No. 9 ~ St. Colomban ~ June 20, 2020

"Today these eyes scan bleached-out land, for the coming of the outbound stage" *

St. Colomban Village starts its seasonal awakening in June. We hear car doors slam and notice that shutters are open on houses that had been closed up. Some of our friends have arrived, so we have the simple pleasure of stopping to chat as we walk through the village. Just that, after confinement, holds itself up as a special moment. 

We’ve been going through our repertoire of walking itineraries. Some of our favorites are the sentiers cotiers, or coastal trails, that take advantage of the obligation of coastal property owners to grant right-of-way to hikers. When we arrived in mid-May, the coastal trails had not been cut back to clear the winter growth — it seldom freezes here — so we headed inland. 

One of our favorite walks toward the interior starts in Ploemel (pronounced “play-mell”), a 15-minute drive away. The French, especially in Brittany, favor traffic circles over stop lights, so if you were just driving through on your way to somewhere else, you would call Ploemel a one-traffic-circle town. Driving there takes us through pine forests, past dairy farms and hay fields, and through a tiny hamlet of traditional granite rubble-stone houses with slate roofs. That’s all it takes to give us a taste of the old Brittany, what the French call La Bretagne profonde, deep Brittany. It’s peaceful in our village, but just a few miles inland the tranquility seems to have a depth to it. 

Part of the trail is an ancienne route des diligences, or old stagecoach road. For us Americans, the meaning of the word “diligence,” as it moved from one dictionary to another over 200 years, has acquired an entirely different meaning. It no longer implies “stagecoach,” but certainly those coach riders and drivers — the drivers were among the front-line workers of the time — needed a healthy dose of grit to weather the ride. In winter, passengers must have bumped along the old roads under piles of blankets, and stepped off the coach into mud in the spring. In summer, they must have covered their faces against the dust. 

Now, we’re supposed to cover our faces against a virus, wondering when and how we may be able to travel, and to where, and at what risk. 

Around Carnac, even as high season looms, the wearing of masks is getting more and more haphazard. We saw this on Sunday, when we walked to the city’s semiweekly open-air market. It takes about 30 minutes along a mostly shady trail that cuts through fields and behind houses. Our mission was to buy Choucroute de la Mer, a coastal comfort food — a variation of fish stew that uses cooked cabbage instead of potatoes. We buy it at one of the larger booths, where the traiteur serves up the choucroute from a wide, shallow chafing pan. (Traiteur translates as “caterer” but his booth is really a portable seafood delicatessen.)

It’s so easy to forget about the virus here. At the market’s temporary gate that restricts entry, we stopped, a bit startled that we had to reach into our pocket for a mask. We passed through, an attendant sprayed our hands with sanitizer, and once inside we noticed a lot of people were not wearing masks. They wear them just to get through the gate, and then back in the pocket they go. 

Tucked into a pocket or purse, a mask not only loses its effectiveness, it loses its symbolism. Wrapped around our noses, steaming up our spectacles, the mask is the only sign we have in everyday life, especially out here in the country, that something is wrong. We want to put it in our pocket and make the pandemic go away. We want the old normal. 

 The protocol for masks isn’t even consistent from town to town. In Carnac’s primary grocery store, called Super U, a sign at the door says masks are recommended. Everyone in the store wears one. In Plouharnel’s Super U four miles away, there’s no sign. With our masks on, we’re the outliers there. 

The population of Carnac can swell from 4,000 to 50,000 in the summer. Its mayor is more worried about a second wave of infections, and he has the authority to impose a different protocol. 

Generally, though, there is less and less reason to worry. In a recent 48-hour period only nine new Covid-19 cases were confirmed in all of Brittany, which has a population of 3.3 million. Nationwide, patients are requiring ventilator treatment at the rate of about 26 per day. On June 14, France had 407 new cases. By comparison, in the U.S., with a population five times that of France, over sixty times as many patients per day are confirmed to be infected.

Sunday was also the day the French watched President Emmanuel Macron’s fourth speech since the beginning of the crisis. It was quickly criticized as bluster lacking substance. 

He did announce that attendance at all schools would be obligatory starting June 22. They were reopened on May 11, but in some instances on a voluntary basis. His announcement  raised eyebrows because the school year ends on July 3. It reveals the sentiment in Macron’s administration that every day in school counts. Otherwise, he gave the green light to the theatre industry, an essential part of the economy and culture of Paris. Venues can reopen, but the protocol includes reduced seating and mask wearing during performances. When the curtain goes up, and the lights go down, I wonder if the masks will come off, the way they do at the market. 

Monday, June 15, was the first day of open borders in Europe. France continues to impose restrictions on travelers from Spain and the United Kingdom until June 21. The Charles de Gaulle Airport served just a handful of flights — a cautious beginning. France’s borders are still closed to countries outside Europe, but the EU is working on a plan, to be announced soon, that would allow entry from selected countries starting July 1. New Zealand for example, where there are few cases, will most likely be on the top of the list.  

While we wait for more news about travel to and from the U.S., we can take comfort in details about plane and train travel I learned from a article dated May 21. I’ve been suspicious of the risk of spending hours in a crowded plane, but it turns out that in aircraft manufactured by both Airbus and Boeing, the filters are capable of stopping 99.97% of airborne particles, including the coronavirus. Cabin air is entirely replaced every four minutes. This reportedly provides air quality comparable to that in operating rooms.

A train ride, at least in France, may not be so bad either. High-speed trains (TGV) have ventilation systems powerful enough to replace all the air in a car every nine minutes. 

Finally, let’s pause in memory of Juneteenth. Yesterday was the 155th anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in Texas. And I would be remiss in not mentioning again the continuing protests. This may seem unrelated to Covid news. But Mother Nature does not abide being sifted into a heap and set aside with her mysterious virus, separated from the protests against police violence, and actions by police against controlling their violence.

In a photo a reader sent to me, a protester holds up a sign saying, “White Silence = Compliance.” The young white woman wears a mask, as Nature requires, and the mask doubles the meaning of her protest, symbolizing silence and providing protection. If it weren’t for Mother Nature, the protester would not have to cover her mouth, and she would have far less to say.
* from Pacing the Cage, by Bruce Cockburn
Old stagecoach road near Ploemel. JK photo.
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