One of my boobs had just tried to kill me, so we fled to France. Travelling has always been my answer to everything. I have crossed borders on trains, planes and ferries to celebrate, to escape, explore, to get a new job, to meet someone, or simply because the day had an A in it. But those were the days pre covid, pre young family and pre cancer. However, turns out, whatever happens to me, that same old nagging feeling of needing to be on the move remains ineluctable.
I packed up the buoyant children, the supportive husband and a pack of covid tests to rattle about on a ferry to Roscoff where the passenger numbers had dwindled to 100’s despite the onboard capacity for 1000’s. An empty pool slopped about, carpeted corridors stretched sans bustle and les restaurants were cordoned off. There was an apocalyptic accent to the beginning of our trip; no buzz to the bar, or shove to the shop. Even Brittany, it seemed, just across la Manche, was a step too far for many. How covid has stopped us in our tracks. Brexit too, as our family of 4 has been limited to a 90 day stay.
The homely arôme of coffee, simple cooking, slurry and chimney smoke in the dairy farm kitchen has remained unchanged for 30 years. My French ‘parents’ from school exchanges welcomed us into it with cider, crepes and love. For 10 days we settled in, slowed ourselves and ate organically from a vegetable garden grown from ancient seeds and peed on by generations of nitrogen-rich French men. Our girls fed the soon-to-be-murdered rabbits, collected eggs, were wary of the hind legs of 2 donkeys, handfed hay to les vaches and learnt enough French to ask for a chocolate éclair, while my husband and I enrolled them in the local school and found a place to live. We spoke less but communicated more. Tuning ourselves to a new rural French frequency, we could hear the apples softly thudding, the bats in the roof and the mice scruffling in blackberry heavy hedges.
We are two months in now. “Oh la la la la la la la la!” is sing-sung by the primary teacher often, my girls tell me, their eyebrows dancing in astonishment at such a lively exclamation. The simple French school is welcoming and with its refreshingly respectful attitude to school dining and a siesta for the little ones after the long lunch, life is less hectic for the girls. They have begun to mop up French words and new friends like the tiny natural sponges they are. We’ve never seen the teachers faces without a mask. It’s as if part of a puzzle is missing, but this adds to the muted atmosphere we’re embracing. With no school on Wednesdays – more delighted eyebrow action from the girls – we head to empty, pebbly plages to fill our souls, via our bare feet, with peace, and pack our pockets with shells.
My travels before this have usually involved self-imposed goals to scale the highest, view the oldest, climb into the deepest; generally, I’ve felt driven to see and do all the superlatives of a new location, but this trip has challenged this idée fixe. So many shutters are down on Brittany windows, but still I feel a belonging without a need to conquer, or to rush. Heads are down too – I see elderly men sweeping leaves searching for ceps, a dame d’un certain age foraging for chestnuts and farmers looming down at us from their tractors. It’s as if a provincial law of slow, quiet travel has been enforced and embraced.
“Un pain au chocolat, s’il vous plaît” my eldest happily asks the boulangère, and I know she’s looking forward to the soft buttery layers flaking into her mouth. Dark golden flakes fall like sycamore keys from her fingers and clothes onto the pavement where the ‘rouge gorges’ (literally red throats), robins, are waiting to eat, tame and expectant. Such peaceful pleasures.
To find myself enjoying such a quiet bubble in a Breton village is so unexpected, yet so vital and healing. I haven’t seen a single tourist. Beaches and roads are empty. My brain is calm. The unrelenting pressure I used to put on myself to discover, invade, rush, scramble and search, has slunk off into the slow sunsets. How have I not discovered slow travel before? Is it just covid that has had this calming effect here? Have I changed how I travel or has travel changed me? Does it matter? All I know is how grateful and fortunate I am for the liberté to be able to be here like this and quietly get things off my, slightly rearranged, chest.