Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Le Pays des mégalithes

I don't know if I mentioned this before, but when I arrived at my lycee I discovered that the previous assistants who have lived in my room have accumulated and left behind quite a few interesting and useful things, from the mismatched dishes and cooking utensils to a random assortment of books to a collection of partly-used bottles of dish soap and cleaning solution and the French version of Febreze. (There's also a trio of unframed prints of vegetables on the wall that I find very odd but can't justify taking down, seeing as I don't have anything better to put up.) One of the more intriguing and unexpected items lurking in my closet was a French press.

I'd never used a French press, but I do love coffee, and I was not about to go buy a drip coffeepot for the time I'm here even if it meant subsisting on instant coffee for seven months. (I actually don't mind instant coffee. My tastes aren't refined enough, I guess. I mean, I can tell that it sucks compared to “real” coffee, and given the choice I'll always pick something better, but coffee has to be truly terrible for me not to want to drink it, and even instant rarely falls that low on the scale.) I finally got around to buying some ground coffee last week (sorry, purists, but I'm far too lazy to grind my own even if I had a grinder at hand) and finally got around to trying the press pot over the weekend. And oh my God. Heavenly. Maybe it's only because all of the coffee I'd had in the previous six weeks had been either instant coffee in my room or espresso in cafes (because apparently ordering a coffee here always gets you espresso unless otherwise indicated), but I still think I may not go back to drip coffee once I get home.

But back to my story: There is also a Museum of Prehistory in Carnac that I wanted to visit while I was there, but my bus choices for leaving the following morning were approximately seven or approximately noon. Go France. The former was before dawn and would not allow me to make it to the museum. The latter was after check-out time and would force me to take my ridiculous backpack with me to the museum, and also would not give me the time to do my other hike at Erdeven. I chose the early bus, reasoning that the original intention had been for this to be primarily a hiking trip, and that there are tons of museums on my agenda for this year and missing that one wasn't the end of the world. Even if it sounds awesome.

So after paying my hotel bill the night before, because there wasn't going to be anyone at the front desk so early in the morning, I got up at an ungodly hour for the second day in a row and stood at the bus stop in the dark and the drizzle and was the only person on the fifteen or twenty minute ride to Erdeven, where I had to find my way through the deserted town and down a surprisingly not deserted country road to the trailhead in the dark. (It was pretty creepy, and one of the most anxiety-inducing things I've done since getting to France.) My route began at another set of alignments, which, like many megaliths in Brittany, are just hanging out by the side of the road like it's no big deal. There's a small parking lot for visitors and a little signpost with some information, but that's it. And it's a lot, compared to the vast number of sites that aren't acknowledged in any way whatsoever. Anyway, I knew I'd reached the right spot when I saw the stones rising up in front of me—big shadowy shapes slightly darker than the dark around them. I initially thought they formed a circle, which got me really excited (I love stone circles even more than dolmens, I think, which is interesting given my attraction to all things tomb-like), but once it was light enough for me to see beyond the nearest ones I realized they were in rows like the ones at Carnac. I need to read up on megaliths, because it seems that alignments are the thing here in Brittany and circles are more of a British/Irish phenomenon. I need to find out if that's true or if I've just made it up based on my very limited experience.

Anyway, the prospect of being there at dawn made the 6 o'clock alarm and the eerie, wet walk entirely worth it. I sat on the fence and ate an apple and waited for there to be enough light to start trying to take dramatic pictures. I started too soon, of course, and took many a failed picture*, but it turned out that dawn was anticlimactic anyway, because this is Brittany and day did not break so much as slink up unnoticed. It very gradually became light enough for me to see that it was going to continue to be a dark, grey day, and I didn't actually see the sun until close to two hours after it supposedly rose.

The trail away from the alignments led into the woods, and there it stayed for most of the three-hour walk, winding among dense trees and passing, meeting, or crossing an assortment of other paths. I was very glad of my guidebook, and even it wasn't entirely helpful—as well as being in French and using a lot of words with which I was unfamiliar, it occasionally did not give detailed enough directions, as when it failed to mention the crossroads at which I ultimately took the wrong path, ruining the loop and causing me to skip an entire leg of the hike so as not to have to backtrack any more than was already necessary. That was irritating. I like to think it got its just desserts when it fell into a mucky puddle later on, though.

Anyway, my short[ened] walk in the woods took me past an absurd number of megaliths, both more alignments and some awesome dolmens. Some of them were signposted (not informative signs, mind you, just names and arrows). Others were not. None of them were fenced or roped off or otherwise protected in any way. Anyone can walk among them, touch them, sit on them, crawl inside the tombs. (I do not do those last two things, because I have some respect, but I know some people do.) They're everywhere, and no one cares. It blows my mind. I don't mean that as a criticism, necessarily, just that I can't imagine ever thinking of freaking megaliths as just part of the landscape, no more worthy of notice than an oddly shaped tree or a hollow in the creek bank.

On a slightly different topic, I've been pleased to discover that walkers/hikers in France smile and greet one another in passing just as they do in America. That doesn't happen in the cities. You ignore the other people on the sidewalk, who stare at you with perplexed hostility if you try to make eye contact. But on the trail, whether it's on the cliffs outside of Brest or deep in the woods in rural Morbihan, people experience the same sense of friendly camaraderie as on trails back home.

Or maybe hiking just appeals to a certain kind of person. Maybe we all walk around town feeling awkward about avoiding contact with the people around us.

It's a little ironic that you find indifference when surrounded by people and warmth in the places you go to get away.

* I have a love/hate relationship with my camera, which is a Canon Powershot of whatever mid-range model was current as of the summer of 2010. I love that it's small enough to fit into a pocket, sturdy enough to tolerate being dropped now and again (a necessary feature for almost all of my gadgets), and good enough at what it does to take usually satisfactory and sometimes excellent pictures without the assistance of any real photography skills on my part. However, I hate my inability to manipulate it, which is partly a result of same lack of photography skills and partly due to its being a point-and-shoot. Obviously a point-and-shoot is all that's necessary for someone without photography skills, but it also simply cannot do some of the things a better camera could do. One thing in particular that it cannot do, that frustrates me endlessly because it's a feature I actually would know how to use if we had it, is to allow the shutter speed to be manually adjusted. I can adjust other things I don't even understand, but I am not allowed to control the shutter speed at all, and just that one simple thing would allow me to make good on so many more of the dramatic photos I see in my head...

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