Too much sun is bad for you. This is why not all French people flock to Corsica every summer. (That, plus it’s expensive and bombs are known to explode when the independentists get restless.) What’s more, many French people lack the foresight to marry someone from a Corsican family, and therefore do not benefit from the family house on a hill overlooking the sea. These people have only themselves to blame.
For those French people who do not head south for the summer, there is another holiday destination available—namely, Brittany, which shares two, and only two, characteristics with Corsica. First, people there were forced to learn French over the last couple of hundred years, and, second, it is (mostly) surrounded by water. In every other respect, Brittany and Corsica are pretty much opposites.
As I’ve pointed out in other dispatches, despite living on an island, Corsicans have no great love of the sea. Bretons, on the other hand, were apparently crafted not from the clay that God used to make the rest of us but from the muck remaining on the flats when the tide goes out. They are very much a seafaring people. Whenever you hear about some French sailor who navigated solo around the world in a 4-foot boat built out of cheese rinds, or some such nautical exploit, you can be sure he or she is from Brittany.
Brittany is the peninsula that sticks out of France into the Atlantic like a finger pointing at America. It is rocky and windy and wet, and, like many rocky, windy, wet places full of sailors, it possesses a haunting, misty beauty. A holiday in Brittany is a holiday during which one risks being rained upon. This doesn’t seem to bother people from Great Britain overmuch, and thus many Brits holiday in Brittany.
For that matter, the similarities in the names of Brittany and Britain are not coincidental. Brittany is considered one of the six Celtic nations, along with Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, and Boston. The local language, which has been strongly “discouraged” by the French government ever since Louis XIV, is a Celtic tongue not dissimilar to Irish, but most closely resembling (so it would seem) Cornish. Like all Celtic languages, it is completely impenetrable to me, but I can safely report that it has lots of k’s and r’s in it.
One of the nicest spots in Brittany is the Gulf of Morbihan, which is a wide gulf dotted with islands on the southern coast of the peninsula. One of these islands is l’île d’Arz, also known as the Island of Captains, since it has a tradition of producing captains for the French merchant marine. It just so happens that my wife’s best friend is a descendant of one of those captains, and her family owns a windmill on the island.
Wind and tide used to provide a lot of energy in Brittany, since the region enjoys an overabundance of both. (The choice of the verb “enjoys,” as opposed to “suffers from,” is a question of taste.) For many centuries, therefore, wheat was milled on l’île d’Arz by two windmills and one tidal mill. One of these two windmills stands near the only town on the island, smiling down on it and being insufferably quaint. The other mill was transformed into a residence about a hundred years ago and serves as a summer house for my wife’s best friend’s family—and the luckier of their acquaintances.
There’s something disconcerting about living in a cylinder, however stunning and white and picturesque it may be. The walls curve; there are no angles; it’s really … round. After a couple of nights, though, it just becomes cool. You lie in your bed next to the curving wall, after having climbed a narrow, curving staircase that resembles nothing so much as a ship’s ladder, listening to the wind as it comes flying in from the sea to beat against your window, and you could swear the floor is rocking with the waves.
One day, while staying in our friends’ cylindrical abode, we all decided to take a walk out to see the tidal mill, known as the mill of Berno. It was a day typical of Brittany: wet, with a driving wind blowing in from the west. We put on thick rubberized sailors’ clothes, complete with tight-fitting hoods, bent our heads against the nearly horizontal rain, and set out, across the barren fields of the island, toward the mill.
Weather like that in a place like New York is nothing but misery, but in Brittany it comes with the territory. It’s a land shaped by wind and sea, where the flora hugs the ground—as do the buildings, which are made of strong gray stone. It’s a land of gorse and lichens and low, sturdy bushes, growing near buildings that were made to last, mostly out of granite.
The tidal mill stands in the middle of a curving stone causeway built across one of the island’s bays. The bay is long and shallow, and the tide comes rushing in and out with great force. Five hundred years ago, the island’s residents built the causeway, leaving a narrow gap through which the tide is forced to run. In this gap, they put a waterwheel and a small mill. The wheel ran the machinery to grind the wheat, thus feeding the island.
But time and tide wait for no man, and when the mill fell into disuse in the 19th century, both conspired to wear it into a ruin. Both it and the causeway gradually succumbed to the elements, until they were just heaps of jumbled stone. A few years ago, a number of local volunteers decided to rebuild it, stone by stone, despite the fact that flour, and indeed fully cooked bread, is now readily available in the island’s Kwik-E-Mart. Call it a labor of historical love. The volunteers toiled in the muck for six years, and eventually the causeway and the mill rose again. In 2000, the wheel began turning once again, and produced flour, which was then sold as a kind of souvenir to help raise funds for maintenance.
It doesn’t turn anymore. It’s not the wind and the waves that have done it this time. It’s the taxman. It seems that there’s some weird regulation about having to pay a salt tax if you use seawater for purposes of grinding, or some such nonsense. This was explained to us by the caretaker / guy-who-gives-tourists-information, once we had pushed our way through the rain to take shelter inside the mill. He was surprised to see us. L’île d’Arz doesn’t get many visitors on days like this. In fact, his boredom had reached such levels that he hardly wanted us to leave, and gave us a detailed overview of the mill’s history in an attempt to retain us. It began by being charming, but gradually turned to “numbing.” Come on, there’s only so much you can say about a flour mill on a tiny island, particularly when there’s precious little historical documentation on the subject. He must have realized this, so he switched to a discussion about the genealogy of the island’s families, in which our friend, at least, had a stake. The rest of us hung around primarily because we appreciated not being rained on for a while.
The waterwheel turns a lonely grindstone in a great wooden box. Wheat is poured into the top and flour comes out the bottom. It turns out that flour dust is highly flammable, and if the wheel turns too fast, or if there’s not enough flour to counterbalance the friction, the whole thing can go up in flames (hence the little medieval song that warns millers of this lurking danger, a song every French child knows: “Meunier, tu dors, ton moulin ton moulin tourne trop vite. / Meunier, tu dors, ton moulin ton moulin tourne trop fort”). In order to guard against such catastrophes, there’s an ingenious little mechanism that causes a small bell to ring if the mill gets out of hand.
After learning far too much about this kind of thing, we headed back out into the gale and made our way through the weather to the mill in which we were staying, clear on the other side of the island (i.e., about a half mile away). This time, the wind was at our backs, but after a few minutes I turned into it once more to look at the lonely little mill sitting out in the bay, perched in the middle of the causeway like a sock on a clothesline that someone forgot to bring in out of the storm. In the distance, a sailboat bobbed violently on the waves, dragging its inadequate anchor as the wind pushed it back. The next morning, we would find a multitude of small crafts beached on various bits of the island. “Tourists,” spat our friend’s husband. “They think that just because the Gulf of Morbihan is not the open sea, they don’t need to take care when they moor their boats. It might be a gulf, but it is Brittany, after all.”
That’s for damn sure.