he school’s administration assured me there was no language barrier in Dubai. Everyone speaks English here, they told me, down to the lowest worker. Before applying for the job, I had needed to look up Dubai on Google Maps. It looked far, far away from Iowa. Via Skype interview at opposite ends of the day and planet, their promise reassured me – I didn’t know a word of Arabic. And there are plenty of creature comforts, too, they continued. Subway, the Gap, anything you need. Once I arrived in the U.A.E., I realized I hadn’t understood what they’d told me.
The U.A.E. is in the desert. I lived there when it celebrated its 40th National Day. Before an influx of oil money gave reason to draw borders, Emiratis were largely Bedouins. They shepherded livestock and had no air conditioning. They spoke Arabic. Their buildings were few and were designed with wind towers to keep the interiors breezy and dark against the cruel desert sun. Men wore the dishdasha and the guthra to keep sun and sand off of their skin.
Now, it no longer matters in Dubai that the summers reach 110 degrees plus humidity or that it almost never rains. With enough money, you can go downhill skiing in the Mall of the Emirates. Or, across town in the air-conditioned comfort of the Dubai Mall, you can gaze out the window at the Bellagio-style fountains dancing to Whitney Houston beneath the tallest building in the world, as though your face wouldn’t melt straight off your head if you walked outside. It’s a place with limitless possibilities as long as you can pay for them. Everyone speaks English because money is what matters now, and money speaks English.
I lived in a high rise that wasn’t yet ten years old. It looked nice at first glance, but it was slapped together quickly with off-color kitchen cupboards made to look wooden and light fixtures that couldn’t illuminate a bulb. Dubai’s new construction is just plaster over cinderblock to avoid the black mold that quickly rots a wooden frame in all that damp heat. In the modern global city of Dubai, everything was built fast – money can work so fast – by the lowest workers, who reportedly speak English.
The men we called “workers” comprised the lowest class I observed. They mostly came from India or Pakistan or Bangladesh. Rumors flew about them: They say contractors had gone to their home countries and promised work and good money, and men had shown up to do construction work or drive taxicabs in the desert, planning to send money home to their wives and children. They say these contractors took the workers’ passports and made them live nine to a tiny room in work camps outside of the city. They say the workers couldn’t go home. Rumors or none, we saw them working in hot wind, wearing bright yellow, but looking like ghosts, their faces wrapped in flimsy cloth to block the dust. We waved them down in their taxicabs and got mad when they couldn’t navigate unnamed streets and a city with no codified addresses. I took a cab to the beach one day and the driver asked whether this beach was my favorite. I said yes and asked if he preferred a different one. He said he’d been in Dubai five years without a day off. He’d never been to the beach, madam.
The nannies and retail workers and hotel concierges were another class. They came from the Philippines and said hi, ma’am and hi, sir to everyone in singsong voices. They were live-in help in teachers’ homes and called other teachers ma’am and sir and did the dishes. They ate separately from the family and made less than $200 a month. The teachers at my school made an extra $250 a month on top of their actual salary, just to offset the difference in the cost of living in such an expensive desert.
The teachers joked that we were living “international-light.” We had to call home at odd hours, but we could still buy Gap jeans. It wasn’t that we were in a new place. We were simply not home. There were H&M, a Potbelly Sandwich Shop, Ace Hardware, and hotel bars where we could and did pretend we were anywhere on earth – champagne bottle service in a dry country, drunk brunches in five-star hotels. We got spa treatments as if we were accustomed to them. Nothing was out of reach, even for teachers, a demographic that is famously underpaid in the States. In the glamorous desert, we partook of the best cultures money could buy. But we were not the wealthy.
The wealthy were from anywhere, oil families from Texas, engineers from India. The IBM workers were mostly British. The pilots were North American. My students told me often that their dads were businessmen. Business must have been good because it could afford $25,000 each year so the kids could make a diorama of a scene from their independent reading books. Teachers were in the wealthy’s employ. The wealthy’s wives didn’t have work visas, and so they took Zumba classes at school and dropped in to see how the teachers were doing.
