Sea-shanty festival a porthole on Brittany's mode de vie

An annual festival revives old Breton music – one aspect of the region's burgeoning cultural pride.

"The wind laughs in their eyes, these men with the scent of the ocean," sings Hervé Guillemer. "They have eyes that cry waves, these men on the jetties who yearn for the past, when life was as wide as the sea."

Mr. Guillemer has a white beard, a sun-blistered face, and the broad, calloused hands of a laborer. In fact, he is a storyteller who works a burnished yellow concertina in wheezy complement to seafaring tales from his native Brittany.

His songs and poems are inspired by a sense of history and his inheritance – specifically, the 5,000 weathered postcards that his Breton grandfather sent home from all points of the compass over a lifetime of whaling and sailing.

But being Breton is not all about old sailors' songs and salt-caked memories, Guillemer insists to me later, in a stern effort to correct an outsider's thinking. "Breton culture is alive, and it's always being revised."

Apparently, it is. In an increasingly standardized France, where more people buy their bread in supermarkets than at the corner boulangerie, that dose of fierce regional pride is as refreshing as an ocean breeze – and something locals relish.

Over the past 20 years, Brittany, once derided as the unruly stepchild of France, and still considered one of its more obstinate family members, has declared its singularity proudly. An explosion of new bands has rediscovered Breton music, much of it similar to sea shanties of the British and Canadian coasts. Classes in Breton dancing and the Breton language are now common here.

At the Sea Shanty Festival earlier this month, just one of the cultural celebrations that bloom every summer weekend across Brittany, that pride was on full display. For three days, piers were crowded with men dressed as pirates, women in homely linen caps, and musicians singing sailor songs. Couples danced on docks; great circles of people stamped jigs.

Many regions of France were once, like Brittany, fiercely independent kingdoms in a Medieval patchwork, and still boast of distinct cuisines and costumes. One or two nurture the memory of languages long fallen out of use. But few embrace their difference as ferociously as Brittany, which revels in its own music, legends, and a certain swaggering pride.

These days, in fact, the revived identity is so strong that Brittany has splintered into micro-identities. Northern Brittany claims bragging rights over southern Brittany; coastal towns bicker over whose oyster beds are best.

Bretons insist they are made of different stuff than anyone else in France. And woe to those who venture to suggest that Breton culture might exist more in the realm of nostalgia than in daily life. "To be Breton is to embody the best of France," says Loïc Pinçon, a retired handyman from Tréguier, a port town west of Paimpol. It is hard to miss the sneer in his voice. "We are not a museum," he adds. "But if you're not one of us, you won't understand."

• • •

Brittany is the broad thumb of land in northwestern France that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. It abounds with legends of sorcerers, wind spirits, and fairies from the days when English kings controlled the region. Inland from Paimpol, for example, are the remains of the dense Brocéliande forest, reputedly the stomping grounds of the Knights of the Round Table and Merlin the Magician.

The region has its own Celtic language, Breton – or Brezhoneg in the vernacular – which now appears on street signs along with the French names of towns. It also has a tiny separatist movement, its own black-and-white-striped flag, and a history of hostility to state interference.

Evidence of its stubborn distinctness jumps out everywhere. Take the highways. Throughout much of France, toll roads crisscross the countryside in a vast network leading, usually, to Paris. Not in Brittany. The locals claim they are exempt from "road taxes" because of a deal worked out in 1499, when Duchess Anne de Bretagne married the French king Charles VIII.

If you want to drive to Paris, you need a map. There are no signs on Breton highways indicating the way to the capital – as if no one would really want to go there. The first sign for Paris appears when you enter Normandy, the next region over to the east.

The prickly Bretons have fascinated the rest of the French for hundreds of years.

"Brittany is an old rebel," wrote Victor Hugo in the 19th century, one of a pantheon of French literary figures who used the region as an emblem of French otherness. Hugo was no fan. He described Bretons as rustic contrarians clinging to a "dead language" and rejecting any ideas emanating from Paris. Even the invigorating ocean wind only "irritates" them, he complained.

The Bretons of the interior, the peasants, have typically been portrayed as the rubes of France, fanatically Roman Catholic and condemned by their poor inland soil to a plebeian diet of potatoes. The popular children's storybook character, Bécassine, is the ultimate caricature, a bumbling rural cook in a flapping traditional white cap.

Many Bretons still resent the old image of themselves as an obstinate people clinging to a language no one else speaks. "The people of the Brittany coast were more cosmopolitan than much of the rest of France," says Olivier Blaizot, who plays guitar for Cap Horn, one of the region's more popular sea-shanty bands. "The fishing fleets went to Newfoundland, Iceland, Canada, Mauritania and all over the world."

• • •

Whether manifest in squabbles over Bécassine's Breton adventures or the relative merits of coastal oyster beds, it's a tangled web of legacy, lore, and fierté that can make the region snub the most admiring outsiders – even one who thought she had a certain Breton claim.

In these parts of Brittany, I quickly learn that my French in-laws are not considered real Bretons, as they and I have always assumed they were. They live in Guérande, a medieval town south of the shipbuilding center of St. Nazaire. All the street signs there are in French and Breton; the black-and-white regional flag flies from sailboats. And a family party is sometimes announced as a fest-noz, its Breton name.

But during World War II, the French Vichy regime redrew the regional boundaries within occupied France. The southern portion of historic Brittany, including Guérande, was placed in another region called Loire-Atlantique.

"It sounds like you met up with the real irredentists," said Philippe Vandunberghe, the triangle player in the group Cap Horn, when I tell him of my in-laws' newly contested roots. As a native of Dunkerque, at the northern tip of France, he's sympathetic: "I know what it feels like. I've lived in Brittany for 40 years. It's only with the passage of many years that I've been accepted."

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