The Con Artist

Young Hungry Breton in fashion mode

You know, when you have to survive, one has to do some pretty crazy things. Well, when I mean survive, I really mean having enough money to have a bite to eat and most importantly, a few bob for a beer or two with your friends. It was in November 1991, and the autumnal air was brisk in Rennes, the Breton Capital. I had recently joined my comrades from secondary school and their rogue theater company called “The Smoking Dogs”, a “troop” made of former students from the college (Lycée) Alain-Renée Lesage, conveniently named after the Breton born playwright from the 17th/18th century. Funny really, the irony, knowing that he was born in Sarzeau, the birth place of our theatrical mutiny, where the father of my friend “ The Hero” had a country restaurant, HQ of our young lucubration. We moved to Rennes, Breton Mecca for students of all kinds: Law, psychology, history of art to just name a few and an absolute magnet for late teenagers and young adults who had a thirst for identity, music and art in general. The City allowed us to be us, yet to feed the need to be unknown again. We were broke but we managed with our few gigs here and there, chipping in when the going was good. I wasn’t an actor in the company, but a musician; Tom, our friend and director had had a vision and he wanted the dark concept of our plays to mix circus themes and live music on stage. I was happy to get the job, accompanying the talented Ronan on guitar with my tin whistles and sometimes playing riffs of bass to the performing actors. “The Hero” and Sergio were in charge of the lights, especially the pursuit projector following the every moves of the comedians, not an easy task!

Juggling Sergio

We played one night in a “Foyer de jeunes travailleurs “, a young workers’ centre that gave the opportunity to “new to the market” trade professionals or people on work experience a chance to get affordable accommodation, a square meal and some cultural activities within; a transition place for the under 30 where one could build in a safe place a little earnings before he or she would get enough money to rent their own space in Rennes, the City of mixed architectures, the Horizon Towers overlooking the old St André’s crossed buildings from medieval times…

Horizon 1
The Horizon Towers – Photo credit to my cousin Julien Gillet.
Old Building
Traditional Rennes Building

The show was a success and we went on partying after with the residents who were mostly girls, some of the guys even got lucky as we say candidly in Ireland, an innocent shift, a kiss over a drink and that feeling of being a Rock Star for one night. My girlfriend was one of the actresses,  so none of that non sense for me! It was quite sweet really…

Choice 1
Franckie and some of the “Smoking Dogs” crew/ girlfriends/ friends

The day after our performance, Tom asked myself and Sergio if we could go back to the foyer to collect the props, neatly packed in two black bin bags. Even if we lived on the other half of the city, it was a mission we were happy to honour, especially since I realised that I had left my tin whistles behind and I was eager to get them back. Near St Michel’s street, Sergio asked me:

“Fuck me, that bag is heavy and I could kill for a beer”

“Do you have any cash?” I replied, knowing fine well that Sergio was as broke as I was.

“No, I think I just have two Francs on me”

“Well, that’s no good… Dig my tin whistles out, I have an idea!”

Sergio found my flutes; the one in “D” was perfect for my scheme…

My good old Tin Whistles

“Ok, here is the plan. I am going to start busking and I’ll pretend that I am Irish; the story is that we are drifters on the road; the black bags are our only belongings. If that doesn’t trigger any sympathy from the punters on St Michel’s street, I don’t know what to do next”.

“I fuckin’ love it!” said Sergio, validating my evil plan…

I started to play, “The Curlew” and the “Flat Bush Waltz”, nice and teary, Sergio was holding the hat which was my grandfather’s military Kepi. I am still a bit ashamed of that actually but hey! Tough times, tough measures; a lot of people stopped and listened, some being very generous, others just wanted to share their love for Ireland and a quick chat. A young couple, who loved Erin a bit more, insisted that we’d go across the road for a whiskey in the “Bar-Rock”, they were so kind that they even wanted to put us up for the night! I started to feel really bad, but I couldn’t drift out of character. I went back playing my whistles and couldn’t believe the amount of money we made; 250 Francs in less than 30 minutes! That is over €50 in today’s money and it was so encouraging that I kept on playing, to the delight of the crowd, me, pretending that  I was Irish, speaking a poor French on purpose and Sergio, in on it until the end…

St Mich Street
St Michel’s Street

As we were happy with the loot, and ready to pack, three French girls turned up. One of them was a bit wise and asked me a few questions. She simply said:

“You are not really Irish are you?”

“I baking powder” I said, knowing that I had been found…

“No, because you see, I have a master in English, and I don’t think you are Irish”

I looked at Sergio and Sergio looked at me in that “what do we do next look”… I just said to him:

“On s’ cassse!” ( let’s scram)…

St Michel
St Michel’s area

We ran away from Saint Michel’s Street, like thieves caught in the middle of “a coup” and even got stopped by five cops in an unmarked car and in civilian clothes but wearing their noticeable red armband. We found it a bit hard to explain what we were doing running at that hour, with two large black bin bags containing fake guns and a French Army Kepi, never mind about our dark and suspicious accouterments. To make things difficult, Sergio was trying to aggravate them by talking about oppression and the fact that they were part of “The Machine”… Sigh! I kicked him a couple of times in the shin and all was cool after that.

Door 1
Classic Rennes

They let us go unconvinced, and we finally were about to enjoy a very expensive couple of pints in a late bar we loved called “The Contre Escarpe”on Champs Jacquet’s street… I flashed the notes at the bouncer through the Judas Door and he let us in despite our awkward black bin bags we had to leave in the lobby. We drank on giant wooden chairs in this extravagant decor, played a couple of games of pool and laughed a lot at the silly stunt we had just pulled and the fact we didn’t get arrested. Sergio looked at me and asked if there was any money left.

“yeah, we are still safe, do you want another round?” I asked him.

“no, I am hungry, I fancy a Shawarma!”…

Now, there is an idea…

Sergio The Man
Juggling Sergio

To finish, a special thank you to my wonderful cousin Julien Gillet who went out of his way this week to take pictures of Rennes and our “Crime Scenes”! I couldn’t have done it without you! 😉

Keep Well and Eat Happy

Slán Tamall


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