Oh boy. Its that time of year again when thoughts turn to things French. Warm baguettes. Stinky cheese. Placid canals. Language tribulations. We’re in countdown mode for our fifth summer on Hoop Doet Leven. We’re deep into preparations for our eatward migration (now there’s a Freudian keyboard slip that the spell corrector wisely let pass. I meant to type “eastward,” but perhaps the “s” truly is superfluous.) By now our not-westward migration is a piece of cake. No, no, no. Not cake. A yummy Paris-Brest, a round pastry stuffed with praline cream. Check it out on Wikipedia: “The pastry was created in 1910 to commemorate the Paris–Brest–Paris bicycle race begun in 1891. Its circular shape is representative of a wheel. It became popular with riders on the Paris–Brest cycle race, partly because of its energizing high caloric value, and is now found in pâtisseries all over France.”
A pastry to commemorate a bike race. How French is that. I dread to imagine what Hostess Twinkies commemorate.
I prefer Paris-Brest over the Millefeuille, another “classic” pastry “found in pâtisseries all over France.” Madame at the pâtisserie laughs at my tussle with pronouncing “millefeuille,” which means a thousand leaves. The “mille” part is easy enough. Don’t say the “e.” The “feuille,” however, cramps English-speaking facial muscles into knots, muscles that lay dormant throughout one’s English speaking lifetime. The best I can describe it is to picture a fish yanked from the water, flopping on the floor of your boat, pulsing its little fish lips in and out as it tries to extract oxygen from air rather than water. Lips out. Lips in. Out. In. With the poor fish all the while moaning a grandmotherly Yiddishlike “oy,” as in “oy vey.” “Feuille.”
Bonjour Madame. Deux Paris-Brest, s’il vous plait. Merci.
We heard from the granddaughter of the original owner of Hoop Doet Leven. She prevailed on her 88-year-old father to dig up family photos from their barging days. Among the photos she sent was this one of her grandfather, the first captain of Hoop Doet Leven.
Oh, la, la. The countdown is down to a few days. We’ve kissed our final goodbye kisses to the grandkids.
But also on our minds are concerns about what changes are in store for this summer. Changes in France. Changes in the U.S.. Its been a winter of significant political events, with portents of more to come. We glued ourselves to the TV news as we watched the shootings and bombings in Paris and felt as disconnected from our second home, in France, as we did from our first home when we sat on the barge and glued ourselves to news reports of the Boston Marathon bombing a few years ago. The Brussels bombings only heighten these concerns.
As an aside, however, in typically American fashion the angst of the Boston Marathon bombing has already morphed in the popular culture into two “Marathon Bombing” movies being filmed at this very moment in Boston. As a last gasp on my cinematic career, I worked as an extra on one film, “Patriots Day.” (Patriots Day is one of several Massachusetts-only holidays. It commemorates the battle at Concord and Lexington at which the Shot Heard Round the World was fired at those natty, but nasty Redcoats. These days, the Marathon is run every Patriots Day. Another Boston-only holiday is Evacuation Day, commemorating the departure of the Royal Navy from Boston Harbor. Purely by coincidence, it coincides with St. Patrick’s Day so that all businesses in Boston are closed on St. Paddy’s Day. Except the bars.)
On the recreated finish line movie set, I cheered mock runners as Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Bacon and John Goodman, as Boston cops, chased terrorists. I’ll confess that I was spooked when I was directed to stand near the fence at the finish line while a guy in a black hoodie walked past me, dropped his backpack (which I knew was supposed to contain an explosive-packed pressure cooker – the exact model pressure cooker Sandra uses on Hoop Doet Leven – at the fence, then turned and walked around me. When the film comes out I’ll be the guy who is supposed to watch the runners but keeps glancing down at the backpack.
We boast to people that France in the countryside where we spend most of our time is like living in 1955. Now we wonder whether that laid back cultural calendar will be advanced several decades by the time we arrive in a few days.
It has been such a strange winter. The political pot, always simmering, is reaching a boil. Right wing nationalists exploit fear of immigrants. Rallies turn violent. Traditional political parties are backed into corners, battling against this movement that wants to return to a past that existed mostly in peoples’ imaginations. On the other side, socialists, democratic socialists but socialist none-the-less, appeal to dreams of another past, one that was certainly not as gauzily idealist as fading 1960s memories picture it. Little middle ground remains between these extremes.
