Friday, June 29, 2007

Thumb and forefinger...a poem

Thumb and forefinger

a poem

when she looks at me

I understand only

that we have to get

this close

to see how infinitely

far away

we are from one another

I have to caress her bare skin

carefully, tenderly

to feel how far we have

stretched the tissue of gesture

the skins of words

that clothe us barely

and when I look into her green eyes

I understand only

that I might not be

here or there

that to dwell daily

in the heart of open spaces

that to fall nightly

into their spiraling silences

is to be held aloft

even if only for an emerald instant

before I behold those eyes

dart down like falling stars

and, plotting their trajectory,

I spy the safe harbor of a

hardbound book on the bedspread

or the narrow, familiar terrain

of her own wrist…

and when at length,

her eyes are swept

back up to me behind

their lovely lashes

I understand not even

this much

Kevin Cahill


Medoc redux

For those of you who already visited the previous post "Entre deux mers..." you might want to know that it was published prematurely and that due to problems with the server I wasn't able to fix it until several hours later. The post has been revised with some different photos and text...scroll down for a look.

Entre deux mers...le Medoc

We decided yesterday to try seeing the Medoc...the area south and west of the Gironde river. It's principally a wine producing area and home to some of the most high profile wine producers in France. It's right in our back yard but we've put off exploring it till the last minute. Actually, truth be told, Beth and I remain wine remain untutored in the mysteries of wine and so we have intuited that a great deal of what the Medoc has to offer might well be lost on us. Also, wine tasting is not exactly a kid friendly activity.

We stop first Macau for a short walk along the river. Next we and go on to Chateau Margaux, a magisterial place, where we picnic on the grounds. The cellars are closed, tours by reservation only.

The vineyards and the promenades are beautiful however. As has been our good fortune all year, we are there before the crowds have begun to arrive so the entire place is tranquil.

We eat sandwhiches on the grass beside a canal. A herd of cattle quietly grazes on the other side. From where we sit one can see vineyards stretching out all the way to the horizon, the distant drone of tractors and mowers reminds you that for all it's picturesque beauty it is a working farm.
A nearby neighboringl chateau appears on the horizon like a prop in a feudal pageant.

The kids climb a nearby cedar and soon they are completely out of sight, somewhere high above the ground hidden within the cocoon of green branches.

The sky is a patchwork of brilliant blue and fleecy white which accent the pale yellow washed walls,

the lavender flowers,

and the lemon fruit hanging from the branches.

We drove next to Paulilac where the kids enjoyed a little museum of automated dolls. if you look closely you can find Tess in the photo.

We walked around the streets a bit noticing little things the shadows on the streets and wall clamps shaped like human figurines used for fastening the volets.

Perhaps some day we'll returnto the Medoc and give it a fair chance but for now we're content to have passed through on a sunny afternoon.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Tess parle francais

The big news around here is that Colm has begun to speak French. I've decided to try to document what our kids are doing with language. Unfortunately, capturing Colm on camera is pretty hard to do right now. Tess on the other hand, well the clip below is a sample taken today. Constance, her friend and neighbor, came over for the afternoon. This first clip is of the three of them hanging out with barbies on the terrace. They're just chit French.

If you're interested in more clips of the same afternoon, click here for one where Tess and Constance are in a tizzy about some missing flowers; here where they go looking around the house for them, and here where they get silly about whether flowers can fly away on their own or not.
Mostly I want to be able to show both kids later on what they were able to do way back when they were little gosses. Hopefully, they'll still be chattering away in other tongues.

Monday, June 25, 2007

water world

Life here on the penninsula is literally framed and fundamentally conditioned by water. For us there were three worlds of water - the bassin, the ocean beach, and the pool in our yard.

The bassin is about boats, birds and bike paths. Necklaced by quaint little ports and grassy marshes, it is a tranquil place where birdsong and breezes waft lightly over mud flats and fingerlets channels that imperceptibly fill up with water and bear the bassin's boats aloft.
The beach is another matter. Once you crest the protecting dunes and descend to water level, there is nothing to hold on to. Sand and water extend in three directions as far as one can see. The sky stretches a long way off the make contact. All of that enormous space seems necessary to contain the roar and drumbeat of the surf.
Back in August and September I wrote about how Tess was enchanted by the surf, how something about the sea stirred her deep is a clip that offers a glimpse of the way it sent a charge through her whole being.

