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Under A Red Moon



A dilletante's memoir by

Christopher Kenneally

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On the map of France, Brittany is the nose. Rosmarian, a tiny hamlet in the southern Breton departement of Morbihan, holds the position and significance of a nostril hair. The European Community may claim more than 350 million people in fifteen member states, but the community of Rosmarian, whose name in Breton means "hill by the sea," is home only to two working farms and a half dozen resident families. On the global economic highway, Rosmarian resembles a horse-drawn cart. The world is overtaking it without a second thought.

Visiting Rosmarian several years ago was this American newspaper writer on a dilettante's sojourn with his Belgian-born wife at her family's country house. We lived in a simple three-room stone cottage: full kitchen with modern conveniences (electric range, dishwasher); living room with fireplace; and above the kitchen, a cozy loft bedroom with low ceiling and handsome antique armoire. Built sometime in the last century of red granite blocks and thick timber beams, the cottage was formerly a farm outbuilding, a storehouse for hay and feed.

Ten years ago, the structure was dilapidated, its roof sunken. Monsieur Mourlon, manager of a drugstore chain in Brussels and its present owner, discovered in its neglected corners hundreds of discarded cider bottles and beer bottles. He

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supposed that in years past the local men would come out to the storehouse for a drink and leave behind any incriminating evidence.

An industrious and handy man, Alain Mourlon is as tall and lanky as the rail-splitting Abraham Lincoln and supremely confident in his self-taught ability to mix concrete, lay tiles and hammer nails in planks. He is well-regarded in Rosmarian for thoughtfully transforming the eyesore of an abandoned storehouse into a handsome summer home. Local residents have always called him, "chef"--in English, "boss"--as a term of endearment rather than deference.

Les petits paysans Bretons was how the farmer woman living beside our cottage called herself and her husband. Leontine and Marc Guyonvarch were both in their early sixties, their grown children away at school in Paris or dispersed throughout the countryside In neighboring hamlets.

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Leontine Guyonvarch was five feet tall, with thick red hair cut high above her fox-like ears. Protruding from the half sleeves of a frayed housecoat, her lower arms were muscular and ruddy. When the sun in the fields was strong, Leontine wore a wide-brimmed straw hat tied to her head by a knotted blue kerchief. The hat helped to soften her appearance, which was otherwise sharp and hard, even fierce.

Marc Guyonvarch had a more mild appearance. He wore a pleasant grin as regularly as his trademark plaid casquette. At six o'clock in the morning, Marc would enter the shed below our bedroom window and begin shouting at his herd of twenty cows to get them moving into the milking room. This proved a reliable way to wake each day. When Leontine yelled, it was at her husband not the cows.

Rosmarian's other farmers, the LeGrohec family, tended fewer cows and smaller fields than the prosperous Guyonvarchs. The stone farm buildings they were worked out of were never tidy. A pack of black geese and several small dogs had the run of the main house where the door was always left open. Mornings and evenings, two sullen teenage daughters walked their family's animals to and from pasture grounds along the hamlet's only road. Any dilatory cows they swatted sharply on the behind with switches.

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Traffic in Rosmarian was heaviest at noon when a beige Renault van, rumbled into the hamlet ahead of a churning cloud of red dust. Paul, a young Breton with unruly blonde hair and toothy grin, was home from his house painting chores for lunch with his wife, Clothilde, and their three young girls.

For distraction on Sunday afternoons and at night, Paul played the biniou, a short, slender black pipe resembling a piccolo or recorder with a

similarly high, thin sound. He was a member of the reigning bagad champions of Brittany, RonsedMor, whose name means "sea horse."

In a bagad, the Breton version of a Scottish bagpipe band, the biniou section can number two dozen players who accompany a smaller group of bagpipers and several drummers. Ronsed-Mor travels in the summer months on the Celtic festival circuit and has played as far away as Kinvara on the west coast of Ireland. When Paul was practicing his instrument, he trilled long series of notes like a bird calling its mate. The biniou made a ghostly music which seemed to stir forth ancient spirits residing in Rosmarian's fields and pastures and wells.

At a card table arranged in an out-of-the-way corner of our cottage, I wrote every morning from eight until noon on a manual Smith Corona typewriter. The keys for "e" and "0" and "p" consistently knocked confetti holes clean through double sheets of thin French typing paper. According to my wife, the typewriter's clatter was loud enough to be heard at the hamlet's stand of, mailboxes 100 meters away from the house.

