What could go wrong? Six people, all Medicare eligible, with absolutely no nautical experience, rent a forty-seven foot, three-berth, three-bath boat named “Vision 3” and serve as its only crew and galley staff during a six-day, eighty-seven-kilometer journey through a canal in south France,
maneuvering through forty-two locks along the way. The ad assured us that “boating is the best way to slow down,” and bolstered our confidence, declaring, “No experience required-instruction is provided, all boats are fully equipped and easy to drive, you are the captain of your own boat with a huge choice of itineraries.”
Months before, David, reservation frontman and ex-officio Captain, began to express reservations.
“I’m worried about us being able to do this?” he said, “Have you all read the forty page Captain’s Manual?”
Looking up, I smiled and said, “David, it will be fine, people do this trip all the time. It can’t be that hard.”
Not persuaded, he continued to press the issue. “On what facts are you basing this.”
“The fact that we are all intelligent, capable people following thousands of who have done it.”
Beginning to laugh, David said, “Do you think any of us will be speaking to each other by the end of the week?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” I said, trying to set back any notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy, “Lets take it day by day.”
“Or minute by minute,” he uttered, reading my thoughts.
Anxiety aside, we were all committed to meet up in the village of Castelnaudary on the second Sunday in September 2016 to come face to face with “Vision 3” and her mysterious ways before embarking on a trek down the Canal du Midi, docking in small villages, medieval towns or anywhere along the banks, slowly moving toward our final destination of Homps. The reward for remaining civilized throughout this week would be another one together at a villa in Provence, rumored to be large enough to hide from each other if necessary.
We assembled in the late afternoon at the dock along the Grand Basin in Castelnaudary to complete some paperwork with “Le Boat”, our rental company, and finally boarded “Vision 3.” In addition to her three en-suite berths, she had a compact but complete indoor kitchen with window
seating, an upstairs sun deck with more seating and dining tables with covered shade screens, when needed. The ignition and electrical systems were in the galley, but the boat was driven from the controls on the upper sun deck where we were all seated for our one and only practice run.
The experience of guiding the boat around the Grand Basin was like learning to drive in a large, empty parking lot . Sooner or later, one must maneuver in a small lane in heavy traffic, where learning on the run can lead to consequences. Today, it seemed easy and fluid and confidence in our capabilities was high. Although not leaving the basin until morning, we were now living aboard “Vision 3” and, in fact, truly captains of our own boat.
Food was always a priority of this crew and it was decided to celebrate our last night in Castelnaudary, or maybe to the known civilized world, by eating the best cassoulet in the village. Along with nearby Toulouse and
Carcassonne, Castelnaudary boasts of being the birthplace of cassoulet and Captain David discovered that chef David Campigotto of Chez David, a small bistro in an alley off the stone street, was famous and cooks it around the world. This local dish is a rich, slow-cooked casserole that contains pork sausage, duck and sometimes goose confit, pork skin and haricot blancs (white beans). Today’s simmered a minimum of six hours and, paired with a cheap bottle of wine from the local Corbieres appellation, created an indelible meal, invoking memories of when I could eat like this regularly.
The next morning, after a breakfast that lasted longer than planned, we launched into the basin and our sojourn on the water began.
Leaving Castelnaudary was not easy. Beginning with the Excluse Saint-Roch, the gateway lock that exits the Grand Basin downstream, we encountered a three multi-lock sequence, totaling nine separate locks during the initial
sixteen kilometers of our journey. It was like being thrown out of an airplane on your first day of sky diving school as your instructor yells, “Just pull the cord when it’s time.” It seems simple enough, but a difficult situation in which to discover if you’ve got what it takes.
A lock is a simple device, used for centuries, to move boats between different levels of water. Once the boats are safely in the small tub-like basin and they have been thrust to the side and secured by a rope, loosely
wrapped around a concrete bollard, the rear gate closes and the front one opens, creating the same effect of pulling the plug in a bathtub full of water. The ropes secure the boat close to the side wall of the lock, but must be slowly released as the boat sinks. Maneuvering through each lock required finesse and focus, something initially lacking from this group.
Now is as good a time as any to introduce the crew.
Captain David, a former non-profit grants officer and current rock/blues drummer by trade, worries about big stuff, little stuff and everything in between. He worried about the crew’s capabilities which led to his pro-active approach in becoming proficient at the controls. He was our best option to drive the craft and was unanimously awarded the symbolic sea captains hat.
Monkey Girl is tall, lean and loves the physical work. She secured her spot as front ropes person from the beginning and was the most active crew member in the locks, jumping on and off the boat. She also cooks a mean, moist vegetable frittata and it is widely known that she is sleeping with Captain David. This has been going on for over thirty-five years.
Knotman, the oldest crew member, was on his last excursion before
undergoing full knee replacement surgery days after our return. The crew knew of his physical limitations, but we were not aware that, as a former Boy Scout, he had a merit badge in nautical knot tying, an essential skill in securing the boat when we stopped. This was not covered in our orientation, but, we were in good hands.
“In the forty years that we have known each other, I had no idea that you were a Boy Scout who could tie nautical knots,” I said.
“Would it had made a difference if you had known?”
“Yes. Until now, I never knew who to call when I needed a decent knot, I answered, “I’m surprised that this is one of the few things that you still remember.”
“It’s something you don’t forget, like tying a shoe” he mumbled, giving verbal instructions from his deck chair to those of us who washed out after Cub Scouts.
Ginny, the retired professor, after assuming various roles, settled in as chief navigator and keeper of the map, informing us when more locks were on the horizon. We met Ginny and Knotman on the same night that the original Godfather film premiered and spent much of the seventies riding around in a VW bus named “Bertha,” who was sweet but had no guts. I noticed that every evening at five o’clock, Ginny prepared a cocktail for Knotman. It always magically appeared.
One day I asked, “What is that?”
“Gin and tonic,” she responded. “Do you want one?” From that point on, Knotman and I had a gin and tonic at five o’clock each evening.
Karen and I have shared a berth for decades and one of our most difficult days had been on water, in a canoe on the Russian River forty years ago. This new experience would be different because we are now mature and wise enough to add a motor and recruit additional crew members. However, she hyperextended her knee during the first day, jumping off the boat in a lock while handling the rear ropes. For the next few days , soreness and stiffness restricted her to duties like meal prep, photography, navigation and keeping Knotman company on our walks.
I was nicknamed “Ropes Pierre” by Captain David, partly for my funny hat and partly for my adopted role as the rear boat ropes person. I was also the designated understudy to the captain, but, after several near crashes into the bank of the canal, it was mutually decided that I would drive during emergency situations only.
Captain David, clearly, had the most difficult task, made easier by his quick mastery of thrusting, using a video game-type controller that moves the boat sideways, left to right or right to left. He quickly mastered movement of the boat in tight quarters, through each lock.
His nervous voice escalating, Captain David declared, “Talk to me, people.” Five crew members began to speak at once.
A more emphatic, “I can see that!” prompted the crew to silence.
This is the way the first day went. The learning curve and the stress level was high. The lock attendants were accustomed to novice boaters and efficiently guided us through these difficult first locks. Moving down the canal, we watched the attendants hop on small motorbikes and take off along the adjacent trail. As we approached the next lock, there they were, waiting for us, looking comfortably familiar. Each lock became a bit easier than the last.
The difficulty in becoming proficient on steering these boats down the canal is that we are programmed for immediate response. Our cars, smartphones
, and even various remotes lead us to expect swift and precise feedback from our commands.
As the vessel veers slightly to the right, we turn the wheel to the left. Nothing happens, so we turn more left as it begins to respond to the first command.
“Oh shit,” says Captain David as he turns the wheel sharply to the right. The boat continues to turn left, so he turns the wheel more to the right. We are no longer veering to the left, now headed directly toward the right bank. The boat recovers, creating a herringbone pattern as we weaved through the water.
“Passing boat ahead,” Monkey Girl declared from her perch on the bow of the boat. The canal is narrow enough to require some concentration when other boats pass from the opposite direction. Panic ensued. We avoided the passing boat by overcompensating to the right, but now desperately needed to swerve to the left.
Seconds before impact, Captain David, his voice cracking, yelled, “We’re going to hit.”
Bam! There was a hollow sound as the hull collided with the right bank of the canal and a small tree branch swept across the deck. Traveling at a slow speed, the impact knocked over a few water bottles, but the crew suffered no more than an escalated heart rate. A short break was in order and Captain David thrusted us to a safe place along the bank, where we secured the boat.
Inspecting the hull for damage, he remarked, “There is a reason they install rubber bumpers on these boats.”
“Yeah,” I said, “for people like us.”
Our confidence was shaken, but reminding ourselves that we purchased the full insurance package reduced the stress. What else could we do? We were surely not the first nor the last rookies to make this mistake. Besides, we could only get better. The crew needed to jump back on the horse.
Realizing the need to reach our first destination by nightfall, we began again and by late afternoon we came upon a popular place to tie up along the bank, about a mile outside of the village of Bram. The first day on the canal was a roller coaster ride, but we survived it.
“Still think this is easy and anyone can do it?” Captain David asked, smiling over a glass of wine.
“Ok, maybe you were right.” I swallowed a taste of my wine and a bit of my pride.
