The French habit of long, repetitive consultations over the most superficial issues with one or more people (including the entire population during elections) has contributed to their reputation as stubborn, slow-witted, and confused. When you observe this cultural ritual you are amused by the time and effort put into discussing the national train timetables, the perfidy of lock keepers and the moral values of the baker’s big-breasted wife.
However, if you are one of the ‘discussees’ trying to reach a solution to a problem it can be teeth-clenchingly frustrating. Incredibly, this rudimentary democracy can deliver harmonious results. Everyone involved in the discussion may have doubts about the outcome, but it’s something they can all live with.
Our boat is fitted with a labyrinthine electrical system which has several levels of operation. Because most of the appliances on board are 220 volts, when you are ‘in the green’ away from shore electricity, your Inverter, or the Generator, or the Batteries, or the Main Engine can be used to generate or convert 12 volts to 220. How it works is a mystery more complex than any religion or philosophy. It has something to do with multiple yet unique situations and exact responses which might combine some, several or all of the above resources.
At a canal port on the Petite Saone River, we engaged an electrician to explain the system to us. Our intention was to create a list of ‘rules’ to follow. Recently we’d suffered flashing ‘overload’, ‘insufficient battery power’ and ‘no connection’ lights – worse were the sudden deep silences which meant we were dead in the water.
Monsieur Cognassier, whose name suggested he was wise and understanding but which our dictionary translated as ‘quince’, arrived as scheduled. His boiler suit is spotted with oil and cigarette ash and he has active eyebrows, an unconscious parody of Sellers as Clouseau.He speaks a mixture of French and English, a Franglaise weighted with at least 80% of French words. Worse, his habit of explaining electrical detail in the form of proverbs or homilies would puzzle the smartest of generalists.
We have been operating our boat for five years by relying on common sense. The first thing Cognassier asks for is its wiring diagrams. Reference to a wiring diagram is like asking us to perform brain surgery on ourselves. We shrug in the French manner to encourage him to produce a meter or screwdriver with a light in it instead, but he folds his arms and shakes his head.
‘Chat echaude craint l’eau froid,’ he says, meaning ‘a cat once scalded fears even cold water’. He intends to literally go by the book to avoid repeating an unpleasant past experience. This is a good idea. Using ones’ intuition seems to be a threat in the world of electricity, so we empty out the jam-packed manuals cupboard until we find some diagrams dated 2006, the year the boat was built in Holland. The Quince runs his stubby finger along a diagram.
‘Ahah!’ he exclaims, then screws up his lips. ‘Ah, non.’ A dense thundercloud of wrinkles rolls up and down his forehead.
‘What is wrong?’
‘When cows lie down facing in one direction, you can expect rain.’
‘What do…you think the answers lie in agriculture?’
‘M’sieu-Dame, this requires concentration. 'If you plant a tree when the moon is not favourable, you’ll get rain all summer’. You understand?’
At his request we press the generator start button. A blue light blinks a few times, the charger under the floor goes clunk, a red alarm indicator reads ‘Overload’ and the generator coughs and spits the dummy.
‘Merde. Red light at night, shepherd’s warning,’ he mutters in English. ‘Red in morning, shepherd delight.’ Our confidence in the Quince is waning.
‘The hot water cylinder is switched on, Monsieur. Wouldn’t that overload the system?’‘La vache de Belge! You are right.’ He inserts his head and shoulders among the circuit breakers. He abuses the switches verbally. ‘Putain!’ he says in a muffled voice. Switches are clicked on and off like castanets in a Flamenco. ‘Now we try this.’ But he first picks up an Inverter manual from the pile on the floor.
After several minutes he says: ‘Hmmm…interessant. You have this book in English?’‘It is in English,’ Judi says helpfully. The Quince wags his finger to indicate that impatience is not called for.
‘Inexoribilite est mort de le chat,’ he smiles, and produces a huge hair dryer from his toolbag. ‘We test the Inverter. Grande watts.’“What’ is right,’ snaps Judi, ‘as in ‘what the hell is happening?’
‘Monsieur Quince,’ says the Quince loftily, ‘will test the le coeur of the Inverter so we can manage power input.’ He nods unreassuringly. ‘J’espere.’ Quince watches the Inverter light settle into a steady state, then flicks the thumb switch on the hair dryer. Instantly an overload light goes on but the dryer grinds into life. M.Quince looks a little worried.
‘It works,’ he says. A light dew of sweat glistens on this lip. ‘Donnant donnant,’ he mutters : ‘You don’t get nothing for nothing.’The experiments continue. The Quince begins repeating himself. The clock ticks over ninety minutes. Our electrical system resists his attempts to burn out its frontal lobe. It appears to us that the boat is in perfect condition, and the only cause of problems is us. We have not allowed the automatic processes sufficient time to switch from one to another. At the first sight of a red light we’ve thrown switches, shut down banks of fuses and so on. The name of the problem is impatience.
‘Ahh,’ he sighs, you have ‘faire d’une mouche un elephant.’ He means we have made a mountain out of a molehill by making a fly into an elephant. At last, one of his sayings does make sense.
His confidence rising, he proposes one final test: will the coffee machine run while the hot water heater is switched on? We recognise this is a First World problem but it’s a big deal for us. In the morning we want a Nespresso coffee and we want it without waiting. Monsieur Quince watches the appliances being set up.
‘Will you have a coffee, Mr Q?’Judi smiles.‘Absolutement,’ he beams, taking up a vaguely Napoleonic stance against the 12 volt switchboard. The milk frother whirls the lait into a pleasing white foam, but the coffee machine itself is not on long enough to penetrate the capsule. It’s fused, or overloaded, or has died of stress.
‘Nom de Dieu!’ he snarls.’C’est la fin des haricots.’ The end of the beans, indeed; it’s the last straw for us too. ‘Attend! J’arrive!’ He dives amongst the circuit breakers as if he’s found a secret exit from the boat. A single click cuts through his heavy breathing and he re-emerges.‘Switch on!’ he exclaims.
Between slurps of coffee he explains there is nothing wrong at all with the electrical system -he had simply overlooked the ‘Alarm Batt/Mem.Volt Radio’ toggle (‘The what?’ we whisper to each other). So we have no need to worry. Apparently the system will take care of itself without human input, and we had nothing to worry about from the beginning. He gives us his account with a wink and a heavy nod at the empty wine bottles in the galley. He says: ‘Bacchus a noye plus de gens que Neptune.’
We need our French-English dictionary to decipher this last piece of Quincienism:’Wine has drowned more than the sea.’