Thursday, February 23, 2012

Living in Brittany

Background: France is divided into a bunch of administrative regions, of which Brittany (Bretagne in French) is one*. Each region is subdivided into departments. Brittany has four departments: Ille-et-Vilaine in the east, Côtes d'Armor in the north, Morbihan in the south, and Finistère, where Brest is located, in the west. (And let's not even get into the various unofficial cultural regions, which I'm only beginning to figure out. Just look how confusing it is: MAP.)

The Breton name for Finistère is Penn-ar-Bed, which means "the end of the earth". I don't know for sure, but that seems like a legitimate origin for the French name, too; in modern French the translation would be something like "Fin de la Terre", which is pretty similar. It actually sounds like it might even be a Frenchification** of the Latin.

In any case, in theory, Finistère (along with the western part of Côtes d'Armor) is where one is most likely to hear Breton spoken. I suppose it's a similar phenomenon to that in Ireland; the original Celtic language survived mainly in the westernmost regions because they were the ones furthest from the encroaching influence of what was to become the dominant language. That said, Breton is an endangered language, spoken by only a fraction of the population, most of whom are old. (The immersion and bilingual schools scattered throughout Brittany are not funded by the state, because French historically does not play well with other languages, and so they only reach a tiny percentage of children.) So in practice, I have never actually heard it used. I'm sure that's partly because I live in the city, where it's less likely than in rural areas, but I've never encountered it in my short forays into smaller towns, either. The exceptions, of course, are Breton words that have been adopted into French (names of traditional foods being the most obvious example) and Breton words used in the names of businesses and products. Place names are also commonly Breton, or at least Frenchified Breton, which makes them exceptionally difficult for me to figure out how to pronounce.

Sometimes in classes where I'm lucky enough to have the class roster in front of me, I study it while I'm waiting for students to complete some individual or group task without my interference. Sometimes I'm just trying to figure out who's who, but other times I'm studying the names themselves and trying to guess which are French and which are Breton. Classically French names are common: All of the Marions and Laurines and Elodies, the Valentins and Lucs and Cléments, leave no doubt. And sometimes the Breton names--Riwan, Aziliz, Killian, Nolwenn--are just as obvious. Others I'm less sure about. They sound like they could go either way. Last names can be especially difficult, but there are plenty of first names I still can't identify.

Then I start to wonder about the students with the Breton names. Do their siblings also have Breton names? Do their parents speak Breton, or did they just like the name? Do they themselves speak Breton? It's not likely. But... are they among those who still identify as Breton more than, or even instead of, French? That's more common than you might think. The people of Brittany are extremely proud of their heritage and their traditions (the Breton flag is everywhere), but more than that, there are people who claim Brittany is not France and aren't speaking figuratively or trying to make a point. "I've never been to France," they'll say. The "BZH LIBRE" graffiti I sometimes see would even suggest there is still a movement (how big, and how politically serious, I wouldn't know) for Breton independence.

When I think about it, that makes it seem a little strange that I don't have more of a sense of there being a culture clash here. The fact that I don't know which names are Breton and which are French, that I don't think twice about Brittany-specific targeted advertising, that a lack of bilingual signage strikes me as odd... it's just funny how normal things like that seem. I've spent very little time outside of Brittany, comparatively, and it occurs to me now that I don't really know what life in the rest of France is like. The differences must be so much more than drinking wine instead of cider and beer and eating white-flour crêpes instead of buckwheat. It must be more, even, then being away from the megaliths and the pervasiveness of fishing and sailing culture. They say, for example, that Brittany is by far the most Catholic part of France, and while I haven't seen much evidence that people are especially religious today, there are churches and abbeys and religious sculptures around every bend. Everything is named after St. Anne and St. Yves. Meanwhile, the region is full of festivals, festivals of all kinds, but especially ones celebrating traditional music and dance and storytelling, not to mention maritime traditions. Some of my students have told me they play traditional instruments, and often some of the street musicians at the Sunday market are playing Breton music. The market itself is a smorgasbord of local foods I take for granted that I imagine my friends elsewhere in France may have never seen. The libraries and bookstores have huge sections on Breton tales and proverbs and history. Every other car I see has a triskell sticker or one of a little cartoon person in Breton dress. Women carry shopping bags and men wear scarves that have the Breton flag on them--and here I thought putting your flag on everything was an American thing. Most people may not speak Breton, but it's printed everywhere.

I realize that no country's culture is uniform and that what it means to be French varies from region to region elsewhere. There are probably traditions everywhere that are region-specific. (They say the middle of the country, away from the influence of bordering nations, is the most "French".) But here, where some people still insist they are not French at all, where most of the population was bilingual until fifty years ago and many still wore traditional costumes up until WWII, there's truly a dual culture. Brittany remained very distinct from the rest of France until astonishingly recently, and it still shows. It shows in ways I think I must not even realize, since I have nothing to which to compare what I see here. And that's just really interesting to me.

I wonder what other ways my experience of France hasn't been typical...

* Not to be confused with the cultural region of Brittany or the historical duchy of Brittany, of which the modern administrative region only contains about 80%.
** That's a real word, I swear.

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