Is that just France once again being France?
No, no, no. Not at all. That is the United States. France can deal with socialists and conservatives, with angry demonstrations, with marches and rallies. France knows there are few political issues that can’t be addressed over a glass of pastis and a sophisticated selection of cheeses.
The change that has us concerned this summer is the political Bizarro world in the United States. Our country has no recent experience with political strongmen exploiting disaffected masses, openly shouting dark beliefs that had previously been voiced only by cranks and loonies. I took my grandsons on a clandestine surveillance mission to a Donald Trump rally. It was terrifying to see so much raw emotion at an American political rally. Not that Obama rallies weren’t emotional. And not that peace protests in the Sixties weren’t emotional. But those were times of hope. What was frightening at the Trump rally was that the emotions expressed by Trump and his supporters were hate, anger, aggression. Threatening.
This is something new in American politics. Or at least dropping any subtlety about the threats is new.
So we’ve wondered how much of this American political caldron will leak into France this summer. So much else American works its way to France. McDonalds. The Simpsons. Le weekend. Trump will likely be a major topic of conversation this summer.
In the same vein, while Donald Trump and Ted Cruz promise to create immigration Gestapos to search for, round up and throw out 11 million immigrants, they conveniently ignore the reality that more Mexicans are migrating from the United States to Mexico than from Mexico to the United States. True. Google it. See http://www.pewhispanic.org/2015/11/19/more-mexicans-leaving-than-coming-to-the-u-s/. The Great Wall of Trump would keep more Mexicans in that out of the U.S.
France, as with most of Western Europe, is going through its equivalent of various permutations of Trump doppelgängers in response to its waves of refugees. We’ve read of one country after another renovating their dilapidated border posts and reimposing border crossing inspections. Europeans, and we visitors, are used to crossing from France into Italy as easily as we cross from Massachusetts into New Hampshire. We once visited friends in Menton (the last French town before the Italian border) and decided to walk over to Italy because the coffee was better.
Finally, we’ve wondered about flying the American flag on Hoop Doet Leven. The boat is registered in the United Kingdom so technically (“technically” is a lawyer’s term for something mandatory but inconvenient) we should be flying a Red Ensign, the British flag for a private vessel not owned by a former Royal Navy sailor. Named Clive. The Texans who owned the boat before us flew a Red Ensign.
Nonetheless, we’ve always flown the Stars and Stripes, although we did downsize it a few years ago. To avoid confusion, we officially redesignated the barge’s home port from London to a small Lincolnshire fishing port called Boston. We’ve never had a problem flying a U.S. flag. We receive loads of waves and a few salutes, often followed by an expression of appreciation or, if from a French woman, lust, for Obama.
We’ve wondered, though, with politics being what they are, with Trump in the news, with refugees flooding into France from countries America vowed to bomb into the Stone Age, whether the flag could attract unwanted attention. We shall see.
This summer we’ll finish the circuit we pulled the plug on last year after our propulsion system just said no. Hoop is at Entente Marine on the Canal Latoral de la Loire, near the Loire River city of Decize. We are promised that the boat has both a new gearbox and a working engine and that its test cruise by the mechanics was problem free. We’ll continue down the Loire, then take a few small canals and make our way onto the Seine upriver from Paris. Then into Paris, followed by eastward up the Marne River into Champagne, where we’ll pause for a while. Probably a rather long while. Time permitting, we’ll revisit the rural Ardennes and maybe even journey north into Belgium. Italy has better coffee. Belgium has better beer. By the end of the summer we’ll return to Toul and the boat yard from which we launched this whole floating French life we’ve come to love.
There is only one minor problem to overcome. Friends emailed that they had just passed Hoop Doet Leven tied to the canal bank. She is looking quite spiffy, they reported. Which way is she pointed, I inquired, using the standard French nautical navigational methodology, toward Burgundy (mostly red wines) or toward Sancerre (whites)? Burgundy, they replied. The wrong way. And the wrong wines. We’ll have to pirouette our 70-foot-long boat on a wide spot on the normally 50-foot-wide canal. This is to be a summer of white wines, not reds.
ADDENDUM: Our none-too-creatively-titled book, “On a Barge in France,” is actually selling pretty well. If you haven’t read it yet, it is available from Amazon worldwide in both ebook and paper formats.