Shadows

Shadows are interesting things.   They are, in a sense, real but then again not.  They exist in a two dimensional world, often misshaped and confusing.   Coming and going as the light that enables them flickers and shifts.

Last year, Vivante lay quietly alongside the quay in Poully-en-Auxois, It was well after midnight and Carol had long since headed for bed.   I had doused the wheelhouse light and was about to descend the companionway, when a noise stopped me.    It was the sound of young people chattering away as they approached the car park adjacent to Vivante’s mooring.  

The scene was dimly lit with a single, rather feeble floodlight perched on a pole a good ways away from the  car park in which the group had settled.   I could tell from the voices, there were both boys and girls, likely of high school age.

At this point, I knew that sleep was not in my immediate future.  It has been our experience that the combination of youthful exuberance and a large moored barge with chairs and bikes aboard can result in some unwelcome late night hijinks.  So, my normal practice was to hang about for a while to see what developed.

As I settled into the darkened wheelhouse I could not  see the figures directly, only their shadows playing off the buildings in the background.   Their kit was simple, consisting of a couple of skateboards and a single soccer ball. 

Rapid fire conversation was accompanied by  the formation of spontaneous  soccer dust ups.   The ease and casual athleticism exhibited by both the guys and girls was jaw dropping.   Seen only as extended forms projected on the wall across the street it was at once both surreal and mesmerizing. Their images punctuated by skaters floating across this darkened stage as though flying just above the ground.  

The shadows ebbed and flowed.  Footballers flicking the ball skywards  then smoothly leaping to the skaters chariots as they passed by.  The skaters synchronously shifting to the football skirmish  without missing a beat or the ball touching the ground.

They were truly in the flow, not thinking, only experiencing, reacting to the events around them.  It was the unplanned, natural and beautiful choreography of youth.

As I sat transfixed, the dark images of the group dancing before me, a powerful memory appeared of the younger me, once the source of such shadows, unencumbered by the weight of time and imbued with that same energy and excitement of a life not yet lived.

Yet I realized that now, I am more shadow than substance.  That former self exists only in my mind, a joyful recollection of  time long since past.  What remains of my image on the wall is a fainter and a bit more distorted me but yet it is still there and that is a good thing.

For just a moment I paused, wanting to call out and thank them for that late night reverie they had bestowed on me,  but I did not and went below to sleep and perhaps to dream.

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s next?

This is the existential question that all bargees begin to wrestle with in about year four or five of their barging life cycle.

When that little thought began to creep into the back of our minds, we were reminded of the famous Charlton Heston line;  “We did it to ourselves”.  

Nobody held a gun on us and said, get out there and buy a 100 year old ship and spend a good bit of your remaining time here on this rapidly warming little sphere meandering around in strange and wondrous places meeting extraordinary folks along the way, or else!  Nope,  never heard any of that prior to acquiring Vivante.

So there is no one to pin this on but us.

The good news is that our barging experiences have given us a very different perspective on the world. The bad news is, perhaps more maddeningly, is a hard coded need to figure out what will replace it when our time on the canals is over.  Unfortunately, it appears to be pretty damned difficult to conjure up what that might be.

Many an evening has been spent in deep conversation pursuing different avenues and possibilities with others having a similar affliction.  Some of our cohorts have developed detailed lists of options carefully organized in excel spreadsheets with a myriad of comments and projected costs.  Others don’t seem to give it much thought expecting that the best course will reveal itself in good time.

Carol and I cover a good bit of  this decision-making spectrum and that has proven to be a good thing.  Carol is all about noodling through an array of possibilities doing pro’s and con’s then developing plans of investigation.   I tend to lean more towards the “inspiration will come” school of thought.

This has resulted in some interesting chats over the last few years.   But even with these sometimes spirited discussions, we have made some headway.

This year’s cruise is a test case for the “Use the barge as a home base” scenario.   The UTBAAHB approach is often an intermediate step taken while the fog clears on a longer range plan.  We will see how that works out.

However, our first big experiment was conducted during the last 20 months we have just completed.  It has taken us across Southern Europe, North Africa and Iceland with a few weeks of Stateside time for weddings and family time and three glorious months on the opposite side of the earth in Oz and NZ.

So, as we move backwards through this global science project I hope that the photos and stories will be of interest.  

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What to make of it

Here we sit just over a month away from our return to France and our 8th season across the pond.   To us it seems that we have just finished doing the laundry from our last two years of travel and  we are off yet again.

When compared to the trajectory of the first 7 years on Vivante, we have definitely shifted our course this summer. Time actually cruising is only a bit less than 2 months with a snip on either end to wake the old girl up and put her to sleep.  A hike around Mont Blanc follows and then off for a driving holiday to Lithuania, Denmark and Norway. The year ends in Nice renewing friendships formed over the last couple of years of out and about.

This order of march has taken shape slowly, informed by the prior 20 months of meandering around the world absorbing a kaleidoscope of sights and experiences. Surprisingly, this journey has proved maddeningly difficult for us to process much less share with others.  We are fearful that our friends and family here in the States think that we have well and truly sprung a cognitive leak based on our consistently lame responses to their very reasonable question;

“How have the last two years changed you?”

Honestly, I think that everyone really does want to know but since it is not their experience, a little knowledge goes a long way.  After a few stabs at an extended response to that question, we have made a tactical retreat.  Luckily, Carol has developed an effective elevator pitch that strikes the Goldilocks balance of not too much, not too little information. I, however,  left to my own devices,  am more likely to mumble  “Too early to tell” and quickly change the subject.

In reality, that may actually be closer to the truth than we would like to believe.   In fact, I am not sure humans are wired to rationally grasp and foresee the full impact of life’s major events and experiences on the future arc of our short existence here.  Understanding those shifts are perhaps only possible by observing the actions taken over time as one goes about reshaping their remaining life.

I realize that some of you stalwart readers that have irrationally remained on the distribution list of this woefully neglected blog can be forgiven at this point for thinking “What the hell is he talking about???”

Have faith. Those of you who have been on board for a while probably have already sorted that I am not the most linear of thinkers and sometimes let time and space wander around a bit before falling back into normal order. (Too many Christopher Nolan movies, no doubt.) 

So never fear, I promise more puzzle pieces will be forthcoming.  Think of it as “moonwalking a la Michael Jackson” through time to get back to our future afloat on Vivante.

Cheers

Tom

 

 

 

 

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Life in a Once Time

Well, faithful readers, after a bit of a hiatus, we are back.   Carol and and I just finished dinner in the wheelhouse of Vivante.  We are moving down the Canal du Bourgogne toward our reservation for 3 weeks in Paris.  We have been in Europe just over a year at this point with another few months to go.

One piece of our extended stay across the pond was a clockwise gyre through Croatia, Montenegro, the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa.  During one of those long, languid Spanish evenings we sipped a glass of sherry at a bar along the waterfront.   It had been serving this wonderful elixir since 1840. The wooden bar was worn smooth with decades of wiping the chalk tallies of the patrons’ bills clean, and ancient barrels lined up  along the back wall, ready to dispense another dose of this wonderful wine.

Malaga, Spain

Later, as we sat enjoying a cortado, (Spanish coffee) Carol stated what we had been thinking ever since parking Vivante for the winter and striking off on our road trip across Europe; it has been a “once in a lifetime journey”.  As I ruminated over that idea for a while,  it seems that what we have actually experienced is more closely described as a “life in a once time“.

I hope that over the next few moments, I can share this idea with you.

‘As you may have noticed from some of my earlier posts, “time” is on my mind these days. (See “Paris in the Twilight Zone”)  This may have been influenced by my recent reading list that has included several dumbed-down volumes on the topic of Quantum Gravity.

After hours of head scratching, I have come to understand that a big part of that field involves the question of time.  To us normal folks, time seems to be a relatively straight-forward idea, ticking away steadily in one direction, meting out our lives second by second.  To our physicist friends however, time ebbs and flows, speeds up and slows down, stops, and apparently, for a few fleeting moments,  can run backwards.

Another line of thinking on time considers the possibility that everything that has ever happened still exists, but we simply can’t see it given our limited sensory capabilities.  For those interested in that mind-bending concept, the movie Interstellar may prove useful.  It is that idea that I turned over in my mind as I pondered our trip this year.

Much of the territory we have traversed over the winter has a recorded history numbering  in the thousands of years. But in some towns, that history does not exist as an abstract description in a book or artifacts in the dusty rooms of a museum.  It a visceral part of the lives of the people every day.

Cartagena, Spain

We visited places where walking your dog takes you past a Roman amphitheater from 250 BC and daily shopping requires a winding passage by a Roman temple.  The market reached in that journey being in continuous use for over 800 years.

Cartagena Spain

Tangier Morocco

This conflation of the then with the now goes beyond the presence of the stone columns and plaster structures in today’s world, permeating the fabric of the human experience.  We observed spirited bartering negotiations unchanged by the passage of the centuries interrupted by a video call from a family member and a woman in business attire dropping off loaves of bread to be baked for the evening meal in the community oven, fired by wood, delivered via donkey.