All through the spring, I cheerfully maintained a daily correspondence with friends and family, though it soon became clear there would be little response. Writing letters became an important part of my writerly routine despite the silence, and those letters I finished were carefully

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folded and tucked inside pale blue par avion envelopes edged with red and navy blue stripes. Communicating by post was not merely a writer's mannerism, incidentally; the Rosmarian cottage did not have a telephone.

At noon, I left this pleasant work, and jogged a three kilometer circuit entirely around the limits Rosmarian. In blue and yellow sweats (the colors of the EC flag emblazoned on a running suit .purchased in a Brussels Eurosouvenir shop), I surely provided a humorous spectacle for the

hamlet's residents and a healthy diversion for its dogs.

The daily run took me through an invigorating and varied landscape. To the north lay a wild, ragged copse which was home to a bellowing cuckoo. At the western and southern corners were rolling fields of pasture and plots of fertile earth. A hill at the east descended to sweepIng tidal marsh and the silvery river beyond.

On a cool spring evening at a table by a fireplace, the Guyonvarchs talked with us about their farm while we passed around a tin of English hard candies. The two of them were getting old, Leontine said, and they were giving thought to retiring from working the land. Marc listened quietly to his effusive wife. I watched him roll his thumbs nervously together as if they were on

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wheels. The shapely muscles in the farmer's upper arms bulged like rubber balls.

When she rose to gather wood for the fire, Marc's pale blue eyes followed Leontine closely,

. then again as she went to an enormous armoire and drew out a heavy glass jar filled with cherries macerating in a colorless eau de vie. Leontine had raised the cherries in Rosmarian and Marc had brewed the liquor from native Rosmarian potatoes. Digging further inside the armoire, Leontine brought out sherbert glasses and spoons. She served us each four soft, brown cherries in a shot of Breton fire water so strong it brought tears to the eyes.

Among farmers everywhere there is rarely any good news. Find a farmer, in fact, and you will usually find someone ready to tell you they are giving up farming. Marc and Leontine were no different. Leontine told us that production limits imposed on French farmers by the European Community, when taken together with incentives from the national' government, would make not farming the land more profitable than bothering to work it.

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Leontine was clearly the one who wished to quit the farm. For his part, Marc said very little about anything. That night around the dining room table, he was occupied with his spoon, digging in his glass for every drop of liquor. The seemingly tireless Leontine jumped away once

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more from her chair. She took from a bureau drawer a collection of yellowed newspaper clippings, each one neatly folded in a square. At last, she read to us about another farming couple who had retired and opened a petting zoo for children. This is what Leontine will do when there is no more farm work to distract her. She will have chicken and rabbits and goats and ducks. For the American at the table, whose French came haltingly, she imitated the animal's sounds with a "cluck-cluck" and a "quack-quack."

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My daily routine took me by bicycle two kilometers to Mendon, the nearest town from Rosmarian, where I visited the post office and the bakery. From the bike's wicker basket, I withdrew a quanity of post cards and letters to make room for a return load of baguettes and bags of buttery croissants. Addresses on the envelopes were neatly typed, the final line in heavy block letters as if chiseled in stone: ET ATS UNIS. The act of writing my country's name in another language reminded this American more powerfully than anything else of my temporary estrangement from home.

The Mendon post office, situated at the town crossroads, had the air of a simple, bureaucratic chapel with an ancient wooden public telephone cabine for confessional and elbow-high counter for an altar. Most ecclesiastical was a pervasive odor like rosewater mingled with mild furniture polish. Officiating daily was a reserved woman of

indeterminate middle age, as round as a pumpkin and so short that when she hunched over an account book at her desk, she could not be seen from the opposite side of the counter. This priestess dispensed three-franc stamps as if they were holy sacraments. When she hand canceled any correspondence, the post office window panes shivered and small children muffled their ears.

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One morning, the post office manger surprisingly demanded a franc supplement for a post card I had brought. The surcharge was for having written too much, she said. The post office manager held up the post card by a corner. It was nearly dripping with ink and I was glad to have the tariff to counsel me to be concise. In card and after card thereafter, I employed only a simple, cheerful refrain: "Food is great. Wine is cheap. We're not coming home."

For a fresh supply of the town's own post card with views of the Mendon village church, the town crossroads and an Etel River scene, I pedaled 50 meters from the post office to the town's one hardware store. Jean Rio's place was at the eastern edge of the village square behind the most prominent bar-cafe. Brooms and shovels in a range of colors, sizes and handle lengths; blue butane gas containers stacked on their sides like small torpedoes; and sagging sacks of peat moss and manure were displayed outside the store's corner door. An ancient well decorated with

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geraniums dominated the narrow courtyard that passed for a parking lot.

