“Floating through France is a feast for the senses, a peaceful break from the complexities of the world.”
—Arlene Blum, author of Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life
Of the millions of travelers who visit France each year, relatively few venture along the Canal du Midi in Southern France. Completed in 1681, the canal that joined the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea—and for that reason also known as the Canal des Deux Mers—is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Floating through France: Life Between Locks on the Canal du Midi is a collection of essays by writers inspired by their experiences as they traversed the ancient locks and boated through the timeless countryside. Take a rich tour of the South of France with musings that are entertaining, educational, heartfelt, enlightening, and bubbling with humor.
“The Canal du Midi in the South of France distills the essence of la france profonde: an intensely rural languor, villages lost in the snooze of yesteryear, the good earth offering beauty to the eye and bounty to the table. And a canal slips through it.
“With 12 writers, we potter along the canal and through these pages, singing with the shades of women troubadours, stepping into Impressionist paintings, leaning into the tramontana wind, biking along a gardened bank where children search for butterflies. We munch garlicky olives, sip wines with strange-sounding names, consume a compelling cassoulet. We even learn to negotiate the locks.
“This book is a trip. I’m into it. I want to be on it!”
—Georgia Hesse, founding travel editor of the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle
“The stories are so insightful, humorous, meditative and fun, that you’ll feel like you’re sailing slowly along the Canal du Midi, connecting to the culture, history, cuisine, and heart of France.”
—Lynne Cox, open water swimmer, inspirational lecturer, author of Swimming to Antarctica
If this book inspires you to discover the hidden gems of France, visit the France Travel Guide that can help you with every aspect of planning & booking a trip to the Canal du Midi.
by Barbara J. Euser
I was scheduled to sail the Singlehanded Transpac, a solo race from San Francisco to Hawaii, when I first saw Lurley and fell in love with her.
Getting ready for the Singlehanded Transpac was a matter of life and death. Sponsored by the Singlehanded Sailing Society, monthly seminars for those planning to sail the 2004 race began in December 2003. At the first seminar I was awed by sailors planning to sail their second of third solo race. I was one of a handful of neophytes, the only woman. I needed to absorb as much information as I could from every seminar. I needed every bit of help I could get.
In the midst of these early preparations for the race, in early January 2004, I traveled to Europe on business. While in Paris, I surfed my favorite topic on the web—Canal Boats Europe. One site that came up was comprised of yachts for sale by British owners. Scrolling through, I found two boats that greatly appealed to me. One was in Britain, as were most all the boats on that site. The other was in France—Southern France, Le Segala on the Canal du Midi.
She was described as a gentleman’s motor yacht, steel hull, graceful lines, place for seven to sleep. The photo looked like the boat I had been dreaming of for years. I
e-mailed the yacht company asking for contact with the owner. The next day I received a reply, including a phone number. I called. The British owners were selling their belovedLurley because Peter had grown too old to take care of her anymore. He and Caroline wanted to buy a house of their own in southern France and selling Lurley offered the way.
I needed to go see this boat. There are thousands of boats for sale at any given moment. But boats are not fungible. Each has her own characteristics and personality. I had looked at hundreds of boats on websites over the past seven years and had never fallen in love before.
From Paris it is a five-hour ride on the fast train to Toulouse. Then there is a short train ride to Castelnaudary. I had asked Caroline how I would recognize her and Peter. She said to look for a woman with bright red hair and a man with a full white beard. I saw them immediately.
Caroline drove us to Le Segala where Lurley was docked in front of their house. They shared the house with another couple, Caroline and Peter splitting their own time between the house and summers on the Canal du Midi on Lurley. They showed me through the boat and Peter gave me a thorough introduction to the two engines. Then we went inside the house for lunch. After lunch, Caroline drove me to Toulouse to catch the train back to Paris. I spent the entire ride back trying to figure out how to buy Lurley. I thought that if I could find another couple to join as partners in buying Lurley, it might be possible. When I got back to Paris, I e-mailed Caroline and Peter, told them how much I hoped I would be able to find a way to buy Lurley. It wasn’t clear.
