The church steeple in the village of Montesquieu-Lauragais in the Haute Garonne of France’s Midi-Pyrénées has stood for hundreds of years. From its perch above the gently recumbent wheat and sunflower fields caressing the Canal du Midi it has seen scourges, sieges, and the everyday life of countless generations. But tonight it looked as if it was finally coming down.
Smoke wafted out of the belfry. Fire within threw a red glow on the stone tower. Sparks spurted into the air and fell toward the crowd below. A series of explosions erupted in the sky to the oohs and oh la las of the throng. But no, the church wasn’t burning down, these were feu d’artifice—fireworks. The fete was on.
Moments later, the lights came up in the plaza and a band began to play French popular standards from the ’30s and ’40s. The “dance floor” filled with couples in their 80s, 70s, 60s, while the young stood back in the comfort of their peers, and the younger still rode a mini-carousel of cars or “fished” for plastic ducks or lit up at the sight of cotton candy swirls larger than their heads.
“These are the men who fought my war,” said 84-year-old Ethel, one of my four companions, nodding toward the dancers. Her war, of course, was World War II, the war that Europeans hoped would be their last after centuries of conflict and bloodshed.
We’d stumbled upon the fete by chance, a festival like so many in rural France to celebrate saints, tradition, life. I had come hoping to sample some of this life, life described by one of the lock keepers on the canal as “une vie à part.” This is the land of Airbus and the TGV in a time of globalization. Is life along the canal still “une vie à part”?
The Canal du Midi cuts a clean swath across southern France, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the River Garonne, and thus the Atlantic Ocean. It was built during the reign of Louis XIV and completed in 1681. The French-born engineer of Italian origin, Pierre-Paul Riquet, was the driving force behind the project, convincing King Louis’s contrôleur général(minister of finance), Jean Baptiste Colbert, that the project would be viable, generating vast revenues and developing the economy of the Languedoc. The canal took 15 years and 12,000 workers to build. It has 64 locks over its 240 kilometer length (149 miles), and equally important to today’s boaters, some 20,000 plane trees that shade it with old-world glory.
For years I’d wanted to cruise the canal. Two decades ago a brochure of a barge on a canal raised the fantasy of a quiet, sun-dappled life on the water beneath sentinel plane trees. The air would be warm and moist against the skin, fragrant with lavender and rose; the birds would sing into the early afternoon, then give way to the cicadas and other insects to pick up the chorus. The pace would be as slow as the lazy canal waters that trickle downstream captured and released by the opening and closing of the locks. Yes, it would be a peaceful, quiet time. And it took twenty years to realize.
Barges and peniches lined the canal near Toulouse, gradually giving way to open banks as the canal flowed through the outlying areas of the city. Many of the peniches—barge-like boats with a slight upturn at the bow and stern—had delicate lace curtains in their windows conveying a grandmotherly essence. An hour and a half at the canal speed limit of eight kilometers per hour (five mph) removed us from the urban remnants and into a quieter, dreamier place. We were motoring through an Impressionist painting, dappled light on the water, grasses and shrubs festooning the banks beneath plane trees with their high arching limbs, delicate green leaves, yellow, brown, and green patterned trunks where the bark had fallen away. The trees created a canopy to shade our cabin, their roots gnarled toes reaching for purchase along the banks where the soil had eroded. Sunflowers raised their yellow faces or turned down as one, penitents burdened by the heavy weight of their seeds.
From downstream an open lock, or ecluse, is a thing of beauty. Water sprays feather-like from both sides toward the center, a fountain worthy of Louis XIV, with flat water in front to welcome you in. Ecluse Ayguevives, a lock we entered early in our journey, had jets shooting from below, from both sides, and a full falls over the top. It’s a 4.44 meter change in depth, or 14.6 feet, one of the deepest on this section of the canal. The stone-walled locks are ovals, but I imagined them to be fish, with the gates the heads and tails. None are watertight; all spray water when closed, but they dam enough of the canal to fill and empty fast enough. Going through a single lock takes about ten minutes.
