Monday, July 27, 2015

One more round of goodbyes - Saturday 18th July -

“This time we really mean it… OK then, we’ll stay one more day perhaps!”.. and so it goes.   Günter and Lexa and Jürgen and Ele were definitely going to leave today, the former first thing, the latter after their guests arrived, but still afraid to break the magic of the last ten days or so we stuck together for just one more day, after which they promised, they really would leave.

We on the other hand, would not.

We have an appointment with Mr Perkin’s doctor on Monday, and as is usually the case there is no shortage of ways to occupy one’s time in Toul, so we shall carry on with a stiff upper lip, learn to travel alone once more, and practice speaking English without involuntarily reverting to Germanic grammar.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Mixed Emotions - Friday 17th July -
Pagny-sur-Meuse to Toul

We were all six of us experiencing some sort of emotion that verged on sadness but wasn’t quite, at the prospect of spending our last day travelling together, so we decided to prolong it as best we could by not departing before the locks were open for business.   In fact, despite a little discomfort being felt by some of our companions, we waited until all of the other boats had left the mooring.    

Then we had a cup of coffee, savouring each others’ company, before setting off together one last time down the  gloriously wild blue waterway yonder.  In retrospect there had been no need to make excuses, as when the time finally came to get underway, “Ele” refused to do so.

Mr Perkins, bless him, despite his filthy habits has continued to amaze all with his smoothness and dare we say it, smoke-free running.   Never the less he has provided us with the experience to find many faults, so armed with a few years’ experience in keeping his good self ticking over, and a few by now well-worn but beginning-to-go-rusty tools, it didn’t take too long to have us all underway again. 

It was interesting to witness in others the uncertainty which we have felt only too well during those few moments it took to find the problem.  As we have noted many times in the past though, being broken down for a time in the wilds of France would not be the worst thing that could happen in one’s life.

Trial Separation - Thursday 16th July -
Sauvoy to Pagny-sur-Meuse (and lunch in Void)

Some would say that we have been moving uncharacteristically quickly of late, “like a bunch of Germans on holiday” they may add, an expression that only those who have experienced being overtaken on a canal by someone trying to fit four months worth of travel into a few weeks annual leave would understand.   To the extent that we haven’t actually stayed put for a time of late that criticism would be fair, but there are some mitigating circumstances.

The heat for instance is still as unrelenting as our companions, but let it also be said that we have left our own little mark on them as well, by slowing our daily progress, scuttling from one shady spot to the next.  Today for instance our log shows that we were moving for two hours, covering almost nine kilometres in the process, although it doesn’t actually set out the reason that we were stationary for six hours in the middle of the day, which if one thinks about it is exactly the length of time it takes to enjoy a splendid lunch.  

While the rest of our contingent raced ahead to reserve a shady spot for us, we languished in Void with Paul and Carla, who had driven from Holland and rented a room nearby in order to ensure they didn’t miss us as we passed. Under the shade of the great awning of Restaurant Cugnot we celebrated and reminisced the afternoon away.   They rejoined us later in the evening too, and we sat at first in the shade of a tree and then of the earth itself, quietly talking the night away as well and we could have talked more we are sure but that will have to wait until the next time our paths cross.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

We get so confused! - Wednesday 15th July -
Naix-aux-Forges to Sauvoy

It may be something in the water that is the cause, and even though we don’t drink it, it seems that the particular stretch of canal we travelled today seems to bring out some sort of mental conniption in those with whom we are travelling.  The water is so clear, so tantalising that it often feels completely invisible, no doubt it casts some sort of spell on one as one travels above it.  It seems like only yesterday that as we passed these very trees debate was waged with our dear Canadian friends about the horticultural origins of the crop pictured. It’s obvious now that it’s colza or rapeseed, dry and ready for harvest but in full flower it’s understandable that it could be mistaken for something else one imagines.

But this is about today, not then, and today it was Ele’s turn.  As she opened her mouth to speak to some tourists from her homeland who were watching the proceedings at a lock, the words came out in French.  Embarrassed, she apologised in English, exclaiming that she’d forgotten how to speak her own language!

We of course have been marvelling at her ability to maintain sufficient concentration over the past week, to seemingly switch between languages so effortlessly.  Today though the effort took it’s toll.

