THE BLOG
10/09/2013 05:04 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

A French Family

On both sides of my family, my ancestors were from Brittany (la Bretagne), the western part of France that sticks out of the country's map like a large cone ending with a cross. Jutting out in the Atlantic Ocean, it is a harsh and magnificent territory, constantly windswept and somewhat inhospitable, with a landscape of rounded rocks covered in moss and dry soil garnished with persistant wildflowers.

A lot of people know about Brittany's crèpes and the apple cider, and the folkloric music with its unique instruments, the binious that sounds just like the British wind pipes. The land has a misty charm; with deep blue hydrangeas and red poppies growing like wild weeds everywhere, it is a land of strange beauty and secrets, legends and fairies, warriors and fishermen. The typical houses there are made of stones and slates, with small windows and low on the land, to fight the elements. The hearts of its people are shy and a little mystic.

My ancestors were Vikings, and came from Scandinavia, sailing around the northern tip of Ireland, where they picked up a lot of red in their hair, down to the Jersey Islands, and ended up in Brittany. They started as tall and strong people and evolved into stocky and resistant souls, as you had to be strong to resist the scarcity of the land and the caprice of the weather. Even in summertime, the wind always brings cool wind and mighty storms. Brittany is famous for its massive and freaky tides, for the force of its gale and the suspended fog. Heatwaves unknown here.

Our two original families lived 20 miles apart in towns located in Sud Finistère, a county by the sea. My parents met at a local ball, and that is about the only detail I know about their courtship. They were born in Brittany, got married in Brittany, had my two brothers in Brittany, then moved to Paris before I was born, to make me the first generation in thousand of years to migrate away from the land of our ancestors, into the capital city. I suppose my father wanted to avoid becoming a seaman, so he worked as a tobacco trader for the French government in Paris. Mother was a history and geography teacher. Both very obscure and hermetic characters.

My grandparents spoke Breton at home, the local tongue of this part of France. My first word was kenavo (good bye), and my parents spoke it too, but never taught us children. After I stopped going to Brittany for the summers, I lost the few words I had learn as a child. Now that there is a revival of the language, students in France can do all their studies and graduate in Breton.

On my father side, all men before him were fishermen and had sardine boats anchored in the port of Guilvinec, a lovely seaside town, a popular touristic draw today. On my maternal side, my grandpa was a woodworker and built beautiful armoires and other pieces, still standing to this day, with sculpted details and wood rivets, heavy steel keys and gold nails. One such armoire was my bed during the summer vacations, when we were sent there for three months at the time, a good thing for the little Parisians kids to breathe the clean and salty air of the Atlantic Ocean.

The armoire looked just like one when the heavy double doors were shut, but then when opened for the night, they revealed three upper shelves for folded linen, and a mattress fitting in the bottom width of the piece of furniture, where I would climb at night and sleep snuggly with the doors opened. This was called a cosi, in Breton, do you see where the English word comes from?

Bretons people have navigation in their blood, they are creatures of the sea. The brave Terra Neuva sailors were fishermen traveling all the way across the vast ocean to reach the upper limit of Canada and fish for sardines and cod, leaving their homes for months at the time, returning when the boat was full, and not a moment sooner. They faced strong storms and brutal weather, deaths on the sea and loss of cargo. They did not have much to eat. They ate the sardines. Some stale bread, some potatoes. At the beginning of the trip they had eggs and butter, at the end of the long months, nothing but fish was left to feed on.

Both my mother and my father parents were Bigoudens, a folk tribe of Brittany with a lovely costume and their own dances and music. My grandpa (on Maman side) had black velvet pants, a white shirt with lace details, a black vest, a black ribbon tie, and a large round hat with wide brim and flowing black velvet ribbons. He wore wooden clogs. My grandma (also on Maman side) had a slightly more complicated costume with layers of black fabric in heavy velvet and rough jute with white lace, and a floor-long skirt with an apron over it. That was the everyday habit. For ceremonial affairs, a vest with gold embroidery was added to the suit. Sometimes the apron was navy blue. Her amazing head gear is what was fascinating: a tall round pipe, about 15 inch high by 5 inch in diameter, made of heavy starched white lace, strapped to her chin with ribbons, sitting on top of her head. A very unusual sight, she looked like she had a chimney on her skull. http://farm7.staticflickr.com/6173/6178151331_3c8563de78_z.jpg

I can think of several discomforts by wearing such a "hat", but two images are stuck in my memory forever; when riding in cars, which was a seldom feast, Grandma had to either be in a convertible with the top down, just like the Citroen 2CV my aunt was driving (the one she totaled when she hit a cow, which was fine), or have her "pipe" stick out of the window sideways! When she died, she had an extra long coffin to accommodate the coiffe, as it is called. Luckily for her, she only wore the traditional headgear on special occasions and events, but her mother was dressed like so her entire life. Nowadays, about 700 women still wear the Bigouden costume on a daily basis, and festivals abound where thousands will put on their Sunday best to celebrate an event. http://a401.idata.over-blog.com/300x225/3/64/72/01/Mille-et-une-bigoudenes-2/384761_316764908342119_200275779991033_1187477_766449565_n-.jpg

On father side they are also Bigouden, but from a slightly different clan, with a flat and snug coiffe, but I never saw them in costumes. Brittany has multiple lineages with variations on their costumes. My great grandfather had been a Terra Neuva, and we used to eat a lot of fresh sardines in the summer when we visited. Fried, sautéed, smoked, marinated. Not the can kind.

A distant cousin, named Jacques de Kervaec was also a sardine sailor -- nothing surprising there, but a family legend has it that he became ill on one of his trips off the coast of Canada, and had to disembark to be treated in a local hospital, where they spoke French. He had some kind of lung infection, and his boat could not wait, so he was left behind.

He was a young man, made a new life in Québec, later married and moved down to Connecticut, then Massachusetts, where he bore a son named Jack Kérouac. Yes, that makes me a far away cousin of the famous writer/poet, many many times removed.

Kérouac, a typical Breton name (ker means house in Breton), spoke French in his youth, and died at age 47, in Florida, where I immigrated 24 years ago, exactly 20 years after his death. I certainly wish I had met him. To this day I know that my fierce ancestry has made me the stubborn soul that I am today, a trait of the Bretons people.

Breizh Atao, Brittany Forever.

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