Wealthier than wealthy were Dubai’s native Emiratis. They drove Rolls-Royces and Lamborghinis. They bought new cars so often that they kept the protective plastic on their seats. The men sported bright white, perfectly pressed dishdashas and red and white checkered guthras tied on their heads for style rather than function. They drove and stood in public so as to be seen, their dark shades and glamorous wristwatches reflecting aggressive sunlight. Their wives wore all black, a flowing abaya to cover the body and a burka to cover the hair and face. Some of these garments glittered with crystals. These women carried Fendi bags and walked three steps behind their husbands, glittery shadows with designer shoes – dressed for modesty.
Emiratis were the chosen people, and rumors flew about them, too. They say Emiratis comprised only ten percent of the population, but they could afford to make anything happen. They say the sheikh paid them to stay in the country, paid them simply for showing up. They say ex-pats were required to employ a quota of Emiratis and pay them handsomely. They say that’s why the Emiratis drove around all day – the boss could never fire them, so why even pretend?
By the time I’d arrived, Bedouin culture had been buried in sand and a skyline sprang out of it. My nighttime landing was a spectacle of lights. From above, the city glittered with water features, man-made islands, and skyscrapers that might have come from Oz. This is the trick: No one complains in Dubai. Everyone makes more money there than they would if they were doing the same job at home. It makes no financial sense to leave because even if it’s not perfect, it’s better. More money is always better. We referred to this phenomenon as the golden handcuff.
I talked to my friend Pete on Skype when I needed a sense of home. The world around him looked like a real place. He lived in France, where he had learned to bake bread and had made friends and met their families. He was trying his hand at animal husbandry. Pete greeted his vegetable and cheese vendors by name at the weekend markets and asked after their families or their work. His new home was unlike the suburban Minnesota he’d left, but he was home nonetheless. France invited him over for lunch, and he stayed through dinner, so warm was the welcome.
I worked to make the desert feel like the Midwest because I didn’t know anything about where I was. Even Caribou Coffee couldn’t make me feel at home. Everything looked glamorous when lit just so, but from up close, it was an expensive airport — designed to bring comfort to all, but if you stayed long enough, you noticed the welcome was insincere. It was like being invited out to dinner every night for a year. The thrill wore off, and I was left wondering who my host really was and what he was hiding with all of this ostentation. After a full school year, I couldn’t stay any longer.
After a year of teaching, Peter decided to become a student again. He began a graduate program because it would allow him to stay in France. He lived in Brittany, the farthest western region, in the department the French called Finistère. The same region is called Penn ar Bed in Breton, the regional language of Brittany. Finistère means “the end of the earth.” Pen ar Bed means “the head of the earth” or “the start of everything.” I suppose it depends on which direction you’re traveling.
He sometimes lived in the attic of a house in the country. Pete and a dozen or so of his friends shared this house called La Roche and another called Poullic in the nearby city of Brest.
At La Roche, there were no screens on the windows, and they often left the doors open and swinging in the breeze. From the attic, he could see the Rade de Brest, the long finger of the Atlantic that crept inland, feeding tidal rivers and lakes on its way. Between the sea and the house, farmland spread a whimsical patchwork of small fields with tufts of trees at the seams.
On the countryside, the buildings all looked related. They were all made from the same yellow limestone pulled from the ground in nearby Loganna. Their roofs pitched at the same angle and their windows peeked through the same wooden shutters. One hefty hedge of hortensia ran into another, blooming in blue and magenta clusters like food-dyed popcorn balls. Lilacs perfumed the air.
I’d left Dubai in search of a place that knew exactly where and what it was. I wandered around in New York and my native suburban Iowa, but I didn’t find it until Peter and I were no longer pretending to be just friends, and he brought me with him to Finistère.