But I had other things on my mind. The Singlehanded Transpac was coming up at the end of June. Even though I had paid my entry fee, I couldn’t start the race until I had completed my qualifying sail—a four hundred-mile long solo sail at least one hundred miles offshore. And before I could do that, I had a lot of preparation to do. I began by taking Islander out for short sails alone on San Francisco Bay. I would go out for a couple of hours. Just leaving the dock alone, motoring out to where I could raise the main sail and sailing the boat all by myself required new skills. I learned a lot, quickly. Then I had to venture out the Gate, that is, sail under the Golden Gate Bridge into the Pacific Ocean. I love to sail under that massive bridge and feel the heartbeat of the ocean, the ocean swell. Sailing under it alone was another matter.
One day, I sailed out to the Lightship, more accurately known as the San Francisco Buoy, about fourteen miles offshore. At Easter, I entered the Singlehanded Farallones Race, a race around a group of islands twenty-eight miles out. The Bay was shrouded in dense fog as I crossed the start line and sailed under the Gate. Halfway to the Lightship, the wind died. One by one, racers abandoned the race. Finally, I radioed the Race Committee, turned on my engine and motored home.
I needed to get closer to the Farallones. After all, if I couldn’t get to the Farallones, how could I sail over two thousand miles to Hawaii? One week later, I had my chance. In clear weather, I made the sail.
Then I needed to spend one night at sea on my own. So I planned an overnight sail. I started in the afternoon and only went as far as the area south of the Farallones, between the southbound and westbound shipping lanes. During the night, the wind died. I floated uncomfortably, my sails hanging, rigging clanging. Every ten minutes I got up to check all around for boat traffic, then dropped back to sleep. By the time morning came, I was an exhausted wreck. But I had spent my first night alone at sea.
The final hurdle to entering the race was my qualifying sail. I couldn’t wait until the last minute to do it. The weather could deteriorate. I might not make it on my first attempt. I wanted to minimize the pressure as much as I could. I prepared the boat, bought provisions—then waited for a window of good weather. Finally at the end of May, I had it: the five-day forecast was for moderate winds and moderate seas. The first night was horrible. Getting up every ten minutes was a rhythm I could not sustain—even for four nights. The next night I was past my required limit of one hundred miles offshore. I turned and sailed north. I got up every twenty minutes and felt marginally better the next morning. I spent four nights at sea. When I returned to Richmond Yacht Club, completing my qualifying sail, I understood why it was a requirement. I had demonstrated to myself that I could sail all the way to Hawaii.
In the midst of my preparations for the Singlehanded Transpac, I was pursuing different alternatives for financing the purchase of Lurley. There were not many people I would feel comfortable sharing my boat with. Then a friend who is also a financial expert came up with a creative solution.
Excitedly, I e-mailed Caroline and Peter. I was worried Lurley might have already been sold. She had not. In a flurry of transatlantic e-mails and a wire transfer, the deed was done.Lurley belonged to my husband and me. I flew to Paris, took the train to Toulouse. This time I was not just checking on a boat, I was taking possession of Lurley.
Caroline and Peter had taken a last cruise from Le Segala to Toulouse and installed her at her new home in the Toulouse marina, Port Saint Sauveur. Caroline and Peter met me at the station and drove me to the marina. They had Lurley in sparkling condition. Midday in June, the port was hot. We boarded Lurley and, with Peter at the helm, motored up the canal to a shady spot. Caroline stepped onto the grassy bank and expertly drove in two stakes and we tied up. We ate lunch aboard on the calm canal in the shade of venerable plane trees and talked about Lurley. Then Peter asked me to take the helm. I drove us to the first lock, then handed the controls to Peter. He and Caroline showed me how it is done.
We dropped Caroline at the small wooden fishing pier before the lock. She walked to the lock keeper’s, carrying a ball of blue cord with a large stainless steel hook on the end. Peter drove us through the narrow lock entrance and we pulled over the left side where Caroline had dropped the hook for us, fishing for the two mooring lines with loops tied at their ends. I placed the loops on the hook and pulled it up. No tossing of lines, no fuss. Like artists, they made a difficult maneuver look easy.
Caroline ran the stern line around one of the mushroom-shaped bollards on the quay and dropped the line down to me. Then she walked with the bowline to another bollard, ran it around the bollard and pulled the line taut.
The lock keeper opened the gate and water rushed into the lock, floating us up to the next level of the canal. When the water inside the lock was level with the water outside the lock, the lock keeper opened the lock gates, Caroline stabilized the boat while I pulled the lines in. Then with a small shove, she pushed the boat away from the side of the lock and stepped aboard. Peter maneuvered Lurley smoothly out of the lock into the canal.