By contrast, Colm kept his distance always, heeding his mother's grave warnings about "sneaker waves", a phrase that was particularly effective in conjuring fears and alarms in little Colm's heart.
But this year has seen Colm grow in adventurousness. He has become in fact the official daredevil of the family whose most enthusiastic refrain is, "Hey, watch this!"

At the age of four he is doing things physically that Tess didn't do for another year or more. Tess remains, however the family maven of all things marvelous and make believe. She both inhabits and directs a magical universe and occasionally invites the rest of us to live in it with her.

Ten months later Colm has followed Tess into the surf and now both of them have discovered the pleasures of getting rolled by the waves. Now more than ever we have to be vigilant. Helene, a friend of ours, recently told us some alarming stories about drownings here. She talked about cross currents, undercurrents and tourbillons, a kind of twisting undertow that pulls you down. Now when we go to the beach it is Beth and I who are haunted by a word - beware the tourbillon.

When we arrived here neither of our kids could swim. What a difference a year makes. Now they can swim, ride bikes and eat snails. Both kids learned how to swim in this pool. They both swim underwater with their eyes open, they both come up for air, they both float, they both jump in, they both can count to three but as you can see in this clip, only one of them can dive in headfirst...a fact that will soon be contradicted by unfolding events, you can be sure.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Heart things

Beth came in from taking out the garbage and told me that she had noticed a couple of teenage boys hanging around the neighbor's dumpsters across the street. As she had to make two trips she was curious to see if they'd still be there when she returned. Ten minutes later she went out there again and there they were. She looked at them and one boy smiled at her and said, "Hello."
Not a little surprised by the audible "h" - a sign of something more than the usual French pronunciation - she smiled back and said, "Hello." Then she went back into the yard and reported the encounter to me. I listened and wondered who it might be, thought about going out there to check, but then I got sidetracked by something and pretty soon an hour or more had passed and I forgot all about them.
Then the bell rang. I went out to the street and saw three of my students from seconde - Bertrand, Delphine, and Melvin. They were standing there all smiles, a bit awkward and shy. I was delighted to see them and invited them in. As I showed them in I noticed that Melvin was holding a folded sheet of paper. I introduced them to the kids and to Beth and offered them a snack. Beth's smile told me that these were the same two boys she had seen over an hour earlier. It turns out they had been waiting for Delphine before ringing the bell.
"Did you get the book?" Melvin asked.
At first Beth and I were puzzled. "Book?"
They all looked a bit surprised and even worried. "Two days ago? We left a book..."
Then Beth and I understood. Two days earlier we had come home from a bike trip to the beach and found a lovely hard bound reference book on the Bassin d'Arcachon leaned up against the door. No note, no card , no inscription....mystere.
"We didn't have a pen or anything," said a sheepish Bertrand. "We were afraid you wouldn't be here again."
We all sat down at the table on the terrasse. Melvin handed me the paper - it was an original poem written in French with an English version included. The sentiment was lovely and coming as it did completely outside the school year, the result not just of their own diligent work but also of their vigilant waiting.The English version touched me equally because as their English teacher I was impressed that they had succeeded in avoiding the word by word translation trap and produced a version that stood on its own....impeccable.
We chatted at the table for over an hour, kicking around ideas for reuniting one day. I feel certain that one day I will see Bertrand again...maybe the others as well. It seems more and more plausible that some kind of exchange might be feasible between students at our two high schools.
When they said goodbye, I watched them walk out the gate. Suddenly, I realized that I had forgotten to take a picture of them. I dashed into the house and back out into the road a few yards past the place where Beth had first seen the boys waiting patiently for Delphine. I joked with them about how long it takes to say goodbye and then snapped this photo. For the umpteenth time in the last fifteen we said goodbye again.