 

 Tangier, Morocco

*In this world there is a constant mashup of the then and the now, presenting incongruities from moment by moment to those of us who go through life mentally shredding the past as we go, not thinking about how our present is inescapably entangled with everything that has happened before and  constantly circles back to that past with lessons for us to carry forward to if we are open to seeing them.

Unfortunately, we are more often than not distracted by the shiny new objects of our world that prevent us from reconnecting with the important learnings that are all around us.  Things and experiences that, while seemingly old and outdated, are at the core of our prospects for the future.

In Kotar, Montenegro, we dined in a tiny 4 table restaurant run by a physicist/chef/guitar player/traditional singer.   Over some very good local wine the conversation hopped from microwave propagation, to the preparation of fresh fish, to the way in which the history of this small country is found in its songs.   There did not seem to be any distinction between the past, present and future in his world.

Kotar Montenegro

Sometimes the past is seared into a culture’s memory in such a visceral manner that it is impossible to escape and difficult to see beyond.   At a roadside war museum near the Croatian/Bosnian border a 30-something guide standing by a shattered Soviet Mig, an American tank buster and an UK armored vehicle  described how his Bosnian neighbors one day became Bosnian executioners the next.

  

Croatia

His matter-of- fact  eyewitness description of the horrific slaughter of members of his village by former friends from across town could not mask the underlying anger that was truly uncomfortable to witness.

As we continued our travels, entering Spain we were immersed in the reality of ancient religious rituals honoring the Christian tradition of Easter during the Semana Santa (Holy week).  Hundreds of thousands of people, from grandparents to small babies lined the streets to see the processions pass by throughout the evening and into the early morning as the week progressed.  Whether from religious fervor or simply honoring echos of past times and traditions, they came night after night to witness the spectacle that has spanned the centuries little changed.

  

Malaga, Spain – Semana Santa

These episodes continued through the rest of our travels.  They are always there but we often don’t recognize them for what they are.   They are a time machine into a past that exists with us today.

We are perhaps the only species on earth that experiences what we call time.   The human brain has evolved the ability to store fuzzy images of what we have already seen and done in it’s vast array of neurons.  We call these things memories.  We have also developed in some simple ways, the ability to extrapolate those memories forward combining them with what we see in our “present” time to create the concept of the future.

The smart folks who think a lot about this kind of thing say that this perception of time is simply an approximation that allows us humans to come to grips with our amazingly complicated world.   Our senses allow us only a very rough cut of what really happens around us.   In spite of our  limited perspective, we often do not appreciate the things that are clearly there and should fill us with wonder and inform our future actions.   Carol calls it being in the Present Moment.

If you are even more confused now than when we started down this rabbit hole, do not fear, I am there with you.   Perhaps all we can do is keep our eyes and ears open to what is in front of us every day and smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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All that Jazz

Jazz is the uniquely American musical genre that emerged from the American South, an offspring of the blues and ragtime music of the African American communities around New Orleans.   Over the years it has become a truly global form of music.

One of the places that has always embraced jazz is France.   Many great Jazz players  traveled to France and some moved there where they were welcomed and revered even more so than in their home country.  Perhaps it was the roots of the Louisiana Cajun community that provided a deep connection for the French to the jazz form.

In 1948 the city of Nice, perhaps as a salve on the recent wounds inflicted by WWII, began a tradition that has continued every year, save 2016. The Nice Jazz festival is regarded as one of the top jazz events in the world.   The list of players who have graced the stage in Nice is a Who’s Who of the legends of Jazz over the years.

Until 2011, the site of the event remained in and around the ruins of a Roman amphitheater  and ancient city.

  

The headliner for that opening event was, perhaps the most famous of all jazz players, Louis Armstrong.

However, Louie was not alone.  He brought with him his Jazz All-Stars.

(Original  photo was shared with us by Sharon Preston-Folta, Louie’s daughter.)

His Original Jazz All-stars  were not given that name flippantly.  Each of the players in this group were truly the best of their day.   Any of you who follow jazz even casually will instantly recognize these names.

  • Louis Satchmo Armstrong – trumpet
  • Jack Teagarden  – trombone
  • Arvel Shaw – bass
  • Cozy Cole – drums
  • Bunny Bregard – clarinet
  • Earl Hines – piano

I can only image the scene on that early summer evening with the ancient ruins glowing in the marvelous Mediterranean light as the All-Stars took the stage to the raucous applause of the ecstatic crowd echoing from the walls of the very same venue that Roman crowds populated thousands of years ago.

I believe that if Louie could see what sprang from that fateful evening , he would approve.

