July 2019, I spent two weeks visiting family in Bretagne. I kept track of my travels and shared my adventures with the world by way of the ephemorous Instagram Stories. But on Maman’s urging, I’ve decided to write a more permanent, non-disappearing account of my travels. As well as providing some reflections on the state of society in France.
It’s been five full years since I last spent time in France. Summer 2014, when I worked in Paris. I was quite excited for this trip, all the more so because it marked a break in what I can best describe as a mediocre to downright bad year. And though I wouldn’t be stopping in Paris or seeing my city friends, I’d have plenty of opportunities to enjoy la belle vie à la française.
For a brief chronological summary of these two weeks, I left Albany on a train to NYC on a sweltering Friday afternoon. The Amtrak rail line follows the Hudson all the way down and it’s a real treat just to gaze out the window at the cliffs overlooking the river. I made it to Penn Station with plenty of time to spare, wandered through the maze of tunnels to the Long Island Transit departures, and hopped on the next departure to JFK. Only to get there and realize that…. my plane was in fact leaving from Newark. Good thing my Maman always told me to be super early, because I was able to ride all the way back across NYC to still catch my flight. Still would not recommend.
Eventually, I made my way to Rennes, the capital of Bretagne, where most of my French family is based. Bretagne is the Celtic heartland of France, the land of crêpes, cider, and seafood. It’s also the agricultural breadbasket of the country and its oceans of wheat are dotted with industrial farms. Many towns are very old, built around beautiful medieval churches and castles, with old stone formations hidden amongst the brush. I love it. Going back immediately feels like stepping back in time, and yet it also feels a lot like coming home.
Granted, I never properly lived here. But as a child, I fantasized about being a noble knight in King Arthur’s court. Le chevalier Hoël, as my grandmother would call me. Walking on narrow cobbled streets framed by half a millenium old wooden houses brings me back to those romantic childhood dreams. For this trip, I even brought my bike, my noble steed. There’s something about Bretagne that made feel like a kid again, every day, every where.
Possibly too because I was comfortably freeloading with my family. The first week, I stayed in Nathalie and Charles house, with my cousins Alice and Lorette, biking by day, eating by night with the rest of the family, visiting Mamie. Playing with the four adorable kittens they were housing. What a life. No worries. No stress. Proper vacation, living day by day, just like a kid again.
My one responsibility was helping my parents assemble furniture. Because, as they plan for retirement, Maman & Papa bought an apartment in Rennes. On Rue Hoche, right by the historic parlement of Bretagne, on the same street where they held the party for their wedding nearly two decades ago. A “pied-à-terre” for them as they increasingly look to split their time between the US and France. And what a lovely apartment they picked.
During this first week of bouncing between aunts and uncles’ houses and helping M&P set up the new apartment, I was also visited by my college friend Komodo, who has been doing a PhD in Nantes not too far away. I nearly flaked on them, worried that I wouldn’t be able to entertain them since I’d be occupied helping my parents out, but we made it work and spent an amazing day exploring all the nooks and crannies of this beautiful medieval city.
And then, it was off to the northern coast of Bretagne, near the even more beautiful medieval city of Dinan, where we had rented a large farmhouse for the whole family. Aunts and cousins and partners of cousins all came, along with Manon my sister-in-law and my two nieces Evelyne and Claire. Corinne my sister also came (NB: she was in France getting a medical operation. Flying and having a two week vacation plus uninsured payment for the procedure was still cheaper than insured costs in America!!!), along with her boyfriend Tyler that, after 3+ years of them dating, I was finally able to meet. Long way of saying, everyone was there, food and wine overflowing, and what a merry time it was.
I of course spent that week exploring the shoreline on my bike, traveling east to the border of Bretagne and Normandy. There, on the border, stands the Mont Saint Michel, the towering monastery on its solitary rock. This is where the knights used to come to sleep, as it was deemed neutral, peaceful ground.
As far as vacations go, it wasn’t the most adventurous. But it’s what I needed. Time with family, in a place that matters to me. I’m not particularly spiritual, but Bretagne feels as close to a homeland as I’ll ever have. Yes, I was born in Paris, grew up in North Carolina (and call Durham my hometown), currently live in Upstate New York. But none of those places quite stir up the imagination or tug at my heartstring like Bretagne.
And granted, I’m not from there. I know I wouldn’t fit in there. But it’s where I come from. Where my name originates from. Where the folktales and stories I grew up hearing originated. Where the food I grew up eating comes from. I’m not from there, but Bretagne shaped me, made me. It is the homeland.
Unfortunately, the vacation came to an end after two weeks. I hate to say it, but this was the first time I’ve ever not been even remotely excited to return home. Not to hate too much on Albany, but this trip really brought home how out of place I feel in Upstate, even after two years. It just doesn’t feel like home, despite my best efforts. I don’t know what it is, though I have my theories. A topic for another post. But all to say, this trip really lit a fire in me to look to move, specifically to a big city somewhere. The hustle and bustle of NYC, Paris, Rennes, and even the small towns I stopped in made me aware of how much I care about being around others.
Not to end this post on a sad note though. The trip was great. The food was amazing. I captured most of my favorite moments via Instagram stories, which, as Maman likes to point out, are not permanent. So this blog post will hopefully be a bit more permanent of a solution.