I was expecting the lock-keepers (eclusiers) to be gnarled veterans in their 60s or older. Perhaps I was looking for that timeless quality a tourist asks of a place, the romanticized view we bring with us when seduced by slick brochures, the promises of ideal photographs, the needs we have to connect with something we perceive to be authentic even if it’s a figment of our imagination. I know I was looking for a link with a quieter era as solace for my harried modern soul. But many turned out to be kids on summer jobs, including one young blond woman who, upon hearing my blundering French, recognized me as an American and asked why we weren’t flying the U.S. flag. “People will be happy to see it,” she said, then went on to say that she planned to move to the U.S. as soon as she got the green card she’d been pursuing for months.
After a continental breakfast on the boat, I spent most mornings cycling along the canal to alert the eclusiers that we were coming, hoping that they’d open the locks before the boat arrived. The cycle path followed the old towpath used before the advent of engines. Now the path is paved and flat and provides a leisurely passage beneath the plane trees. It was so smooth that cycling was almost effortless, mirroring the gentle pace of the boat.
Passage through the locks took on a pattern, much as our days took on a pattern of ease and tranquility: enter the lock, loop the bow and stern lines to the hook dangled by a boat-mate from above. Pull the lines up, throw them around the bollards and pull the boat against the wall of the lock, hold on tight while the lock fills and fend off the boat from the walls as it rises. When the gates open fully, cast off, push off the bow, and climb aboard or cycle on to the next lock.
Except for the motors that drive the boats and the power that opens and closes the gates, this process hasn’t changed in 300 years. It was still the same old stone lock, still the same tossing and tugging of lines. And perhaps the tranquility we felt reflected what the freight haulers of old experienced as they made their way through the locks carrying their goods to market.
It must have a been a thrill to them, perhaps even a marvel, to get over the hump and begin heading down toward an otherwise inaccessible sea. Ecluse l’Océan marks that spot where the canal begins to flow downstream in two directions, and it is also the rough portal between the modern world and the rural landscape. Going east from Toulouse, the canal follows the autoroute and the traffic of modern times is never far away. Beyond l’Océan, the freeway and canal separate and you drift into a different age, where few roads follow and the trees and crops are as old as the centuries.
It was near here that life on the canal began to converge with my romantic notions of the region. After passing through 15 locks, at la Domergue we finally found the veteran eclusier I was expecting. Raymond didn’t look much older than 50, but he’d been running the locks here for the past six years after manning other locks for shorter periods. Gray tresses streamed from beneath his baseball cap and his gap-toothed smile shone with the energy of a man pleased with his situation in life. His surroundings confirmed it. He had turned his domain into a peaceful garden with roses, geraniums, petunias, and hibiscus he’d pruned to grow tall. Like so many of the other ecluses, Raymond’s patch of France was a place to admire when passing through, and a welcoming place to reflect for those who moored to stay awhile.
Did Raymond care if the TGV could get him from Toulouse to Paris in six hours? That Airbus was working on the largest aircraft ever built? He opened the locks, tended his garden, and conversed with passing boat-hands as if this was the world that truly mattered.
And at that moment it mattered to me. The calm here allowed my mind to detach from everyday worries and wander. In the dreamy green light after we’d left Raymond’s garden, ducks swam along the canal’s edges, and I remembered other ducks, other times.
The ducks’ eyes always looked so cold, glazed, dull. It was hard to imagine they were part of the same creature whose feathers were so vibrant—the iridescent green head, the brilliant blue bar on the wings, the dark brown tail that fanned like a broad hand when pulled apart. I held the ducks my father hunted, looking at those glistening patterns of color so bright in death. Only the eyes told the truth.
