Canality: the curse of choice

“How tempting to trespass in these Italian gardens
with their smirk ouches and sweet-smelling borders,
To lean on the low
Parapet of some pursive fountain
And drowse through the unctuous day.”

W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety, 1947

Briare, mid-France now, doesn’t appear capable of surprises: another long walk from the station, and a small and sleepy centre with a big church and lunchtime men rubbing lotto cards in the bar/tabac with 10 cent pieces. No, there aren’t any rooms.

Two hundred metres away, hidden and only vaguely sign-posted is the longest canal bridge in the world, another one of Eiffel’s constructions. People don’t come here so much by rail or car but motor cruiser.

Ah, water.

Down below the bridge the Loire gets going seriously. Men fish it whilst veiled women wander by, indifferent. Here, unexpectedly, another form of travel, the four or five day watery meander up a famous river, dinner and drink somewhere – and often just cooked food onboard from the hypermarket. Jim and Pat from upstate New York didn’t do that, expecting the little villages to have some food – at least. In the end a Scottish “gentlemen” had to drive them to a supermarket, just for the basics of their five days motorboat up from Nevers. Pat gives me some political advice: “You have to know where all the bodies are buried, what the secrets are. That’s why Hilary will do well. There’s enough people been through her drawers.”

In the restaurant of the Auberge du Pont four older English people have been possessed by the spirit of Samuel Beckett. Perhaps it is in honour to the show at the Centre Pompidou.

Very nice
What shall we have?
Or red
And red
Lets have half and half
No, meat

There is such anxiety in each generation; we so easily forget the older tend to have less nonchalance when confronted by the random vagaries of the middle-French menu, or choice in general. We younger generations have it so damned easy, Google and Mastercard, language education and the sheer careless expectation of sorting things out with a wave of English bemusement. We celebrate choice; choosing makes us status heavy, for a while. Instead we worry about personal development.

Really nice
A good balance
White and red
Meat and fish

There are a few Vassarelly ceramics in the small museum by the railway station; the fishermen have their own too.

“I went from Montrgis about one of the clocke in the afternoone, and came to a town about sixe of the clocke, eighteen miles therehence, called Briare, where I lay the thirtieth day of May being Munday. About a mileor two before I came to Briare I first saw that noble River Ligeris, in French the Loire, which is a very goodly navigable river, and hath his beginning from a place about the confines of the territorie of the people Arverni: the River runneth by Orleance, Nevers, Bloys, Ambois, Tours, Samur, Nantes, and many other noble cities and townes: in some places it is above a mile broad, and hath certaine pretty islands full of trees and other commodities in divers places thereof: as in one place I saw three little islands, very neare together, whereof one had a fine grove of trees in it. Upon this river came a great multitude of Normanes into France, out of some part of the Cimbrical Chersonesus, which is otherwise called Denmarke, or (as others thinke) out of Norway, their originall countrey, in the time of the emperor Lotharius, and did much hurt in divers places of the countrey, till Carolus Calvus, then king of France gave them a greate summe of money to depart out of his territories….”

There is no cyber café, no wi-fi. Only Belmondo and Clooney on the television; another massive storm. The English have been abroad a lot since they retired.

Not half-board
Too controlling
Don’t want to be told
Sometimes though
Well, they met us
Like the wine
Not Rosé

In “Loneliness & Time, British Travel Writing in the Twentieth Century” Mark Cocker writes:

“In Protestant Britain, one encounters a society in which, for several centuries, religious pilgrimage has been of marginal significance…it is tempting to speculate whether the social processes which extinquished pilgrimage in Britain are perhaps implicated in the growth of later forms of travel and the development of its associated literature….in former times these individuals would have gravitated towards the non-productive, non-domestic patterns of life enjoyed by the wandering ascetic, or the monk, the nun and the hermit. Marooned however in a godless society whose national genius is most fully expressed in practical, political and scientific endeavour, this would-be religious community has felt redundant and has eventually been displaced, seeking spiritual fulfillment through journeys overseas…”

The motor caravans and cruisers fill by dusk, the storm thunders, my stomach comes out in sympathy: so much for my “choice”. In “Danube” Claudio Magris, the Italian intellectual, writes: “writing ought to be like those waters flowing through the grass – full of spontaneity, fresh and timid but inexhaustible….” I lie on the bed watching Belmondo take down the serial killer and wish those qualities might come back with the dark sunset. Outside in the forests lodge hotels are piping music, and choice is aplenty.

In the dedication to “Love and War in the Appenines” Eric Newby quotes Virginia Woolf:

The peasants are the last great sanctuary
Of sanity, the country the last stronghold
Of happiness. When they disappear
There is no hope for the race.

Belmondo gets his man in the end. He always does. Somewhere downstream there is a commune restaurant, Pat says. All the food comes from the region, the farmers communicate by internet, and all profits go back to pay for the village’s upkeep.

Didn’t see it, Pat says.

Clooney: only on Darfur tonight

About robhunt510

Writer, artist
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