Chez Nous!

Two images continue to flicker in my mind: a small woman with greying hair poised on a cliff top above the Atlantic on a day so sparklingly luminous that the sea below might be the Caribbean. The green field where she stands is dotted with tiny daisies; slender, wild Margeurites sway in the taller grass behind. Below is a pocket of ochre sand where swimmers are taking advantage of this warm mid-May day. The woman points to the plant-choked trail her family used in the summers to get to the beach. She spreads her arms: Chez nous, she declares. Chez nous! This is us, the family's home; the parcel her ancestors were granted when France accepted 78 of the Acadian families that had been expelled from Canada, been taken prisoner by the English and spent 8 years in an English prison; victims of the ceaseless battles for power in that era between the French and the English. This happened almost 250 years ago and Maryvonne LeGac's family has remained on Belle Ile ever since.

The other image is of Maryvonne standing on the ramparts of the citadel at Le Palais, camera in hand, watching the drapeau Acadian, which hangs higher than the French flag, waiting for it to catch a breath of air and flutter out so that I can see the yellow star on the field of blue. "Bouges, bouges," she commands, to no avail. Later that same evening, at a meeting of the Acadian Association of Belle Île sur Mer,  the flag came into it again as a smaller version resisted the tape she was using to stick it to the wall behind the desk where she would preside over the annual meeting. President for nearly twenty years, she is an energetic advocate for memory. Earlier, as we came through the museum at the citadel, the back way, we encountered a group of French pharmaciens and a guide who was giving them the short version of  the Acadian history on Belle Île. She couldn't let him continue. He was getting his facts wrong, and so she broke in and rattled off a description of the expulsion, or Grand Dérangement, as it is known, the distribution of the expelled and the final arrival of the 78 families at Belle Île in 1766. The group spontaneously applauded her when she finished.

The sad story of the Acadians inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's classic poem Evangeline, and the wonderful novel Pelagie-la-charette, by Acadian writer Antonine Maillet. Evangeline is the romantic account of lovers separated by the Grand Dérangement; Pelagie is an epic tale of the return to Acadie. Despite Homeric-type challenges, some did make their way back, thanks to the strength of the fictional  Pelagie, a woman upon whom Mme. Legac might have modelled herself. The work she has done on behalf of the Acadian association won her the prestigious Médaille Léger Comeau last year.

Although it is the recollection of suffering that unites them, the story of Acadie has a happy ending. The Belleilois Acadians ended up with a lyrical place to live and raise crops and children and live out their lives. Some left voluntarily, to find more opportunities for numbers of the children in their large families, and peopled Louisiane, where they are known as Cajuns. Many of them have never left Belle Île, or have left and come back, bringing husbands or wives, inviting friends.  After the meeting near the Le Palais Mairie Saturday evening, after toasting one another and the occasion with sparkling wine, everyone repaired to a nearby crêperie for a feast of Coquille Saint Jacques, rack of Bell Île lamb, and crêpes piled with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. A table consisting of  many Granger's, one of the original 78, broke out in song often during the meal. Everyone stood for the anthem of Brittany, and everyone joined in for:

"Viens voir L'Acadie, Viens voir le pays. Le pays qui m'enchante..."

A sign I saw at the Musée du Nouveau Monde a few days later, at La Rochelle, noted that Le Grand Derangement produced an effect opposite to what the English hoped for; instead of destroying their spirit, the trauma reinforced the Acadian sense of identity. A happy ending indeed.