A few minutes after her confusion, she turned to converse with the after-crew on the good ship “Joyeux” as has been their custom for the past sixty locks or so, and found herself speaking albeit accidentally, once again in German,   “It’s come back!” she exclaimed, at once surprised and relieved.

Friday, July 24, 2015

In the company of bad people - Tuesday 14th July -
Ligny-en-Barrois to Naix-aux-Forges

We have been travelling with Jürgen and Ele for long enough now to understand their innermost workings.   

The fact that they are not French does make this a little easier it must be said. For instance when Jürgen wandered off from the lock mid-cycle, through the bushes and into the paddock opposite leaving the aft end of his boat unattended, we could be fairly certain it wasn’t to answer a call of nature.  Instead, having no doubt calculated the precise factor of the  failure rate anticipated in the sunflower crop opposite, he would have known that the farmer would willingly spare two specimens. Who knows, perhaps he'd phoned through first to ask permission.  In any case he wandered down the front row of the things until he found two of the flawless variety and promptly removed them, presumably for research purposes, no doubt to be inspected in the same laboratory that researches Minky whale flesh.

The number of samples obtained was apparently carefully calculated.  One was presented to Ele who instantly forgot her concern of only seconds earlier when she noticed his absence on the after lines and called rather loudly with just the merest hint of panic: “Jürgen, DO YOUR JOB” a reference no doubt to her observation that the rear of their boat was at this point banging helplessly agains the side of the lock.   

The other in a swoop of gallantry, surely not bribery, found its way into the hands of our own good Captain, who immediately swooned, placed it in a vase, and confided that it probably wasn’t really stealing if we just took one. 

Unimpressed, and not at all wishing that it was me who had thought of it first, I could only imagine how much more beautiful this photograph would have been had it not been sullied by the absence of those flowers.

When good gnomes go bad - Monday 13th July -
Bar-le-Duc to Ligny-en-Barrois

Last year when we came this way, we came across some garden decoration, and took note of a couple of pointers indicating a possible direction for our own place on our return from our travels.  

Purely in the interests of research you understand, I took photographs from as many angles as a camera hand held on a gently bucking boat ascending a lock would allow,  in order to record a certain brazen little gnomette hussy, baring her all for our passing pleasure.    Well it’s 2015 now, and it appears that scantily clad gnomes are very much last years’ thing.  While my post at the time was headed “Ignomeny”, a clever little pun I thought at the time, I could not have foreseen exactly how ignominious her demise would be, nor how shabbily her grubby little mate would turn out to be.

We shouldn’t really pass judgement on their lack of underwear though.  Had we not managed to squeak in a load of washing before departure time this morning we could very well have been clad similarly.  

Instead, here we are in Ligny appropriately layered, neither of us upended in the bin, a further twelve kilometres upstream and hastily erasing last years landscape concepts. 

A Sunday snooze gone badly wrong - Sunday 12th July -
Revigny to Bar-le-Duc

We keep telling each other that we aren’t in a hurry now that our little road trip has been shelved for the time being, but we’ve sort of fallen in with this little band of boats, and if they want to keep moving on, well who are we to deny them the pleasure of our company?

With that in mind we arrived in Bar-le-Duc sometime between the morning and afternoon, where we thought a little lying around would be in order, perhaps to the accompaniment of the humming and whirring of the washing machine.  The management of the little port had other ideas though, blocking access to the water and power supply until too late to wash o’clock.  

The management of Team Teutonic had other ideas too, so we soon found ourselves wandering over hill and dale, acting as tour guide through the completely deserted byways and alleyways of Bar-le-Duc that by now we know so well.  We did note with just a tinge of envy as we wandered, that on this Sunday afternoon everyone in town had managed to have the snooze that we had not.   For a moment gave thought to staying on for a day or two, but we prevailed to pressure from our accompaniment, and tomorrow will once again take our place at the head of our little procession.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

How many tea candles make a bonfire? - Saturday 11th July -
Pagny-sur-Sauix to Revigny

Cautiously we moved onwards today, our little fleet broken into two lock-sized parts.  Once again we timed our day so that we would finish somewhere behind the now several commercial vessels ahead.

