We’re tied up for the winter, plugged into electricity and wifi (pronounced “weefee”). That – and heat – constitute luxury living. How our expectations have shriveled (although a Skype videocall with Ed, living in our house in Ipswich, sent ripples of heat envy down our backs as he swept his computer around the kitchen showing the solar-powered under-floor radiant heating we’d recently installed, and the hulking always-warm AGA cooker dominating one wall). We’re settling into the small town of Auxonne for the winter. At the Friday morning public market where we do our grocery shopping Sandra is greeted with recognition by Madame Producteur, the town’s market gardener, who spreads her carrots, lettuce and potatoes, all coated in fresh soil, on folding tables, and Messieur and Madame Viticulteur, who sell their homemade wines by the bottle, and give it away by the glass together with the family recipe for coq au vin. When Sandra went to the town’s community center one Monday evening to take a French class, instead, they asked her to teach English.
Yesterday, driven by some English friends, we visited Nuits-St.-George, the heart of the nearby Burgundy wine region. Besides a half dozen bottles of wine, we came home with a bottle of peach liquor bottled at a vineyard we’d dropped in on. We’d taken the train there a couple of weeks ago for the fete du vin bourru, a party celebrating the first pressing of this season’s vendange – the grape harvest. Among the only out-of-towners present, we were obligated to sample every vineyard’s products, the unfermented grape juice from this year’s harvest and, more commonly, the best of previous years. We held our own until Harvey was trapped by the young woman proudly pouring her artisanal absinthe, a woman who misinterpreted Harvey’s repeated efforts to hand back his glass as requests for another pour. Yesterday, though, we sampled top end Pomards and Mearsaults, wines too expensive for us to actually buy, but nectar when handed out for free. Best of all, though, we experienced the French version of New England leaf peeping. Rather than flaming maple trees, as we have at home, the vineyards themselves glowed in gold and red.
But before leaving the waterways for winter, we want to share an observation, the result of eight months travel. Wherever you are on the rivers and canals, from downtown Paris to the isolated stretches of the Ardennes, you are rarely out of sight of a fisherman. This tropism toward dangling a hook in the water could be the only common characteristic of French socialists and South Carolina farmers. Walking from the barge to the boulangerie requires elbowing aside hordes of men holding fishing poles along the river banks. Poissonneries – fish markets – are rare. We buy our fish either at the Friday public market or the hypermarket, one size larger than a supermarket. (Excuse a digression into the traps of the French language in regard to fish matters, one that has snared us repeatedly, especially in restaurants. There are, at least to our American ears, no differences in pronunciation between “poisson” – fish – and “poison” – meaning the same as in English. This can lead to raised eyebrows from waiters speculating as to our emotional well being after ordering dinner. Similarly, should we, or especially Sandra, casually ask a man holding a fishing rod on the river bank whether he likes to peche’ (pronounced “pesh”), meaning to fish, she’ll elicit a different response than if she asks if he would like to peche’ (pronounced “peshee”), meaning to sin. Fish matters are slippery, even before any creatures aquatic emerge.)
But back to fishing in France. We come from a fishing community. Nearby is Gloucester, Massachusetts, setting for the Kipling novel “Captains Courageous” and the just as wonderful 1937 movie version with Spencer Tracy and Freddie Bartholomew; home (before he was sold from Gloucester to General Mills, then to Unilever, and now to Nippon Suisan Kaisha, Ltd. of Japan) of the famous Gorton’s fisherman. Harvey fishes from time to time, although when he carries his fly rod through the saltmarsh in our back yard down Greenwood Creek, where submarine-sized striped bass lurk, Sandra asks what kind of pizza he wants for dinner. Friends at the Ipswich Bay Yacht Club spend goodly portions of their summers chasing stripers and bluefish. A fishing expedition with our favorite dentist on his fantastic lobsteryacht takes us to the secret coordinates of fish heaven, a location he elicits, we expect, by placing professional Gloucester fisherman under just the right dosages of soporifics while filling their dental cavities. Fishing expeditions, after the cost of fuel, food and beer, can yield cod and flounder at $20 to $40 per fish. So we’ve got nothing at all against fishing, and we recognize that when looked at through a financial lens, the optimum method to get a plateful of codfish is to visit the supermarket. We acknowledge that fishing isn’t necessarily and entirely about just catching a fish.
French fishing, at least the freshwater variety we see along the rivers and canals, is focused on equipment and accoutrements. Picture your typical Bourguignon fisherman from the ground up. Knee high rubber boots, what we would call “wellies,” after the Duke of Wellington, who defeated some guy named Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo; the French, presumably, have a different term for these boots, out of national pride. (As a further digression, besides having rubber boots named after him, the Duke is also the namesake for Beef Wellington, tenderloin and truffles in a pastry, although there is some speculation it is actually named after the rubber boot rather than the duke. In any event, the Duke is challenged in the military/culinary terminology realm by the Chinese General Gau, of chicken fame. Why don’t modern military leaders gain similar culinary fame: Schwarzkopf Grits, Patraeus Paella, Shalikashvilli Shishkabob?) OK, sorry about that. Picture your French fisherman: knee high rubber boots topped with a full camo outfit, pants, jacket, hat. While we recognize the purpose of camouflage clothing for hunters and special forces soldiers, why fishermen dress in camo is a mystery. Do fish really stare up through the surface of the water spying on humans? And if they do, considering the angles involved, wouldn’t sky-colored clothing, with cloud-colored accents, be a better disguise?