Just above the lock, Peter pulled over. This time I jumped out and pounded in the stakes and tied Lurley to the bank. They spent another hour explaining Lurley and recounting their exploits in her over the years. After an interval they judged sufficient to keep the lock keeper from getting angry with us for wasting his time, I pulled up the stakes and Peter turned the boat around. It was my turn to take Lurley through a lock.
Very slowly and carefully, I lined Lurley up with the lock entrance. Slowly she moved into the lock. When we were alongside the quay, Caroline stepped onto the quay, ran the lines around the bollards and calmly stepped back aboard. She and Peter each took a line, while I stayed at the helm, tightly gripping the wheel.
At the bottom of the lock, I steered through the narrow opening into the seemingly broad canal. The longer I steered the boat, the less tightly I gripped the wheel. I had insisted on standing behind the wheel. After going under a couple of bridges, I relaxed enough to take my seat in the elevated captain’s chair. I owned Lurley on paper, bit it would take time and work and experience handling her to own her on the Canal.
When I got back to California, there were only two weeks to go until the race.
On June 26, the morning of the race, I printed out the weather map and forecast for San Francisco Bay to one hundred miles offshore. The word GALE featured prominently. Along the dock, racers joked, “Turn right at the A in GALE!” Dressed in full foul-weather gear, sails reefed, twenty four sailors started. Within three days, three had dropped out due to problems with either health or equipment. For me, the first three days passed in a blur of sailing through heavy weather coupled with seasickness. At the first roll call, I discovered that, although I could hear the broadcast, my radio would not transmit. Using my handheld e-mail device, I communicated the difficulty to my husband Dean and the Race Committee. For the duration of the race, I e-mailed my position to my racing colleagues, but I did not speak with anyone.
By the fourth day, the weather improved. My stomach became accustomed to the motion of the waves. Days assumed a rhythm as I trimmed sails, adjusted the self-steering mechanism, charted my position, kept the log. I was free to enjoy the open expanse of the ocean.
I love sailing offshore. Out of sight of land, there are no pathways restricting movement. Surrounded completely by water, the choice is one’s own. The race prescribed a destination, but each day offered a multitude of choices, dependent only on the direction of the wind.
In the middle of the ocean, my thoughts returned to Lurley and the Canal du Midi. Perhaps it is this contrast that gives Lurley most appeal. Compared to the open expanses of the ocean, the canal is at the opposite extreme. The canal is a narrow, man-made channel: no deviations allowed. A small boat in the wide ocean is essentially insecure; a boat in the canal is contained, enfolded within secure tree-lined banks. The ocean offers me the world. In Islander, I could sail anywhere. Ironically, that is also the appeal of the canals.
France boasts seven thousand kilometers of navigable waterways. Not all are as benign as the Canal du Midi. The Rhone, the main artery of France, is a forceful river, despite the gigantic locks that regulate its flow. The cities and countries of Europe are connected by waterways as well as by roads. I could take Lurley from Toulouse north to St. Petersburg or down the Danube to the Black Sea. Despite the contrast in watery milieu, Islander andLurley are connected by the opportunities they afford for adventure and exploration.
Alone on Islander, it took me twenty days to reach Kauai. I was content in my solitude, but happy to reach the Islands and finish the race. Dean was there to meet me.
But that was only half the distance. Sailing to Hawaii is essentially a down-wind sail. Sailing back to San Francisco is harder and takes longer. I sailed back with a young woman named Mariah. Having just sailed to Hawaii by myself, I felt confident about my sailing abilities. But Mariah had a lot to teach me, and she did. The return sail took twenty-eight days. When we finally made it into Islander’s slip at Richmond Yacht Club, I was ready for a rest. Spending time on Lurley on the Canal du Midi never sounded more appealing.
* * *
In December, following a reading to celebrate publication of a new anthology, a group of writers retired to a nearby bar. The conversation turned to Europe, then France, then the South of France. I told about acquiring Lurley, berthed on the Canal du Midi.
“What a perfect place to write!” someone offered. I thought of the shady, tree-lined canal and violet-shuttered stucco houses, the fields of sunflowers. Looking around at the casually assembled writers, engaged in conversation, I felt a wave of affection.
