In Paris, people ask you all the time where you’re from because there are very few true Parisians. When in Belgium, it’s easy to answer that I’m French. But in France, where am I from?
I was born in Falaise, a small town in Normandy, known for being the birthplace of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and King of England.
I left Normandy when I was 10 to go live in Béziers (Southern France - Languedoc-Roussillon), quite close to Spain.
On my mother’s side, we all come from a couple of small neighbouring villages in the ‘Montagne Noire’, 50 kms above Carcassonne, in the region called Languedoc or Occitania.
On my father’s side, it gets more complicated. Half the family comes from Alsace, this Eastern part of France which was German or French, depending on who had won the latest war.
One quarter is from Normandy and boasts descending from Blondel, a famous minstrel at the beginning of the 13th century.
The last quarter is Basque (on the Spanish border of Aquitaine) but they all speak French. For France, it’s an interesting blend, almost explosive.
A long time ago, I chose to be from Arfons, my grandparents’ tiny village. I loved it very much. I had spent so much time there anyway that it really was my home.
I’ve already told the story of our home in Brittany. But Brittany is not «Les Tertres»!
It’s not really big but it’s got an interesting history and a language (the Breton) which is still taught in school but not mandatory.
Brittany is a Celtic region, just like my old «Montagne Noire» except for one big difference, two actually.
Brittany is surrounded by the Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. Its border with main France is not very long. So it is very maritime.
Languedoc is mostly mainland even though one of its borders is the Mediterranean Sea.
In Brittany, the sea is part of lots of people’s daily working life. In Southern France, it’s mostly a place for fun.
The second difference is very important to me.
Brittany was not annexed to France. The Duchy of Brittany was offered to the French kingdom as a dowry when Duchess Anne married the King of France (actually she married two of them).
Occitania was defeated and incorporated to France after the bloody Albigensis crusade against Cathars which lasted almost 50 years.
I love Brittany but let’s face it: Brittany is very binary.
There is Northern Brittany and Southern Brittany, both of them very different as they can be.
Northern Brittany is rocky, with high cliffs and lots of wildlife sanctuaries. Its climate is very temperate and rainy, a little bit warmer in our area because of the Gulf Stream.
Southern Brittany is more «tourist» friendly. No cliffs but beautiful islands in the Morbihan Bay. It’s also sunnier and much warmer.
Brittany is the home of seamen, fishermen who went as far as Newfoundland to fish, discoverers, adventurers and buccaneers.
But it is also the home of farmers whose small and stony fields only stop at the very edge of the sea. It is the first agricultural province in France. But during the many wars France fought, from the Middle Ages to our modern times, they became fearless soldiers and some have become legendary.
Our village is Pléneuf-Val-André. Pléneuf is farming turf whereas Val-André is a sea resort and has an old fishing port with a Newfoundland history. The two places are only one actually but some people are from Pléneuf and others from Val-André and they don’t mix very much!
I love Brittany because in many ways, it didn’t give in to the lure of rampant tourism. It didn’t destroy Nature’s beauty, the way Southern France or the Atlantic coast did.
Brittany was the first region to create conservation areas as early as 1965.
Housing there is extremely supervised. The Nature conservation law went through in 1965. Our house was not destroyed (it had been built in 1963) but the whole area is now totally unsuitable for building development.
I said that Brittany is binary. I say it again.
So there it is, with the strongest environmental laws ever.
Strangely enough, it is the most polluted region in France. For decades now, farmers have been practising intensive agriculture (mainly hogs and cows, wheat and corn). Besides using a lot of pesticides and fertilizers, they still haven’t found a clean and ecological solution to get rid of the livestock mess which they still spread in the fields.
From the fields, the manure gets into the ground water and down to the rivers and the sea.
Brittany is therefore home to smelly fields and non-drinking water, mostly in the northern part. Some beaches are even invaded by «green alguae» bred by the surplus nitrates from too much manure. Since last year, these alguae are known to be fatal when they dry up on the beach. Their smell is awful but they also release lethal gases.
So there we go, from extreme beauty to dangerous beaches, from tough environmental laws to excessive pollution. A place where fields almost end into the sea and where the sea still provides a lot of food. A place that is almost empty from October till May and fills up with thousands of tourists from all over the world every summer because it is unique and so beautiful.
So when someone asks me where I come from, I kind of send a small message to my beloved grandparents from Arfons just to let them know I still love them but I answer with a firm voice: ‘I am from Brittany’.
No doubt in my mind!
*Good Luck, and Good Night*