We arrived by plane to Paris and by train to Brest after nearly twenty hours in transit. A crowd of our hosts and friends were there to meet us when we stepped onto the platform in Brest with our luggage. I kissed on both cheeks the many smiling faces of my challenge for the month. I had four years of French classes under my belt, but seven years of forgetting between those years and this one.
Two of these new friends, Gwenolé and his girlfriend Maï, drove Pete and me to the house. I kept one shaky ear on conversation and both eyes out the window on the way to La Roche. The brief drive from Brest to the countryside felt like traveling backwards in time. Pete had told me that the entire city of Brest was destroyed in World War II. It was heavily occupied because it housed the French navy. Because of the large Nazi presence, Brest was a target for repeated bombardments by the Allies, the last of which leveled nearly everything but the castle. The city was rebuilt during reconstruction, but in contemporary styles. As we exited the town, we left lights, mini-malls, and wide roads behind us. The scenery changed to tiny fields with piles of hay ready to be bailed by hand. We caught sight of the sea and bobbing sailboats. We arrived at La Roche as twilight gave way to darkness.
Once inside the wide French doors, the girls of the group stopped me from carrying my own stuff upstairs. With exaggerated gestures, they waved away my concern and muscled my black suitcase and yellow hatbox – oh! I like this! – up to the attic. A shelf fell and sent trinkets flying down the attic stairs – op-la! – but no one seemed to mind. They whirled around me and Pete, making up a bed with mismatched blankets pulled from all four corners of the wooden room. Everyone seemed to be smiling or singing or laughing. No sooner had we mounted the stairs than we were back down in the living room. The attic had been such a flurry of activity that I’d thought everyone was there, but it seems someone had stayed behind because a feast had appeared at the coffee table.
We crowded into a wonky circle, sitting on hearth and floors and chairs and laps, and we passed bread and cheese, red wine and butter. Broken crusts sprinkled the table. Wine sloshed. Pete, we can’t believe you cut off all your hair! One or two would rise from a chair or a lap and head – No one knows where Mael is. The last we heard, he was in Quimper, but who knows with him? – for the fireplace, rolling cigarettes and blowing smoke into the chimney. I watched bird-boned girls cut pats of butter and hunks of cheese that I’d never dreamed of eating in one bite. I followed suit. When I dropped a morsel of cheese on the ground, I said desolé and everyone laughed heartily. I had a thick accent, and besides, there’s no need to say “sorry” about something so trivial. I laughed, too. The room was warm and smelled like bread.
The wine and jetlag melted me into the couch, and I had to be called back by a question directed at me alone. I blushed because I had no context and could not even guess at an appropriate answer. Aline nodded at me reassuringly and asked the question more slowly, checking after each word to see if I was with her.
Gwenolé sat in an easy chair with his legs crossed and his black curls splayed behind him against the headrest, a lamp lit over his shoulder. Maï perched on the chair’s arm, resting her long, elegant legs on the coffee table, and her dimpled smile outshone the lamplight. Gwenolé spoke quickly and mixed slang and Breton into his French. Even when he repeated himself, he didn’t slow down his speech. Everyone laughed at him and said his name in good-natured disdain. Maï play-swatted his shoulder, and someone else had to translate for me, not into English, but into comprehensible French. He asked, too quickly for my ears, “Why do you understand everyone else but not me?” Everyone laughed some more.
When we went to bed the first night, we opened the windows to welcome the cool air. Outside, there was an occasional night bird noise. Cicadas trilled in the trees somewhere. I hadn’t slept without a fan blowing for white noise in years. The night was quiet.
