Thursday, August 11, 2016


The  scourge  of Aussie Grey Nomads, Peter  Burleigh  encounters  the  repulsive  French   equivalents ,  the  tubercular  Camper  Van  crowd, in another   article  which  is  part  of  his ( deliberately )  supercilious  log  series , this  gem  headed : ENDURING CHARMES
Captain  Horatio  Burleigh's  attack  boat , right.
Cruising on the French canals is common fodder for tourist marketing and it sells successfully, judging by the significant numbers of Australians, New Zealanders and  less  savoury nationalities who choke the waterways every year. We’ve been doing this  on and off for about fifteen years. The original concept was to obtain a catamaran, sail out of Sydney Heads and keep going.

 When we realised we knew nothing about sailing, had zero experience of navigation and couldn’t even understand how to use a marine toilet, we went straight to France, obtained/rented a plastic canal boat with proper beds, a kitchen and a grog fridge and formed a habit which continues to this day. We cruise amongst grassy fields, pick wild plums and apples and restock at wine shops without needing any justification, with none of this ‘endless ocean of giant swells’ stuff.

Cruising is 90% beautiful, calm and peaceful. French people are welcoming. They don’t display any of their legendary aloofness. It’s a myth. Problem is your reporter is a curmudgeonly type. He seeks out weirdness, incorrigibility, eccentricity, futile gestures and hubris.  
Hidden in long stretches of emerald-green countryside, wide rivers and deep green forests are storybook villages. French people live in them. They’re old – yesterday in Fontenay le Chateau I saw a door lintel with 1689 carved in it. The words ‘gallo-roman’ turn me on. Each village has its own history. Each has its quirks and evidences of foolish local government decisions.

We are the people who cruise the waterways and we are a strange bunch bonded by a common experience of absurd French regulations (which everyone ignores), and we interact socially via grunts and lewd gestures if there is no common language.
Faithful readers of these logs will remember making a prose visit to the French town of Charmes in July 2015. After facing overwhelming numbers of Camper Vans and their incorrigibly down-market occupants, the crew of our canal boat vowed never to return (the crew is two persons including myself; did you know Rope Girl and the newly promoted Weather Girl are the same person?). Only one year later our ‘best laid plans’ are rubble. We should have known. Plans never survive the dead hand of the VNF, the national manager of the French navigable waterways.
We intended to cruise west to Briare, Sancerre and Digoin and thence a loop to the Soane River. The VNF thumbed its nose at us – and who knew where the thumb had been before that? The VNF announced two ‘debacles’, each only a shudder short of a ‘catastrophe’, on our route and closed those canals to all traffic. A ‘debacle’ could be defined as the gates falling off one of the locks or a breach in the canal banks which empties the bacteria-rich canal into the drinking water of a large town. A ‘catastrophe’ is very serious – imagine four fully-loaded fast trains colliding on a bridge over the canal while at the same moment several airliners nose-dive into the same spot, and all this on a religious holiday
So our route to the west is blocked. We must head east from Epernay and retrace much of the same route we took last year through the picturesque Vosges Mountains and the ‘Tunnel of Death’ which I have avoided for years. The Meuse River and its canalised waterway the Vosges Canal deliver us directly to…Charmes.
Sure enough, Camper Vans [above]  line the mooring wharf at Charmes. Because the vans all look the same, the wharf has become a Camping & Caravan Show which features the entire global output of camper vans, each complete with a frayed middle-aged couple, a miniature dog and often an ugly relative who sit at a card table in front of each camper. Hundreds of bloodshot eyes swivel toward our boat as we moor, and mentally-unbalanced silky terriers yap hysterically.
 Without exception the dogs and people jointly stare into our boat’s windows and shake their heads at our untidy non-naval habits. Their massed ‘tsk-tsking’ chirrups like cicadas. This is a different crowd from 2015. It is more cohesive. National differences seem to be less important. When they stare at us and our boat they become “happy campers” – grinning gormlessly, nodding mechanically, and being proud of themselves for not drooling. 
 It’s the same facial expression they use when their dogs shit on the grass, write their names in urine on other vans’ tyres and chase the ducks that taunt them. It is difficult to differentiate between the dogs and the occasional feral child which emerges from the campers.
It is we who are being treated like gypsies; boats don’t have tyres so therefore we don’t belong. These 2016 campers don’t have any co-ordinated dance moves to offer. Last year there was choreography, colour and Cliff Richard music. Now there’s a dull European Union quality to the place – a perverted Eurocamping gestalt as mundane as the vans themselves. Where did this cultural behemoth come from? It must be a caveman thing, although it took modern man to combine the discovery of the wheel with a cave lifestyle. The Neanderthals never twigged to the concept of the portable cave.
Burleigh's drawing of Australian Grey Nomads and their  portable  all mod cons  portable caves  from his  acclaimed  Bulldust Dairies account of  a safari across   the top of  Australia.
Among the definitions of ‘charm’ is this one: ‘a trait that fascinates, allures or delights: a physical grace or attraction.’ I tirelessly searched the city of Charmes for examples of these characteristics for at least half an hour before throwing in the towel. Admittedly it was a holiday weekend and the entire population of Charmes was absent, leaving only the denizens of the Camping Vans, estimated at 31,633 people, to represent the town’s allure and delight. As for physical grace, the town itself wouldn’t have been regularly burned to the ground by invaders over the years if it hadn’t managed to deeply offend everybody from Erik the Red to Hailie Selassie – even the hard-to-insult Saxon Barbarians couldn’t find a good word to say about it.
Charmes needs to reinvent itself, apply a cut-through marketing concept if it’s to overcome the bad press and word of mouth it suffers from all who pass within ten kilometres of its boundaries. What about an International ‘Charmes Offensive’? Get all the charming people from France and the EU (excluding Brexit scum of course) to gather in Charmes to charm the pants off visiting dignitaries? It’d grow. In five years it’d be huge.  And that’s just one idea! How about baking a ‘Good Luck Charmes’ toy into every croissant made in France for the month of Charmuary?

 Think people won’t stand up and notice once they read the ‘Choking Hazard’ warning on each one! And how about re-writing the Cinderella story to make the lead character ‘Prince Charmes’? The books! The tourist magnetism! Watch the Disney dollars flow! Another winner would be the Charmes School of International Modelling & Domestic Science. Why not hire Elle MacPherson as Patron? I am just a humble writer and I alone have hundreds of such ideas. So why has this town rolled over with its legs in the air?

 It must have redeeming features. Doesn’t it have a lime tree planted in 1654 to celebrate the wedding of…no, wait, that’s Croix-les-Messinies or somewhere… why couldn’t Charmes claim the real-life Prince of Vaudemont? He built a castle in Commercy, only a few kilometres up the Meuse from here. We could have speculated on J.K.Rowling’s inspiration for the evil Voldemort, but we can’t. That would be false, and journalists never write anything false. All this time I have been looking for answers in French history and in the name ‘Charmes’ when the truth must lie in the present.

Right here in the present, reality is calling: in the van parked three metres from our windows all three inmates are having a co-ordinated coughing fit. The phlegm flies. I expect to find gobs of tuberculoid lung fragments spattered on our hull. It’s time to leave.

 Facing us are a couple of hundred locks which drop us from the summit of the Vosges Mountains to the Soane River not far from Lyon. On the way we must pass through the five kilometre Mauvages Tunnel. Neither of these daunting prospects could be as bad as facing another morning coughing chorus of massed camper vanners.Time to retreat into the glories of canal-side rural France, the vanless parts.