“It would be fun to get a group of writers together,” I said automatically. There were expressions of agreement nodding of heads. “It could be workshop,” someone offered. “We could publish a book,” added a third. “It does sound like fun,” I replied, and the conversation moved on.
The idea of a workshop took on a life of its own. How many people could Lurley hold? That would dictate how large the workshop could be. Who would the instructor be? Would there be one or several? If one were to publish an anthology, how many essays would be required? Who would the writers be? I had done some of these things before. In 2002, I had published an anthology of garden essays called Bay Area Gardening. The book included sixty-four short essays. A book of travel essays would contain longer essays, but the concept was the same. In 2002, I had been working as the director of a non-profit writers organization and organized writing seminars and hired writing instructors. The more I thought about it, the more feasible it seemed. I contacted a friend and fellow-writer with experience in publicity. She thought the idea sounded good—in fact, she would like to go on a seminar herself—and agreed to do it. But publicity for what exactly? The idea was still forming. A series of one-week workshops, with different instructors, sounded like a good way to organize the writing sessions. I contacted several friends who were writing instructors to test the idea. Each one I spoke to agreed to teach. Finding teachers was obviously not the challenge. Finding writers was. With a scant six months before the workshops would take place, we began to spread the word.
Writers, friends of mine, were all pressed for time. Pushed by deadlines and the constant press of the details of life, we all lead harried lives. On the Canal du Midi, I had discovered the antidote and I wanted to share it. We would slow down, enjoy the serenity of the canal, have time to reflect and write about whatever we encountered along our way. A select group of writers decided to take the voyage.
Preface by Barbara J. Euser
Lurley by Barbara J. Euser
Land of the Troubadours by Linda Watanabe McFerrin
The Gift by Cristie Marcus
Toulouse by Connie Burke (sonnet)
Good Roots by Stacie M. Williams
Matters of Trust by Ethel Mussen
Sunday Market Largesse by April Orcutt
Navigating Sleep by Cristie Marcus
Canal du Midi by Connie Burke (sonnet)
Images du Canal by Joanna Biggar
Searching for Bread in Montgiscard by April Orcutt
Chez Paul by Barbara J. Euser
Ship Shape by Lynn Branecky
The Lock Keeper of Renneville by Connie Burke (sonnet)
A Sports Fan in Spite of Herself: Or How Le Tour de France Came to Me by Joanna Biggar
Personal Soundtrack by Ann Kathleen Ure
Fish out of Water by Lynn Branecky
La Recette du Cassoulet by Connie Burke (sonnet)
The Ultimate French Casserole: Or Finding the Best Pork and Beans by Ann Kathleen Ure
Bellevue La Foret by Connie Burke (sonnet)
A Trickle of Time and Water by Larry Habegger
Letter to My Father by Mary Jean Pramik
French Dressing by Joanna Biggar
Alone, But Not Alone by Stacie M. Williams
Marie Jeanne: Une Seconde Vie by Mary Jean Pramik
Trying to Punt by Ethel Mussen
Le Relais de Riquet by Connie Burke (sonnet)
Vignettes by Larry Habegger
Anything but Plain by Stacie M. Williams
Trobairitz—Tracing the Lost Songs of Uppity Women by Joanna Biggar
Appendix: How to Cruise the Canals
About the Contributors
About the Editor
Sample Chapter: A Trickle of Time and Water
by Larry Habegger
Life in the south of France slows down to the pace of a 300-year-old canal.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 werefeu 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 Examinerwith 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. Since 1985, 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.
Barbara J. Euser is a former political officer with the Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State. In 1993, she sailed her family’s boat Islander across the Atlantic to take her post in the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Paris. When she and her husband took Islander through the rivers and canals of France, she began dreaming of traveling through the canals in a boat built for that purpose. She realized her dream and now plies the Canal du Midi in Lurley. As a director of the International Community Development Foundation, she has worked on projects in Bosnia, Somaliland, Zimbabwe, India and Nepal. Her articles and essays have appeared in magazines and anthologies. She is the author of Children of Dolpo; Somaliland; Take ‘Em Along: Sharing the Wilderness with Your Children; co-author of A Climber’s Climber: On the Trail with Carl Blaurock; editor of Bay Area Gardening andGardening Among Friends. She lives near San Francisco with her husband. They have two grown daughters.