They say the mind retains no specific memory of pain, specific in the sense that on your deathbed you will be able to drool your way through Going to the Chapel of Love and Sitting on the Dock of the Bay. Verbatim. You can’t replay your last root canal with that degree of specificity. Thank goodness.
Well, it turns out the same sensory amnesia applies to taste. At least for me. I struggled through the winter marveling at how Sandra’s hours of kitchen experimentalism had replicated the crisp crust and spongy, pockmarked interiors of authentic baguettes. What an accomplishment. Not quite to the level of the annual French competition for coveted Best Baguette in the Nation, the winner of which is required to deliver forty (free) loafs a day to the Palais de l’Élysée for President Holland to munch on in his post-coital petit déjeuner. But pretty good. Gift quality. We showed up at folks’ houses all winter bearing pairs of baguettes, sometimes bagged in the authentic French baguette bicycle bag (we have one on the barge, to hang from the handlebars when returning from the boulangerie) that Sandra sewed.
Sandra’s baguette was as good as anything we could find at home at any bakery, even the fancy schmanchy Boston “French” pseudo-boulangeries. To me, it seemed as good as anything we’d bought in France. Certainly far better than the French supermarche bakery bread, which is what most people bought because the supermarkets use bread as their price teaser.
But no, no, no, mesdames et monsieurs. Memory is a shameless trickster. Maybe it’s the air in France. Maybe it’s just the style.
Three steps on the sidewalk from Boulangerie Simone back in Auxonne, twisting off the end stub – le crouton, it is called, and le crouton is all one is permitted to munch on while wandering in public – one bite of le crouton and it all came flooding back. Alas, Sandra, despite her exhaustive struggle for perfection, despite her achievement of the best baguette possible beyond the borders of France, had crafted a simulacrum, a zombie baguette, a loaf that walked and talked like the real thing but lacked the native French je ne sais quoi, the esprit de corps, the elan, the cœur d’or, the very raison d’etre for baguettes. Truly, only a French boulangerie can make a truly French loaf of bread. Alas poor Sandra, she did the best any human, any non-French human could do.
It is so nice to be back in France.
Harvey here (France). Sandra still there (not France yet; she arrives in a few days). I flew over a few weeks early ostensibly because there were so many boat projects that needed projecting. Of course the real reason is best explained by the tee shirt I proposed making for our best friends Tom and Kim oh so many years ago when Kim was offered the position of editor of the newly-created Hope Magazine, to be published by the WoodenBoat Magazine folks in seaside Brooklin, Maine. When they couldn’t decide whether to give up their two-decker home in Somerville, Massachusetts (in Somerville’s not-yet-chic days) they asked for my opinion on what to do. I replied by offering to print them tee shirts saying: “Somerville or Brooklin? Tough Choice. Right.”
That’s what it came down to for me. Hang around Ipswich, Massachusetts for a few more weeks or fly off to Burgundy, the barge, the baguettes and all that makes France French. I didn’t need a tee shirt. Just toss my beret in the backpack and ask Sandra to drop me off at the Icelandair terminal at Boston’s Logan Airport.
I’d had three bags packed for a week. One bag held summer clothing. One bag held all the bits and pieces of barge goodies needed for my projects. A third bag, actually a cardboard carton carefully sized to squeeze within the airline’s maximum baggage size restriction, held six rolled up Uni-Sol ePVL-68 flexible photovoltaic solar panels. This box was sealed with bullet proof kevlar packing tape and rolled within a cocoon of shrink wrap to protect it from (a) the descendants of Viking berserker baggage handlers at Icelandair and (2) inquisitive French tax agents anxious to impose a 20 percent VAT – value added tax – on every toothbrush, flashlight battery and, I expected, solar panel imported into France from outside the European Union.
My baggage and myself arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris unmolested and tax free, after changing planes – and going through EU customs – in Iceland. It – and me – just fit into the teeny rental Renault, a vehicle that pulled over of its own volition at every rest stop on the highway to refuel the driver with espresso. And then …
Voila. I arrived.
Hoop Doet Leven floated placidly just where we’d left her at the pontoon in Auxonne, the Onion Capital of Bourgogne. The decks were covered with a winter’s worth of dirt and spider stuff (French spiders are impermeable to all forces that would slay other living creatures; after the nuclear devastation that will eventually even wipe out the cockroaches, French spiders will be casually weaving their oh-so-sophisticated webs and lurking at dead center, puffing on teeny tiny spider cigarettes – or, more likely, those e-cigarette things that seem to have imposed themselves on France – hoping a bug of some sort is not yet extinct.)
It felt as if winter had been just a long, cold weekend away from France. Here I was. Back in France. Everything was the same. With one exception. I could speak a bit more French. Or, more accurately, I was less terrified to attempt to voice what I hoped was my version of the French language. A winter of Saturdays at the Alliance Francais in Boston struggling through French classes had apparently boosted my courage, if not my comprehension.
