People keep asking if I’m lonely in Brest, but it might have more to do with the city than with traveling alone. Brest is a city somewhat used to emptiness—almost completely destroyed in World War Two, it was rebuilt in a style people call “Staliniste,” with identical blocks of apartments and concrete bandstands in the parks. In one square, a cement carousel covered with abstract paintings of ponies has a metal hoof dangling from the overhang. Someone’s idea of dramatic public art.
The oldest things in the city are the walls, gracefully landscaped and lit up at night with green and purple bulbs. At their base, the port is busy with recreational sailors and industrial shipping. The cafes are filled with posters of striped-shirted bicyclists encouraging people to order another round: “If you try to slow down, you’ll break your brakes.”
One day I accidentally find myself in the middle of a parade. Kids in traditional Breton dress are pulling paper mache piglets through the streets. On top of a float, a man strips off his French colors to reveal the Gwenn-ha-du, the Breton flag, across his chest. He screams “Nous sommes Breton!” into his mic. Then the dancing starts, and people link pinky fingers to make a circle of swinging arms and stomping feet. The street is covered with trampled green confetti.
I’m trying to translate 50 lines a day, and as I find my way around the city the first long poem in Paol’s book also takes shape. In spite of the parade (or maybe because of it) the city is a good place to work. And Paol is very generous, taking me to meet other poets and artists.
I find that when I talk to people in French, American movies and authors and expressions are harder to recall. Later, when I’m alone, they’re so obvious that I can’t believe I forgot. It’s like my head is a poor tennis player—it can’t run back and forth fast enough between memories in French and English.
Now that I’ve been here for two weeks, things are starting to seem a little more natural. But I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to the way people call for the waiter, or the slightly Dickensian attitude of some busy café proprietors. My method of looking up hopefully is clearly not working. Please, Sir, can I have some more coffee?