Madame Rio, whose face was wrinkled like a dried apple, edged out tentatively from her kitchen to greet her customer. Her husband, Jean Rio was rarely to be found at his place of business. In addition to owning the village hardware store, he was also the village plumber and electrician. Accordingly, Jean Rio was usually avoiding someone. Asked when he might return to complete a job abandoned in media res, Rio invariably answered, "Saturday." Understood was that he might arrive on any Saturday from now until kingdom come.

In the store, an ancient stock lay about in great disorder: light bulbs in puzzling shapes, apparently from the early days of electricity; round washing machines on swollen cast iron legs standing like old women in armored support hose; kitchen knives and hunting knives growing dull on cardboard display panels. Just beside the front door on an unsteady wire rack waited the curled and faded Mendon post cards. Rio sold these for a modest one franc each.

An American accent prompted Madame Rio to tell stories about the war. When they came to liberate Brittany, she recalled, the GIs handed out chocolate to all the children who went to watch them march by.

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ill the Persian Gulf conflict, she added, their only son had served in a French Army medical corps with a company of American soldiers. Did I know that Gen. Schwarzkopf's men had no good food to eat, she asked me, only dried dinners you would not serve to a dog? The French medics, Madame announced proudly, had generously given their rations to Americans hungry for a real meal. These gourmet meals must have seemed an appropriate repayment for the Hershey bars of a generation earlier.

As we spoke by the hardware store's door, Madame Rio pointed to a cat prowling in her courtyard. The animal came to give birth to kittens in her garage just after the Gulf War ended, she said. The cat was not really her own, she insisted, though because she'd taken care of it for so long, she considered it necessary to name the animal. Of all things, she had decided to call the homeless cat, "Amerique."

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Brittany is Celtic France for what that's worth in the late 20th century. Most Americans' acquaintance with Celtic culture may be limited to the Irish or Scotch strains, but in ancient times, Celts controlled the western half of Europe from the Alps to the Atlantic coast and from the British Isles to as far south as the Iberian peninsula.

A sufficiently active imagination will find traces of Celtic influence in Brittany even if these seem only vague reminders of rural Irish architecture and landscapes: thatched roofs; winding country roads; a rough and rocky coast. Like all Celts, the Bretons have passed from one generation to the next an abiding affection for a good shrill bagpipe. When it swings, and it can swing to a primitive, gut-gripping rhythm, the Breton music of pipes and binious and drums has an undeniable power.

Ronsed-Mor, the Mendon village bagad and the champions of Brittany, organized un trophee one weekend. Our Rosmarian neighbor Paul, a Ronsed-Mor member, paid a call to invite us. Un irophee, he explained, is a jury contest for local bands of a certain middling level with cash prizes awarded. The Ronsed-Mor bagad members planned to make the irophee a really festive occasion--fest noz in the local language. There would be a stall for serving homemade crepes, which Bretons traditionally consume at fairs and outings, and

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another for pouring glasses of frothy cider, the region's preferred alcoholic refreshment. On Sunday, they would serve a hot lunch.

Spring had sputtered to a slow start in Brittany, though this trap hie was as sure a sign of warming weather as budding wisteria. One night; we returned late to Rosmarian to marvel at a full moon hanging like a cherry over the hamlet I s fields and farmhouses. Its color was a rich red as if the light were filtered through a photographer's gel. We thought this red moon was lovely and wonderful, but we were not aware of the implications. IIAvez-vaus vu la lune roussel" Clothilde, Paul's wife, inquired the next morning. This "red moon/ she firmly explained with all the conviction of a television meteorologist, presaged a period of cold, dry weather. It was not good to have a red moon at this time of year. Planting had already begun and the young crops were at their most vulnerable.

The proof of what Clothilde said was not only in the swirling fog of exhaled breath. We wore heavy wool sweaters and scarves inside the cottage, and kept a fire burning all day in the wood stove. A stone cottage, like an old man with a sour view of life, can be difficult to warm. Our fingers stiffened and noses hardened to pencilsharp points. Wine served with meals was always the perfect cellar temperature, even though we did not have a cellar.

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Red moon or not, Marc dutifully ran his tractor up and down the dirt paths morning and night. The soil in Rosmarian's newly-turned fields faded overnight from moist brown to a dry, sandy grey. Scattered around the hamlet were several fields the farmer had already plowed but not yet planted where the soil resembled more the rough sand in a children's sandbox than anything like fertile earth. With each trip, the wheels of Marc's John Deere tractor stirred up sandy clouds. Leontine told me that her husband would return at night from his chores with a kilo of earth plugged in each ear.

