Catastrophe (in French with a silent “e”). Morning in Pagny-sur-Meuse, a tiny ville with only the barest essentials: a pharmacy, a hairdresser, a cafe and a boulangerie (bread bakery). We woke to a cloudy, chilly morning and trudged to the boulangerie for our morning croissants. The town was earily still. Streets empty. No cars. Plague? War? No, worse. The boulangerie was closed. Closed at 7:30 a.m. Why would any sane person, meaning other than Americans, be on the street if the boulangerie were closed? We beat a retreat to the barge, had our coffee and tea and, hungry, deprived, started the engine and motored away toward Commercy, a city that would have boulangeries on every corner, as is proper.
The barge, too, was put off by the morning’s disaster. As we reached the bottom of our third lock, as the gates in front of us were opening after we’d been lowered five meters as we headed down the Meuse, the engine burped and died. A descent down the ladder into the engine room showed a coolant hose had let lose, spilling, again, all the coolant into the engine oil pan. What to do with a dead engine sitting at the bottom of a lock, 15 feet of stone walls on either side of us? It was noon, what else could be done but lunch. We dined in the wheelhouse tied at the bottom of the lock. After, we fixed the engine and motored down the canal to Commercy.
Commercy is a city with pride. We are in Lorraine now, posters of the eponymouse quiche are on walls, people pant in anticipation of what President Sarkozy declared is the 600th anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc (pronouned in one breath as “Jondar”), the Maid of Lorraine who saved (almost) France from the English, a declaration inexplicably touted as a campaign nod to conservatives. Commercy, going one step further, is also the home of the madeleine, a yummy spongy cookie named after the mother of King Louis XV’s chef. They’re everywhere here. The streets are paved with them. They grow on trees. We motored past the official madeleine bakery on the canal and had to increase throttle to push through the powerful aroma. We bought a tub of 500 of them and have been eating our way through.
Summer would likely be busy here but this time of year we have the town dock all to ourselves. This is a typical location, a long dock right in the heart of town, with water and electricity, and wifi, for free. Imagine pulling into a city marine in the States on a 70-foot boat and not being charged. We like it so much here we’re staying four nights. City on one side, fields on the other, the River Meuse in front of us.
The mooring is located in a park, the key feature of which is a high stone wall that circles around … something. On reaching the road you look town on the Commercy Velodrome, a bicycle racing track with high, steeply banked walls. This is French NASCAR, on bicycles and with better food. The sign says the Velodrome was built in 1946. One would think that a village in eastern France, not all that far from the German border, would have had more important things to do in 1946 than to construct a velodrome. Ah, but the sign says it was built by German prisoners of war, which suggests an interesting conversation back then:
Fritz: Zo, Herman, iv de var haz been over for a year, vy are ve still in France? I vant to go home to Gretel and the kinder.
Herman: Ze French say ve must rebuild zair country before ve can go back to Germany.
Fritz: Ach de leiber, Herman, zat vill take years. France is in ruins. I vill never zee Gretel.
Herman: Not to vorry, Fritzie. Zay say not to zink about rebuilding the city. Zay vant to race bicycles first. Zen ve go home.
The Commercy Velodrome – NASCAR on bikes.
We have a reservation for Easter lunch at a small restaurant, then Monday we head off toward Verdun, the site of one of the most devastating battles of World War One.