 

 

 

 

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Renaissance Man

 

Definition of a Renaissance Man:

A person with many talents and areas of knowledge

Definition of a new barge owner:

A person who wishes they had many talents and areas of knowledge

Definition of an experienced barge owner:

A person who knows a person with many talents and areas of knowledge

As one reaches toward that mystical experienced barge owner status, an understanding of the three definitions shown above is essential.

When you first close your eyes and take the plunge into this amazing world of:

  • large, heavy, slow moving things
  • most over a hundred years old
  • with a long history of  multiple owners
  • each with his or her unique ideas of how things should be done

You definitely don’t know what you don’t know.

As I am fond of saying, every classic barge is a snowflake, unique and beautiful in its own way.  However, some days that beauty can be a bit hard to tease out.

Since taking responsibility for the care and feeding of Vivante, Carol and I have had to really stretch ourselves.  There are days when I wish mightily for one of the download chairs from the “Matrix” movies.   I don’t need the program to become a kung fu master or to pilot a Huey helicopter but a bit more understanding of bow thruster motors would be helpful.

Given that I have not located one of those chairs at the local vide grenier (bonus French lesson here for you folks) I had to come up with another option.  Luckily, there are a few folks that roam around in this part of the world that are uniquely qualified to assist.

If you got a group of barge owners together over an adult beverage or two, they likely could put together the perfect background for an artisan seeking to support a barging community.   My guess is that it would look something like this:

  •  A deep knowledge of electrical theory, and more importantly, practice
  •  The ability to work with metal in all its forms and applications
  •  Plumbing savvy with all types of pipes, fittings and hoses
  •  Experience repairing, maintaining and operating equipment and machinery in remote locations under extreme conditions with limited resources
  • The capability to work in a marine environment on vessels of all shapes, sizes and materials
  • A serious wit and a sense of humor.

Nowadays, the likelihood of purposely developing this set of, somewhat archaic skills, are slim to none.   However, in the recent past, in certain parts of the world, this combination of skills was still taught and even today remain essential for the communities in those areas.

These skills and experience might come through a career in the marine industry or perhaps more serendipitously  cobbled  together through an apprenticeship in industries such railroads or perhaps mining with a bit of military experience thrown in to add the spice of “got to get it done no matter what” attitude.

 

Now before you begin to think that knowing a rare person such as this would be a streak of amazing luck and all cookies and cream, let me share with you another characteristic of the quintessential renaissance personality.  From Leonardo Da Vinci, to the present day example described here-within, they are a demanding lot who do not suffer fools gladly.

However, while they have high standards both for themselves and the people they work with, they will patiently teach the nuances of a repair to anyone with a bit of humility, a desire to learn and a willingness to get their hands dirty.

This summer I got to experience this trait up close and personal as I worked  with a particular renaissance man on a project for Vivante.   While extremely humbling, the opportunity to see what can be done at that level of mastery is both eye opening and confidence building for even a certified knuckle buster like me.  I emerged none the worse for wear and perhaps a bit smarter to boot.

In a world that is increasingly enamored with computers, finance and now “artificial intelligence”  I remain in awe of those few remaining renaissance men and women who possess real intelligence and abilities gained the hard way.  They are no doubt more rare than the masters of technology we worship today.

If you are lucky enough to run across one of these renaissance men,  make sure you get their number!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Change of Watch

As we prepared for our 6th cruising season, our little voice returned and again began whispering to us from the dark recesses of our minds.  In spite of  the grand expectations of cruising to Paris, spending the winter in the south of France and traveling through Spain before returning to Vivante in the spring of 2018, we felt that palpable sense of unease.

During the winter, several of our good friends had made the decision to close the circle on their barging lives, returning to their home countries to begin new adventures.  While they remain a big part of our lives, their orbit had shifted further away from ours.  Rationally we knew that this was inevitable for them as it will one day be for us.   However, emotionally it was a bit unsettling.

There is a sense of community on the canals that is hard to explain to those who have not experienced it.   Like others who choose to do unusual things  considered to be a bit outside of the mainstream, support from others in the “tribe” is important.   When you have one of those days where little, if anything, breaks in your direction, having a cohort who has been to that rodeo before can help you through it with a glass of wine, a smile and perhaps even a wee chuckle or two.

We have had other acquaintances move on but this was the first time that a big chunk of our support structure had departed.   Carol and I simply did not know what to expect.  Now as we sit snugly aboard Vivante on a chilly November evening we can happily report that the little voice has once again fallen silent.

This year, as it has for many years before us and will continue to be long after we are gone, new faces appear through the lock gates and the process of building friendships begins anew.  We simply hope that, just as our friends did for us, we can help welcome these new arrivals into this grand barging family.

 

 

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