New Year in Brittany came in with its slippers on. I don’t doubt there were parties. One or two bars may even have stayed open until after midnight – though none round our way. But most Bretons and, I suspect, a majority of French outside of the big cities were content to watch the fireworks in Paris on TV before turning in for the night.
Louisa and I did not ignore the calendar completely. We had drinks, and cake, in the afternoon of the 31st with our new neighbours, Berthold, a recently retired German, and his Colombian second wife, Marie-Elena. Bertie was a border guard, based on the Dutch frontier, who by his own admission had little to do after the Schengen open borders regime came into force in 1995. He had fallen in love with France decades earlier after his hometown, Goch – flattened by the RAF in 1945 – was twinned with Redon, a lively market town halfway between Rennes and Nantes. He and his family visited every summer during the school holidays, making friends with whom Bertie has remained close to this day.
In retirement, he and Marie-Elena spent weeks driving around Brittany looking for the perfect spot to settle, landing upon Plusquellec almost by accident. The house they bought, just across the fence from ours, with a field in between, was owned for ten years by a couple from Leeds, who eventually grew tired of maintaining the several acres that went with it. They left behind not only a vast hangar, full of farm machinery, but a residence whose defects, mainly to do with damp, have become evident only with the arrival of a Breton winter.
Bertie is an optimist and and has already installed a new heating system. He showed me the invoice, with the state’s contribution underlined. Replacement windows should arrive next week. Something of a linguist, he speaks better French than I do in addition to German and Dutch – two languages I used to know but can now deploy only with conspicuous effort. Marie-Elena, however, having first learned German, must now struggle with a third language, which is never easy.
As I write, an evening out at the pub is on the cards. I have warned Bertie that none of my expat pals, all aged in their late sixties and seventies, are noticeably polyglot, but I’m sure they’ll get along. If nothing else, they share an interest in beer. Louisa, in the meantime, can converse with Marie-Elena in halting Spanish, acquired in the 1970s during a semester in Seville arranged by her American university.
Oh, the times we’ll have! The Bar of Babel wouldn’t be in it.
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On the other side of the fence, we saw very little of our neighbours during the festive season. They spent two weeks with their daughter and grandson 30 kilometers or so to the north, close to the summer resort of Paimpol. Their son-in-law died suddenly five years ago, aged just 30, and much of their free time is taken up with grandparental duties, which they never seem to resent. Jean-françois did appear briefly on New Year’s Eve, joining us at the new neighbours’ knees-up just in time to greet Bertie’s daughter and son-in-law, with their four children, who had arrived from, I think, Nijmegen, the Dutch city where they now live. Thus, the scene was set for a five-way linguistic tussle. Jean-françois took no prisoners. He never does. If anything, his French grew faster and louder as the afternoon wore on. But the cake and ale on offer did their work, so that when it was time to go everyone was in good spirits.
More widely, the Old Year went out with a whimper. The Café de la Place, run by our friends Sophie and Loic, put on a special menu, complete with champagne, but the revels didn’t make it as far as midnight. As the witching hour approached, there wasn’t a light to be seen in any of the homes visible through the velux window of our bedroom retreat.
On New Year’s Day, sat at our usual table in the café, we were finally allowed to wish everyone Bonne Année without being reminded that the custom, as in Scotland, is to wait until the day itself has dawned rather than in anticipation of its arrival. The same applies to Christmas. Wish anyone in France un joyeux Noël in advance of December 25 and they look at you as if you’ve forgotten what day it is, though Bonne fêtes! – Happy Holidays! – seems to work, as does its unlovely Breton equivalent, Bloavez mad, currently up in lights on the tower of Notre Dame de Grace de Plusquellec.
In Paris, millions took to the streets to greet the arrival of 2023, just as in London, New York and Sydney – though not yet Beijing, where the celebrations, Covid permitting, aren’t due until January 22. But I suspect that for the most part they were saying good riddance to 2022, not a vintage year for the French or anybody else. I’ll drink to that. The year ahead can only be better than the one just gone. It has to be, for all our sakes. Bloavez mad!
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