We’re approaching the midpoint of this, our sixth summer on Hoop Doet Leven in France (and the Netherlands. And Belgium. And a teeny bit in Italy). Despite the American presidential meshugas (here’s a definition from, of all places, the Oxford English Dictionary: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/meshugas), despite the addictive craziness excreted from the White House to the point where I check the New York Times as frequently as I check for new email, despite all that, France, for us, remains France. Healing. Calming. After six years of France we accept that at least once a day you have to spread your arms out wide, clench your eyes shut tight and wait for today’s wonder to smack you in the face.
Once a week or so I spout my favorite Zen saying: “Leap and the net will appear.” It works. Sandra and I bought Hoop Doet Leven seven years ago – our leap – and voila, France appeared. Of course, neither France nor my favorite Zen quote – a guiding principle in my life – are quite as mystical as I imagine them to be. France remains authentically French. The Zen insight, it turns out, isn’t at all Zenny, but is from the Nineteenth Century naturalist writer James Burroughs, a buddy of Walt Whitman.
Nonetheless, France never fails to toss something at us, some amuse-bouche of a taste treat, some caractère extraordinaire of an only-in-France personality, or just a jaw dropping landscape sliding past us on the canal. What a breath of emotional fresh air. What an opportunity to finally exhale after holding our breath in anticipation of the apocalypse since election day last November.
But before all this, before France at all this summer, we had some barge dues to pay. The theory in the later part of last summer was that we would scoot out of our favorite Bourgogne and take off on a mission to the Netherlands, land of wooden shoes, windmills and, most importantly, proper shipyards. Real shipyards. Not to be confused with French shipyards. We roared out of northern France on the Meuse River, whipped through eastern Belgium and into the Netherlands, where the Meuse, like Clark Kent, changed its name to the mighty Maas. We arrived at the shipbuilding town of Maasbracht and tied up at P.H. Tinnemans & Zn Scheepsbouw, surrounded by 300-foot commercial ships in various states of reconstruction. We just needed a few days in Tinneman’s smallest drydock so Hoop could be lifted out of the water and receive the every-six-years inspection our insurance company requires. And a bit of this and a bit of that work since we were there anyway. And paint. We were tired of scraping and painting and decided to have the shipyard do a professional repainting.
The best thing about being in a Dutch shipyard is that everybody refers to Hoop as “your sheep.” Boats are for bathtubs. If its made of steel and floats, it’s a “sheep.” The second best thing is the coffee. Once I donned my double-zipper blue coveralls like the real work guys and started grinding steel I was invited to the coffee room for the 10:30 coffee break every morning. And the 3:30 one every afternoon. I got to hang out with the welders.
I stayed into October to get the barge past the inspection, which Hoop passed with flying colors, and get our little bits of sheep-work sorted out. The theory was that Tinnemans would have Hoop all back in the water, painted and ready to go when we returned in May. We planned to stock up on Dutch chocolate and thirty varieties of Indonesian spice mixes the Maasbracht supermarket sold, raid the boat chandlers found on every corner in Maasbracht, but nowhere on the French canals, and head south, back to France a few days after getting over jetlag.
Good plan. As with most boat (or sheep) plans, it was carved in jello.
When we arrived at Maasbracht we found Hoop floating at the dock at Tinnemans. The hull had been blasted to bare metal, primed and painted, but the decks and the cabins were pretty much as we’d left them in October. The problem was the weather, we were told. It started raining in October and stopped, well, just about yesterday, they said. They couldn’t paint in the cold and rain. Can you hang around until after the weekend, perhaps, they said. Or maybe the next weekend? We saw the jello melting on our plans for an immediate return to France.
Instead, we joined the two painters assigned to Hoop and got to work. Sandra attacked the aft cabin top with iron tools straight from the Middle Ages, scraping layer after layer of old paint and revealing bare metal. My angle grinder went through half a dozen wire wheels flailing paint from crevices and crannies. It was dirty, messy, hot work.
