Random notes

We’ve been here long enough that we are going past first impressions to notice patterns of French-isms. Or maybe they are Brittany-isms. Time will tell. Some you’ll recognize, as they are Gallic classics.


Others are not. Unlike the experiences we’ve had in other parts of France, and by that I mostly mean Paris, people in Brittany are warm and friendly. Whenever I expect to have a nasty word or expression flung upon me, I receive instead a smile, a quip or a joke. I can’t think of  a single exception. We need extra help in the post office, or forget to weigh the produce at the supermarket, or confuse the small change required to pay for an item, and it’s always a friendly and relaxed “pas de problème” or “c’est pas grave” (both essentially mean “no problem”).

The “time-out” people take habitually. You see them in park benches, in cafés, along various promenades, just hanging. No, I don’t think every French person does this every day. But they sure do it more often than Americans.

three women, rennes

The French queue as politely as the British. They even have the proverbial stiff upper lip in certain FUBAR situations. Recently we arrived at a movie theater to learn our film “séance” was going to be more than 30 minutes late. Who has ever heard of such a thing? But there was the long line of patient movie-goers, and as the time stretched on there wasn’t a single peep of frustration except from the gauche American, yours truly.

People actually attend church services in Brittany. I started off going into churches to see if the stained glass happened to be throwing off colorful reflections, and was startled to see packed naves and aisles on Sunday mornings. It’s an officially secular country, remember. Churches are mostly empty in Italy, although it is stereotyped as Catholic.


I have to add my pet peeve French-ism. They have an approach to toilets that I struggle to understand. In a home, the toilet is always separate from the room with the shower or bathtub. Good idea! But, I find it odd that no matter how fancy the bath room is, the toilet is like an indoor outhouse. Drab, cramped, a kind of embarrassment or afterthought. Plus, it’s weird to almost never find a sink in the toilet room.

Children seem to be loved, but not indulged. As a result, they tend to be very well-behaved in restaurants or other public places. Contrast that with the English family of three boys who loudly tore around a café while Mom and Dad were absorbed in their phones, oblivious to the pained glances from other habitués. And not all French children are obsessed with devices. In the castle town of Vitré, we saw two boys playing on their doorstep with paper models of medieval forts and castles.

boys playing medieval fort and knights Vitré Brittany

I love how, even in the case of the supermarket cashier who sees an assembly line of customers all day long, it’s a pleasant “bonjour” and “bonne journée” to begin and end our interaction. Civility counts for a lot in society, I find.




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Rennes 2030

You can’t be in Rennes long before you notice all the construction. Whether you enter by the train station, which is undergoing a major expansion and renovation, complete with green space for passengers awaiting departure, or by the airport, where a second metro line under construction will have a terminus, the works underway impress. Driving out of the city in any direction takes one past big apartment blocks and more going up. For the most part, they’re not bad-looking.

In the center, new public spaces and renovation of public buildings are underway. Several squares are currently under re-design, with more to come. The Place du Champs Jaquet (that’s a statue of the mayor during the French Revolution, tearing up  a list of people destined for the guillotine) will probably lose its bus traffic in its new incarnation.


Rennes will probably have a summer beach on the banks of the Vilaine river, Paris Plage-style, by 2020. The central market will be transformed according to the model of the Time Out market in Lisbon or Eataly in Turin. There will be more fountains and trees, pedestrianized zones and cycle paths.  For a city already with fine parks, there will be even more, and different varieties. The plan is to activate the city artfully at night, too, with the help of installations by designers.

It’s all part of Rennes 2030, a re-imagining of the future of the city.

I don’t know how much of the urban planning underway takes its cues from other cities, and how much is original. But I am impressed with the strategy, creativity and intention of the program created to involve the citizens of Rennes. It has three phases over the course of five months with “urban cafés” (I think those are like the USA’s town halls), city walks with a planner, digital platforms and a diversity of other channels for citizens to choose as a means to make their opinions known. Today we were stopped by people in the central square with tablets taking surveys (we told them we weren’t eligible).


While the plan specifically addresses “le coeur de Rennes,” the “heart” of the city, infrastructure and building works are being designed to accommodate an increase in population around the center and into the suburbs.  What are the best French cities to invest in? Rennes is near the very top of the list.

I don’t see where the mayor, Nathalie Appéré, has a plan to address the problems common to cities that also plague Rennes, such as homelessness, but maybe I haven’t found it. I don’t doubt she’s given them some thought.

homeless man, champs libres

I, for one, am looking forward to the conclusions of the Coeur de Rennes program in early 2019.


