Three Rivers at the End of the World
I slept really hard that night. The rains began, as Quimper seemed always misted, greyed, and doused of much life. But, well, no–anyone who’s lived in Seattle knows full well that a city can be grey and rainy yet still pulsing with some inner life–it’s just a question, then, for anyone to consider what sort of life courses through its streets.
Quimper’s fucking gorgeous, and fucking dark. It’s Kemper in Breton, or “confluence,” as it sits upon three rivers which meet before flowing out to the sea. These rivers cut gouges through the forested hills of the capitol of Finistere (“Penn ar Bed” in Breton, or “end of the world…” and it feels like it.), meet, flow away, sluggishly, as the people, as quickly, walk by it along the quays.
I don’t mean to make it sound depressing–it kind of is, actually, but–but I want it. I want to live there, almost desperately, and this urge surprises me. It urged me on continuously, treading across the cobbles through the medieval warrens each of which seems, ultimately, to lead to the Cathedral of Saint Corentin.
I finally visited the place, as no matter which direction I walked from it, I’d be there again. Saint Corentin is one of the 7 founding saints of christian brittany, attributed not just to the usual sets of miracles but also of living on an ancient, lost island city similar to Atlantis and multiplying fish just like Jesus.
If you go there, don’t use the holy water. It’s been pissed in, and not by me. Possibly the angry drunk punks outside, possibly by some angry Breton. And there’s lots, and I don’t know how to explain it, but I think something’s waking up there. Not in the Cathedral, nor underneath, but something behind the dazed look on some of the faces of the Bretons you see on the street.
I don’t want to tell you about the Cathedral of Saint Corentin or about Saint Corentin himself. I’d rather tell you what I heard someone explain to me in a bar: “He took away our joy. He made us safe, him and the other christians, but we lost our joy.” This from an atheist.
There are pages and pages I could write about the modern Breton culture, breton nationalism (which looks less like nationalism and more like cultural survivalism, from what I’ve seen), and the conversations I had. But I’m paying by the minute here at an internet cafe, and I’d like to study it more. But it’s fascinating to see people actively attempting to regain their past and weave it into their present, even at a time of economic misery (Quimper, like much of Bretagne, is going through a hard recession).
There’s more I’d say on this, but I need to go back to understand.
Another hard rain and a strange darkness, woken into after strange dreams. The rivers speak, the hills speak, but I do not know their language, and I think they fear they’ve forgotten how to speak.
Woke into the rain, into the sharp edge of solitude.
“Ah–zu want zur Tea in my tente?”
I looked at her. Breton to the core, straight out of a Jean Jeunet film. Her tent next to mine–I’d seen her a few times, said bonjour and all of that (it’s a secret, by the way–want someone to remember you? say hello to them. Otherwise you don’t exist. It’s like all of life) but had given little thought to her beyond this, wrapped so deeply in my own thoughts.
“Zur tente-not so..how do zu say, sec?”
“Oh, it’s dry,” I replied in French. This tent, it should be noted, has been excellent for the rains of Bretagne.
“Oh, good.” She seemed downtrodden. I felt diminished at my refusal, as she appeared to be.
I got to thinking…why do I refuse the kindness of strangers? I mostly survived off of it when I was younger, and it’s essential when traveling. What–what made me change?
I suspect Seattle. Like extricating oneself from brambles, or worse, extricating ivy from a forest, I don’t think I can quickly explain the tendrilled fear-of-the-other that city taught me. But I’d been aware of it for quite some time, and remained so that day.
I roamed about the city for a while, thinking on this matter, thinking on the inexplicable dreams and the subtle, garbled whispers from the city. I wrote some, read some more, and got lost.
If you want to know a place in which you don’t live, get lost. Forget your map, get rid of your GPS (I’ve multiple stories of running into tourists looking for places in Seattle which were directly in front of them, yet their phones told them to keep walking), and walk ’till your feet bleed.
I fucking fell in love with the darkness of the city that day, its dripping clouds soaking me, its back alleys and hidden alcoves becoming not shelter but gateways.
Sometime in the middle of the night I awoke to an animal noise. Snorting, rustling, very close to my ear. In that state between sleeping and waking, I say to myself, “Oh. It’s a boar. She’s hungry, poor thing,” and then fall back to sleep.
