It’s just one of those immutable facts I’m afraid. When we travel, people tend to think that because we live in Australia surrounded by all its inherent life threatening dangers, we must be somehow tougher or braver or perhaps faster than they could ever possibly be just to have survived to a reasonable age of retirement.
But we have a natural instinct for avoiding nasty things. Today for instance was Fathers’ Day, the first I have spent on the same continent as our kids in perhaps a decade, so the three of them decided a monster family gathering was in order. No doubt concerned that travel fatigue may have slowed us up a little, they decided to mitigate some of the risk by getting us together at a safe distance from the water where as best we could we would avoid the threat of shark attack, blue ringed octopus bites, cone shell stings and death by box jellyfish.
Instead we barbecued in the bush at the Koala reserve in Daisy Hill, eating bacon fried to a crisp, with egg that tasted vaguely of someone else’s lamb chop cooked yesterday on the same bush barbecue, while bathed in a veil of eucalyptus smoke, all the while keeping a careful eye on the littlies noisily stalking wallabies, with only stinging trees, poisonous ticks, vicious snakes, poisonous spiders and possibly the odd drop bear to worry about. Ahh, we are home at last.
Jet lag I think, is a little like being almost five. We run around and squeal a bit and hug anyone who stands still long enough, but at the same time we don’t really understand what’s going on. They could give us a train that should have spelled our name and instead they could use the letters to say something vaguely rude and we’d be happily oblivious too.
And we, like them, manage to remain happy through it all until that point where fatigue finally takes over, although unlike them hopefully age and experience means that we sink into silence rather than compound the issue:
Lily: Mr Nine won’t let me throw the ball to him.
Lily’s Mum: Well Papa will throw the ball with you.
Lily: But Papa’s a grown-up.
Papa (in his most consoling tone): I am quite immature though Lily.
Lily loudly now (and sobbing with her heart truly broken): I don’t even know what immature means!
I am not sure what anything means at the moment, but this world is spinning faster than the way we remember it. In a few days the spinning may stop and we will try to work out how we got here.
There’s a pattern to any long haul flight, which goes something like; watch movie, eat dinner, watch movie, wriggle and fidget for a few hours wishing sleep would just happen while the cabin staff disappear somewhere for the rest of the night, give up and watch another movie, eat breakfast, fall fast asleep with fifteen minutes to landing time.
Last night, we were only a little while into the wriggle and fidget bit when we began to get the impression that just possibly someone was smoking. After a few more wriggles and fidgets the bloke in front of us stood up, as did his wife across the aisle, his father beside us and his mother from somewhere else. It seems his in-flight entertainment system had of its own volition, put on a display of pyrotechnics and was attempting to fill our little bit of the cabin with some nasty rich substance which bore little resemblance to the air we usually quite like breathing.
It is fair to say that the cabin staff, by now to a person bright eyed and bushy tailed, did not exhibit any natural aptitude for tracking down smouldering wiring mid flight. Shutting down the bank of entertainment units for the duration seemed to be a wise and logical thing to do. Every so often for the rest of the flight some hitherto unseen crew member would wander in to our space, nostrils aquiver in the manner of a sniffer dog, and declare that perhaps the smell was getting better. In our sleep curtailed state it was all we could do not to throw them a toy to tug on as a reward.
We have but six more hours to wait in Hong Kong, feeling as washed out as the tarmac, with the smell of half-finished movie lingering in the sinuses.
It’s that time of our journey once again where we wake up earlier than we need to, then watch as the clock ticks ever so slowly towards departure time. We find ourselves sitting anywhere we can, mostly for hours on end. It’s late morning in France right now, and we’ve already queued for the shuttle and for check-in and for customs and for the security checks. Shortly we’ll be queuing for a snack because our flight doesn’t leave till after one, and it would be a shame to be hungry before we consume the first of two thousand meals and snacks we will be offered over the next thirty-six hours or so.
Mostly though, in between all that queuing, until we are ushered to that reclining padded seat and handed our headsets, we’ll perch anywhere we can find.
That pretty much sums up the glamour that is international travel!
We’d planned it. We’d made a dozen phone calls wherein we explained to all who would listen that we were going in to the city for the day today. We’d even gone as far as marking out a nice little walking tour and were just about to put the map in our carry bag when we turned to each other and asked “Why?”. It’s not as if we haven’t been there before, and we’d only walk until our feet and knees hurt and then we’d have to walk some more to get back to the bus and we’d feel like sleeping all the way back to Roissy.
We could instead we thought, amble through the park at Roissy-en-France and linger over a very long lunch which would cost less than the price of the bus fare to town, wander back to our room and sleep as we would were we on the bus, but without the nodding, and perhaps fill in anything left of the day by tidying up loose ends.
Which is how this journal so suddenly came to be up to date, and we are already ready for the shuttle in the morning. Roll on tomorrow.
Politely, we refrained from mentioning the notable absence of wentelteefjes (pronounced “wait till dave hears”) from the breakfast menu this morning, having not so politely cast some doubt on its ethnic origins yesterday, but none the less, for the third time in three days breakfast took longer than it should. This was in part because of having to deal with the feast that Davo and Bluey had prepared and in part an intentional delaying tactic by the four of us trying to prolong our hour of separation.
Tempting though it was to stay just a little longer, fear of putting unnecessary time pressure on the return of the car had us away in good time, and we were again sitting with cruise control on “max” down the motorway, watching the best of rural France roll by for the hours that were left in our journey.
Dropping a rental car at an airport does bring one back to earth with a certain jolt though. Even on a Sunday without the crowds there’s a certain grubbiness about parking stations and transit terminals that seeps in to one’s pores. Thankfully there's nothing like the smell of cheap disinfectant in the hallways of an airport hotel to make one feel fresh and clean again.
Dave and Ria, no doubt concerned that the three days we have just spent away from the water (if one doesn’t count the rain) may be starting to take an emotional toll, suggested that we might visit Max on his mooring at Beernem today. The prospect of yet another picnic hamper filled with superb goodies from the shops downstairs would in itself have been enough to ensure success for the day, but the thought of consuming those during a gentle tootle on the near-deserted canals of Belgium under a gloriously perfect sky sealed our fate.
Perhaps it goes without saying that we didn’t want the day to end. We did our best to delay things, stopping in Veurne for a gentle wander as the sun began to set while the church clock inexplicably struck something like four hundred o’clock but eventually once again we returned to those cosy familiar surrounds of our hosts.
It’s all a bit surreal to think that two days from now, we will be imprisoned for a time in a silver tube, our fling in the northern hemisphere over for another year. We simply can’t imagine not being here, but it will be real soon enough.
If Dave and Ria hadn’t accidentally crossed paths with Graham and Iris all those years ago, we would probably never have heard of Sint Idesbald.
We wouldn’t have known about its miles of beaches and huts and it’s laid back holiday atmosphere to say nothing of what are reputed to be among the finest butcher, fishmonger, and baker in all of Belgium, and it probably wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say, possibly the world. Yet here we were, following Ria this morning through those very same best-food-in-the-world shops where we loaded ourselves with surely enough bags of glorious things to feed an entire airforce. If that sounds like an exaggeration, there was certainly at least enough food to feed that part of the Belgian airforce which came home to lunch with us, and enough left over for dinner and possibly lunch tomorrow as well.
All we wanted to do after that was sit in the sun or perhaps lie about in the shade, but we didn’t give in. We needed no reminder that sunshine is not in quite the same abundance in these parts as fine foodstuff is so took advantage of the weather while we could. We walked the three of us, not up hill nor down dale because Belgium doesn’t have those, but along the dunes and through the leafy streets until we were certain that Dave would be home after a hard day at work, preparing dinner.
The day started so well too. Sure the spectre of departure loomed over us, but that was later and we still had much to discuss or perhaps not much at all but we did anyway as we lingered over breakfast in that way that people do when there is reluctant parting to be had.
Eventually we could linger no more and naturally that was exactly when the rain began, settling in to a steady drizzle before we hit the motorway. So we crossed Belgium in a sheet of spray, visibility marginal at motorway speed and hopeful that the traffic would not approach from behind too quickly. We had a choice of facing the congestion around Antwerp or Brussels. Either one would certainly provide a respite from the high speed madness, and we chose the latter or our highly intelligent GPS which knows about these things did. As the trucks snarled around us for an hour while we covered the sixteen kilometres on the express ring road, we could only be thankful that we had for once managed to avoid the really bad hold ups.
It hadn’t been an easy drive, and when at last we arrived to clearing weather, we watched the sunset from Dave and Ria’s back deck, feeling as though today we’d earned it.
All things considered we were quite bright eyed and bushy tailed by the time we arrived in Ratingen, just in time for our second breakfast. We suspect that Günter and Alexa’s tummies may have been rumbling a bit while they waited for us to battle with the morning traffic on the autobahn, but all’s well that ends in a meal.
It wasn’t long before they had us out and about again, leading us on the best kind of guided tour there is; the kind where a pair of people who grew up in a place simply wander through their favourite streets and hangouts and allow us the privilege of tagging along. Thus it was that in what seemed like no time at all we had picked the eyes out of the place in a tourism sense, and according to our trusty pedometers had covered fourteen kilometres in the process, stopping only to eat and drink several times along the way.
Eventually we called of a sight-seeing truce, collectively deciding that enough was enough for one day and that perhaps it was time to light the barbecue and settle down to some serious conversation about the mysteries of life and Wuppertal, and wooly mammoths and Roman soldiers and how chance meetings of strangers can from the foundations of lifetime friendships.
Thirty-three years ago this month, armed only with a pair of very small children we travelled on a Rhine River day cruise from Koblenz heading upstream intending to reach Mainz, but were so entranced with the villages and castles along the way. On a whim and with the absence of planning which has held us in good stead ever since, we disembarked in the village of Rüdesheim, completely inspired by the journey and promising to do it again “one day”.
Today was to be that day, but by the time we had slept sufficiently and eaten sufficiently the cruise departure time had come and gone. After a hasty conference at the booking office, we discovered that the return journey was entirely possible if we were willing to suffer an hour or so of train travel with nothing but the river the forest and the castles to see on the way. We grasped the opportunity, were thanked for our flexibility, given last minute (and seniors’) discounts totalling thirty percent of the fare (to help with the cost of the train) and wished well as we set off for the station.
Of course the journey was all that it had been in our memories and perhaps more. Back in Koblenz we may well have retired gracefully to our room to quietly digest all that we had experienced were it not for Joel and Cindy waiting in their motorhome, ready to accompany us on yet another big night out. One day we will work out how it happens that random friends from far away places simply turn up in our path from time to time. Perhaps then such meetings then will be with less incredulity.
When finally we found our hotel we were like kids full of red cordial, minds abuzz with vineyards and castles and fairytale towns and ice cream sundae and laughter with late night schnitzel, not at all ready to tackle the road again on the morrow.
