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Red: Kayaking on the Gulf
Red. The color of my face as I arrive to work one Thursday in March. People comment on how much sun I took on seemingly overnight, the direct result of a kayaking trip the previous day on the Gulf of Morbihan. When one of the restaurant service teachers at the vocational high school where I work invited me to join him on a leisurely paddle through this scenic gulf, I readily accepted. While I have become accustomed to the French notion of days off, which are anything but few and far between, I still recognized the unique opportunity before me. I know that my time as an English teaching assistant in France is drawing to its close, and therefore, my work schedule, with its days off on both Wednesday and Friday, will soon become a happy memory. Moreover, the weather could not be more perfect for a few hours of kayaking. While I have been told that March is normally a nasty month in Brittany, filled with cold winds and violent storms, this year has been the exception that proves the rule. With temperatures soaring over seventy degrees, a blue, cloudless sky beaming down at us, and a light breeze playing in the air, I know that this is one chance I will not miss. So despite my desire to sleep in on my day off, I find myself waking up on Wednesday morning to catch a bus to my friend and colleague’s house.
Red. The color of my kayak, barely used and prepped for its first outing of the season. We load the two beautiful sea kayaks on top of the van and take off for the boat ramp. We arrive at our destination, change into our boat clothes and sandals, and remove the kayaks from the roof of the van. As we lower the boats to the ground, my partner cuts his finger on the roof rack. Being the good Eagle Scout that I am, I of course never even thought of bringing any first-aid supplies with me. As we scour the car for anything that can be used to stem the flow of blood, we settle on an old dirty rag sitting in the trunk. Knowing this will not suffice, my friend searches out the owner of the boat ramp, who thankfully has a spare bandage. With the crisis averted, we put our boats in the water and begin our voyage. The gulf is calm today, and the water is like glass. The sun shines overhead, and we paddle our way across the channel toward a narrow arm of water that extends as far as the eye can see. We pass sailboats, small fish farms, and oyster farmers checking their oyster beds. Up on the hills surrounding the gulf are magnificent vacation houses, built to maximize their beautiful view of the water. The coastline here is special, for it remains vastly undeveloped. In place of the massive high-rise condominiums one often encounters on the ocean are large expanses of untouched forest. Birds circle overhead, and some children jump from a dock into the water on our right. A sense of peace, quiet, and calm emanating from the waters enters my kayak and settles upon me. I know already that this is the best Wednesday I will spend in France.
Red. The blood seeps from my partner’s finger. We have just climbed out of our kayaks onto a small dock after paddling for over an hour. It is past lunch time, and with our stomachs craving the ham, butter, and pickle baguette sandwiches he has prepared, we pull out of the water. Unfortunately, in the struggle to tie up our boats, his bandage has wrestled itself free and the blood escapes from the confines of the wound. It is not a deep cut, nor is it particularly painful for him. But with the blood flowing freely, we both know that this will not do. While we do not fear attracting sharks to the area, we do fear staining anything and everything around us for the rest of the afternoon if we do not find another bandage soon. And as we just paddled extensively against the current, more exercise than I have had in weeks, we are both hungry and ready to be done with this situation. As we gather our supplies, finish tying up the kayaks, and climb up the steps leading to land, we spot a group of people picnicking in the sun just up ahead.
Red. The wine we share with our new friends and saviors. When we approach the group, we see a child, parents, and a few other adults enjoying a beautiful Wednesday afternoon, just as we are. I stand silently, afraid to use my broken French to explain our situation. My partner, a fluent Frenchman if there ever was one, eloquently addresses the group. He politely introduces us and asks if they happen to have a spare bandage on them. Before he is finished speaking, half the group has sprung into action. While one man scrounges up unused napkins and tape to wrap the wound immediately, another has taken off for their truck. When he returns, he has not one but an entire roll of bandages, which he offers freely to us. We thank them for their kindness and prepare to go on our way and search our own picnic spot. Before we can leave though, a bottle of Bordeaux red wine is uncorked and we are offered a glass. I can see my partner’s eyes glint; he is a wine connoisseur and lives for these moments of spontaneous conversation over a glass of wine. Of course we accept without thinking twice, and soon we are being served red wine in a coffee mug, for which we are offered profuse apologies. Disregarding the glass, we enjoy the wine and our newfound company. As we discuss, they learn that I am not French, but they soon understand why I am in France. At the same time, we learn that they are all retired teachers, and many of them are friends and former colleagues of our present colleagues. One man is even the neighbor of our school’s principal. Before we know it, the wine is finished but the conversation flows unabated. A feeling of mutual respect passes between the two groups of teachers, and the sun has shifted much further west before we take our leave.
Red. The color of the flag of Vannes. I have long since learned that the town where I live has a unique sense of pride about it. People live their whole lives here, and many have no desire to move elsewhere in France. The longer I spend here, the more I understand why. These people value hospitality, and my experience kayaking in the Gulf demonstrated that to its fullest extent. A simple request for a bandage turned into a full wine-tasting, cultural exchange, and recognition of mutual friendships. The kindness exhibited by these strangers is a local trait that I will not soon forget. When the residents here speak of Paris, they often describe the people there as too stressed or hurried. After my day off kayaking in the Gulf, I understand why they would prefer the slower, simpler, and more welcoming lifestyle found in Vannes and the Gulf of Morbihan.
- Photos: All photos by author.