Brittany: France’s Best Kept Secret

Brittany: It is a permanent impressionist exhibition here; you only have to put your nose outside the door when the weather is fine: it’s Monet all over: violet overalls, green land, orange sky, blue trees, violet, red and pink boats etc. It’s enough to make you mad.— Emile Bernard, (artist and friend of Gauguin)

If you long for the primary-colored world of your kindergarten days, come to Brittany.  In northwest France, I found a royal blue sea set with white-sailed skiffs, red and white lighthouses, and red, blue, green and yellow fishing boats gleaming in the sun like enlarged Brio toys.  The 18th-century cliff top homes have the boxy, symmetry of children’s blocks, making the coastal scenery here one of simplicity and cheer. 

This is not what I had expected.  

I had mistakenly thought Brittany to be a blustery cold place of gray houses and bleak skies. Yet, everywhere I went, I was taken with the bright, bold beauty of a sunny land filled with traditional delights for the visitor.

An easy train ride from Paris, using my France Rail Pass, two hours and a coffee later I arrive  in Brittany’s capital, Rennes, and discover not only was I not in Kansas anymore, I was not in France anymore. With a revival of Brittany’s Celtic culture, radio stations broadcast entirely in the Breton language and, as if to cement the solidarity with their neighbors across the Channel, the twisted medieval streets of half-timbered houses sport Irish pubs and Irish street musicians. I stay in Rennes for a lunch and a stroll, then make a beeline for the museum, the Musée des Beaux Arts, with its lovely Art Nouveau and Modern pieces and my very favorite painting on the planet, Georges de La Tour’s, The Newborn Child

From Rennes, it’s a brief train ride to perhaps the most breathtaking of French cities: St. Malo.  This walled seaport perches at the edge of the Atlantic. The setting is spectacular. From the 16th-century mile-long ramparts, breathe in the brisk air smelling of iodine, and look far across the water to several little islands crowned with ancient forts. White and pink-sailed yachts and fishing boats ply the waters and ferries, white and high as wedding cakes, sail to and from England. On the cliffs across the way, is the stately resort town of Dinard with its extravagant English houses and long, wide beach.  St. Malo is celebrated as a city of adventurers and privateers. It was from here that gentlemen pirates made life hell for English sailors, and it was from here that Cartier sailed when he discovered Canada.  

St. Malo blends 18th-century elegance with 16th-century provincial port.  The surprise however is that St. Malo is new. Destroyed by the Germans in World War II, St. Malo was painstakingly re-built, stone by stone, so that today it is a perfect yet poignant replica of itself.  The town’s heart is the elegant Place Chateaubriand, fringed with nautical-themed cafés. The surrounding streets are lined with shops selling unique gifts, including yacht sails recycled into chic totes and handbags with the steel clew holes as handles.  There are delicious cookies and caramels made with Brittany’s famous salted butter, and the ubiquitous striped nautical tee shirt. It is not only the Malouins (the citizens of St. Malo) who sport these jaunty blue and white or red and white striped shirts but every man woman and child who visits. It’s amusing to see all these horizontally striped people for it gives the town the appearance of some kind of retreat for prisoners.

The essential thing to buy in St. Malo, and in fact in all of Brittany are the galettes; a crepe made with buckwheat flour and filled with something savory.  At a bow-windowed crêperie, I learn to order a galette with ham, cheese and fried egg, oeuf miroir, so that when I cut into it, the yolk spills deliciously around the crepe. For dessert, I have a crêpe, not a galette (as a crêpe is made with wheat flour), filled with the Breton specialty, a warm caramel sauce called crème de Salidou made from that luscious salted butter. There are no words to describe how sensual this tastes so I won’t try.

There’s something about France that makes you hungry all the time, and in Brittany this phenomenon is no exception. There are so many gastronomic discoveries and they’re so easy to come by, that even after I’ve eaten, I am eager for more. I visit Cancale, a fishing village, 15 minutes from St. Malo. If the name of this village sounds familiar, it’s because Cancale is where more than 80% of France’s oysters are farmed. The eponymous oysters feed naturally on the plankton-rich waters of the Breton sea and this is said to make them especially delicious. Men in knee-high rubber boots, yellow slickers and weathered faces drive up from the beach, in tractors loaded high with oysters. You buy them fresh; a dozen large cancales for 3 euros. Squeeze a drop of lemon on one (if it contracts, it’s alive) then scoop it with your fingers and drop it into your mouth. It slides down the throat in sea-salted silkiness.  To enhance the experience, look at the horizon. If the weather’s fine, the view is to exquisite Mont. St. Michel, rising in the distant mist like a ghost abbey. 

