Recently a friend of mine took issue with my avatar. To be precise, with the motto inscribed over my avatar’s image, which he perceives as negative.
Don’t get stuck in the quagmire of your memories
These sage words were spoken by my sister Diana some time ago when we were talking about the need to look forward while living in the present, rather than getting bogged down by expectations of demanding family members and convention in general. It originally only represented our resolve to move beyond confining memories.
However, within the last two years, three of my friends just up and died. Without much warning, cancer took all three of them. Earlier this year it got even worse. My baby brother died within weeks of being diagnosed with cancer, which affected me to a much greater extent than I was able to comprehend at the time. I was there with him when he was condemned to death and I shall never forget the spiraling vertigo engulfing both of us at that moment.
When you approach the end of the line for yourself and the most beloved persons around you, your focus narrows, highlighting how precious every single day, every single hour truly is.
Since Charles’ death, my avatar motto took on an additional meaning, as it became exceedingly difficult for me to pull my boots out of the thick mud lining the banks of the river Styx of memories of my brother and all those myriad ways our lives intersected. Charles lived with my husband and me a few times over the years and finally settled down in the US, like me, raising his family in Texas.
Out of this closeness developed a memory burden I am trying to bear gracefully, with varied success in so far as I can’t stop wanting to tell him stuff. I have become vulnerable to memory attacks in unsuspecting ways. Small, everyday things we encounter during our travels, as for example the motorcycle parked on the Hoe in Plymouth, which had a sidecar mounted on the “wrong” side. Charles was a bike-with-sidecar aficionado and would’ve laughed at its peculiar appearance. So I took a picture of it before I realized, all over again, that I can no longer send him pictures.
Recently my husband and I did a home exchange in Brittany, a part of the world I’ve loved for a long time and which holds any number of fond memories for me, many of which are intertwined with my brother. Family vacations in the early seventies took me repeatedly to the rocky southern coast of Brittany, in particular, La Baule, Carnac, and Le Cabellou.
In contrast to my familiarity with this region, our home exchange was the first visit to Brittany for my husband and I was looking forward to showing him around. For myself, I was hugely curious to learn how the area had changed since my last visit 40 odd years ago. But going back to Brittany also took me straight into serious sucker-punch territory because so many of my past trips included Charles. Back then, he was the only one fluent in French, thus our youngest family member became everybody’s linguistic helpmate when he was only seven years old.
La Baule with its self-styled “La Plus Belle Plage d’Europe” designation was undoubtedly Charles’ special playground since, in addition to family vacations, he spent several summers there with a family whose son, Jean-Christoph, would then also spent time with our family in Germany. He told me how he and Jean-Christoph would target German tourists at the beach for adolescent mischief and how he felt wholly French there. So I chickened out and we bypassed La Baule, driving directly to our exchange home in Arradon, Morbihan. I believe this was the best course of action for us to take. I wanted to start our trip together without the need to clear all that emotional sand from my sandals every other step.
Fortunately, the Menhirs of Carnac and a certain creperie in le Cabellou are far less heavily steeped in brotherly memories. Together, Barry and I successfully chased down some fun and funky memories about large rocks and sweet crêpes. Memories relating to the oddest trip to Brittany one could possibly imagine.
In 1974, after having lived in sin for seven years, my sister Diana and my brother-in-law Wilfried decided to get married, and a beautiful wedding it was. They asked my father for the use of his RV to drive around Brittany for their honeymoon. Neither one of them had ever been there before, neither one of them had ever driven a large, van-like vehicle before. As a matter of fact, my sister didn’t like to drive at all and my brother-in-law, may he forgive me, had a few incidences of moving violations on his record. Long story short, our Solomonic father was striving for a compromise when issuing his verdict: yes, as long as Claudia acts as your chauffeur. Live-in chauffeur that is, considering we needed to share the confined space of a small RV.
