La Grée will be our vacation home forever, in my mind at least.
The first version of this page was written in French with a lot of help from Marie-Hélène. During the early days of this online photo album, I was trying to keep it as bilingual as our family. But a public photo album was not really to her taste, and so almost everything then, as now, is in English. But this page, the original St Malo page and Alex’s original page were three which she did help write in French at the time.
Here is how she started this page way back when: “C’est la maison de grand-père au coeur de la Bretagne à côté de la Brocéliande, la maison de vacances des enfants en France, où ils ont enmagasiné les saveurs de leur enfance. Daniel, son tracteur et ses vaches sont leurs meilleurs amis avec les pommes que grand-père a pourtant bien interdit de voler, et les mures sauvages dont on fait des confitures.”
My translation: “It’s Grandpa’s house in the heart of Brittany, next to the forest of Broceliande, the children’s French vacation home, where they’ve stocked up on the aromas of their childhood. Daniel, his tractor and his cows are their best friends, along with the apples which, however, Grandpa clearly forbade them from stealing, and the wild blackberries we used to make jam.”
A life more different from the big city life of Paris and its suburbs would be hard to imagine. We never found a life more peaceful and beautiful for this crazy family. Maybe we didn’t look hard enough in the US. La Grée was real, and her descriptions close enough, although I don’t remember making jam there!
It is a cluttered and homey little cottage deep in the heart of Brittany. About an acre of its own land opened up on farmland all around. The children were so lucky to spend so much time there when they were young. We were all very lucky.
Later on, Marie-Hélène added this to reflect changes in circumstances: “Alors qu’une petite ferme à nos jours a un logique économique difficile, nous ne pouvons que regretter la décision de Daniel courant 2003 ou 2004 de ne plus exploiter ses terres. Le bénéfice du travail de Daniel qui ne figurait pas dans les comptes était le bonheur de nos enfants captés dans ces photos. Merci encore Daniel !”
My translation again: “Although a small farm today is not entirely logical economically, we can only regret Daniel’s decision during 2003 or 2004 to no longer work his land. The profit from his work that was not included in his accounts was the happiness of our children captured in these photos.”
You can’t measure the sheer contentment and ease of children on a small and simple working farm.
La Grée was for several years the ideal country home for our little band. The children spent untold hours with each other and Daniel, exploring his farm or helping him on his tractor or running around the local lanes or playing with other children in the village or just being children in a safe place in the country. They would leave us to our own devices for hours at a time, and then suddenly appear for a meal or for bed, often right on schedule.
One or other of them would walk down with the jug to ask Daniel for fresh milk each evening, and bring it back full. Milk does not come fresher than that, with the cows in the barn next door!
We went to the market in Malestroit once a week, and perhaps to the market in Le Gacilly on Saturday mornings. From time to time we went swimming in the pool in Carentoir until the town closed it, and to the beach at the local lake, l’Etang du Beauché.
Less frequently, we drove over to the Abbaye de Paimpont, with its lake and hidden pagan memorial, or to the picturesque village on a hill of Rochfort-sur-Terre. There are other medieval highlights encircling La Grée and within an hour’s drive. It wasn’t that there was nothing to do or see; it was that we were at La Grée to simply hang out and relax, and to find the peace that we did find there.
After Charlie arrived there at the end of the summer in 1995, it did seem to get a little tighter to sleep everyone. It was always a cluttered and homey place. Grand-père had his tiny bedroom, the parents had our tiny bedroom, and the children had an even tinier space which turned into a closet in around 2001. It was even tighter when the other grandchildren, the Berhaut cousins, were there. But nobody cared. That’s the way it was there.
The children adopted cushions on the floor in the living room, or the concrete couch, or a tent installed outside in the summer. They moved around between trips and sometimes during the same trip. It was that kind of place.
The lack of adequate bathrooms was not a problem for us, and especially not for the children. It was a part of being at our vacation home. We were grateful when grand-père installed an enclosed shower, when was that, 1996? The children barely noticed the improved facilities. As the photos on this page show, 1996 was a year of wonderful times at La Grée.
I took the photos in the below gallery during our 2004 stay. Things moved around over time, of course, but the overall look and feel of the cottage remained the same.
Everything changes, of course, and something about La Grée and us subtly changed over the years. From being a symbol of our integration as a family, of the integration of our two original families into the third family that we made together, La Grée became a precursor to the parting of our ways and a symbol of it. It is so sad that the symbolism worked both ways.
I didn’t see the reverse as it was happening, of course. People are rarely so prescient as to actually see what is happening to them! Something went wrong, but I never saw it when we were there. Only after Marie-Hélène and I split up in 2010 did I look back and realize what had happened, how our collective time there had been evolving.
Going back through the photos and the family diaries, the last time Nick and Tom stayed at la Grée, even visited La Grée, was during the summer of 2001. The parents were there too that year, as were Charlie and Alex. Daphné and Alban must have been with Pierre, their father.
In 2002, the parents, Daphné and Alban and Charlie and Alex were there. In 2003, Marie-Hélène took Charlie and Alex. In 2004, the parents, Daphné and Alban and Charlie and Alex were again at La Grée, although we did spend a day visiting Nick and Tom where they were camping with Sunshine, their mother, on the Brittany coast not that far away.
We didn’t make it to Europe as a family in 2005, and the parents took Charlie and Alex to La Grée in 2006. In 2007 Marie-Hélène took Daphné and Alban and Charlie and Alex to La Grée. I visited for a few days. Daphné and Alban too did not stay long, because they were with Pierre for a while and visiting Italy on the train for a while. Marie-Hélène and I never made it to La Grée in 2008 or 2009, but Daphné and Alban visited in 2009.
I don’t want to make too much of these circumstances, but Nick spent six months in Paris in each of 2005 and 2007, and yet never once during either period visited La Grée. As a child, he had loved staying there. Tom has been living in Paris full time since the end of 2007, and he was never been invited to visit La Grée during that entire period. He too adored it there.
Maybe neither of them would have been interested in a visit: adolescence does change things. But we’ll never know. It was never put to the test.
Just as at the beginning La Grée symbolized the union of our respective families, so over time it grew to symbolize their breakup. I doubt that it was an accident that my initial family, meaning Nick and Tom, somehow has been absent from La Grée since 2001. On some level, the families must have been drifting apart.
When I picked up Marie-Hélène, Charlie and Alex at San Francisco International Airport after their long summer vacation at La Grée in 2010, she talked about being bored there, and not having enough to do. That was a first. Maybe it reflected the children growing a bit too old to amuse themselves for weeks on end out in the country. Charlie complained that he had missed four or five good parties back home because of his long summer vacation in France and England. With Alex too joining the teenage world in early 2011, when he turned 13, there will perhaps be less enthusiasm all round for these country vacations of their childhood.
But even if the years at La Grée are finally coming to a close for all of us, even if that time has really gone, and it makes me so sad to think so, the memory of those first years that we all spent together there, from 1994 until about 2001, will remain.
There’s another thing about La Grée: the parents enjoyed their own freedom there, from the hustle and bustle of the city, from many of their parental responsibilities. It was the site of the last period that Marie-Hélène and I really got along, the last time that we were again the couple in love we were when we started out. Charlie and Alex were having a blast that summer, staying with us but old enough to be self-sufficient much of the time, and enjoying this rare opportunity to act independently without needing rides. The older children were all with their respective other parents.
Marie-Hélène and I spent a quiet and peaceful time, almost surprised at the intimacy we again shared. I wonder if she remembers when that was. Well, just in case she doesn’t, it was the month of July in 2006. Au revoir, ma chérie.