Again without coincidence we found ourselves sitting for much of the afternoon in the shade of a tree at journey’s end, in the evening warming ourselves by the heat of a tea-candle bonfire, all the while marvelling at the good fortune which had brought us all together.  

Not for the first time, with the world’s problems solved, we found ourselves expressing our gratitude for the cards that life had dealt us, although I suspect we were not the only ones wishing, long after midnight, that someone else would go to bed!

It's a dog’s life - Friday 10th July -
Bignicourt to Pagny-sur-Sauix

We knew it was coming, but we still watched in mock horror as the Peniche crawled past our little fleet less than thirty minutes before we had access to the waterway.   

A quick international conference was called, and it was unanimously decided that we had nothing to gain by attempting to follow the thing all day when there was a perfectly good tree to sit under right where we were.  Then, someone did the maths and discovered that if we left after three hours we would catch up with it in Pagny, five kilometres away, where there are some more trees and more picnic tables and a splendid workers cafe.

There was no need to take a vote.  Four boats laden with Australians, Germans, Dutchmen (and women) and a dog which spoke at least three languages converged almost as one on Pagny, and settled  (after lunch) in the shade of the cherry trees where, interspersed with the odd nap, the problems of the world were solved.   

Slow boat to China. - Thursday 9th July -
Chalons-en-Champagne to Bignicourt

“Very cool”, we thought as we quietly snuck out of the port at Chalons while everyone else was in bed, “We’ll have the locks to ourselves all day”.  Which is exactly what Jürgen and Ele thought when they left an hour later, as did Günter and Alexa ninety minutes after them.   What none of us had considered was that the Captain of the good ship “Baychimo”, carrying three hundred tonnes of stuff to Germany, which is in exactly the direction we were heading, had thought exactly the same thing. With the benefit of the extra hour or so on the water afforded to commercial vessels, his head start was just enough that we didn’t catch him until the second lock of the day.

This was one of, if not the very first commercial ship to pass since the re-opening of the canal at Arzviller after almost two years of repair, and in the silted and now overgrown canal, his pace was such that another two locks had taken care of our hour’s head start on the others and by mid-way through what was feeling like a very long afternoon, we found ourselves at the head of a very small fleet, watching helplessly or perhaps hopefully, “shepherding” the behemoth as it ground its way at a sometimes imperceptible pace, with never an opportunity to pass.

Eventually, with the co-operation of the skipper and the canal authority, the barge found itself in a place which allowed us to pass and therefore with just a bit of luck get to our night mooring before the lock closure time.   That naturally was a signal for the final lock of the day to break down mere minutes before closing time, so that we would be awaiting rescue for as long as it took to get someone back into the office well past aperitif o’clock, a very long time indeed. 

“Tomorrow”, we all agreed, we would sit under the trees and wait all morning to give him a head start, and perhaps we would wait all afternoon as well.

Does my bum look grey in this? - Wednesday 8th July -

Anyone whose been paying attention over the years will know that whenever we stay in Chalons every business in town happens to be on holidays, so it came as something of a shock to discover that not only did we arrive on Market day, but that the town was bustling in a way that we would not previously have considered possible.

Perhaps we have been out of step with the world this year, because it seems that we have managed to arrive on market day more often than not, thereby availing ourselves of what one of us describes as “fresh” produce, while the other risks life and limb by suggesting that since it all comes from the same bulk markets that the supermarkets buy from, the only thing that is missing are the bar codes.  It’s a much nicer experience than shopping in clean, air conditioned supermarkets apparently, and we don’t pay much of a premium for rubbing elbows with pickpockets and avoiding dog excrement in the streets, or for the necessity of taking one’s own egg cartons along.  

Whether it’s because the chef is happy one cannot say, but there does seem to be an inspired edge to what is produced from the galley after one of these sorties.  Therefore visits to markets will continue at every opportunity.

We have thus far managed to avoid buying clothing though, unsure as we are about the colours, which may look fine on a mannequin, matching our skin tones. 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Gold in them thar hills! - Tuesday 7th July -
Epernay to Chalons-en-Champagne

It’s the Burgundy hills that are called the “Hills of Gold”, and they too have just been listed on the World Heritage register, but those little vines blanketing the slopes of Champagne are no less valuable.  

