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Field Notes: Brest

By Grace Dowling

Art by Izzy Walter

To travel to a place is to assume it has something to offer you. Last summer I visited Brest, the westernmost city in Brittany, I was tagging along on my friend’s family holiday. They chose Brest for a combination of logistical reasons, their inclination for seclusion and the fact it was somewhere they’d never been before.

Brest is primarily residential and mostly mundane. Its humble landscapes are not designed for holidays. I couldn’t meet or hold the city’s gaze. Equally, it wasn’t quite comfortable in front of the camera. It didn’t know how to pose. It didn’t exist for us as outsiders, and there was something strange but wonderful about this resistance.

The city is in greyscale, as though different shades of concrete have been coloured by number into repeated rectangular flats. Although shrouded by the new builds, the sparse historical monuments sit too starkly to say that they are nestled into the cityscape. Seen from the right angle - the one you will find on google images - the medieval Tour Tanguy seems to radiate a forcefield of preservation. The protective circumference encompasses the Chateau and the city walls, suspending them in space and time. But from where I was looking, the tower was an incongruous texture in the skyline.

In the Second World War, Brest was all but annihilated. As a port city, it was occupied by Axis forces and became the focal point of destruction in the 1944 Battle for Brest. Despite its history, the tower appears as though it is emerging against the high-rise flats; the only piece of the past that has endured centuries of wreckage feels somehow nascent. The cityscape becomes anachronic, as though it had been assembled in a moment, instead of being ordered through time. The tower performs the role of a historical bastion but is eerily untethered from a history. Its idiosyncratic posture now emanates only a vague feeling of pastness, like a misplaced feature in the wrong model town.

As a visitor, I don’t think I have the right to ask this place to signify anything other than strangeness: that which is not mine, not part of a reality I know how to navigate. I’d like to characterise Brest by its resistance- to me, to periodisation, to permanence. But it also resists change. There is something in the city that endures time.

The port is still an important feature of Brest and lots of the people we met one evening were sailors, docking for one night. One man introduced himself as a quartermaster, which exemplified the uncanny pocket of time that the city occupied.

But these encounters gave a new dimension to the feeling that the city was an assemblage: inconstant fluxes of visitors washing in and out, taking pit-stops to flutter around its fringes. The Rue de Siam is designed for transient stays, scattered with bars and pubs that run in two parallel strips, simulating a European Plaza. For residents, the bars offer the familiarities of home amidst the fluxes of visitants. Toward closing, the staff undid their aprons or unbuttoned the collars on their uniforms and seamlessly slipped into the roles of customers, assimilating into an anonymous crowd of their friends.

Noticing our broken, GCSE-level French, locals would quickly switch to English. “Why Brest?” was the question that repeatedly followed. It was asked with genuine curiosity, tinged with amusement, a tone that anticipated an unsatisfactory answer. But Brest has its charms. There is something peaceful in the fact it wasn’t designed for ‘holidayers’, its nonchalant attitude to our arrival. The house we stayed in was situated right on the coast; we spent most mornings peacefully secluded on the deck at the front of the house, watching the other side of the city twitch into life as cars crossed the Pont de Recouvrance.

The region has tried to cultivate a tourist industry. The Musée de la Fraise is perhaps the most pertinent example. Housed in a white, triangular modernist building, the small heritage museum next to Brest traces the history of Plougastel-Daoulas through its strawberry crop. The commune is famous for its strawberry production and hosts the Fête des Fraises annually. But there was something perfunctory about the museum, built for tourists that never arrived but also visitors that they never expected to, either.

The rooms trace the continuities of the commune, how it remained almost impenetrable against over a century of changes. The mannequins are arranged in fractured postures, propped-up against walls and laden with replicas of what the citizens would have worn from 1820 to 1960. Like the historic architecture, the strange figures were neither grounded in their historical moment nor the present, but suspended in a wax-world: an alternate version of human life.

But there was also something oddly intimate about the figures. There were adults and children poised in scenes that ranged from town-wide celebrations to a study of the clothes worn at prepartum rituals. Moving through the rooms felt like flicking through a family photo album full of anonymous strangers that bear little relation to your reality.

There was something unnerving about the little faith the museum had in its own belief in history, as though the rebuilt town could only simulate the feeling of its past, not really convinced by its stories, an evacuated history. The museum asked what place ordinary lives had in history, what place Brest had in history, how its idiosyncrasies might learn to pulse in time to the larger waves of destruction and regeneration.

GRACE DOWLING has just finished her degree in English and is now settling in to a comfortable retirement.


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