Eventually, who knows how many decades of paint were gone and the paint pros could start over with an industrial strength primer and commercial ship paint. We weren’t shooting for glossy showroom finishes. We were in a commercial shipyard and we got the commercial treatment. Our goal was to get to the point where everything had two coats of primer and only needed finish paint, which we would do ourselves. It took two weeks – rather than the two days we’d planned to spend in Maasbracht – but the job is done.
These are the rivets holding Hoop Doet Leven together. They were buried under decades of hull paint. Our rivets surfaced after all that paint was blasted away. Having your rivets show on a steel boat is a major status symbol.
We quickly motored south through the Netherlands and into Belgium, pausing at Dinant, the last city in Belgium before France, to stock up on Belgian beers. I don’t claim to be a craft beer expert, and I question whether beers that have been made by Belgian monks for the past 600 years qualify as “craft” beer, but, to me, some of these Belgian beers are as subtle and expressive as the best Burgundy wines. I bought as much as I could carry at a small beer shop in Dinant. Then, at Sandra’s urging I returned for more, this time with a “best of Belgium” list from our son Sam, who truly is a beer expert. Sam is working away preparing to open what he says will be Manhattan’s best beer bar, The RochardNYC, on the Upper East Side. (https://www.facebook.com/TheRochardNYC/). The shop owner was impressed with Sam’s list.
And now, a month later, seventy-nine locks later, we’re just outside Reims (rhymes with France), the Capital of Champagne, not to be confused with Epernay, a day ahead of us down the canal, which is also the Capital of Champagne. We’re at a town called Sillery, within sight of the Champagne vineyards. Or at least Harvey and HOOP are at Sillery. Sandra is at a landscape painting school at Civita Castellani in Italy, an hour north of Rome. She’s painting clouds there for two weeks (it takes an incredibly long ladder to reach them and barrels of white paint, I assume). Meanwhile, I’m painting the boat’s (sheep’s) decks, trying to capture the essence of deckness, the existential angst of flatness, the humility of being constantly walked over. In gray. Industrial, commercial ship gray. With blue trim.
Sandra converted our back cabin into her art studio. She painted every day while we were under way.
The artist set up on the aft deck.
Here’s a tiny bit of what Sandra has painted so far.
The next edition of our book, On a Barge in France (https://www.amazon.com/Barge-France-Harvey-Schwartz/dp/0692624740/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8) will be filled with her French paintings. By the way, the book was selected by Amazon’s secret algorithm to be included among the 1,000 or so Prime Reading Select books for the next three months. It is being marketed to Amazon’s 65 million Prime members.
Sandra returns in a week. We’ll slowly meander through Champagne, then follow the River Marne to Paris, then push up the Haute Seine – the portion of the Seine upriver from Paris – into Burgundy. We have a winter mooring reserved in Auxerre, a city in northern Burgundy.
Much of our route this summer follows our original, frantic, frightening and enlightening first summer of cruising on HOOP DOET LEVEN. Every evening we read the log book entries from that summer of 2012, a summer of 589 locks, twice as many as we did in any subsequent summer. We compare that summer’s cruise, before we’d learn to slow to the pace of the French countryside, with our casual attitude now. If some canal side town looks nice, we stop there. For the night. Or two or three nights. Or more. Our destination most days is a place called “wherever.” We stop for lunch rather than stuffing down a sandwich at the wheel. And usually stay the night wherever we happen to be. Gentlemen, we were told, don’t motor after lunch.
Most of all, we’ve learned to dance to the rhythm of the French countryside, facing issues – the toilet won’t flush (somebody dumped a cauliflower stem in the toilet), the Ardennes canal was so rural that we went three days without a boulangerie (we thawed our emergency tortillas), water in the bilge (are we sinking, who knows, it only happened once and remains a mystery) – facing all these issues with the fundamental French attitude of pas de problème, no problem.
There are still seven weeks to go (we’re returning early this year due to the mortal foes of extended cruising: new grandkids). We have not a single obligation scheduled for those weeks, no guests, no side trips, no plans, nothing except having to show up at Charles de Gaulle Airport for our flight home.
We’re excited about this unplanned odyssey through France. Our arms are spread. Eyes are closed. Ready to leap. Confident France will spread her net for us.
And we’re already planning next summer’s cruise through Burgundy and the Loire Valley, a Best of France tour.