A Floating Tribe (she said)29 Jun 2011
I imagine canal cruising is like travel before the advent of planes, train and automobiles. In one day on Après Ski, we cover roughly the same distance that a person could cover on horseback at an easy pace. It’s faster than walking – but not by much. This slow travel reveals the French countryside at its historically experienced pace. Small villages are about a meal apart in the most rural areas (eat breakfast here, stop for lunch there, spend the night at the next village). The food, architecture and local accent can vary greatly in a few 10′s of kilometers. We sample local products such as fresh mussels, green plums, duck confit, or pastries made with lavender (tastes like dish soap) once or twice before moving onto a region of new tastes like black olive paste, delicate melons, or spiced sausage. We cruisers journey through this landscape of sights, tastes and sounds, enjoying a nibble, visiting an ancient church, or wandering through a market.
Cruisers are their own floating tribe traveling across this stage. These nomads periodically gather at the Ports de Plaissance, small to medium sized ports that can accommodate several dozen boats, as a respite from their travels. The local chief of this watery village is the Capitaine de Port. She or he tells you where you can moor your boat, knows all the local stores for both provisioning and boat supplies, knows the local events, the market days, the best boulangerie and also acts as local council, boat broker, and travel agent. Cruisers stay for an undetermined length of time in this village, setting off again once they have re-provisioned, done a bit of maintenance, and anticipate good weather.
When members of the floating tribe gather, they find a common language or two and tell stories of the canals ahead and behind. Information on lock conditions, mooring opportunities, good restaurants, interesting sights, or helpful repairmen is exchanged and updated daily. You won’t find what you need to know about the next day’s journey in a guide book or on the internet. Conditions change daily, and the best source of information is a tribe member traveling in the opposite direction. Cruisers see old friends, new friends, make introductions and deliver messages of greetings around the port from cruisers in other locations. As new boats pull into port, dogs recognize old doggy friends and bark joyously, anxious to run and play together along the canal’s grassy banks as folks pop up out of their boats to lend a hand with the mooring lines.
Cruisers are travelers, not tourists. They may stay in a town for an afternoon, a few days, a week, or even months. Their rhythms are dictated by whether the locks are working, if the éclusiers (lock keepers) are on strike, if some boat project or repair is completed, the weather, or their own whim. They shop locally (almost daily since most boats don’t have much storage space), and interact with local professionals, shop owners and craftspeople. Their life is not the industrialized, modern way of trains, planes, hotels, reservations, itineraries, schedules and plans. Traveling once meant going on a journey, and canal cruisers keep this way of life alive. They simply know about when they need to be about where, and deal with the chaos, beauty and rain as they come.
And so the members of this floating village set out and journey seasonally, migrating around France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Holland and beyond. Some of their boats are sea-worthy and will head out into the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, or across the Channel. But no matter where they travel on their journeys they follow the unspoken creed of the floating tribe and of all ancient travelers; they readily assist one another and openly share information on the journey ahead.