In addition, we were to take Jean-Christoph with us and deliver him safely to his family in la Baule. At that time, no-one counteracted a parental verdict, at least not in my family. So all of us left Hamburg on our group honeymoon on Saturday, September 8, 1974, at 08:00 hrs. An hour later than scheduled – as always! Odometer reading: 11 640 Km.
[I kept a diary hence this ridiculously precise recollection forty-two years later :-)]
We successfully negotiated Paris, arriving in La Baule on Sunday night at 21:30 hrs in pouring rain, delivering a very happy Jean-Christoph into his mother’s arms. We ourselves took refuge at the residence of friends of our parents, M. & Mme Thomas Gehnert, and spent a peaceful night in their driveway.
Eventually, a day or two later, we ventured further westward along the coast, reaching the small fishing village of Piriac-sur-mer toward evening. The one and only bakery sold us their last baguette before closing and we enjoyed a simple meal parked in the church square. After dinner, we walked around the corner to the bistro of the Hotel de la Plage*, the only place that was still open at about 8:30 PM. To put it mildly, we caused a sensation. Jungle drums had long since announced that a German campervan was parked in the square. But now this guy showed up with two women. One guy – two women. Wow! The head fisherman, Théo, spread the word among his buddies to come and look at the exotic foreigners. Once we involved the chaps in conversation, their wild fantasies reduced themselves to near normal and we were invited to a fun moonlight harbor cruise. Unfortunately, Diana slipped in the dinghy and hit her back really hard resulting in quite a bit of pain and deep purple bruises later on. After a number of further [medicinal] shots at the hotel bar we foolishly agreed to go out fishing with them the next day – only hours away.
[*Hotel de la Plage today – much, much, much more modest back then!!]
At five in the morning, the church bells awakened our miserable, hungover and/or hurting selves and with the meager help of a few cups of tea we attempted to get ready to go fishing. Théo soon rapped at the window and we left harbor before sunrise. Despite our multiple sweaters under foul weather slickers and double socks, it was darn cold out there before the first net was hauled in. From then till early afternoon we worked hard sorting and separating fish from cephalopod from crustacean, throwing the babies and unwanted creatures back into the sea. It felt at times as if we were submerged to our necks amidst the plentiful catch. But we held our own, and our bladders, disembarking proudly, stinky and covered in fish scales. Complying with local fishermen’s custom, we repaired to the pub to wash down all that fishy aroma with our new buddies, before hightailing it to the public pool one town over for a thorough hot shower. Our jeans, stiff with fish blood and dried slime, had to go in a plastic bag for safekeeping in the furthest corner of the RV. There were no laundromats in these rural coastal corners, washing them had to wait till we could commandeer Mme Gehnert’s machine back in La Baule.
A sojourn in Brittany will, one way or another, always include an encounter with stones. There are large rocks everywhere. Beaches are littered with them, so is the land. The terrestrial ones are called menhirs and ancient humans, for unfathomable reasons arranged those rocks in long rows. Thousands of them. Thousands of years ago. Back in 1974, it was possible to walk among them, even climb on the menhirs. Today, they’re protected from accidental or deliberate damage by fences. Barry, who firmly believes the menhirs were planted because the Gauls thought they would grow, sort of a rock orchard, and I visited the Alignements de Ménec and Kermario in Carnac, just as our wedding party had done way back when in 1974. Love them menhirs!
Another place lovingly remembered is Ti Plouz ar Baluchon**, roughly “Welcome Home, Travellers”, a creperie in the beach community of Le Cabellou on the outskirts of the ancient fishing harbor Concarneau, Finistère. My mother and I discovered this cozy little place under the tall pines in 1972, when she and Charles and I traveled around Brittany during summer break.
[** Ti = home; Plouz = straw; Ar = the; Baluchon = (a wanderer’s) bundle, bag, pouch. Ti plouz = reed-roofed cabin; Baluchon = symbolic for traveller]. No guarantees! Simply the little bits I may or may not remember of the Breton language!]