I walked back into the house basking in the afterglow of their kindness and affection. As I passed the dinner table I noticed that I had completely forgotten to mail two important business letters. It was 5:10 pm. Was the post office closed. Suddenly I couldn't remember the hours - ten months here and I still couldn't remember - Beth urged me to make a run for it.
I grabbed the car keys and headed out the door. Colm, who was playing on the floor perked up.
"Can I go?"
"Come on."
Colm fell into step beside me absolutely pleased... I love how easy it is sometimes to say yes and have it count for something.
We drive to the post office. I get out of the car in a hurry partly because Colm has figured out how to unbuckle and get out himself and he doesn't always remember to look for traffic. As I usher him to the curb he chirps, "I pushed the door really hard, that way I don't have to push it two times."
I'm focused on the letters but I have to grant him that, closing the door in one fell swoop sure beats having to do it twice. I peer inside the glass door and press the ringer. It's hard to see, a bit dark -bad sign - but there's someone in there. I push on the door but it doesn't move. I ring and push again. Suddenly the door opens and I realize I've been pushing on the hinges. A woman smiles at us and tells us they're closed. As she talks, Colm squeezes past her into the building. I reach past her knees and get his shirt and reel him back.
"What are the hours?" I ask overcoming my own embarassment at not knowing.
She points at the sign on the glass a few centimeters from where my nose had been pressed only a minute earlier. She smiles still as if she knows that the feeble minded are God's creatures too.
"Ahh...merci...come on Colm."
Flustered, I retreat to the car, though not as directly nor as quickly as I would prefer since Colm wants first to mount and traverse a little brick retaining wall and then show me how he can jump off of it. It's easy to see why he is oblivious to my disappointment about the letters.
As I drive home I notice the school on the left where Colm and Tess have spent this year. I don't know if Colm sees it too but a moment later he says to me, "Daddy?"
"Yeah, Colm?"
"When we went to Butterfly Land, I tried to speak French."
It's the very first time I've ever heard Colm talk about himself speaking French. "That's great, Colm. I'm proud of you for trying to speak French." I add, "I hear you speak sometimes, and I think you do a good job, you know?"
A couple of seconds pass and then, "Oui," comes the barely audible reply from behind me.
By the time I get home I've forgotten about the letters again. All I can think of is the kindness of three French kids who passed the afternoon with us and who left after closing time, of why I left anyway. Maybe this was why I went to the post office, why I said yes to Colm, why he asked to come with me in the first place, why I'm so damned lucky...

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

eeny meeny

Tess and Colm interpret an old standard.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

look what happened

August 31, 2006

June, 2007

par les yeux aux oreilles

some random pics and an a couple of clips that sort of defy my ability to pull them together into a coherent post and yet they clamor for attention. You want coherence?'s up to your eyes and ears.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Plage Grand Crohot at sundown

(Click photos for a larger view)

These were all taken between 9 and 10 pm on Father's Day. We all went for a swim when we first got there...the water is warm again. The kids are learning how to enjoy being taken for a ride by the surf.

We nearly had the beach to ourselves. There was one other family down a ways. Two kids played with bright blue ball that when it sailed up into the air caught the sunlight. Click on the photo to see it.

The sky was really putting on a display. Every direction you looked something surreal going on.

Once while staring off into a bank of clouds to the west over the water I glimpsed a lightning bolt striking the was so far away I doubted my own eyes...certainly no thunder made it this far.

A little later though Beth and I saw another one. Where we were the air was warm and soft, no breeze. Later on around midnight as we laid in bed, the rains came first gently then in sheets. It's rained most of May but this rain couldn't dampen the feeling that the beau temps has finally arrived.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Atelier boulangerie ...making bread

A few months ago Beth asked the owners of our local bakery if she could come in some time to watch how they make bread and pastries.

They were very happy to oblige her and pretty much told her to come whenever she wanted as often as she wanted.

Beth took them up on it and has spent several early mornings there.

They are very curious about the bakery scene in America in general and in La Grande in particular.
Here where the local population base is about 3,000 people they make and sell almost that many baguettes daily.

Of course not all of their customers all locals, a percentage are passing through to and from points on the beach or the bassin.
There are two bakeries in Lege, three in nearby Ares, and about that many in every single village up and down this penninsula. The local supermarkets all sell bread and pastries as well.
It would seem that there is here an insatiable demand for fresh bread and desserts. Good news if you're a boulanger.

The young couple who own and operate this bakery seem to love their work. Their house is attached to the bakery and occasionally Beth notices one of their three children wander in for something. They are an adventerous family, having lived in Africa and having run bakeries elsewhere in France. They seem curious about the possibility of setting up shop in America some day.

