I won the 2014 Time & Place Prize in Brittany, France. I never win anything so when I got the email last March from Larry (he runs the contest along with his wife, Maria) telling me I had won a one-month, all expenses-paid trip to Brittany, France to have the “time and place” (get it?) to write I was, well at first I didn’t believe it.
Below is a show-and-tell of my experience. I abhor exaggeration and cliché so when I say it was amazing I mean it was AMAZING! I felt fulfilled in so many ways and got a lot of writing done (bonus!) Details of my experience are below, but in the meantime the 2015 contest deadline is end of November so click here to apply.
The Time: 31 days in July to walk/think/dream, read, eat, swim, sleep, dance, play, write, go to the movies or do whatever it is that nurtures your creativity and allows you to produce. Sound incredible? It was.
The Place: A beautiful 2-story stone cottage (bedroom up, study down) in the village of Gourin (population 4,263) behind Larry’s family’s house.
View out upstairs window. The spire is Église de Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul - more about that later.
Walk/Think/Dream: Gourin is lush (average rainfall: 27 inches/year) with lots of giant trees, flowers, lakes and the kind of skies that look as if they've been run through photoshop. While there I had about 75% sun, 25% overcast/rain with temperatures ranging from 60s-80s. I basically brought my entire wardrobe (which Maria washed for me, thank you!)
There are all sorts of locally-accessible hiking trails but since getting seriously lost not once, not twice but three times while out in nature I chose to stay closer to home on paths that either went straight or in a circle.
La Voie Verte is a 51km (32 mile) old railway track that has been turned into a gorgeous tree-covered walking path (straight). Near the path entrance, a five-minute walk, is a small lake with ducks, fish, cranes etc. (circular). I’m a nature freak and the beauty in Gourin led to many John Denver moments (the whole "sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy" thing but "sunshine in my eyes can make me"…blind). In the summer it stays light till close to 10p so after dinner I often walked, contemplated and learned the local dogs’ names (Elf, Gribouille, Troika and Jerico).
La voie verte:
Lake at 9pm:
Read: Larry has a large library which he generously allows you to use. From modern-day fiction to philosophy and many points in between his tastes are impressive and wide-ranging.
A small sampling:
Eat: You are welcome to join the family (Larry, his wife and their three well behaved, bright and entertaining kids) for any, all or no meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner). Everyone was incredibly welcoming and fun to hang out with. I did breakfast on my own and stocked up on snacks and sundries at the large nearby supermarket.
Side note: one Saturday, les élèveurs (livestock farmers) blocked access to the supermarket parking lot with their tractors and shut down business for the entire day…because they could. They were protesting their cut of goods sold, wanting an increase. The police stood by as if they were spectators. Ah, the French.
A word about the Yeti of Crêpes aka the elusive Crêpe Man. There is a mobile crêpe van on the street where Larry lives that’s open…when it’s open. The Crêpe Man sells freshly-made savory and sweet crêpes along with sandwiches and drinks. Occasionally, in the afternoon after several hours of work I’d look forward to a treat of a nutella-filled crêpe. It was a lesson in non-attachment to outcome since who knew if the crêpe man would be there (see: "mobile") or be open. To complicate matters, sometimes he was open but no longer selling crêpes. Depended on demand. Or his mood. Or his back which, when I left, he said was starting to feel a bit better.
Swim: I wasn’t kidding when I said you could swim. I’m a swimming nut so when I found out that in Gourin only for the months of July and August, a 6-lane, outdoor 50m pool opens I thought I’d died and gone to…Gourin. A 10-use pass cost 16 euros (open 6 days/week). And if that’s not enough it was only a 10-minute walk. C’est pas vrai! The old retired doctor in town and I were there every morning before it opened. He greeted me with a friendly handshake, but we never progressed to cheek kisses. I’m still trying not to take it personally.
