There’s an ad that’s been on our fence for over 10 years. We brought it home as a souvenir from a week on the Côte d’Azur in the fishing port of Villfranche-sur-mer, a place widely known because of the Cocteau Chapel or U2’s video Electrical Storm or the retired-Bond movie Never Say Never Again. A great place to spend a few days even if we’re not Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
The ad is in metal and enamel, a touristy replica of the famous fin de siècle poster for Absinthe Blanqui. A fully clothed red-headed woman is adorned in green ribbons with an upper arm wrapped with a serpent. Or at least she was. The green devil dress and every other colour has drained away, a metaphor for the absinthe itself dripping through sugar cubes.
I’d always liked licorice as a child and I especially liked Bassetts Allsorts. I still cook with things like fennel, dill and caraway, even grated some star-anise into today’s lunch galettes. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I enjoyed a pastis from time to time. A measure poured on ice, a cloudy white aperitif that honed my taste buds before a meal. Sometimes Anis, Ricard or Pernod.
I’m not the only one with fond memories of meals in France that were all the more enjoyable for the aperitif. Which is why I took the opportunity to enjoy a pastis before dinner in The Grand Hotel in Niamey, Niger. We were three, sat out on the west facing terrace as the sun set, a slightly elevated view across the Niger River near the Kennedy Bridge. The ice in the glass might have been about to kill me but I really thought a pastis would render the moment sublime. And this was what I suggested to my French companions so that’s what we three ordered. At least that’s how I remember it.
I’d just spent four monotonous weeks in the Sahara desert with JP. We shared an office made within half of a 20 foot container and he tended to be somewhat taciturn, to say the least. Only for his sense of the absurd, it would have been as intolerable as sharing a jail cell. Now he had been joined in Niamey by his wife to celebrate his last such work assignment. This sunset seen from our perch within a modern city was fittingly beautiful. Yet sadly beautiful because the light was rendered sumptuous by diffusion through smoke rising from the wood fired cooking of dinners in endless shanties that would have besmirched the western bank of the river but for the brown smog. I hoped to see a hippo by the island below and kept an eye on the gently flowing river as the twilight deepened. And because of my distracted hippopotamus lookout, I was taken by surprise when several waiters rushed out to protect us and our drinks. The sky above was further darkened by squadrons of fruit bats flying west to find fruit and nectar after a day spent hanging around in their ‘camps’. Massive numbers of totally silent bats. It had started raining bat shit with a scent of the absurd.
A few years later, when it became possible to buy Absinthe again in the 1990s, I found an 80% bottle in a French airport en route home from an Algerian trip. We enjoyed the one bottle for years, because I’d only serve it while we were outside having a barbecue and this is Ireland where such opportunities are rare. The Green Fairy legends are legion and they say Aleister Crowley was a devotee as well as others you’ll have heard about. It was quite something to hear how garrulous we and our guests could be after just the one. So I’d never offer more lest they invoke satan or cut off an ear. A kind of controlled use of an abusive substance.
And after years of abuse by the weather, she faded away, the colour drained, the fence with a white-stained memory, cloudy like the water diluted drink itself. And then, like the long banned Absinthe she advertised, slowly but slowly, she reappeared, etched, ghostly, in rust, amidst whorls of ribbons that remind me of snail trails.