Life as a family of three was our key to more adventure than we could had ever imagined would happen after the third pregnancy test in a tent in Holland threw a big U-turn into our cycle route throughout Europe. It quickly woke us up to the fact that things were about to change radically for us as a couple. Continuing our journey we were both confused, ‘Can this be true?’ Once we succumbed to the fact that life was handing us our next adventure, we relaxed and prepared for what was to come.
After the acceptance of the U-turn ahead, it all felt right; I felt calm and so did Angie. I think that is what kept us in the groove, we were both ready, willing and open to where this new phase would lead us. We kept the confidence we had that the universe would still help us on our journey if we let it. As I wrote in my first blog in this series, the adventure continued, but off in a slightly different direction.
Now embarking on the third year as parents we found ourselves in a house on the outskirts of a small village in a region of France called Brittany, a place I don’t think I had ever heard of before I started dating Angie. Maybe it was somewhat prophetic that when we decided to head back to Weymouth, after our new knowledge of imminently becoming parents those few years before, we boarded a ferry that sailed from Roscoff in Brittany to Plymouth in southwest England.
While living in The Loire Valley we were enticed by the house prices in France and the possibility of living a simpler life, so we started looking for houses in Brittany. Its proximity to Weymouth by ferry connections made it all the more enticing. I purchased the small house without Angie ever seeing it; a property on a tiny peninsula jutting out into The Atlantic in the westernmost part of northwestern France. Angie and I previously agreed it would be too hard to make a trip up there together, so she trusted my judgment. At the time we were looking for somewhere to store our stuff as well. Yes, a weird reason to buy a house, but we would be living in America for a year and had moved what few possessions we had down to France. The house being so inexpensive and not far from ferry ports to southern England, it just made sense to buy it.
Jump ahead to March 2002 after living in New York, and cycling to Manhattan on a weekly basis, helping to run the busiest bicycle shop I had ever stepped foot in, we found ourselves moving into the small house in a field on the outskirts of a tiny village called Pont Melvez. Our life as three was taking on this yearly pattern of starting anew. We were enjoying it because it was allowing us so much time to spend together as a family unit. The last two years had been so diverse and incredible, now we walked the empty rural road to the village in a dreamlike trance. Are we going to stay here plunked in the middle of a field? Did I make the right decision buying this tiny house? Were we crazy? Time would tell. First things first, fix the broken window a local lad had helped himself through relieving us of our CD collection and a few tools, unfortunately never to be recovered, but thankfully just a one off incident. Next, unpack our bicycle fleet and clothes from the attic space they were stored in, then settle in and get that back garden producing some food. Soon after we arrived in our ‘new’ Ford Escort car I purchased for ninety pounds in Weymouth and we unpacked, it hit us. Here we are, and we know absolutely no one! We just reassured ourselves that after three months if we weren’t ‘Feeling it’, we would sell the house and move on.
As we walked the loop outside our door and around some fields, over a small train line, we met a young couple who lived up the road, her name was Sabrine, his was Jean-Marie, and their little boy was Glen. Sabrine had lived and taught French in South Carolina, so she spoke fluent English. Jean-Marie spoke English pretty well too. It wasn’t the perfect situation for improving my French, but that young family of three became quite good friends. They weren’t locals, but were living in their Uncle’s house while they looked around for somewhere to start their lives in Brittany. He was from Normandy and she did have Breton roots. They easily could have been in the same group of friends we had made in Bedford Hills through La Leche League. The universe didn’t take too long in helping us out, that was for sure.
Week one in our new house felt like it lasted a month as we were still coming off of our New York vibe. We were missing family and friends being close by and second guessing living in a field after living in Scarsdale. Then after relaxing, meeting Sabrine, Jean-Marie and Glen, working in the garden, slowly finding our confidence once again in a new place, the second week somehow quickly became month two. Sabrine, Jean-Marie and Glen became good friends, and we would eat and walk together often. The loop became our Central Park, not as dynamic, but the train line gave birth to a series of ‘Mouth stories’ I would begin telling Louis about these dynamic duo train repairers called Harry and Larry, they even had a theme song that both of my kids can sing till this day. My mind had a large amount of time to come up with more and more elaborate train fixing episodes around France, and the world. I even surprised myself with some of the intricate plots; they saved disasters in The Tour de France, became good friends with Fidel Castro while revamping the Cuban train system, they had family backgrounds in America and Poland, one was big and super fit, while the other was clever and super fast. In short, they were super heroes with hammers, spades and a mission – keep the trains safe and moving at all costs.