Within the first week, we attended a Fest-Noz, a Breton night festival. Pete and I rode with Gwenolé and Maï again, this time to a field somewhere in the dark. There was beer in plastic cups, and long chains of people, kicking their feet to an intricate pattern, winding serpentine around each other. I learned the gavotte and something else with a quick one-two-onetwothree. A Breton band played on a raised stage: a guitar tuned for maximum volume used as a percussion instrument, a bagpipe, and a noodling woodwind called a bombard that sounded like an oboe crossed with a loudspeaker and an angry hornet. I was swung about and traded between partners, some children, some my age, some old men. Everyone was sweating. I didn’t know where I was or what time it was, I’d never heard the music, and I didn’t know where I’d left my cup. I swirled past one partner to the next, and never, in the whole mess of wriggling lines, was I out of the collective sight of La Roche. I needed only to scan the crowd, and I would find Gwenolé and Maï teaching someone a step, or Sylvia and Yohann Alix waving my way, or Laurence mouthing “yeah!” and throwing me an American thumbs up.
I felt so much a part of the group that at the end of the night, I collected everyone’s cups and brought them back to the beer table. Only I’d missed the detail where each of the cups had been bought with a deposit of one euro, thanks to Gwenolé, and I had to explain to him in the car that I’d lost his dozen bucks.
“Did you have fun?” he asked.
I asked Pete what? And he translated for me.
“Oh! Of course!” I said to Gwenolé. “Then it doesn’t matter at all.”
Maï turned up the radio, and the car filled with oldies and fresh air.
We spent part of most days at the beach with whoever was around the house. The water was freezing cold, but everyone swam. We all wore brightly colored jellies to protect our feet from the rocks, and we let the water take our breath away. We picnicked on bread and cured meats and seafood. One night we swam with phosphorescent plankton after dark, each movement of our hands and feet sending sparkles flying in our wake.
One evening while Pete and Maï and I were racing to touch a boat floating in circles around its anchor, the rest of La Roche and Poullic arrived with beer and snacks and camped themselves on the beach with our towels. We made it back to land to find Pete’s old roommate, Mael, who had just returned from God knows where. Mael was given to wandering off for months at a time, but everyone was happy to see him back. I’d heard much about him – that he was clownish and animated and frequently in love – and I greeted him with a “Hello! Welcome home!” and a salty kiss on each side-burned check. He looked at me like he was surprised and I hoped I hadn’t done the bisous wrong.
“You speak French!” he said in English. I’d forgotten I was a foreigner.
We sat and sipped beer in the rough sand while some of the others took off for the water.
“How do you like Bretagne?” Mael wanted to know.
I pulled my denim shirt on over my swimsuit to keep warm and smiled out at my splashing new friends. “I’m never leaving,” I announced.
“Oh, this is good!” He asked what I liked best, and I said the colors. Mael had taught Pete, and Pete had taught me the word glasz, the Breton catchall of which grays and greens and blues were all shades. I liked that there was one word for all my favorite stuff, the whole landscape in front of us.
He laughed at me again, the way he had when I greeted him in surprise French. “This is good!” he repeated.
Mael only stayed in Finistère for a weekend before wandering off again. He left a note on the kitchen chalkboard at La Roche, but I couldn’t read it.
“It’s in Breton,” Pete told me. We were sitting down to breakfast and I was sad to learn that Mael was gone so soon.
“So, is Mael the most Breton of all the La Roche friends?” I thought I was finally piecing things together. Mael was born in Morlaix, another town in Finistère and I thought he spoke more Breton than the others.
“Mael loves Breton stuff, but he grew up in the Caribbean,” Pete informed me. “He’s Breton by heritage, but he didn’t grow up speaking Breton or anything.”
None of our friends actually grew up in Breton-speaking homes. Mael began learning Breton less than two years ago. He’d been visiting Slovakia and didn’t feel comfortable representing France as much as Brittany, and he found himself embarrassed for not knowing his own language. All of the other diehard Bretons had similar stories – night classes during med school or bi-lingual grade school.
It wasn’t their fault. Breton-speaking homes didn’t really exist when they were younger. The details here are blurry for me. I know that Breton used to be a thriving language that varied by village, but in the late 1800’s French public schools were made to be French-speaking only. Children were shamed for speaking Breton and many families stopped speaking it at home to save their children grief. Add to that the world wars and all they did for smearing cultures into one another, the invasion of American culture, and a post-war push to unify France, and the Breton language was doomed. With it Breton music, dancing, and folklore were also doomed. Breton-ness skipped our parents’ generation almost entirely.