On the Saturday afternoon the Ronsed-Mor irophee was set to begin, I rode my bicycle alone through Mendon. In Lapaul, a nearby hamlet where a number of well-maintained thatched roof cottages made for one of the most picturesque communities in the area, I heard the weird wail of a solitary bagpipe. Praying a farm dog might not come yelping and give me away, I dismounted quietly. I traced the music's source to somewhere behind a dark stone barn, but the practicing musician never appeared to me. The shrill notes he played were borne on the air like voices of spirits. To hear the eerie song was like coming on a gateway open to the past. I rested a quarter of an hour in the bagpipe's thrall before I slipped away unnoticed by any living creature.

The irophee convened that evening on a vacant lot at the edge of the village. Paul had

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warned us to expect a wide range of talent among the competing bagads. Several high school groups attended as well as village ensembles from throughout Morbihan. One of the first bagads to play roused the patient crowd visibly. Led by an arm-swinging young man in a black beret, the band's numbers all had the elemental force of a terrifying thunderstorm. In the center of the group, a grey-haired man held high on a staff the Breton national flag, which resembled an American flag though with black and white horizontal stripes and a corner field of keyholelike hermines, the Breton counterpart of fleurs-delis.

Swaying in time to the music, one old fellow two-stepped alone toward the stage. He wore a great wide-brimmed black hat with two flowing ribbons falling against his back collar. Lost in reverie, he made an entertaining if haunting spectacle for the modern dress audience. A century ago, when Gauguin painted at Pont-Aven, a Breton man or woman would not have gone to work, let alone' attended a festival without donning appropriate headgear. A woman of quality, certainly, would not have dared to leave her house without donning a coiffe, a lace kerchief delicately pinned to the hair. Today, elderly women wear coiffes, but rarely. Only flamboyant butchers at the Saturday market in Vannes ever wore the traditional men's hats.

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The Ronsed-Mor irophee became, finally, much more than only amateur musicians competing for cash prizes. It served as a cultural rallying point. To attend was to declare oneself Breton. In a sense, this was a highly romantic gesture. Breton nationalism, a pacific strain, is mostly concerned with gestures; it is responsible, for example, for the introduction of bilingual French-Breton road signs. Asserting one's Breton-ness, however, is a triumph of identity in a world of anonymity. Evoked at a moment when Europe is intent on economic and political homogenization and in danger of accompanying that with cultural homogenization, contemporary Breton nationalism speaks to a longing felt by all modern peoples to recapture a golden age when the sense of community was stronger.

Our Rosmarian neighbors Paul and Clothilde likely want to see their children learn the ancient Breton language because it may bind them to their native land and culture when other, foreign tongues call them, to abandon it. The unseen bagpiper of Lapaul may have wished to drown out those same voices.

On Saturday evening, a Bulgarian folk music band were welcomed to the stage at the RonsedMor trophee. An announcer told the audience that in Bulgaria, people dance in the same style as in Brittany but in the opposite direction, though there's little chance that Bulgarian music is simply Breton music played in reverse.

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The four members of "Krachno Hero" were a clarinetist, an accordionist, a percussionist who played either on a set of African bongos or a marching drum slung over his shoulder, and an electric bass player. They dove into their first number with abandon and did not let up until an hour later. What came out of them sounded like something you might hear from a klezmer band playing at a Greek wedding. The clarinetist for Krachna Horo had the small head of a bird and a mouth like a beak. When he played, he sprayed a shower of musical notes at dizzying speed. Watching him made me feel out breath. The accordion player, a burly, bearded thug in a leather jacket, chugged away apparently indifferent to the others. He played and stopped and resumed again, seemingly at will, all the time pulling at the ends of the accordion as if he would tear it apart. The members of the rhythm section, by contrast, were low-key. The bass player, a swarthy character with a long, well-waxed mustache, never blinked. His body was rigid except for his left arm and fingers gliding along his instrument's shiny frets. The drummer just grinned happily.

The music Krachna Horo made together managed to pull into its vortex the assembled families of Mendon who wore joyful and confounded expressions throughout the performance. All the same, no one in the audience

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that night attempted to execute traditional Breton dances in reverse .