Besides Harry and Larry coming to life, our time-rich lifestyle allowed us to explore the area on our bicycles with Louis still in his baby seat. But whenever we walked the loop he scooted on his pedaless ‘Dresienne’ bike, determined to learn balance and start pedaling his own. Instead of cycling to Manhattan or taking trains up to the northern suburbs of New York, we would head to the local market town of Guingamp every Friday, and Callac on Wednesday. It was in Callac, on market day, where Angie would meet Isabelle. She was carrying her little boy in a baby backpack, much like the one we used in Louis’ first year of life. The thing that drew Angie’s attention to this woman in particular was that her son was a beautiful chocolate brown color, something not very common where we were now living, especially on the back of a woman who looked like a local farmer, complete with earth stained fingers. Angie just walked up to her and said, “Hi I’m Angie and this is Louis, can we be friends?” Isabelle didn’t miss a beat, she introduced her son Meven and our life-long friendship started there and then. When Angie came home from the market that day with a broad smile saying we have new friends on the other side of Callac, it made me smile as well. The New Yorker in me wasn’t lost on the fact at how weird that sentence sounded, Callac, Guingamp, Pont Melvez….. “We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto” would be the movie line that would always repeat in my head in situations like those.
Claude, Isabelle and young Meven were really living the off grid dream. What distinguished Central Brittany from Brittany in general was the fact that it wasn’t coastal. Brittany being a peninsula was well known for it’s wonderful northern, western and southern coastlines, but as Angie would always remind me, it was also famous for its artichokes. I don’t know why she had held onto that one certain fact she learned in her school years, but she was quite proud she had intimate knowledge of the place we were now calling home. Whenever she reminded me of Brittany’s most famous crop, a certain Dorothy and her little dog would pop into my mind’s eye. Breton sounding town names, artichokes, and now traditional music of the area and lots of cider drinking were becoming part of our lives. The skyscrapers were fading into the background, and yes, the three month mark passed and we didn’t even remember to have the conversation we promised ourselves on week one.
Summer arrived quickly, with lots of good advice from Claude and Isabelle, our garden started generously giving us veggies. They were natives of the area, but with an adopted boy from Madagascar. We introduced them to our other new friends, Sabrine, Jean-Marie and Glen and they, in kind, welcomed us into their wide circle of friends and family. We quickly gained intimate knowledge of The Breton life, its music, its customs, its food and festivities. Life started feeling like it was moving in a good direction. Over the following months many other friends had come to help us turn our house into a home. Mike and Flo, a couple I had met cycling in Greece back in 1992 with their young family, stopped by on their way to their property in the middle of France, Steve and Sophie, friends from Weymouth who also made it down to The Loire Valley, stopped by with their young son Zach in tow. Margaret, Angie’s mom, who always visited whether in France, New York or elsewhere, was always a willing worker in our garden. She would come with her great friend Ella who also had a green thumb and adopted our kids as her own grandchildren.
Claude and Isabelle had told us of an English family they knew who lived on their side of Callac towards Carhaix Plougher. I was just loving the Breton names. Sometimes it felt as though we were in France, but with the bi-lingual signposts and obvious non French town names it was hard to escape the fact of Brittany’s Celtic roots, right down to the music. The said English family were an interesting troop of five. Mom, dad and three kids. All three kids were home educated, and where their French language skills lacked because they didn’t attend French schools, their creativeness, both individually and as a family, more than made up for it. The Lewis family, became the “Lewises”, and for our three years in Brittany they were also a constant source of local knowledge, good fun, interesting ideas on gardening, education and building. Plus the best cakes at tea time their side of Callac!