We stopped by often for coffee and maybe a crêpe for Charles when he wasn’t playing between the rocks on the beach just up the road. The creperie’s waiter that summer was quite intriguing to me. My mother and I called him “The Black Man” between us, as he was always dressed in black from head to toe, with long black hair in a Prince Valiant cut, and never a smile on his lips. A challenge, certainly, for my 22-year-old self. The creperie owners Maryse and Raymond, nearly my mother’s age, soon became friends and we enjoyed spending time with them.
Two years later, our honeymoon convoy pulled into the gravel drive of the creperie and we parked in the shade behind the house. Diana and Wilfried fit right in. There were many intense Mah Jongg sessions with Maryse late at night after the last guests had finally left the restaurant and we all took our aprons off. Later in the week, while Raymond was sailing a friend’s Dufour Arpège to Deauville, Maryse came down with a bad case of phlebitis and Diana managed the kitchen for her. During the off hours, we just lazed about in the sunshine or collected shells on the beach, while Wilfried experimented as avant-guard film director.
One particular day in Le Cabellou will live forever in my heart as a beautiful memory. Sunday late morning, Raymond, Diana and I drove to the fishing harbor in Concarneau and bought six dozen oysters straight off the boat – 65 oysters actually because we got a baker’s dozen. Back home we lit the fireplace, opened some bottles of chilled Muscadet, the regional white wine, and set the table with candles while the boys chucked the oysters and piled them high on a tray to go in the center of the table. Let the feast begin!
After bread & cheese with hand-churned butter from a local farm, we finished the meal with ice cream & coffee, and calvados to aid our digestion. What a day!
Since I had such a strong connection to the Plouz for nearly a half century, I was psyched to find it again on our recent trip. Upon arrival in the area, Barry crept up and down one narrow lane after another in the quite over-build Cabellou Plage neighborhood, at agonizingly slow speed, while I scanned every property trying to identify a landmark, any landmark. Finally, we parked and started walking through this beautiful neighborhood, lingering on adjacent beaches.
After a long, fruitless search which was really a long and delightful promenade, we were climbing back into the car when I decided to give it one more try. Nearby, I had noticed a woman busy with yard work. I walked back to her and introduced my query with the standard Frenchy formula: Je suis désolée de vous déranger, Madame, mais j’ai un petit question = I’m so sorry to disturb you, dear lady, but I have a quick question. As is the rule, she listened attentively to my explanation about a creperie in her neighborhood which operated more or less 40 years ago. Even though she hadn’t lived there THAT long, Madame pointed out, she recognized the place. No longer a creperie, did I know? As it turned out the property in question – a private home for some time now – was literally around the corner from her property and four houses up the street. We had driven right past it, I believe, because the property is so overgrown that you can’t even see a house from the street.
Barry encouraged me to sneak up the neighbor’s driveway to catch a better view. Yes, this is the former Ti Plouz ar Baluchon, without any doubt!! It made me very happy that we found the old place which miraculously looks exactly like I remembered it.
Even though I exchanged letters with the Collers early on, I lost touch and don’t know what became of Maryse, Queen of Mah Jongg and Raymond, sailor par excellence. I vaguely recall that they wanted to expand the Cabellou property and had gotten a building permit, but that they had difficulties to come up with the funds to start building. Looking at the house, it’s clear it wasn’t altered. Now that I have the street address again, I may write a letter to the “house” and see if I get a response from the current resident.
In order to improve my attitude toward managing my memories, my friend forwarded a quote by Petrarca, recommending to “Lerne zu vergessen, was nutzlos ist, und erinnere dich mit Liebe an alles Schöne.” [to learn to forget what’s useless and remember lovingly all the beauty]. I would welcome to participate in one of Petrarca’s famous dialogues to see if he could provide a solution for those gut-wrenching moments when the damn beauty becomes the quagmire that threatens to suck you under. Out of my sorrow, I have to respond with another Petrarca quote:
And tears are heard within the harp I touch.