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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

St. Malo

St. Malo

Pour le moment, j’ai abandonée mon recherche pour la musique Breton. J’ai trouvé deux choses, mais l’un est loin du transport publique, et l’autre est accessible seulement par autocar, et il n’y pas d’endroit pour dormir. Donc, je suis maintenant á St. Malo, une ville sur la mer à la cote du nord du Bretagne.

For the moment, I’ve given up my quest for Breton music. I found two things, but one is far from public transport, and the other is accessible only by bus, and there is nowhere to sleep. So I’m now in St. Malo, a town on the sea on the north coast of Brittany.

And as I sat down to write this, the words started coming out spontaneously in French instead of English, until I got to a word that I didn’t know and realized what I was doing. The gears are starting to turn a bit more easily, although of course still in their infancy, if I may so brazenly mix metaphors. I did have the miracle of an extended spontaneous conversation today. Sitting at a crêperie, eating une galette saucisse – a Breton buckwheat crêpe with sausage – the couple at the other end of the table asked me something that I didn’t understand. I smiled benignly, apologized, and told them that I spoke only a little French. Not dissuaded, they stayed and talked to me for twenty minutes or so. Monsieur had spent a couple of years in London, and was pretty easily able to manage my poor accent and limited vocabulary. His partner was equally patient and twice as sweet, had spent some time in South America, and knew well the displacement that comes from being a stranger in a strange land. We spoke mostly of travel and languages, but it was nonetheless meaningful human contact, which I haven’t really had in a few days. Funny how I can spend three days in the mountains without seeing a soul and feel fine, but put me in a city and I start getting lonely.

St. Malo itself boasts one of the highest tidal ranges in the world. Looking out over the ramparts at the fort this afternoon, one could easily walk across the rocks to the fort that stands on the outcrop into the sea. Walking those same ramparts tonight, the passage would be utterly impossible. The tide was in, the wind was up, and the sea crashed against the ramparts, sending spray over the tops, some 40 feet above the water. The fort was impossibly out to sea, the rocky promenade invisible beneath tens of meters of ocean.

So I think I’ll stay a couple of days in St. Malo. Its narrow winding streets, its walled interior, and its proximity to the sea appeal to me. I don’t expect to find music here, but I’m not bothered by that. The place itself has enough history and enough magic to remain interesting.


It seems like I hit Quimper (or perhaps France) at not-quite-the-right-time. I thought that finding music in Brittany would be easy; it has turned out to be kind of tricky. The first barrier has been that pretty much everything is closed Sunday and Monday. Even if my language skills were completely up to snuff, the shops aren’t open, so there aren’t many likely parties to ask. The pub culture in Ireland has given way to the café culture in France, and the cafés don’t really have sessions. Of course, I only partly came to France for the music; I mostly came for the language.

I’ve been getting some practice, in that while navigating the essentials, I don’t have much trouble booking places to stay, getting directions, riding public transport, or things of that nature. I managed to buy a pre-paid cell phone to make getting around a bit easier. But actually conversing is as difficult as I knew it would be. Once we get beyond the basics and folks try to make idle chatter with me, I have to respond with a blank stare more often than not. I’m just not there yet – I know the words, but I can’t process at conversational speed. The effect is isolating, and will no doubt wear on me over the coming weeks. The natural tendency is to stay quiet, avoid awkward conversations, which is of course exactly the wrong thing to do.

In any case, I’ve found a pub in Quimper with an Irish session on Fridays, but I almost certainly won’t stay here that long. I also found out about a couple of festivals this weekend, which I will check out if I can get to them. One is (I think) exclusively Breton, and only a few hours long. The other looks to be world music, and goes all weekend. Not sure if I can get there by public transport or if there is anywhere to stay, but I’ll look into it.


It’s boring to speak of the weather, but at the moment, I can’t help myself, as I’m reveling in it so thoroughly. After another sleepless night (the third in a row; I must get some rest in Quimper), the ferry arrived in Roscoff, about an hour before the break of dawn. It being a Sunday, nothing was open, no trains were running, so I walked along the quay until I found a boulangerie that was open early. I procured a bagette, filled my water jug from a municipal spigot near the fishing boats, and sat on a bench to watch the sun rise over the harbor.