Travelling at around one hundred and thirty kilometres per hour, closing on slow moving vehicles at a terrifying rate while being closed from behind at even more terrifying rates requires a steely nerve and not to put too fine a point on it, a certain level alertness if one is to come out of it at the end of the day with one’s hire-car deposit in one’s own pocket.
If there were a set of instructions setting out the ideal preparation for such a road trip, it probably wouldn’t include getting nowhere near enough sleep the night before, then working all morning in increasing chill and showery gloom. It certainly wouldn’t include sitting over the last long lunch of summer, no matter how snug and warm the restaurant may appear to be. But as we lingered over dessert looking out as the storm lashed the now well-protected boat we couldn't help but think that what we were doing was infinitely more pleasant than pounding through the gloom on the road or on the water either for that matter.
Somehow, despite the odds of us moving from our positions being clearly against us, eventually we came to be walking this evening in Koblenz, in an entirely different country, in that familiar post travel and post pack-up fog, a little weary and definitely ready to flop on the nearest bed. Never the less, unwilling to waste a minute of daylight, we trudged on thankful that none of the zimmer frames that lined the footpath beside the cruise ships were ours, planning to embark on a proper exploration tomorrow.
Ahh, well, anyway we aren’t that good at covering the boat unless it’s raining. Not that we’ve ever tried, although we nearly did today, but the forecast changed overnight and now there may not be respite for a few days.
So when it came time to try out a few ideas for the back cover, by the time we got to the picnic table that serves so faithfully as our workbench, and fired up the trusty Singer it was in a misty sort of drizzle. I know, I know… we’ve had all year to do this, but it doesn’t matter as long as it’s finished by tomorrow morning, we will be underway.
Actually, there are a few other things that have to be finished by tomorrow morning as well. Possibly there are a lot of things to be finished.
We haven’t used the diesel heater for a while, so rather than doing anything constructive like for instance, fitting the boat covers in perfect weather for it, one of us decided that it might be worth blowing out its cobwebs so to speak. That might have been forgivable had the cobwebs been actual cobwebs and not a few years’ worth of soot and smoke. Even that might have been forgiven had the clothes line not been laden with the remnants of the last load of washing for the year.
In an instant the last load of washing became the second last and really we should have been fitting the covers while the weather was fine but after all it hasn’t rained all year, so tomorrow would do.
Besides, Jørn and Birgit need groceries and we could do with some hardware stuff and we have a car.
Every year at packing up time, a photograph appears of the incredible progress we are making in the packing up stakes.
Every year I am assured that it has to get worse before it gets better, and that it will come together on the day. To date it has, thus it was with things so incredibly in hand, when Jørn and Birgit arrived in port, there was absolutely no point in not taking the afternoon off, nor the evening, nor the night, and spending the time instead catching up on another year’s worth of news. Perhaps tomorrow will take care of itself, since today clearly didn’t.
While one of us was getting into her tasks with something approaching alacrity, the other was becoming ever so increasingly concerned that no play could make him a very dull boy. Having had occasion through no fault of my own to return to the hire car company on three occasions during the course of the day, the side of the work list market “his” was not featuring terribly many items crossed out I’m afraid, and the adjudicator wouldn’t accept my way of amelioration by making three crosses through the one marked “pick up hire car” either.
Things were indeed a little skewed in the who’s done what department, so rather than try to catch up, an impossible task anyway starting as I was from so far behind, a suggestion was gently dropped that we should make use of the car, by tracking down a few of our departed (not in the “from this life” sense I hasten to add), friends for one last catch-up in the evening.
All we need say is that George and Karen need to find better places to hide if they don’t want to be making dinner for a couple of extras, and similarly a little further upstream Jürgen and Ele’s plans for an early night vanished along with our own. Hopefully the work tomorrow really will take care of itself.
The age old question of how many men it takes to take a stack of firewood in long lengths into a mound of firewood in short lengths has been answered, and given the minute amount of time it took to accomplish the task, we were wondering whether six of us, and perhaps a combustion engine powered bandsaw would reduce our task to just one morning.
Then Jürgen and Ele arrived, followed shortly thereafter by George and Karen which gave us the magic total, and somehow instead of speeding up, things simply ground to a halt.
We did make some progress, but it’s chopping firewood in reverse. We have everything in little pieces and when it’s back together in one neat pile of big bits we can go.
When the young men on the hire boat boat arrived at the lock too late last night, they settled gently for the night a few hundred metres away, and set about making dinner over a few quiet drinks, and eating it over a few drinks, cleaning up over a few drinks, and that is when the party started. They weren’t causing intrusion or disruption, but in the still of night it was clear they were still enjoying themselves in the wee small hours of the morning.
When the cows wandered over towards their boat just after six they probably wouldn’t have known, nor for that matter would we, were it not for their dog becoming just as excited and expressive as they had been themselves too few hours earlier.
While this may have caused a little angst for its master and his mates, for us it was a convenient alarm, enabling us to get underway at precisely the time the locks opened. A mere couple of hours later despite our usual efforts to prolong this last little journey, with the sky and the weather telling us quite clearly that it may be time to do something else, our five hundredth and sixty-fourth and final lock of the season loomed out of the chill.
Precisely one cup of coffee later, the scrubbing began.
We left our little hidden mooring outside of Hesse as soon as we woke this morning, which for those who are paying attention was a good hour after we left Saverne the other day, but still early enough for the mist to be rising off the water, and the steam for the kettle to fog all the windows as we went along. It wasn’t as though we really needed to leave early, but that restlessness that draws us ever onwards when we are homeward bound would not settle until we did.
It is a nice time of day to be underway, but isn’t it amazing how things go perfectly when one has all the time in the world. Even the Rechicourt lock opened its gates to receive us as soon as we came into view. We were making such great time that it did take an effort not to cover those last eight kilometres or so to our journey’s end, but it was the prospect of spending one last night “in the wild” with nothing but a hundred cows and a thousand flies for company that in the end proved irresistable.
We were going to leave when the sun came up, but it didn’t so we didn’t.
Instead we began to contemplate the myriad things that need to be done before we leave the boat in just a week from now. Having contemplated with intent for a few minutes we realised that life would be much more pleasant if we didn’t do that either. Therefore we visited the bakery, made some coffee, then fortified variously by tarts citron and mirabelle, we set about lazing around for the rest of the day.
As luck would have it, there was a band due to appear in the evening in the little parking lot that doubles as the town square. “Ton Ton Gris-Gris” the posters said were big in the Cajun-Zydeco scene which to be entirely objective is probably not all that huge in Lutzelbourg, but since the concert came without cost, we thought that attending it may very well round off our day nicely.
Sadly, when the time came to begin, the crowd (two if you include us) outnumbered the band (none). We did find them in the pub next door having elected to drown their sorrows rather than sing about them, but rather than drown ourselves waiting for the rest of the crowd to arrive, we wandered off in search of a warm, dry doona, and our day ended pretty much in the same fashion that it had begun.
Two days ago it was far too hot to lie in bed, yet this morning it was cool enough not to want to get out.
We did eventually though and wandered briefly uptown in our jeans and jumpers with chilly toes in socks too thin, and umbrellas that were quite useless in the mizzle. “Uptown” in Lutzelbourg is code of course for “the Bakery” where we managed to procure exactly the right sort of stuff to get us through a chilly, damp morning and even a tunnel or two if it came to that. Then we sat, coffee finished, apple crumble gone, staring up the canal trying to ignore the giant magnet drawing us home, trying too late to prolong our stay.
We really don’t have to go far at all, we really don’t. Perhaps if we only go a little way, only as far as the tunnels….
Stupidly, in a momentary lapse of not thinking through the consequences, perhaps in haste in the face of the storm that wreaked havoc with last night’s concert, we announced that we were going to leave as soon as the locks opened this morning. “That’s right”, we said in reply to the horrified expressions that greeted us, “We will be off at seven.”
How were we to know that they’d all set their alarms to make sure we left? Yet there they were, George and Karen and Jacques and Cathy, shaking our hands and hugging and kissing us goodbye, apparently oblivious to the fact that our eyes weren’t entirely open at that unseemly hour. We took the hint and drifted away from our spot between the chateau and where the band once was, took one last look at the what was left of last night’s concert, the pile of broken deckchairs and twisted awnings, and headed towards home.
Unbelievably, we are on our way back. In a few days the cleaning and packing will begin. In a week we will be off the boat, heading for a place where the grass may even at the end of winter be ever so slightly greener than it is here, but today we spent the afternoon in Lutzelbourg, happy to catch up on the sleep that we were deprived of this morning.
In the fifteenth or was it the sixteenth century, there were a series of signal towers built every few kilometres apart, which were used to send communications between Alsace and Paris. It was a marvel of technology really, with giant signal flags used to send coded semaphore messages.
Here we are, five hundred years later and astonishingly the very same towers are still in use for that very same purpose albeit that the communication flowing through them is more likely to comprise photos of kittens than news of invaders from the east. I can only imagine the planner’s arguments for erecting mobile phone towers on World Heritage Monuments;- “Existing conforming use” perhaps?
Yes it was still stinking hot, perhaps the last hot day of summer and yes we were probably as mad as the young lady in the air-conditioned supermarket we visited on the way home had said we were, but we convinced George and Karen to walk with us to the peak of the Chateau du Haut-Barr, perhaps our favourite ruin where we made use of the very same communications tower to phone Jacques and Cathy who joined us for a very light lunch and an enormous amount of rehydration while marvelling at the view over all of Alsace.
Occasionally we come across a person on a boat who has no place in our community.
Like the ignoramus who arrived at the lock today after we’d been tied for almost thirty minutes waiting for it to be brought back online. “I’m very fast” he shouted as he drove at cruising speed to the head of the queue timing his run to perfection as the light turned green, oblivious to the protests of all whose turn it was. In the context of one’s life span, one’s summer afloat, one’s week, or even one’s afternoon, there is no cause for angst over the loss of ten minutes of travelling time, and we really should take it with a grain of salt. But this is the maritime equivalent of sneaking into a parking spot that someone else has been waiting for the occupant to vacate.
The penalty for doing so should be imprisonment for life, or perhaps even longer.
Still, as we sat in the afternoon in the shade of the ancient buildings that line Saverne’s cobbled streets, we were congratulating ourselves on the manner in which we had completely forgotten the incident. Then our “Tea of Alsace” arrived, an iced green-tea concoction with wild mandarins and lemon and green mirabelle plums. It was as sweet as our day had been, with an ever so slightly bitter aftertaste.
There we were in one of our favourite towns, on one of our favourite bike paths, having a picnic made from products from one of our favourite bakeries with our new best friends, and to be blunt the only thing that could have improved the day would have been to put just a bit more ‘temperate’ in the temperature.
