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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Culture Share: France - Standing stones, and the Eve of the Assumption on L'Île aux Moines

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Juliette Wade discusses the L'Ile Aux Moines.

As many of you know, I was in France during the month of August, and so I'd like to give you a peek into one of the marvelous places I experienced there. Our family was staying with French hosts on L'Île aux Moines, which translates as "the island of the monks." I'll return to why it's called that in just a moment. It's a tiny island, located in a bay on the south coast of Brittany that is almost completely enclosed (le Golfe de Morbihan), where a series of valleys were invaded by water when sea levels rose a very very long time ago (and yes, people were living there at that time). We accessed the island by a three-and-a-half minute ferry ride on this boat:
Upon arriving at the island, we waited for a taxi. L'Île aux Moines has only three taxis total, all of which are minivans and take groups of people at a time. This is probably because the island is only 1.7 kilometers long, and the roads are only just wide enough to pass one of these minivans. You only rarely see cars, which do manage to pass each other at strategic locations. Sometimes the minivan passes between tall stone walls that seem close enough to scrape the side view mirrors on both sides at once. The best way to get around on the island is by bicycle or on foot (we used the latter approach, when we didn't have luggage). 

The houses on the island tend to be several stories tall, without a large footprint. They are often built of stone covered over with plaster. The gardens are fenced in with tall stone walls. In our host's garden there was a stone tabletop built into one of the walls, which our host explained was once used for washing clothes. There was also a special stone set up next to the wall, which he told us was intended to be stood upon so the residents could gossip over the walls with neighbors passing in the street. The house we stayed in was three stories, with a living room, dining room, and kitchen on the ground floor, and bedrooms on the two upper floors. The second floor had a shower room, and the third floor had a tiny triangular toilet room. I had the impression that these were "introduced" rather than original to the house. There was another bathroom with both shower and toilet in a detached stone building in the yard, which was the original location. 

One of the fascinating things about the island was the way that the people living there fell into two groups. The first group was tourists, who were out there to enjoy island life and conditions in the summertime, and the second group was the residents. The residents typically were members of families who had lived there for generations. Our hosts were more on the resident side than the tourist side. The husband had lived on the island with his grandparents as a little boy, and he and his wife now own a house there where they go to stay during the summer. He was amazing, and full of stories that made the history of the island come to life.

In this region, we discovered that the tides made conditions vary enormously. The picture below was taken from one of the island's many walking paths. It shows a derelict boat sitting out on a mudflat. That boat is in water when the tide is in, but far, far distant from it when the tide is out. In fact, this affected us personally because we had an event (described below) where we were sitting out on the beach... and when we passed the "beach" the following day, it didn't exist any more. Everything was covered with water.

One of the most awesome things about the island was that it had standing stones. The picture below shows my family walking in a very large semicircle of stones (yes, it continues all the way around past the edge of the picture on the far side). For a long while this area was overgrown with forest and the stones were hidden, but now most of them are visible. The stones are estimated at 7,000 years old. You can just imagine the people who lived here in that era, and how much work it must have been to set up such large stones in this way! We also loved it because we are fans of Asterix, and so we all were able to think about Obelix and how he carries around his menhirs. We would not have wanted to try to carry these!

The stone in the first picture below is the largest one on the island, and for hundreds of years (almost no time at all relative to its lifespan!) has been known as "Le Moine," or "The Monk." I believe this is the reason why the island itself is called the Island of the Monks. We estimate that this stone probably weighs more than 5 tons. While we were on the island, we took pictures with the stone, and we also saw pictures of people standing with this same stone that were taken in the 1800's. I guess it's been popular to have one's photo taken here for quite a long while! The second picture shows a dolmen, or a stone table. You can see my daughter peeking out from inside it. We climbed up on top of it - it is really huge. If you go into the shelter of the table, you can actually see ancient carvings on the inner surfaces of the supporting stones.

The last thing that we experienced on the island was a wonderful festival, which occurred on the evening of August 14th, the eve of the Assumption, which is a holiday in France. There was a big gathering in the central market square for the "Bal des Enfants," or the "Children's Dance." There was a DJ, and there were stands where you could buy popcorn, or you could buy glowsticks, or you could buy paper lanterns and candles (which I'll tell you more about in a moment). The dance started while it was still light, and the DJ played French children's songs including "Savez-vous planter les choux" (Do you know how to plant cabbages?) and "L'histoire de Petit Jean" (The story of Little John). Since my kids knew this second song from their French classes in California, they really got into it at that point. Kids came from all over the island to dance, and their parents stood around the edge at first, many of them having an evening drink of wine. Then as things got darker, the kids got a little older and the music switched to being a bit more pop. The parents also started dancing. I found myself at one point leading a group of about 10 kids dancing the "Macarena," which was really fun and a blast from the past for me! It was an amazing atmosphere, with some people still standing around the edge talking and watching, and tons and tons of kids dancing, with the glowsticks wrapped around wrists or heads, or waists.

Finally the dance wound down, and everyone who had bought a lantern set up the lantern and lit it. These lanterns were cylindrical paper lanterns with bright color patterns on them, and each one had a stand for a candle inside it. They hung on copper wire from long thin dowels, so that they would be guaranteed to hang straight and keep the candle flame away from the paper (I did see a few lanterns with holes in them, but they had obviously been treated so they wouldn't burn easily!). Then just about the entire population of the dance in the square processed down the narrow street to the harbor and everyone took places sitting on the beach. Once most people had arrived, the street lights were extinguished and the homes on either side put out their lights, so everyone sat in the darkness with just the lanterns, until finally those were blown out too. That was when the fireworks started. There was a boat out in the harbor setting them off, so close that you could actually see shooting sparks illuminate the boxes of fireworks on it. The fireworks went off right overhead - I've never seen such a display of fireworks so close up. It was awesome, in the literal sense of the word. The fireworks finished with a grand finale and then the street lights and home lights came on, and we all walked back home. It was a magical night - and the following day when we went to look where we'd been sitting, the beach was completely underwater. It felt almost as though it had been a dream.

This was an amazing visit for us, and made me really want to return to L'Île aux Moines and experience more of it in the future. We are all so thankful to our generous French hosts who were able to give us such an intimate experience of the island during our short time there.

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