They pepper Beth with questions about how much bread do people over there buy and eat? How many bakeries are there? How much do people earn on average?
All I can say is that these guys make good stuff and I love to eat it.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Glad to be a daddy ...exhibit A

The lost necklace....or barbies overboard! (a cautionary Father's day tale)

Tess found a small yellow bungee cord in the grass near our campsite on the canal. She fitted it around Colm’s neck and he sported it around very proudly. After a while I lost track of what the kids were up to until a few minutes later I heard Colm wailing and saying no repeatedly.

I called him and when he came I asked what the matter was. He told me that Tess was going to throw the necklace in the canal. I looked beyond the boat and sure enough there was Tess standing at the water’s edge, her right hand holding the necklace aloft. She appeared poised to throw it in the canal. On her face was a sly, malign expression. Colm began gibbering, pleading for the necklace to be spared.

I looked flatly at Tess, annoyed but determined not to feed her bid for attention. Instead I spoke to Colm.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “She won’t throw it in the water.”

Tess doesn’t move. Colm studies her and seems to consider the plausibility of what I’ve said.

A minute later, Colm is gibbering again. This time I’m a little annoyed by him and I tell him a bit testily to stop it and I repeat the assertion that she won’t throw the necklace in the water.

“She’s only trying to scare you. If does throw it in the water she’ll have to accept the consequences.”

I glance at Tess. She is listening.

There is a beat then, “Daddy.”


“What are consequences?”

So now we arrive at the point in the story where the wise parent seizes the teachable moment and responds to the child’s question in a sage and elemental way…perhaps kneeling down to pick up a stone and, holding it aloft over the water, saying something like “observe, Grasshopper. This stone is your desire. Now watch your desire in action.” I drop the stone and it disappears into the water which undulates and sends ripples spreading outward in concentric circles. “What do you see now?”

“The stone has disappeared,” says the child.

“What else?”

“Little waves moving in all directions.”

I smile wisely, sadly perhaps, “Everything you see and everything you do not see, those are the consequences of your actions.”

But that is not what I say to Tess.

I say this instead, “You’re being mean to your brother. Consequences are the bad things that happen when you do mean things to other people.”

Tess receives this gem in silence. She appears skeptical though altogether dismissive. I decide I’ve done all I can do or rather, should I say am afraid of doing any more than I’ve already done, and go inside the boat to help with dinner, but before I do I have one last word for Colm.

”Colm, just walk away will you? Ignore her and she’ll stop.”

I have hardly enough time to slice one onion when I hear Colm again, but this time his voice is in a higher register. “She threw it in the water!”

I go outside and look. It’s true. Tess is standing there empty handed looking into an equally empty expanse of flat green water.

“Where are your Barbies?” I hear myself say. These words spill out of my mouth completely without premeditation, but as I pronounce them I begin to feel an intention forming.

Tess’s demeanor is instantly affected by these words. She intuits instantly a connection between the necklace at the bottom of the canal and her box of barbies somewhere in the boat. “What are you going to do?” She says, not answering my question.

I turn on my heels and reenter the boat. “Where are the barbies?” I ask Beth.

“On the shelf in their bedroom. Why?”

I tell Beth what happened. She looks shocked and sad, a mother’s pain, a father’s anger. I descend the steps into the sleeping compartment and a moment later I have the barbies in my hand. Tess is already at my heels. The space is cramped, I feel her behind me. I sit down on one bed and tell her to sit across from me.

I’m contending with anger but, at the same time, I feel composed. I want to feel composed.

“You threw the necklace in the water. Colm asked you many, many times not to throw it in the water, yet you threw it in the water and now it’s lost.”

“I wanted to see if it would float.” Her candor momentarily disarms me and brings me perilously close to a smile.

“How would you like it if I threw your barbies in the water?” For an instant I consider this theoretical event. I never did like those barbies. Perhaps this is the pretext I’ve been waiting for…

Tess reacts suddenly and wildly. “No!”

I can see that the threat is palpable to her and she’s horrified by it. She begins to cry, distraught. Once again I am unprepared for her reaction. She is sobbing now, gone is the coolly calculating girls asking about consequences. Instinctively I try now to protect her.

“I’m not going to throw them in the water, Tess. That would be mean.”I’m going to take them and put them away where you can’t have them for a long time.”

Between sobs Tess blurts out, “Can I bring them to the United States?”