But we battled on as is our way, to check that the Arzviller ship lift was still in operation, past all the old lock houses and the sign announcing that the council is spending almost two million Euros to keep it all beautiful, as if that would make us more appreciative of its effort than we already are, back to the glass-blowers’ studio which was quite predictably, some may say inevitably, closed.
Sadly the little crepe and coffee stand near the lock was not closed either, luring us as a siren would as we attempted to pass, compelling the less feminine in our midst felt to risk carbo-something overdose by sampling a selection of its sugary goodness, which it must be said did seem to compliment the tarts and croissants consumed earlier. It is no easy thing being responsible for the well being of the economies in so many countries.
There was a bit of trepidation today as we passed the point of no return, riding down the ship lift at Arzviller which has effectively been out of action for two years, apart from that tiny period last year when we managed a weekend at it’s base, two days before it failed again.
Despite the assurances of the staff, we wondered if this was a one way trip, but we took it anyway and once again snugged up in Lutzelbourg, the village that so often we have compared to a model railway layout.
We climbed to the ruins of the chateau, because we don’t feel as though we are in Lutzelbourg until we’ve viewed the boat from there, and visited the bakery, which was closed. Because we don’t feel we’ve been in Lutzelbourg until we’ve had some of the marvellous produce from that particular establishment, we decided we’d stay tomorrow as well.
Once, I knew how to work out how long it would take a homing pigeon flying at a certain speed to travel between two trains travelling at different speeds in opposite directions. I must admit I had doubted the application to life of that particular part of my education until today.
Today was the day that the hire boat, first day out, failed to calculate that travelling at barely half a kilometre per hour faster than we were, he would easily pass us, but would be not quite abreast of George and Karen when the right-angled bend arrived with it’s oncoming traffic and the fisherman with his six lines set just where the factory loading bay stopped. Boats do not have brakes, but it is amazing just how quickly a hire boat can come to a standstill when the only choices its frightened skipper has are to do so or to hit a selection of objects in ascending order of weight and immobility, no doubt ruining the rest of his holiday in the process.
He wasn’t the only one of his ilk either. Summer fever was here in abundance. Boats seemed to leap out from behind bridges, executing u-turns without regard to oncoming traffic, racing to the narrow bits and while that may sound terrifying, at the six kilometres per hour at which we were travelling it was all pretty funny really. Funny in the “ I think I’ll need a stiff drink when this is over” kind of way. Of course it was Sunday so Niderviller was closed when eventually we got there, abandoned even, so we sat at a picnic table playing cards until the wee small…. well actually until the street lights were turned off at ten.
There’s this patch of forest not terribly far from where we spent last night, where we can stay with only the sounds of frogs (and perhaps the odd generator and grinder if we don’t choose our travelling companions carefully) to keep us company through the night. It’s only a few kilometres really or in the interests of precision, fifteen, between last night’s spot and there but, and it’s a large but, between us and there lies the lock at Rechicourt. That would be the big one with the fifteen metre rise which is the largest on the canal system.
It’s not the lock that is the problem, as things go it is quite innocuous, but it is fair to say our boat and it have not enjoyed the smoothest of relationships. At one point we had broken down in its vicinity so often that one of the lock-keepers suggested that we tie a rope to the boat ahead in case we needed to be towed out of the thing.
To believe that the lock is the source of our troubles would be to stretch our non-superstitious brains a little too far, but could it possibly be coincidence that having resolved all our mechanical ills, we timed our arrival to coincide exactly with the confluence of mid-summer rental traffic and the need to provide a restricted service to conserve water. We did arrive in our shady spot, some seven hours after setting out, where we met a cyclist from the Czech Republic who had travelled ten times that distance in the same time, but our faces weren’t flushed, nor were our bodies a lather of sweat in a state of near dehydration.
The pleasure of living in a small enclosed space seems to diminish in inverse proportion to the number on the thermometer, so when the number gets to be quite big the best thing to do is to find a nice shady tree and moor under it.
George and Karen no doubt inspired by our tales of the joys of mooring in the wild, experiencing the freedom of banging in a stake and tying up anywhere that looks nice, with nothing but the whisper of the wind in the grass, the lapping of the water or the occasional jumping fish to disturb the tranquility, decided to accompany us when we left port just after lunch.
The journey was neither long nor arduous. Our log shows that we travelled through one lock and a total distance of eight hundred metres before we found our spot among the wildflowers in a place which would be in heavy shade for the afternoon. A perfect place we thought, to lay out a picnic rug, and read for a bit or perhaps snooze, lulled by the gentle sounds of the breeze rustling through the treetops.
A perfect place, George thought, to fire up the generator and get the angle grinder onto those little patches of rust on the foredeck.
George had always wanted to drive a 2CV, Karen had aspirations of becoming Thelma or Louise. It didn’t matter to her that the car was less than a third of the size of the one that suffered such an ignominious end the hands of that particular pair, nor that there was any cliff over which we could drive (thankfully). All that mattered was that there was no roof.
We on the other hand, just wanted to get out of work.
That is pretty much how we came to be jammed together into the ancient, tiny Citroen that NavigFrance so kindly keep for the convenience of visitors to the port as well as those who harbour delusions of the kind outlined above. It took our intrepid pilot fewer than a dozen starts to master the clutch sufficiently to get us mobile, which was exactly time he discovered one of the great safety features of the car. It had no fuel.
After much wailing and gnashing of gears, in sunshine that would have fried us to a crisp if we had been anywhere else in the world, we were away on an adventure that took us along the open road, through winding hills, across the cobbled streets of Luneville and to a shady little spot where we found just enough green grass for a picnic in the gardens of the Chateau. I’m sure had we the talent we could have written a song about today, or a movie perhaps but one without a tragedy at the end, just four large grins and perhaps a teensy bit of sunburn.