The plan was to walk the mile and a half into the village of Bram, find a
restaurant and enjoy a relaxing meal off the boat on our first night. Along the trek, we quickly divided into three groups. Monkey Girl and Captain David were out front because they walk fast and Karen and Knotman, one requiring a walking stick and the other needing one, tailed behind. Ginny and I remained in the middle and caught up on politics and stories of old mutual friends.
Ginny grew up on a cattle ranch, now prime real estate in the heart of Silicon Valley, now harvesting Apples. Oracles and Googles. Her diverse career as a public administrator, consultant, Mayor, executive headhunter, college professor and department chair doesn’t overshadow her decades of successful civic activism in the small coastal town where she has resided for nearly fifty years. Today, we talked about our golf games, or lack thereof.
Soon some Aussies passed us on bikes, vowing to scout the Sunday night restaurant scene in the village. Australians are great people to encounter in foreign countries. They are experienced travelers and have pure enjoyment in meeting new people.
Outside of the village, we passed an old, decaying stone wall, with vines
draped from the top like dreadlocks. At eye level, someone, somehow had successfully grown moss that perfectly formed the word, “Imagine,” in script. Was it a mystical message from the canal gods, sage advice for the week ahead or just a great visual image. For me, maybe it was all of the above. Today, it is the cover photo on my Facebook page, my tattoo of social media.
As promised, The Aussies returned with an update. Apparently, Sunday nightlife in Bram is a oxymoron. We arrived to a village that was closed up for the evening, except for one small marche. A relaxing meal in town became an evening of shopping, hauling bags of groceries back to the boat, cooking and cleaning up before a well-earned rest. If you are thinking about a glass half empty, think again. The fresh produce was, in fact, amazing, we bought breakfast items for the next two days, made it to ten thousand steps, prepared a group dinner (something we’re good at) and laughed until our heads hit the pillow.
“Goodnight, John Boy.” A sound from Knotman’s berth was the last I heard. Our first day was complete, but the quest was just beginning.
We awoke Monday morning without power. Being stranded was annoying, but the inability to make coffee was nearly catastrophic. Le Boat would dispatch a technician who would be arriving within the next thirty minutes.
“So, you guys didn’t hear the gurgling sound last night?” Captain David directed his question to me and Karen.
“What gurgling sound?” Our berth was up front, directly behind the galley. Apparently, we were spared the noise that kept our compatriots up most of the night.
“It sounded like we were taking on water,” said Captain David, “I thought we were sinking.” He repeated himself. “I thought we damaged the hull yesterday and we were taking on water.”
“Sorry, we didn’t hear a thing.” I said.
Knotman chimed in. “I dreamt that the boat was adrift, then woke up and still thought we were floating, then the gurgling started.”
We finally got a good night’s sleep and, apparently, missed all the excitement. It was also a bit disconcerting that Knotman was dreaming of being adrift.
The technician arrived on a small motorbike with wooden tool boxes draped over each side like saddlebags. Of note, the distance that took us a full day of cruising, managing nine locks and a crash into the bank, he covered in thirty minutes on his motorbike. These boats go slow.
Our battery was dead. We had neglected to adjust the setting from battery to generator mode at the end of the evening, something none of us remembered being discussed at our brief orientation. Soon we had power and Captain David was trying to explain the gurgling sound to the technician who spoke little English.
“Beelge,” he finally responded as he reached for the onboard operators manual. He pointed out that the gurgling sound was the bilge pump evacuating small amounts of water that normally accumulates in the hull of the boat. Our encounter with the bank may have disturbed the small amount of water in the hull and the bilge pump did its job.
After some coffee, fruit and yogurt, we untied the boat at ten fifteen and headed south, down the canal, toward the next lock.
Captain David declared, “Under normal circumstances, there is no reason we can’t be moving by nine.”
I tried to contemplate what is was that we would be late for.
As we began to feel comfortable, the locks became fun, breaking up the
monotony of lying down on the sun deck, watching the clouds and poplar trees go by. The canal was losing many of its trees to disease and we passed several removal and restoration projects throughout the week.
These boats go slow. At one point, a female jogger pushing an infant in an ergonomic stroller, passed us, even managing a wave. The crew stared at her for a second, then looked toward each other and laughed.
I turned to Ginny and said, “I expect to see a large hippopotamus emerge from the water.”
“Yeah,” she responded jokingly, “and Captain David would have to shoot it with a fake gun,” She fully understood my reference to the slow Jungle Boat ride at Disneyland.
This new calmness gave us permission to unwind, relax and reflect.
His eyes staring ahead, behind dark glasses and looking patriarchal, Knotman declared, “I’ve wanted to do this for twenty years.”
Monkey Girl was animated. “Last Monday I was on a boat, deep up the Klamath River and a week later I’m on the freak’in
Canal Du Midi. Just sitting here thinking. Oh my god. Whoa!”
She made a swoosh sound while she moved here arm past her head, illustrating an inability to grasp it all.
Ginny said nothing but her laugh was unmistakable. It’s comforting. Her public and community life has earned her great respect, but everyone loves her laugh.
“I’m guessing that the Klamath boat went faster than this one,” said Captain David.
“Just a bit,” said Monkey Girl
“Tell them how you got up there.”
“Uh, on a board member’s personal jet.”
Captain David smiled. He privately enjoyed the status that Rosemary’s
work provided. In her professional circles, he enjoyed his role as an educated rock musician who could talk intellectually about politics or the newest restaurant in the City.
Karen chimed in. “Let me see if I understand this. You travelled by private jet and power boat to a remote location near the Klamath River to negotiate the purchase of redwoods from an Indian tribe?”
“Yes!” There was a hint of guilt in Monkey Girl’s voice.
“Hey,” I said, coming to her defense, “all the canoes were checked out.”
The crew laughed, remembering that we would have found the whole scenario offensive forty years ago. There is a huge difference between judging when you are young and actually doing after you mature, something we’ve all lived long enough to learn.
The fact is that we all proud of Monkey Girl’s efforts. In retirement, after a highly respected career, she finds herself on the Save The Redwoods board of directors, devoting much of her knowledge and youthful enthusiasm to something that she is passionate about.
Aside from our professional connections and our political compatibility, the glue of the crew’s long relationship is laughter, our comfort in laughing at ourselves and with others.
As Knotman says, We’re not much to look at, but we have great personalities.”
“Speak for yourself, my friend, you have to look at the whole package,” said Captain David, sweeping his hand across his body.
“My point exactly.”
“Lock ahead, two-hundred meters,” someone yelled, signaling everyone to take their positions, Monkey Girl on the front ropes, Ropes Pierre on the rear with Ginny, Karen and Knotman serving as back seat drivers for the Captain. I say this in a good way. Maneuvering a lock with several other boats requires all available eyes and ears.
This would be the last lock before the small port of Carcassonne, the
medieval walled city where we planned to stay for a few days. As we approached the lock, we all stood down. There was a traffic jam with several boats ahead of us in both directions. It was caused by two small tourist boats, dispatched from the port to go upstream, allowing tourists to experience a lock. The boat would go through the lock, cruise fifty meters, turn around and go back. This excursion is like going to The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas and thinking you’re in Italy. With twenty-seven locks under our belts, the delay did not sit well with us seasoned sailors.
I muttered something inappropriate under my breath and Captain David said, “calm down, don’t say anything.” Then, as the tourist boat passed us before turning around, he looked squarely at the tour guide, flung his arms above his head and said, “What the fuck!”
With lips pursed, she lifted the microphone to her little mouth, looked
directly at Captain David, mimicked him with his own words, then added, “We have prior-i-tee,” with heavy emphasis on the last syllable. This became a repeated catch phrase, but the crew soon let it go. We had four days to get to Homps, reachable in a day and a half if we pushed it. Time was not an issue.
Albeit frustrating, the delay had given us a chance to meet with other crews, many displaying their national flags. There was a group from South Africa, the Kiwi’s from New Zealand and the couples from San Francisco, on their third trip. The greeting served as more than a cultural exchange. It helped to be on a first-name basis now that the gridlock had freed up. To make up for lost time, the lock operators were surely going to pack as many boats in the lock as possible.
We entered the lock second and were directed toward the right wall, an easy thrust for Captain David. “Front ropes secure,” shouted Monkey Girl.
“Back ropes secure,” I called out. We were in position and could do nothing but wait for the other boats to load.
“Sorry, mate.” said the New Zealand captain, apologizing for the fact that he couldn’t stop his slow-moving boat from drifting into ours. Luckily, we were all floating. While holding my rope taut, I was able to stick out my foot and stop the multi-ton vessel in its tracks.
Interrupting our lock “block-party,” the rear gate began to close and within seconds we were face-to-face with a wet, slimy wall as we descended. Both of us yelled, “Ropes free!,” simultaneously, assuring Captain David that, when the front gates open, he was free to thrust the boat to the left, then forward into the lower canal. After nearly an hour delay, the port in Carcassonne was less than three hundred meters ahead.
We found a spot to park the boat and Knotman did his thing while the some of us secured hook-ups to replenish our water and electrical supply and others gathered clothes for the port laundromat. We were all ready to pause for a few days and channel our energy toward exploring the old walled Cite’, the most noted stop on our journey.
Stepping into my berth, Ginny asked, “Have you seen Knotman?”
“Not since I saw him walking down the dock ten minutes ago.”