Posted in Brittany, expat, France, Rennes, urban planning | 6 Comments

St. Malo



We finally made it to St. Malo. I say “finally” because it’s always loomed large-ish in my imagination. First, there’s the name. “Malo” is one of those evocative Dark Ages names no one has given their child in several centuries, like “Zeno.” I love those names.

Then there’s the city’s history of state-supported piracy by the Corsairs, who inspired Lord Byron and were romanticized in a 19th century ballet. Enormous wealth was created in St. Malo by the legal piracy, along with legitimate trade, and you can see it in the sturdy bourgeois homes that give the city its architectural character. It’s the setting for Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize awardee “All the Light We Cannot See,” which describes the rows of tall, grey buildings and the ever-present briny smell of the English Channel.

In the novel, St. Malo is blustery and wet. The Channel’s own reputation is of a dark, turbulent sea under threatening clouds, impossible to cross without a bout of seasickness. However, we were there on a sparkling sunny day of the kind you experience on the French Riviera. If we’d had time for a ferry ride to one of the English Channel Islands, it would have been a rare breeze of a sail.


Alas, not this time. But St. Malo was a stunning experience in itself. They don’t call this part of Brittany the Emerald Coast for nothing.

St Malo Brittany

We walked the entire ramparts around the city, and then wandered “intra-muros” or the city within the walls. It’s a tourist town. Those striped mariner tops are for sale in every shop, along with corsair trinkets. If you haven’t read the Doerr novel or been acquainted with St. Malo’s history, you might be disappointed once you leave the magic of the rampart walls, but we were still enthralled. To think that those tall houses were re-built after virtually all them were bombed to bits during the last year of WWII.

At low tide, you can walk to several small rocky islands, some with old forts standing guard. We, however, stayed close enough to shore.

st malo beach wide shot

These logs are submerged at high tide.


It was too beautiful a day to head home to Rennes after we were done exploring St. Malo, so we made the short drive to neighboring Cancale, the town of oysters. The port area was crowded with oyster bars and people sipping Muscadet and shucking shells on the quai. We strolled the trail along the water, which wends around the cape if you are inclined for a day hike. It had gotten hot, so we lingered with others at town’s edge with our feet cooling off in the water, like this couple, before heading out.


On our way home through late summer haze, we spotted the outline of Mont St. Michel in the distance, a site we will have to see on another day.

Posted in Brittany, expat life, St. Malo, Travel | 6 Comments

The parks of Rennes


One of the most endearing features of Rennes, to my mind, is its parks. The most well-known and visited, the Parc du Thabor, until the French Revolution the domain of monks, has been ranked in design with the beloved Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. It has become my favorite destination in the city. The main entrance to its six hectares (about 15 acres), through an ornate gilded iron gate, is adjacent to the church of Notre Dame de la Melaine, which rings its Sunday bells for a half hour at a time creating an other-worldly ambiance in which to enter. I’ve never been the park when it has been crowded but it’s never empty either. There are always a few runners, tourists, families and couples enjoying its many delights.

Within the park, my favorite spot is the wooden structure encompassing the dovecote and aviary (the colombier and volière).


There are benches placed around it, at enough of a distance for the birds to be somewhat unawares of your presence. But up close, a studious onlooker might chuckle at the pecking orders being rigorously maintained, the parakeets who steal rides on the tail feathers of the pheasant (who tries to shake them off), the Diamond Mandarin couples sneaking a twig from the doves or the darting in and out of niches by the birds.

Below: Diamond Dove, Parakeet, Diamond Mandarin, Pigeon, Doves and mystery bird.


After spending a good hour or so there, it’s on to the various gardens within the garden: the rose, the French, the English, the Botanical. Or the teeny waterfall. There’s even a spot called L’Enfer, or Hell, today a space for outdoor concerts but once a reservoir despised by the local Bishop who gave it its name. Or to admire the Kiosque.


There are other, less well-known parks, like the Parc Oberthür, which is smaller (three hectares) but no less lovely. Although a public botanical park, it seems private, with more shady nooks and passages, an imposing villa that once did serve as the Oberthür family home, and more solitary spaces (at least in my experience). It claims 375 trees of a variety of species and geographies, many of which are quite old.

The Breton climate is ideal for nurturing gardens, and every place we’ve been boasts a lovely, well-maintained big or small public patch of green. We’ve seen a lot of Botanical Gardens in Europe that are not cared for, and gone to ruin. Kudos to Brittany for tending to theirs so beautifully.

Parc Oberthür:

Oberthur, Rennes, iphone, Brittany, France-2



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Rennes, Nantes, Rennes, Nantes

What a treat to open the door to our garden first thing this morning, comme d’habitude, and feel an unfamiliar blast of bracing air. This is end of summer weather in Brittany, and, after a season in which I’d thought I’d never feel cold again, I was close to elated.