There had been a counter-cultural movement in the seventies that was a lot like the folk revolution and back-to-the-land movement of the U.S. Breton music and dancing made a comeback, but it was no longer a living culture so much as an artifact to preserve. My new friends, it seemed, were trying to restore their sense of history. Why did they need blue or green or grey when they could simplify to glasz?
My friends had learned a version of Breton that had been codified for textbooks. The language used to bend to the tongues of each neighborhood so that the accents gave away that you grew up at La Roche, but your friend grew up at Poullic. Now they were the same, and there would be no recovering the variations. It’s hard to revive what you never saw alive. There is no unbleaching what has been bleached.
Two weeks or so into our tenure at La Roche, Gwenolé invited Pete and me to the mountains in Finistère, les Monts d’Arrée. He wanted to show us more of his homeland.
We set out in the morning in his green cube of a car. I sat in the backseat out of fear – in the front, I’d be required to converse. In the back, I might just disappear. But it was hot in the car, and the rear windows didn’t open. Gwenolé had a figurine of some sort of troll hanging from the mirror, and it swung wildly as we wound up into the mountains. I lost much of the outbound trip’s beauty to nausea.
We stopped in a village near the top of one of the mountains at a small store. There, a woman sold hand-knitted baby clothes, rounds of fragrant bread, honey, hunks of cheese and cured meats, and cider, which came in big bottles with pressurized corks like champagne. We bought a picnic and continued our ascent to the top of the mountain, the second tallest in the range, where there was a small stone chapel named for St. Michel de Brasparts. There was also a huge slab of concrete at the top of the mountain to which Nazi artillery used to be fastened. They had taken over the high points.
We sat in the grass. Gwenolé chose a spot that was peppered with rabbit droppings, and I requested a spot with less, how do you say, “poops.” For the rest of our time in France, Gwenolé used his new English word to point out any poops he saw, happy to engage a poops enthusiast such as myself. When he spoke English, his voice sounded like that of a game show host. He announced while we were hiking or when we toured his parents’ hobby farm, “Look! Lah-oo-rah! Poops!”
Once we had moved to cleaner grass, we gazed out together at the natural greens and browns of hilly farmland. The dry fizz of the cider and the weight of good bread settled my stomach.
When we moved on, we drove down the mountain to a town called Huelgoat, which split itself in two sections on either side of a river. The water narrowed to a creek and trickled into a formation of enormous mossy boulders. It looked like someone had dug a great hole and tried to fill it up with huge rocks. I pictured a god-sized toddler at play.
We wandered around between boulders, pretending to be strong enough to move them. I didn’t think twice about the weight of the rocks balancing on one another above our heads. I was dressed for a picnic and not hiking, slippery flats and a dress. When we turned to climb up out of the gorge, I misstepped. Gwenolé heard me shuffling and turned back to ask directly, “Laura, are you okay?” I wobbled without answering. He grabbed both of my arms and steadied me. We were equally surprised by the sudden danger – there was a long, rocky way to fall. We turned, to see if Pete had seen my close call, but he wasn’t there. He had fallen. He must have. We called for him in uncertain voices. Families milled around us jovially. I could hear my own pulse.
Gwenolé left me on sturdy footing and ran to the other side of the gorge, to the other path, where Pete was emerging, just fine but out of our sight. He hadn’t seen me lose balance, hadn’t fallen himself, and he was confused at how relieved we were to see him. Gwenolé kept quiet, and after an awkward minute in which I tried to convince Pete that we’d both almost died, we agreed that danger or not, we were all alive now, and that was good enough. We turned back to the path and pushed on the big rocks some more.
