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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Our Journey Begins....Life of a Canal Captain

As I write this entry I am sipping a very very cheap Pinot Grigio. The bottle label says it has hints of pear and apple and a nice finish. Well, Poland Spring water has a nice finish too....it just doesn't provide the buzz. And it has to be great stuff when they suggest it goes well with rotisserie chicken........you know, the dried chicken that you can pick up at the corner grocery store when you're too tired to cook. No doubt a good combination.

Our trip began in Boston, preparing to get on a Delta flight to Amsterdam. I am always a bit jittery getting on a plane. I just don't like having to undress and put my belongings in 3 plastic bins. There is always something I forget to take off....I  end up being searched no matter what. This time wasn't any different. I had taken off my belt (my pants didn't fall down), I took off my shoes (no holes in my socks), I removed my watch and my wallet and put them in the bin where they wouldn't fall out mid-conveyor. I clenched my passport and my boarding pass as I stepped into the body scanner, raised my arms over my head as this machine did a 360 around me.

But I hadn't removed my camera from my bag, and of course my body density didn't match some profile. I had to go through a body scan. "Would you mind if we did a scan of your body, sir?" To say no meant I had to figure out how to cross the Atlantic without the help of a plane. "Just do it." I thought.........get this over with. Need less to say, I passed the exam and was then put into another stress situation having to get redressed out of my bins as bins started to pile up behind me full of other passenger's goods that didn't require special screening. Geez.

I can say that Delta has it figured out. They have you absolutely captive on a plane for 8+ hours, and they do everything they can to keep you busy (i.e. bother you) so the time will pass by. Snacks, head phones, meals, drinks, more snacks, breakfast, etc. etc. Only during the final 2 hours did they allow you to get a full nights sleep without interruption. Understand, by Boston time it was the middle of the night; by Europe's time it was close to 6 a.m. If you knew what was happening, this was a time to catch a movie, or a couple of Z's. I tried the movie thing but the earphones were designed for someone with a different shaped ear; my socket wasn't a nice round one that the earphones were designed for. Obviously a hereditary flaw. If I do any more traveling a nice Bose set will be on my Christmas list.

Diane and I landed in Amsterdam without a hitch, but unlike other travel spots the airport didn't have all the signs in English, French, or Whatever. But like all other arrogant Americans, we tried making sense of all the signs by figuring out how they may have been derived from English. After feeling like complete linguistic failures, we decided to go with the flow and see where it landed us, and fortunately it got us to  Customs.

The lines were long, and after our extensive experience dealing with toll booths in the States, we opted to ride out the line we were in rather than jockey into what appeared to be a faster moving line. If you can measure success by our ability to once again convince their TBA clerk we weren't a danger to society, we passed. However, when you hear your names announced over the loudspeaker because you are the last people to board the KLM flight to Geneva, you know you're late and the cause of excessive burning of jet fuel and global warming. The flight was fully booked, except for our two seats, so we knew exactly where to sit and try to ward off stares from everyone else on board who were made up of a wide array of nationalities, languages, and experiences.

It didn't matter at this time that we were really really tired. The KLM flight was only an hour. They too managed to provide drinks and something to munch on as we obtained altitude and the pilot said we were now in approach. Diane looked at me and you could read her face that the hard part was over. Little did we know.

We landed and once again I reviewed the way people get off the plane in absolutely the most inefficient manner. Why not tell everyone in the aisles just to get off....NOW! Then the next wave of passengers exiting could occur. No, we had to wait for everyone to leave in a nice organized manner. If you yelled fire the plane would empty in 10.8 seconds. Why can't we have an equivalent word for GET OFF? Who knows....this stupid procedure is ingrained in people and it'll never change, must be like ignoring the stewardess when she(he) shows you how to put on a seat belt.

We went to baggage claim which was not unlike all the others that we have seen. Bags are propelled up onto a revolving belt, and you try to differentiate your black bag from everyone else's black bag. There are those veteran travelers that have found interesting ways to make their bag stand out, but if you go to Europe once every 20 years why bother? The bags went round and round. Then fewer bags went round and round. An airport attendant came up to me and said that that was it from our flight. When Diane came back from the ladies room I had to give her the bad news....they had lost our bags when our stayover in Amsterdam wasn't long enough to get our bags on the flight. Life sucks.

It was apparent this occurs all the time, especially to Americans. We went into a nicely equipped room with two men who were trained to relieve passengers of their stress by being overly friendly and having the latest in technical gadgets to try to trace lost bags. Why I know alot of Americans loose their bags is because they both spoke perfect English (as if there was such a thing!). While we were there Diane's bag appeared....her I.D. tag had been ripped off which is why she couldn't identify it on the carousel. However mine was still gone and we proceeded to go through the process of filling out all the forms so they could eventually get it to me. No easy task knowing we were going to be on a boat in a few short hours. Nothing beats hitting a moving target on some water in another country. At that point we knew we were at a disadvantage.

