In Brittany, in the little town of Moëlen-sur-Mer, I parked a Fiat 500 rental on the town square in front of the main cathedral and asked a passing group for directions to a street with a name in the Breton language. They advised me to walk, easier than driving the one-way streets.
So I found the street shortly and pushed open a wooden door opening onto a narrow walkway that led to a stone house from the 16th or 17th century. High on a stone wall that abutted a small, very green backyard, lay an enormous cat, its dark gray and white colors very much like a Cheshire cat, staring straight at me. At my feet was a small dog whose name I later learned was Merlin.
Inside the house with big open windows and an open door, a figure in a full-length, red dress was standing in shadow, and in the light, sleeping on the couch, was a child with cherubic cheeks. I called out “Liliane!” and a voice came back, “Oui Beel!”
Liliane and her grand-daughter then took me on a short trip to Doëlan, a tiny port with two lighthouses, one green, one red, on either side of its narrow entrance. In the late afternoon, it was largely empty. Even a big café, overlooking the port, was closed.
We returned to her stone house where an aperitif was in order, whiskey to my surprise. We talked as Liliane cooked a small roast by first placing it in water and then bringing the water just to boil, then removing the roast. In the meantime, she sautéed onions and put them in the bottom of a pan, then placed the meat on top which she seasoned with salt and pepper, butter (it was France), and a secret ingredient that turned out to be curry powder.
And then in the oven it all went, as we continued to talk.
The result was simple and delicious, accompanied by a baguette, a vegetable I cannot remember, and a bottle of Cote du Rhone. One of the ever-present but subtle aspects of family conversation in France is that it is easy and interesting – it flows.
We talked about her 80th birthday party, her daughter’s many children and a topic of great interest to me, the region’s old stones, the megaliths. She told me that whenever she visited the stones at Carnac nearby, she always felt peaceful.
Carnac’s roughly 1,000 stones, erected over the course of 1,200 years starting around 4500 BC, are aligned in 11 long rows with the stones fairly evenly spaced. Local tradition has it that they were a Roman legion turned to stone by Merlin. When I later visited them, the place struck me as an enormous ancient graveyard.
Liliane said she did not understand why she always felt calm there, in the presence of the stones. But once I saw them, I thought I knew part of it.
Many years ago, I was riding with the daughter when she stopped the car at an ancient stone chapel in Normandy. The chapel was unattended, dark and still. It seemed that long before it had fallen out of use.
She wanted to walk through the old graveyard behind the chapel. And as we walked, she recounted that she and her mother enjoyed strolling in graveyards in the evening, liked their smell, delighted in the small methane fires that danced above the graves on some nights.
As I saw it, there was some connection to the other world that ran through the family.
After dinner, Liliane and I walked around by the 500-year-old Chapelle Saint-Roche accompanied by Merlin. During the summer, concerts are held in the chapel that sits in a large, green public space that includes a free public parking lot with no time limit.
We walked around the chapel and then on a country road nearby with cows standing on one side, dark profiles in the long evening light of late summer this far north. On the other side was a construction site that Liliane said was meant for public housing, which is common in the villages and towns of Brittany.
The night was spent on a small bed in the loft of the ancient house, with creaking wood floors. The deafening peals of church bells started the next day, which prompted a short walk to the nearby boulangerie where a line of locals stretched to the door, waiting to buy fresh bread.
Some bread and butter and coffee, and I was back on the road to visit the stones of Carnac and then on to see Lilane’s sister who lives in another part of Brittany near the sea of la Manche, in another small, old house in a forest, on a road called Route de la Froide Rue, the route of the cold road.