I fell in love with Brittany and I fell hard. Both for the “big” cities of Rennes, St. Malo and Quimper but also for the little nooks, unknown to most visitors to France. I took to my heart the tiny seaports of Bénodet and San Marine. In these wee places, the pace slows and dinner is garlicky lobster while gazing on the same Breton sea that Monet called “incomparably beautiful.”  It’s Brittany and whether in city or hamlet, you will, as the French say, amuse yourself well. 

The Astonishing Art of Dionisio Blanco

Dionisio Blanco

The splendid variety and quality of artists in the Dominican Republic is often a surprise to the visitor, unaware of the island’s rich cultural heritage. In 1992, I was one of these unaware visitors, astonished and delighted by the originality of the painting I found even in Santo Domingo’s smallest galleries. I shared “my” discovery with my fellow North Americans over the years by writing about it and have re-visited the country to meet its marvelous artists. One of my favorites is the renowned, Dioniso Blanco. In his native Dominican Republic, Dionisio Blanco is an art critic, professor and artist whose work is exhibited in worldwide. Dionisio Blanco paints one subject: the Dominican sower. His sower images explores issues with which he has long been preoccupied: Latin American culture, the metaphysical role of the peasant, and the representation of idea as object. Yet, they remain enigmatic paintings for they are of the earth — of human labor that is almost palpable and at the same time they are paintings of the opposite — of dream and illusion. In Dionisio Blanco’s most recent work, the image of the sower is often transformed. Sometimes sower evolves into a fantasy of sower elements. The sower might transform into a palm tree, while other curiously elongated “sculpted sowers”, some with hula hoop rings and others with truncated bodies, seem to inhabit a haphazard lush landscape that includes palm trees, hanging fish, houses and Blanco’s own signature, be-whiskered, maleveolent-lookig birds. Enigmatic, sensual, seemingly trembling with vibrant color sunlight, invite us to make surprising emotional connections. His paintings which have enchanted me over the years with their shimmering strange truths, speak of things we know, but have not yet learned to articulate. In this way Blanco’s paintings are like dreams that through their very strangeness make us see anew. Indeed the artist himself declares, “I believe that painting is always an act completely contrary to reality and in that way is similar to a profound and deep dream.”

In Blanco’s art the mundane joins hands with the mythical. Paradoxically, the faceless sowers are both unique fanciful creations of the artist’s personal mythology as well as universal worker archetypes. For above all, Blanco is examining and portraying with the utmost love, the peasant, the essence of his Dominican homeland, and in this respect his work exists in the same serious social context as did Daumier’s.

I believe the enigma of Blanco’s art — it’s ability to haunt — lies in the emotional truth, the “heart knowledge” of the peasant that permeates these vivid, beautiful scenes. For when we look at a Dionisio Blanco painting we are seeing not only the objective life of the sower, we are seeing the sower look at his life subjectively, and we are seeing the sower seeing himself seeing himself. Thus, a subjective reality is mirrored in the landscape and in fact, in many of Blanco’s paintings, the landscape is a mirror. The artist shows us that reality becomes indistinguishable from its own reflection and the effect is not merely a surreal painting that distorts truth for cleverness, but a surreal painting that delivers us several truths at once, the very hallmark of great art. The statement of Paul Klee is apt to Blanco’s art here: “Art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes it visible.”

A Children’s Book Character Can Have Life-Changing Influence

When I was five years old, soon after I started kindergarten, I got rheumatic fever. The disease left me weak and crippled. I was unable to walk for a year. I could not attend school and because rheumatic fever is contagious, I was not allowed to be with other children. The home teacher sent to me wore a mask. All day, I stayed home with my mother without television or playmates.

I was happy.

I never thought of myself as deprived because I was learning to read. I spent blissful days decoding simple stories and soon as if by magic, I could enter myriad worlds. Before I fell ill, my parents had taken me to see the marvelous 1952 movie version of Heidi, filmed in Switzerland. The movie, though black and white showed breathtaking images of the snow-capped Alps, glacial lakes and wildflower meadows. Children who went to the movie were given a paperback book with the abridged story of Heidi enhanced with photos from the film. This was my most favorite book, and before I could read it myself, I asked my mother to read the story to me over and over again.

We all know that Heidi is the story of a little girl who lives happily and healthily in the Alps with her beloved grandfather. During the day, Heidi is free to explore the breathtaking landscape with her friend, the little goatherd, Peter. She skipped over river rocks, picked armfuls of wildflowers and stopped with Peter to picnic on a wholesome lunch of bread with a hunk of farm cheese washed down with milk― still warm from the goats.