Sometimes he’ll wear a long apron over his camo.
One fishing rod is rarely sufficient. Most French fisherman simultaneously deploy a minimum of two but usually three or four fishing rods in a variety of types. Most common are four-meter poles that disassemble into four or more segments, without reels, just a line attached at the end. In narrow canals when they see our barge heading toward them they retract their rod a segment at a time to let us clear. In addition he will have the usual spinning and casting rods. This assortment is mounted on what is actually called, in French, a rod pod, a rack that holds all four rods side by side, each with their lines in the water. He will always have a net on a pole, and a netted tube going down to the water to keep bait fish alive. A shelter, ranging from a simple umbrella to elaborate tents must be erected. Lures and baits are changed constantly. Folding chairs, often folding tables, are set up. The rods remain in the rod pod during lunch, but the wine bottle sits on the table.
A dog, or two, is mandatory.
While we see men fishing from boats from time to time, almost all fishing is done from shore, but rarely just by standing on the canal bank. The canals and rivers are studded with fishing platforms, from shaky constructions of random sticks and planks to elaborately built concrete and steel platforms.
This being France, river banks in cities and towns often have regularly-spaced municipally-constructed fishing platforms. Interspersed among the municipal platforms are reserved handicapped-accessible platforms for wheelchair-bound fishermen, marked with signage restricting them to the disabled.
The riverbanks are marked with signs establishing the variety of restrictions placed on each section: no fishing area, fishing-only area, night-fishing area, no night-fishing area. Just as with weather forecasts, there is no relationship between any observable reality and the restrictions placed by these signs.
Now, of course, American fisherman go to just as extreme lengths in terms of their outfits, both sartorial and apparatus. And Americans can certainly be just as obsessed with their quest for fish. Check out http://www.bassmaster.com (first prize is $500,000). Seven Texas women were recently indicted for violating a Texas felony statute prohibiting cheating in fishing tournaments – they stuffed fish with ice and lead weights to make them heavier. The law carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
OK, so why make such a big deal about French fishing? Is there something fundamentally different between fishing in the States and fishing in France?
Well, there is one little item. Based on eight months of staring at hundreds of French fisherman as we passed by them day after day after day after day, there was one thing we never, with less than a handful, an amputated handful, of exceptions, ever observed at the end of a fishing line, the end not attached to the fisherman himself. That one thing missing was:
We see fish jumping in the water all the time. We look into the water and there they are, sometimes teeny tiny, sometimes far larger than would fit in an aquarium. Once in a while true fish monsters.
But the fishermen never seem to catch the fish. Sure, one time, early on in April, we saw a man kneeling on the bank holding what looked like a catfishasaurus rex while his buddy took a photo. From time to time we’ve seen somebody remove a minnow from his hook, although whether it was a fish he caught, using an even smaller minnow, or a bait fish he’d placed on the hook by hand we never knew. Otherwise, the fishermen remain on the river bank and the fish remain in the river. Is there something French fish know. Or that French fishermen don’t know? Its a mystery.
Does this vast expenditure of money, time and effort for so little reward indicate something about France?
We think it might. Fishermen at home expect to catch a fish with some frequency. It doesn’t always happen and there are, from time to time, totally dry days on the water. But that is the exception. In France, dry days on the water appear to be the norm. The odds of actually catching a fish of any appreciable size seem closer to winning the lottery than to just a good day of fishing. So why do so many Frenchmen spend so much effort for so little reward? All we can do is speculate. Certainly the pleasure of being outside, in nature, is a reward. But that pleasure diminishes as the rain and cold increase, and neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night deter the fishermen. They just hunker down, bait their hooks and stare at the water, wiping the rain from their faces from time to time.
Solitude isn’t the reason. While the norm is four fishing rods per fisherman sitting alone on the bank, sometimes that is reversed and what we see looks more like a construction site with four men watching the fifth hold a fishing rod gazing at the water. It isn’t even to get away from the wife. She’ll often be there on the river bank, waiting patiently, holding her pocketbook, while her husband baits his hooks.
- Bare bones fishing: a tent, a wife, a baby and four fishing rods.
Its a mystery.
So if bass fishing tournaments with $500,000 prizes and felony statutes with 10 year imprisonment penalties for fraudulent fishing indicate anything about America, then fishing with lottery odds of catching a fish says something about France. But what it says we just don’t know.
But, then, we don’t quite understand why millions of people spend good money on lottery tickets with equally infinitesimal chances of winning.