On the road again

We’re at one week and counting down to our return to France. (Our actual return to France will be brief since while we’re flying to Charles de Gaulle Airport, we’ll pick up a rental car and drive to the barge in the Netherlands, where we’ll point the bow south and shove the throttle to full forward until we squish into the huge wheel of Camembert that marks the France-Belgium border.) We’re looking forward to fleeing the United States of America® (a registered trademark of Trump Enterprises.) This winter has been a time when the abnormal morphed into what the French call the quotidien, the every day version of normal. The New York Times added to its list of daily features, such as today’s weather, sports scores, and the Dow Jones market report a new feature: Fact Check of What Trump Said Yesterday. How easily we’ve come to accept a daily report of the President’s Lies of the Day. That’s our new normal. Sad. (Or Sad!!! in Trumptweet.)

France, at least, managed to implement its own radical political system in which everybody votes, the votes are counted, and the person with the most votes wins. Why couldn’t the U.S. think of that.

Nonetheless, we’re excited about this, our sixth summer on Hoop Doet Leven. The barge spent the winter at Tinnemanns Scheepsbouw, a shipyard in Maasbracht, Netherlands. They installed a new propeller shaft bearing at the hole in the hull where the shaft goes from inside to outside, as well as a new shaft and some other necessary fittings. When the barge went into their dry dock and was lifted out of the water the first thing I did was check out the propeller. I’ll confess that from time to time the prop has thumped into a rock or three along the side of a canal and I was curious whether the prop or the rock got the worst of the confrontation. I already knew that it was usually me who came out on the short end of any of these ear-shattering encounters. Sandra is protective of our propeller.

Whoops. The propeller isn’t supposed to look quite this bent. Good thing we had a spare.

Rightly so, as it turned out. Maybe I can blame a previous owner, or a previous owner several times removed. More rightly, I should swallow my pride and accept the blame myself. The tips of our three bladed prop were improperly bent inward. Without doubt, this customization was one of several sources for the odd vibrations I’d become used to when motoring. Not to be discouraged, I raced down into the engine room and uncovered the shiny, bronzy brand spanking new spare propeller that had been lurking in the depths underneath a diesel fuel tank ever since we bought the boat. I dragged it from its hiding place up to the deck. Voila. Problem solved.

Not quite voila, it turned out. First, a brief lesson in propellership. It turns out that as with my brother Mickey and me, propellers come in both right-handed and left-handed versions. I’d learned from an early age that left-handed Mickey has to sit at the left end of a table or we’d spend dinner knocking elbows. Propellers are equally finicky. A right-handed propeller, viewed from the rear, turns to the right, clockwise when propelling the boat forwards. A left-handed propeller turns counter- (or in Brit-speak, anti-) clockwise. Our old propeller was right-handed. For some unknowable reason, the spare prop we’d been carrying around for lo these many years was left-handed, a mirror image. This presented a problem. Put the left-handed prop on our right-handed prop shaft and when I pushed the throttle forward the boat would back up. To go forward I would have to shift the shifter into reverse. This would not do. There had to be a solution. A simple solution.

Voila again. Rather than reengineering the gear box, rather than ripping out the throttle cable and rerouting it to approach the gear box from the opposite direction, a day or so of cogitation came up with a resolution to the revolution issue. The shift lever itself, attached on the left side of its base was flipped end for end so that the lever moved to the right side, making what had been forward into the new reverse and reverse became forward. All is now well. Well, all will be well once I get used to the other-handedness of the prop and the different handling characteristics it will cause, a change too complicated to get into here.

Our cruising plan for this summer – a plan that we’ve come to accept is carved in Jello – is to head south from the Netherlands into Belgium, where we’ll stock up on beer, then continue into France, a trip that should take about a week. Once we’re back in France we’ll turn onto the Ardennes canal through northern France and then south into Reims and Champagne, reenacting our original first ever cruise six years ago. We’ll continue on this Route de Nostalgie down the River Marne to Paris, then up the Seine to Bourgogne to a winter mooring at Auxerre in northernmost Burgundy. Even though we’ll be in three countries there are no great distances involved. It seems as if each summer we shorten our travel days by a few hours per day. By this point wherever we happen to be by lunch is where we also happen to remain for the night. And likely for the next few nights.

This summer should be a change of pace in so many ways. We hope to escape the ubiquitous intrusion of Donald Trump into most every aspect of American life. Conversations that begin with an agreement to not mention his name degenerate into involuntary diatribes against the man in minutes. Otherwise reasonable intelligent people are overwhelmed by anger, fear and simple loathing. His aura is everywhere, from serious political discussions to, well, to this:

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is sold at most French pizza shops We’ll see if this flavor crosses the Atlantic.

Our winter wasn’t totally political, though. Sandra continued her practice of refusing to do anything 100 percent when it can, instead, be done 200 percent. When she wasn’t inhabiting her painter’s studio in our basement she was attending art classes. She has careful plans to paint her way across northern France this summer. The next edition of our tome, On a Barge in France (still available from Amazon in paper and e-book, by the way) will be illustrated with this summer’s sketches. A favorite painting was taken from a photo we call Joan’s Cows. It shows four beefy Charolais standing under an 800-year-old oak tree on a hill overlooking La Charite sur Loire just before sunset. Supposedly Joan of Arc stood under the same oak, pointed at the walled city across the Loire and vowed to conquer it. She failed and took one step closer to the stake at which she was burned. Here’s the photo we took.

Joan of Arc’s cows under a tree on a hill along the Loire.

And here is Sandra’s painting.

Sandra’s version of Joan’s Cows.

I’m nowhere near as artistic and busied myself building a replica of a faering, a Norwegian rowing and sailing boat based on a design from the year 950 A.D. Faerings were the Vikings’ version of a Ford F-150 pickup truck, used to take cattle, and slaves, to market and to visit friends in the next fjord. I got a tad carried away on my faering, surprise, surprise. When I return next Fall I’ll be carving its dragon head and making a square sail. And maybe a row of tiny shields to line the sides. Sounds crazy but then the most Viking of the Vikings were the berserkers, fighters so crazy that the regular Vikings gave the berserkers lots of space.

I got a bit carried away building a Viking-era faering. These plain Jane transport boats didn’t actually have dragon’s heads. This one was stuck on in jest to lighten the mood in the boat shop. His name is Puff.

We’re so ready to go. Our Things to Bring Back to France box is stuffed with goodies. Our passports are stamped with our new French long stay visas. We’re down to our final American week and the last few items on our checklists. One week from the moment these words are written I’ll be standing at the counter at the Boulangerie Paul at Charles de Gaulle Airport ordering un cafe et un pain au chocolat.

And breathing a relaxing, deep and drawn out, healing sigh of relief. In French.