Of course, anyone who has read Heidi knows that her idyllic life was not to last. Heidi was soon shipped off to Frankfurt to be a companion to the shy, crippled Clara. Yet all works out fine for ultimately Heidi returns to the Alps with Clara and in one of the final scenes of the book, Heidi’s encouragement enables Clara to walk.

The story of Heidi remained so powerful within me that as a young adult I chose to live for a while in a high Alpine farming village in Switzerland where I drank milk fresh from the cow, picked wildflowers in the meadows, and ate the great hunks from the giant wheels of cheese my neighbors made each spring.

Now a children’s book author myself, I understand the true magic of my childish passion for this book. It is this: whenever I heard or read the story I was Heidi, I completely identified with her and felt in some way, I was her or maybe she was me. This is the potent psychological transference of literature—and it occurs not only with children. It is astonishing that I never once identified with Clara, though, like her, I was shy and could not walk. In some mysterious way, the book allowed me to tell myself that I was healthy and robust. As a young child, Heidi was my avatar, and only decades later as an adult did I look back and realize that I was Clara.

This transference is my personal example of the real power of a children’s book. Yes, a book can mirror a child’s own life but perhaps more importantly, can provide a vision for children of who they can be and what they can do. And all of this can be done without explicitly “telling” them.

Perhaps this power is why Heidi has ranked with the Bible and Shakespeare as one of the world’s most widely read books. It is certainly why the bold, independent character of Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women remains, after more than a hundred and fifty years, the most important role model in children’s literature. As Megan Lynn Isaac, professor of Children’s Literature at Youngstown University, wrote,

Jo made professional writing imaginable for generations of women. Writers as diverse as Maxine Hong Kingston, Margaret Atwood, and J.K. Rowling have noted the influence of Jo March on their artistic development.”

As a children’s book writing instructor, I encourage my students to think of their characters to overcome odds so as to become agents of their own destiny. In my own writing, I attempt to create characters who at some point, envision themselves in a daring, new way that may surprise not only others but themselves. In Song of Light, my biography of the WWII poet, Hannah Szenes, I portrayed a real-life heroine, an upper middle class Hungarian schoolgirl who had led a cosseted life but who joined the British Air Force as a paratrooper with a vision to rescue the Jews of Hungary.

And in my picture book, The Marvelous Maze, published this year by Lawley Publishing, the princess who is authentic, strong, and wise is the one who wins the heart of the prince.

So, as we see, children will discover role models through the powerful influence of a book they love.

Adnan’s Secret

High in the pine-covered mountains of southern Turkey, there lie the ruins of the only city Alexander the Great could not conquer. Termessos is its name.

In January, when the air is dry and the sage bushes from which the Turks make their healing tea have grown scraggly, there are few visitors. This is the time to come to Termessos.

Stephen and I hiked up the long dirt path, passing a sprinkling of shepherds’ huts. When we arrived at the top, we were surprised by a magnificent Greek theater curled into the hillside. Walking about the ruins, we discovered among the weeds the remnants of a gymnasium, an agora, and a collection of sarcophagi strewn haphazardly up and down the hills by an earthquake more than two thousand years ago. Beyond the tombs, we came to the rim of the plateau, where we could look out across the winter-colored valleys below. The cool air carried the smell of bay trees and mint bushes. Chimney smoke wafted faintly from the shepherds’ huts. In the silence, broken only by the occasional bleating of a lamb, we felt all the beauty of Termessos was ours to enjoy alone.


We looked around to find where this voice had come from and, turning, saw at a distance two figures sitting on boulders. ‘THEY’RE AMERICANS. I KNOW IT!’ Walking closer, we came upon a large man in his sixties, well-dressed and eating stuffed grape leaves straight out of a can. The second man, also smiling and well-dressed and who to me looked Turkish, was boiling water for tea in a tin kettle over a small camp stove.

‘I told you I saw Americans!’ the large man laughed and, turning to us, asked, ‘You are Americans, aren’t you?’

This was our introduction to Mr. Brand, a wealthy, retired Canadian executive who was now touring the ancient ruins of Turkey, rolling about the countryside in a Mercedes-Benz with his friend and personal guide, Adnan. Adnan stepped forward to introduce himself. His manner was of the city, refined and confident. He seemed a highly educated man, and later we learned he had worked for Turkish Intelligence, and that the car was his.

It was obvious that Mr. Brand was tickled to find fellow North Americans in this isolated place, even if they were scruffy, poor, and a third his age. When he found out we were living out of a van which we’d driven to Termessos from Switzerland, he stared at us for a moment in incredulity then laughed, before inviting us to dinner at his hotel in Korkuteli.

