It’s a sunny, breezy late September morning as my son Colin and I stand on the docks at the Port de Foleaux–a collection of a few hundred sailboats on the Vilaine River in southern Bretagne. This present vista, approximately a dozen miles inland from France’s Atlantic coast, is a scant one-mile from our Cado village home down the sleepiest of roads lined with high corn stalks, grazing sheep, and country cottages.
This Verona pair silently peers out at the river and the parade of sailboats peacefully moored here–some just beyond arm’s reach. It’s a serene–borderline poetic–father-son moment promptly broken by Norman, an octogenarian Brit hailing from Kent, who approaches up the sole entrance ramp:
“I’ve been sailing since I was 11,” he says, after brief, mutual introductions.
A formidable British accent flavoring his speech, he points in the direction of The Mistral, his sailboat tied to the docks steps from where we stand.
“I sail alone now since my wife passed,” he confides, his slightly bent frame, wispy strands of white hair, and sun-worn skin presenting a figure not far removed from my vision of Hemingway’s tenacious, sea-worn protagonist Santiago in that epic maritime tale.
Norman recounts a few of the Mistral’s slew of adventures. As I fix my gaze on his modest, 30-foot boat, my mind nudges it out of its berth towards its rightful home on the open sea, with its English, sea-tested. captain proudly at the wheel.
“I crossed the Atlantic and sailed the Caribbean,” he continues matter-of-factly. “It can sleep six, but now I’m quite comfortable here alone.” I stare at The Mistral and envision Norman retreating to his cozy cabin after a day of sailing. There is little, I surmise, to rival such aloneness, such stillness, such complete isolation that must cloak the solitary traveler trolling the open seas. Melville, Conrad, Hemingway and London, among other sterling pens have recorded eloquent and poignant accounts of the intrepid, sea-faring, soul, but watching Norman approach The Mistral on this morning in Bretagne–I witness an unheralded, humble seaman in the final chapters of his own epic tale.
Our conversation briefly touches on the recent string of tragic hurricanes that have destroyed many of those same glistening ports he once deftly navigated years ago. I ask him how he deals with rough seas and seasickness while on board:
“You just deal with it,” he says curtly, a slight smile clearly betraying the many moments that he confronted that scourge of the open seas.
Raised in Cornwall, Norman learned to sail on the Tamar River in Southwest England. He bought The Mistral in 1977–the year my wife was born. He asks me where we’re from and–like several previous exchanges here in Bretagne–I give my stock speach on Verona, NJ, extolling a few of the best attributes of this suburban gem in New York’s western suburbs. As he turns and bids us farewell on this cool, sun-drenched Bretagne morning, I see a man born to sail, drawn to the open water and forever fated to remain a happy victim of its capricious whims.
If Norman is tied to the seas, Allen, our slightly younger, retired neighbor in Cado, is a man clearly content on terra firma. My son Colin and I find ourselves in his company one sunny afternoon. We are in a carriage pulled by his horse Plume, slowly trotting along on a worn path through an impossibly green field adjacent to that same Vilaine River where a few days prior Norman regaled us with his adventures on The Mistral.
“This was all part of the river,” he says in French, making a sweeping gesture with his hand over an expanse of lush greenness. He explains that prior to the construction of a series of locks along the Vilaine to control the strong tides on France’s northwest coast, this field that we now traverse by horse carriage was the river bed of a much mightier, untamed Vilaine.
As we approach the banks of the river, we are serenaded by the rhythmic and hypnotic clop, clop, clop of Plume’s horseshoes. Stopping feet from the river’s edge, Allen, Colin and I peer out at the peaceful Vilaine, which, from this quiet, verdant spot a few miles upstream from Norman’s modest Mistral, dazzles in a sunny, mid-afternoon brilliance.
We continue up the through the open fields and join the country road to the village of Beganne. We pass the bar and tobacco store, riding through the center of the village past the church, bakery and meat store before coming to a stop in front of the schoolyard of Beganne’s sole elementary school. A crowd of children excitedly race to the fence to get closer to Allen’s horse, shrieking and jumping in pure elation at seeing the majestic equine. We briefly chat with a few of the school’s teachers, who promptly invite my family and me to join them one day at school for a cultural exchange with their classes.
Exiting Beganne, the once bright skies darken and a heavy rain shower begins . Allen parks Plume under a thick cover of trees until the sun re-appears a few minutes later. The final stretch of this pleasant one-hour tour is a slow trot up and down a mildly undulating country lane that leads right to the shared driveway of our Cado home.
The carriage wheels roll and crunch as Plume trots up the slight incline of our pebble driveway. Colin, who sat in quiet awe during most of our one-hour tour, declares excitedly: “Home!” For him and his brother Kyle, our 19th Century, renovated Bretagne barn house has become just that–home. I reflect on our cozy, early 20th Century Franklin Street bungalow in the States. For my boys, those images have likely retreated a bit and been replaced by their new–albeit temporary–reality here in western France. I, however, still warmly and vividly remember Verona, but now also reserve a permanent space for Bretagne in what that great English playwright called “the book and volume of my brain.”
Keith and Emily Perkins, and their twin toddlers have been Verona residents for two years. Teachers by profession, the Perkins embarked in August on a six-month sabbatical in Europe. They are living for three months in Bretagne, France and three months in Kilcrohane, Ireland, which they will chronicle on MyVeronaNJ.com. Bookmark the tag “Perkins Adventure” to follow all their stories. Keith can be reached at [email protected].