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The French do not necessarily eat better than Americans -- the difference lies in that they eat with deep conviction. In France, food is handled with the care usually reserved for that which is sacred, and meals are conducted like religious rituals -- thoughtfully, respectfully, but especially slowly. Even at lunch, a sort of culinary pit stop for most Americans, several courses are ceremoniously served, often concluding with both cheese and dessert. Coffee arrives long after the last dishes are cleared away.

Inevitably, especially on an extended trip, the real American longs, in spite of higher principles, to get a meal over with quickly. On the road, one begins to wish for the sort of place so common at home, where an entire meal arrives on one plate and coffee is poured even before ordering.

Of course, if speed is the only consideration, one could pull over at a McDonald's, which in French towns are usually on what the billboards call "McDrive." Somehow, though, that seems like cheating.

So, on an extended stay in Brittany last spring, our quest became to find a native experience, roughly the equivalent of an American truck stop. The search, however, was not easy. For one thing, there are no obvious architectural clues. The French apparently were never introduced to

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chrome-skinned, streamlined diner cars. In the country, modern French roadside architecture is, sadly, a monotonous collection of enormous prefabricated warehouses and hypermarkets broken up only by cinder-block bar-restaurants. The name for such a bar-restaurant -- un relais -dates from a time when coaches would pause on their routes to change horses. The average relais is not much to look at and is usually little more than a local watering hole or whatever the French would call a dive.

In Brittany an honest-to-God truck stop would seem to be a necessity. Les routiers, the French truck drivers who ride high up in their cabs, hidden behind soccer team pennants strung across the windshields like blinds, are always racing up and down the Breton roads, hauling their loads to and from Channel ports and surely working up healthy appetites.

Trucks are common on local roads, too, because all French superhighways are expensive toll roads. Economically minded routiers haul their rigs on the four-lane nationals and even more narrow deparbnental roads. They made life rather anxious for anyone driving an Opel the size of a paperweight, but their presence raised considerably the chances that we would come upon a genuine truck stop.

Our patience and attention were rewarded on a deparbnental route outside Paimpol in Cote-

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du-Nord, Brittany's northernmost department. The road through the countryside was lined with dusty, newly plowed fields and lush pastures. Just after noon, we passed at a fast clip a plain, vanillacolored, peak-roofed Bar Restaurant. The singlestory building was long and massive and stood alone among the grazing cows and growing corn. The parking lot beside it was as big as a field and was neatly arranged with rows of rigs. Not much farther up the road, we made a U-turn.

All types and sizes of French trucks were there, from semis with long trailers and Citroen repair vans to the ubiquitous Renault 4, the drayhorse of French plumbers and tradespeople. In the parking lot, I began singing.

II Pour me another cup of coffee/ For it is the best in the land/ r II put a nickel in the jukebox/ And play the I Truck Drivin I Man. I II As I pulled the door

open, I did not hear any Buck Owens playing on a jukebox. A sign advertised that the day's II menu II was available for 46 francs (at that time, about $7.50). Inside, the <bar was nearly empty. A few older men sat by a window table with little glasses of red wine in their greasy fingers. Near the cash register, a middle-aged woman, peroxide blonde, exhaled smoke and waved us on into the next room.

A hall full of routiers looked up from their meals as we entered. The place was as completely male as a locker room, and my wife was regarded

with suspicion -- almost certainly because she was a woman who was not carrying a tray of food.

We received directions from a pale waitress with a sweaty brow who was working the hall alone. She motioned to a cafeteria-style display of hors d'oeuvres -- pleasantly arranged plates of pungent saucisses, pate and melon -- and we were told to sit where we liked. Already we were impressed, for this was by far the quickest first course we had ever been served in France. We would not, though, be getting our meal on one plate.

The hall was rather plain, with large windows at one side that looked out on the parking lot and only a few cheap landscape paintings hanging on the walls. There was no music at all. Of course, because this was France, a smokers' paradise, a thick blue haze hung between the tables and the ceiling.

At the table beside ours, a half dozen truck drivers were in the midst of their meal. We spotted several empty wine bottles. The waitress brought the men a large tray of bread, and we were awed as they dispatched it roughly and instantly. A moment later, she returned with a tray on each muscular arm, one plate heaped with steaming boiled potatoes, the other loaded with baked turkey breasts in gravy. A wine bottle was uncorked and passed around. I had not seen food

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so roundly attacked since dinners at Boy Scout summer camp.

The wine, we soon learned, was included in the price of the meal along with mineral water. We uncorked and sniffed our own bottle of Blason d'Or, a blend of red table wines, the label explained, from the countries of the European Community. The Eurowine had no discernible taste and rather quickly delivered a dull ache to the temples, but our glasses could be refilled as endlessly as coffee mugs in diners back home.