That evening, when we entered the hotel’s small dining room, we noticed that all the tables were bare but ours, which glowed with candlelight. ‘We are having an international dinner,’ Mr. Brand announced as he and Adnan ushered us to the table, delightfully set with little paper Turkish, Canadian and American flags.

Mr. Brand ordered grandly. We had seemingly endless platters of appetizers followed by a roasted lamb dinner. We talked with Mr. Brand of many things that evening – politics and food, jobs and T.V. shows – creating the immediate, heartfelt bond travelers do when they find themselves with superficial things in common, far from home. Adnan told us a little of his work for the Turkish government, but most of all he enjoyed joking with Mr. Brand, and waggishly dubbed him ‘Alexander.’ ‘You conquered another archaeological site today, Alexander,’ he teased, ‘You met little resistance. Very good.’

We swapped endless anecdotes and laughed uproariously at every trifle and then, just like that, Mr. Brand closed his eyes, his head dropped to his chest, and he was asleep. At intervals, he would mumble plaintively, ‘Darling…darling.’

At these mutterings, Adnan would look at us in mock puzzlement and wickedly ask, ‘Excuse me sir, excuse me madame, but did either of you call me darling?’ The raki we were drinking made this repeated joke seem very funny and even with Mr. Brand asleep, the three of us continued our conversation in high spirits deep into the evening.

Outside our dining room, stars slowly emerged to the regular measure of Mr. Brand’s snoring. I thought then how good it was to be in Turkey. We had been warned many times of the dangers of traveling in the country, yet in every town we experienced only the warmest hospitality.

‘I like it here,’ I said. ‘People here have been kind to us.’

Adnan put his glass down. ‘The people of my country are very good.’ His voice had turned solemn and quiet. ‘I will tell you how very good my people are.’ He began to speak as gently as if hed just borrowed someone else’s voice and had to be especially careful with it. ‘I will tell you now what I have never told anyone.’ Then, as the candlelight flickered, Adnan told us his secret.

‘You know from our talk this evening that I am a city man. I am no villager, no peasant. My wife too. Let me tell you: not only does she not cover her hair, it is blonde! For many years I worked hard in the service of my government from early in the morning to late at night. On a Saturday night we enjoyed ourselves with friends in Istanbul, but for years I took no vacation. One day, about six years ago, I said to my wife, “Let’s get out of the city. Let’s visit Izmir province. Let’s go to Ayvalik and swim on the beach. We can take a boat to Alibey and the other islands – get away from all thoughts of work.” My wife was so happy, she packed right away. The next day we started out. A few hours after we started, we drove through an area you wouldn’t know, but the road is very bad, skinny and full of holes. On this road, which passes through a village, I saw coming toward me a cart pulled by a horse. The cart was piled high with potatoes on which sat a whole family. That is the way it is in my country, person or potato, you ride the same.’

‘Darling,’ Mr. Brand softly beseeched. We glanced at him but Adnan did not make his joke.

‘The cart came toward me slowly, but I was in a hurry. I had a dream of islands in my head. “Slow down,” my wife said. “I am,” I answered. “Now don’t worry. I will pass him.” But I must tell you we have a saying from the Koran: “Haste is the devil,” and it is true. For as I passed, I came too close to the cart. Perhaps the horse started, for seconds later I saw in my mirror the cart – fallen over on its side.’

‘Was anyone hurt?’ I asked.

‘Wait, I will tell you. I stopped the car and got out to look. My wife turned around to look, too, and screamed. “Be quiet!” I shouted to her. “Put your scarf on! Cover your head!” Among the potatoes, the family stood, still as statues. As I walked toward them I saw what they were staring at. An old woman lay on the ground, face up. Those who have never seen death might have thought she was asleep, but I knew she was already with Allah. I looked up at the faces of her family surrounding me and into the vengeful blue eyes of a tall man.’ Adnan paused. ‘In your country, everything is the courts, but for my people, justice is done by families. Cruel and quick.