Before leaving, she said, “Well, if you do see him, I’m looking for him.”
Moments later, while folding freshly laundered clothes, I glanced out my small berth window to solve the mystery. There was Knotman, two boats over, sitting on the South African’s sun-deck, chatting away, enjoying a gin and tonic.
“Ginny, look at the sun deck, two boats over,” I yelled. Soon, her familiar laugh emerged from the galley. “Why am I not surprised?”
I have known Knotman for forty-five years. Early on, he had a deserved reputation as a serial party-crasher. This type of hobby is quite spontaneous, one never knows when an opportunity may present itself. From personal experience, he and I, in 1976, at a Berkeley marina hotel, crashed a post concert party for Joan Baez. We were returning from the restroom when we saw a small sign outside a private room that read, “Diamonds and Rust, Inc.” We took a chance and after we came face-to-face with Ms. Baez helping her young son in the buffet line, realized privacy was in order. As we left, I whispered, “Great concert.” She smiled and continued to multi-task. There is also the story, many years ago, of Knotman crawling through a window to crash a wedding at the Sunnyside Inn in Lake Tahoe, where Captain David was playing drums in the house band. That’s the Captain’s tale to tell.
Knotman was our ambassador to the South Africans and we acknowledged each other while dining at the same restaurant. After dinner, I found Karen, sitting at their table, engaged in conversation.
“What’s up?” I asked.
A woman at the table said, “We’re talking politics with your wife, what’s it to you.” After the chorus of laughter, I decided to join them. From the beginning, the conversation focused around one question, “What in the hell are you Americans doing with your election?”
One man, Gary, explained that he had made three bets on current issues with a friend back home, a local tax measure, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump. He had lost the first two bets and would never live down being swept.
“Trust me,” I said, “it will never happen.” I still feel bad about giving him a false sense of confidence. I remember that moment as the time when I first should have realized that I live in a California, progressive bubble and am out of touch with fly-over America.
Carcassonne is a special place. Well, actually, Carcassonne is a nice city, but the old walled Cite’ is the special place. Everyone should see it once in their
lives. Monkey Girl, Captain David and I decided to leave early and walk the two-mile, moderate uphill climb from the port. The others would join us later, all agreeing to meet up at the Porte Narbonnaise entrance. My walk mates had been to Carcassonne before and were filled with advice, most notably that it must be seen, both by day and by night.
Conversation stopped after we arrived and entered the medieval fortress through the Porte Saint-Nazaine gate. We had each drifted off, taking photographs. With settlements dating back to 3500 BC, the old city was restored in 1853 and became an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Today, it is a fascinating visual facade for the shops, restaurants and plazas that are filled with tourists.
Choral voices could be heard, coming from inside a chapel within the Basilique Saint-Nazaine. The once designated cathedral had been downgraded to a grand, awe-inspiring “ordinary church,” combining Romanesque and Gothic architecture with unearthly gargoyles standing
watch from all sides.I entered the dusky chapel to find four men, standing below a majestic altar, illuminated only by colored light through thirty-foot high stained-glass windows, beautifully chanting in a very Gregorian way.
These are brief but enduring memories because they are unique and special. I was pleasantly reminded of a night in Venice, nearly twenty years ago, when Karen and I ended an evening of “chichetti” (Italian bar hopping) with late-night Vivaldi, performed by a chamber orchestra in a small chapel near a
dimly light piazza. Today, I videoed forty-one seconds of their glorious harmonies on my smartphone to help me always remember this moment. The last time I checked, my memory was not improving.
The entire crew united and, after a brief stroll, dined together at Auberge des Lices, a quaint restaurant/inn, quietly tucked away in a small courtyard near the old cathedral. It was relaxed and so were we, two and one half days in.
Carcassonne at night is jaw-dropping, an emerald city glowing on top of a
hill. It danced in and out of view from the window of our cab as we traversed the dark streets up to its gates. I clicked the heels of my shoes together and rode the moment like a magic carpet. We were returning to
the castle, one with over 5,ooo years of history that, today, is still the prototype design used in films like Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.”
Good or bad, Carcassonne first established itself during the Middle Ages, evidenced by the slivered openings in the stone walls, used as cover by
archers and to pour scalding oil on their enemies. By the beginning of the nineteenth Century, a depressed economy and impoverished population left the old Cite’ abandoned. In 1809, re-routing of the Canal du Midi through the lower town began a small revival, but by mid-century, it faced demolition. A successful effort to declare the site a National Monument led to restorations under the oversight of French architect Viollet-le-Duc. Nearly one hundred-fifty years would pass before the UNESCO designation saved it for eternity.
Tonight, we seemingly entered through a different Porte Narbonnaise gate. It looked strange and intimidating, like someone’s face in the dark, illuminated only by a light under their chin. Preservation married a
Medieval site with twentieth century architectural lighting that altered the entire aesthetic into a dramatic art piece.
It was quiet and the streets were empty, this night. Captain David remembered a restaurant below the illuminated castle and was dogged in his effort to find it. We did find it, but it was unaccessible, hosting a private event that required space rather than ambiance.
A few yards away was Méli et Zéli Restaurant. Knotman checked out their menu and thought it looked good. A nearby chalkboard described “Desserts Du Jour: Creme Brûlée, Baba au Rhum, Tarte au Citron, Poirier…” We weren’t sure if the last item was some type of pear dessert or a reference to the style of Derek Poirier, a member of Team USA at the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie in Lyon, France, a
competition among the world’s best. It will remain a mystery.
While adjacent to the enlightened castle, neither the outdoor patio or
indoor of the restaurant offered unobstructed views. Noticing our hesitation, the waiter walked over and began talking to Monkey Girl, our best option to converse in French. The conversation was short.
“The best that I could determine,” she reported, “is that he is willing to put a table wherever we want.”
Ginny asked, “Where did you tell him to put it?”
She smiled. “How does in the street outside the restaurant sound?”
That’s exactly where they put it. It became our private table in the shadow of the castle.
Monkey Girl rewarded herself with foie gras. The rest dined on saumon
marine’ a’l’aneth (salmon marinated at the dill), entrecôte a la plancha (beef ribsteak of the floor), and cassoulet, all paired with a bottle of 2013 Cuvee’ Sextant from the local Corbieres appellation. Good times on a slow night in Carcassonne.
Leaving Carcassonne was as difficult as leaving Castelnaudary on our first day. Ecluse #51 was a bit congested with morning commute traffic. Everyone’s going somewhere. It was our fifth day and our twenty-fourth lock.
Karen took a turn handling the rear rope duties. She stretched her knee out in Carcassonne and had tired of desk duty. Monkey Girl was everywhere during our departure, jumping from the boat to lock and back, getting updates and pulling us forward as the gridlock eased. Once through, she
remained busy wrapping her ropes.
Captain David responded. “Please sit down and relax, you’re making me exhausted.” He knew it wouldn’t last, but occasional reminders can briefly put Monkey Girl in pause mode.
None of this ongoing group dynamic bothered me. I relished in observing the natural order that developed among the crew in this unusual habitat. I thought it would make a great story.
There was more than three kilometers to the next lock, time to relax and enjoy the countryside, the autumn pastures, yellow and brown, the old stone-grey structures with roofs from the century they were built. The canal permits access to old country France where the past is the present. Soon, we passed by a field of sunflowers. Karen was fixated.
“They were looking at this when they painted,” she said, referencing the Impressionist painters of the nineteenth century, bohemian artists who began painting everyday life. We had seen so much of their original works in the Musee d’Orsy in Paris, the Chicago Institute of Art and others that she recognized the real landscape. It was present at Monet’s gardens in Giverny, in the village of Anvers d’ Orse, where Van Gogh spent his last years, and here along the Canal du Midi. Van Gogh’s “The Sunflower Field” moving slowly on a gorgeous day.
Captain David addressed the crew. “Will someone call Monkey Girl’s cellphone, she can’t find it.”
No luck. Someone said that they reached her voicemail, but she sounded gurgled.
Monkey Girl responded. “Kidding aside, I think that’s where it is and probably harder to find than fricken Dory.”
When leaving Carcassonne and since we met in 1974, Monkey Girl is
someone who always needs to be active and, this time, it resulted in the deposit of another Iphone 6S on the muddy floor of the canal. One can only imagine how many are down there.
Ordinarily, the loss of a phone would be catastrophic for Monkey Girl. She would be missing an important conference call or expecting a critical email. Today, we laughed it off. She had cleared her calendar and her mind. A phone isn’t a necessary tool to be a front ropes person on a canal boat. However, she would have a new Iphone7 within forty-eight hours after returning home. Without the calm of the canal, we tend to revert to our old ways.
“Low bridge ahead!” Someone had spotted one of the old bridges near Berriac, a small village inland from the canal, south of Carcassonne, and
yelled out a warning. Based on our experience with similar bridges earlier on the junket, the alert did not mean to use moderate caution, but to lay down on your back to avoid decapitation or, at a minimum, a bad headache. Although beautiful and charming, these low, narrow bridges were not designed to accommodate modern boats. Today, during our cruise between Carcassonne and Trèbes, we came upon several, aptly naming them, “The Low Bridges of Berriac.”