Any trepidation we had on arrival from New York faded quickly. Our mindset was different than either The Loire Valley or New York, we owned this place. It was becoming home. In the winter months we would head back to Weymouth and stay with Margaret. I worked in the local bike shop I had helped out in back in 1996 when I first met Angie. We also took advantage of this time to go to New York and keep up the contact with my family, and friends.
Year two on the peninsula started off quite nicely. It was feeling like home. Jean-Marie and ‘Bean’, as Sabrine became known to us because of Louis’ inability to properly pronounce her name, were still our neighbors, Glen was now a toddler and we now knew people from Guingamp to Carhaix Plougher. We met a German couple, Beatrix and Magna, who were quite hard core living totally off the grid. We made cider at their place the year we met them, all with hand generated equipment, no electricity. I even helped Magna refurbish a hundred year old Breton apple press. With his German know how and her determination to live life on their terms, they created quite a place. Fruit trees, veggies, solar hot water and electricity were all ideas getting implanted in our minds. The idea of time richness was taking on a whole new meaning now, and through some of our friends in the area, some practical ideas on how to make that lifestyle sustainable in the long term were being lived out right there in front of us.
In our second year there my old room mate from both times I lived in Australia came out for a visit. He was a city boy, and when he stayed with us our life style and friend base freaked him out a little. When I lived in Melbourne with him we were both single and living in an urban environment. I didn’t realise how much my life style had changed in the ensuing years, but now being a family man heading towards a rural existence, living sustainably in The Breton countryside, it was brought to the fore when he kept on asking questions about how we were living and if I missed the city life. I really hadn’t thought about it very much, life was gently leading me down a different path. Angie and Louis were now an integral part of what was ‘just me’ back in my days of traveling. John was still single, and loved Melbourne living, which was fair enough. I also really enjoyed city living, and Melbourne was a great city to live in, but now Callac, Carhaix and Guingamp were as urban as our life got. John didn’t stay too long, but I could tell the Breton countryside wasn’t his cup of tea. It made me look at my life and realise that yes, the last few years had changed me quite radically. I was glad I hadn’t just jumped in cold though, because if I were to be put here directly from New York, or Melbourne in John’s case, without that year in The Loire Valley behind me, I think my reaction would have been quite the same as his, ‘Get me outta here!’
Our groove seemed to be getting cut easily, I worked for a bike shop in Dorchester, a town near Weymouth in England, every winter for three months. I helped to train staff and gave the owner a break in the colder slower months of winter. We stayed with Angie’s mom for three months, from Christmas to the end of February when we would then head back down to our place in ‘Little Brittany’ as our friend Claude would always refer to the tiny peninsula we were now calling home. The money I made in those three months would help us through another season of trying to see if we could make the semi-autonomous lifestyle work for us. I did a few building jobs here and there, and was gaining skills that would come in handy living the life we have subsequently chosen to live.
‘Fest Noz’ was definitely not a term in my lexicon before living in Brittany, but now it was something so incorporated into our life style. Basically it was a party, more to the point, a night party. The Breton phrase was everywhere to be seen on posters in all the villages. Fest Noz was the lifeblood of The Breton culture; food, music, dancing, drinking cider and a big bonfire were the main ingredients. The season for Fest Noz seemed to be all year round, but supposedly was just a seasonal affair. We went to many a different Fest Noz, but the one we looked forward to the most was Claude and Isabelle’s bi-yearly ‘Organic Fest Noz’ at their place. It was the counter culture event of the area for sure. It was held in their big barn, and the food, cheese, cider and music felt as if it all just came out of the Breton earth, which mostly it did, and from the cider to the cheese it was mostly organic, and the music and dancing was pure Breton magic. It was at these events that Dorothy’s voice would ring loudly in my ears, definitely not in Kansas anymore!