‘We escaped while they were still stunned. I ran to my car, turned the key and stepped hard on the gas until the family became no more than a tiny reflection in my mirror. Fast as an assassin I drove toward Istanbul, for I had no desire to continue my holiday, and I told my wife this. I drove all the way back home, my wife crying softly beside me. I only stopped once in Manisa, to put in gas. They are far from me now, I thought as I drove. And, after all, I reasoned with the pride of working for the Turkish Intelligence for eighteen years, they are simple people and would never think to write down my license number. The next day I went back to work, my co-workers making a joke of my early return. I made up a crazy reason and laughed with them. Yet that night I could not sleep. “I killed an old woman,” I said to my wife. But she was now calm and logical. “It was not your fault. They had no right to take up so much of the road. They should pull off the road for cars. You did not mean to hurt anyone. It was an accident. You did not do it purposefully!” I knew she was right and after a half-hour or so of this kind of talk, we went to bed. But I could not sleep. For the longest time, I just lay in bed, turning from side to side and thinking. Then, quietly, so as not to wake my wife, I got dressed, put on a cap, walked down the stairs and into my car.

The waiter asked us if we wanted coffee. Adnan ordered. Then he continued.

‘There was little traffic at that time – only a few trucks heading out from Istanbul. I drove continuously, without thinking anything. It was morning when I arrived in the village. As soon as I entered, I knew they were burying the old woman, for I saw groups of people all going to one house carrying food. I turned around and drove out of the village. I parked my car about a half mile from it. I pulled the cap tightly on my head, walked back, followed the mourners inside. The tiny house was crowded with people sitting on the floor, standing against the wall and in the doorway. “Basinia sag olsum,” someone said to me. Let your mind be healthy. “Basiniz sag olsum,” I returned. In the center of the room, in a coffin draped with her green embroidered head shawl, lay the old woman. She was wound in her shroud, which was far too long at the feet, so had to be kept around her legs with a rope. About her, the women cried, but the men stood stone-faced and silent.’

‘Weren’t you afraid?’ we asked.

‘I was afraid, and yet, there was no other place I wanted to be. The old woman was completely surrounded by mourners. With so many people, it was hot in the room. Mixing with the sweat were the smells from her coffin – camphor and rosewater. The hoca of the village stood by the coffin, and after a while began to read aloud from the Koran. Some of the villagers mouthed the words. I joined in myself. All the while people kept coming in the door, “Basinia sag olsum!” “Basiniz sag olsum!”’

How many people can squeeze into these homes? I thought.

‘“The cap does not hide you.” A whisper in my ear. I turned to find myself looking into a man’s deep blue eyes. “I know who you are,” he said. “You are the man with the fine car. You parked it behind the mosque, didn’t you?” I nodded. “You are the man from the city. You are license plate 34 LE 047. You are the man that killed my mother.” Neither of us broke the gaze. My heart pounded against my chest like a prisoner beating at a door. Words would not come. In the next second the man was joined by two others. Now all three of them stared hard at me, and I wondered why I had left my gun in Istanbul. “You ran away,” the blue-eyed man said. My mind raced. How quickly can I bolt to the door? I thought, not daring to avert my eyes from his. “You ran away,” he repeated, “then you came back.” He paused. I wanted to say something, perhaps to defend myself, but I said nothing. “Only a very brave man would come here. Because you came back, my family forgives you.” I don’t know what I said then. To tell the truth, I probably said nothing, for the words weren’t in my mouth anyway but in my heart. Suddenly howls of mourning sounded. The women had begun to weep louder and the whole house now burst into grief. “Thank you,” I said to the blue-eyed man. He said nothing. Our eyes locked a moment and then he and his brothers turned away. They were going to take their mother out of the house. I watched the little home slowly empty itself, the villagers walking as a group, chanting as they carried the old woman high above their heads. The coffin bobbed up and down – a tiny wooden boat on a gentle sea of mourners. I did not stay to see her buried. I arrived back in Istanbul late, just at the call of the muezzin – as I crossed the Galata Bridge, the whole city seemed to me sanctified.’

Adnan took a sip of coffee. For a long while he did not speak. Then he said simply, ‘That is why I tell you my people are good.’ He paused again as if he were going to say something else. But he didn’t. Instead he nudged Mr. Brand. ‘Alexander, efendi, you have more conquests tomorrow. It’s time to go to bed, Alexander.’

Mr. Brand woke up. We thanked him for the dinner and bid them both goodbye. We felt the lights of the dining room go out behind us. The next day we were moving on from Termessos to Antalya, where we would find a hotel or somewhere to stay for a while, before continuing east. ‘Watch out for the Eastern Turks!’ we’d been told several times. The trepidation – fear with excitement – which I think all travelers experience heading away from the familiar, was stirred whenever I heard that warning repeated. But Adnan’s secret, and the fact that he had told us his secret freely, without prompting, seemed to me, however naïvely, a token, that we would be safe.

Maxine Rose Schur is a travel essayist and children’s book author. She lives in San Francisco. Published in Moxy Magazine

Cover art by Ladina Clément.