Text : Sébastien Zanella
Photos : Mike McConnell
Birthdays, Christmas, Halloween and every other form of forced festivities have always been uninspiring to me. Must have something to do with my rejection of any form of authority, that won’t let anybody tell me what to do, and certainly not a calendar. So when one week before New Years Eve, I’m asked what I have planned for the passage to the new year, I have to admit that I do feel dumb. On the verge of autism. The date doesn’t bring any sort of emotion in me, and, at the last minute, I give up to the last: “You’re not going to stay in alone, are you?”
It’s how I found myself in a luxurious flat with impeccably clean big glass sliding doors, ready to enjoy the umpteenth fireworks in the dark Cannes midnight sky.
Amongst a gathering of heteroclites people of diverse sizes and social levels, I didn’t feel cool until my fourth drink. In a wet Champagne flute that was leaving no doubt to my enjoyment of the divine nectar, the bubbly liquid felt at ease while bouncing from the round bottom up to the perfect edge of the crystal glass. Only a connoisseur could master the perfect angle and handle the weight of the bottle against so fragile a small piece of glass. Mike was his name. The man behind the bottle, the hand, the arm. We befriended like people do when they don’t know each other yet, laughing on futilities, leaving blank the choice of the next topic. Until we came down to talking about surfing.
In one blink of an eye, the conversation became warmer and warmer, hands were taking strange shapes. It’s always what’s happening when topics cross, hit and bounce in large laughs.
Mike is a big framed guy. The type of guy that you let do the talking. However he was very humble and humbling when talking of his past. Like you would do if you’d sell a counterfeit watch, he shows me a photo of himself on his iPhone (the latest one, I noticed).
50 kilos thinner, blond enough so you can tell the photo’s age, he shines on the wallpaper screen.
- “Biarritz 66”
Bitter sweet memories. Mike seems to like remembering this period of time that lead him to his destiny… the very one that lead him to being a real estate guy in Cannes, leaving his dreams of empty waves behind.
I was just another Californian surfer who had the chance to come to France in the sixties to enjoy the crowdless waves and who ended up playing pioneers just before feeling the weight of responsibilities. In reality, I never grew up. I have a deep case of the Peter Pans.
His father was in the American Air Force that had a military base in Evreux, near Paris so his mother would drag him and his sister to museums and try to spark their interest in art and French cuisine…
- “She gave me the “French” virus and as I was already a surfer when we were based in Huntington Beach, it clicked in my head when I saw the article in that old Surfer Magazine about Biarritz. So when my dad was sent to the military base in Germany I was already planning a trip to the Basque Country. I was 16. In all logic, my mother loved the idea and I had no real problem convincing them to take their first holidays in France. It was in August ‘65. I was warmly welcomed by the local surfers at the “Côte des Basques” Beach, specially by Jean-Marie and François Lartigau. Girls were a bit naughty. Every body was listening to the Rolling Stones on “Radio Caroline”… I liked that! We weren’t even on our way back when I was already planning my return for Easter ‘66.”
That exactly what he did. Moreover, once he had his high school diploma he convinced his parents to let him stay and have a sabbatical year before going back to California to start going to college there.
- “During the whole month of July ‘66, and when the waves were smaller in Biarritz, I would explore the northern part of Spain, from San Sebastian to Santander. I met travellers who told me that there were nice waves in Portugal to so with autumn right around the corner and the chillier days of October, I stuffed everything in my Opel Kadett Station Wagon and took the road along the Cantabrique coast and Galice heading to Portugal. The car broke down somewhere down the road and I ended up taking the train.
Mike tells me his life in a French novel way. In Peniche, Portugal, he tells me how he found paradise. Drink, life, and surfing. So when his parents told him that they wouldn’t subsidize his gypsy life anymore and that he needed to go back to the US with them, it was like a brutal wake up call in the middle of a dream. In order to keep on dreaming a little bit, he had to get to work. And that’s what he did, starting with small jobs.
I couldn’t describe all the adventures I went through, all the people I met, the music I was listening to, the first blunt I smoked… But with this life I managed to skip the Vietnam war, and that is priceless.
When I came back to the US, I would see all the guys my age without legs or arms or lifeless because of the bloody war. It taught me that patriotism is a fool’s bargain. I really had a hard time then. So with summer ‘68 around the corner, I left to Mexico, right below the Tropic of Cancer. I surfed in Paradise. After a detour by Oaxaca where Indians still have hallucinogenic mushrooms and where Aldous Huxley started his novel: “The Doors Of Perception”, I found that I couldn’t fit into a superficial society, and certainly not the L.A. one… So I moved to Santa Cruz, where the waves are beautiful and mountains are covered with old sequoia trees. I found myself in a whole hippie thing in San Francisco, in the “love-in” of Haight and Ashbury, flowers in my hair, taking LSD, peace and love and being excessive, very excessive.”
Although living in a parallel world, a bit chemically enhanced, Mike was still dreaming of Biarritz. With a passion for cinema and inspired by French “Nouvelle Vague”, he decided to pack up his belongings, again.
“With a few friends we decided to come back to Europe, to buy 16mm Éclair equipment in Paris and do documentary films. I rented a little farm-like house in the back Basque Country, near Itxassou. I surfed and travelled everywhere in Europe, and mainly Spain and Morocco. But Biarritz was like a second home for me. Like a place where I was born the second time. Biarritz was at the crossroads of the world then, filled with adventurers of all kinds, college people of all kinds seeking traces of Hemingway, Beatniks looking for a novel idea, draftees on the run, dealers of Moroccan hash and, of course, surfers from everywhere in the world. I think that, according to my folks, it was the biggest mistake they have ever made… Letting me go on my own.”
Mike exhales while looking over my shoulder, and shows me the first colors of the fireworks in the dark sky.
- Happy New Year!
People around, with a little too much champagne in their veins, kiss along while hoping for the best. People I don’t know run toward us for a kiss. Too wet in my taste.
In Mike’s eyes, there’s a certain sadness, a doom. Something of the certainty that years have gone by and the best is behind him, while we are slowly stepping into another year farther away from his 18th birthday.
I can’t say that my life has been a brilliant success, but I wouldn’t have died without seeing everything I saw.
He speaks over the carnage of klaxons and teenagers screaming down below in the street. I was a hair’s breadth away, if I hadn’t been in such a mature group of people, I would have shouted to them to seize the day, to be as happy-go-lucky as they can, to make it all explode… while they can.