I wake to find my tent covered in la merde d’oiseux and find the packaging for all of my food scattered about, and a package of salami oddly missing.
The woman next to me approached again. “A wild boar,” she said in french. “They come from the hills.”
I did my best to clean up the mess, and then, a little later, the woman approached again. I noticed I was going into “no” mode before even hearing her offer, so I checked myself and listened.
“My friend and I–we are going to an old medieval sea fort, perhaps you would come with us?”
I would have been an idiot to say no.
The deux Laurences (feminine name) have been friends since early school. One utterly Breton, the other utterly gaulish, the both more fun than any two friends have right to be. They drove us all to Concarneau, a strange castle-on-the-sea much like a small St. Malo. For hours we wandered around the old ramparts, talking, eating Breton cookies, laughing at everything. Me and two middle-aged women and a medieval fort.
I learned more about Bretagne from those two than any of the books I’ve read, and more about how I am being perceived. Breton Laurence told me that she was certain, “You–you are not much like the other ones of your friends, right? I mean, you are strange, in a very good way. Also, an american in Quimper? How rare!”
She seems to be right. In fact, everywhere I’ve gone except in Rennes, with everyone I’ve spoken, it is the same refrain. Not many Americans visit Bretagne, and in many cases I was the first some of them had met.
It felt fucking wonderful to be around people, to have conversation with others, and, in addition, I’ll admit that I wasn’t aware that my french had become so good that I could spend the day with two people and speak nothing but.
Dinner, and then…a gay bar.
I needed to fortify myself for the next day, you see. Also…Breton men are excruciatingly gorgeous, and the idea of being a bit closer to them than merely passing on the street m’interesse’d greatly.
There’s one in Quimper (there used to be three, but like many other places in the city, the others recently closed). Bar 100 Logique, I believe. I arrived around 9, sat myself at the bar next to the four other people there, and began to write in my journal.
5 beers, 2 shots, and three hours later I walked myself home. I bought one of those drinks, the others were all from the (very charming, rather gorgeous) and the two old breton gents with whom I spoke for the majority of the night. Apparently, “c’est mignon” (it’s cute) how I speak French, fumblingly, a little bro-ish, and often overly formal. Also, I’m otherwise mignon, I was told.
Walking through ancient cobbled streets drunk is something not to be missed. It’s become a habit of mine to walk thusly and shout “older than shit!” at cathedrals (a habit I picked up in Strasbourg), but I was a bit more subdued. I’d forgotten mostly what I meant to do the next day, though a few of the people at the bar to whom I’d mentioned it suggested I was quite “fou” (foolish), and wished me “bon courage.”
A car pulls up next to me. “Oi–Reeed. It’s Rafael.”
It was the bartender.
“I will drive you home,” he said.
Another offer from a stranger, and I assented, as I’m not sure I would otherwise quite have made it. He dropped me off at the entrance of the camping place, bid me farewell, and I passed out.
September 20th (Menez Hom)
Rafael had, at some point in the night or earlier the next morning, left an envelope on my tent containing a note with his phone number and a request that, if I ever return to Quimper, I call him. I certainly shall.
A bit more hung over than perhaps I should have been, I gathered my stuff and took a bus 30 miles to the north to Menez Hom, an ancient hill in the “black mountains” of Finistere known to have been a religious site for druids. They’d found statues of Brighid in martial dress and old walls with know apparent evident purpose.
The place is more storied than any other place I’ve visited. And I don’t know how to tell you about my story there. It might not matter.
I need to go back. I saw, along one of the trails, an identical landscape to a vision I’d seen a few months ago, and in the spot where I’d seen a tower in the vision I saw instead–well.
Look. I don’t know. I’ll be going back. I’ll need to return to find out why there are recently carved norse runes in the pavement in places, and what at least one of the six dreams I had as I slept under a full moon amongst corn without a tent meant.
But anyone who knows the old bardic myths knows that one does not hide from certain goddesses amongst corn.
Nothing happened this day, except walking back down the hill in a confused daze, returning to Quimper, packing for Rennes, and indulging in a pizza (french pizza is strange) and sleeping and having more dreams.
Suffice it to say, however, this–I shall miss the fuck out of Quimper–
–and I shall return.