During our whistle-stop in Epernay, we learned from one small producer that times were not easy in the industry.  He was the umpteenth generation in the business, and his children would have to pay sixty-five percent of the value of his holding in death taxes when he passed away, although while he didn’t mention the actual income from the place he did offer his concerns about how difficult it might be for them to find the money, when each hectare of grapes are worth more than two million Euros.

He mustn’t have held any long-term concerns though, as went on proudly to talk about international distribution, and the languages his grand children are learning so that they will be equipped to deal in the future with the world’s leading currencies from China and Russia.

We thought about hanging around for a bit, taking a tour perhaps to learn more of the industry so that we could sprout our knowledge at dinner parties, but the wanderlust that has gripped us for the past week or two overcame that thought, assisted admittedly by the cost which seemed to have been calculated on the same basis as death taxes, and we bade a silent farewell at last to the hilss of Champagne and the  River Marne, promising ourselves that we'll return.  

Alright, just a small case then! - Monday 6th July -
Damery to Epernay

It’s still warm, but we aren’t complaining about it quite as much now, getting on with playing the cards we’ve been dealt with a stiff upper lip and all that.   Of course when the cards one has been dealt say “Villages of the Champagne Region”, the game is not a difficult one to play.

Besides, the sultry conditions bring promise of a change, and it is often written that that is as good as a holiday.  

Speaking of holidays, the good Captain decided that we should find “something for the girls to drink” to take with us on our little road trip in a week or two, and there are “houses” in Damery that sell only the local product.  There are “houses” in Epernay too of course, world famous top-shelf ones too, but in just case they were running low on stock with their new-today world heritage listing, it was decided that one of us needed to sample, then purchase some local stock.   It was also decided that it would be far easier on the other of us to carry it back to the boat if we asked for a nice box, and since it might be awkward if loose bottles were rolling around in a cardboard box, perhaps it would be just as well to fill it.

Cleverly, we cast off within a few minutes of our return to the boat, before one of us could make the space to store another case.

Food for thought. - Sunday 5th July -
Dormans to Damery

There’s a working eleventh century mill in Dormans that has been our our must see list for a while.   To date, for reason or another it's not been working when we have cruised by, but this time we thought we’d sneak up on it when it was least expecting us.    On a Sunday, every museum in France is open, so what were the chances that when we arrived we’d be greeted with a sign which said “Open every day in summer, but closed until this afternoon while the town does other things this morning”.

So we gave the tour of the mill a bit of a swerve and headed for the Chateau and the memorial/tomb/chapel in its grounds, where we discovered the town had had the good grace to hold a small parade in our honour as something of a consolation.

We discovered with only mild disappointment that it wasn’t actually in our honour, but in that of all who had fallen in the destruction of the town on a night almost a hundred years ago.   The memorial houses the remains of 1500 people of both sides in the conflict, much of the town was reduced to rubble, and we were reduced once again to give thanks for the luck we had been given to have been born to parents living in a country which hasn’t experienced this sort of destruction.   

On the other hand, these constant reminders of the temporary nature, the insignificance if you will, of life and possessions, have produced a nation for which living in the present is quite important and worthy of celebration.   This can be expressed in no better way than in the consumption of fine pastry products, so we fell out of step with the band, and found something creamy with strawberries as an accompaniment during our move just a little bit further upstream in the afternoon, while we reflected on all that is, all that was and all that could have been.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Upwards then onwards - Saturday 4th July -
Chateau-Thierry to Dormans

We’d been promised a farmer’s market this morning, and while we weren’t particularly in need of provisioning it gave us a bit of impetus to at least get out and about and explore every little nook and most of the crannies of the town before the world’s thermostat reached it’s “unpleasant” setting again.  

It possibly goes without saying that when we got there the market was yesterday, our informant was mistaken on that score, so it’s just as well we didn’t have a cow to sell.  We did have the benefit of not having to walk back to the boat laden with potatoes that we probably didn’t need till next week anyway

The absence of a market also gave us plenty of time to scale the lofty heights of the ruins of the ancient chateau where we could get a glimpse of the day ahead.  From the very top we could see over the hills and far away of course, but even far away it was clear to us that the heat was building again, so once again we made the decision to move on.

We have a very big card on the Marne now, with lots of places marked “must stay longer next time”, but really the only way to deal with that haze is to continue slicing through it.