An American expat and a little town in Brittany
I left home very young, extremely young, abnormally young. I was 14 the last time home was really, truly home, or rather, the last time it was my only home. Reactions to the statement, “I left home at 14,” no matter how well it’s phrased, always seem to leap straight to stories resembling that of The Boxcar Children, but it was nothing like that; I just caught the travel bug early. The moment I’d gone off on my own for the first time – a three-month exchange program in the north of France – I was addicted. France led to boarding school in Massachusetts, which led to university in Canada, a return to France, several stints in Spain … the list keeps building and continuing, and in all this time, New York, the place that made me who I am, at least for fourteen years, hardly figures at all.
It’s perhaps strange, then, how attached I was – and still am, to a certain degree – to a small town on Long Island that brought me up: summers by the beach, days spent without even considering wearing shoes, watching people from trees and forgetting the day of the week or even the month, each day tumbling into the next. In all my time traveling, I’ve never quite found anything that resembles the perfection of a Long Island sea breeze, the proximity to New York, the small-town seaside atmosphere with just a touch of fisherman’s lore. Which is why I was so surprised when I discovered Dol-de-Bretagne.
I stumbled upon Dol while staying in the nearby town of Pontorson, which has the dual benefit of being not-too-expensive and close enough to Mont-St-Michel to make the trip comfortably by bike. By pure chance, I ended up with a day to spend in Dol, as the only bus from nearby Pontorson was in the morning, and my train back to Paris was in the evening. Several hours and a town with a main street that was hauntingly similar to the one in my favorite Long Island village; what was a girl to do?
Well, firstly, breakfast. I’m partial to coffee, black, and preferably served in a gallon-vat – that’s the New Yorker in me – but I found a tea house so sweet and pretty, with a purple awning that displayed its name, Les Petits Bonheurs, that I had to steal a seat in the sunshine. With my tea, I ordered a slice of homemade far Breton, a sort of clafoutis-esque dessert studded with prunes (a food we’re taught to be wary of in the States, perhaps, but a dessert favorite in France, especially in Brittany). After a leisurely breakfast in the sun, I set off wandering up and down the main street.
There wasn’t much to see: some shops selling the traditional white-and-navy striped T-shirts that so many people associate with France, gift shops, restaurants and bars. I walked back and forth several times, just taking it all in, appreciating the fact that I could pause at every little thing that interested me: a bust of Victor Hugo in the place where he spent the night of July 17, 1848; a small, outdoor maze to be explored on foot; a beautiful old church to discover.
At lunchtime, I managed to miss the cheese shop’s opening hours and, with the fromager home for lunch, I decided to give my business to the boucher-charcutier instead.
I picked a small container of house-made rillettes and, even though I knew it would be cumbersome and annoying, bought the smallest jar of mustard to go with it. Accompanied by a baguette and a kouign amann for dessert – that typically Breton pastry that tastes halfway between brioche and pure spun sugar – it was the perfect picnic, to be enjoyed in front of the old church, in a park full of flowers.
In the afternoon, I found my way to the only tourist attraction I knew to exist in Dol-de-Bretagne, thanks to a local friend: the menhir of Champ-Dolent. I suppose I was aware of the existence of menhirs, thanks to comic book characters Astérix and Obélix, but for some reason, I guess I never really considered the fact that one could be standing in front of me, towering in its place, challenging visitors to come up with the way it came into being. All I could think of is how large Obélix must have been to carry one around on his back the way he did.
When I got back to town, I found a bar to sit at and have a cider in the sun. I looked out into the main street, climbing slowly and lazily through the town and flanked with bleached sidewalks and storefronts. I looked at the shingled-roofed houses, commonplace in America and strange here in France, like a Union Jack hanging off a front stoop in southern Spain.
Cider isn’t something I’m used to drinking at home, but somehow in the haze of a late-afternoon drink and a lot of sun (which I’m told is a rarity in Brittany), I began to feel a pang that started in my throat and radiated down to my knees: that homesick feeling of anticipation I used to experience seeing the lights of Manhattan when I landed on my bi-annual visits home. I knew what I would soon see: the inside of my brother’s car and then the familiar highway out to the beach, getting more and more familiar until I knew every mailbox and tree and door without even looking. Somehow, after all these years living in France, so far away, home suddenly felt close enough to taste it.
I didn’t pack my bags and move to Dol, though I’ve done just that for less. I love Paris too much, but that’s not the real reason. Dol was perfection for a pure moment, but I know that, with time and daily tasks to accomplish, that feeling I had there would fade, as feelings do. Dol would become something else for me, a piece of my reality, and that’s not what I want, not now. Today, just knowing that there’s a place in France an hour’s train ride away that feels like the town where I grew up is all I need from Dol-de-Bretagne.