Odet river, just outside of the city of Kemper (Quimper). If you follow the link to this article, you can watch a video showing chunks of butter cruising down the Odet through the center of the town. I’ve often strolled along the banks of the Odet and crisscrossed the river right about where the footage was shot. It’s a very scenic area–the little bridges are lined with colorful flowers in the warmer months, and Kemper itself is a charming city.

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Date and nut triskele

Photo by Madeleine Adkins

In my class, a different  student bakes a mid-morning snack for everyone each Monday–a tradition that my classmates came up with.

This week was my turn, and I made date and nut bread, something my grandmother had taught me to make when I was young. And I baked the dough in my new triskele mold. They turned out great, and everyone seemed to enjoy them. It turned out to be a great way to blend happy childhood memories and my current focus on all things Breton.

Beaujolais Nevez hag an deiz ispisial / Beaujolais Nouveau and a special day

I threw together a bag lunch for today–I was in a hurry–and then ran out the door this morning without it. One of a number of things that had made me a bit moody as the day began.

School is not near any stores, and the only restaurant nearby has painfully slow service, so eating there is not an option. I asked my classmates if anyone was driving into the center of town today at lunchtime, and V said yes, she was. So, we hopped into her Mercedes van and headed for the center of Plañvour. A couple of other times I’d forgotten my lunch and we had gone to the newish supermarket in the town center, but V said that this time she wanted meto try the butcher shop she’d discovered right across from the church.

They have wonderful sandwiches and other foods that are excellent, she said. And, as she explained, she prefers to buy quality foods made by local merchants.

As we got out of the car, I noticed a sign  at a local wine shop across the way. Beaujolais Nouveau! I’d forgotten, but today is the day that Beaujolais Nouveau wines are allowed to go on sale to the public. I was eager to see what the store had on offer and to take part in the modern French (and international) ritual of trying the Beaujolais Nouveau when it comes out. The custom only goes back a few decades, but it’s a entertaining mix of clever marketing and seasonal celebration. I’ve picked up Beaujolais Nouveau before in the U.S., but when in France….

The store offered a handful of Beaujolais labels, none of which I had seen before in the States. They even had a few non-Beaujolais early releases, as well. A knowledgeable man in the back of the store was offering samples of the wines. We tried a non-Beaujolais first. I didn’t like it, and couldn’t finish what was in my glass–a bit too acidic for my taste. Then we asked to try the unfiltered Beaujolais. I don’t think I’ve ever had unfiltered wine before, and I was curious. He opened a bottle and poured us each a small glass. What a wonderful taste–richer and a bit drier than a typical new wine, and a pleasantly balanced flavor. V and I decided we would each get a bottle. As we moved away from the tasting, we discovered a table laden with snacks provided for the special event. Try this, a woman said, it’s also from Beaujolais. We each tried a bit of the cheeses, breads, and other treats. They all tasted very good: whether it was in fact the food itself or the conviviality, I cannot truly say, but I truly enjoyed myself. V almost had to drag me out of there. As we paid for our wines, the proprietor to ow strict the rules are about selling dates for these new wines.

They have police out on the street, you know, he told us. One of my customers showed up last night at 7:30 and asked to buy a bottle of the  Beaujolais Nouveau. I had to explain to him that we’re not allowed to sell it before the official date. That’s why some stores stay open for midnight sales parties on Wednesday nights.

We headed out for the butcher shop and bought some food. I got a quiche Provençal and a Greek salad. At the last minute, a delicious-looking apple mini-tart caught my eye, and I bought it, too, for tonight’s dessert.

Tonight, I invited my classmate and neighbor M over for a glass of wine. I found a couple of wine glasses, and even managed to open the bottle with the kitchy Breton sailor wine-opener that I’d found in the kitchen.  Then M and I toasted the end of the week and my conference paper that had been presented in New Orleans last night in my absence. We also toasted the forty beautiful roses that my wonderful sweetheart, J, had sent me today in honor of the day that we met four years ago. The flowers were a surprise that a florist delivered to me at school right at the end of our lunch break. The combination of our lunchtime Beaujolais adventure and the beautiful anniversary flowers from J had turned a not-so-great day into a very special one.

Yeched mat! (Cheers!)

Glav, glav, glav ! / Rain, rain, rain! Or, sometimes fieldwork just happens

I woke up to a ray of sunshine on my wall this morning. Exciting, given that the weather here has been three nonstop days of rain, howling winds, and dark clouds. I’ve learned here that all storms come from the west, so if I look out my bathroom window, I can see what is heading my way. I checked, and I could see a mass of heavy gray rainclouds to the west. So much for my sunshiny Sunday morning!

How to take advantage of this brief moment of heavenly rays?! I decided to do something I’ve never done before—that most quintessential of French morning activities—head out to the local boulangerie to buy a fresh baguette before breakfast. My normal breakfast is cereal, or on a lazy weekend morning, scrambled eggs; and in truth, I’ve only been to this boulangerie maybe three times before. But a quick walk one block up and back in the sunshine and before the rains hit again was reason enough for me to try something different.

People tell me that November weather is usually sunnier than this, but we’ve had a lot of rain and wind and gray days so far this month. November is called ‘the black month’ in the Breton language (miz Du), but that’s supposed to refer to the shorter days and not to the weather. My whole four-day weekend so far had pretty much been one big rain or wind storm after another—not a bad thing for a weekend of catching up on work, but I’m one of those folks who craves sunlight. I couldn’t take a chance on missing this brief moment of sunshine. So, I brushed my wild hair, threw on some clothes (not clean, perhaps, but not too dirty either), grabbed my wallet, and headed out.