The ducks always turned up roasted in brown gravy, and my brothers and I bit carefully, if eagerly, waiting for the crunch of our teeth on shot—bee-bees—the steel pellets that brought down the birds. Then we pulled them out of our mouths and wiped them on our plates, shot mixed with duck flesh and saliva. Somehow none of us ever broke a tooth.
Now 80 years old, my father doesn’t hunt anymore. I don’t hunt, either. I never did. When I was young it was foreign to me, something adults did, when instead I played sports with my brothers. My father never asked me if I wanted to hunt, never encouraged me to fire a gun. Did he think it was an unnecessary pursuit, an anachronism in the modern age, a pleasure only for those who had done it out of necessity as youths? Or did he simply enjoy the solitude, the opportunity to tramp off on his own through the woods, open fields, and sloughs? Perhaps he simply didn’t want the responsibility of teaching kids gun safety and skills.
To this day I’ve hunted only twice, and neither time would I consider it hunting. Once, in Montana, friends and I were looking for ducks but never got off a shot. I had one opportunity when we flushed three mallards from the rushes but as I raised the gun I felt they were already out of range. The other time was in Minnesota on a friend’s farm, when among three of us we had one shotgun and another friend, discouraged by having found nothing to shoot at all day, obliterated a white-breasted nuthatch that had the misfortune to fly toward us from a tree not ten feet away. I was so revolted by this senseless killing that I’ve never intentionally seen that friend again.
My father didn’t go to war. His war, of course, was also World War II. He was relieved of duty for medical reasons, reasons that were always ambiguous and never discussed. My war was Vietnam, and having devoured World War II books as a boy, I had learned that war wasn’t glory and honor but death and maiming. I remember as a trembling ten-year-old asking my mother if I would have to go to war when I grew up.
“No, there won’t be a war when you’re older,” she said, but from the tightness in her face I could tell she was trying to convince herself that this was true. Just a few years later, after a disturbing radio report, she confessed in anguish, “They say this war could go on for ten years—it could involve all of you boys.”
My two older brothers and I, fighting and dying in a faraway land: I was too young to believe it, and so naïve as to think it couldn’t be true.
One older brother failed the army medical exam for impaired hearing, of all things. Another died in a canoeing accident before the draft board called him in. I simply got lucky. By the time I’d reached draft age the Selective Service had implemented a lottery, and my number was a good one, well beyond the reach of the army’s needs.
So my brothers and I didn’t serve in the military, nor did we hunt ducks. We watched them fly south for the winter, and now here, in France, I observed them in the canal and marveled at how they marked my life.
In Castelnaudary, after we’d moored in the Grand Bassin, a lake designed to provide moorage for boats before moving on through the canal, the wind urged me uphill, pushing dust through the narrow streets keeping its constant hand on my back. Rue du Comedie led past a tiny cinema and topped out at the end of town, on a hill that gave way to wheat fields rolling across a broad valley. Nearby stood the old windmill, moulin de Cugarel, and as I shuffled through the heat I was aware of a young woman hurrying behind me. Above the whir of wind I heard the scuffle of gravel beneath her feet. Just as I approached the mill she cut in front of me, speaking in French I didn’t understand. My blank expression and embarrassed “I don’t speak French” shifted her to English as she unlocked the latch. “It is broken,” she said.
She was the mill keeper, the tourist guide working a summer job, and she invited me in for a private tour. This was the last of the 32 mills that had made Castelnaudary a commerce center from the time of the canal’s opening. Wheat from the surrounding fields came here to be ground into flour to be shipped east and west along the canal. With the wind whistling through the old door it was easy to imagine how it might have been: chaff whipping down the cobbled streets, clouds of flour whirling off in a constant storm of dust as the mill workers applied the brakes to the sails to slow the wheel down.
The mechanism was all there, wholly restored with parts from other mills now long gone. The gear system to change the mill’s orientation, to transfer the wind power to the grinding stone, the levers that apply the pressure to press brake shoe against wheel—it was all simple but ingenious.
