Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about art, portraiture, free culture, and feminism.

“Comme ça!”

2012 . 02 . 09 - Comments / Commentaires (6)

I just spent three weeks in France.



plant

The visit was inspired by the sale of my mother’s house in Bubry, the tiny village in Brittany where she grew up. The new owner was ready to move in, so we needed to clean everything out.



flower

My Maman and I arrived together, and we spent a few days getting ourselves organized.



meeting at the train

photo by Maman

By the time David landed a week later, we were in full move-out mode. My poor boyfriend had barely put down his backpack before he was lifting heavy objects and squeezing big old furniture into small European cars.



chez Lamer, Bubry, France

photo by David

Still, it wasn’t all work all the time. His first morning in Bubry, I took David to my favorite shop to meet Jeannine Le Lamer. My grandfather used to take me to buy candies from her when I was little, which was only fitting seeing as Jeannine used to go to my Papy’s shop to buy candies when she was a kid. Jeannine put a bow on this already perfect story when she handed David and I two artisan pralines as we were on our way out the door.



pastry

Jeannine’s lovely gesture presented something of a quandary for David who doesn’t normally eat refined sugars. In fact, not only does he not usually partake in sweets, he’s quite vocal about not indulging. In the end though, he bent his rules in the name of experiencing a new culture. And then he did it again and again over the two weeks of his stay!

That said, he didn’t budge on the vegetarian thing and neither did I, despite the challenges of living meat-free in a country that does not understand the concept.



skinned rabbits with eyeballs

And really, I can’t imagine how we managed when the bunnies looked this delicious.



pig

This gal just positively screams “eat me!” doesn’t she?



making crepes

photo by Maman

Because it wouldn’t be Brittany without crêpes, we went over to a friend’s house and ate far too many of the delightful buckwheat doilies. In this photo, the always positive and unfailingly generous Miriam was telling me that the crêpe I made was actually pretty good—a blatant lie that I nevertheless appreciated.



making crepes

Maman gave it a go too, and here she’s holding her masterpiece up for inspection. The verdict: a bit thick but passable since it didn’t have huge holes in it.



making crepes

Everyone agreed that it was David who won the crêpe-making in the amateur category. He’s a natural Breton.



sap

It wasn’t all about eating in Brittany.



donkey

We also visited with old friends like Tango.



feeding a quince to a donkey

This donkey loves his quince…



scratching a donkey's back

...and a proper backscratching.



walking

photo by David

Walking the trails around Bubry this time was sad.



flower

I have every intention of visiting the village again, but I’d be lying if I said I that I know I’ll be back.



droplets on grass

As much as I love it there, I welcome the opportunity to visit France without heading straight to Brittany. I’d like to experience more of the country that claims half my heritage.



grass whistle

That’s why it was so important to me that David come to Bubry this time.



grass whistle

photo by Maman

He needed to learn to whistle on a blade of Breton grass among other things!



galette des rois

I haven’t been to France in January in a long time, and in the interim I’d forgotten the nation-wide fascination for galette des rois. King cake is a pastry traditionally filled with frangipane…



feve

...and a single ceramic fève. The person who ends up with the small figurine in her-his slice is crowned king for the day. I especially liked this fève which my mother found because this year I am all about abundance.



wearing a paper crown

We ate enough king cake while in France for each of us to be king. David actually won the crown twice!



ladybug

Sharing my childhood with my partner was fun but also a little heartbreaking.



moss

It made me see in a more final way that my life is in the US.



abstract

photo by David

I haven’t been the kid who switched effortlessly between cultures for a while now, but, last month, I realized that I did like to fool myself into thinking I could be again.



Mont Saint Michel

We didn’t have much time for sight-seeing in Brittany, but we still managed to take a trip out to the Mont Saint Michel, a town and abbey on an island in the middle of a bay.



Mont Saint Michel

photo by David

This place is the definition of the word “magical” for me.



Mont Saint Michel

We had lots of friends wanting to share our picnic with us…



Mont Saint Michel

...but one in particular who insisted on being rewarded for posing.



Mont Saint Michel

photo by Maman

For all the times I’ve had my picture taken in this exact spot, I don’t think any other version lives up to this one.



Mont Saint Michel

The Mont didn’t fail to impress David.



Mont Saint Michel

photo by David

I’m convinced that its maze of rooms, stairways, and vistas are designed to feed the imagination.



Mont Saint Michel

photo by David

The bay around the Mont has a similar effect too. Its treacherous quick sands are the stuff of nightmares for me.



Mont Saint Michel

I’m certain that the recurring dream I have about a tide coming in and pinning me against a wall stems from childhood trips to the Mont.



Mont Saint Michel

Still, I’d never miss a chance to visit!



