Of Small Places and Big Spaces
A Singaporean expat meditates on living in France
By Lee Seow Ser
It is indeed comforting to wake up on some mornings, gently stirred by the distinctive cries of seagulls. A gratifying experience it is, to emerge from under a thick canopy of blankets, serenaded by the melodic cries of the seagulls flying above.
Each day, I am thankful to be alive, to awake in a state in which I am acutely aware of each of my five senses.
When my eyes open, they squint at the light rays escaping through the gaps of the window blinds before they stare more widely at the white-washed ceiling. When the brain starts to stir, I orientate myself and try to recall the last scene of the bizarre, faint memories of the dream I just had. With my toes, I sense the overnight warmth that has accumulated under the covers in my bed fast dissipating as I wriggle them into the cold bedroom slippers. My ears try to entrap the music of the seagulls’ calls whilst my nose beckons me to quickly put the coffee-maker on to ease its crave for a morning whiff of coffee fragrance. Oh! And the stomach grunts impatiently commanding the taste buds to start savouring some semi-salted butter croissants.
My mind and my will feel as free as the seagulls, inhibited only in as far as I have no wings to fly.
This experience is even more rejuvenating when I wake up as early as 0700h, knowing that I have the whole of a long morning, afternoon and night ahead of me, to celebrate living and working before the eventual rest that marks the closure of an ordinary day.
My husband and I live in a modest 1 bed-room apartment, a stone’s throw away from the pleasure boat harbour, in the city of Lorient. In this northwest part of France, the Atlantic Ocean is never too far away. Lorient is tucked in the beautiful heart of the region of southern Brittany, in the department of Morbihan.
Some would perhaps regard Lorient either as a big town or a very small city. The size of the town centre is, perhaps, smaller in comparison to one of the bigger housing development board residential districts in Singapore.
Personally, I prefer to call it a town. It certainly sounds more endearing that way.
I am the sentimental sort, one who adores the country and gets easily stressed by the high strings of life in a city. Of the four years (in my long past youth) that I had spent studying in the city of Leeds, in the United Kingdom and the one year in London, I had, quite bizarrely, actually preferred my stay in Leeds (the northern gateway to beautiful England and wild Scotland) to that in London. Honestly, I am sometimes a little embarrassed to reveal this preference to people I know, for fear of being labeled an ‘out-of-fashion country girl’.
As of now, I have been living in Lorient for about nine months. Before I arrived, I had attempted to search for some information about the place via the internet. Unfortunately, I found little information, which worried me quite a bit. I was afraid that the place in which I was to settle in for two years is a barren, forsaken land, unworthy of literary or geographic mention.
Thus, considering that I had come here with a sense of apprehension and uncertainty, it is personally very heartwarming to later realize that I have grown to like this place and I have developed some feelings for it.
Noting how time has past by so quickly, I was commenting to my husband one day, how strange it seemed that I could develop feelings for a place after having lived here for less than a year. My husband replied: “It is inevitable that a person will become attached to a place if he has lived in it for a period of time, even if it was for a short period of a few months.”
His comments hinted to me that he, too, had become somewhat attached to this small town in which we live. I was glad to hear what he said, for his answer gave way to a subtle sense of sentimentality, a momentary unwillingness to have to part with it eventually. For a moment, it seemed that I was sharing with my best girlfriend, girly thoughts from the inner heart. I was secretly happy to have caught a speck of my husband’s soft sentimental side.
It is indeed a small place, this town of Lorient.
At times, the town seems lifeless and feels too quiet. On weekdays, shops open between 0900h and 1000h, then close for a good two hours for a long lunch recess, re-open again at 1400h or 1430h and close in the evening between 1700h and 1900h. A handful number of shops also close on Mondays or on one other weekday. I suppose this is for purposes of balancing up against the excessive generosity of opening their shops on Saturdays. Only then can the 35-hour work week be respectfully and strictly adhered to.
Saturday is excellent for shopping with wife and children in tow; but Sunday palpitates with ghostly silence, save for a handful of “boulangeries et magasins de fleurs” (bakeries and florists).
Outside of these limited opening hours, you have, occasionally, “les petits commerçants” (the small shopkeepers) who take off for a holiday quite unexpectedly, close their shop by simply sticking an inconspicuous small piece of white paper, with a hastily scribbled “Fermé” on their glass doors. I could easily groan and moan about the irregularity and uncertainty of opening hours, but I saw better sense in learning to get used to the French style of working. The French may not clock an unearthly record of working hours, but to their credit, they are generally professional when they do work. There is also much to learn and absorb from their culture and graceful way of living.
Thankfully, when all shops and avenues of commerce are closed, my brain belongs to the kind which will not hesitate to close its materialistic shopping department and frolic elsewhere in search of activities from other humanistic departments. Beyond the narrow commercial façade, lies a big and butter-rich expanse of air, sea and land.
Follow the flight of the seagulls and they take you across the high pole masts of the pleasure boats, along the pier and far beyond the citadel and submarine pens at the edge of the waters.
Listen to the distant rumblings of the propeller plane engine and you are led to look up at the linear trails left imprinted on the blue canvas sky. The trails do not linger long, so it is rewarding if you pause to take in the sight of the white smoke trails before they slowly disperse in the open sky.
Hop into the car and you will soon find yourself venturing onto the rural roads. With a sense of adventure, you may well chance upon something queer and poignant, just like how we once discovered a cemetery, not for human skulls but for the weather-battered and dilapidated hulls and sterns of boats, entrenched in low tide mud. “C’est le cimetière des bateaux” – It is the boat cemetery.
With another turn into a no-through road, huge summer hay rolls greeted us from their neat stacks, before being stored as winter feed for the cowherd. As we playfully climbed onto the hay stacks, we realise that the hay rolls are much taller and heavier than they seem and could give a bad prick if you are not careful.
Alas! Having not gone to the cinemas for about a year (the involuntary reason being that the movies are dubbed in French, plus the fact that the speed at which the French speak is inversely proportional to the level of my oral comprehension), I could not help but feel a little deprived. (Surely, this is clear evidence of not being a true-blue country girl after all?)
In lieu of movie-going and constantly on the look-out for the screenings of worthy films, as we would usually have done on any given weekend in Singapore, we have, in our stay in France, grown accustomed to watching out for “le météo” instead.
When the Saturday night weather forecast is “beaucoup de soleil dans le weekend” (plenty of sunshine in the weekend), we hesitate not in grabbing a good book, packing a hot vacuum flask of Lipton tea, some snacks and rolling down to the beach for a relaxing Sunday read of our unfinished novels. We sit in our foldable deck-chairs, keep ourselves warm in thick windbreakers, as we sniff the salted air “de la mer” (from the sea) and thank the jolly weatherman for the good news that he brings us.
Essentially, the feel and taste of Life is sensed, not through the grandness of concrete establishments, but in the simplicity and fluidity of Being. Of being alive, of being wherever you may be and making the best out of it.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003