I rocked across the English Channel from Plymouth to Roscoff, Brittany, sleeping like a baby.
I had made the crossing decades before and can still remember the rough, stormy seas, the retching noises of my fellow passengers, and my own attempts to beat mal de mer by clutching the rail and facing into the wind.
But those days seem to have passed, and my preparations to counter the cold and “the horizontal rains” that I had been warned were to be our general lot in the Scottish Highlands, the Lake District of England, and even wild and rugged Cornwall, dissipated into days of balmy sun and gentle breezes. Lugging around useless woolies was a small price to pay for “smooth sailing.”
And then Brittany, with its summer postcard weather, its clear, moon-filled skies at night got me wondering. Where were the vaunted fogs and misty seas, the brooding swells and rains lashing the treacherous rock-strewn coast? Where the taciturn, leather-faced fishermen, salty as the cod they brought in from their boats? What did it mean to have summer stretch into fall and nearly to winter, turning the ancient Armorique, or north coast of Brittany, into a place resembling St. Tropez? And what would it do the character of the people?
Biting into my first buttery croissant after dipping it into a steamy café au lait, or sitting in shirtsleeves in a pool of sunlight tasting a savory fish soup by the sailboat filled harbor of old Paimpol, it was easy to not get too worked up over the issue. Still, the questions of the relation between climate and character that I’d first encountered years before when reading the great French woman of letters (and intellectual dueling partner of Napoleon), Mme. de Stael, did occur to me.
She posited that people in cold climates were given to silences, introspection and less communication than people of hotter lands who were inclined to express themselves in every manner, whether by speech, vivid colors, and other extroverted displays that come from living openly in the sun. Did this mean that reserved northern folk could end up becoming like wild-gesturing southerners, that Bretons could turn into Marseillais, or Italians for God’s sake?
It the measure was taken by openness, friendliness, and willingness to help bumbling foreigners, then I had to admit the answer was trending yes. Under the blue, white-cloud filled skies of balmy Brittany, everyone was as cheery as the weather. From the kindly employees of the tourist office, to the garrulous clerk at the tabac, to the teachers at the Breton-language immersion school who welcomed me into their classes, they echoed the climate.
And that’s even before talking about our French friends and hosts, Hervé and Béatrice, who drove two hours in the dark to meet our early morning ferry and opened their home, hearth and hearts to us in every way. They, too, exulted in the warmth, taking us from one breath-stopping viewing site to another, to visit their sailboat, to the viviers, huge salt water tanks, to pick out live seafood for the evening meal, and to the rocky beach where on several mornings, they plunged into the water for an invigorating swim, while their cowardly Californian guests applauded from afar.
The idea was slowly creeping up on me that maybe the Bretons, too, would be happier with one year-long, predictably sunny season, rather like the Southern California where I had grown up. Maybe they’d like to run on the beach barefoot at Christmas, wearing sandals and tropical shirts, instead of huddling around the fire listening to howling rain wearing heavy wool sweaters.
Then on the last day of our visit to Brittany, a long-awaited storm came in. It rained in sheets and the wind blew, and Hervé decided it was an ideal moment to visit a little chapel on a point overlooking the sea. We bundled up in hats, boots, rain gear and headed down a slippery mud road toward the chapel. Too slippery, in fact, to make it. But leading us all, wind-whipped and soaked to the skin up the slope, Hervé had a moment of pure joy no sun showers could induce. Opening his arms as if to embrace the rain, he cried out, “My God this is beautiful I LOVE this place.”
It was then I knew all my theories about the character-building benefits of climate change and warming trends, would have to be, as they say, revisited.