Photo by Don Wallace
Madame Morgane said it would be best if we painted our shutters blue, we
wondered what we’d done wrong. Madame is matriarch of our adoptive village on
the tiny island of Belle-Île-en-Mer, and her asides are like Breton runes: They
could take weeks to decipher.
The original shutters on the house we’d bought were green.
We’d kept them green to please Madame, who had been born in the house. We took
pains to match to that weak celery shade, popular seventy years before. We
found it sad and dull, but we figured Madame would appreciate the gesture.
Yet after seven summers on Belle-Île, we apparently no
longer deserved green shutters. My wife Mindy and I tortured ourselves wondering
why all through that summer’s cash-poor, slo-mo renovation of the stone cottage
in remote Brittany, our “little ruin,” as my father called it. Aware that as
Americans we carried the potential adjective “ugly” wherever we stepped, we
tiptoed around faux-pas like we were avoiding cow pies. It helped that Mindy
was fluent and could chat up Madame when we came to buy butter and eggs. But I
was sidelined to single-word conversations with Madame’s elderly father on the
one subject we had in common: lunch.
The French like lunch. We weren’t sure whether they liked
surfing, however, and so we never took to the waves. We’d been fighting the
urge for years, ever since our first visit to the island in 1980, when we’d
trudged down to the beach on a frigid winter day. There, zippering along the
strand with crisp finality, were gray, shining waves. After a moment Mindy
swore. “It’s like Püpükea!” A girl who’d grown up in the lineup at Tongg’s on
the South Shore, had charged Rice Bowls and had nearly drowned at Rocky Point—a
point of pride—Mindy remained convinced for a decade that Belle-Île could be
ridden. Just not by us. What would Madame make of that?
Still, someone should be riding those peelers. We drew a map for an
itinerant, wild-haired Breton sailor from the French mainland who was
pioneering surf breaks along the craggy Atlantic coast. Yves wrote us later to
say: Mission accomplished. Every so often after that we’d see some lonely
soloist trying to tame Belle-Île’s combers. Six years after buying the house, we
caved and brought swim fins. The following year, we wrapped Mindy’s battered
yellow Mike Merry Sunset gun in a couple of wetsuits and stuffed it into a
board bag. After a twenty-seven-hour journey by car, three plane flights, two
taxi rides, a train run to the coast and a ferry to Belle-Île, we paddled
That summer had been glorious, as we experienced the
little island in a new, more intense way. Braving the freezing water and trying
to time the twenty-foot tides was a full-time job, but the waves were worth it:
outside walls reeling off a pair of points, a sucking sandbar, even a scary
Waimea shorebreak for bodysurfing. Daily we drew respectful crowds on the
strand and soon became role models for a set of young Bellilois who began
learning to surf by mimicking “les Hawaiians” on their cheap supermarket
But at the end of summer the bill came due. After Mme.
Morgane’s gnomic remark we sanded down the shutters, waiting for the other shoe
to drop. And here came Madame, hands clasped behind her back, to inspect our
work. Except she went straight to the surfboard and wetsuits drying on the
grass. Reaching out to touch the Mike Merry, she repeated her remark, “You must
paint your shutters blue,” adding, “because you are sailors, not farmers.”
That was twenty-three years ago. Today almost all the
Bellilois kids surf, and the kids who watched us are grown up and surfing with
their kids. That’s a lot of blue shutters we’re responsible for, even if
Wallace’s book, The
French House: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village that
Restored Them All, was published in June 2014.