Europe

The Baffling Bretons

During my sophomore year of high school, my parents allowed themselves to be convinced that I should study abroad. Parameters were set, applications were completed, checks were signed and mailed.

 My first choice was France (I studied French starting freshman year and got an A each grading period, which practically made me a native-French speaker) and my second choice was Portugal (because I like the ocean, so it’s only logical to pick a country surrounded by water). I won the “how-long-will-you-live-there” battle, and the duration of my stay was set at eleven months.

The much-anticipated (and somewhat dreaded) day of departure arrived and I set off across the ocean for the first time, age 16 and thinking myself pretty hot shit. My first inkling that the place I was going might be an alternate universe and not the “real France” was the name of the town where the train would stop and I’d meet my host family. Guingamp. What kind of French word is Guingamp?! I struggled to pronounce it with my best French accent, but was secretly convinced it was something along the lines of “Gween-Gahmp.” (It’s actually pronounced Gahn-gahmp, with the nasal French ‘n’ sound, and it’s a Breton name, not a French one).

Little did I know, I was not entering just any region of France, I was going to La Bretagne (Brittany), a region that had tried to secede from the country in the last century. I also realized my paltry knowledge of French left me befuddled at how to even say, “Where do I put my dirty laundry?” And they spoke another language here as well, the Celtic language of Breton. Clearly my historical, cultural, and linguistic knowledge were not what I’d thought.

Well I’ll just figure this out as I go, I told myself. And sure enough, my second day with my host family I was thrown into the French high school system and told to sink or swim. Perhaps feeling charitable, one of the boys in my class, red-haired Gäel, took me out to a bar during one of the breaks between classes (French high school schedules are more like college schedules, with long breaks between classes and different classes every day). There he educated me on the best French swear words (what is the French equivalent of “pardon my French,” I wonder?) and informed me that he was not, in fact, French.

“Je suis Breton,” he told me. I am Breton. And I am DAMN PROUD of it, and we AREN’T REALLY FRENCH. DOWN WITH THOSE DIRTY FRENCH PIGS!

Whoa, buddy. Simmer down. This was sounding surprisingly similar to an American’s rant about France. I figured I might need to get drinks with someone else the next time around (I later accidentally told this same Gäel he was suicidal during a physics class, but we’ll tackle the topic of language faux pas next time).

As the weeks passed by, I learned that not all Breton people are as radical about their desire to exist apart from the rest of the country. They do, however, have one of the strongest senses of cultural pride of any people I’ve ever met.

For starters, there’s the food. Sure, Bretons have crêpes. But they like galettes even better, which are basically the savory version of crêpes and are made with a different type of flour. You can fill them with pretty much everything, but the most popular staples are cheese, an egg, and a piece of ham. Bretons are also wild about cidre, alcoholic cider. To this day most of my favorite drinks are varieties of hard cider, due to the early exposure I received. Bretons also have lots of fish dishes, since they live surrounded by the ocean, and plenty of fresh produce because everyone has at least one brother who’s a farmer (ok, that’s an exaggeration – but they do have farms galore).

But one of the most fascinating and awesomely entertaining things about La Bretagne are les fest noz (which is Breton for “night festival”). My host sister and best friend Claire took me to my first fest noz and laughed as I joined in the circle of people dancing, each person linked by their pinky finger. There’s a lot of arm swinging and different steps for your feet, and the music is traditional but with modern twists and it was absolutely the most fun thing I’d done since being in France.

Which is funny, since les fest noz are not French.

I guess it just goes to show that the snooty, homogenized French culture myths are really just that – myths. Now go find the closest fest noz (they hold them in certain places in the US and elsewhere) and dance your crazy Breton feet off!

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