Before lunchtime we were cooking, and I’m not talking about food. It was WE who were being slow roasted, with the temperature looking set to break forty degrees by mid afternoon. Therefore it should be no surprise that when Karen and George moored just below PK209, the restaurant so cleverly located beside the port and run by the nice people at Navigfrance, with it’s beckoning terrace and even more beckoning tinted glass and it’s still more beckoning promise of air conditioning within, the temptation was too great for any of us.
Normally, we do tend to shy away from the heavy end of the lunchtime menu, often settling for “just the salad”, but when it’s a balmy twenty degrees cooler inside than out and the food is as good as the company, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why lunch should not be prolonged for an entire afternoon.
Tomorrow we will without doubt get back to those things that need doing.
When the rain came it wasn’t much, certainly not enough to break the drought, but it did at least provide a small return to the sort of temperature which most would find pleasant. In short sleeves and almost cool enough for jeans, it was the ideal time to expend a bit of energy on awkward things made more awkward by layers of sweat, grime and discomfort. Even the flies went to wherever flies go when they aren’t clouded around the boat.
But why would we waste the first comfortable day in aeons by doing anything at all? We therefore took advantage of the respite by pretending it was Sunday, putting all our jobs on hold, reading, writing and generally conserving our strength.
We even thought about moving on for a fleeting moment, but after another snooze to contemplate how far we might go, that thought disappeared entirely. Besides, George and Karen are due to arrive tomorrow, and they come bearing fly spray.
There are days when, despite the ever present tendency to whinge when the temperature reaches thirty-seven degrees for much of the day or the clouds of flies that descend upon us for reasons best known to them, that the show must go on.
Perhaps inspired by the team at the port buzzing like the flies as they raced to get eighteen boats prepared for charter this morning, we too kept going, varnishing, sorting, washing, sweating and occasionally perhaps sitting and thinking for a bit from time to time and then as the cool of the evening descended, thinking for a bit more.
While staring into the calm of the empty harbour, we found a new imponderable:- How is it, that a small team of cleaners and technicians can service and prepare eighteen boats taking them from a state of shabby just returned from hire, to pristine in just one morning, while we work for days, weeks even on one boat which wasn’t all that shabby to begin with, and yet our work is never done?
There’s a reason that advertisements for sanitary products feature flowers and clear mountain streams. The reality of boating life is that there are never any flowers in a clogged toilet or a shower waste filter, just body fats and goo and a mat of curly hairs. The memories of maintaining those devices never fade either, which is why they are rarely spoken of and even more rarely discussed in print.
But there always comes a time when someone cries “Enough!”, which happened a week or two ago when we discovered a pump designed to pump hair and grunge without the need for a filter and presumably therefore without the need to suffer of cleaning it every few days. Said pump arrived yesterday, and that part of today that wasn’t put aside for varnishing was spent on the five minute job that installing it would entail. In the absence of paid help, and with the dimensions of the installer, even when folded into four and inverted, being exactly twice and sometimes thrice that of the space which is available surrounding the pump and it’s associated fittings, nothing about the task implied good times ahead.
The aches should disappear in a day or two, the bleeding has almost stopped on the top of his head, and with just a little luck the shower outlet, now without filter, will never need maintenance again, or at least not unless there is a “chap” around to see to it.
For some years, I am afraid to admit, and I suppose I should apologise to those who have been confined within it, that the forward cabin and facilities have been in a state of not-quite complete. To be fair to the one who could quite rightly be accused of procrastination, scraping the old stain from the timber trims is a thankless, painful task, requiring a certain degree of patience and a small gulp of masochism. Therefore it is both logical and understandable that many other tasks have found themselves higher up the list of things to do in the intervening period.
Sadly for one of us, a beaut new version of an old-fangled scraper appeared as if by magic in a hardware store the other day, and the task suddenly found itself back at the head of the list. Happily though, said scraper made much quicker work of the job, and by long before dinner time the (by now quite old) brand new can of varnish was cracked open and the first coat was on.
One doesn’t have to be Nostradamus to predict what will be happening around here for a day or two.
It’s not as though the temperature was any different from any other day first thing in the morning, it was a pleasant sub-twenty as we sat with our coffee, but the sun had a pronounced bite, the light from it beaming a bright white that swept away the colour from everything it touched, the sky a cloudless but luminescent silver.
One very quickly gleaned the impression that the weather was once again going to be unerringly and perhaps disappointingly in keeping with the forecast.
Normally the morning mist conjures cooling images, but there was none of that today, the vapour rising from where the shard of sunlight as it glanced the surface of the water made it look for all the world as though the canal was about to come on to the boil. We thought of staying in our little shady spot for the day, but then the thought of that other little shady spot reserved for us under Maggie’s grape vine, the one with cold drinks and ice cubes and dogs that would make a fuss of us when we arrived, took control and once again by days end we were home in Lagarde.
Yesterday’s adventure at the telecommunications shops left us badly in need of a holiday or at least a vanilla slice, and there didn’t seem to be any reason why, with half the town already closed for annual leave and what was left thinking about it, we shouldn’t do both.
So like all the sensible businesses in town, we packed up our metaphoric beach umbrella and tootled off in search of shade and a place to try out the new fangled internet gadget. Shade, thankfully we found in abundance in Crévic, quite close to the village in fact, but since the village isn’t big enough to support commercial enterprise of any kind, we shouldn’t have been surprised that we seemed to be on the very edge of mobile phone reception so our new modem remains largely untested.
