An entire winter is a long time to hold your breath. Especially this past arctic winter in New England. Walking off the Icelandair jet at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, six months of inhalation wooshed from my lungs in one long, slow blast. Back in France for a fourth summer on Hoop Doet Leven. Back in France where the espresso from airport vending machines puts Starbucks to shame. And wouldn’t getting the franchise for French espresso vending machines throughout the U.S. be the road to fame and fortune? No. Slap in the face. You’re retired. No fame. No fortune. Just France and their automatic admonition when you talk with anybody French about schemes for fame and fortune. Calmez vous. Soyez tranquille. Calm down. Be tranquil. Remember, you’re in France for a reason. I just read a book about the Battle of the Marne in the First World War, a million French against a million Germans. The French artillery bombardment during the German assault on the city of Nancy was fierce, deadly, almost unrelenting, almost unrelenting except from noon to 2:00 when the French gunners stopped for lunch.
In France. At last. After the winter from Hell. Assuming that at long last Hell actually did freeze over.
Our winter can be summarized by three landmarks. First, our daughter Nicole gave birth to a son, Ellis. Nicole and her husband, Braden, live in Portland, Maine, up the coast from us. Braden is a life-long Mainer and was careful to eliminate any baby names that were prone to Mainized pronunciation, names such as Walter (“Waltah”) or Peter (“Peetah”). Ellis is a fine name. At age five months we took him to the Maine Boatbuilders Show and he got his photo on the WoodenBoat Magazine website wearing his WoodenBoat onesie.
Landmark Number Two for the winter was construction of the World Headquarters of Marshview (our back yard is a saltmarsh) Boatworks by me, with expert guidance by the world’s most patient builder, my friend Ed Gillis. Future winters will be spent building small rowboats and kayaks. In an excess of excessiveness, as can happen when internet searches take place well after midnight, the boatbuilding shop was built to northern Alaska building standards for energy efficiency. My goal was to be able to heat it with a light bulb. But then all these neat windows went on sale, so the light bulb was swapped for a wood stove. In any event, learning building construction techniques and accumulating a collection of pneumatic nail guns – you’ve got your framing gun, and your siding gun, and your roofing gun, and your finish gun, plus a pneumatic stapler – occupied most of the early part of the winter.
Then came the third landmark. It started snowing. And it got cold. And it continued snowing, pretty much every Sunday for two months. And it stayed cold, really cold, so nothing melted. From mid-January to mid-March we had 10 feet (about 3 meters) of snow. A record for both snowfall and cold weather. We went from shoveling the walk to shoveling the roof with our newly purchased 15-foot-long roof rake. We had to dig down to find our mailbox.
And it was a landmark winter in France, too, the winter of “je suis Charlie,” of cartoonists assassinated and most of France turning out to support the right to free speech. As a First Amendment lawyer – the part of the U.S. Constitution that states that the rights to freedom of speech and religion “shall not be impaired,” except maybe when they conflict with one another, or so our neo-Neanderthal Supreme Court concludes, in which case religion, both God-based and corporate-based, trump speech (but we won’t go there, calme vous, tranquille, grrrrrr). We had somebody send over a “je suis Charlie” cover and it is framed on a wall at home. The point was driven home when, after hundreds of thousands of French marched to support free speech, the Texas version of free speech burst forth in a racist display of intentionally offensive cartoons of Muhammad. Being a free speech fundamentalist, I’d defend both versions, the Charley Hebdo sophisticated satirical mocking of all things religious and the Texas thumb-in-the-eye racist version, both are speech and speech should be pretty much unrestricted. But the French version is intellectual. Sophisticated. Intelligent. The Texas version could be the result of too much inbreeding. I won’t go so far as to suggest the two versions exemplify France and the U.S., of course, but, hmmmmm, it does raise an inquisitive eyebrow.
So, the snow melted eventually and it became time to open the bottom dresser drawer, the one we’ve designated as the depository of “Things That Go to France.” The first thing we’d done on our return to Massachusetts last year was to drop the keys to Hoop Doet Leven in the TTGF drawer. By April it was filled with 100 foam paint brushes (the road to French fame and fortune would be to import decent American disposable foam paint brushes since such a thing is unavailable in France, but wait, the road to fame and fortune detours around France). There were also three very expensive rolls of sticky backy sandpaper in various grades, a COSTCO-sized purchase of heavy duty resealable bags, an assortment of serving trays, a new tea kettle and a potpouri of Apple-related plugs and cords and cases and covers and a new GPS dongle for the iPad for use in rental cars.