How nice to be out without a raincoat, and without the wind howling down the road! I made it to the bakery without a drop of rain, but without actually seeing any sunshine either. A fresh baguette, a mini quatre quart cake, and a loaf of whole wheat bread later, I headed back to the house. Still no rain, but the gray clouds seemed to be taking over. Then, just as I got to the path that leads down to the beach, I saw it—the sun, starting to poke through. I lingered there for a moment in the sunshine, watching a woman walking with her dogs. I was apparently not the only one trying to take advantage of the break between storms. Slowly, I crossed the street over to my house. The sun was still shining, but the gray clouds were getting closer.

An older gentleman appeared across the street. He was calling something out to me as he zipped up his jacket. I couldn’t quite hear what he was saying, but nodded politely in response—it was no doubt a comment about the weather. He surprised me by crossing the street and walking over to where I was standing. I said I had been trying to make the most of the sunshine, and gesturing toward the bakery-wrapped breads and cake in my hands.

I’ve heard of you, he said. You’re a Breton teacher, or you’re learning Breton?

Yes, I told him, I am studying Breton right now.

He told me that the local newspaper has a weekly Breton language column in it and offered to drop it off in my mailbox.

I’m a Breton speaker, he said, from the Cornouaille region.

Different from the Breton around here, I said.

He offered me his hand and I moved my baked goods to my left hand so that we could shake.

Are there many Breton speakers in this area?, I asked.

No, he said, there aren’t many here. But lots of Breton speakers in Finistère.

I told him which mailbox was mine, and we exchanged names. His was a Breton name, he said. He told me where he lived, just a few doors down the street.

The sky was a dark gray by now, and drops began to fall on us as we stood there.

I’d better head home to get a raincoat, he explained. He’d been heading to the bakery as well, but at this point he needed more than his cloth jacket.

We said our goodbyes and he began to head back across the street. Then he turned back towards me to say something.

Perhaps we could speak Breton together sometime.

That would be great, I said.

Goodbye, we said again, as the rain began to pour down.

I’m really glad that we got to meet, I tried to say in French, nervously fumbling for the words as he headed across the street.

I headed through the gate and towards my front door, smiling to myself. I had been wanting to meet older Breton speakers in the area, both to converse with and also in hopes of gathering some data. I’d only met one so far at the beach, and she lived somewhere in Lorient, so I wasn’t likely to run into her again.

Some people in Brittany will tell you that Breton speakers are embarrassed to admit that they’re Breton speakers, and that it’s hard to connect with them as an outsider. But today, happily, was a wonderful example of the opposite.

a beginning / ur c’hrog

Almost all of my possessions are in storage, I have left my job at the University of Colorado, said good-bye to friends and family, flown across an ocean to Europe, and made my way by train to Brittany, where I will spend the next eleven months.

A culturally-rich, picturesque corner of France, Brittany is steeped in history and myth. It is the land of King Gradlon, and his beloved coastal city of Ys, which was swallowed up by the sea long ago. It is the land of Tristan and Iseult/Isolde. It is also, according to some folks (and many local tourism brochures and websites), the home of King Arthur and his round table.  Many know Brittany for its prehistoric megaliths, its strong pagan traditions, and its long history as an independent state. And many (in France and England, at least) love Brittany for its stunning pink granite coastline in the north, and its sparkling white sand beaches in the south.

I try to keep that all in mind while I deal with the daily challenges of getting settled in here. Since I have arrived, life has been full of shopping trips (via foot or bus) to get food and other essentials for daily life. Missing folks back home, and taking almost daily buses to the big city of Lorient to get access to wifi so I can communicate with loved ones and others who are now so far away. Getting used to speaking French again. Getting unpacked, and organizing myself so that I feel at home in my new place. Feeding myself. Trying to find a bicycle. Dealing with leaky faucets. Opening a bank account, and trying to get internet and phone service established. Seeing a few friends (more on that later). Jet lag and swollen ankles. Buying a bike, finally. French TV. And rain. And now a national transportation strike (my first!). Taking care of paperwork. And more rain. And, yes, the occasional trip to the beach, which is, well, lovely.

Why did I disrupt my life in this way and come all this way to this particular spot on the planet? To fulfill a dream. More on that dream—dreams, really—later on.

For now, just a little about this blog. It’s here so that I can share my Breton adventures with friends and family, wherever they are. And with others, too—all are welcome here.

As for the topics of the blog, I expect them to run the gamut, as this will be part linguistic anthropological study, part personal travelogue. I’ll be writing regularly about the intricacies and quirks of the Breton language, and about my adventures as a student in a Breton language immersion program for adults. I’ll also talk about my daily life here on the coast, as well as any travel adventures. For those who love good food, and especially good Breton food, I’ll include highlights of my gustatory adventures. And who knows what else. And photos, whenever and wherever they seem relevant or fun or both. Bookmark this site, or do whatever it is that one does to keep abreast of blog entries. I’ll try and post about twice a week. Kenavo!

Note: Yes, that’s Breton in the title.  I figured I might as well share some with you all. And practice some vocabulary. If there are mistakes, I’ll catch them eventually.