TechnomadicsVagabonding Europe

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We recently made the acquaintance of Kent and Heather, a couple from the US who spend a few months of each year cruising the French canal system on their boat. We’d passed a few emails back and forth about the prospect of crossing paths, and as it turns out, we’re going to be able to make it work!

They’re passing by Fontainebleau and southwards from there, so after a little more conferring, we depart Paris’s suburbs and make for a little medieval village called Ferrières-en-Gâtinais.

We set ourselves up in the municipal campsite, located just outside the delightful little town of winding narrow cobbled streets, and the following day — which just happens to be my birthday (how fitting!) — Kent and Heather arrive on their bikes. We’re going to spend the day with them, cruising up the canal at their usual leisurely pace of ~5 km/h, a wonderfully appealing prospect.

After we grab a couple of vital provisions for the day (a wheel of mystery camembert-esque cheese, some apricot jam, a bottle of wine and a couple of baguettes), Kent leads the way to the spot on the bank of the nearby canal where they tied up the evening before, and our hosts welcome us warmly aboard their pretty little boat, Après Ski, adorned colourfully with flowers.

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Even more Tardis-like than Nettle, we’re impressed at the amount of space inside Après Ski — a living room/kitchen, a master and spare bedroom, and no less than two bathrooms, one sporting an actual bath! Very roomy.

We talk leisure batteries and plumbing for a moment (always a popular topic for we nomadic types), as Heather whips up a salad, then they break out the champagne, which in a moment of flagrant know-it-all-ness Kent explains is only called ‘champagne’ as it was the region of Champagne that finally embraced the sparkling substance, after the monk that invented it — it’s always a monk, you see — had roamed France trying to find sponsorship. We set up on a picnic table by the bank to have some lunch, and we’re charmed by Kent and Heather’s easy, friendly manner. They’re lovely!

We have a 1PM appointment to enter the lock system, and we settle ourselves up on the bridge at the back of the boat while Kent untethers us from the bank and skilfully guides us through the open gates of the lock. We watch with interest as the lock keeper manually winds handles that close each of the the gates behind us, then walks around and opens the gates on the other side, gently letting water bubble and froth its way into the lock as Kent and Heather hold the lines that keep the boat steady in the resulting eddies. Kent converses with the lock keeper, and we feel a little envious of the ease with which he seems to comprehend what she’s saying!

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Once the level in the lock is the same as that of the canal we’re headed for, the lock keeper opens the gates all the way and we rumble out, as she jumps into her van and drives onwards to meet us at the next lock.

The four of us sit up the back as we cruise along slowly, enjoying the gentle pace as the bank drifts slowly by, talking and munching on baguette and camembert. Every now and then we’ll enter another lock, and repeat the process of opening the gates (which I start assisting with, at Kent’s suggestion), then holding Après Ski steady while the water’s let in, and waving farewell to the lock keeper as we proceed onwards.

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It’s still a little early for proper autumn colours, but the surface of the canal is dotted here and there with some early fallen leaves, and the trees to either side of the canal are a gold green, just on the cusp. It’s quiet, aside from the soft whirr of the engine, a big contrast with our increasingly sporadic road trips in noisy Nettle!

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We talk about our respective non-travel activities — A Tasty Pixel, and we find out that Kent and Heather met when they were both working at NASA! Heather worked on a ruggedised laser system destined for use in Antarctica, and Kent still works as a testing software developer, doing things like verifying the correct function of range-finding terrain mapping systems.

When I explain my “almost-finished” PhD, they laugh and exclaim “You’re an ABD!” — All But Dissertation, an eminently well-suited term that resulted in some hilarity, and apparently not an uncommon phenomenon among the staff at NASA! Hah!

We pass through an industrial area (as we make a few humorous disparaging comments comparing it to frequently-industrial Belgium), and gape at a beautifully restored container vessel transformed into a house-boat, rich, deep browns of oxidised hull, matched by beautifully stained woodwork on the deck. We pass a number of other impressive-looking residential vessels, as Kent describes the marina in the centre of Paris, and how there are people who live in such mansions-on-water, right in the middle of the city. Not a bad way to live, we imagine.

Just outside the centre of the town of Montargis, our canal journey comes to a close with one last lock, a 20-foot-or-so whopper, lifting us up high above the canal we’d just left, as a bunch of onlookers watch curiously — Kent and Heather tell us that they’re becoming increasingly used to having an audience every time they pass through a lock, like they’re a tourist attraction themselves! (Having gawped a little myself at an operating lock, I don’t doubt it).

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Kent very skilfully parallel-parks us in between two much larger boats tied up at the marina, converses briefly with, presumably, the harbourmaster who drives by, and very helpfully finds out for us where we can find a bus to take us back to Nettle.

The four of us ride down to the bus, but we discover that there’s no room for our bikes (despite the confident assurances of the driver Kent had checked with earlier) — we decide to try our luck at the train station, and bid our new friends farewell after determining their plans for the next week, with hopes of another meet-up.

We’ve just missed the only train for the next few hours, but a glance at the map shows us that we’re not really that far from Ferrières-en-Gâtinais, and we decide to ride back the way we had come during the day’s adventure, along the canal.

The ride is lovely, the path running right alongside the canal until it peters out and we find ourselves riding along the grassy verge, before it becomes paved again. Dusk settles around us as the colour seeps out of the world, and we’re focused on the ground in front of our wheels with just enough light to see where we’re going. Finally, we find the road we’d come down this morning, and turn back, arriving at Nettle after an hour and a half’s ride — half the time we took to go the other way on the boat!! — weary but content.

A brilliant birthday — thanks for having us, Kent and Heather!

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One Response to A birthday, French canals, and new friends

  1. Wow, “spacious” is a word we’ve never heard used to describe our boat, Après Ski! But I guess it’s all relative. Michael & Katherine, love the post, thanks for writing about our really really fun day!