I’ve not seen a sunrise in some time – the habits of an itinerant musician make it improbable. But I didn’t mind this one: enjoying fresh bread and fresh water, seeing the first rays illuminate the steeple of the Renaissance cathedral, the town dead silent around me, except for a few scattered fishermen untethering their boats before the tides sucked the water from the harbor. I am in France again. The gravity of it settles on me as the sun gains buoyancy.

Over the next couple of hours, I was able to watch the tides recede. Here in the relatively flat land of Brittany, the tides aren’t measured in feet, but in tens or hundreds of meters. The boats that were anchored at 6am sat in mud by noon, far from the water. While the boats became stranded, I became mobile, catching the 13h27 train to Morlaix, where I now sit on the terrace at the brasserie outside the station, absorbing magnificent sunlight and awaiting the train that will take me to Languadec and connect me to Quimper, seat of Finistère and heart of Bretange.

North Atlantic

Good god, I’m not even off the boat yet and already I’m meeting musicians from Brittany. There was a world music band playing the cabaret, mostly Bretons. I talked to the accordionist after their set, to ask about Breton music opportunities. He told me that I’d find music in pretty much any town in Brittany, and dances pretty much every Saturday. Later in the evening, a couple were playing harp and violin together in a corner of the restaurant. I talked to them for a bit, and they gave me their phone number and told me to call tomorrow night once they were home, and they would see what they can find for me.

The hard part of it all is that I’m conducting these conversations in French. It’s good to know that I can conduct them, even if I’m only catching about half of what’s being said to me. Hopefully that percentage will increase as the weeks go by. (While writing this, I committed cross language typos for musiciens and musique. It looks like context switching might be tricky.) Right now, it feels like I’m lifting weights with my cerebral cortex, and I have to suck up a bit of courage and swallow a bit of pride every time I open my mouth. Of course, I’m not actually even in France yet…

Brittany Ferry


As expected, Ireland has conspired hard to keep me. The fiddle sprung another leak yesterday morning. Pete & Dily offered me a gig next weekend that would put 100€ in my pocket and a place to stay for the week. While busking this morning, I got invited to an old-time jam on Tuesday, and pulled in 28€ in about two hours. All of it means that I could stay in Cork for the week, and probably come out about 200€ richer by week’s end. Tempting, indeed. But I am on my way to France.

I met up with Eileen yesterday morning to trade CDs, and she gave me directions to Bertrand, the finest luthier in Cork City. He was less than impressed with our drunken glue-and-clamp job, but offered to make things right if I would leave the violin for the day. While it sabotaged my busking plans, it seemed better than having the instrument continue to fall apart. So I gave it over to Bertrand and set out to do my chores for the day.

The first order of business was to lose some weight. Eileen had brought me a cardboard box, into which went the tent, the stove, some CDs from people I had met, and all of my Ireland maps. It cost a fortune to ship it all back – only slightly less than it would have cost to replace it all. But it probably dropped nearly ten pounds from my pack weight, which was most welcome. I donated my Ireland books to the hostel, losing another couple of pounds. I feel light and mobile now. I also purchased my ferry ticket, thus making my commitment to France binding.

After a quick nap, it was back to Bertrand, who had glued the top of the violin the whole way around, thus saving the instrument from destruction. We spent a while talking about violins and music in general, and he played some CDs of his non-classical recordings. Bertrand, as it happens, is French, and has a friend who runs a café in Brittany. I now have her name and number, too. I’m still not sure where I’ll end up tomorrow night – I need to spend some time with my guidebook and contact list.

So after my morning busking, I caught the bus to the ferry port. I had expected the ferry to be something more basic – a car deck, a couple of outdoor areas, maybe a lunch counter. It is, in fact, a full-on cruise ship. Casino, cabaret, shopping center, kennel, the works. Guess I now know why the ticket costs so much. As I write this, the coast of Ireland is falling away from me, until next I return. It gets a bit easier every time, and a bit harder to leave.

Ensuite, France…