Today, one way or another we were going to resolve our Internet problems. Having discovered that our Service Provider had changed some deeply technical aspect of its “service” which was impacting seriously our prehistoric modem, the simplest solution would be to replace it. The lack of internet access meant that there was no digital solution available, so our only alternative was to use the old analogue method, and go to the shop. Our Internet Service Provider is one of the largest in France, part of a huge world-wide conglomerate with at least three outlets in Nancy, so we were confident that it would be no simple thing to walk into a store, hand over some money and walk away with the product that we wanted.
The first store was closed, for reasons not explained but possibly related to the bullet holes that riddled the shop window. At the next, a smiling helpful person told us that despite having the object of our desire in front of her in a glass case, nothing was possible but she would talk to someone on the phone for half an hour in case something changed in the meantime. Sadly nothing changed, and she thought that perhaps the people in the store around the corner could help.
The third store, if appearances were anything to go by, was busy. We took a number, noting that we were ninth in line and that the two assistants were deeply ensconced in customer service. Eventually, as is the way of these things, a lovely young lady took us under her wing, took our money, gave us the new modem and four sheaves of paperwork and we hope our internet problems may well be a thing of the past.
I can’t imagine when the Art Nouveau movement was in full swing in Nancy, that the building foreman would have been told that he couldn’t have his doors because Wood Carver v2.0 wasn’t compatible with Blacksmith v7.0 so he’d have to revert to Draftsman v3.2 and start again, but perhaps those were simpler times.
We only ever go to Nancy for the lights. Well we also like the people in the port, and the buildings, and the layout of the town, and the shops are mostly nice, and the parks, and the markets and we could go on forever about how pleasant the place is, but it’s the light and sound performance each summer evening in Stanislas Square that is a highlight of our visit.
Of all the attractions in France it is the one that can be relied upon, rain hail or shine, every evening from July to September, at eleven PM, as soon as it’s dark the show goes on.
And here we were in Place Stanislas, our one night stay in Nancy planned for that very purpose, to find it under renovation. Every building in the square has scaffold being erected, and it will soon no doubt be covered in a swathe of green or perhaps building printed plastic, not at all conducive to receiving projected images. The show did not go on.
We almost didn’t leave, but the forecast told us unequivocally that the winds would abate as the day wore on, and we knew the river was wide and the locks were large so the risk of hitting something was slight. Besides, we reasoned, if we tired of battling the elements there are a few little spots along the way that we could sneak into for overnight respite.
In the event we almost enjoyed the challenge, managing without incident or danger to person or property and wondering exactly how worn the day would be before we saw some relief. Experience should have given us the answer:- There would no let up at all while we were moving, but a sudden and particularly vicious squall would come from nowhere at the time we were trying to moor. The wind direction would change in an instant to be exactly opposite any direction we would want to move. We’d get tied off in the middle of it all, blood pumping just a little above resting levels, and then not a moment later a deathly calm would descend and remain with us for the evening.
If one were superstitious one could imagine strange forces at play to discourage visitors to this little port in which we've only ever been alone. Perhaps one could concoct a tale about the ghosts of the Champignuelles waterfront living in the abandoned buildings opposite, warning off visitors, wanting to be left in peace. We pondered that for a time during the evening, and then we noticed the building’s reflection. Surely the illumination in the lower rooms were just a trick of the light. Surely.
George and Karen didn’t hire a Micra, or perhaps they did, but when their car arrived it was well… bigger. Perhaps not quite enough room for a pony, but enough for two extras none the less, therefore when they invited us to come for a drive this afternoon it took about two seconds for us to forget our plan to depart this morning, and to accept their very kind offer.
That the weather was a little on the glum side had no bearing on this decision of course, although it may have had a tiny bearing on the manner in which our intended amble through the parks and alleyways of Nancy somehow transformed into a rather elegant afternoon over cake and coffee in the Brasserie L’Excelsior, where the staff, breathing deeply in their post-luncheon vaccum kindly found seats for us and treated us as guests despite our lack of reservation, or long trousers.
I thought I’d use a photo from yesterday, to illustrate certain truths in old tales. What a delight the red sky was, yet had I taken the photo from exactly the other direction it may well have depicted lesser delights, the result no doubt of a red sky in the morning had we been awake to see it.
Behind us, the half-dozen or so cars that stay in the port for summer were buried under the tops of several huge chestnut trees, and one of them was actually doing a fair impression of having a tree growing out of its windscreen, while at the same time its owner’s insurers on the other end of the emergency hotline in the UK, were denying liability as clearly the damage had occurred “on the continent”.
But that was yesterday, and today brought some welcome drizzle, some unwelcome wind and a general feeling of “let’s go tomorrow”. With all apparently in ship shape in Mr Perkin’s domain, and the trees ashore piled into a bonfire mound, it seemed that the only thing left to fix was the internet. Having tried everything we could think of without success, the rest of the day was spent trying to figure out how to belt it with a hammer.
While sitting in the Round Place yesterday making our little plan for today, Richard and Julie stumbled upon us. Since there was an entire back seat spare in our car which was a Micra rather than a micro, although some might argue after traveling for a day in the very same back seat that the two words are interchangeable, we invited them along for today’s adventure. George and Karen as it turned out when we arrived back at the Port were mid-hire but lacking inspiration, so before we knew it we had the makings of a little Aussie convoy.