Louis was now riding his own bike thanks to the Dresienne bike he scooted around on whenever we walked the loop, which was often. One day we were confused when a delivery truck pulled up in front of the house and out came a big box from New York. When the owners at Danny’s Cycles heard Louis was riding his own bike at two and a half years old they sent him a real mountain bike. It was a twenty inch wheeled beauty, even had gears. Louis was riding around on a sixteen inch pink bike at the time that we bought in a ‘Vide Grenier’ which in American speak is a big ‘Tag Sale’, British parlance, ‘A car boot sale’. He was big for his age it was true, and his skills on the ‘Fennec’ (a small French fox which was the logo on his current bike) were quite impressive. Even that bike was a bit big when we bought it for him, but he wanted a bike and didn’t care if it was a pink Fennec!! Now his eyes just got bigger when he saw that jet black mountain bike with gears. Those size bikes were for five year olds, not three year olds, but Louis was determined if nothing else. He begged us to let him try it, so we struck up a deal – I would make an obstacle course in the back garden, when he could ride around it with good control and not putting his feet down he could ride the loop with us on our bikes. I made the obstacle course difficult and was working in the garden while Angie nipped up to Bean’s house. To the astonishment of both of us by the time Angie got back Louis was doing the obstacle course without putting his feet down. I honestly thought it wouldn’t be for months. Funnily enough a life-long sponsorship started with Danny’s Cycles on that day as well. Louis, now twenty one, is a semi-sponsored rider for their racing team and still rides bikes from their shop sporting their team jersey!
A new world opened up to us now. Our bike rides as a family started much earlier than we ever dreamed possible. Louis’ bike skills were pretty impressive, he looked awkward kicking a soccer ball, but man could he ride a bike – safely and confidently. It was now 2003. Unfortunately 2002 ended with Angie miscarrying early on in her second pregnancy. We spent that Christmas and New Year in Weymouth, then took a long visit to New York.
After our return to Brittany in March 2003, Louis’ new riding skills, our house looking more like our home, our garden producing nice veggies, and my DIY skills getting much better we put that sad chapter of Angie’s miscarriage behind us and looked to what was coming up next with excitement. Louis and Glen (who was now on Louis’ old Fennec) spent hours riding bikes in the back garden, it was impressive how long they could both just ride in loops. The countryside kept Louis and Glen fascinated with big farm vehicles in the fields and occasionally rumbling down our road.
A young guy Aron, who I became quite friendly with in 2001 working in the bike shop, was living in Spain and dropped by for a visit. My niece Dana and her new boyfriend, Chris came out as well. We were glad to share our new lifestyle with people from what seemed a totally different life on another planet. The best news came when we found out Angie was pregnant again. The timing was perfect. The baby would be due in March 2004. As we spent most of the past two years visiting her mom and staying till March, we asked if she would be okay with homebirth number two at her house. She was delighted. Having been a nurse midwife in her working career was a big bonus as our decision to have a home birth was not met with any resistance from Margaret, a welcomed relief as she had always been so supportive of our alternative lifestyle and choices. So with that all sorted, life just went on smoothly for the rest of 2003. Fortunately Angie’s pregnancy was going smoothly, and our stress-free life was suiting all of us quite well. Lots of local cycling, Fest Noz celebrations, time with our varied local Breton friends plus the Lewises and our German hard core off-gridders was creating a colorful tapestry of life in Brittany.
Our trip back to Weymouth with a six month pregnant Angie, and a bike riding, nearly four year old Louis, made the journey so much fun, yes a bit challenging, but all part and parcel of the much bigger adventure we were creating. After celebrating New Years the winter slid into its normal groove, I did my usual work in the bike shop, and Angie also did some part time work at the local hospital as a Physical Therapist. Angie worked pretty much up until mid-March. Then, three weeks after Louis’ fourth birthday on March 25th, 2004, our healthy girl Francesca entered the world. Louis shared in the birth experience then quickly read her the first book she would ever hear. My sister and mom made it out to England to meet the youngest member of The Diomede clan. Me, mom, my sister Nan, and Louis decided a quick trip to Brittany for them to see the house we had been living in was a great idea. None of us were too sure about how good the idea was on the ferry voyage from Weymouth on choppy seas, but green faced as we all were, we made it to our little house. We did some tidying up because soon enough we’d be back for year three, now as a family of four.
