Finding Friendship in France Among Crepes and a Collision

Tuesday is the first big market day in the Breton village where I live. Its the day this corner of France comes alive. Little autos and big bicycles throng our town square, centered on an ancient church with a clock in its high tower. Many of the bicycles belong to grandmotherly farmers' wives who still do not quite approve of automobiles. They race down the farm lanes with their blue Breton aprons flapping in the warm spring breeze and a precious baguette thrusting out of a bag behind the bicycle seat. That part of their image is hundreds of years old, even if the bicycle updates it. But it is the large, plastic crash helmet they must wear these days that produces instant mirth.

If you're a true Breton, bread must be fresh daily, and the first morning event is an early trip to the boulangerie. Almost the entire village lines up within its warm and aromatic walls by 7 a.m.

The friendliest man in my village is a postman behind the counter at our La Poste office. When he sees me, he always stands up to shake hands across the counter. I'm not important, but he always makes me feel that way. He will even stick beautiful French stamps on my mail instead of the postage meter label, if I ask. He licks away at them, pounding them into permanency on my letter or package, and with a smile arrives at his big moment: He is going to tell me how much I owe him - in English. He shouts it out and then turns to his French audience for approbation. Everyone smiles or nods. There is laughter on both sides of the counter. It is now my turn to give him broad congratulations on his improved English - in French. He beams proudly.

Next to the mail counter, a farmer is shouting into the public telephone in the old-fashioned booth. We are reluctantly learning all we ever wanted to know about his personal world. Some of the locals look at me with embarrassment. "The American will think we are all farmers and peasants," their glances seem to say. Not at all, I smile back, calling out the French equivalent of "Have a happy day," which they faithfully echo back, as I depart. They each support my joy in being their guest in France.

My car is parked across the street, which is dangerous for me because it is next to a large crepe maker's which turns out the Breton traditional crepes every morning. Each crepe is handmade, slowly, proudly. The aroma makes me giddy with desire. Will I dash to my car and close the door quickly to beat the fragrances reaching out to me? Or will I submit to my usual weekly order of crepes - a half-dozen stuffed with apples, three stuffed with bits of chocolate, and six plain - to take home as my reward for living in Brittany?

The aroma passes out of the creperie's windows, beyond the red flushed cheeks of the girls twirling batter on their hot iron pads, to the expectant faces in line. I watch the customers line up at the doorway as they smile and shake hands with friends and neighbors.

In this village everyone is a neighbor, and courtesy requires all the accouterments of friendship. First, the mandatory handshake - once in greeting and once again in departure. If two people are familiar acquaintances, then one kiss on each side of the face is de rigueur. If true friends - and this is how you know - it requires four kisses, two on each side. That's a total kiss count of eight: four kisses hello and four kisses in farewell. It is done with great dignity and clear affection. Nothing artificial in a Breton crepe or a Breton greeting.

I drive back to my home. On the road, I see identical twins, about 10 or 12, sitting on the side of the road. One has fallen off a bike and sustained some kind of foot injury. The other stays loyally nearby, wistfully watching cars go by. One bike lays on its side, the pedal chain pulled off. Driving by them, I marshal my facts: I'm late for whatever I'm late for; I don't pick up strangers; the broken bike won't fit in my little car; I can't speak French well; and I don't want to interfere. Those facts rule me for about a quarter of a mile, before I turn around, safe in kindness's control.

I stutter my offer of help in dreadful French. "We speak English!" they shout, laughing. They fit the bike into my trunk easily. They are wiser than I am. One pedals fast to lead the way. The other climbs into my car slowly, minding the foot. Florence, my French farm dog of shameful genealogy but with a warm Breton heart, is in her lap in seconds. Clearly, we are among friends.

I follow the bicycle ahead into a strange driveway. Quickly I take out the bike, and I'm ready to leave. Too late! The whole family comes rushing out of the house, Mama in the lead, plump, aproned, warm. I pray she won't get into that four kisses thing. I wouldn't know how to do it properly. Then she vanishes.

The twins and their brothers and sisters, six in all, gather around to check out the American. Papa keeps shaking my hand until Mama rushes back down the driveway carrying something - a jar of home-made blackberry jam for me. We all smile, laugh, and wave as I pull away. A week later, all come to my home to thank me, dressed in their Sunday finery. The twin with the injury shows me a perfect foot. The family's friendship and gratitude seem to fill my house in that loving Breton way. How nice it is to be a friend in France.

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