Last week, like I sometimes do, I ran away again… I know what’s coming you see, the Capitalistic-apocalyptic tsunami that is December, I have stopped counting the number of times I heard or saw myself mentioning the “C” word since the last week of August. This is the life I chose I guess, no point arguing about it! I heard some shops in Dublin already have their windows decorated, enough already! The swallows are still here for Christ sake ( sorry for the pun, I couldn’t resist), or at least that is when I last saw them, outside of Mullaghmeen forest, gathered on telephone lines, waiting for the conductor to signal a final “all aboard!”. I was heading for Co. Sligo first, eager to visit the People’s market in Strandhill, literally in the airport…
I haven’t been very well for the passed three weeks, a bit of a dose I often get in Spring, people say it is the change of season, I blame the “put the clock forward for a bit of light” malarkey; this messes me up big time! I mean, seriously? Who had the brain wave? A former French President claimed it was to save energy, I think there is something much more sinister behind it, a hidden agenda… I told you I was feeling feverish. Anyhoo, instead of taking a good rest, I went gallivanting in Killybegs with a healthy stock of paper handkerchiefs, and the week after my colleague “Murph” and I had planned to visit a few customers out west, and a cheese and wine tasting in Letterkenny. It was on the card for a couple of months, and the sensible thing would have been to stay at home; I really wanted to go, helping my colleague of course, but I also wanted to see what was happening out there. Sniffling and coughing I went, stubborn like a pig headed Breton, delusional like a teenager who keeps believing that “it’ll be alright”! Thinking about it, I must have been a charming traveling companion, trumpeting like John Coltrane one minute, sounding like a husky hoarse Barry White an other. Our first stop was in Oughterard, a lovely shop in the heart of the town, O’Sullivan’s…
I love my job; I know it is cold in this old railway train engine maintenance stone building from the 19th century, pretty much winter for seven months of the year, yes, perishing actually! I have often joked about my age with customers, claiming that I was in fact 78 years old, preserved like a Dorian Gray Popsicle if you wish… Yes, I love my job, being surrounded by great food all day, food and farmhouse cheese, made by people with incredible stories that I like to pass on. But what really gets me going is the people; you never really know who is going to walk through the door, folks with lives and stories, big and small and I love that! I really like listening to them, the quirks and anecdotes, “queer as folk” the expression says, or like the local accent dictates, it is often pronounced “quare” in that unmistakable Irish twang.
I have touched your hand
– by accident –
On the kitchen table,
Littered with tea bags
And sorrow soaked handkerchiefs,
Regrets soaked …
“Boxin the fox”: Irish slang for “stealing from an orchard”.
It was the end of September 1991; I was saying my goodbyes to county Donegal where I had worked for two months on a Rhododendron removal project, on the hills… “Slán Tamall Mín an Lábáin agus An Earagail “. Goodbye until later! I stepped onto the bus bound for Dublin after hugging a couple of newly made friends. It felt like yesterday when I landed in Ringaskiddy in co. Cork; I had got a free ride on a school bus trip, back from Brittany, all the way to Sligo; I hitchhiked the rest to Donegal Town, and now I was heading back the long way around. I crossed “The North” for the first time, Enniskillen and the intimidating British Army checkpoint – now long gone – before Belturbet in County Cavan. What a ride!
I have that calling for the sea, I can’t help it, and it haunts me from time to time. Not that I dislike where I live, not at all, but when you spend over 30 years in full view of the Atlantic, it is like an old friend you enjoy sharing a moment with, paying that friend a visit sometimes, that is what friends do I guess, communion with a wordless and reassuring company. So when my Italian pal Marty rang last month, expressing the wish to visit Ireland again for a very short weekend in June, I knew I had to do something special. As a former gastronomy student from Turin, she enjoys real local food, and there were a couple of home cooked Irish dinners on the cards. But for our escapade, I wanted something a bit special, not only for the food, I wanted it to be a feast for the eyes and the senses… Unlike most of Europe, Ireland was under clear blue skies,flirting with mid-twenties temperatures… The perfect plan was unfolding itself nicely…
September 1991 After two months spent on the side of a mountain in Glenveagh National Park, I decided to enjoy a couple of weeks off, around Donegal town before heading back to Brittany; many long walks around Lough Eske , its abandoned castle, native oaks and mountain ashes. We didn’t drive. One of my friends suggested to hitchhike to Killybegs, Fishing Harbour few miles west of the town. I like fishing harbours, for some strange reason, the smell of marine gasoil mixed with the smell of rotting fish has a certain appeal. Or is it the screaming swarms of cheeky Herring Gulls? Lorient, St-Guénolé, Galway or Howth, no matter how big or small they might be, the atmosphere surrounding them is always the same; dressed with rich colours, fumes, sadness and excitement, noise… Life, purring Diesel engines… Superstition… What’s not to like really?
Have you ever tried Fish’n’Chips?” , asked my Orleans flat mate, while my native Irish friend rolled her eyes, as if saying: “Jayzus… Not again”. He was, let’s put it mildly, very enthusiastic by nature. We climbed the small hill overlooking the Harbour, sat at a corner table of this local chipper, just like teenagers do (yes we were still – just about – in that age bracket) and gazed at our laminated and slightly greasy menu; ketchup, mayo, salt and vinegar at the ready. Vinegar? On chips? Seriously? Truth be told, I had tried Fish and Chips; the previous September to be precise. The curator of Cap Sizun’s bird sanctuary and myself, after 6 months spent on the western peninsula cliffs counting kittiwakes, had just closed the reserve for the year. My mentor had to deliver fragile plaster birds of his creation to the yet to open maritime museum of Brest… Oceaonopolis. I was then treated to lunch in the Commercial Harbour. The decor was set, the name of the restaurant? “People Of The Sea”. Overwhelming with truth. We both went for the “Poisson-Frites”, fish of the day with chips. That was the day, the first time… My thoughts? The same any other Breton lad of my age would’ve had: “Fish with chips? What a weird combination!” Boy was I wrong! It somehow made our traditional rice and boiled potatoes abruptly redundant. I visited Donegal again this week, walked on the foot prints of cherished memories, one recalling the other, every time. This time I wanted to push a bit further west, what hitchhiking v time never allowed me to do before; I wanted to see the sun setting on Sliabh Liag’s mountain cliffs and its wild Atlantic coast. On the way back to Donegal Town, I stopped for a few minutes in Killybegs, I took it all in, the bells, the smells, the colours and the diesel engines purrs. They say the sea makes people hungry… Well it is true and I already knew what I would pick from the menu.