We’re deep into Burgundy countryside (Bourgogne, as it is called for real). The Canal de Bourgogne was built 200 years ago, or so, by either Italian or British prisoners of war, depending on the guide book. One version has the three-kilometer tunnel having been dug by British prisoners of Napoleon, who were lowered into the tunnel from a hole in the ceiling and ordered to dig their way out. It is a narrow, shallow canal, used only by pleasure boats. We are pushing its limits, both for water below and for clearance in the tunnel above, with our barge. We woke up one morning heeled at an angle reminiscent of our sailing days, sitting on the bottom, leaning against the bank. But it is beautiful here in what one reference called "the quintessential France," rich in sights – rolling hillsides along both sides of the canal – and tastes – vineyards dropping down to the water’s edge and snails crawling through garlic, pesto and oil.
But today lets talk about the sounds of France. Once in a while, when the barge is motoring past wheat fields to port and acres of sunflowers to starboard, when the sun is shining and a breeze is blowing (but not so much that entering a lock is an exercise in biting the inside of your cheeks and waiting for the sound of 86-year-old iron crunching into 200-year-old stone), when you sit on the bench at the bow, looking around the bend in the canal for the bow of an approaching boat, you are so deeply into France and all things French that you hear a faint rhythm that in Scotland would be a bagpipe but in France has to be an accordion. Ah, this is what all the planning and worrying was about.
But other times, this place can get on your nerves with sounds as soothing as chalk squeaking on a blackboard (not that anybody actually uses chalk any more, or, come to think of it, not that they even manufacture blackboards any more). Sometimes all you seem to hear are noises as soothing as a slowly dripping faucet at 3:00 a.m.. Some examples:
Church bells. OK, what kind of person would complain about church bells, you ask. Is he going to moan and groan about bird songs next? (Wait a moment, that comes soon). Church bells. Every village in France has a church. Sometimes all it takes to be a village is a boulangerie, a hairdresser – for both femmes and hommes – a pharmacy with a flashing neon green cross to serve a populace of hypochondriacs in a country where the government pays for all medications, and a church, the older the better. Sometimes all of the above plus a pet groomer – for both chiens and chats – in which case the town earns a second church. And maybe a third one if in 1350 or so there was a wealthy patron who couldn’t tolerate either local priest (which brings to mind the joke about the Jewish sailor shipwrecked on a desert island – and what is a "desert island" besides an oxymoronic cliche – who is rescued after twenty years. When his rescuers ask what the three shacks are that he built during his exile the sailor says that the first is where he lives, the second is his synagogue and the third is the synagogue in which he wouldn’t be caught dead.) So, wherever you happen to be in France you will likely be within sight, and sound, of one, two, three or even more churches.
And what is the problem with that, you inquire. Every church has a bell tower. Every bell tower, has, duh, a bell, or several bells, and a clock. If they all rang at once, the result would be a cacophony rather than a symphony. Each church, it seems, wants to be the soloist. The result, one theorizes, is that every church prefers to be the one church, or at least the first church, to inform its parishioners of the correct time. Over the years, over the decades and centuries, this has led to an arms race, or more accurately, an ears race, in which church clocks have been nudged a minute or so faster every once in a while so Saint Here’s bells will ring just a minute or two before Saint Somebody Else rings. Of course, Saint Somebody Else can just as easily give it’s minute hand a twitch or two forward. The result, after century after century of this temporo-audio one-minute-upsmanship is that most church clocks in France are several weeks, or months, fast. Add to this phenomenon the custom of ringing the hour – sometimes all through the night – plus bonus chimes every fifteen minutes to mark the quarter hours, plus seemingly random musical flurries from time to time, what has resulted is an auditory status of complete randomness. At any given moment in any given location you are likely to hear a bell ringing, a kind of national tinnitus. A little bit of bell ringing goes a long way. In some towns, the bells never stop.
For those with sufficient obsessive compulsive disorder to be incapacitated while a clock chimes because each chime absolutely must be counted, this situation becomes disabling, made all the worse by what is apparently some parishes refusal to recognize the existence of daylight savings time so that the count of one church’s chimes differs from the next church’s chimes three minutes later.
Most bells at least sound, well, bell-like. A few, however, sound like budget bells, purchased at the foundry’s annual close-out sale. We won’t mention any church in particular, but should you happen to be in Tonnerre in Bourgogne at noon and should you have any sort of musical sensibility, your only consolation will be that French churches uniformly refuse to switch to the 24-hour time the rest of the country uses, in a timely version of metrics.
That’s the problem with bells.
Birds. So what’s to complain about with bird songs? That is my mother’s fault (yes, Doctor, you were so correct that everything is my mother’s fault). In her constant quest for culture, Mom came home one day with a windup cuckoo clock, the kind with the little door that swings open every hour to eject a little bird who goes "cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo" to mark the hour, one "cuckoo" for each hour. Imagine a seven-year-old boy lying awake on his bed at 3:00 a.m., struggling to keep his eyes open so the dream of space aliens, or leaches, or monsters under the bed will evaporate, counting cuckoos through the night. Cuckoo, cuckoo. One, two. Then an hour later as the eye blinks last longer than the eyes jammed wide open comes cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo. One, two, three. Etc. A few years of that and OCD counting is as automatic as breathing.
Fast forward fifty-seven or so years. Same boy, but now sleeping the well-earned sleep of the recently-retired. Its 3:00 a.m. and through slumber and eyes sealed shut by fairy dust comes the blast of "cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo." Sleep-sealed lips whisper a silent "one, two, three." Followed by "cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo." "Four, five, six seven, eight." Then, immediately, "cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo." "Nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen." Eyes slam open. Thirteen? In the middle of the night? What gives? "Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo." Something is obviously wrong, quite wrong. But the cuckoos must be counted. Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty.
I haven’t ever heard a real living cuckoo bird in the States. Who even knew there were real living cuckoo birds. The only place they seemed to exist outside of clocks was in cartoons, where they flew around the heads of cats that were smashed on the noggin with mallets by malevolent mice.
But in France cuckoo birds, real birds, feathers, wings, the full bird thing, are scattered at random through the countryside. Those Swiss, or Japanese, clock makers who manufactured Mom’s cuckoo clock got their "cuckoo" down pat, an impersonation worthy of a Las Vegas act at a clockmakers’ convention. Every week or so, at random moments of day, or more commonly, night, seemingly perched on the wheelhouse roof comes "cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo," followed, silently by "seventy-five, seventy-six, seventy-seven." The French must eat cuckoo au povre, right? Sounds like a grand idea.
We know why they eat frogs. At some rural moorings – need we mention the beatific location we’ve spent the past six nights tied up next to the Forge de Buffon (the French equivalent, for you on Boston’s north shore, of the Saugus iron works, but a tad classier) – our boat is besieged through the night by bullfrogs doing impersonations of ducks with sore throats, choking on clumps of stale bread while sneezing through hiccups. Sound unpleasant? After a few hours this chorus makes you want to tear off their slimy green legs and gnaw on them.
Hmm, perhaps with garlic and oil. Could this be an explanation of the fundamentals of French cuisine?
Wonder when we’ll hear the plaintiff love call of the lonely snail.