We, too, ate the baked turkey -- the other choice of the day, roast veal, was fini -- which was hot and tender and plentiful, more than we two could finish. The service was quick and, considering the waitress was outnumbered 50 to 1, cheerful. It felt good to be eating, for once, without the usual French pomp and circumstance, but the difference between a Gallic truck stop and an American one was so striking as to amount to a revelation of sorts.

For one thing, no one was eating alone at this "rendez-vous routiers" -- the proper name, we later learned, for such places. There are no solo acts in French restaurants, it would seem, not even on the road. A dusty driver could no more haul himself in there and order a piece of pie and coffee at the counter than a diner in the United States would serve a cheese course.

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, What is lacking in France -- without implying that the lack is a negative one -- is the culture of the road that is so much a part of American life. The windows at the rendez-vous routiers we visited subtly acknowledged that by disregarding the road entirely. At home, a diner or truck stop always has the road in view.

The road is enjoyed in America for its own sake, often by the solo traveler, a springboard for independence or merely flight. Turning their backs to the road, the French routiers we ate among had re-created home in their rendez-vous, complete with a substitute wife, overworked and unappreciated. The men ate and talked at table as family members might.

Moreover, the French are so entirely devoted to food and to eating that even at a truck stop, about as godless a dining experience as exists, they refused to lapse into culinary atheism. Our meal went on after the turkey and potatoes to include a selection of cheeses as well as dessert. The cheeses were a bit on the dry side, but the dessert -- a rum-soaked cupcake topped with a red maraschino cherry and whipped cream -- had a satisfying gooeyness. Remarkably, we knew what we were eating the entire time.

It was approaching 2 o'clock before we took the last sips of coffee. Around us, the tables now were nearly empty and a cloud of dust in the air above the parking lot was the only indication that

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once a crowd of empty trucks had waited there. There was still a good bit of Blason d'Or left, and we judged that we could drive safely. We walked back through the dark bar, paid up for the meals and the coffee, and hit the road.

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The Mendon village clochard, in doing nothing at all, did provide his fellow citizens with an affecting social lesson. Like a similar character in a Renoir film, he also satisfied a characteristically French fascination with the grotesque. Clochard begs translation from a politically correct FrenchEnglish dictionary as "homeless person," yet the Mendon clochard was not homeless at all. He lived in a ramshackle one-room cottage without electricity or other utilities on the edge of the village center. His not untidy hovel was furnished with a table and several old chairs. A printed tablecloth smartly covered the table.

Tall and bearded, wearing a greasy tweed jacket and mud-spattered pants, the clochard was the picture of health with a ruddy complexion, engaging eyes and plenty of meat on his bones. He may have been in his late fifties or some other age entirely, a war veteran or an inveterate layabout. He presented himself every morning on a stumplegged chair in front of his cottage, a gingercolored mutt tied to a stake nearby. Whenever I passed them on my bicycle, man and dog glared melodramatically like characters from a Japanese noh play.

The clochard was known to everyone in Mendon as a great drinker. The villagers, out of pity, had permitted him to take the 'abandoned cottage for his shelter. I had no idea how one

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applied or even qualified for such a social program in such a village. Lanky young men in laborer's clothes were frequent guests at his cottage. Perhaps they recognized in the clachard an aspect of character or spirit they did not notice when, as children, they laughed at him and ran away when he growled back.

In the late 18th century, another clachard, "Le Rai Stevan" (King Steven) traveled in the area around Auray, a city of 10,000 not far from Mendon. This colorful vagabond became known in his day as a marvelous clairvoyant, a hometown Nostradamus. His cult survives in our era owing to an occasional revival, spurred whenever a tired journalist dredges up the hoary story of Brittany's famous prophet.

The curious American asked Leontine if she knew anything about Stevan's predictions and she readily admitted her own confidence in them. She even invited me to examine a book she had discovered when cleaning a disused farm building in Rosmarian. She described it as an ancient diary in which KingStevan's prophecies were written.

Not much later, I wandered up the road in Rosmarian and located Leontine by following telltale sounds of squawking chickens. I called her name several times into a dark tin shed. At last, Leontine emerged into the light of day. For all I knew, she was wringing a bird's neck when I had disturbed her. She wiped her hands briskly across

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her apron and greeted me enthusiastically. As I explained my mission, Leontine's expression became quizzical, as usual. Whenever I spoke to her in my best high school French, she looked in wonder at me like a child coming upon an organ grinder's monkey performing in the street.

