The story starts in 1990, during uncertain times; I was only 18 and the wall of Berlin had started to crumble the previous year. I was done with school for various reasons that weren’t – for most of them- under my control. I was thirsty for freedom and even attempted to hitchhike to Berlin to witness the unbelievable, feeling history right there, right then. Sergio and my parents put an end to my crazy adventure in the making, saying that it wasn’t safe for a 17 year old to thumb 1500 kilometres across France, Belgium and Germany in order to see heavily tagged pieces of concrete being torn apart by overwhelmed Germans; I was told that it was their day and I was far too young to take such a “walk about”. I talked to Sarah, one of my classmates I fancied at the time, if she would come with me at the summer’s end of school leaving party. She was tempted and smiled awkwardly with her heavy duty dental braces she was trying to hide but told me that her parents were very conservative and would never allow such a thing. I understood then that it wasn’t meant to be, I rang her one more time to be sure, telling her that my Grand Father was positioned in Berlin during the blockade, that my Aunt had been born there and it would be terrific! But I could feel her Dad – also an army man- breathing on her neck and listening to his little girl’s conversation, forbidding her to ever see me again. He probably knew too much. I went to the big school, abandoning that little folly before deserting from the grotesque French National Education system that was tempering with my dreams.
I moved to Bois Joubert Domain, a nature reserve and project from the SEPNB, the wildlife association for the protection of nature in Brittany. I was about to learn a trade as a wildlife guide under a government skim contract. I was paid £200 a month for 20 hours a week, fed and accommodated; during the autumn and winter months, not much was happening so I was doing surveys about birds and wildlife but when spring came, we would welcome school classes and give them a tour on the Chalands boats of that incredible semi fresh water marsh, 70 km2 born out of a tsunami at the estuary of the Loire river. I was missing the sea, the ocean, and even if some of our tours included the salt marshes of Guerande, it wasn’t quite the same. I got on with it though, missing my cliffs and Kittiwakes of west Brittany or my sea gulf and its abandoned salt marshes. I felt that I was serving a sentence somehow, a fish out of water some might say, the irony… So it was, Until a bus pulled in the yard and my mentor Yves Chepaux said: “you’ll see, this one is going to be special…”
35 kids came out, all the way from East Germany, GDR, or what was left of it. All I could hear with my two years studying German was “das ist wunderbar !”. I was more comfortable in English or even Russian at that stage but those young folks, who to be honest were actually my age or maybe a tad younger, were incredibly well educated in French and English. I guess communism had its advantages. They were only staying with us for a couple of days, so we didn’t have time to bring them to the salt marshes but we showed them Ar Briwer or Brière, pushing the huge Chaland boat with my perch like a Venetian gondolier, even if the technique is closer to pole vaulting rather than rowing; it is still complicated though, using your body to bend the perch stick and mastering a rudder movement at the same time.
The East German kids were amazed and I was so touched by their enthusiasm; everything seemed to astonish them and I started to fall in love with their innocence and passion. We stopped in a local bar for lunch and we had warned the landlady that a few people were going to be there. She had fried some fish, made sandwiches and all was going to be dandy. A local fisherman joined his old fellas at the counter, ordering one of his many daily “Bordeaux Reserve” and just said “many in the borough today!” The kids had spotted a jukebox in the corner and asked their teachers for a few coins to play some tunes while others pushed all the chairs and tables in the joint to make room. The selection was pretty groovy but they gave us and the locals an absolute joy, dancing in couples to ancient Rock’n’Roll that somewhat reminded me of my Grandmother’s stash of Glenn Miller tapes she controversially bought from a Reader’s Digest promotion; what a sight that was! Looking at these kids of my age, I could see my old folks dancing at the end of the war, with skills now forgotten from a similar but western generation… I was humbled.
Once lunch was over, we decided to treat them to a talk by the Atlantic Ocean; none of them, not even their teachers knew the full program. Under our guidance, we advised the German bus driver to park perpendicular to the dune covered with marram grass or “Oyats” like we call them; they have an important role in keeping the dune steady, anyway, we were going to talk about all that, seaweeds, shellfishes and birds. The young crew got out of the bus, climbed the sandy pathway and then hell broke loose, hell or nirvana, I am not too sure… They started to scream, take their shoes, pants and dresses off and run towards the Atlantic Ocean, on an empty beach, thirty years ago… My mentor and I looked at each other, not quite understanding what was happening, until I spotted a couple of them crying warm tears of joy. The same tears I shed last week when I told that story that I had bottled for exactly thirty years. We had of course abandoned the idea of doing our wildlife talk, instead we looked at them children, teenagers about to fly away from the shores of south Brittany, the most beautiful sight I have ever seen, people seeing the ocean for the first time and I was there. They came back to the bus, and before – and just as well- we could say a few words on the microphone, these wonderful people gave us a 10 minute standing ovation… For doing nothing? Or for doing a lot? They say the sea has a memory, here is one for you “ Mor Bras” my big sea… Yes, it was indeed, a beautiful day!
Keep well and Eat happy…