Sleep: The spacious bedroom with bed (comfortable!), canvas armoire and modern bath with stall shower are upstairs. Remember what I said about light till 10p? A sleep shade is de rigeur. As mentioned earlier, Gourin has a beautiful church built in the 1490s. It has a quite-loud bell that rings every hour and half-hour starting at 8am and ending at 10:30pm. The first time I heard it I thought, ruh roh, but it’s amazing what you can get used to and after a while I came to like it, even anticipate it. It helped punctuate my day. All of which is to say, depending on your constitution, you might want to bring ear plugs.
Èglise de Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul (with bell):
Next to the church was a smaller chapel: Chapelle Notre-Dame-des-Victoires (built 1509, had a fire, rebuilt 1830). Sometimes I went there to write:
Here's what happens when the sun, shining through stained glass, hides behind a cloud. Made me think of a chalk painting in reverse:
Dance: There’s a beautiful nearby Château (bien sûr) called Tronjoly. They host an art exhibition in the château itself and, on the grounds, there is a festival called Fête de la Crêpe, home of the world’s largest crêpe, music, spirits, dancing and individually-sized crêpes (caramel and salted butter, mm!) Bretagne is a region unto itself with its own (“severely endangered”) Celtic language, Breton. All signage is in both French and Breton and recently a referendum was passed to make Breton a language study option in the local schools. The Breton culture has many customs with its own traditional dance forms as was evidenced at the fête. I was listening to the band when a particular song started playing and people, young and old, poured out onto the dance floor and began executing the exact same steps, together, as if they'd done this before.
Château de Tronjoly:
Château de Tronjoly Art Exhibition (and no, I'm not kidding):
On the way to Tronjoly. Tron...er très joli ce lac, non?
"Dancing with the Stars", Breton style:
Play: I went to the beach in Concarneau, Breton Horse compettion, saw stage 9 of the Tour de France in Plumelec and went to The Vieilles Charrues, Europe’s largest outdoor music festival. Tom Jones was playing and even at 75 can you say, "Sex Bomb"? Hubba.
Many women brought panties to wave and throw at Sir Tom. This woman wore her thong on her hat, naturally.
Needs no intro:
Tour de France: a parade of sorts with sponsor floats preceded the riders…
And gave you things like this:
Breton Horse competition: They grow 'em big here:
Speaking of play: while reading/writing one day outside the Château de Tronjoly I saw two boys playing. After a lot of running around, the older asked the younger if he'd like a massage to which the younger replied, Oui! and immediately flung himself over the lap of the older. Let's watch (make sure to turn up the volume on this one):
Write (oh, that): The first floor of the cottage has a large desk, a fantastic old iron oven built into the wall (years ago the building was a boulangerie) and about six floor-to-ceiling bookcases with Larry’s great library. There is a printer and WiFi access with the world’s longest key code (somebody call "Guinness Book of World Records", I’m not kidding). I loved the vibe there and got a lot of work done.
Movies: There is a quite-good, comfy movie theater (yes, within walking distance) that screens everything from "Mission Impossible 14" to Cannes-award-winning films. It was cheap, volunteer-run and subsidized by the government (what isn’t in France?) Most all movies were in French. If it was playing, I saw it.
Miscellany: Many Breton emigrated to the states during the first part of the 20th century. In commemoration they have a mini Statue of Liberty in the center of town:
Lastly, dying in Gourin is big business and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the ubiquitous funeral homes and cemeteries with some sites dating back to the early 1800s.
The remembrance plaques on memorials and in the shop windows ran the gamut as if, in a very weird way, dying wasn’t really the end of the road. But of course it is, isn’t it?
Translation (on heart): "I am sending you my last text". Seems to me this should be in the past tense, no? (and probably upgraded to at least an iPhone 5). See what I mean about not the end of the road (or your Verizon bill)?
Apparently, all good things must come to an end and unfortunately, so did my visit. I had no idea what to expect when I headed off to Gourin to claim my prize. It was better than I could have imagined and I am so very grateful for the experience. Thank you Larry for creating "The Time & Place Prize" and to the entire family for generously welcoming me into their home. I’m sorry it’s over.
Give my bonjour to the Crêpe Man...if you see him, that is.