Most nights we stop in a town. Most towns have a place to tie up, either a formal halte fluvial (a stopping place for boats) or a de facto place to tie up, perhaps an abandoned commercial loading dock with bollards or rings to tie to. There is almost never a charge to tie up overnight. Often there is free water to top off our tank. Sometimes there is electricity we can plug into. Always there is a boulangerie for our endless baguettes. And always there is a cafe, for a glass of wine or a beer in the afternoon or a tiny cup of coffee, which comes with a cookie. Some towns have a restaurant, usually just a husband and wife business, she in the dining room serving and greeting, he in the kitchen, inventing. You order only the day’s “menu,” three courses, including dessert, which may be sweet or may be a plate of cheeses. Wine is extra. The wine list may be long but is likely to be short. You don’t order from the wine list. You order a pichet, a small pitcher, of white or red. The owner knows what wine to serve with his food. You let him decide. He is never wrong. Dinner takes at least two hours. There is no way to rush it. Coffee comes only after dessert has been cleared. Americans who want their coffee with dessert must learn to adapt. What they desire is impossible. It cannot and will not happen. You can ask for the check but it will not come for a half hour. The only way to leave in less than a half hour after coffee is to … leave. Get up and walk to the door. Then the check will come. Otherwise, you wait. You adapt.
Being in town overnight also means a walk to the boulangerie in the chilly morning for the day’s baguette and morning croissants. The ritual at the boulangerie is as formal as a Japanese tea ceremony. One greets Madame boulangerette (it is always a woman, messieur must be out back baking away). Madam must be greeted formally with “bonjour Madame.” Until she is greeted, you fail to exist. On being greeted, she springs to life and responds with a cheery bonjour. You comment on the weather. It is cold today, Madame, you say. Madame commiserates, then smiles warmly to reward you for braving the weather to visit her. With greetings exchanged and pleasantries accomplished, you may now ask for your baguette and your croissants, carefully stating whether you want your croissant “natural,” which means just butter and flour, or “avec amonde,” sprinkled with almond slices, or (somebody’s favorite) “au chocolat.” She selects a long baguette for you and either wraps a thin piece of paper around only the center portion or slides it into a paper sleeve that leaves half the loaf exposed. The paper is your handle but you must be able to proudly display your naked baguette as you walk down the street. A Frenchman’s baguette is like an Engishman’s umbrella, as decorative as it is essential. Madame hands the baguette to you. She takes your two croissants, places them in a paper bag, pinches her fingers on the two corners of the open end of the bag and twirls the bag around her hands to twist the corners closed. They must teach this maneuver in boulangerie school. She hands you the bag. You respond with merci Madame. She tells you the price. You don’t have a clue because French numbers are so difficult (they don’t even have a number for 80, but instead say “four twenties”). You place enough money on the counter to cover double what you bought. Never hand Madame money directly. She carefully counts out your change and places it on the counter, even if your hand is held out. You accept your change and say every nice word you know, merci, bonne journee (good day), au revoir. She responds in kind. You both then respond back with et vous aussi (meaning the same to you). You glance discreetly at Madame. If she appears satisfied, you may leave. Then the next person in line repeats the entire ritual. She smiles warmly when told the weather is cold, as if thanking him for informing her of a fact of which she had been totally unaware.
This is the complete opposite of Dunkin Donuts, where food manufacturing is regimented so the village idiot can produce the same bagel in every store, where the thank yous are mandated by the franchisee operations manual. If you are in a hurry, Dunkin will satisfy you. The French way is older, slower, more like Alabama, in a good sense, than New York, or Massachusetts.
Each town shares these rituals, yet each town is different.
Last night, however, we skipped the towns. We stayed at a wild mooring, tied to the side of the canal, surrounded by pastures and hills, everything green and bursting with the sun evaporating the prior night’s spring rain. Cows are everywhere, huge white Charolais beef cattle sprinkled like giant marshmallows on the hillsides, black and white Holsteins for milk and, from time to time, Jersey girls, reminiscent of Sandra’s buddies from Appleton Farm in our home of Ipswich, where she milked and groomed and was the “cow treat” lady, Knowing she had pockets full of the special molasses and oat crunchies she baked for them, the Appleton cows would surround her, nudging their hundred-pound heads against her sides.
We motored today from Lorraine north into the Ardennes region. The River Meuse has grown wider and deeper, allowing us to rev the engine higher and go a tad faster, from a slow walk to a quick walk, still slower than a six-year-old on his first bike, training wheels and all. As if it were possible, the countryside has become even more rural. Towns are smaller and farther apart.
The river snakes through its valley, twisting and turning in long lazy esses with high hills on both sides, hills covered in pastures sprinkled with cows, cows and more cows. Every herd has at least one member who is fascinated by the barge, watching our slow passage. One herd yesterday galloped along, pacing us until stopped by a fence. Others run away from us. Most ignore us.
We tied to the canal bank around noon, after three hours motoring. Nobody is in sight except a farmer on his tractor in the distance. Cows, of course, are all around us, near and far, at our level and on the hills on both sides. It is quiet here, the only sounds the birds calling, ducks splashing into the water as they land, wind wind and more wind today, making our slow, careful entries into the locks tricky; Sandra stood ready at two locks with our spare tire, a small car tire on a heavy rope, ready to hang from the side as a shock absorber should the wind blow us into the stone side of the lock.
We walked along the river in the afternoon, seeing a town across the river but no bridge. A hand-lettered sign on the path pointed off toward “Gallo-Roman site” 7.5 kilometers to the side. We skipped it. This area exudes history. The river and its valley have been a highway, the only easy path from south to north. Roman legionnaires marched along this river right past where we tied up. Grain was delivered down this river during the Middle Ages, transported in flat barges from the fields of France to cities in Belgium and Holland, farther down the Meuse. German and French armies battled and died in the fields we pass, in 1870, when Germany won, in World Wars I and II, when Germany was defeated. We spot military cemeteries, small and large, on hillsides, miniature versions of Washington’s Arlington cemetery. Most are French dead, some say they are American cemeteries, like the one a few days ago near the Argonne battlefield from World War I. Up what seemed an abandoned dirt road one day was what a sign said was a German cemetery. So much has happened for so many centuries within sight of where we travel.
And now a couple of Americans are floating through the same valleys. The journey feels timeless, in that we are disconnected from our lives at home, and yet it feels as if we are but one page, or maybe nothing more than a single sentence, in a volume that began with neolithic hunters walking along this river and continuing long after we have floated past. The wild mooring stirs these thoughts. There is little else to do here but move slowly, think deeply, fit in. Adapt.