It also gave us an excuse to putt around the apartment rather than throw ourselves outside to accomplish something, anything.

We’ve spent some time exploring Nantes, which Bretons will tell you is really a Loire-Atlantique city. Officially, that is not true, but you do sense a cultural difference. It has throughout its history been a vital port with links to the world, and for that reason lacks the insularity common to other parts of Brittany. It’s bigger, more sophisticated. Its monuments are massive in scale and achievement. Leading artists are more apt to visit it than Rennes. We visited a James Turrell show at the art museum. You can spend hours, and breakfast, lunch and dinner, at the vast, delightful and grandly conceived Jardin des Plantes.


Rennes and Nantes are both among Brittany’s leading cities, however, and engines of growth in one of the few regions of France to have added employment in the last decade.  Citroën was founded in Rennes, and provides an automobile tech sector that is growing, among other industry sectors. Rennes is one of France’s economic centers for telecom and electronics. Urban investment is expanding the train station to double the number of passengers and the neighborhood of the Gare is a scene of major development projects.

New housing includes this snazzy number by “starchitect” Jean Nouvel.

Nantes is growing rapidly in population, economic terms and creative enterprises. New architectural projects and other urban investments are drawing all kinds of creative and entrepreneurial talent from Paris and other parts of France, to a city that is already high on the list for livability, affordability and beauty.


The city has its own term for start-ups: les audacieux. I would apply that term to both cities in general, for the direction they are giving these cities of the future. It would not be a mistake to live in either of them.









Posted in Brittany, expat life, Nantes, Rennes | 14 Comments

Les marchés de Rennes (the markets)

Americans love the European markets. And we’re no exception. Although Portland’s Farmers Markets, at which we were regular participants, are just as good there’s a longer tradition here, as is the case with almost anything of course. And you know who else loves the markets? The locals! I enjoy the happy din of people buying wonderful food as much as the selection of super fresh and tasty weekly groceries.


The Marché des Lices in Rennes, the first of several we visited in the city, has stood in the same spot for 400 years. The architecture of Les Halles, the market hall, is more recent but proudly utilitarian and functional while also being beautiful, made of brick, iron and glass.

florist at Rennes Market

Les Lices is a weekly Saturday market, and we can’t pass up the sheep’s milk ricotta, spit-roasted chicken, brioche loaf, figs, peaches and the huge lettuces for little more than one euro each that are so fresh they hardly age over a week’s time.

woman seller and woman smoker, rennes

There is an organic market on Thursdays on Place Hoche, I have heard, and a Wednesday market in our district, the Ste. Thérèse which is actually too far from our house to bother. There are others.

And today, on a tip from friends Ruth and John, we made a delightful stop at the daily Les Halles Centrales market at La Criée.

market vendor in doorway

We left with some tangy goat farmer’s cheese, a sweet-smelling melon, a few galettes (buckwheat crepes) for me to experiment with, and a kilo of fresh Breton mussels that carried a whiff of sea on them, which became lunch. You’ll have to take my word for it, they were soft and delicious.


The seafood stands at these Breton markets are fascinating. I didn’t realize there were so many edible types of snails and barnacles.



We have frequented the markets in Nice, France and I have to say from what we’ve seen so far, Breton markets can top them for variety. But — it’s all goodness.





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A few years ago, somewhere, I discovered the Breton photographer Guy Le Querrec. I was smitten. Splendidly observed for telling gesture and detail, often catching people being human in humorous ways, his photographs can be visited again and again.

guy le querrec 5

guy le querrec 1

So I was delighted that in walking distance from our rental apartment, there was a large exhibition of his works. Among his most impressive, ironically, are those taken on the Sioux reservation in South Dakota. They are mesmerizing.  They reminded me of a film I’ve recently seen, “The Rider.” Not because of the similarity of content, but because both were made on a US Indian reservation by foreigners who were able to capture something magical that might elude natives or non-native Americans.

guy le querrec 3

guy le querrec 2

guy le querrec 4

There is a lot of photography to be seen in an hour’s drive radius from Rennes. Last week we dropped into the picturesque town of La Gacilly which for 15 years has mounted a summer outdoor photography festival. There are hundreds of photographs, some enlarged to a massive scale, posted through the streets and alleys, and large field – turned – gallery where multiple artists’ projects are exhibited. For hours, I was in heaven.

Among the very impressive works was that of Mathieu Ricard, France’s most famous Buddhist monk.

La Gacilly photo exhibition, Brittany

His photographs will stay with me a long while. Humbling, humbling stuff.

Next up: the Doisneau show in Dinard.

Posted in Brittany, culture, Photography | 1 Comment