East at Large in Brittany!
George East author of a series of seven books about his and wife Donella's life as an "innocent abroad" in Lower Normandy is about to embark on a new series of books - "East at Large", following the imminent publication of his latest book "French Lessons". The East at Large in France series will follow George and Donella East's quest to find the perfect small French town. Gites & More will be assisting them with introductions to Brittany's culture and charm. To enjoy George's wit and perception of France plus find about the visit to Brittany read on .........
All British expatriates and home-owners in Brittany should be aware that the region is about to be invaded by the most eccentric of English authors. For the past decade, travel writer, raconteur and friend of Gites & More George East has been chronicling his often eventful life as an innocent abroad in Lower Normandy.
The Mill of the Flea series followed George and his long-suffering wife Donella’s escapades as they struggled to make ends meet at their ruined water mill in the heart of the Cotentin peninsula. Following publication of the seventh and last book in the series is nearing completion and a major publishing house is re-issuing some of the back titles, George and Donella are setting out on a new project.
East at Large in France will follow the couple’s quest to find the perfect small French town. Each year, they will be touring a different French region to report on the culture, history and food and drink of the area, and on the unusual locals and expatriates they encounter en route. The friendly invasion of Brittany is planned for this Autumn, and the couple are currently selecting forty small towns across the region to feature in the first book in the series, East at Large in… Brittany.
Gites & More will be assisting George and Donella with introductions to the culture and charm of our favourite region, and if you have any nominations for Brittany’s Best Small Town, please pass them on to the couple via their website at www. la-puce.co.uk
In the meantime, here’s a taste of what to expect with an extract from George’s recollections of an earlier visit to Brittany:
Meet The Ancestors
From French Kisses by George East, 1997
We are well on our way to Brittany, and I have discovered that it is not only in our neck of the woods that drivers are completely mad.
Although Victor the Volvo is bowling along at a reasonable rate of knots, his rear bumper seems to exert a magnetic attraction to every French car behind us, and most seem to want to join our luggage in the back. What is particularly galling about this obviously widespread Gallic fetish is that they only do it when the road ahead is perfectly clear. Our tormentors sit for miles on our tail like dogs sniffing a bitch on heat, ignoring all my invitations to pass when the road is clear. Even my final gambit of slowing down to a walking pace does not shake them off. Then, just as we reach a blind bend or a juggernaut lorry comes steaming towards us, they overtake with a wave of contempt and a blast on the horn. Dicing with death on the roads is obviously a national sport throughout France, and my fellow motorists are obviously spicing up a long journey by playing this dangerous game. After being overtaken by a tractor while we were doing at least 50mph and approaching a narrow hump-bridge already fully occupied by a milk tanker, I lose my nerve and pull off the road for a calming cup of coffee.
Guingamp seems like any prosperous market town in our region, but with a number of imposing civic buildings where the budget obviously allowed for embellishment on the basics. There is also a particularly impressive gothic cathedral which dominates the centre of the old quarter.
Pleasingly, and unlike most old towns anywhere, Guingamp does not appear to suffer from a sprawling suburban area of newer housing. But if the architecture in Brittany seem familiar, the direction signs and public notices do not. A frequent visitors to Wales, I am used to seeing English directions subtitled in Welsh for the exclusive benefit of the 0.05 % of natives who need to be told in their own language where the motorway is. Here, it is even more bizarre to see signs in a foreign language with an even foreigner translation beneath. What is particularly puzzling is that, unlike the other European languages which have their roots in Latin, Breton seems to have been made up deliberately to spite and confuse the rest of France.
If the language is so patently different from French, however, the inhabitants of Guingamp look remarkably similar to our Norman friends. Everyone we see as we park near the square and take a stroll is very dark and very short. The main difference lies is in the relative neatness of their features, and the women are, unlike in our part of Normandy, generally more attractive than the men. Interestingly, most of the males we see seem to be as long in the body as they are short in the leg. I have a regular correspondence with a settler in the Lot who is Welsh and a former head teacher in Newcastle, and he has made a study of this condition. Neville has an interesting turn of mind and a huge intellect, and has formed a theory that evolution and natural selection has resulted in any mining area having more than its fair share of stocky men with long bodies and short legs. He has taken and collated inside leg measurements and other vital data in mining regions in Britain and is now convinced that his theory has, as they say in the academic research business, legs. I am a prime example of the condition which my wife describes as duck’s disease and can see his point about this being the ideal shape for working below ground in confined spaces, but I don’t know of too many mines in Hampshire, Normandy or Brittany.
Another basic difference between Normans and Bretons seems to be in the character of the people. We have already passed several Guingampians who have actually smiled at us for no good reason, and Donella says she heard the sound of laughter and people generally enjoying themselves in a bar we passed earlier.
Before exploring the fleshpots of Guingamp, we decide to buy the makings for a picnic in our hotel. Most of the food shops are still open, and the budget hotel we are staying in boasts neither a restaurant nor room service. I did spot a brochure for a local pizza shop with a delivery service, but we are in the mood for a truer taste of Brittany. Besides, I don’t know the Breton for “ Thin crust Napoli Supasize with extra anchovies and can you make sure that there are no stones in the olives, please?”
Having window-shopped the length of the high street, we select an appropriately lavish patisserie and enter. As with many places of this nature, the lady behind the counter looks like a beauty consultant on the perfume counter of a department store. Her face is as brightly and artfully decorated as the cakes on display, and her imposing bouffant hairstyle is like a reflection of the spun-sugar confections on the counter between us. She is also wearing the inevitable tailored suit and giant floppy bowtie, and her fingernails look as though they have been dipped in fresh blood. As usual, there is now an embarrassing interlude while my wife tries to decide upon the few cakes and pastries she does not like and therefore will not choose. While I try to engage the manageress in a conversation about the interesting architectural features of the betting shop along the road, Donella finally makes her agonising choice, which includes some interesting-looking bridge rolls stuffed with all sorts of exotic meats and cheeses. Rather than be pleased that we will have virtually cleared her stock of leftovers, however, the woman gives the all-too familiar gallic shake of the head, and says that we cannot have the rolls. I ask if they are already booked, but she says no, but they are to be thrown away at closing time. I ask if they are past their sell-by date, and when she understands what I am talking about she looks shocked and says certainly not. The fact is that the rolls must be eaten hot and the ovens in the bakery have been turned off for the day. I then ask if there is not a microwave on the premises, and her bouffant appears to swell and crackle at the insult. Trying to placate her, I say that we are only English, and will be quite happy to eat them cold. With a withering look, the woman agrees that, being English, we would probably not mind the insult to their creator, but she would. With that, she takes the rolls from the display case and carefully puts them out of sight under the counter.
Not wishing to lose the rest of our supper, I submit, but get my own back by asking if she has any HP brown sauce to give her veal and wild goose vol-au-vents a little more flavour.
At the end of a long and interesting day, we arrive at the hotel and are greeted by an almost surreal spectacle in the reception area. A number of large lorry drivers and weary commercial travellers are slumped in their chairs looking with complete mystification at a television set on a shelf in the corner. I hear the rapid French dialogue interspersed with canned laughter, and at first think that the viewers are all Breton, and pretending not to understand the foreign language. Then I look up and see that they are numbly watching a dubbed version of the British sitcom, ‘Allo ‘Allo. As we climb the stairs to our room, we discuss the entertainment value in Brittany of a comedy programme about a café in Occupied France where nearly all the jokes are puns depending upon the characters apparently mispronouncing French in English