The lower levels of the boat were safe, but, between locks we all hung out on the upper sun deck. This required that the entire crew, including Captain David, lie flat on our backs as we passed through. Face up, under the
bridge, I could see the detail in each stone of the timeless mosaic. Vision 3 was in free fall. We set her direction, lied down and prayed that we would avoid the curved sidewalls during the seconds it took to pass under. We did it with inches to spare.
It was amazing to watch the large barge boats maneuver through the low bridges. With berths below the deck, they sit lower in the water than Vision 3 and, defying perceptions, they certainly can’t be any wider. The difficulty is that they are nearly one hundred feet long.
Most barge boats look lived on. A home on the water with worn deck chairs and geranium-filled flower boxes and the charm of a bed and breakfast.
They’re typically available for charter on one-way trips down or up the canal where the captain and chef are provided. Expensive and food-driven, it’s another option to experience the solitude of the canal. Our fear was that we would awaken each day to a wonderful breakfast, then watch the scenery pass, anticipating a extraordinary lunch with an afternoon break, checking emails before cocktails and dinner. It sounded appealing for a one day excursion, but the thought of idle minds and putting our bodies on a highly caloric recess for a week was never an option.
Waiting our turn to go through ecluse #57, Écluse de Villedubert, we watched an experienced young captain of African descent as he masterfully guided a barge boat first through a lock sequence, spinning the large wheel and thrusting to a forty-five degree angle just to fit. Then, floating by our boat, he smiled and waved with his left hand while fluidly spinning the wheel with his right. Once he was perfectly aligned, the crew watched him gracefully steer through the first of the many recognizable low bridges he would encounter between Berriac and Carcassonne.
“Are you watching this guy?” Ginny asked no one in particular.
“Amazing.” Karen wondered aloud how many times he had cruised this exact route. The charm of the barge boats and their flamboyant, talented captains are part of the theater of the canal.
Around the next bend, some old brick buildings came into view that seemed to be touching the water. Today, they marked the entrance to the small,
winsome port of Trèbes, a place to tie up for the night. The last census determined that Trèbes
had over five thousand residents, up four thousand from the first in 1793. There have been few changes to the town over that period of time.
During our brief visit, we decided to stay close to the boat and explore the ambiance along the tiny waterfront that included a bank, a wine shop featuring local Corbieres-Lanquedoc-Rousillon wines and a few restaurants.
The wine shop featured a young, knowledgeable proprietor who openly
shared his knowledge. Although we could spend more, those of us choosing the wines felt that we could get balanced flavors and rich texture for ten euros. We did, time after time.
The crew’s desire for a light aperitif before dinner and the advice of the shopkeeper lead to my selection of a Domaine de la Rogue Cinsault-
Grenache, a rosé that blended two regional grape varietals. Grenache adds the flavor and Cinsault, the texture.
We drank it on our deck, under the shade covering as the setting sun splashed light across the water and century-old building fronts. Amid this setting, we could have spent five euros and it would have tasted just as good.
The crew chose a quaint outdoor cafe on the water for dinner and, within minutes, were greeted by a young waiter. Knotman ordered a carafe each
of their house red and white wine and Karen ordered a decaf Americano. The young man left, vowing to return.
“Are you guys watching this?” Ginny, the observant one, pointed out that ours and other waiters were crossing back and forth over an adjacent road as they worked. Apparently, the indoor portion of the cafe and the kitchen were separated from the outdoor waterfront tables by a road with vehicular traffic. Soon, our waiter emerged through a doorway, looked both ways and crossed the road with our drinks.
Captain David said. “Think they have workman’s comp insurance?”
Monkey Girl laid out her odds. “I’m going to go with a low maybe.”
“Are you sure this is decaf?” Karen repeated her stock question to anyone
serving her coffee after nine in the morning. The waiter stared at her for an instant, returned the coffee to his tray, turned and walked back across the road. Trapped laughter escaped.
Karen felt justified. “Listen, I feel sorry for the guy, but I still need to sleep tonight.”
We had a very nice local dinner, mostly seafood and our waiter got a workout. He managed a smile as he distributed dessert menus, but his eyes said, “Ne me faites pas remonter
la route” (Please don’t make me cross the road again). We passed on dessert, paid the bill and said goodnight.
The quiet walk across the bridge with the calm water, now being lit by the
moon, created a lasting visual image of our abbreviated stay in Trèbes. We weren’t certain if there was somewhere we needed to be or if we just needed to be somewhere else, but it was determined that we would pull anchor in the morning.
I embrace the rare times when I find myself alone, absorbed in a moment. Tonight, on the deck, before turning in, it was ten minutes of watching the stars through the black shadows of the towpath trees with “Waste a Moment” by Kings of Leon blaring through my headphones. It was the dichotomy I wanted. Listening to Southern American boys in Southern France helps me connect the dots. “Take the time to waste a moment.”
The morning began as peaceful as the night ended. The galley was quiet and the water was undisturbed. I poured a cup of coffee.
“Croissant monsieur et madame?” Without notice, Captain David stuck his head through the door, speaking in his best bad French accent.
“Croissant, sir?” I responded with my best effort to mimic the Inspector Clouseau character made famous by Peter Sellers in the early Pink Panther movies. More than anyone, David gets my humor. We both remember classic funny lines that we have heard over the past fifty years and when our memories intersect, we share a moment and nobody else in the room gets us. Today, it was Peter Sellers, tomorrow it could be Christopher Walken, Alan Arkin or even Adam Arkin.
We like to think that, back in 2010, they made a film about us titled “The Trip.” In our world, actor Steve Coogan played the Captain David character and Rob Brydon was me. Two men, on assignment for a magazine, touring the fine inns and Michelen-starred restaurants of the European countryside. Coogan’s script perfectly captured many of our dinner conversations before we could get them down on paper.
Inspector Clouseau speaks in his thick French accent. “I would like a rhuume.”
Not understanding the request, the British hotel clerk says, “a rhuume, sir?”
In frustration, Closeau responds. “Yes, I said a rhuume!”
The conversation goes on, classically orchestrated by Seller’s subtle style.
Appreciation of great comedy helped forge a long friendship between a Jewish boy from Flint, Michigan who has been a drummer in the San Francisco rock scene for four decades and a California-native WASP kid who stuck to some straighter line.
Today, on the boat, Captain David had something sweet. This and other mornings when we were in port, he and Monkey Girl would leave early and
set out to find a local patisserie. They would bring back a warm, fresh tart or scone and carefully cut it into five pieces, enough for everyone but Karen. We instinctively respected her wishes and the crew was always willing to insulate her from any food that lists sugar higher than the forth ingredient. Personally, I believe we should offer a piece to Karen and let her decide what she wants to do with it.
Ecluse Trebes was a three-lock sequence that provided a test for those entering or exiting the port. I liked my perch on the back deck where I could continue to enjoy the picturesque harbor while handling the ropes. Once through the final gates, Trebes slowly faded from distance but remains, to this day, a tranquil memory. We had nine kilometers of relaxed, uninterrupted cruising until the Ecluse Marseillette, our next lock, where we planned some exercise by walking into the village.
Captain David spoke. “Did everyone see their potpourri?”
While out on their early morning patisserie search, he and Monkey Girl bought three cute little handmade pouches and secretly placed one in each bathroom. It was nearly impossible to remain anonymous when you are living on a 47-foot boat with five other people.
“Yes, Captain”, said Knotman, “how frick’en thoughtful.”
“Well, I thought we are six days in and, besides, they are probably made by local artisans.” Captain David, once again, rode the fence between
explanation and justification.
Smiling, Knotman said, “I am truly appreciative and will certainly thank you for days to come.”
Bam! A piercingly loud sound silenced us.
Startled, Captain David said, “What was that?”
“Sounded like a gunshot,” said Ginny, answering for the group.
Addressing Monkey Girl, perched on the front deck, Captain David said, “Are there any boats coming?”
“No, the water is clear.”
Bam! Bam! Two more shots and the sound was louder and closer.
Offering food for thought, Knotman said, “Maybe, it’s canal pirates.”
Deadpanned, Captain David said, “No one said anything about canal pirates.”
Feeling the need to add my two cents, I said, “It wouldn’t be the only thing they missed in the orientation.”
Bam! Another ear-piercing gunshot.
As we slowly cruised around a bend, the canal revealed two men with shotguns, hunting birds in an open field. Sounds that are unsettling in the modern world were, in this part of southern France, nothing more than farmers seeking fresh duck meat for their next cassoulet. Watching them as we passed was reminiscent of the times, as a young boy, that I accompanied my father and his friends, watching them hunt duck and pheasant. I also remember jarring my teeth on small pellets, accidentally left in the meat of the catch.
I was thinking about food and asked if anyone else was getting hungry. It was agreed that we would tie up along the banks near Marseillette, have lunch on the boat, then walk into the village to explore and exert.
Ecluse Marseillette was the first of nine locks we would encounter in the next nine kilometers. As we finished one, we prepared for the next, destined to work our way to Pulcheric, hoping to find fresh, locally grown foods.
Marseillette was one of the more picturesque locks along the canal, with
green manicured hedges surrounding the same simple stone lock house design used throughout the canal, each with pastel blue or green window shutters. The lock houses serve as housing for the lock masters and most of the unique settings resulted from long term residency, something we would discover further down the canal.
Once through the lock, we could see the aged Marseillette skyline in the distance, with its signature clock tower standing tall. Soon, we were along the bank and Knotman was instructing the two ropes people on the proper nautical knot to secure our boat.