Mont Saint Michel

Back in Bubry, we finished up the job we came to do. It all went too fast for me to actually process what was happening as it happened.



pigeons

And suddenly…



pigeons

...we were in Paris.



ad in the metro

“Are you sure of the career you are going to choose?” In the metro, this ad targeting students perfectly summed up a conversation that we had with cousins and friends again and again during our visit.

In France, advancement on just about any career path is barred by much formal training and a series of tests. These tests are extremely competitive and entirely up to the luck of any given year’s testing pool since it’s the top scores that pass—even if you do extremely well, you won’t make the cut if all the slots are filled by people who did slightly better.



brick

This system means that, despite the fact that French kids are required to pick a path by age seventeen, some have still not managed to pass the tests required to fully pursue their chosen direction by the time they’re thirty. It means that credentials are everything and experience is not valued; it means that switching careers is very rare. It means that a lot of people don’t manage to follow their dreams.



looking at a map of Paris

photo by David

In Paris, we had a whole list of things to see, including the Eiffel Tower. This landmark made our itinerary both because it’s a must-see for first-time Paris tourists like David and because I had never visited it with a boyfriend—which is to say that I have been subjected to the kissy couples at the top for years, so I wanted to be part of a kissy couple.



top of the Eiffel Tour

The view from the tower.



Christmas decoration in Paris

Going into this visit, David knew a few French phrases, important things like “je t’adore” (“I adore you”) and “embrasse-moi” (“kiss me”). But over the course of his two weeks in France, he learned a few more. “C’est pas vrai” (literally “that’s not true,” but more like “you don’t say”) proved eminently useful as the punchline to many a silly moment. He also picked up the quintessentially French facial expression: the pensive frown with a head cocking and a shoulder shrug which reveals that the listener doubts the validity of what’s being said to her-him.

It was fascinating to see what David would soak up and parrot back. In mirroring a world whose language he didn’t understand, David was showing me a bit about how France comes across to the outside.



Christmas decoration in Paris

In that way, “comme ça” (“like this”) became representative of the French personality, first for David and then me. 

French people tend to think there’s a right way and wrong way to do things. What’s more, they don’t mind telling people when a thing should not be done that way but instead should be done comme ça. And this way of thinking is very much related to the narrow training and testing system that people are put through as they choose careers. “Comme ça” and everything it stands for speaks of France’s very structured way of being.



BHV in Paris

photo by David

To truly experience cultural differences, David recommended going to a department store, so we did just that. We went to the Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville where we found this loveseat which I must have…



Nutella

photo by David

...as well as this perfect jar of Nutella…



Nutella

photo by David

...for a very reasonable price.



painted portraits on canvas bags

photo by David

While in Paris, we got to spend some time with my dear friend Claire. As an American who has been living in France for years now, she had many interesting points to make in our continuing conversation about the French-American divide, but her most revealing contribution to the discussion was her desire to stay in France—a change since we’d last talked about her future plans.

Though I understand her choice, on a purely selfish level it makes me very sad. I want my Claire as close to me as possible.



painted portrait on a canvas bag

Then again, I suppose there’s a poetry and a rightness to it. Our friendship gives me the very best reason to return to France many times in the future even as the last solid link to my childhood there disappears.


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(6) Comments / Commentaires: “Comme ça!”

-- Pat K -- 2012 . 02 . 09 --

Thank you for sharing these wonderful images and the details of your trip to France, Gwenn.  There are so many gorgeous photographs, but I especially love the one of you and your mother walking down the road together.
Pat K.

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-- Gwenn -- 2012 . 02 . 10 --

Thank you for reading, Pat!

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-- vanadia -- 2012 . 02 . 11 --

David a t’il ressenti la proximité de la terre de ses ancêtres,? tous les Vanadia venant du   pourtour méditerranéenne.

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-- Gwenn -- 2012 . 02 . 13 --

Mais bien sûr, cousin!

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-- Madeline Bishop -- 2013 . 01 . 14 --

I loved, loved, loved all of your photos, Gwenn.  Britanny is such a sweet, unique place.  Crepes!  And…. you got to see Claire and Denes!  I’m so happy you did.  I miss both of them.

In like your motto of “Abondance” for 2013.  Mind if I borrow it?  I have had a few ipmortant losses in 2012, so I like the direction your motto might take me.

-Madeline B.

P.S.  In McMinnville, the Red Fox Bakery makes a pretty passable Galette des Rois,  with almond paste filling , although I didn’t expect the authenticity of a ceramic feve and almost broke a tooth!

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-- Gwenn -- 2013 . 01 . 15 --

You were king!  Not worth breaking a crown over, but still very cool.  Congratulations!  (Also, I’m thinking of you as work through the less happy things.)

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