My private guide explained everything in fractured English and I thanked her in more heavily fractured French before heading back out into the wind to make my way to the boat. The wind whooshed through the plane trees, sent flags snapping, leaves swirling, scraps flying, dust whizzing, and bent people at the waist. It carried dust through the narrow streets like the flour from the mills of the past. Bicyclists zoomed with it, stopped dead against it, and a family of ducks, wings beating furiously, hung in the air going nowhere until they gave in and diverted in a dash to starboard. It was a “wicked witch of the west” sort of wind.
When it comes up like this, the tramontana sweeps through the wide plain between the Massif Central and the Pyrénées, scrubbing Castelnaudary clean of paint. The dun of sandblasted stone and low profile of the town on the slope above the Grand Bassin anchor it in the Middle Ages. From the canal the steeples of Saint Michel and Saint Francis mark the center of town. People squeezed their small Peugeots through the narrow lanes, met before doorways to chat, sat on benches in the shade along the Bassin with their friends. The pace was slow in this community that thrived when the mills turned and the canal was the principal channel of transport, before the trains came, and then the autoroute, and changed the way of life.
The 13th-century Church of Saint Michel was a sanctuary from the wind. The stone walls and vaulted ceiling created a peaceful space and muffled all sound from outside. An old man sat at a table in the back of the church, talking quietly with visitors, answering their questions about the place’s history, perhaps sharing thoughts about the town and surrounding area. The church possessed a historic organ and religious paintings decorated the chorus, but a different display drew me to an alcove near the door. There on the wall were inscribed the names of local people who had died in war. It was not grand or ornate, just the names of townspeople who left to fight and never returned.
You see this sort of memorial all over France, and it’s not dissimilar from simple memorials you find in small towns across the USA: names of native sons and daughters who never returned from the fighting in World War I and II. The carnage was almost beyond comprehension, the victims from towns and villages scattered across the land. Today it’s easy to forget, even when looking back over a long and bloody past, even when knowing the history. The landscape seems too benign, the people too engaged with concerns of everyday living. Maybe here, maybe now, such conflict is unimaginable.
The next day, Castelnaudary was a different place. It wasn’t the morning light or the soft sky behind it or the perfect panoramic framing of the medieval town by the wide window of my cabin when I sat up. It was the wind. The gale was gone, replaced by a breeze that barely rippled the surface of the Grand Bassin.
We turned back and retraced our wake toward Toulouse. Everything seemed familiar now: the pace, the tranquility, the sound of birdsong, the fountain-like locks that bespoke the centuries-old French love of manipulating water. Wheat fields rolled up the surrounding hillsides while a distant whine rose above the silence. A train passed a stone farmhouse, sped through the fields, and was gone. That night, no doubt, another fete would animate another village somewhere in these hills, and partners would take each other in their arms for another dance, forgetting the wars of the past, hoping for a peaceful future. It may or may not be une vie à part, maybe nowhere can truly detach itself from the modern world, but by looking to the future while enjoying the present moment, these people keep step with the passage of time and hang on to traditions that have sustained them for generations. Maybe this time, at the dance, the young would join in.
Larry Habegger is a writer, editor, journalist, and teacher who has been covering the world since his international travels began in the 1970s. A freelance writer for more than two decades and syndicated columnist since 1985, he has written for many major newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Travel & Leisure, andOutside. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and in 1993 founded the award-winning Travelers’ Tales books with James and Tim O’Reilly. He has worked on all of the company’s more than 80 titles and is currently executive editor. Larry’s safety and security column, World Travel Watch, has appeared in newspapers in five countries and on internet sites, including WorldTravelWatch.com. He regularly teaches the craft of personal travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco.
“A Trickle of Time and Water” will be published in Floating through France: Life Between Locks on the Canal du Midiedited by Barbara Euser in 2006.
About Editors’ Choice:
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