Lunch usually consisted of assorted charcuterie and cheeses modified with more vegetables and white meat than the traditional varieties of pork sausage. Once we added some olives and any leftovers from the previous night’s dinner, lunch became another feast.
“The cupboard is not totally bare, but we definitely need to pick up a few things,” said Karen after we finished lunch.
Speaking up, Monkey Girl said, “According to Rick Steves, there is a supermarche in Pulcheric and we thought that we would stop there for the night, walk into town and shop.”
“Sounds great to me,” said Karen. She began making a list on her phone.
Knotman decided to stay back as we as we began the short hike into Marseillette. He needed a nap after two glasses of chardonnay at lunch.
Along the bank, a few yards up from our boat, I saw an old, worn wooden sailboat with faded green and white paint, a natural cherrywood mast and
a makeshift, weathered red canvas canopy, hung adjacent to the green, port-holed galley and adding more living space for the sailor. Surrounded by several ducks on the bank, the boat seemed to project a colorful past as it floated stoically still amid the backdrop of the murky canal water and trees, lit by the afternoon sun.
Captain David watched as I shot a few photos with my phone. “Isn’t that a great boat?”
“Oh yeah, I said, the stories it could tell.”
Marseillette is described as a commune is southern France with about 700 residents. Today, on a Thursday afternoon, it looked deserted with no sign
of people on the small sidewalks or in the windows of the flats. It reminded me of streetscapes painted by American Impressionist Edward Hopper, barren and mysterious.
“Let’s find the highest point and start there,” said Captain David, realizing that we could probably see the entire village from any hill.
“Look for the cathedral, they’re usually on higher ground.”
He was right. We found the local cathedral on the hill adjacent to a vista that may have explained why no one was in town.
To the west and spread across a large valley that extended all the way to the Pyreness Mountains was flat, fertile agricultural land, divided symmetrically into vegetables, orchards, vineyards and flowers. There
were also large empty sections that were, most likely, show-stopping fields of lavender during the summer months. Marseillette was not a port, but an agrarian village with a canal running behind it.
With no specific landmarks to photograph, our right brains kicked in as we all began to shoot this place as it was with narrow streets, old stone bridges and, of course, the village clock tower that resembled a turret at a miniature castle. Although people were scarce, our concentration in taking pictures was periodically broken by a delivery truck that sped by. FedEx and UPS are truly everywhere.
Reaching Pulcheric by six o’clock required that we quickly return to the boat and leave. We had to maneuver several locks and were hoping to avoid any delays.
Captain David approached me as we stepped onto the rear deck of the boat.
“Hey Ropes, look at this.” He had stopped on the walk back to take some photos of the old sailboat. There was one shot that he was particularly proud of and I thought it was framed better than those that I took.
“Very nice,” I said, “I like that you zoomed-in closer.”
He smiled and nodded, as to agree. I guess that on the canal and in life generally, it’s really all about who takes the best pictures.
The final chapter of this Thursday could be named, “Locks After Lunch.” In the next hours, the canal would drop twenty-two meters with the aid of nine locks and the crew was ready for the challenge. The real question was if the locks were ready for us.
Minutes from Marseillette, we could see an increase in boats cruising in both directions. This signaled that the lock masters would have to cram as many boats as possible through each sequence to keep up. We had to renew our focus.
The first test was the Ecluse triple de Fonfile a Blomac, commonly known as the Fonfile lock. It was an ordinary three-lock sequence, but small with tight spaces. We anticipated going through the chain with another boat, but were surprised when they insisted on adding a third. The lock masters had more confidence in our abilities than we did. Although the tasks such as thrusting and securing the vessel did not change, more precision and speed control was required.
As she turned toward me, smiling, Karen said, “just like those guys that took us zip-lining in Hawaii, they’re trying to push us and build our confidence with each new lock.
I responded. “Our delicate self-esteem aside, they’re bent on getting as many boats through before they close at six.”
We did get through flawlessly, but quickly folded our ropes and remained in position for the Ecluse Saint-Martin, our third-eighth and thirty-ninth locks, one kilometer ahead.
Captain David said, “What time is it, anyway?”
Knotman answered. “Does it matter. We’re going to get there when we get there.”
Affirmation that long time residency leads to the most creative and colorful lock houses was clearly evident at the Ecluse de l”Aiguille,” our fortieth lock. There were at least six boats ahead of us, so Captain David thrusted to the bank and we secured the boat. Monkey Girl hopped off and walked ahead to scout the situation.
Climbing back aboard several minutes later, she said, “Boats are jammed in both directions, but there’s a neat sculpture garden next to the lock house.”
“We’re screwed,” said Captain David, his mind in another place.
I asked, “What kind of sculpture?”
“Ya know, whimsical stuff, mostly made from junk, a little funky.”
Not in a mood to discuss whimsical three-dimensional art, Captain David said, “We’ve got two hours to get through here and reach Pulcheric before the locks close.”
Knotman questioned, “What’s so special about reaching Pulcheric?”
“There is a supermarche and we need some things for dinner and breakfast” said Karen.
We had reason to worry, but as long as we are delayed for a few minutes, I wanted to check out the sculpture garden.
The Ecluse de l”Aiguille, surrounded by trees, lawns and mature shrubbery
was among the most aesthetically pleasing locks on the canal. However, the biggest attraction is Joël Barthes, éclusier sculpteur, who has lived in the lock house since 1988. As the story goes, within a few years after moving
in, he found a large piece of wood and transformed it into a decorative feature for his yard. He never stopped. To date, he has created over two hundred pieces from junk and recycled materials largely donated by locals. Some pieces have been sold, but most remain on the property. He had an exclusive exhibit space with several visitors assured each day.
Joël has participated in a few exhibitions, but, for the most part, he enjoys moving boats efficiently through his lock and pursuing his art career on the side. Today, he did his job well and our delay was shorter than anticipated.
The gates open and we were free to, once again, float down the canal. One of Joel’s metal men was attached to the last lock and seemed to be opening the door for our new adventure.
I shouted out. “Full throttle.”
The crew laughed. We would proceed at the same speed we always had. Still not competing with cyclists or joggers, we could out perform most conversational walkers, unaware that they were in a race.
“Monkey Girl”, are you getting these pictures,” said Ginny
“I don’t have a phone.”
“Well, I’ve got pictures of the pups.”
“That’s right, they’re together.”
Beginning in 1978 and for the next twenty-two years, our colleagues on the crew were footloose and fancy free while Karen and I were focused on parenting and finding good childcare. Today, the roles have reversed. We enjoy our freedom while the rest of the crew are challenged to find, not just dog sitters, but quality dog sitters. Pet friendly lodging and eateries are required now when the group travels locally.
All of this because Captain David and Monkey Girl are the proud parents of Mojo, a refined standard poodle, white with patches of grey and black. Lotti, a pure white, soft-coated Wheaton terrier is Knotman and Ginny’s little girl.
The dogs were with different sitters, but, due to scheduling issues, were together for the next four days. The current sitter was texting photos of Mojo and Lotti playing side by side and our colleagues were gushing over each one.
“They really do play well together,” said Monkey Girl.
“I know, we need to set more play dates.”
“I totally agree.”
Young parents are adorable. Especially when they are missing their children.
I volunteered to steer for awhile so they could all enjoy the reassuring photos, delivered by satellite from San Francisco to our floating home. Karen and I glanced at each other, smiling. We have raised two boys who are now raising their children. We have wonderful memories of Bon Aimee, our golden retriever and, before that, an poodle terrier mix named Cocoa, our practice child. One day, in the future, we will most likely get another dog. But for now, weighing the added stress and responsibility always leads us to “been there, done that.” We enjoy playing with our friends pets whenever we can and going home alone.
Reaching Pulcheric before the locks closed was beyond our control. We had over an hour to travel two kilometers and open water ahead. Success was dependent upon the number of other boats waiting to get through. Our fate would slowly be revealed after the next few curves in the canal.
As we turned, Ginny made a quick observation. “It’s not looking good.”
“No, it’s not, said Captain David, we just need to tie up and wait.”
There was little movement over the next twenty minutes and then there was none. Time caught up with us and the locks closed for the night. We weren’t going anywhere until morning.
Pulcheric, the supermarche and the ten-thousand steps into town and back were not happening.
Dinner had the improvisation of a jazz concert. Wine, olives and the last of some Comte cheese started us off. We had eggs and an onion that Monkey Girl turned into one of her frittatas. Salad was a collective of every vegetable we had left and there was even a bar of chocolate for dessert, which was cut into five equal pieces.
We stayed up and talked politics until we wore ourselves out. Ginny always had something to share from Politico, the Captain recited David Borowitz from New Yorker magazine and I was starting to follow clips of Stephen Cobert monologues that were becoming increasingly poignant.
Karen was taking in all in and becoming more agitated and animated with each passing comment. We have shared a berth literally our entire adult lives and since the first day, she has always been a Socialist with a taste for nice things, a Lexus Socialist, through and through.
Politically, Karen is the most and least cynical member of the crew. Her unique political perspectives are based, more than anything, on history. She is a firm believer that homosapiens shares a genetic deficiency that makes them repeat their mistakes.
