Old Stones

     I wanted to see the old stones.
     “Il y en a partout,” said Francoise. They are everwhere.
     The dolmens, explained our Brittany host, are the ones that look like enormous tables, and the menhirs are the huge, single stones that stand with a big, round end set in the earth, the other end tapering towards the sky.
     Passing along the deep-green fields of Brittany, in the area near St. Malo, we followed a small sign to the Menhir du Champ Dolent, the biggest menhir in Brittany at almost ten meters in height. The massive stone seemed impaled in the earth.
     I put my hand on its rough surface and closed my eyes. There came an immediate sensation, as if a corridor of time opened, a cold, dark, eternal vastness, but with a deep, almost sensual vibrancy.
     At dinner, I was trying to describe the sensation to Francoise and her family that includes two daughters in high school and college. We were having a home-cooked meal of stuffed red peppers, something I had not had since my French mother made them when I was a kid.
     It was not like I had seen the early Celts dancing in a pagan ritual, I said, but then struggled to explain what I had felt from the great stone.
     “C’avait de la force,” Francoise jumped in. It had strength.
     She had got it right.
     The next day, driving with her husband, Jean-Luc, we followed one of the ubiquitous brown signs in France that signify a historic spot. This one said simply “Menhir.”
     It pointed us up a dead-end, muddy road.
     There stood another great stone. We walked up a tractor path, scissored over an electrified wire, and continued along a narrow border between the fields, until we reached the menhir. I put a hand on it.
     It did not have the same power.
     But the setting did — a deep-gray, low sky on a wet, late afternoon, with, on one side, an open field and a line of forest in the distance, and, on the other, land sloping down into a vast valley. The place was quiet, stark, mysterious, a setting that could not have changed much in the last ten thousand years.
     A couple days earlier, upon our arrival in Rennes via high speed train from Paris, my girlfriend and I had been given a lesson in more recent history.
     We took a tour of the Brittany congress and court building that dated to the 1600s, when Brittany was its own state with its own culture, language and people.
     Much of the historic building had been burned as a result of a flare fired in a demonstration by local fishermen over quotas and the steady loss of their livelihoods. The flare broke through a ceiling glass and landed in the hall of a thousands paces, where lawyers wait for the verdict.
     Only in the night, long after the demonstrators had come and gone, did people see the red glow in the top of the building. In the ensuing battle against the fire fanned by a brisk wind, much of the art was saved, but the building was severely damaged.
          But — and you saw this repeatedly in France — the right to demonstrate and cause a severe ruckus was looked upon with general acceptance and often sympathy. Even here, where a violent demonstration had resulted in the burning of a regional treasure, the anger of the fishermen was understood.
     After the fire, the building was restored in a massive project that took several years.
     Inside, on a Saturday tour, our guide pointed out French and Breton motifs side by side, the ermine, celebrated for its tenacity and pugnacity, as the symbol of Brittany, arrayed against the elegant lily flower representing the central power of the royal government in Paris.
     The deeply Catholic nature of the Bretons was also reflected in the building’s motifs. Ceiling paintings set virtue against vice, avarice against generosity, sloth against industry, wantonness against chastity.
     Our guide lead us into the Court of Assizes, an ornate court, with a set of gilded circles in the ceiling around paintings representing aspects of justice that included a single eye, signifying the law’s ability to see the truth.
     In taking a picture of the all-seeing eye, I put down my backpack.
     Our guide then lead us out and locked the courtroom. Down a corridor, outside another courtroom, she said we could not go inside because exhibits were in place for a trial over a notorious murder in the region. I spoke up.
     Embarrassed, I explained that I had left my backpack in the Court of Assizes. I expected an irritated clucking from the group of French visitors and a stern reaction of disapproval from the guide.
     Instead the group burst out in laughter, and the guide kindly took me back to unlock the court so I could retrieve my pack.
     At the end of a tour, the guide in a gentle manner solicited a tip — which is traditional in France — and said goodbye to her group. As the visitors left, some handed her a few coins.
     I was so grateful, I gave her a ten-euro bill.

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