A JOURNEY TO THE FAR WEST OF FRANCE

“Bretons are everywhere, it’s the French mafia!” – Emmanuel Macron

Bretons will tell you that heaven exists, in the far west of France. Brittany is a unique region due to its strong cultural identity. Even though it became part of France in the 16th century, the duchy remained very much different from the rest of the country as it kept its own identity through several centuries. Sitting in the northwest corner of France, the region is steeped in myths and legends and is home to the legendary cartoon characters of Asterix and Obelix, two inseparable Gaulish warriors battling to protect their village from the Roman invaders. Brittany is also famous for its damp weather; proud locals typically reply to those who complain about the climate, “En Bretagne, il ne pleut que sur les cons” (“In Brittany, it only rains on the idiots”).

Brittany is an essentially rural region where agriculture is predominant, whereas Rennes, the capital, is a vibrant city and an emerging hub for information and communications technology. The Breton culture is inextricably tied to the sea, typically represented by sailors and fishermen dressed in blue-and-white striped marinière. Brittany has the longest coastline in France stretching to more than 1 200 km, which changes amazingly twice daily with the tide’s movement. The scenery varies from jagged cliffs and sandy coves in the north and expansive beaches in the south.

Brittany’s most renowned specialties illustrate the convivial folklore and popular traditions of this lively region. Due to its extensive coastline, Brittany’s gastronomy is mainly based on quality fresh seafood, from the delicious oysters from Cancale to the fine scallops from Erquy but also mussels, cockles, lobsters, clams, and crabs. France’s largest peninsula is also best known for crêpes, delicious thin pancakes with assorted sweet fillings, and galettes, made from buckwheat flour and typically eaten savory, accompanied with a bowl of apple cider. Kouign-amann, one of Brittany’s sweet specialties, is made from a buttery dough that is repeatedly folded with a generous amount of sugar. The Breton cake was dubbed by the New York Times as “the fattiest pastry in all of Europe”. To compete with its American cousin and state its cultural identity, Brittany has also created its own local brand of coke. In a few years, thanks to its salted caramel flavor and its authentic Breton identity, Breizh Cola (literally meaning “Brittany Cola” in Breton) has managed to become France’s first regional cola brand.

The culture and traditions of Brittany stand out from the rest of the country, as it is made up of Breton culture and Celtic culture. The Celtic roots of Brittany and local folklore are more in line with the other Celtic nations, rather than the rest of France. Celtic nations are made up of Brittany (France), Cornwall (England), Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Galicia and Asturias (Spain). Commonly referred to as the “Celtic fringe”, this region shares cultural traits and Celtic languages as a common bond. Each year in August, the city of Lorient in Brittany hosts the Festival Interceltique, one of the largest festivals in Europe in terms of attendance. The festival brings together artists from all the Celtic nations for ten days to showcase their traditional costumes, instruments, and dances. Bagads, composed of biniou (bagpipes), bombards, and drums, play traditional Breton music and offer a delightful musical passage into the ancestral Celtic traditions of Brittany.

The Breton language is a very important part of the Breton identity. Although the main language of the region is French, Breton is still spoken and understood by more than 200 000 people, mostly the elderly. Breton belongs to the family of Brythonic Celtic languages, along with Welsh and Cornish. The regional language is classified as “severely endangered” by UNESCO due to its sharp decline since the beginning of the 21st century. It is said that the French government prohibited the speaking of Breton in schools and daily activities, gradually reducing its use to near extinction. To save the language from oblivion, the region has encouraged the growth of Breton language learning and teaching, particularly since the creation of the Diwan schools in 1977. These cooperative schools offer Breton schooling in immersion until the last year of high school. In five years, the 54 Diwan schools have witnessed a rise in enrollment of 20%, accounting for 4 318 pupils in 2017-2018. Further, the Public Office for the Breton Language (Ofis ar Brezhoneg in Breton) initiated a campaign called “Ya d’ar brezhoneg” aiming at promoting the use of the Breton language in daily life. For instance, the organization succeeded in introducing bilingual road signs, in both Breton and French, throughout Brittany. Even some software is now available in Breton, including Skype, Microsoft Office and some research browsers such as Google and Firefox. Despite all the efforts made so far, the Breton language remains endangered as the number of speakers continues to diminish every year.

Brittany is so proud of its cultural identity that the region has been struggling for several years to turn the Breton flag into an emoji. The regional flag, also called Gwenn Ha Du (literally meaning “black and white” in Breton), is famous for being waved at almost every major cultural event or sport in the world. At the beginning of 2020, Brittany has created a buzz by mobilizing all Bretons and unconditional lovers of Brittany to tweet the hashtag #emojiBZHon Twitter, which automatically displayed the black-and-white striped Brittany flag for 28 days. Barely a few hours after its appearance, the Breton flag has become one of the most used emojis in France. The campaign aimed at convincing the Unicode consortium, a global tech-backed body that approves new emojis, to adopt the icon permanently on all social platforms. In total, the digital icon was generated more than 400 000 times in four weeks; it has exceeded the monthly averages of some European countries, such as Greece, Finland, and Scotland. The final decision of the Unicode consortium is expected by the end of 2021 to make Brittany shine on all smartphones across the globe.

Lucile Guéguen

Inter-Celtic festival of Lorient:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v99BbSWBeN0
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FySILBVPS80

Sources:
http://www.fr.brezhoneg.bzh
https://www.economist.com/europe/2020/02/15/the-struggle-to-give-brittany-its-own-emoji

Photo:
Jean-Jacques Abalain from Melgven (près de Concarneau), CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: