Canal Boating – An Outsider’s View (guest post by Don)17 Jun 2011
I had the privilege to cop an invitation to cruise the Canal du Midi with Heather and Kent. It was an experience I will never forget and I mean this in a very positive way. I step off the train in Béziers – a small town in southern France – and into a completely new world. Gone is the rush of schedules, the tyranny of hotels, and being a slave to a clock. We rise when we feel like it. Find a boulangerie and buy a baguette for breakfast. Feast on fresh bread, cheeses, jams, and freshly brewed coffee. We slip our mooring lines and motor leisurely along tree-shaded canals. We make our lunch of more bread and cheese. We stop when we feel like it and tie up to a bank or possibly a bollard if near a village. We can wander through quaint villages; if lucky, visit centuries-old churches; drop in at a winery and sample the local specialties; and maybe, enjoy a local restaurant’s offerings or Heather’s latest creation come dinner time. When night falls we remain on our floating home. No pressure, no problems (I might add I am not the boat’s owner and so don’t have to worry about maintenance.)
What I find particularly unusual is the camaraderie and support of other barge owners. It seems to be its own special world. You own a barge and decorate it to suit yourself. Your unique decor – which probably includes flags and flowers – sets you apart from the weekly renters. You have now joined a special clique. You will meet up time and again with the same owners as you cruise the canals. They will be your support group and your special friends. They are there to help with problems, offer advice, and give recommendations on sights, restaurants, and good maintenance people. We might spend late afternoons enjoying a happy hour with some or meet others for a joint visit to a restaurant. There is no feeling of loneliness or being an outsider. Closely allied to the network of helping friends is the friendliness of some of the maintenance staff at the boat rentals. In spite of the fact you own a boat and are not renting from them, they willingly share tools, advice, and the odds and ends you soon realize you need.
My previous experiences in France were mostly of Paris and the Parisians’ impatience with my very rudimentary attempts at French. Now I found myself in a country where people are exceptionally friendly and go out of their way to make me feel at home. We stopped to visit a special winery and called to make an appointment to visit it on Monday since the day we called was Sunday and the place was closed. They wouldn’t hear of it. We were invited to come right over and spent a charming afternoon getting to meet the vintner, his wife, and a daughter who was preparing to go to Australia to study law. We certainly weren’t outsiders; we were treated as close friends. In another instance, a waitress who served us one evening at a local restaurant saw us the next morning wandering through town, remembered who we were and happily greeted us. At a different winery, we were allowed to wander among the crew who were bottling the local wines. Nobody shooed us away. We arrived in another village and found all the mooring blocks taken. Not a problem; the operator of a pedal boat rental told us to use one of his reserved spots for the night. Locals tipped us off to the best boulangeries. Merchants in the markets willingly offered samples of their wares. Water was available for filling our tanks. On the rare occasions we had to pay for a mooring – seldom very expensive – we got electricity, water, and on-shore showers thrown in. This is not the France I remembered.