Just above the gorge, we stopped for ice cream. I greeted the waitress by asking how are you doing, and she blushed as if I’d asked about her underwear. We laughed when she walked away. Gwenolé defended me, saying he didn’t think it was bad to be friendly, even if my greeting wasn’t very French. He didn’t want me to feel embarrassed and helped me decide which was the most traditionally Breton ice cream to order when the waitress came back. I nodded at his suggestion.
He observed, “Tu comprends.”
As we began our return, the air was lighter, even in the backseat. We stopped the car for just a minute at the top of another mountain. We were as high up as you can get in Brittany. As far as we could see, grassy hill rolled onto grassy hill, and the overcast sky leaked light in bright patches. In the distance, we saw Mont St. Michel de Brasparts with its tiny chapel.
Pete and Gwenolé grabbed grass that had gone to seed, bit it and let wag from their teeth as we started the car again. We descended toward the sea and the house at La Roche. From the backseat, I saw the grass, Pete and Gwenolé’s matching beards, their matching thick glasses, and a burst of black curls springing from the top of Gwenolé’s head. The air was breezy and sweet with lilacs now. I realized there was music playing.
The melody was like nothing I’d heard before. I tried to pick out words, but heard only syllabic sounds. The consonants weren’t French, and I couldn’t tell where one word ended and the next began.
When I asked what it was we were hearing, Gwenolé answered in game-show English, “This is Breton music!” He paused to let us all listen for a moment before asking, “You like it?”
The melodic lines had close, often clashing intervals, and the singers’ fast vibrato reminded me of bleating goats and sheep. The sounds seemed to belong here, like an aural landscape. They mirrored the way that the traditional Breton houses seemed to grow from the ground. Whether built of yellow limestone beneath Loganna in the north or the grey granite tucked underground in southern Finistère, the houses are extensions of the natural world. The oldest structures have grass and flowers growing from between the stones as if the earth were reclaiming them. These sisters singing in Breton had voices made of the right air and vowels and lilt. They sounded how the breeze felt on the skin.
I said to Gwenolé that I thought I liked the music. I asked him about it, off and on through Pete who helped us mash together our French and English.
The music was called Kan ha Diskan, or chant et rechant – sing and re-sing – in French. It was like the Fest-Noz music from the week before, but this held stories. Kan ha Diskan involved much repetition; one singer provided a line of the story and the next repeated it before advancing the plot. Sometimes the two singers repeated lines together. They stood with linked arms and danced to their own singing to keep time.
As he spoke in French, I realized that Gwenolé’s English voice was only funny to me because it differed wildly from his usual speech. Usually there was something cavernous about his voice, like the sound that comes from water running deep in a cave. It was damp, soft, and heavy, the way a mossy rock feels in an opened palm. Now, as he discussed the music, I didn’t try to interfere with the sounds of his voice by translation. Pieces of the conversation found me, but really I only knew that Gwenolé’s voice had grown sad. A shadow had passed over the mouth of the cave.
Gwenolé was telling us that much of this music is lost. As with the language, varied dances had once set apart each tiny village, each cluster of houses, but in their resuscitated form, Breton dances too had been bleached of distinction. Even though Gwenolé spoke the language and played the surviving songs in a band, to do so was like finding a recipe from your grandmother and never having tasted the dish. You know the ingredients, but that doesn’t mean you know how to make it.
He’d learned Breton from a textbook during his psychiatric med-school residency. He could communicate with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients who spoke French when lucid but whose memories were locked in Breton. He heard patients’ stories of war or Nazi-occupied home life, of old farming techniques, of recipes – details these people could no longer tell their children because their children never learned to speak Breton. But there would be too much for him to learn, and those who could teach him were dying off. What stories he missed were lost forever. Even without catching all of his words, I felt for him a sense of injustice at having to mend pieces upon discovering that some cultural rodent had eaten holes in his heritage.