I am chagrined by the fact that Tess has already imagined me doing far worse things than I myself intended.

“I’m just going to put them away…I don’t know for how long. You simply have to wait.”

Tess goes to Beth hoping for a reversal in a higher court of appeals but Beth says simply, “I agree with every word your dad said.” Then she adds, “I think you should tell Colm you’re sorry.”

Tess bolts out of the cabin and crawls all the way to the end of the bow where she sits moaning and keening alone over the water. The sound seems to funnel up and down the canal from where we are moored. She remains there for several minutes. Through all of this Colm has kept a low profile. I do not think he really misses the necklace (perhaps he knew it was a bungee cord all along) all that much and as usual when there is strife involving his sister he becomes anxious to reaffirm his own goodness in our eyes.

“Why is Tess crying?”

“She’s sad.”

“I’m not crying.” He gives me a hug.

Man, this parenting thing is not easy.

Finally Beth suggests that I take the kids for a walk up the canal while she finishes dinner. So I muster an energetic and enthusiastic tone and broadcast, “Who wants to go with a walk down the canal?”

Immediately Colm says, “I do!”

There is a moment of uncertain silence but then Tess turns her head, her eyes red, her cheeks wet. “I wanna go too.”

My heart relaxes for the first time in what seems like half an hour. “Alright then. Let’s go!”

As I kneel down and help Tess put on her sandals she begins to talk to me.

“I didn’t want you to throw my barbies in the water…I didn’t want you to because my angel barbie’s wings they would get wet and then and then she won’t be able to fly and her dress will get all dirty and I don’t know if we can clean it after that.” Her words tumble out, interrupted by short gasping breaths.

“Tess look at me,” I say, trying to calm her. “I would never, ever, throw your barbies in the water. Do you understand? Never.” She nods. I continue. “I just wanted you to understand how Colm felt when you threw the necklace in the canal…and to understand the consequences.” I pause for a moment. “What do you think of all that, Tess?”

“Daddy, you made me remember that I found the necklace.”


“I think I won’t give it to him next time if I find something.”

Who am I to argue with the conclusions she draws from her own experience. “Ok, if you find something, you can do whatever you want with it sweetie...unless you give to someone first.”

We give each other hugs and get up to go on our walk. Colm is right there to take my hand. As we get to the top of the bank and start down the trail, I feel Tess’s hand slip into mine. It is a gesture that touches me in that moment as both instinctive and intentional. I am her father; we love each other. I could burst in blossom at this moment.

“Why don’t you guys find some flowers to take back to mommy for the dinner table.”

Tess and Colm are suddenly animated, they run off side by side, together again, joined by a desire to find something pretty to bring back to Beth who sent us out here in first place. She’ll love the flowers but it’s the smiles on the kids’ faces that she’ll treasure.


Glad to be a daddy...exhibit B

Here's Tess reciting a Father's Day poem despite the fact that she has a fever..."I'll do it," she said, "if I can watch the video." She's got the drama gene, I think. Below the clip you can find the text of the poem with my own verse translation.

Un tèfle à quatre fleurs a four leaf clover

Papa, je t'offre mon coeur, daddy, I give to you my heart
Mon p'tit coeur porte-bonheur, it's hidden in this lucky flower
Mon beau trèfle à quatre coeurs a clover with leaves like hearts
Je l'ai cueilli en douceur, I picked so softly within the hour
Pour te dire tout à l'heure so I could show you right away
Bonne fete de tout mon coeur! how much I wish you Happy Father's Day.

Friday, June 15, 2007

chers collègues...

Thursday night Beth and I were taken out to dinner by the English department. We ate at a restaurant that sits right on the oyster port on the bassin, a place with a lot of button down charm and lots of good seafood. Every table was full, there was a large wine tasting club there and then our group of seven and one other group. As luck would have it I recognized a couple of people there, one of the wine tasters, an elected member of the local municipal government and the patron of the restaurant, someone I had sat next to at a dinner earlier in the year and talked sports with for a good part of the evening. Making these random connections and being feted by my colleagues thus, reinforced for me the feeling of drawing the circle to a close. In the beginning there no familiar faces, no landmarks, and now we move about freely and eaily and are not terribly surprised to see a face we've seen before.