For my part, I strained to interpret Leontine's sharp Breton accent and a speech pattern as rapid as a hen's clucking. In Leontine's simple Rosmarian kitchen, polished copper pots hung on the walls like an array of helmets. Bread dough was rising under dishcloths, something I had seen before only in my Irish grandmother's kitchen. The yeast gave off a sharp odor. At the table, Leontine laid a large brown envelope before her. I was anxious enough to see what I had come to imagine really was Le Roi Stevan's original 18thcentury diary, but Leontine preferred first to make all manner of polite inquiries about my wife and her family.

Finally, she reached for the envelope. As she began to open it, she explained that King Stevan had carefully studied the moon and the stars -- la lune et les eioiles -- and because I may not have understood her, Leontine closed the envelope and returned it to the table so that she could raise her arms skyward and draw circles in the air. I nodded impatiently. "Qui," I said, repeating the phrase like a schoolboy, "la lune et les etoiles"

The diary of Le Roi Stevan turned out to be written in a thin blue notebook of the sort used everywhere in the world for school examinations. The flowing script on the pages had dried to a sepia tone, but I could not believe the book was from any earlier than 1968. On the first page, headed "Le Roi Stevan," the amateur student of folklore had transcribed a paragraph of French, then another in Breton, and so forth. As I inspected several such pages in the notebook, Leontine remarked that Stevan's prophecies were "formidable" -- extraordinary.

King Stevan had predicted a war between France and a foreign country, which was rather like predicting snow for the North Pole. Stevan also foresaw a supreme conflict in which the whole earth would be destroyed. Leontine told me she was sure Armageddon would come one day soon. Should I have missed her point, the farmer's wife raised her hands in the air and motioned vigorously so that he might picture the shape of a fulminating mushroom cloud.

Like Michelangelo vigorously chipping a block of marble to reveal frozen figures, Madame LeGrel, osireiculturisie, stood inside her studio attacking her own medium with hammer and chisel. A quick succession of blows sent flying a sparkling white shower. Short and stocky, Madame LeGrel addressed visitors in a soft, agreeable voice between her displays of Vulcanic strength. A pearly glitter was spread on the

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woman's thick eyebrows and lashes. In the shack's cramped quarters, enormous flies shadowed her movements.

The ostreiculiure method was perfected a century ago in Brittany, specifically Morbihan, and ever since, it has yielded consistently profitable results. Time has made few improvements on the basic procedure.

According to the practice, free floating oyster larvae will, under proper conditions, attach themselves like barnacles to natural shells or artificial porcelain tiles suspended in seawater. Ridges in the shell and tile surfaces somehow attract the infant oysters to install themselves safely before they can be consumed by passing fish. Under similar circumstances on land, farmers would need to layout flypaper in their fields in order to capture windblown seeds for their crops.

When Madame LeGrel finishes detaching recalcitrant layers of oyster buds, she arranges them by size to be placed later in rectangular wire mesh cages and returned to shallow water. Ostreiculiure requires more than usual patience: a two-year-old oyster is only as round as a quarter. Cultivated oysters dragged from the Etel River estuary in spring are not considered ready to eat until the following December. The popularity of the shellfish at French holiday feasts makes for a busy Christmas season, said Madame LeGrel. She added ruefully that December is also Brittany's

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coldest, dampest period. In 25 years of marriage, her only break from this labor-intensive, physically discomforting work has been another, la maierniie.

Sixty families and several small companies raise oysters in the rich Etel River estuary. These operations range from the sophisticated to the shabby with la [amille LeGrel falling in the middle and prospering well. Their windowless tin shack, built on a cramped dock overlooking the river, had a single utilitarian feature: a three-sided, waist-high counter for accumulating all manner of oyster shells and fractions.

Ostreiculiure equipment was equally simple: hammers and tools in quantity enough for a blacksmith; several pairs each of green wading boots and yellow rubber work gloves; countless aluminum and plastic buckets; and a leatherbound transistor radio perpetually tuned to Radio Nostalgie, Brittany's golden oldies station.

A small rowboat with outboard motor was n100red at an adjacent concrete slip. The child who provided Madame LeGrel with an all-too-brief relief from her hammer and shells -- a son, Eric, in his early twenties -- was studying osireiculture and related marine subjects at a post-secondary school program in nearby Etel ville. Whatever oyster cultivation techniques his mother and father practiced were likely acquired at an early age when they were pressed into the family business

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without benefit of education and the formality of exams and diplomas. A generation later, pressure to carry forth tradition may be just as great, yet Eric will, at least, accede to it with considerably more dignity.

