Here was the plan, simple and elegant, designed by veteran travellers- Sarah, the kids and I would arrive in Paris at 6:30AM and sort out transportation to Agen, France, while Adrian’s plane comes in at 10:00. Adrian Vibers me once he’s landed, we rendezvous at the train station, and we’re off to Agen where we meet my parents who guide us to the canalboat for a week excursion. Wine, cheese, and salty, cured meats on deck while we coast through locks and canals of southwest France? Mais oui! Here’s what really happened- both kids were running fevers (Áine threw up on Sarah in flight), Adrian’s plane arrived an hour late, the internet was not working in Charles de Gaulle Airport for Viber, the annual French strikes stopped the trains to Agen and every transportation alternative was different and undecipherable depending on who you ask. Zut alors! Here was the solution- I procured directions to another Parisian train station, power-walked the airport to scour for Adrian (only to find him headed my way), scooped up the family and headed to a minibus that whisked us to Gare Montparnasse, hoping to catch a train there. And here, mes amis, is the coup de grâce- we made it to Montparnasse at 12:20, racing for a 12:25 boarding and were informed that the train was full and we would not be allowed on. So with a wink from the conductor, we rammed our oversized luggage onto a train we were 70% sure was going to Agen and hopped in without tickets. Soon, we were speeding south through the French countryside. My parents never heard from us that day, so it was with fleeting hope they waited at the Agen station for the last Paris train to arrive, from which we disembarked, disheveled and exhausted, but intact and ready for a glass of wine.
With my sister avec bebe and due in July, Adrian was invited to take her now vacant cabin and join us in France, providing my parents endless entertainment at my expense. In fact, Adrian and I quickly realized we had a captive audience and our typical antics and unsavoury comments which charm/horrify our expat community were given carte blanche on the boat. Sarah shook her head knowingly and preoccupied herself with the kids, my mother kept an empty liter water bottle around to beat us when we stepped over the line, and my father laughed encouragingly. While our original destination was Burgundy and the Yonne River, flooding in the area made that canal impassable, thus a force majeure and Locaboat altered our location to Canal de Garonne, east of Bordeaux, just a few days before our arrival. C’est la guerre– every part of France prides itself on wine, cheese and salty meats.
The drifting, leisurely lifestyle of canal boating took a little adjusting for these frenetic Nigerians fresh from the Dark Continent. At first, it was as if someone had lifted the hamster wheel from our cage, and we started nail biting. But that quickly faded- we needed this forced recovery from the school year. Sarah and I had just spent days tearing apart our flat to close up for summer, Adrian was told to stay off a leg injury he was mending, and the kids were quickly inventive in their play and helped with boat captaining. We were blessed with beautiful days on the water overall, with just enough rain to provide variety. It was a land of abundant, ostentatious produce; fresh apricots that split like butter from their stones, sweet, gargantuan tomatoes we caught each other eating like apples, and opulent spring onions whose smell when frying in butter made a galley passerby sigh. I used these in my omelettes for breakfast, wine and baguette sandwiches on deck were our staple lunch and a local restaurant by the canal side became dinner. The memory I hold most dear from that week, however, was the endless gales of laughter- the trip may not have been high octane, but it was hilarious.
All that being said, we still needed something to do, and what we did was traverse the extensive lock system, about sixty locks by the week’s end. Originally manual, the locks used to be managed and operated by lock masters. Today, they are machine operated by the boating party- the lock drains or fills to the level of the boat, the boat enters and is loosely moored inside the lock, and with a push of a button alongside the canal, the lock doors are synchronised to empty or fill depending on whether the travel is upstream or downstream. My father would steer, I would man the lock apparatus onshore, and Adrian would throw the ropes to me (usually aimed at my face) to secure the boat and keep the ropes tight while the lock’s water rose or fell. Truly, a marvel of ingenuity. Despite the modernization of the system, remnants of the canal’s history still remain, most notably the lock masters’ cottages, invariably alongside each lock, and always unique. They are now privately owned and delightfully in various states of disrepair.
Our week took us from Agen west on the Canal de Garonne, then south on the river Baïse. These waterways allow boaters to explore regions a more conventional traveller may not encounter. One of our favorite townships was Nérac, a postcard French commune enfolding the wandering Baïse, where we moored for the night both on the way south and on our return. You won’t find Nérac in many travel books (I just checked my parent’s copy), and Wikipedia gives it a sentence, but this picturesque town with scenic views of small cathedrals, buildings dating from the 11th century, and cozy alleys and nooks was quintessential southern France. Our furthest south, and therefore, our point to turn around and head back to Agen, was the remarkably named village of Condom. The innuendos, pantomimes, and wisecracks about boating through a tight lock into Condom spanned literally days of entertainment on deck, not appropriate to repeat in this refined blogging establishment.
We returned to Agen our last day to clean out the boat and organize ourselves. Our first encounter with the small city the week before left us with a “French blue collar factory town” aftertaste, but once we explored farther afield from the Locaboat dock, we found more cultured, historic areas of the city with enjoyable outdoor seating and decidedly French cuisine. As we sat together at our final dinner and retraced our week with many a chuckle, I pictured our next day of travel across the French countryside and through the Parisian labyrinth to the airport. In an attempt to dilute another cluster fuck of transport like we experienced upon arrival, we purchased train tickets in advance. But with the UEFA European Championships being held in Paris and unannounced metro changes in the city, it would turn out to be another dizzy day of travel. Those, however, were obstacles for tomorrow. For today, among our rich French desserts and glasses of luxurious wine, we enjoyed a certain joie de vivre and relaxed as the sun set between the alleyways of Agen.
Additional photo credits to Sarah Bakulski and Carol Powell