“Shall we make a list of the maniacal dictators in the world that were elected?” She threatens a lecture to those who don’t share her concern that Donald Trump could very well beat Hillary. She’s right. One only has to go back to the start of the Twentieth Century to assemble a legitimate top ten. Ask anyone who was part of the Allied Forces, less than a decade before my birth.
Is Karen not reading Politico or David Borowitz or watching Cobert? She agrees with them, enjoys there humor, but does not rely on them to deliver us from evil.
“Karen, you are so right about history, but he’s imploding before our eyes,” said Captain David, “Pussygate will probably break him.”
I could see comfort in the eyes of four crew members and I could feel mine. Pussygate would be the beginning of the end.
The crew is so politically aligned that these late night discussions never turn sour. They are pep rallies that leave us high enough to fight another day. We had done this many times before, but never on a boat in Southern France, our cupboards bare, our bellies full and each filled to the brim with exuberance and buoyancy.
A robust sense of freedom exudes from the soul when one has no place to be other than where they are.
THE NEXT MORNING
I could hear the wind and feel the cool air as my eyes opened from a deep sleep.
Karen was awake. “It’s cold, I needed an extra blanket. My phone says there is a seventy percent chance of rain later.”
The grey, overcast skies were clearly visible from the galley. The prediction from Karen’s weather apps may be low but we’ll all know if it changes. She is what I call a “weather watcher,” moving back and forth between Google Weather and the Weather Channel so as not to miss anything. I never look at mine, it’s too much work. I simply ask Karen about each day and she delivers a detailed, hour-by-hour analysis.
“Honey, do you think I should wear a sweater?”
“Well, at six it will be seventy-two, but then drops to sixty-seven,then…”
“Great. I’ll just layer.”
There was enough food and coffee to get us through breakfast. The lock was free and opening soon. We needed to decide what we were doing.
Captain David said, “Lets not go into Pulcheric. We can pick up some lunch in a village along the way and, surely, there is some type of marche in Homps.”
“Knotman and I want to cook our balsamic chicken and grape dish tonight,” said Ginny. It was our last night aboard Vision 3.
I responded, “Love that dish, but need I remind you that this is the third time you have cooked it for us.”
Robin spoke. “She never does that.”
“Apparently she does.”
Monkey Girl questioned, “Does what?”
“Cooks the same dish twice for the same people.”
“He says that but it’s total bullshit,” said Ginny defending herself. “You just said that I’ve already cooked it twice for us. But, if it’s troubling for you, we can take a pass”
“No, no, no, no.”
Robin and Ginny are entertainers and love hosting dinner parties. They cooked their delicious balsamic chicken and grape recipe one night in Todo Santos and Karen suggested that it should become a vacation tradition.
“You’ll never see it again,” said Knotman that night, six years ago.
He then outed Ginny’s secret rule that any of her guests would not see that same recipe twice. Although she has never quite admitted it, she now feels comfortable and will nudge the rules for us. Aside from Todo Santos, they served it at a party after my son’s wedding and, hopefully, would again tonight in Homps.
Once through Ecluse Pulcheric, we kept going, all agreeing that there was no longer a need to “slep” into the village for food. We had over six kilometers to the next lock and saw the need to soak up as much of this visual as we could in the short time we had left.
The overcast sky was a canvas, the dark clouds moving across like black brush strokes. The light drizzle would soon turn to rain.
Ginny, our chief navigator said, “It looks like there is a tiny port in La Redorte and we should get there before noon.”
“I thought I read that there was a Roman aqueduct in La Redorte,” said Karen.
“Your’e right, it shows it on the map.”
We were counting down. Ecluse Jouarres was quick and easy, even in the rain. After an eight-foot drop, we gently cruised into an empty, passive water stop in the commune of La Redorte. They had become so
commonplace that the thought of only one more lock before our final destination was insignificant.
After thrusting to the wall and securing the boat, we decided to raise the sun shade to keep as much of the deck dry as possible. The light rain was giving no signs of letting up.
Once moving on the water, the shade came down in anticipation of another low bridge and we would be open to the elements. Maybe it would pass after some time exploring the village.
As part of a government reorganization in 2015, La Redorte, population around twelve hundred, is defined, like Pulcheric, as one of twenty-three communes within the canton or territorial sub-division of Le Haut-
Minervois. It is most known for the Chateau de la Redorte & Spa, a five-star resort catering to all of southern France and advertised as only a thirty-minute drive from Carcassonne, a place we left three days ago. These boats go slow.
It was decided, after grabbing some umbrellas, that we would all go our own ways and meet back at the boat in ninety minutes.
“Whoever sees an good food option for lunch, buy it and we can eat on the boat,” said Captain David, proposing a strategy that sounded good to everyone. None of us were hungry yet.
A five hundred foot walk and a bridge crossing left Karen and I in the only
village center, one long street for all the businesses, retail and public services. I loved the buildings for their authenticity and their architecture. Like a few days ago in Marseillette, I began photographing nearly everything. For some reason I wanted to capture the look of this genuine small village that, most likely, exists to support the Chateau Spa.
I shot the post office, an old dwelling with ivy-covered walls and, what turned out to be one of my favorite photos, an old bookstore with pale blue shutters. As I was
seeking a better image, I saw a familiar face coming out through the door, waving something that looked like an old paperback book.
“Hey Ropes, I bought you a present,” said Captain David, yelling across the street.
“Great.” I waved an acknowledgment as we continued in different directions.
Minutes later, we ran into Knotman and Ginny and walked together for awhile until we spotted our other compatriots entering a little shop with a brightly painted hot pink and gray sign that read:
“Look at those guys,” said Karen.
“My guess is that it’s gonna be fresh hot rolls and pastries for lunch,” said Knotman.
Karen, fearing that she will be stranded on a boat with nothing but carbs and sugar, said, “Not me!”
“Don’t worry, we always take care of you.”
I know that in emergency situations, Karen always has a stash of baby carrots somewhere. Years ago, we were sitting in the Cabo San Lucas Airport, waiting for the other members of the crew to arrive, when a beautiful, happy looking Golden Retriever, attached to a security guard, sat at her feet.
The guard said, “Ma’am, are you carrying any fruit or vegetables?”
With people around us staring, Karen plead guilty and pulled a baggie out of her purse and handed it to him. He politely nodded and confiscated her carrots.
When the crew arrived, after a few hugs, I declared, “Karen has already been busted.”
I relished in telling the story and ended with, “One day, we are going to be detained in some remote place in the world because of your damn carrots.”
We laughed and Karen gave me a look that encapsulated every expletive imaginable. She doesn’t always appreciate that great comedy comes from life.
“It looks like a quaint little place, let’s check it out,” I said.
Ginny added, “And find out what the Captain and Monkey Girl are up to.”
Walking into La Mie’nervoise, I felt that I had won Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. The smells were indescribable. The left side of the shop was a
virtual fairyland of tarts, torts, eclairs, macarons and fresh pain d’epices. On the right side, the smells from fresh, warm baguettes, brioche, boule and Fougasse bread with gruyere cheese signaled that this little spot was both delightful and dangerous. The bakers were proficient artisans but, in the end, the shop was nothing more than an alluring house of temptation.
We bought two large sandwiches that were taken back to the boat and cut into many pieces. It was the same drill for the eclair that accidentally fell into someone’s bag.
Holding up a well-used paperback book for me to see, David said, “I bought you an Elmore Leonard book, Mr. Paradise.”
He pulled it back. “But I want to read it again first, then I’ll give it to you.”
We had both separately binge watched the series, “Justified” on the FX channel. The many seasons were based on “Fire In the Hole, one of Leonard’s books. Captain David was surprised that I hadn’t read any and
took on the responsibility of assuring that I did so. I look forward to it after he finishes re-reading it.
After a few curves on the canal, we came upon the picturesque Roman aqueduct. I am amazed at these remarkable design feats. From reading history, Karen can better visualize what it may have been like centuries ago when they performed an essential role in the
modernization of the world. We had seen remnants of this system at Pont-du-Gard a few hours from here and as far away as Segovia in central Spain. The aqueducts are symbols of human ingenuity and innovative spirit.
The Curse of Narbonne
The afternoon rain turned into thunder and lighting. The canal was now adjacent to miles of flat agricultural land and, off in the distance, the lightning bolts had an air of being close to the ground. The crew had three kilometers, one lock and one night left aboard Vision 3. We would debark the next morning before traveling by train to Montpellier.
Knotman limped up the steps to the sun deck. “I finished our travel plans for tomorrow,” he said. “We leave from the Lézignan-Corbières station at nine-fifteen and have a thirty-minute layover in Narbonne. We’ll be in Montpellier by noon.”
Karen lifted both arms and let her head and shoulders fall back against the padded seat. “No, not Narbonne!”
“That’s right, you guys weren’t too happy with Narbonne when we first met up,” said Captain David, “in fact, Ropes Pierre was thoroughly pissed.”
“At anything and everything,” I said, owning my state of mind when I arrived in Castelnaudary.
Ginny spoke up. “Alright, let’s hear this story.”
“It’s difficult for me to talk about,” I said smiling.
“Nothing is difficult for you to talk about. Let’s hear it.”
Although the crew met briefly in Paris, each couple traveled separately to Castelnaudary. Our itinerary led us on a high speed train from Gare Lyon
direct to Narbonne. After a brief lay over, we would transfer to a more localized train for the short ride to our final destination. The first leg of the journey foreshadowed a relaxing travel day. Then we arrived at the Narbonne station.