In a most undemocratic way, we told the others that we were intending to drive on random country roads, have lunch in Luxembourg, which I neatly marked on the map with an “X” for the benefit of anyone that couldn’t read, followed by an ice cream in Saarburg not terribly far over the German border but in a wending up and down through the grapevines sort of a way, and then and hopefully return on the motorway, happy and not too terribly tired.
As it turned out, it was one of those perfect road trips. The kind where everything turns out the way the brochure’s imply it might and there’s nothing to write home about afterwards, except perhaps for the storm that hit us less than twenty minutes from home, but who wants to hear about that?
If I hadn’t moaned about the lack of rain yesterday I’d be tempted to go on and on about it today. The drive back from Lagarde, gentle, beautiful and protracted though it was, was a constant reminder of just how little water is around and just how quickly things that are used to a constant source of it can yield to its lack. The outdoor temperature gauge, or thermometer as they were called in the old days, was also a constant reminder of why we should just keep moving in the air conditioned vehicle for as long as we possibly could.
Hunger eventually drove us to a halt, but we cleverly timed our journey so that we were within a few dozen metres of the we did it was beside the main square in Toul which is actually so far from being square geometrically that it is called “the Round Place”. It matters little what it is called though, at its very heart there is a fountain and gardens which combine with the low humidity to condition the air, and it is quite conveniently we thought surrounded by shaded cafés with signs saying “Lunch Special Today”.
Here for the price of a cup of coffee, and perhaps a sandwich or two, and oh alright we’ll have a waffle and perhaps another coffee, we could sit all afternoon holding court, slowly forming a plan for tomorrow, involving spending much more time in the air-conditioned car, and perhaps ending with ice cream.
The heat is still making things decidedly uncomfortable so we decided at the very last minute to break with tradition and not hold a celebration for Maggie’s birthday on the good ship Joyeux. Instead, the mountain would go to (insert politically correct prophet of choice). We’d hire a car for a few days (buy one get two almost free) and high-tail it back to Lagarde and our favourite oasis, which admittedly when we arrived was looking a little less oasis like than usual. There, as a special birthday treat, Maggie spent the afternoon preparing food for us to consume into the evening, and then the night, and perhaps a little bit of the next morning as well. So lavish was the feast that we couldn’t help but wonder why we hadn’t thought of celebrating her birthday at her place before.
It’s been a while since we whinged about the weather, but seriously this monster humidity free summer of mid to high thirty degree temperatures just keeps rolling on with no sign of respite in sight. Relentless it is, it feels just a bit like home. It’s quite strange, walking across what is usually lush lawn to the accompaniment of that crunch underfoot to which only those who have seen serious drought can relate.
It will be a day or two till our parts arrive, so while one of us, no doubt subliminally impacted by the decoration in town, busied herself by sorting out our pantry and catching up on ironing, the other just sat tearing at what little hair he has left, hoping to somehow regain meaningful internet connection with the rest of the world.
If it’s of any consolation, the problem seems clear: by and large the internet avoids our modem.
This, according to the manual is not a good thing as is the news that no known cure exists. Since even if it did, without access to the internet, it’s not possible to download a repair, either temporary or permanent. The obvious solution is to lie on one’s bunk, variously reading or, in those very short periods when the noise from all the incessant cleaning and sorting activity abates, getting some sleeping practice.
While the redoubtable Mr P has been in fine form all year, the small matter of ugly deposits left in his under-tray has yet to be addressed, so off we went to Dr Duncan where things were dismantled and inspected and turned over and the undersides inspected as well. Perhaps in a day or two all would be perfectly well, and our spanners could be put away to continue rusting away, perhaps one day to return to life as a piece of garden ornament.
One of the things we really look forward to in Toul is to see how the city decorates itself for summer. The inner city has just two small pieces of green, three if one counts the bit near the main gate to town, and each year a new and wondrous theme emerges to entertain all during the summer months.
This year, a fine collection of bird-like creatures stalk the gardens, each one constructed in a way that was no doubt deliberately designed to bring down a cloak of summer guilt on all who view them. Surely no one could view them without being reminded of at least one object rendered useless by age or damage and “stored” in a box in the bowels of one’s bilges “in case” they may prove useful during some future calamity. Perhaps when a few other things are done, we’ll sort ours out.
This morning more than half an hour before lock operating hours, we watched bemused and amused as the huge cruiser a few pens away from us, was manhandled silently, no, stealthily out and into the channel before starting its engine thereby notifying the rest of us of its intent to be first into the lock queue. More amusing or amazing really was the angst that showed in the body language of the couple opposite as they were mid casting-off at the time, and would now be relegated to the second lock-load, all of ten minutes later.
One of the highlights of staying in Toul is the fight to leave the harbour at exactly nine each morning. The competition is always fierce, as if there is a prize for being the first in the queue. We’ve even witnessed verbal if not physical clashes as each successive passage of the lock brings more boats jousting to be next down and onto the river. The stupidity of it all is that an hour or so later, they will be held, bunched together at the first large commercial lock which will easily contain them all, waiting for those who left an hour later as well. Unaware of that, the morning air is often filled with the sort of tension one feels before a huge sporting event involving national pride and large sums of money.
Is it therefore a deliberate irony on the part of the harbour management, that the annual round of the national water jousting championships are held in the very approach to that very same lock? Perhaps it is to give those who have just arrived a preview of the morning’s tussle.
Whatever the case, if one had a spare set of jousting sticks for sale, one could probably clean up if one brought them to Toul at this time of year.
“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.