Knowing a country is like knowing a person : a fleeting visit, a chance encounter.   Our first instincts can be so wrong. And then......when we get to know someone for so long we  can easily take them for granted, stop trying to discover more and assume.
   The country, like the person, changes gradually or radically and you believe you are part of that process; yet maybe you aren't and have distanced yourself, become impervious.
   I visited the then West Germany before going to live there for a year in the 1970s and felt it was a place of the future, with its street sculptures ( in Hanover) and sense of purposeful energy. A place where tradespeople were valued as much as businessmen.
   How mistaken I was! When I returned to live near the Rhine, I witnessed a very different country ; one before the emergence of the Green Party and movement. There was widespread pollution and unbridled consumerism which ignored the impact on the environment.
   The old joke about lighting your cigarette on the river was actually close to the truth. In the nearby city of Duisburg  waste tips smouldered daily and toxic smogs meant that townsfolk made for the higher buildings to avoid breathing in the fumes.
   Meanwhile, the myth of Western freedom was exposed. Hitler could not be discussed in schools, radical teachers were dismissed just for attending CND meetings and the Baader-Meinhof Gang were hunted down ,as if the whole nation had become a schutzenfest (the hunting festivals we often came across).
   Of course there were positives : no uniforms in schools and a German cinema in its heyday, with Wender, Fassbinder and Herzog leading the way.
   Oh, and the tradespeople were as respected as white collar workers.
   My impressions of that society are inevitably based on the 70s and I've only been back briefly since, not long enough to assess any change. Yet I could see just how the Green movement could become such a powerful voice.
   Likewise in n. Ireland, where I also lived during that decade; though I did feel I knew it much better before I arrived. After all, one of my friends at Aberystwyth University came from there and was very much involved in the politics.
   He has since become a Sinn Fein Councillor in Derry City and his passion and righteous anger inspired me, when he told me in detail about Bloody Sunday and Burntollet.
   Later I was to meet the young woman who became my wife, also at Aber. She had grown up on the Falls Road and , through her, I came to understand intimately the degree of discrimination and injustice suffered by the Catholic population there.
   Yet nothing could prepare me for the shock of the real : a police state within a so-called democracy!
   Landing at Aldergrove that first day I was faced by fact that soldiers were everywhere. Being stopped by road-blocks manned by armed RUC officers pointing their guns at me ; seeing burning buses on the streets of the city; passing regular army patrols and experiencing frequent bomb scares.......all these soon became frighteningly routine, in a sectarian statelet created and allowed to exist by successive British Governments, both Labour and Tory.
   I have only once returned and it was so altered that it seemed almost another country.
   There were no watchtowers or even soldiers on the border and a complete absence of patrols and Saracens on the streets. It seemed to be a peaceful place, till you looked closer and saw the many 'peace-lines' still in existence, proof that deep divisions remained.
   Sadly, despite Sinn Fein's influence education also seemed embedded in a pre-Comprehensive two-tiered  system, which abandons so many at 11 to a prevailing sense of failure. This and unemployment could well bring the young people of n. Ireland into conflict with their representatives, especially as Sinn Fein have now become what the middle ground SDLP used to be.
   And so to Brittany and to France, because Breizh is undoubtedly part of that nation-state.
   We have visited Brittany many times over a period of over 20 years and have stayed in many areas, often coastal. I cannot claim to know it well ; it's like a friend you visit from time to time and enjoy the company.
   Yet, even so, I did catch a glimpse of significant changes.
   The recession has deeply affected Llydaw/ Breizh and , though the area was largely quite affluent and full of holiday homes, there were many businesses struggling or closed down.  In the markets people weren't buying most of the goods.
   Though this was a region where the Breton language and culture was less prominent, there were nevertheless numerous stickers over French-only signs with 'E Brezhoneg ' on, declaring the importance of Breton and recalling the campaigns of Cymdeithas Yr Iaith.
   Large graffiti near where we stayed proclaimed, in English and Breton, anger against the use of pesticides and suggested a link between the language movement and other issues, which I had not been conscious of before.
   I was dismayed to learn that Breton was treated with disdain in the French education system, like a relic of the past not a living language of any importance.
   The culture of street markets and local, fresh cuisine had not altered in 20 years, yet there were small signs of something happening; an old friend taking a new course.
   After all, whatever their age countries, like people , can suddenly strike out in different and unforeseen directions.

                                       THE BOAT WILL RETURN

Even the tide is escaping at this time.
Shells are antiques washed up on shoreline.

Pesticides infecting the green algae;
tractors must scoop and load every day.

Breton and English graffiti side by side
in a warning, wall-high and white.

Le Rocher Rouge is long shut down,
its putrid pink plaster is fading.

Holding the menu like a Bible ;
the communion of food and alcohol.

Tasting crisp pages of the galettes
and bubbly apple tang on tongue's tip.

E BREZHONEG eclipsing the French signs :
on another tide the boat will return.


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