A Step Back in Time Along Brittany's Shore

We first came to Brittany before the great tourist invasions began. We boarded a bus in St. Malo, heading for Quimper and beyond. Where were we off to, the driver asked. ''To Lesconil in Sud Finistere.''

''Petit pays, pays des Bigoudenes,'' he said, making it sound infinitely mysterious. We wanted to know who were the Bigoudenes, but he only smiled secretly. ''Wait and see,'' he said. When we reached the small village south of Pont l'Abbe we soon knew -- the Bigoudenes were the proud women of the region who still wore the high white coiffe, a lace headdress, and who, like the fishermen, spoke more Breton than French.

Our small hotel was so close to the harbor that for us the impression grew of living in a kingdom of the sea, far beneath the waves. Days of sunshine were often followed by ones of mist and storm when great Atlantic breakers surged and foamed up the Grande Plage. We fell asleep to the flashing of the lighthouse in the port, were wakened at dawn by clattering sabots in the street below and by Breton voices -- the fishermen were setting off to sea.

Everywhere, colors dazzled us. The vivid sails of the fishing fleet and the smock-like vareuses of the fisherfolk were sea blue, emerald green, saffron, and russet as the sea wrack. ''Who made them?'' we asked our hotel owners.

''The widow,'' they told us, ''la Veuve Guyader, the couturier of the whole village. She might even be willing to make vareuses for the three of you,'' they added. ''She lives with her son, Yves, in the tallest house for miles. Wait till you meet her!''

The widow's house was certainly tall as a tower. The door lay ajar, and, as we hesitated, a voice called from above, as if expecting us: ''Montez!'' We climbed a twisting stairway, drawn upward by the low humming purr of a sewing machine.

The room at the top was a fairy-tale place, perfumed with seaweed and lavender. Herbs hung in bunches; mint, thyme, and rosy-cheeked apples were spread out to dry, while the floor was heaped high with linen, velvet, brocade, cotton, and cambric in a blaze of color. From far off came the sound of the sea. In the midst of it all was Madame Guyader herself.

Madame Guyader wore a stiffly starched white lace coiffe, a black velvet bodice, and a wide black skirt. She had about her a calm, grave dignity, and her first words, spoken in Breton-accented French, belonged to the enchantment around her. ''I have been waiting for you since I heard of the Scottish family wanting vareuses. You have only to choose your colors,'' she went on. ''What I make you will last many years, perhaps a lifetime.''

So our friendship began. As we looked from her window down the rocky coast, she told of old days in the village, of the simplicity of their lives. ''We had our veillees round the fire at night, listening to famous storytellers with their eerie tales of the loup garou, the werewolf, of legendary storms and shipwrecks. As children we loved them, and even if they made us afraid to go to bed without a candle, we always asked for more.

''At school we were forbidden by law to speak Breton. Of course we disobeyed. Our language is sacred, the best part of us, our soul you could say -- Breton first, French last. Our beloved old teacher, Monsieur Kergar from Plougastel, tried to keep us in order -- in French. It was impossible -- the French words stuck in his throat. 'We don't understand you,' we would shout. 'Speak in Breton -- we only understand Breton.' 'We must obey the law,' he would beg us. Poor old man -- his heart was not in it.''

''Tell us more about Monsieur Kergar,'' we coaxed her. ''And tell us about the handsome young fisherman with the gold-flecked eyes, the best player of the Breton bagpipes in all Sud Finistere.''

She gave one of her rare and wonderful smiles and held up an armful of coiffes. ''See, here is the coiffe of the young girl, this for the betrothed. Then here is the wife's, and there the widow's, the one I wear and always shall.

''I had been married to my handsome fisherman for a year when our son came and joy with him -- but then the war came, too. One morning at dawn, there came a loud knocking at our door, a sound that made you shiver. Out of the mist loomed five gray figures standing very still -- German soldiers. What do you want, my fisherman asked, very proud, not showing a tremor, though he knew what they wanted. No time was given for farewells. Neither of us would shed a tear before the enemy. There was only the backward glance he gave me and the son who would carry on his name.

On our last day, Madame Guyader gave me a special honor -- she dressed me in her most treasured possession, part of her dowry, a velvet apron embroidered with pearls and gold thread, passed down from mother to daughter. Then she tied on the lace coiffe. ''Hold your head high,'' she commanded. ''You must show pride even as an honorary Bigoudene. We are a proud race.'' She surveyed me a while. ''Our beautiful coiffes will gradually disappear,'' she said, ''our costumes will only be seen at the fetes folkloriques in Quimper, a show for tourists. Each time you return you'll see it happening. When my son, Yves, marries, he and his wife won't want my old Singer -- they'll have an electric one.''

We took up our rose-red, russet, and sea-green vareuses, ready at last. ''I think that I've woven a page of our history into them,'' she said, then added, smiling, ''along with much friendship and affection.''

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