As the annual Dawn Chorus approaches, I remembered a lovely story from years gone by, a story of ornithology, environmental convictions and a rare bread that has now been almost lost. Once the pride of Vannes and its county ( or Department as we call them), I wanted to recreate this recipe from memory. Not an easy task… The action takes place in 1988 I think, I was 14 or 15, wishing to be 16 or 17, like we all once did. I was – since the age of 11- passionate about wildlife and especially ornithology, the study of birds ( please don’t start, I have heard all the jokes about it!)… One day, I got my first telescope, two years after my first pair of binoculars that lasted me nearly 20 years… Life was sweet!
Rennes, Capital of Brittany, February 1992. For the last year or so, I found myself crossing the city, heading towards my favourite hitchhiking spot on National 24, just outside the Citroën car assembly point; yes, plenty of room there, nice and safe for the generous soul that would bring me closer to Vannes and my Rock’n’Roll mates from the Cactus bar and like the chorus of a song I once wrote, looking forward to “ walk down Butcher Street, with my black leather jacket”; I was just 20, leaving behind for a couple of days my life as a musician for the “Smoking Dogs” theater company, swimming in a pool of doubt and uncertainty like most of my peers, dark, fun and life loving, hopeful. I am always hopeful, even in my most pessimistic days. The anxiety of a young adult then, now and to be… I don’t really know why I was making that weekly journey, partly because I wanted to see some of my friends who weren’t really friends, partly feeling guilty for moving to “The Big City”, afraid of being judged and secretly weaning myself off the provincial town that saw me grow, unfriendly to our lost kinds, “them Rockers”with long hair and short ideas, guys and gals who had to hide in the back streets of this self proclaimed pseudo bourgeois town, to entertain our love and hunger for rebellion, music, identity and art… We were beautiful, we didn’t care… Rennes fed us and nurtured us in a way our home towns and villages couldn’t anymore.
I have really enjoyed November this year, savouring its days, seasonal and dark, I took a Baudelaire or even Verlaine approach to the descent into the inevitable darkness… Or was it Boris Vian? November is special to me, I decided to cherish it, it suits my mood as I have always been a winter child, excited by storms and snow showers, scouting by the Velux window of our old home for something to happen… November is a month of anniversaries, Ireland is now the place where I have spent most of my life; hard to even write – or rather read that- as I am typing. Like few, I have been blessed with two lives, that is the way I see it, a gift. November is also a month for the departed, the month my mother quite suddenly passed away. Before her time, at 49, I heard the news on a cold Monday morning, 09:30, my sister crying on the phone. Twenty years ago now, I left Galway, crossed the country in a diagonal to Rosslare Harbour, boarded a cargo ship for Cherbourg. Twenty hours at sea to reflect, while the British navy and its warplanes were exercising in the channel, Common Dolphins escorting us in the strangest of ballets… When I arrived, the custom officer couldn’t believe his eyes! A lonely pedestrian walking out of a boat in the middle of the night! When he saw me hugging my sister and my Dad, he knew it was best leaving it alone… I was too late. The last time I saw her, was eight month earlier, crying as she waved goodbye from the platform of Vannes’ s station, a train taking me back to another boat bound for Ireland. That was the last image, and I know now that she knew it was “adieu”. Like Leo Ferré said: ” Train stations are stupid” ( “Les gares, c’est con”) and Jacques Brel has a wonderful song about “Orly”. But you know what? I still love November, I transformed pain into cherishing these incredible moments. I don’t know if it made me stronger, but it taught me a lesson or two, about love and humility. This recipe – and since I am now on a veggie diet- is dedicated to her; Marie Lou, who used to make the best Beef Bourguignon… Ever!
When I opened the big gate of adolescence, a frightening squeak from a giant cast iron secondary school entrance welcomed and absorbed me in a solemn vacuum. Of course, and like today, there were kids who just wanted to blend in, ride those teenage years under the radar with minimum collateral damage, wanting to be acknowledged and noticed, yet having the skills to keep your cards close to your chest; not showing too much, dodging rain drops and other potential scraps or punches because you looked at, or aggravated with smart words a tougher kid with social or rather deeper personal issues than yours. Some built themselves with a strong and bold shell: Punks, Goths, Skinheads and Red Skins (the left wing ones; their Doc Martens were burgundy rather than black), right down to a couple of old fashioned black leather jacket bullies with learning difficulties, easy enough to manipulate if you knew how to; keeping them sweet by sharing candies, giving a few test wagers that would up some grades, preventing them from repeating the class… Again. I was a “bullet dodger”, or at least that is what I have been called once by that big fucker – who was actually pretty smart- as he tried to pound my face into the granite wall of the refectory. I used words, and it seemed to work.
When I was a kid, my Dad wasn’t the cook in the house; my mother – and through silly cultural reasons- naturally adopted the role. That said, it didn’t mean that my father, like other men in Brittany couldn’t or wouldn’t cook; “au contraire mon frère” like we say in some parts of Dublin 4. I remember how, a long time ago, an Irish guy explained to me that a man who cooks is considered as, well, a bit of a sissy… To which I replied a bit surprised and annoyed at that silly cliché ( now long gone), that if cooking was making a man more effeminate, having a shower with 14 other lads after the Sunday Game must just be a bit of male bonding so… I know it was a cheap shot, but it just came out like that. I’ll stick to cooking thank you.
I woke up one morning, in this big bare one room bachelor pad; a friend had given her the keys, you know, to water the plants and open the windows once in a while, until he would come back from abroad… It was a small but cool place to crash in, a secret space for young broke and starving lovers. My girlfriend was already up, making coffee and smoking Pall Malls while listening to “Barbara”… The rain was battering the old zinc roof and I kept staring at a painting of ” Keith Haring” precariously hung beside the portable gas rings, just over the sink; Prevert came to mind and while Brest was calm at last, Sarajevo was getting battered. It was 1992, I was twenty and free, with a girl five years older than me, hiding from nothing – or rather from a future too scary to contemplate-right in the heart of the Breton Capital.
( Iwerzhon means “Ireland” in Breton… I wrote this song in 2011 at the back of the Irish recession… Enjoy).
Iwerzhon ma Iwerzhon
Now twenty years since I’ve been gone
I left you without say goodbye
Didn’t do it, didn’t even try