While I drove the six hours to Brittany and the coast, I thought about the way I had psyched myself up about so many things. Before I started this grand adventure, I was so worried about getting lost, but I was lost nearly every time I went somewhere new, so I just got used to it. Now I know that with enough time and questions, I can get anywhere I need to go. While I don’t prefer the feeling of being lost, it no longer scares me. The thought of driving in Naples and Rome terrified me and I was fine, I held my own in the crazy traffic and it made me feel powerful to know I had the skills needed to accomplish this. I had been psyching myself out about kissing for the first time, making it a much bigger worry than it needed to be and my first kiss had been wonderful. When Roberto, the B&B owner in Rome told me “don’t be all United States” it really bothered me. I don’t want to be United States, I want to be the calm, cool collected one that doesn’t worry or let things get to her, maybe a little more Italian in my approach. So now I’m consciously working on taking one thing at a time, letting it come present, relaxing in the moment and doing what shows up.
I arrived in Quiberon, the mainland town from which I was taking the ferry over to the island. My French exchange student brother, Jean Marc, had recommended Belle Ile as a place of beauty, peace, quiet and excellent food. His son’s girlfriend, Tiphaine, was born and raised on the small island, her family still lives there, and they had offered to rent me a home for a very small fee. Her Uncle Robert lived across the street from the house, her Aunt Marie Paule lived next door, and her parents lived down the road a couple of miles. I was in the middle of a family compound of sorts. I found the long term parking lot that Tiphaine advised me of, but wasn’t sure how the shuttle bus situation worked. Two women were in the little shelter, so I asked if they spoke English.
“Oui, a leetle,” a fairly universal reply in France.
“Am I in the right place for the shuttle to the ferry? Do you know when it arrives?”
“Oui, you are in ze right place, but ze shuttle comes when it wants.”
I was trying to make the 2:30pm ferry, but unless the shuttle arrived in the next five minutes, this was unlikely. It didn’t show up until about 2:40 and in the meantime, I chatted with the women. They were here for the long weekend, Monday was a French holiday, and they were planning to hike the entire coast of the island. Belle Ile is a mecca for hikers, there are paths around the circumference and criss-crossing the center. Bikers flock here too, there are very few cars so the roads are safe for families and groups to ride. The slopes are gentle and the scenery is delightful. The entire island is about fifteen miles long and five miles wide. There are old forts and villages, steep cliffs on one side of the island and long sandy beaches on the other, lots of places to explore.
I asked the women if I could follow them to the ferry office so they could help me buy my ticket if necessary. They said sure, so when the shuttle dropped us off, we all walked over and bought tickets for the 3:30 ferry. I asked one of the women to call my hostess Liliane, Tiphaine’s mother, to let her know when I would be arriving. None of the family spoke English, which should make for an interesting four days. The two hikers, Adelice and Lenore, asked if I’d like to join them for a cup of coffee while we waited, an invitation I happily accepted.
They were longtime friends and had been hiking together for years. Lenore was a school counselor and Adelice was a retired nurse. It turned out that Adelice was also a widow, her husband had died of cancer six months before, so we all talked about life after death and how we were coping.
We boarded the ferry together, standing on the deck for the entire voyage. The sea was very rough and I was afraid I’d get seasick if I stayed inside for the forty minute ride. We said goodbye to each other when we debarked and I walked through the crowds looking for a woman whose face I didn’t know. I called Liliane and said I’d wait on the corner near a restaurant and we found each other there. She had her sister with her, and they took me back to the car.
Tiphaine’s mother spoke a tiny bit of English, the sister spoke less, but they managed to let me know that we were stopping at a grocery store on the way to my house so I could stock up before I got there. I left Blacky on the mainland since it costs nearly $300 to ferry a car over, so I would be walking or biking everywhere for the next few days. The walk from my rental into town was a little over two miles, so the grocery stop was appreciated.
My home for the next four days was a two story stone cottage painted white. It was adorable, with a tiny yard surrounded by a stone fence and a vine covered arch over the white picket gate. The downstairs was one large room, with the living room on the left and the kitchen on the right, the bathroom next to the kitchen. There was a huge fireplace and next to it, a stone plaque on the wall with the year 1640 carved into it. Opposite the front door was a set of red steps so steep and narrow, I had a hard time getting my luggage up them. There were two large bedrooms at the top of the stairs, one to the left and one on the right. Mine was on the left, with a double bed tucked into an alcove framed by dark wood beams and a sloped ceiling. The bedroom window looked over the tiny road in front of the house, and the trees across from me. Uncle Robert’s house was just opposite mine, and Liliane and Marie Paule took me over there as soon as they finished the tour of my little French house.
Uncle Robert was a robust man with unruly graying hair and what I would call a busy face, a lot going on there. Anyone could look at him and know he was French, there was something about him that left no doubt. He looked like a somewhat weathered fisherman, as though he knew his way on the sea. He spoke slightly more English than his sisters, and became my guide and interpreter for the duration. He was loud and friendly and gave me big grins every time he saw me in my yard. The only internet access around was in his house, and he told me I could come and go as I pleased when I needed to have wifi, the door was never locked. I discovered that if I stood in his driveway, I could get wifi there as well, so I could often be found standing there talking on my phone.
He made us all coffee, then the girls went home and Robert took me back into town to show me the good restaurants and the bike rental shop. We drove slowly through the tiny, congested center of town, as he waved at people he knew and they waved back. I took pictures of the four places he recommended so I wouldn’t forget them in the host of other restaurants he told me were no good. He dropped me off at the bike rental shop and told them to take good care of me, then disappeared.
I spent the next four days walking and riding all over the island, eating at the restaurants Robert recommended, which were amazing, and visiting the tiny villages, windy precarious cliffs, lighthouses and wild sandy beaches that comprised the edges of the land. I went to Robert’s house twice a day, in the morning and in the evening to get on the internet, although sometimes the signal was strong enough that I could get wifi sitting at the plastic dining table in my front yard. The weather was cool and windy, and at night I lit an oil fueled space heater in the living room which was so warm, it seeped through the floor and heated my bedroom as well. I had to fill the heater every morning from the small oil drum by the shed on the side of the house. Robert was really the only person I talked to, I was very solitary on my rides and walks, but I had a lot to think about and was happy on my own.
At night I would stand at my bedroom window and watch the sunset. After dark, I lay in bed listening to hoot owls and mourning doves, the wind in the trees, and the peaceful silence in between, the light of the full moon shining in my window. On my third night here, a lone motorcycle went roaring down my street. I had grown so accustomed to the stillness that one extremely noisy motorbike, the only man-made sound I’d heard in three nights made me want to string a wire across the road to knock this 2am disturber of the peace off of the noisiest machine I’d ever heard. I could hear it as it went all the way into town, over two miles away, finally fading after about five minutes, then returning ten minutes later, the noise building as it approached my house. The sound of one motorcycle made me want to hurt somebody. How do people in big cities do it? It amazed me how quickly I’d become accustomed to the peace of this place.
One morning, Liliane and Marie Paule stopped by and asked if I wanted a crab for dinner. They’d had a family dinner the night before and this was left over. Oui, of course I did, so a few minutes later they stopped by again with a large brown grocery bag with the biggest crab I’d ever seen, and a small Tupperware of some kind of dipping sauce. Liliane cracked the crab in half and took out the parts I wasn’t supposed to eat, they showed me the best way to approach the task of meat removal. I ate it that night at my plastic table in the front yard. It took me an hour of concentrated work, but I got every delicious morsel as I sipped the light white Sancerre I’d bought in town that afternoon just for this meal.
Every morning, Marie Paule, who lived in the house next door, would wave at me as she passed in front of my house and went down a grassy pathway across the street. On my last afternoon on the island, she motioned me to come with her.
“To see my jardin (garden),” she said, as we walked side by side down the small grassy lane, her cat Kiko following along behind us like a faithful dog. At the bottom of the lane, she opened a large gate into a wonderland. I wasn’t sure what to expect, I thought maybe a vegetable patch, but we spent the next thirty minutes walking through a botanical garden that Marie Paule and her husband had created over many years, completely hidden from the road. Just inside the gate was a huge vegetable garden, with colorful chickens and roosters in a pen at one end. We continued on through a long wooden arbor covered in a thick wall and ceiling of wisteria. There were pathways through wild English flower gardens, then fruit trees and little hidden green coves tucked here and there, with statues, or wicker chairs, stone benches, woven reed fencing, and in the center of it all a huge pond, with the sound of the croaking frogs I loved emanating from the water.
Her husband was working on a water feature. He’d created a rock stream with little waterfalls that fed into the pond and he was putting together a bamboo creation which would fill with water, then tip over and dump into the pond, filling and tipping, over and over. They had two Adirondack chairs side by side on the small dock on the edge of the pond, and it looked like a lovely vantage point from which to watch the sunset. Marie Paule had gone up to the house to get two beers, which is when she saw me, and it was obvious that their chores were done and it was now Miller time. They offered one of the beers to me, but it felt like I was intruding on a lovely private evening ritual, so I thanked them profusely and wandered back through the garden and up to my house.
I couldn’t imagine how much work and time they’d put into this, it was obvious it brought them great joy, and I was grateful she showed me this secret garden.
The next day I was leaving to start my return trip to Paris. Robert and Liliane were took me down to the ferry dock in the morning. They found a place out of the way of the crowds and dropped me off, both giving me big hugs then waving goodbye. They were such salt of the earth people, so warm and welcoming, and had given me four days of magical nature and nurturing.