Slow affair of the heart

by Bruce Ansley / 01 November, 2008
Former Listener journalist Bruce Ansley and his wife thought a year on the French canals would be a romantic escape. Reality proved different.

One morning I awoke with adventure on my mind.

I was of, well, a certain age. I was sick of working, and probably work was growing sick of me. I suspected I was not just out of step, I'd lost the whole platoon. My doctor was looking at me askance. In short, I was in average condition for my time of life.

My wife, Sally, was perfectly happy as she was, but despite suffering past adventures went along with the plan, anyway.

The problem was that there was no plan. The idea of escape was fine, nothing wrong with it as long as you knew what you were fleeing from; but what to escape to? Gareth Morgan had done the motorbike ride, Christine Fernyhough the high country and everyone in Auckland the South Seas voyaging in small boats.

We decided to go and live on the French canals for a year, perhaps two. I sold the idea to Sally as romance, beauty, great food and lots and lots of flowers. Foolishly, she bought it. We'd been married for ages. By the end of the first year, our long, long affair was almost over.

It wasn't France's fault.

We went first to Holland and became the proud new owners of the River Queen, a beautiful canal cruiser.

I felt vaguely Bogart-ish. Sally felt ... well, how you feel when your partner wakes up one day wanting to throw away the weekly pay cheque, leave your beloved house and abandon family, friends and country for as far ahead as you could see.

We fitted it out with all the requisites of a dream: good music, lots of white cushions and a table and chairs so that we could sit on the afterdeck under a sun umbrella and watch la belle France in comfort.

Then we were off, perhaps to Paris, maybe to the Mediterranean. We weren't sure. We didn't want to decide. We planned to toss a coin at some point, and let chance take a hand.

Chance did. Much of the trip was wonderful. Here's a bit of it:

We went up a long flight of locks with our personal lock-keeper.

He was a handsome man with lots of curly dark hair and graceful gestures and Sally voted him cutest lock-keeper in all France.

He saw the silver fern at the front of our boat.

He loved le rugby. He loved the All Blacks. What did I think of the Wallabies? Mugs? He bounced around the lock with glee. Mugs! he called. Mugs! passers-by called back. Sally loved him.

We reached a long, peaceful stretch on the summit. Our lock-keeper went off with arms full of wine.

We were on the second highest canal in France. Graceful trees brushed our cabin-top, villages snoozed in the sun.

We stopped for the night beside the little town of Chamousey, where we bought delicious charlottes, mousse encased in sponge with red and white currants and raspberries on top. They came in gold cases.

Three small boys came to fish. They caught four, the size of herrings, and put them into a bucket of water.

They asked politely for a drink of water. Sally poured them some juice. They could speak a little English, which they were learning in school.

How old were they? she asked. They told her: two were 11 and one 12. "Et vous? " one asked. Sally told them. They looked at each other. "Wow," they said in French. "They are 160 years old."

They offered me a fishing line. Sally gave them two Florentines each. They looked at each other.

"Perhaps you'd like fish for dinner," one said. He offered the bucket. Sally was touched. "Thank you," she said, "but we have had dinner already." The boys looked relieved.

The evening fell into slumbrous dark. We were alone, for the town had only a single mooring.

New Zealand seemed light years away, and just as remote when we reached Forges d'Uzemain.

It was a hot day, and a long one.

The wide, shady pool at Forges was as welcome as the bottle of cool Maçon white that we lost no time in opening.

A voice called in the silence. "Ah, you start without me."

It was Klaus. We'd met him a few days earlier, when the lock-keeper, for his own esoteric reasons, had signalled the two of us past two waiting Dutch boats. "I'm really sorry," I called to them as we passed. "Who cares?" cried Klaus. "They are only Dutch."

It was a joke, I hoped. But Klaus was so full of life he could be forgiven anything.

Klaus was a huge, tanned German with long, golden hair who looked 20 years younger than his age, 67.

He was jockeying a speedboat barely disguised as a cabin cruiser. He was taking it from Germany to Spain, where he had a house.

Every slicked-back line of its hull, each flame-shaped window, all the soft tucks in its white upholstery suggested a boat not really suited to the canals. He was travelling so slowly that his twin engines kept fouling their spark plugs, a condition I imagined extended to Klaus himself.

Both he and his boat seemed designed for the Costa Brava. He enjoyed his life. He threw his head back and roared, "I have had a wonderful day."

His crew was his son-in-law, Mick.

Mick was Australian and wore surf shorts with Billabong inscribed in large letters over the backside. He lived in a house next door to his father-in-law, Klaus. Klaus looked happy with the arrangement. I got the feeling he was used to getting what he wanted.

He'd headed a motorcycle company and still rode a huge Harley-Davidson. When his only daughter had announced she was marrying an Australian, Klaus had sent a friend to check out her intended. The report had come back positive; luckily for Mick, I thought.

Family and friends were taking turns to join him along the way to Spain, a week or so at a time, but Klaus had a problem. Just as he was leaving, he had seen the boat of his dreams in an advertisement, and had bought it sight unseen. Then he'd sold his present boat. Klaus had meticulously planned his trip, but the boat's new owner wanted it back in Germany; Klaus' new boat was already in Spain.

What to do? Simple, Klaus reasoned. "Klaus is a great planner," said Mick. "He loves it."

He'd take the old boat on the trip he'd planned, all the way to Spain, fly back to Germany, collect his car and the boat's trailer, drive to Spain and haul the boat back home again. No problem. "A wonderful journey", and Klaus's laughter boomed over the quiet water.

We tossed a coin. We went to Paris. Then we cut the second year off our journey. Escape can be fun but hard on the participants. Our marriage survived the adventure, but it was touch-and-go for a while. When people asked where we'd been, I just said we'd spent a year on the French canals. They said, "how wonderful", and I said yes, it was.

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