We’re approaching the six-month point in our two-and-a-half year French exodus. Some things have become automatic: Harvey doesn’t attempt to stand up in the aft cabin, the former domicile of the family of Dutch dwarves who originally lived on Hoop Doet Leven; Sandra hardly ever apologizes to the French for her French because they invariably reply that she speaks so well, or at least so much better than they speak English; chocolate croissants for breakfast every day are no longer a treat but are just what one has for breakfast, bien sur, and most of all, as did the world’s most sympathetic woman in A Streetcar Named Desire, we’ve come to rely on the kindness of strangers, French strangers.
Some things we miss. Family and friends, of course, but also bottomless cups of coffee, sitting at a table with friends for hour after hour as the waitress asks if we’d like just one more top-up and we nod, knowing we’ll pay the price for a dozen cups of coffee later that day, and night. Here in France, of course, you also spend hour after hour at a cafe table, observing and being observed, but the coffee cup holds fewer drops than are normally slopped over the rim into the saucer at home, and there are no refills, or even reorders, coffee is drunk as if it were rotgut whiskey at a cowboy saloon, one shot at a time. Harvey used to miss the Simpsons until they showed up on our French TV, with Homer sounding sophisticated in French, Bart as suave as usual, Crusty the Clown so, well, so French.
Other things are just strange, so bizarre in fact, that they never become ordinary. The boat came with a combination DVD and videocassette player – player only, no recording – and a hundred or so DVDs and videocassettes, including what seems to be the complete filmography of Bruce Willis (except for that wonderful TV detective series he did with Cybil Shepherd, Blue Moon). The switch from videocassettes to DVDs must have happened about the time Hoop Doet Leven crossed the English Channel from London to France, as the cassettes have United Kingdom copyright warnings and the DVDs French ones. The movies on cassette are all in English; the DVDs, sometimes, will play in English with French subtitles, sometimes the reverse. The copyright warnings are cultural barometers. We know the familiar U.S. warning, blaring in all caps FBI WARNING YOU WILL BE LOCKED BEHIND BARS FOREVER AND BECOME THE SEX SLAVE OF OUTLAW BIKERS IF YOU COPY THIS MOVIE, as if the FBI has SWAT teams of crack agents busting down suburban doors to arrest five-year-olds watching bootleg copies of My Little Mermaid VIII. The British warning is oh so much more polite, reminding you that making, buying, watching or even holding in your hand unauthorized copies hurts people and just should not be done. The Brits add that the video is only for private use and commercial showing of this film is absolutely, totally, without question prohibited. Good enough and equally ineffective as siccing the FBI on you, but then the Brits get down to the details. Examples of locations at which this videocassette may not be played include, we are told, “offshore oil platforms” and “prisons.” Prisons? What did that British Film Board bureaucrat expect would happen, that the ax murderers, still-incarcerated Irish Republican Army bomb throwers, London Underground terrorists and Jack the Ripper rip offs herded into a darkened room atop the Tower of London, surrounded by truncheon-wielding prison guards, rattling their chains in a threatening rhythm demanding that Saving Nemo Part V start now, right this moment, that at the instant the warning about it being illegal to show this film in a prison appears the warden will smack his forehead in sudden comprehension and yank the film projector plug from the socket? It is a tossup whether the U.S. FBI warning or the oh so polite British list of locations at which this film may not be shown demonstrates the greater estrangement from reality.
The French DVDs simply show two hands wringing in despair that Jerry Lewis and Bruce Willis never made a movie together, because what would be more sophisticated, more entertaining, more, well, more cultured?
Hardly a day passes when we don’t ask each other where the stereotype of the rude French, the antipathy to all things French that pervades some parts and some people in the States came from. Is it simply a relic from the French government pointing out that neither did the emperor have any clothes nor did Saddam have any weapons of mass destruction when the United States was locked into “shock and awe” mode and we watched smart bombs fall on Baghdad live and in color, back in the days when Congress created “freedom fries” in retaliation for the French wiggling their pointer fingers and muttering “no, no, no” to the Gulf War Part Two? People have just been so nice to us. Here’s an example. A few days ago we were in Besancon, a medieval city dominated by a massive fortress on a stone cliff overlooking the city, backed by towering bastions along the river front and stone walls with firing slits at regular intervals, a fortress of a city, or a city within a fortress. This obsession with defense may be explained by the unfortunate Dark Ages sacking of the city by the Barbarians, not some generic horde of small B barbarians, but the capital B Barbarians, the tribe all future barbarians were named after. Imagine how truly bad those original Barbarians must have been to have their name become generic for badness, as kleenex is for tissues and escalator is for, well, for escalators (the tribe of Vandals probably came a close second on the truly-bad scale). Besancon’s innovative watch and clock industry has morphed into a biotech center churning out artificial hearts and micro-robotic probes. An altogether fascinating and charming city dominated by the River Doubs, which surrounds it on three sides. We, however, were faced with a more mundane task: restocking our pantry after two weeks of feeding two young men, our grandchildren, who when asked what they wanted for lunch replied “a lot.” We needed a grocery store. The nearest one to where we were tied up was several miles bike ride away. We loaded our panniers on the bikes and pedaled off through twisting medieval streets, up and down steep hills, alongside stone bastions with double levels of cannon slots. We eventually found the grocery, or at least a grocery if not the one we’d so carefully plotted a route to. We did our shopping, pondering whether to pick up the frozen escargot, finally deciding that the fresh were so much better. Leaving the store, Harvey pointed right toward where the boat was. Sandra pointed left. We rode straight into oblivion. Thirty minutes later Harvey waived down another cyclist and used the latest addition to his French vocabulary, “pardon messieur, je suis perdu,” (“I am so lost I rode out of New York this morning and I suspect I may be in France but beyond that I haven’t a clue as to where I am. Take pity on me, please.”) Follow me, the man replied, standing in his saddle, the first man ever to leave rubber on a bicycle. Not since Gene Hackman raced under the elevated tracks in The French Connection has such a Gallic chase taken place. Our guide pedaled frantically as Harvey was glued to the man’s rear wheel and Sandra kept Harvey in sight, up vertical cliffs, down mountain sides, face to face with buses, crossing lanes of traffic, round about roundabouts, until Harvey and Sandra chickened out at a red light, with the river, and the boat, almost in sight. “We never got to thank him,” Sandra muttered. We rode on, after the light turned green and our hearts ceased their rock and roll rhythms. And there he was, waiting for us. He had not yet shaken our hands and wished us “bon vacances,” a “good vacation” (the French wish each other a “bon” everything, “bon weekend,” “bon promenade,” and of course, “bon jour.” When we bought a new water heater for the boat the woman who’d help us select it wished us a “bon douche,” a good shower). Then he shook our hands, thanking us for giving him the opportunity to be of assistance. After experiences such as this, which happen nearly every day, we’ll never call them freedom fries (but then, the French don’t call them french fries, nor do they eat french toast or french vanilla ice cream).
So, after six months our French experience is still just beginning. Right now we’re heading east on the Rhin-au-Rhon Canal, toward the German border, through mountain gorges, surrounded by brown-and-white Montbeliard cows, who make (with some human assistance) the finest cheeses. Our son Sam shows up in a week or so. After that, we’re looking forward to Fall cruising, and to our winter sojourn in Epinal.