I was far from fluent. An example.
At the Bricomarche, which is how you say Home Depot in French, I asked the clerk for flexible plastic tubing to cover electrical wires for the solar panels I’m installing on the barge. I described what I wanted as un preservatif pour les cables electrique. She smiled and asked how much I wanted. I replied 5 meters. Oo la la, she said. Turns out I’d told her I wanted a 15 foot condom for my wires.
I suspect she repeated that story. I certainly have. And I do receive some strange, pleasantly strange, glances from French women in town. Or maybe thats just my imagination.
By now Hoop Doet Leven is basking in the sunlight of this uncharacteristically warm and sunny Spring, turning rays of light into battery juice. The big diesel started in seconds on the first turn of the key. The little things that passed away over the winter, such as the pump that pumps water from the shower drain into the river rather than the bilge, have been either resuscitated or replaced. (Most) everything is working.
A nautical misconception has been clarified. Sort of. Hoop Doet Leven is – technically – owned by a United Kingdom corporation, Hoop Doet Leven Barge, Ltd., of which Sandra and I are the sole shareholders. (But we’re considering a huge public offering. Stay tuned). This was created so we, being not-citizens of the U.K., could maintain the boat’s U.K. registration. The boat’s home port, as posted on the stern, has been London. This caused massive misunderstanding among folks who would see the Dutch name, the American flag we choose to fly and the London home port. To unmuddy these waters, a bit, we came up with a scheme to officially change our home port. One benefit of living in New England is that we share many place names with Old (or Olde) England. We live in Ipswich, next town east is Essex, next east is Gloucester. West of Ipswich is Rowley, then Newbury. Our three kids live nearby in Cambridge, Dover and Portland. The Pilgrims were bored on the cruise over and evidently used a map of Jolly Olde as a dartboard to select the names of the towns they planned on creating. And they drank beer rather than water. Their dart aiming skills were challenged, it appears. It could be more difficult, though. They kept most of the native American names only for waterways, such as the second-largest lake in Massachusetts, Lake Chaubunagungamaug. Or the Squannacook River. Or Assawompset Pond. Ipswich used to be called Agawam, the Anglicization of Wonnesquamsauke, until the English purchased the land from Chief Masconommet in return for 132 feet of beads, five coats, two yards of red cloth, and a pot full of wine. And a dose of either measles or hepatitis, which wiped out 95 percent of the Agawam tribe.
It turns out that Olde England also has a seaport bearing the name of Boston. With the help of a helpful Welshman (who suffers from an unfortunate lack of vowels in his name) at the Registry of Shipping & Seamen we’ve changed Hoop’s home port from London to Boston. No need to specify just which Boston it now says on the nameboard.
I am sated on my favorite French dinner, one I can consume to my heart’s delight – and my cardiologist’s dread – until Sandra arrives: the best hot dog in history, a saucisse (sausage) de Montbeliard (a pleasant city in the Jura in which the “t” and the “d” are never pronounced and, it seems, other letters are either pronounced or silent at random moments) on a length of fresh baguette smothered in recipe de anciens Dijon mustard, bought in Dijon. Picture one of those long balloons that clowns blow up and twist into animal shapes, but filled with better-you-don’t-know-the-details parts of pigs raised in the local mountains. Smoked in sawdust. Declared a National Treasure of France in 2011 and granted a precious IGP, an Indication Géographique Protégée, meaning that, as with champagne that can only be made in Champagne, saucisse de Montbeliard can only be made in a small designated area of Franche-Comté. Let’s just say it is the royalty of weiners. Here is the official government web site: http://www.saucisse-montbeliard.com.
Once Sandra arrives we’ll be renting a car for a few days and returning to our favorite Burgundian vineyards to stock up the wine cellar (also-known-as the boat’s bilge) for this summer’s cruise. Then off we’ll go, heading north through the Vosges – a forested, hilly region in southern Lorraine, alongside the Moselle River – on a canal first proposed about the year 150 by the Roman general Lucius Vetus, a concept unfortunately untimely as Leonardo da Vinci (aided by the Chinese) would not invent the canal lock necessary to lift and lower canal boats over hills for another 1,400 or so years. We’ll then head east from Nancy to Strasbourg, assuming the stupendous Arzviller boat lift has been repaired after last season’s disastrous attempt to lower one-half of a boat jammed the works.
The boat lift is scheduled to reopen on May 2, which is French for some time in June. Or July. Unless there is a strike. And, of course, there will be a strike. Of the National Union of Patriotic Lock Repairers in sympathy for the strike of the Alliance of Ox Cart Drovers of Normandy protesting the introduction of the internal combustion engine. But it is France. And everything works out in its time.
At its own pace. Which is just fine with us.