With only fifteen-minutes before our train departed, we had little time to locate the next track and move our luggage to the new platform. The electric signage with that information was not working. The small waiting room was congested as two repairman were stretched across the floor working on the under belly of a dissembled ticketing machine. Their work created dust and a little puddle of water. Lifting my luggage, I stepped over four big feet and began to look for an information desk. We had twelve minutes before our connection was due to arrive.
The information desk and the ticket counter were one in the same. With no signage available, there were nearly twenty people ahead of me with questions. Anxious and not feeling in control, I looked through a glass wall to the main platform and saw Karen holding out both hands with her fingers spread. We had ten minutes to determine where we had to be and get ourselves there.
I extended my arm to indicate the many people in line that would have their questions answered before me. We both were beginning to panic and I knew that this mime between us would not end well. Most likely, one of us would, in total frustration, adjust our glasses with a middle finger, our secret, all encompassing password for “stop talking, “I’ve had enough” or “I don’t want to deal to you when you’re this way.”
It seemed like each person before me was involved in an extended conversation, but, ten minutes after our train was scheduled to depart, I spoke to an agent.
“That train was delayed one hour, now 14:15,” she said.
My impulse, after having been in line for twenty minutes, was to seek a longer dialogue. I wanted to suggest that they could save their customers valuable time during these power outages by having someone service the people in line with only quick questions. Then, realizing who and where I was, I decided to find Karen to tell her that we did not miss our ride.
“Merci,” I said and left.
We now had forty minutes before our new train arrived, time to use the restroom and get something to eat. There was a orange cone on the floor in front of the men’s room and a hand-written “out of order” sign on the door, secured with black electrical tape, a classy touch.
The attendant was as helpful as the situation allowed. “It’s not working, just use the women’s.”
I hate using women’s bathrooms. Firstly, there is usually a long line for me to feel conspicuous in and, secondly, there is this pressure to leave it better than I found it. On this day, it was open and I was in and out in record time.
Complaining as I lifted up one slice of bread on my turkey and cheese sandwich, I said, “Karen, this bread is wet.”
“Too much mayo?”
“No, wet like soggy, like it was frozen overnight, then put on a counter to thaw.”
“Take it back.”
“Forget it, they’re all this way.” I peeled off the turkey slices and cheese and threw the inedible bread in a nearby trash can.
The delayed coach arrived on time. Once inside, we gathered our luggage around us and sat in seats down the aisle. Karen pulled up a book on her Kindle and I put on headphones and scrolled through my music library. This is where we go to decompress. The Narbonne station experience was behind us and we planned to be in Castelnaudary within the hour.
Karen tapped my shoulder and I paused the music.
“We’re going to be there in five minutes.”
We gathered our luggage and prepared to enter the station.
There was no station in Castelnaudary, just something that looks like a bus stop with a plexiglass overhang. As the train slowed to a stop, we patiently stood beside our seats. When the doors opened, we made our way down the aisle to the exit. Seconds later, they closed and the train began to accelerate. Unlike our upscale ride from Paris, this commuter train operated like a rapid transit system. Doors open, people get off and on, doors close and life quickly moves ahead.
We both looked at each other, stunned, to the delight of a French couple, seated a few rows back, who were laughing uncontrollably. I was angered for an instant, then realized that there is humor in the sight of two Americans carrying backpacks and luggage, looking shocked as the doors closed in their faces. Maybe they weren’t trying to be rude, just couldn’t stop laughing.
“You can get off at the next stop,” said the French man, still very much amused.
I was relieved that he spoke some English and nodded.
The next stop was eighteen miles south of Castelnaudary, some remote pastural commune named Avignonet. As we quickly departed the train, I turned toward the French man. “Will there be another one coming that can take us back?”
“Eventually.” Both he and the woman began laughing again.
We stepped off the train to nothingness. A defining fact about the commune of Avignonet is that the population of 281 people in 1793 dropped to 214 in 2010.
For the short term, I thought that our best hope was to sit down and wait for the train that we were told would eventually come. Karen felt differently.
“Do you think they have Uber or cabs out here?”, she asked. The slope between frustration, anger and cynicism is a slippery one.
“No I don’t. If you’re looking for ground transportation, I suggest that you jump on a fucking cow and hope it’s going in the right direction.”
“Well, if there is no trains coming until morning, I want to explore other options before it gets dark.” She walked off.
“Do you have phone service?”
“No, but I’m able to text Monkey Girl. They’re looking into options.”
Moments later, I noticed a dim light far down the tracks coming toward us. Waving my arms to get her attention, I called out Karen’s name. Twenty meters down the track, she heard me and turned.
“Train coming!” With one arm raised, I frenetically pointed a finger in its direction. She started back, walking along the side of the tracks.
Turning my head, I suddenly realized that this train wasn’t stopping. In an instant, it was upon us, bound for Paris at one hundred-fifty miles per hour, no more than six feet from my nose. It was five seconds of chaos. The sound was excruciating, my eyes were nearly shut from the blast of wind and my lips quivered uncontrollably. Down the tracks, Karen was frozen with fear, her head turned downward and away from the blast. Then it was gone and the silence was deafening. I checked in.
“Are you okay?”
“I think so.”
“I’m guessing that wasn’t our train after all.”
Checking to see if she adjusted her glasses, there was no sound or movement. We both needed a moment to sit and compose ourselves, then refocus on getting to Castelnaudary.
Relief arrived twenty minutes later in the form of a slow, quiet northbound commuter train. We boarded and sat on our suitcases next to the doors for the ride back and, fortunately, slept in a bed that night.
Laughing, Knotman said, “Well Ropes, you must have been beside yourself.”
“No, I was beside him, listening to his entire sermon.” Karen sought the sympathy she deserved.
“I got him a glass of wine, some cassoulet and he was a new man,” said Captain David.
Mellowed out after six days on the canal, I raised my glass. “We survived the curse of Narbonne.”
Karen offered a prophetic warning. “And we’re going back.”
It was appropriate that the water entry to Homps required finesse through another low, narrow bridge that served as the portal to the compact, but easily maneuverable lock. Once the gates opened, we drifted into the basin. Within minutes, Captain David backed Vision 3 into a berth as Knotman yelled out instructions for the final time. Once the boat was secured, I connected to the electrical power station and water hook-up, which consisted of coupling our issued garden hose to a nearby spigot, pushing it through an opening on the lower deck and turning it on. We would all have a nice last shower. For the evening and next morning, Vision 3 was our floating Air BNB.
Homps is a small commune with less than one thousand people whose residents mostly work in farming, but its ideal location supports vacation
rentals and tourism. In addition to the waterfront amenities that the Canal Du Midi brings, it is centrally located with easy access to Carcassonne, Minerve, a medieval Cather Castle and the small fortified village of Aigne that was described as a magical fairy tale.
Ginny and Knotman left the boat first, wandering into the village to find poulet, raisin and vinaigre balsamique. They had planned a nostalgic dinner, one that would certainly evoke old memories and create some new ones. The rest of us walked over to the Le Boat office to arrange for transportation to the train station the next morning.
As we walked back by Vision 3 on our way into the village, Captain David noticed something.
“Hey Ropes, didn’t you hook up the hose for water.”
“I did.” I now noticed that it was missing.
Both Karen and Monkey Girl shrugged the shoulders of innocence.
Captain David questioned. “I wonder if someone from Le Boat took it.”
Moments laters we were back in the office describing our plight to the receptionist.
“It’s the gypsies,” she said, “When people leave their boats, they steal and sell them to others. They get five euros for each hose.”
Admitting to little knowledge of gypsies, they seem to get blamed for many things in Europe. Throughout Spain, France and Italy, there are warnings that they will pick your pockets, steal your purse or sell you fake merchandise. We always take precautions for the worst, but also have fond memories of being serenaded by gypsy minstrels in the old moorish Albaicin district of Granada. A beautiful evening of authentic music with stunning views of Alhambra was worth the risk.
“Do you have a replacement for us?” Captain David’s tone expressed an expectation.
“No, just grab one when it’s free,” said the clerk.
“If I was continuing down the canal and just paid five euros, I may not want to give it up.”
We left the office with the understanding that we were on our own. The rain had stopped and the thunderous late afternoon skies had the hue of orange sherbet as we walked along the path. Captain David turned the opposite direction at the fork.
I asked, “Where are you going?”
“To get my hose back.”
A mischievous laugh from Monkey Girl expressed her support of the idea.
“Let’s just say that we steal a hose and later someone knocks on our door asking where we got it,” I said.
“We tell them that we bought it off a gypsy for five euros.”
“Great idea, let’s do it.”
After reconnecting our hose, we walked into the village to pick-up some fruit for breakfast and some greens, a baguette and a bottle of wine, our contribution to dinner.
As we crossed the new bridge that spanned the canal, I made eye contact
with a gypsy man standing alone. He knew that I knew and I knew that he knew that I knew. However, his enterprise would continue long after we’re gone. Later, I saw the old man buying food at a small marche. That five euro note circulated well through the local economy.
Our last supper was marvelous as always and the backdrop was stunning. As the sun began to set, the orange creamsicle clouds burned golden at the tips like fire against the darkening blue sky. A pinkish hue illuminated the galley through dinner and slowly faded with our last glass of wine.