Over the speakers of the car, a woman sang in Breton about her son who was lost at sea. We left the mountains behind us and approached the Breton sea from the woman’s song. The wind and light played on the water, making new variations of glasz. The word only refers to what is natural. Things that are manufactured get Crayola-sounding names. Your car is green, your shirt is blue, and the horizon is glasz. The houses built from stones out of the earth, then, would be glasz. The Nazi bunkers were gray. Glasz belonged to Brittany.
I never learned if Arabic had a word like glasz. I heard that the U.A.E. had seven types of sand, though. At a market once, when I bought a scarf, a merchant tossed in a framed capsule of each of the seven sands and a paper cutout camel riding across them – seven stripes of varying colors and textures. Although probably half of my students grew up in an Arabic-speaking country, most of them learned the language at school. They would run into my classroom to write their new words on the board, knowing I wouldn’t understand what they wrote. They cursed their homework – why do we need to know this? – and filled in worksheets. I left without learning the language. All seven sands are still just sand to me.
When we returned to La Roche after the trip to the mountains, Pete talked in the living room with some of the girls, and Gwenolé and I made dinner. We circled the kitchen table, pulling ingredients out of cupboards.
“So,” he announced, “Pete tells me you used to sing in French at university.”
“A little bit,” I said, less timid about talking with him now.
“Will you sing something for me?”
I turned away to busy myself at the sink, “Oooh, I don’t know about all that.”
We struck a deal. He would sing for me in Breton if I would sing for him in French. He would sing first. I sat next to him at the table, where we was peeling and chopping a zucchini, and he told me he would sing a song that is sad. He told me the story, but I was embarrassed by his earnestness and didn’t remember it. He sang there at the table, chopping as he went. It grew out of him like the curls from his head. It drifted freely on the air, like the lilac smell through the windows and the open doors.
When it was my turn, I felt foolish before beginning. I sang “Va! laisse couler mes larmes” from Massenet’s Werther. I couldn’t remember the composer’s name or the context of the song within the opera. I had learned it at school long ago, and it had grown stale and strange to me. I remembered some of the words only as syllables, unsure of whether they came out to Gwenolé’s ears as whole words or just sounds I had misremembered. I interrupted myself to say that I needed to stir what was on the stove, which was a lie, and I only needed to look somewhere else because I was ashamed to defile the landscape and pollute the air. I flipped and rolled Rs that would never be flipped or rolled by a real French speaker. When I finished, the hens still clucked in the backyard, and Gwenolé said something nice, but I felt my own foreignness. I was a stranger in a strange place, acting strangely, singing too loudly with the wrong sounds. I drained the pasta.
Aline and Robert-Vincent arrived from Quimper one afternoon with a picnic at Meneham in mind. Meneham is on the north coast, the English Channel, maybe an hour’s drive from the La Roche. I quickly packed a picnic with Aline – into the cooler went bread, butter, cheese, two cans of mackerel filets, a bar of dark chocolate, most of a bottle of wine, most of a bottle of Templeton Rye whiskey – Pete’s and my gift from Iowa – a lemony salad with carrots and pasta, four cups, four forks. We zipped the lid and bounded toward Robert-Vincent’s car. Aline and I rode in back, and all four of us leaned with each roundabout spin and were quickly on our way through familiar but new countryside.
The sun shone brightly, although the hour said it ought to be descending. I’d grown used to overriding my internal clock in Finistère. Midsummer this far north meant sunsets well after ten p.m., six p.m.’s that looked like noons, and mornings that seemed to have gotten a lengthy head start before we rose from our attic bed to greet them. Tonight the evening had been fixing to start for hours. The sun finally began to swell and sink as we barreled north.
Aline and I talked easily, or at least more easily than I had in any other French conversation. She smiled encouragingly from beneath a soft pile of messy blond curls, nodding when she understood, making exaggerated confused faces so I knew right away when she didn’t understand. I did the same for her. Today I learned that her older sister was going to have a baby. Aline’s speaking voice always sounded easy like a sigh, and I felt sure with her that I would eventually understand what really needed understanding. She was planning to be the fun aunt.
