The Journey -
It was a hot day, so we moored the boats a few kilometres later, but moved half a kilometre the next day to a spot where we could pick up Sky TV. I spent the next few days listening to Test Match Special on the radio, England v India at Trent Bridge.
Our next move was on the Monday when we cruised up to Villepinte. On the way, we arrived at a lock, below which was a half sunken boat, with the crew wrapped in towels on the bank, and the emergency services just beginning to arrive. Our information came from the lock-keeper, who had been emptying the lock. He mentioned to the hire boat that it was too far back and must come forward, but the next time he looked (???!!!!) it was hung up, by the rudder, on the sill. The forces acting on the rudder ripped it out, backwards and upwards, leaving a hole in the stern. Lock keeper and crew got the boat out of the lock and onto the lock lay-by moments before we arrived, and the crew got their personal possessions off the boat. The lock-keeper seemed wholly unfazed by it all. As we left the lock, fire brigade pumps were pumping water out of the boat, whilst the hire company arrived to whisk the crew away to another boat to continue their holiday.
Villepinte has a convenient pontoon mooring, but bank-side mooring is also available. The town seems to mark a distinct change in the landscape. To the east, the fields are mainly grape vines, though west of Carcassone sunflowers started to make an appearance. After Villepinte, the vineyards give way to other crops. The town itself is quite small. The bakery was closed - whether for the holiday or permanently I could not say. There is a small 'alimentation' (general store) run by a surprisingly sprightly looking woman, and a man who looked as though he was either stoned or was in the midst of a severe hangover. Or both.
When we arrived at Villepinte, the first excitement was that two women arrived to use the lavarie beside the mooring. I had never seen one in use before, although there are many examples of them by the canal. A lavarie is a trench beside the canal in which one can stand to wash clothes in the canal. This is aided by a short, stone or concrete, downward slope from the front of the trench to the canal. In many cases, the trench has now been filled in, but this one at Villepinte was a fully functioning model.
Then a hire boat arrived and moored near us, and the rest of the evening is a bit of an alcoholic haze. Eugene, Haley, Catriona and Melvyn/Mervyn got us severely inebriated.
They were due to leave the next following morning, and we had another 'off boat' outing. We drove down to Montségur, which was one of the last of the Cathar castles to fall. We climbed up the steep slope to it. Of course, it is nothing like it was. It was altered after the Cathars had been slaughtered, and now it is an impressive ruin. It is a money-spinner for modern writers, being a corner-stone of the wealth of 'Baigent and Leigh' and Dan Brown.
Back at the boats, and the Irish were still there. They had visited a nearby farm, and had chosen a chicken from amongst all those running around. Mr Farmer (Claude) had caught the bird with a net, and agreed to slaughter, pluck and draw it, and then to bring it to the boat, along with his dear lady wife, and help to eat it. I was invited along as well, and not only (they assured me) for my 15 litre box of good ordinary French red wine.
The evening was a great success, even though Melvyn/Mervyn had deserted. He had been called back to Ireland for business reasons, and Mike had driven him to the airport. We ended up playing the Tower game - a tower made of blocks of wood. Blocks have to be removed, and placed on top of the tower. The one who causes the tower to collapse is the looser. We all got woozy again, to the extent that our Irish friends entirely forgot to pay for the chicken that started it all, and the farmer and his wife forgot to ask for it..
Ah!! That was also the day when I saw a red squirrel - in the sober morning light, I hasten to add.
We then had a nine-lock day - that is a lot for France - up to Castelnaudary, where there are lots of places to moor, nearly all of them free, and a free electric tree (but with only four sockets on it)
I knew that Castelnaudary had a barracks for the Legion Etranger (a.k.a. The Foreign Legion), and I had heard rumours that they had a museum. I wanted to visit, to try to buy a music CD of the legionnaires singing their marching songs - very slow and purposeful music. I was out with Mike in the car to do some shopping, when we saw signs to the barracks, and went to investigate.
I was in scruff order, and it was late on a Saturday morning. Mike parked outside the gate, and I wandered over to the guard room, where the ultra smart legionnaire immediately called his rather beefy corporal, who summoned the sergeant who spoke excellent English. I stated my case, and a runner was despatched across the road to the billet of the duty officer.
Meanwhile we discovered that the Sergeant was Russian, as was most of the guard! He had been an officer in the Soviet army. We remarked on his excellent English. 'Our enemy was America, so of course we all learned English!!'
The runner returned. Then the information came forth. The museum is not at Castelnaudary, but at Marseille. However, on the camp there was a shop, and we were welcome to go to the shop and buy what we wished. 'AK 47?' we asked. 'No. The shop does not sell those.'
We had to deposit a passport in the guardroom, and were allocated a corporal to escort us to and from the shop. The barracks is quite new, and sparkling clean. Everyone we saw was immaculately turned out - shirts were pressed, and creases accurately ironed into them. They all wore a blue, broad, cloth waist band, over which was a belt, from which dangled a bayonet. The shop had quite a few legionnaires in it, nearly all similarly dressed, but some in 'can't see me' kit and others in PT kit. The shop sold lots of military gear - T and sweat shirts, kepis, sleeping bags, running shoes, trousers etc. There were some magazines, mainly concerned with weapons and running. There were also quite a few 'Legion Etranger' badged items.
Unfortunately, they didn't have what I wanted. I bought two CDs. One is of the Legionnaires choir singing Christmas carols, and the other is the Legionaires band playing all sorts of bits of music, most with a military connection.
I also bought a small booklet, containing the words of some 50 or 60 songs. It is entitled 'Chants de la Legion Etrangere' and is dated 1998.
In it there are songs about Africa and deserts, kepis, comrades and a variety of women - Ann-Marie, Monica, Susanna, Lili Marlene and, of course, Veronika (their spelling). Most are in French, a few in German.
I think I was being told that the booklet originally accompanied a CD (or two?) , but that the CDs were sold out. If anyone has a copy of the CD(s) please let me know.
It has been agreed among the EU countries that people who go about in boats on inland (and, I think, the territorial seas) need some form of qualification. The UK has an exemption from this for its citizens in its waters (and, I assume, other EU nationals in its waters).
Hence, to take my boat onto inland waters in mainland Europe, I need a document to prove that I am competent - or, more accurately, WAS deemed to be competent at the time I took the test. A written test covered the rules of the road and signage (buoys etc), and there is also a practical examination.
However, people who want to hire a boat for a holiday may be dissuaded from so doing if they first have to pass a test. So, hire boaters are exempt from these regulations. This means that the large and powerful hire boats on the canals of France are often in the hands of complete novices.
It continues to amaze us that so few boaters seem to understand what they can do with their bow-thrusters. All they seem to be used for is to get the bows off the bank when starting out in the morning, and to try to get the bows near the bank when coming in to moor. This is so, not only of the inexperienced hire boaters, but also of the private (and, hence, trained?) boaters.
We have yet to see a boat with a bow-thruster whose steerer understands how to get into a constricted mooring by moving the boat sideways. Such a manoeuvre is not difficult to accomplish, though moving sideways into a wind could be tricky due to the restricted power of most bow-thrusters.
This same 'moving sideways' trick may also be accomplished by twin-engined craft. We occasionally strap Rosy and Temujin together, and even we can do it.
That's it, folks!!