The transportation workers in France were striking at least one day a week during the month of June. The strike was over important issues, but the workers must have also been happy to have the time off, because it was too hot and humid to work.
Our plans for the month were to cruise slowly up the Doubs River and down the Rhine River on our way to Strasbourg. We planned to stop early on days that we cruised, staying a few days when we found a mooring that we liked, and not rushing at all. Usually, something comes along to change our plans, but this year the hot weather and the strikers help us keep a slow pace.
The weather was hot every day, and during the early part of the month, the one day strikes sometimes expanded into three or four day strikes. For us it was lovely, like a vacation within our vacation. We rode our bikes in the morning, and in the heat of the day, relaxed in the shade on our back deck. We had time to read books, and take naps. If we had a hammock, we would have been there almost every afternoon.
In Besançon, we rode our bikes everywhere in search of a cool breeze. The path along the river was pleasant, and we returned often to the shade of the city park. When we missed the little train that leaves every hour for the citadel, we decided to ride up on our bikes. It was a long and difficult climb up, but all that work was rewarded when we created a nice breeze for ourselves on our speedy decent. From the guard tower at the citadel, we could look down and see our barge moored just below.
Because of all the strike days, we were in constant contact with the VNF offices. VNF stands for Voies Navigables de France, they are the people who control the French waterways, and we began each cruising day with a phone call to them to make sure that the locks ahead would be open. The people who answered the phones in the office would never know if the lock-keepers were going to show up for work until they did or didn't appear at their scheduled starting time. There were several mornings where we made all of our casting off preparations and had our engine running when we called, so that we could leave as soon as we got the word, only to learn that no one had shown up for work that day. It took a few false starts before we backed away from our Besançon mooring and entered the tunnel on our way to Mulhouse.
Backing up maneuvers, and going through tunnels are two things that used to make us very nervous. Every cruising season, we realize that our skills are improving when we find ourselves calmly doing something that we would have been afraid to attempt in our first year. In Mulhouse, we really impressed ourselves by making a smooth 90 degree turn, backwards, into our shady mooring.
La Fête de la Musique, France's national music festival, on the 21st of June, is one of our favorite events. On the longest day of the year, all over France, in the big cities and small villages, music fills the air, and everyone is drawn out of their homes to enjoy the summer evening. After a barbecue with other boaters at the port, we went into town to see what Mulhouse had to offer.
Walking through the park, we passed a loud band that was attracting all of the teenagers. Turning the corner the lead singer of a rock band was prancing in front of what looked like his backup singers in the dress shop window. On a street with several restaurants, people were enjoying American rock and roll from the 60's with their dinner. In the main square in town, in front of the Hotel de Ville, a group of native dancers from Reunion, a French island in the Indian Ocean, performed to the beat of drums. There were gospel singers in the church and an excellent youth orchestra in the cathedral. There was something for everyone.
After midnight when we began to head back to the port, we passed young families pushing sleeping babies in strollers, outdoor cafés full to capacity, and teenagers dancing in the park. The music and the people were still going strong.
The next morning, Sunday, we took the train to Switzerland, just because both the train station and the country were so close. Once in Basel, we found that they speak more German than French, and we had forgotten all about the fact that they still use Swiss francs. Suddenly, we couldn't speak and we had no money.
It was another hot day, and we found the streets practically empty. It was too hot for the natives, and the only people that we saw on the street seemed to be tourists, like us. We headed for the Rhine River, and found the people. They were enjoying the restaurants, biking or strolling along the river. We found a table on a pleasant shaded terrace, in a restaurant that accepted our credit card, ordered lunch, and watched as the people and the river flow passed. After awhile, we realized that we were seeing the same wet people walking purposefully by in their swim suits and shoes. Some of them were carrying what looked like flotation devices, but we later discovered that these were waterproof packs for their clothes and towels. The current was flowing swiftly, and once we started watching these people, we discovered that they were walking upstream, jumping into the river, riding the strong current downstream, coming back into the shore where the river curved, getting out, walking back upsteam, and jumping in again. They did this over and over again. It looked tempting.
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Leaving Mulhouse, after about 10 days, we were rested and ready for the challenge of a trip down the Rhine River. For the past three years, we have heard so many times that you should hire a professional pilot to take you through all of the traffic on this big river with a strong current. This portion of the Rhine is not covered in our French charts, so it also had a mysterious air about it. In the port of Mulhouse, we asked questions of the boaters who were familiar with the trip, decided that we would not need a pilot, and armed with copies of the German charts from one particularly helpful French boater, we set off, feeling more confident, but still with some apprehension.
Maybe because it was a Sunday, we did not encounter as much traffic as we had expected, but the barges that did fly past were 100 meters long, and they created ocean waves in their wake. We rocked and rolled a bit and thought of our American friends who made the same trip a few days before in a very small boat.
Thanks to our German charts, we had the phone number of a port that we were approaching at the end of the day, and when we called they said that they had a space for us. Following the chart, we turned right at the top of an island and circled around to the other side to find the Port de Plaisance de L'ile de Rhin. We carefully entered the port, and moored along a pontoon. It was easy to moor, but we knew that we would have to think about how to make our exit in the morning, as there was no room to turn around. We would have to come up with another clever backing up maneuver to get us out without bumping into small boats or the large rocks that narrowed the entrance.
Sitting on our back deck relaxing after all our mooring jobs were done, we looked across the river and saw a German city. We looked further along and saw a bridge that we could walk over to get there. We couldn't pass up the idea of dinner in Germany, so we dressed and prepared for the long walk. The port captain and his wife were sitting in the shade near their office, and when we asked them some questions about how to best walk over, they suggested that it would be easier if the captain took us across the river in his motor boat. We happily agreed, and suddenly found ourselves racing toward the city of Breisach am Rhein.
The captain delivered us to a German yacht club on the other side of the Rhine, from where we could easily walk into Breisach. Walking into town, we realized how familiar we have become with life in France. Suddenly, we wondered whether any stores would be open on Sunday, what time a restaurant might begin serving food, or even if the restaurants would be open at all. How were we going to asked directions to get home again, since we couldn't expect to get a boat ride back? Suddenly, we were foreigners again. We have a German phrase book, but we forgot to bring it along. It was getting late and we were hungry, so we went directly in search of a restaurant. Along the pedestrian street, we found several to choose from, and we chose the one that had a shaded courtyard and the most customers.
We didn't recognize many words on the menu, and we could have used that phrase book that was back on the boat. With some help from our waitress, who spoke a few words of English, we asked for something typical of the region. We ordered a local wine, without knowing whether it was going to be dry or sweet. We could have ordered glasses of beer the size of Texas, like our neighboring German diners, but since we feel now more French than German we chose the wine.
Dinner was good, not too strange considering that we didn't know what we were ordering, and we were able to pay with our Euros. About three hours after our German experience began, we decide to call a taxi. We began to doubt that we could find our way back to our port in the dark, and we were already pretty exhausted from just trying to communicate. Since we only know how to say please, thank you, good morning, and God bless you in German, we thought it would be better to have a taxi take us back to the French side of the Rhine River.
Our little adventures into Switzerland and Germany helped us to appreciate the progress that we have made in our struggles with French. Spending time in countries where we didn't know more than a few words of the language helped us to recognize how large our French vocabulary has become.
We now look at our French language skills as a glass half full instead of a glass half empty.