Le Boat, Canals and Locks
It is one of the phenomena of the inland waterways that you can go for hours without meeting another boat, then will encounter one on the sharpest and nastiest bend in the system. ~ From Journeys of The Swan by John Liley (1971)
We arrived at the boat dock at the appointed time, ready and anxious to board our floating home for the next week. As Jacques, the boat attendant, walked us from the check-in station down to the river front he explained to Tom and Jim that they would receive a lesson in operating the locks that we would be encountering along the canals. Many of them were manned by attendants who lived at the lock stations, he explained, but others would be manual and when we approached the manual locks we would have to operate them ourselves.
“Here is your boat”, he said in heavily accented English. “Let me show you around”. We all climbed aboard and looked at each, grinning and chuckling as we attempted to follow Jacques through the narrow hallway towards the galley of the boat. Jim is a tall guy and it was quickly clear that he would not be able to stand up inside this boat. Thank goodness we had an open top with a table, chairs and a second station for driving the boat, because Jim would be walking in a bent fashion through the inside and would need somewhere to stretch out!
Jacques moved quickly and surely through the small interior, pointing into the 3 bedrooms as we passed the doorways. We quickly tried to peer in as we passed and I caught glimpses of small beds and even smaller bathrooms. We moved into the more open galley area and here was our kitchen and dining room for the week. As Jacques moved on to show Jim and Tom the engine and teach them the basics of the boat operation, Jan and I stopped to explore the cupboards of the galley.
I was astounded as I discovered delicate china cups and plates in the small wood cupboards and held them out to Jan. “Look at this! China dishes on a boat in the canals!” I exclaimed. She looked up and laughed for she had made some equally fun discoveries. She pulled up a glass French press coffee maker and tiny ceramic egg cups and spoons for our 3-minute eggs in the mornings. We laughed and laughed – only in France! I was used to camping with chipped and dented metal military mess kits and an old cast iron skillet to perch on a grate over the open fire. I was not anticipating delicate china dishes, formal silverware, cloth napkins and cut glass salt and pepper shakers in my camping stock!
When Jacques and the guys came back into the galley area, Jacques inquired if we had purchased food to stock our boat. It was Saturday, he explained, and all the shops in the little villages along our route would be closed on Sunday. We had not had the chance to shop so Jacques offered to drive Jan and me to the closest grocery store while Tom and Jim packed our belongings into the boat and filled the water tank with fresh drinking water from a hose that Jacques supplied.
Jan and I were laughing as we jumped into the van with Jacques and drove away, leaving Tom and Jim looking a bit confused with the piles of luggage at their feet and a green rubber hose hanging from their hands. The grocery was set to close at 6:00 and it was 5:30 when Jacques pulled up. “Hurry!” he said as we jumped from the van and headed towards the entrance. “I must run to a store for my wife, I will pick you up at 6:00”, he called as we dashed away. Jan and I looked around in confusion as we entered the store – where should we start and what did we need, we wondered. There was a short suggested stock list that our boat welcome package included, but beyond that we had no idea what to expect.
With Jan leading the way and interpreting the signs, we began to gather our groceries. Our refrigerator was tiny and would not hold much and we knew that we would have to picnic often, since we could not always plan to be near a village at lunch time. We quickly gathered what we felt were the basics, finding cheese and meat delicacies in the open meat cases, crusty French bread in the bakery and fresh fruits, eggs and milk in the dairy. All that was left was the French wine and this is where the confusion set in. So many varieties to choose from! I finally devised a plan – I watched the locals that came through the wine aisles and I followed them to see what their selections were. There was a particular Bordeaux that seemed quite popular and the price was right, so I loaded several bottles into my cart and off we went.
We paid for the groceries, bagged them in our own shopping bags and dashed back outside the store right at 6:00. Jacques was just pulling up to the front when we exited, exhausted but proud of ourselves for navigating so quickly through a French grocery store with no list.
“You are done already?” Jacques exclaimed in surprise when he saw us. “I was sure you would take much longer”.
“Oh no, Jacques,” Jan said as we loaded our bags into his van. “You said 6:00 and we didn’t want to keep you waiting, you have been so kind to bring us here.” He grinned and thanked us, driving us back to our boat.
After helping us carry the bags down to the boat and into the galley he led us toward a small boat house for our lock training. We were all excited to learn but a bit unsure about the lesson being conducted in the boat house. How could we learn to operate manual canal locks without seeing the lock and experiencing opening it, we wondered? Jacques proudly pulled 4 chairs around a small television set, pushed an old video tape into an adjacent VCR and said with a flourish, “This movie will show you how to open the locks on your own. I will be waiting outside and you can leave when you are done.” He pushed START on the VCR, waved his hand, and disappeared out the door.
The video began with a friendly man smiling and standing atop a lock. He began to demonstrate the operation of the lock, providing important instructions throughout the process. The instructions, however, were all in French and we could not understand a word. We sat in shock for a moment then, when the absurdity of the situation struck us, we burst out laughing. Soon we were wiping tears from our eyes we were laughing so hard and it was impossible to focus on the video.
“Well”, Jim said, “I guess we’d better watch closely because we have no idea what he’s telling us.” He got up and pushed REWIND on the VCR and after collecting ourselves, we pulled our chairs closer to the old TV set and proceeded to attempt to memorize the steps we saw demonstrated on the tape. Fifteen minutes later the video ended and we were officially trained. Look out France!