Francesca was a sweet little girl, and Louis being four years old now understood the whole situation much better. It probably helped that he was there to witness the birth as it really bonded him and his little sister in a whole different way. Angie was back to nursing a newborn, and the old trailer was put back to good use once again. We put Chessie, as we called Francesca, in the trailer at five weeks old having had the confidence of Louis’ trailer experience behind us. Then once again a truck pulled up in front of the house with a brand new cycle trailer in it. Once again the generosity of Danny’s Cycles shining through in the middle of Brittany! So now the whole riding vibe totally changed. Louis was on his own bike, I would pull Chessie in her new trailer and Angie would come along and once again find her post pregnancy fitness quite quickly. The Breton countryside was perfect for cycling as a family. Louis’ fitness levels were improving vastly. He handled the hilly countryside well. Occasionally I would push him up the longer hills while pulling the trailer along, but luckily that didn’t last long because of Louis’ determination to ride up on his own.
Year three was going well, but now as a family of four the dynamic was different. Angie and I felt that maybe Brittany wasn’t going to be the place we’d settle forever. We didn’t act on it immediately as it was affording us that time richness we so loved. The time passed nicely. Apple cider season saw us all crushing apples once again with Beatrix and Magna. Our friendships with The Lewises, Claude, Isabelle, Sabrine, Jean -Marie, and all the kids that came with it, were creating a nice vibe for all of us. Jean-Marie and Bean were finally buying their dream property to live semi-autonomously on, Claude and Isabelle had adopted another young boy from Madagascar, actually Meven’s blood brother, and we now had met a much wider circle of friends. We also had met a few English couples in Pont Melvez, they weren’t in our tighter circle of friends, but it was nice to touch some familiar culture and language once in a while. We knew that all the friends we made and experiences we had would be there forever, but deep down inside we also knew we wouldn’t be staying, something was calling to us beyond ‘Little Brittany’. When Christmas rolled around and I did my usual work at the bike shop, I knew it would be my last season doing that as Angie and I had put it out into the wider universe that we would be moving.
Permaculture magazine was a publication we both enjoyed reading, we also bought a book called ‘Diggers and Dreamers’ which had a listing of many intentional communities around the UK. In February of 2004 just before Chessie was born we made a train trip up to Scotland to see if Findhorn might be the place for us to live in community. Ella was living up there, but it just didn’t seem right for us. We checked out a few more communities, but then Chessie came along, life took us back to Brittany and we were being proactive, but still interested to see what the universe would throw our way. Permaculture magazine would be a big help in that next move.
So in April of 2005 we put our house on the market in a local Estate Agent’s in Callac. We were testing the waters. I had done a lot of work on the house from when we bought it. It now had a converted attic space which was a lovely bedroom. The kitchen was now much bigger as I knocked down the wall to a small adjoining bedroom, so when a couple pulled up in front of the house making a generous offer on the house, we shook hands on the street and picked up the phone in reply to an ad in Permaculture magazine about a budding Ecovillage project in Southern Ireland. It sounded random enough to tweak our interest, so with the ball rolling on the house sale, our bike fleet now including a tandem that Louis and I transformed for his fourth birthday so we could do much longer rides, a road trip was in the works.
Our alternative parenting ideas and the books we had come across over the years since meeting up with The La Leche League folks had somehow or another introduced us to the idea of a diaper free existence with Chessie. We also had found out about the joys of early communication with your children through sign language, it worked so well with Louis that he even started teaching Chessie some signs before we did. As we were communicating with Chessie and the diaper free experiment was proving such a big success, we struck up a deal with Chessie at thirteen months old. If you don’t pee on the sleeping bags, we’ll take a bicycle trip through Ireland in the summer, she nodded her consent. The bikes were packed, the house was sold, our stuff was in a friend’s storage facility near Weymouth. So we said goodbye to our life in The Breton countryside. On a hot summer’s day in July 2005 we put our bikes on the ferry leaving from Wales to Southern Ireland and pedaled into yet another adventure on a small green island this time. Were we excited about this new move? As they say in the land we would call home for the next two years, “To be sure, to be sure!”
Many Years later, we’re still friends with our Breton mates!!!