In Geneva (oh, by the way that's where we landed) we were supposed to meet up with a taxi driver to take us to Brange , France. We didn't have his name, his taxi service, his phone number, the number or address of our location in France. I felt so unprepared for this to all happen. We frantically went through all of our travel paperwork looking for anything that could identify where we were going or how to get hold of us. Only after Diane scanned down though her emails on her phone did she find a number we could call to get all the info. the clerk needed. We had been hoping the taxi driver would show up and give them all the information but he was no where to be found. Well, the clerk's job was done. He put a trace for the bag. put into the system all of our contact info, and now we were on our own. "Have a pleasant stay"....his departing words.

So just like what we have seen many times on TV travel logs, we went out into the lobby and looked for someone, any one, with a SHELDON placard, or one the said LeBOAT. No one. We circled again. No one. Now it was time to talk to anyone who spoke English for some divine guidance.
We found an attentive ear in Information, and just as we decided that breaking down and crying might get us something, our taxi driver appeared with a LeBoat sign which looked like it was made seconds before from a disposed shoe box and a lipstick marker. He was one hour late.

We were relieved though. He escorted us to his car, threw Diane's bag in the rear and we all jumped in (these are such tiny cars), and we raced out of the parking lot. There was no compass in the car, just a GPS which had Branges on it. It gave us some warm comfort to know we were headed southwest to our destination; he wasn't some underworld crook kidnapping us for ransom. He raced on, weaving through the Geneva traffic, getting on their expressway, and much to our surprise passing right through Customs without stopping. OMG, now we were fugitives in a foreign land.  Our driver didn't speak English (this is a sign) and we had thought we had broken a law.

Ninety minutes later we were in the tiny town of Branges. Two hundred Euros lighter but where we were supposed to be. Those in the boating center were nice. All spoke English. One was really from Great Britain while the clerk behind the desk had spent years in California doing whatever. They gave us our welcome package (wine, cheese, and crackers), a day's worth of provisions so we didn't have to worry about food until tomorrow, a Captain's Information booklet, some maps, and pointed to our boat.

It wasn't a big boat. It was in fact a small houseboat that slept 2+2 (i.e 2 more if you wanted to sleep on the dining table), It didn't need to be too big, after all it was just Diane and me. The Welshman walked us through the boat, showed us where everything was, how to start/stop the boat, where the life preservers were etc. I signed the legal document preventing us from suing him if we crashed or sunk. At this time it was around 1 p.m. France time.....we really hadn't slept or had normal food, but he was ready to give us a five minute test drive on the boat under his guidance of course, so we would consider ourselves to be experienced enough to be on our own.

The three of us headed upstream; I cautiously steered the boat in the narrow canal adjacent to ten or twelve other boats that were moored. We maybe went 1/10th of a mile, did a u-turn and headed back. I commented to our instructor that it just didn't feel right. I could just read his mind.....stupid ass American.....landlubber........inept boatsman.....clueless. But I said it again so he took over the controls. Further down the canal we went, passing all the other boats as he turned around now facing upstream into the current. He looked at me and asked me to take over the controls as he went to the stern of the boat to take a look. Hmmmmmmm......no turbulence in the water. The boat had lost its propeller !

The headmaster sent a boat down to tow us back to port, at which time he offered to have the clerk take us into town to try to get some food in us while he prepped another boat. It took us about an hour or so to drive into town and realize no restaurants were open on Monday, and by now the kitchens were closed in the bars.  We did however pick up some food for our trip.

When we returned to the boats we were told that the boat they were going to give us had major electrical problems, so they upgraded us to a Continental, a 42' yacht! It had 3 staterooms with 3 bathrooms, full galley with 2 refrigerators and a microwave, a color TV, inside and outside controls and a full top deck. Wow, what a boat. The staff moved all of our stuff from one boat to this one, we were given another lesson on the boat, and sent on our merry way. Point of note, every time the staff gave us bad news they gave us another bottle of wine. During the entire trip we bought only one bottle, and that one we brought home with us. Every night we had another adventure in French wine tasting......though they all tasted good, I am sure they were from obscure wineries that fell short of French standards..........hey what do these Americans know.

It was now 4 p.m. and we were slowly getting used to the boat, traveling maybe 4 knots going with the current. It was getting dark, fast. We turned on our navigational light located on the bow. We had no clue where we were on the map; our destination was Cuisery on the Seille River. The river banks were now all blending together with the water's edge, and we depended on reflections to tell us we weren't going to crash. We slowed, but we kept going. What were we to do ? We were tired. We were hungry. We had no idea what we would find or what we were looking for, how to handle the boat when we got to whereever we were going. Only later did we find that we disobeyed the law by operating the boat at night. Six more days of adventures.

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