At his mother's insistence, Eric took the family's visitors for a short Etel River tour. A hefty young man with the high forehead and gentle, distracted regard of a poet, he waded obediently into shallow water at the dock and gallantly steadied the rowboat for boarding. The boat's size and design required we sit facing Eric while he maneuvered the motor's till. His considerable weight raised the bow from the water and lent a false impression of speed. Slowly, dock and shack receded from view and the LeGrel family dog's harsh barking faded on the air.

Out on the wide, empty river, day-to-day business abandoned on shore appeared remote. The water's glassy surface separated the boat thoroughly from the surrounding scenery of rolling green hills, drab stands of hemlock and colorless shacks. Automobiles riding on coastal roads skimmed the river's edge noiselessly like beetles. On a sandbar, heron were gathered for a buffet of delicate crab. From a distance, the elegant white birds resembled animated versions of lace eoifles, the elaborate traditional headdresses of Breton women.

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Holding to a course straight down the river's middle, Eric LeGrel, like Charon the underworld ferryman, had nothing whatsoever to say. His visitors fell mute. Like recently departed souls, we contemplated in silence the treasures we'd left behind.

Another afternoon, I walked along the Etel at la Pointe de Rosmarian to scout for photographs. Obligingly, a small figure fifty feet ahead on the muddy bank picturesquely hauled a simple fishing shallop to land. I tried to frame a shot but in the glaring light of a recumbent sun, fisherman and boat were only dark silhouettes. The shadowy figure waved at me through the view finder, then started in my direction. I let the camera hang harmlessly around my neck and returned the man's shouts with a hearty, if accented bonjour. "Americain?" the fisherman inquired on arrival. The Breton surprised me, however, when he smiled and fingered the brim of his cap. "I tip my hat to the Americans," he said warmly. "I fought with them in the Resistance. I remember their courage. II

This pro- American fisherman was an old pensioner with thick glasses and tobacco stains on his teeth and mustache. He led the stranger to his boat so that he could finish the work of bringing it in for the day. We passed the time talking only about the weather and the fishing until I noticed that his boat, painted green and white, was named Paix for peace. Pretty name for a boat, I told him.

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"C'esi dur, la guerre," he answered, a phrase best translated as, "War is hel1."

The old fisherman lifted his threadbare casquette, wiped his brow with a greasy kerchief and pierced me with an expression of deep sorrow. "It is not easy for the people who have seen war to forget it", he announced. "The young do not understand it, but the old ones do."

Far into the spring, la lune rousse held sway over Brittany. For afternoon bike rides, I wore a wool sweater to ward off the wind chill. One bright, clear morning with a rare warm breeze, I met Marc Guyonvarch by a fence. "What a beautiful day!" I exclaimed, spoken like any tourist when relieved his vacation has at last turned for the better. Rather than smiling in return, however, the farmer twisted his cap around his head and looked at his neighbor with a very needy expression. As if it were a matter of obtaining medicine for a sickly child, he replied, "But the fields are so dry!" My heart went out to Marc and his crops, though I selfishly remained pleased at the splendid weather.

I went to pay respects to Mendon's most important Celtic-era monument. A single standing stone ten feet high with smooth shaft and round cap, the menhir undeniably resembled a phallus erect in Etel River marsh land. -

Such a pagan totem, however, was long ago apprehended by the Catholic church. In the language of modern veterinary medicine, it was "fixed" and renamed, la Corneille Ste. Brigitte (literally, St. Brigitte's crow).

Whatever its religious affiliation now, and despite its ridiculous appearance, the ancient monument commanded tremendous awe. By its mute presence, the simple stone pillar undeniably declared the surrounding sea and bog to be holy ground.

Squatting by the river's edge, I watched as small crabs danced in shallow water among polished stones and emerald patches of salicorne, a common Breton marine plant that are eaten like cornichons. I dipped my hand in the cool water and blessed myself like a pilgrim with splashes of water to the forehead, face and neck. The Celtic menhir stood by the Etel River as it had for generation and generations and stared out to sea

'where it beheld eternity.

In those days under a red n100n in Brittany, I would go walk in the very early mornings before the dawn mist had entirely cleared from the fields. Marc was out then, too, stepping alone through one of his several Rosmarian plots to inspect the rows of thin yellow shoots. Against the white sky, he made a peaceful yet somber silhouette. The farmer might have been an eternal spirit allotting on those fields fertility and a bountiful harvest,

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I retire.
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