The next evening, last night, I attended the end of year faculty celebration. The staff congregated outside where a long table was amply supplied with champagne and hors d'oeuvres. It was a lovely evening, people's faces seemed suffused with light.

It's a familiar rite of passage - There are the goodbyes to the retirees. (there were two this year, a math teacher, Martine, and the media specialist, Marie), to certain temporary staff who would not be back. One sweet moment was when the entire staff sang a traditional song of farewell to the retirees. Everyone sang, a few supplied harmony. The sound of our voices all blending together lent a simple and affectionate dignity to the occasion.

There were some remarks by the proviseur about the year and a bemused reference to an unfortunate incident that very morning in which during one of the Bac final exams a student was caught cheating...something approaching a capital offense in France. There were murmurs and wry smiles all around, another chapter of local lore had been inscribed.

There was also a very touching gesture made on my behalf. First, a pair of teachers with whom I worked in the atelier theatre stood up and presented a poem, written in alexandrines (verse lines of 12 syllables). It produced a lot of laughs while managing to evoke a sense of how my presence here was perceived by them. My blog has acquired a little notoriety here, and which has resulted in my becoming perceived as a bit more than a casual observer of how things work here. The poem playfully suggested that upon hearing of how I had described some of the colleagues here, that the teaching staff regularly checked the blog nervously to see if they had been the subject of any further commentaries. It also had fun with the fact that I am a foot taller than literally all of my colleagues in the English department and that my presence had therefore elevated the horizons of this group. Finally there was a nice mention of my having shared some music with students and a closing expression of appreciation and a nod to Shakespeare. To cap it off I was given a hard copy of the poem, artfully antiqued on a scroll.

It was an absolutely endearing gesture which was followed by my English colleagues presenting me with gifts, books of art, cuisine and local history. For the remainder of my time there that evening I made the rounds trying to check in with and say goodbye personally to as many of them as I could. It's a little awkward at the end, there are last minute resolutions and invitations but time is running out.

I wonder more and more these days how my life will be changed by this experience. The Fulbright people warn you of a difficult transition when you get home. I can sort of intuit that already. I know that life at home won't just resume as if some cosmic PAUSE button has finally been pushed...there are already some changes in store for me at the high school, apparently I won't be teaching AP English next year, something I learned just yesterday when I checked my high school email account... it's strange how email and the internet have permitted me to stay abreast of events of back home but on a deeper human level I feel as though I'm going to need to reconnect with people, reestablish working relations and somehow reinvent myself there...change, the only constant, I guess.

On the flip side, all the very hard work, all of the personal investment Beth and I have poured into finding a place for ourselves here, all of that is about to reach a terminus...the long term fruits of our labor remain unclear...a year from now, who will we still be in contact with? Time will tell. One thing I can say for sure is that this year has push and prodded and stretched me in ways I couldn't have imagined. Now I can't imagine not having done this exchange.

Just for the record, I want to thank Beth for pushing me to apply to Fulbright. When I think of the myriad ways in which she has transformed my life it boggles my mind.


the vagabond soul

Lines composed Sunday morning on the back of the Berry on the canal de Garonne on our last day of our trip.