Knotman offered an amusing challenge. “If we wanted to do another week or so, we could take this boat to the Mediterranean.”
No one answered. The canal experience had pushed our mental and
physical proficiencies, sometimes to the brink. However, we survived it all, knowing that mastery could be in hand after some practice. Most important, our friendships were intact and strong. Even at an advanced age, this crew, as a whole, remained better than the sum if its parts. We left the canal knowing it would never leave us. Tomorrow evening, in the city of Montpellier, the crew would celebrate our canal experiences, the ups and downs that made it all real. On our last night as sailors, we fell asleep to the rhythm of heavy rain, lightning bolts and the thunder that followed.
Our suitcases were packed and stacked near the rear door before we had coffee and breakfast. We wanted to start the transition day on schedule and make it as stress-free as possible. With clear skies and good intentions, we arrived at Gare Lezignan-Corbiere ninety minutes before our train would depart for Narbonne. We hurried, now we waited and did some serious people watching. Small town train stations are as essential to the fabric of French culture as road stops and freeways are to ours.
Narbonne was only twelve kilometers away and, as we boarded the train, Karen and I warned our compatriots not to get too comfortable and to be mindful of exiting quickly. The crew had to split up to find available seating, but we sat on our luggage near the door. Fool me twice, shame on me.
First off the train, we checked to see if the others had exited safely. Captain David and Monkey Girl emerged from the rear of the car but the others were nowhere in sight. As the wave of departing passengers dissipated, we saw Knotman sitting on a bench and Ginny in a discussion with an attendant.
As we approached them, I asked, “What’s going on?”
“Knotman left his walking stick on the train,” said Ginny, “We got everything off but that.”
The Narbonne station had claimed another victim. If recovered, the attendant said it could be back at the station by next day, long after we had left the region. It was gone.
The immediate task at hand was to transport the crew and luggage downstairs through a tunnel that led to the opposite platform. Four of us handled the bags and Ginny handled Knotman. We made the transition with minutes to spare.
Sitting down during the forty-five minute ride to Montpellier, Knotman said, “I loved that stick. I bought it in Beijing.”
“And now, it will spend its remaining days with an old Parisian,” said Ginny, adding some levity to the situation.
I thought about the curse of Narbonne, but decided not to share it. Our experience aside, it is reputed to be a very nice city with much history and it was time to move on.
As on the boat, we each assumed a specific role to get the luggage and our hobbled crew member up three flights to the Montpellier station taxi
platform. Four of us approached the top of the stairs as Knotman and Ginny walked out of the elevator doors and, within minutes, the crew piled into two cabs for the short ride to the Grand Hotel du Midi. We had less than twenty-four hours to unwind and celebrate our adventure before moving on to something closer to our comfort zone.
After check-in, we strolled through the old narrow streets with chic shops before settling in at an outdoor cafe for lunch. It was then that I realized Montpellier was a special city with a romantic charm, hidden from the world, at least the one between my ears.
Seconds from our hotel we came upon an entire city block that was covered
by a canopy of pink umbrellas, like some miniature Christo project. During the weekend, the streets were open to pedestrians only and the shops, unlike other upscale destinations, were promoting sales and discounts. With these distractions, getting the crew to the cafe was like herding cats. We all saw places that we wanted to re-visit.
The afternoon was a good time for the crew to couple-up and go separate ways. Karen and I, as is often the case, found a shoe store. An hour later, we both left wearing our great deals, mine a European-style, black lace-up with hard rubber soles, dressy, but casual.
Returning to the hotel, we saw Monkey Girl and Captain David standing by the concierge who was engrossed in a phone call. Intent on spending the crew’s travel fund on food, they had worked hard to secure a reservation with a known chef who usually cooks for only two parties per night.
“Well, look at this guy,” I said as Knotman strolled in with his new walking stick. They had spent their afternoon productively.
“Good as new,” he reported.
“Try to hang on to this one,” said Ginny, securing the last word.
The Last Night
The crew met in the hotel lounge for cocktails before walking to dinner. As we sat around a small table, the waiter delivered our usual: three vodka martini’s, a gin and tonic, a Manhattan and a decaf Americano. The purple velvet drapes and mahogany walls of the lounge added an old world elegance. In contrast, a young Asian DJ, tucked away in a dimly lit corner playing her techno music, created a modern, global vibe.
The concierge approached our table and spoke to Captain David. “I’m sorry sir, but the chef is ill tonight and will not be cooking.”
“Bummer,” said the Captain, recalling the effort he put into this reservation.
With the same thought, Monkey Girl uttered, “Huge bummer.”
Fortunately, the concierge prepared a backup reservation before presenting the bad news.
“Sir, I have contacted the maitre’d at La Grillardin and she has a open table at seven-thirty, but needs it for another party at nine. It’s very pleasant and I’m certain you will enjoy her menu.”
We took the advice from a gentleman who makes dinner reservations for a living and, with limited time, finished our drinks and began a leisurely walk to the restaurant.
Imagine walking through a smaller Paris at night with no traffic other than pedestrians. The streets were hosting a festive affair highlighted by eclectic music, culinary scents and herds of young good-looking people.
I turned to Karen. “This is where I would be spending my weekends if I was twenty-one and single.”
“Me too,” she said.
We later discovered that there are ten universities within one hundred kilometers of Montpellier and students flock here on weekends. Youthful hearts and minds are contagious. Karen and I have guiltless memories of our wild, romantic college days because we were together, although not in Montpellier.
As the narrow street twisted, we came upon a small plaza with tables set
between large trees, lit only by the glow of street lamps. It was another image of the region’s charm and part of the restaurant. Unfortunately our table for the next ninety minutes was inside.
We were seated in a long, narrow room with a table set for six and one
other for two, occupied by a young couple. Considerate of their quiet romantic dinner, we tried not to be disruptive old sailors boasting about life on the water.
With a few bottles of wine, we ordered dinner quickly. Monkey Girl, once again, selected the homemade foie gras and I the grilled scallops with risotto and fresh vegetables. At first, no one took notice when Knotman ordered something on the menu that read:
“Camembert cheese, cooked in its box in the chimney (in the oven at lunch time), smoked pork and boiled potatoes”
The foil covering the top of the traditional Camembert wooden box, was cut open and the hot cheese was poured over the remaining ingredients.
“My arteries are tightening up just watching this,” I said. “Can I get you something green?”
“I’m not a greens guy,” said Knotman.
“One worm in your salad back in 1976 and you’re no longer a greens guy?” I said, mentioning something that happened forty years ago in a San Diego restaurant.
“Oh God, the worm story,” said Ginny laughing.
Knotman added. “I forgot about the worm.”
“If I don’t keep it alive, this story may die forever,” I said, referencing my photographic memory for all things mundane. The truth is that Knotman is a great greens guy and many have enjoyed his gourmet salads over the years.
We were all relaxed and the impressions of our experiences were flowing freely. Karen turned the conversation to average daily temperature.
“Actually, the weather has pretty much cooperated all week.”
“We had a bit of everything,” added Knotman.
Captain David chimed in. “I’m happy that it wasn’t bloody hot the entire week.”
Monkey Girl added, “The weather is turning autumnal.”
“As are we,” I said.
For the remaining forty-five minutes, we continued with stories about life on the canal and toasted for each time we ran aground. In the end, all was overshadowed by Captain David’s question.
“So, where is our next adventure?”
After some initial research, that question would be answered at the next crew retreat, when we gather with our recipes and wines, an easel, some paper, tape and multi-colored pens. In a relaxing atmosphere, Knotman will deliver his financial report, we will become motivated, and new ideas will begin to ooze. One will rise to the top and the next adventure will soon be confirmed and calendared. That’s essentially how this crew rolls.
Karen and I, holding hands, walked back toward the hotel together, in the streets among the young, beautiful people.
“Do you feel old?” she asked.
“No, I feel young, I just look old.”
We would have an anniversary soon and could not have dreamed forty-seven years ago that we would be here tonight in this place, still together. I’ve known Karen longer than I have known anyone. In the early seventies, we attended a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert in Berkeley. Singer songwriter Neil Young, in his slow, whiney voice, introduced another band member, Stephen Stills. “We’ve had our ups and downs, but we’re still playing together.” An apt description of any relationship that has survived time.
Another singer songwriter, Joni Mitchell honestly described the consequences of a long affair when she said, “There are some lines you have put here and some you’ve erased.” Longevity is nice, but much better if you’re still playing together.
Minutes later in a plaza, aglow with the cobalt blue light of the Opera House facade, we came upon a crowd of people that circled several street dancers putting their talent on display. To the crowds rhythmic clapping, each
performer took a turn with a brief breakdance routine. We were immersed in the moment, our youthful spirit intact. I didn’t want to leave and felt a connection with this group of young strangers. It was the perfect climax to a sojourn that had taken us from surviving the curse of Narbonne to Castelnaudary, through forty-two locks, medieval Carcassonne, the low bridges of Berriac, the charm of Trebes, to this night in Montpellier.
The crew felt fortunate to have, for a week, lived a charmed life on the Canal du Midi. We were tested as a team and proved to ourselves that we were up to the challenge. More important, we felt blessed to still have desire and an appetite for more.