Sandra remained home, meaning mostly in Portland with Ellis because he was certain to forget us entirely and would most likely be driving by the time we return home, which will be in late August because, well, newly minted grandchildren are the natural enemies of extended cruises in foreign countries. Harvey took off for France to get the boat started on this summer’s loop, with help from friend and former law partner Jon, a wooden boat sailor.
The engine started on the first (which is French for third, or tenth) try. We chugged down the River Saone, which had just returned to its banks after delivering the Alpine snow melt toward the Mediterranean, and turned onto the Canal du Centre. The first order of business on this southern Burgundy canal was to drop in at the vineyard of Paul et Marie Jacqueson in Rully. We’d been marooned in Rully a few years ago, tied to the canal bank for three weeks, when a section of the canal ahead of us collapsed, depositing the canal into a farmer’s field. While waiting for canal repairs we’d consoled ourselves with daily bike rides to the surrounding vineyards. It was difficult but we were strong. Jacqueson was our favorite. And the favorite of most Rullyites, we were told by the fisherman who surrounded the barge most days. Each vintage sells out quickly, directly at the vineyard. Last year we’d even rented a car to buy some, only to find it was sold out.
This year I’d checked with the Jacquesons to discover when they would put the 2013 vintage on sale and whether it was yet sold out. Voila. I’d hit the sweet spot. Sales were by appointment only so I called the day before we’d reach Rully. No, je suis desole, I’m so sorry, Marie said. We will all be working in the vineyard tomorrow and we can’t sell any wine. Persevering, I called the next morning as we tied up in Rully. Marie was still desolé. I laid it on heavy. La Pucelle, Jacqueson’s premier premier cru was my wife’s favorite wine in all of France, I said, I think, in my version of French. I promised my wife I would buy her some. She wants to take it home to the United States. It is her birthday tomorrow. A big (so big I will not numerate it online) birthday. Please. I will be in so much trouble if I don’t buy her the la Pucelle. Please.
Our puppy just died.
Maybe the image of the dead puppy, flat on its back, little legs in the air, did it. A restauranteur is coming at 2:30 today, Marie said. Be there then and you can buy some wine, she said. And by 2:45 my bike’s saddlebags were stuffed with a dozen bottle of La Pucelle. And Marie threw in a birthday present of three Jacqueson bottle stoppers.
I celebrated this Big Score, and my birthday, with a fancy restaurant dinner in Paray le Monial, a historic Burgundian town with a 1,000 year old basilica, still the destination of thousands of religious pilgrims. Dinner, compliments of Jon – thank you, mon matelot – was a combination of French slow food and French fast food. The slow food was escargot, because snails trudge along oh so slowly. The fast food, French version, was lapin, as in the Energizer one, as in Bugs, as in Harvey the Invisible one. So French.
But even as traditional a ville as Paray le Monial is yielding to the international cultural onslaught. The Big Deal in town was not a religious fete, but this Even Bigger Event:
Then, to drive the point home, the butcher department at the local Intermarche (supermarkets come in a variety of sizes: marche, Intermarche, Supermarche and, when you need a wide screen TV with your never-goes-bad irradiated French milk, the Hypermarche) along with the prepared meats, usually marinated in the butcher’s special, secret, family recipe ingredients, was this intruder:
Life went on. Sandra arrived a week later. Jon departed for Paris. And Boston. We’re heading off on our best-of-the canals-so-far tour. The Canal du Centre through southern Burgundy to the Canal Latorale de Loire, through the Loire Valley, past Sancerre, maybe a side trip to Chablis, then a few more canals and on to the Seine to Paris, then out the Marne to Champagne and on to Toul in Lorraine, where we found Hoop Doet Leven four years ago, for the winter.
Another summer, our fourth, is underway. France just keeps getting better. Better. Calme. Tranquille. French.
COMING SOON: Part II – Three fantastic reasons why you should never brag about how your engine has never, ever failed.