We stop this morning at a bridge that leads to Sérignac. I unload the bike and prepare to make a quick into the village for a couple of baguettes. As I start to leave I notice an elderly seated on a bench under a nearby maple tree. Next to him, leaned on the ground is a touring bike with packs and assorted articles of clothing draped over it. I ask him for help finding a bakery. He is eager to help.
I set off on the bike and when I return 20 minutes later, Tess and Colm are eager to show me the cookies they were just given. I notice a package of opened cookies on the bench where the old man had been earlier, then I see him emerge from our boat with a big smile and a cup of coffee in his hand. Beth hands me a cup too and the three of us have a nice chat on the bank of the canal.
His name is Jean. He tells us the he is 72 years old and he is making his second tour of France. He is clearly pleased to be alive and kicking and telling his story. His French is easy to follow. He is short, wiry strong, with silver hairs bristling above his open shirt buttons. He plants his feet where he is and holds forth at ease in his skin and with us. Each of us take turns inquiring about the other. He listens attentively, never in a hurry to interject but always more than happy to elaborate when asked to. When he gets going the words tumble out like mountain water running over rocks.
He speaks of his many jobs all of them manual labor. He's worked the fruit harvest, the vineyards, been a handy man...he's lived almost his whole life on the fringes of human settlements, preferring to construct makeshift cabanes on the properties where he worked, habitations he could easily and quickly dissassemble if and when the occasion demanded. He has several children, several of whom have inherited what he calls the wandering gene. In his youth he traversed the country on foot. More recently he has led a horse and cart about, giving children rides whenever he arrived in a village. Only three weeks ago he had finally sold his horse and decided to set off on a bicycle for his grand tour. This time, he says, there are no constraints, no itineraries - liberté totale.
To illustrate he explains how a few days earlier he had been riding into a strong wind. At a given point he realized that he no longer wished to go that way, so he turned around and went downwind. Once, I did the same thing in the Alps, he adds with a sly smile. I got to a certain point, it was so steep, I just turned around and went downhill. Jean laughs, and we do too. He is self deprecating but refreshingly unapologetic.
Jean is one of those vagabond philosophers, someone who conjures another era. An era populated with names like Woodie Guthrie and Tom Joad. A look at his bike and gear confirms this impression. He's the opposite of the spandex types who cruise remorselessly and relentlessly with laser like focus up and down these bike paths. It's an ungainly and ad hoc set up, with ropes and bags. Jean doesn't knife through the air; if he could, he would catch it like a sail.
I've met other vagabonds and like him, one of their signature characteristics is that they are tale tellers. The story Jean composes for us is colorful and populated by oblique references to children and spouses, former lives and wives. Like all well worn things it is a bit threadbare. It won't do to scrutinize it too carefully or to tug on any of the loose ends. Unlike other wanderers I've run across , however, Jean seems to be genuinely curious to hear our stories as well. He is equal parts audience and performer.
He asks us how we like France, a question we have fielded more times than we can count by now. Beth mentions missing the wide open spaces of the Pacific Northwest. She evokes the empty stretches of territory largely devoid of humans.
"I think I would like it there," murmurs Jean.
When I ask him what his favorite region in France is he shrugs.
"Everywhere you go it is always prettier somewhere else. It never changes. Every place is the same. The people everywhere the same. Each village has its thieves, its liars and characters. Sometimes I pass by a monument or a cathedral. It's beautiful, impressive to see but I have no desire to go inside because it will be just like all the others. It's the same way in talking to people. It's pleasurable to meet new people, like you - to speak with them for awhile, but in the end, we are all the same. There is nothing new to learn, only the pleasure of meeting. And so I keep looking for something new and different. I know that it doesn't exist, but I look for it just the same."
Jean laughs as he says this last line. It is a disarming performance. I laugh too though I almost feel like applauding. Listening to Jean you are tempted sorely to believe that one might be able to travel eternally downhill, to always have the wind at your back, that one need never stick his face into the teeth of elemental forces.
A half hour has slipped by as quietly and effortlessly as the water nearby. It is time to untie the boat and let that water take us home. We take our leave from Jean. He gives kisses to the kids who are tickled by his whiskers. We leave Jean under the shade of the maple tree by the bridge leading to Séringac. In a few short minutes we are underway once more.
Not too long afterwards, we see Jean one last time as he overtakes us on the bike path, his chaplainesque figure mounted lightly on his ungainly bicycle. We wave and watch him outpace our boat until he has ridden completely beyond our sight along the canal which seems to stretch before us without end....
I've relinquished the wheel to Tim and Beth. I sit here in the bright sun on the back of the boat, my legs dangling over the propeller, I look straight ahead into the spaces through which we have already traveled twice, both going and now coming back. Behind me, approaching my blind side, is a future composed of elements both familiar and unforeseeable. The present churning moment seems composed of things already known and already receding into strangeness. The widening wake of water trailing behind the boat obscures the subtle corrections constantly being attempted at the wheel, averaging out all of our decisions and indecisions into a single vector, angling from here to there, utterly indifferent to which here or which there.
Perhaps it is a trick we play on our own minds - the story that this here-and-now is unique and different from that here-and-now yesterday or yet to come. Perhaps it is a way to satisfy a nagging need to justify the restless vagabond spirit or to fend off the suspicion that we're going nowhere, getting nowhere, and that we've only just arrived from where we've never stopped starting.
Bob Dylan wrote, "it takes a train to cry."
I'm on a boat.