Zipping through farmland we sang with the radio on a station called Nostalgie that played French and American hits from the ‘60s. We greeted each new field of cows, “Salut, les vaches!” as though they were old friends. I learned the word for scarecrow. We talked about the Wizard of Oz, and how Vincent and Aline knew the songs in English, but the rest had been over-dubbed in French. I smiled to imagine the task of talking over Judy Garland and the words not lining up with her quick and powerful mouth.
When we arrived, families meandered along the coast, climbing nearby us on the great boulders that, like those at Huelgoat, seemed to have been dribbled from above by a careless deity-child, each making a delightful splash and plop in landing along the coast.
We decided to eat the picnic to lighten our load. When we were finished, the sun would finally be setting, and we planned to walk to the lighthouse nearby. We sat on beach towels spread over white sand, anchored fishing boats bobbing in front of us. Slowly a fog rolled toward us, coming from nowhere and everywhere both at once.
The fog had the effect of a cocoon more than an obstruction. We’d come to look at the rocks, but we didn’t miss them once they were out of sight. Our world shrank, and whatever there was outside our cloudy wall, it became less important with each bite of lemony mackerel tang on the almost sweet, chewy bread. The fish tasted bright and bold when served with salty-sweet butter, the way everything in Brittany seemed to be. We burned ourselves on pulls of whiskey from the bottle before admitting our weakness and cutting it with water.
Pete was antsy and finally announced it was time to swim. He would take off his clothes. He hadn’t brought other shorts, and he’d freeze if he got these wet. We laughed and watched him like spectators.
He walked purposefully down to the water’s edge, and hid himself away behind a tall rock, where he undressed out of our view. He ran along the water, naked, pounding across the sand and looking at once graceful and clunky. I loved him right then for how silly his white butt looked, just below his tanned back, under the line of his swimsuit’s clearly marked territory. He looked like an old photo of himself, blurred in the fog.
Aline and I joined him, giggling nervously, each footfall puffing cool sand at our ankles. We left Vincent on the beach and undressed with averted eyes. We dove headlong into frigid water, willfully, like it was a treat. We felt the air sucked from our lungs and the pinpricks of each hair on our bodies suddenly alert and searching for warmth. We shrieked with daring and delight.
People saw us. Unannounced, another group of picnickers had appeared nearby, and they were watching us flailing around in the water. We drew attention to ourselves, our squeals and splashes the only noise in the sound-absorbing fog. But even though we saw them, it was as though the people weren’t there at all. We noticed them only as part of a landscape, unimportant details in the larger panorama of glasz.
Aline scampered off toward Vincent and a dry towel. I lumbered through the water toward Pete, and kissed him, still smiling. The drop of water on the tip of his nose was cold, and his beard was chilly, fresh and salty. We looked at each other as if our gaze would keep us warm and fend off the dark.
When we left we did so quietly. The night was coming in, finally, and the fog grew a darker gray. It would not fold itself back into the ocean tonight, but would remain spread upon the beach and the rocks, an atmosphere unto itself, a soft layer around this night.
We gathered our bottles and our cups. We replaced the lids on the containers and the bottle of rye, folded towels, shook out shoes. Aline and Robert-Vincent led the march toward the car. They walked ahead of us, and we took our time. At the top of the hill leading from the beach, the brambly, grassy expanse leading toward the parking lot, was much darker than the beach had just been. Night was there in earnest, although we had only been guessing at its arrival from the white sand. Pete turned back to face the shore, and I turned to see what he was looking at. A blanket of sandflies had migrated to our spot on the beach. The tide had risen over our footprints, the waves lapping the rock where we had stashed our clothes and towels. Some of the boats had already disappeared; others were still dissolving. The fog dampened the sound of the water, and no gulls were there to call. There was a feeling of the absolute in the dark and the falling quiet.
Laura Fuller is an Iowan and a pie enthusiast. She holds an MFA from the New School. Find her on Twitter @laurabethfuller.