I was looking anxiously at the road, nearly half way from Goulien’s village to Michel Hervé Julien’s bird sanctuary where I have been studying kittiwakes for over a month now. September 1990 and I accepted the offer to keep an eye on the reserve while Pierre – the curator of the site- and his wife Cat went off for a well deserved holiday. The place was closed now, kids back to school and my only job was to keep an eye so late tourists wouldn’t trespass or that the Ouessant sheeps (Ushant dwarf sheep, black or white) were OK. The phone would ring the odd time, but not that often. I was waiting for Sergio who I had told in a letter that he could come and visit. It was a bit lonely to say the least and I was missing my friend. I told him I had a surprise, and that he should come for the week. Sergio was just back from India with his parents and that tribe of natural born travelers never turned down an adventure. He left a message, hardly audible on the sanctuary’s office answer machine. “ cccreeech… ‘ot your letter… Creeech… sounds good, I’ll be there in a couple of days!”. So I was waiting, looking at the road towards Goulien, anxiously.
I spent the best part of my very late teens hanging on to a mountain rope above the tumultuous and moody Atlantic Ocean, crashing against the cliffs of Cap Sizun, rocky lifeline to a hundred metre drop. Goulien is a small village of the Western Breton peninsula, Penn Ar Bed or Finistère in French, both meaning “The end of the Earth” – even if some linguists might think differently, you get the idea- a region close to my heart. I had left behind the old salt marshes further east; I was growing into a young man and the politics on the bird sanctuary were starting to get to me. An opportunity came along – still with the same charity- so I packed my bags, my binoculars and headed west right after Easter and for the summer. My Dad brought me that time, a father bringing his son for his first “Walk About”, my Right of Passage. As soon as we crossed the county’s border, my heart felt lighter and my muscles started to relax one by one. “This is it” I thought, this is actually happening! The car was speeding towards the sunset and I drifted away from this land, thinking about my new home when Dad decided to break this peaceful moment of communion…
For some reason, and despite what radio desperately try to sell us as being the most depressing time of year, I quite like January. I know we are now in February, yes, I am aware of that and this is just my point! I have been busy. You see, in the kind of job I do – and like a lot of other people like me- food retail is a challenging and trying business in December. Don’t get me wrong, it has its rewards, but since we start talking and working on it since at least September in order to deliver the best service, it is important to manage oneself physically and psychologically; laughing you may, but this is the truth. So when the new year finally comes, it is imperative not to let others tell you the way you should feel, act or behave. For me, I keep on going, most of the time relying on my own entertainment as most other friends and acquaintances ( even customers) tend to hide for a bit, and I understand that. No New Year’s resolutions, or at least not for another while, too soon for any types of challenges apart from a wish to have the best of my stories and recipes made into a wee book, just for me, and maybe to print some of my best pictures for a little exhibition maybe? We’ll see. So when January came, I decided to keep on indulging on my morning walks, let my spirit roam free around the surrounding Townlands, take it all in, rewarding my soul….
My last Christmas in France was 25 years ago, having since dedicated my life to my new found love: food and wine; from the kitchen first to specialized retail adventures. My point is, in the world of fine dining (I am trying real hard not to use the word “Gourmet” here), when the last few days before the climax of Christmas reach its peak, it’s all hands on deck to advise, suggest and supply the goods for all the gentle folks of a well tuned-in modern Ireland. Rushing to Dublin airport on the 24th to head back to France for a couple of days wasn’t somewhat appealing to me so I didn’t bother. And since I don’t fly and the Ferries are off duty, the choice was somewhat simple…
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!
You know, when it comes to legends and superstitions – or rather popular beliefs- Brittany is not too far off Ireland in that department. Hollsent is our Hallowe’en, when we celebrate the dead, the departed to another world but the rules don’t always start and end in October! Oh no! We have a whole lot of characters that most of us take very seriously, oh yeah! We have of course An Ankoù, from the old Celtic God of Death Ankouvos, the tall, skinny and lanky valet of Death, patrolling our beautiful country at night to collect the passed over souls with his horse, as meager as him, his squeaky carriage for the lift. If you are unfortunate enough to cross his path at night, well, it was nice to meet you as you are probably on the list and I think it’s too late I am afraid… If you hear the creaking of his cart’s axle, the tip is to run away in the other direction, home will do, hide under the duvet and keep singing “lalalalalala…” and you might have a chance to live for another year!
” You know what would be great lads? Let’s sail our 130 ships to invade England, but instead we will go by Scotland and we’ll take them by surprise by coming from the West of Ireland… It’s gonna be great, who’s in?”. And so I was amusing myself imagining the unlikely conversation between a Spaniard Captain and his crew somewhere in the 16th century while standing on Streedagh beach in Co. Sligo, just off Grange. A place where one can still see at low tide, a wreck of the Spanish Armada, some 430 years ago, quite humbling standing there really, 24 ships were lost in the campaign and around the coast of Ireland due to bad weather and treacherous shores, poorly mapped then and where the survivors at Streedagh met a very grim fate at the hands of the locals and some “Red Coats” joining the killing spree… It must have been quite a sight, and I was there, standing on the strand, taking it all in and thankful for more peaceful times, well at least here and for now.