Lunch in Cuguen

(Bill Girdner/CNS)

It was a bright summer day in the tiny Breton town of Cuguen where my childhood family friends own a small country house, handed down through the family.

The air was crisp and light, with an almost sensual quality, infused with the scent of flowers and the sweetness of thick grass and forest.

We had placed a table on the grass in the shade of a laurel tree, for lunch in the country. On the table was a chilled, local, dry cider that we drank as we started with crudites and then had a salad of fresh local tomatoes.

Accompanying the meal was the baguette we had bought at the local boulangerie that morning.

The father, mother, two daughters and the white shepherd named Moon were gathered around. Flowers were in bloom around the house and a few paces away we could enter a small forest which was also part of their property.

They had marinated slices of pork in advance, and the father, Jean-Luc, grilled them in the fireplace of a small structure next to the main house, where their grandparents had lived during World War II.

We consumed the meat with bread and a bottle of Bordeaux.

Conversation flowed easily, as it always did in France, and we turned to my fascination with the monoliths. There was a large rock laying on its side about 20 yards up a rise behind the picnic table, so Jean-Luc and I inspected it, speculating that it might be a monolith.

He said they should stand it up at some point.

But his wife Francoise said that was a bad idea – “a cause des ondes.”

Ondes is hard to translate but it conveys the idea of waves or pulsations in space, like the old notion of the ether.

The family members knew that I liked to put my hand up against the monoliths from prehistory and feel their strength. Some of them seemed very strong, almost like a machine pulling you back in time. Others had nothing.

Francoise always seemed to find my practice amusing. But apparently it forms part of the local beliefs, that the old stones do emit some otherworldly pulse. To put them upright, was to set the pulse loose.

After lunch, we went into the woods to collect desiccated stalks that had come out of the forest floor, with delicate tops forming thin seed pods. We then sat at the table outside and peeled the outer layer of the pods, releasing the seeds and leaving the silvery, translucent membrane inside.

Francoise liked to keep a couple bunches of them at her house outside Rennes.  The Latin name for the plant is Lunaria or moon-like, but the French called the gossamer inner leaves “monnaie du Pape” – Pope’s money.

In the afternoon, we packed up and locked up. The French society was not at all immune to “cambrioleurs” or house-breakers, and electronic shutters were brought down over the windows.

We passed by the bakery which, the family explained, was provided with its space in a public building for a negligible monthly fee. That was because that town’s last baker had gone out of business and the very essence of a French village is bound up in its boulangerie.

In nearby Combourg, we stopped at a supermarket with a rich seafood section and a monger who announced the bargains in a pitchman’s cadence. Francoise bought three quarters of a kilo of small mussels and some brine shrimp.

We next stopped for a beer outdoors at a small café across from the medieval castle where French writer Chateaubriand grew up in the 1700s, resulting in its moniker as the “birthplace of romanticism.”

The ride back to the family house near Rennes wound along small roads in a bucolic setting, stands of forest interspersed with cornfields and lush green pastures where cows splashed in black and white were grazing.

We stopped for one last look and touch of a menhir near Cuguen, which was a good 30 feet tall. In a sign of the battle against the power of the old rocks, locals had cemented a small Christian cross at the top. This menhir, though, at least to my touch, had no power.

But the setting did. It stood on a long crestline with a sweeping view to the south of the vast, wide valley below and, to the north, a rolling expanse of fields and forest.

That Saturday was the final day in Brittany with an Air France flight from Rennes to Paris and back to Los Angeles, starting the next morning.

A monolith, or menhir at St. Just. (Bill Girdner/CNS)


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