1. Bienvenue en France

This post covers the lead up to our departure from New Zealand until La Caunette returned to the water. It’s more of a diary of events and doesn’t contain much additional information. In future, I will write a regular blog that will summarise what we have been up to (rather than writing something about each day, as I did in previous years). I’ll include more detail on the history and background to things we see and do. 

I won’t be sending out any email reminders so if you want to follow along and get notifications of when I have posted a new blog, put your email into the box at the bottom of the page. You can also post comments. The site is secure.

So without any further ado ….

Pre-departure fun and games

It has taken some time and effort to overcome a few challenges thrown our way before finally arriving in France. This included needing to wait for the borders to open and flights being available; buying travel insurance that included cover for Covid; getting our French visas; Dave’s tumbling off his bike and breaking several ribs six weeks prior to our planned departure; Dave, two daughters and one of his granddaughters completing a 50km Oxfam walk, etc. 

Downsizing and packing

One of the decisions we made was to store our furniture and belongings in the garage and rent the house without just off road parking (there is enough for 6+ vehicles). So from late last year I started a massive clear out and got rid of everything that was surplus to requirements and/or which I had not touched since moving back into the house in December 2020. I donated heaps to the Salvation Army and also made quite a tidy sum of money by selling stuff on TradeMe over a number of weeks. As a result the volume of my books, art and craft supplies, clothing, gardening and other belongings was significantly reduced. On the other hand Dave moved the boxes, some still unpacked from over 10 years ago, back into storage. He managed to find room for them under the house. I often heard him telling people how the garage was full of my stuff! Anyway, he did a great job packing everything into the garage. Despite having broken ribs he managed to do (dare I say insisted doing) everything by himself.

Healthy homes

We also had to invest quite a bit of time and money in getting the property ready for renting out. This primarily centred around meeting the new Healthy Home requirements. This included having to put a damp proof course under the house – even though it is sand and on a slope. With all this done we found good tenants ready to move in over Easter. 

Rupert

Another thing we had to organise was a home for Rupert, our cat. Our neighbours, Jill and David, (the south east corner of their property is our north west corner) offered to foster him while we were away. However, they have a rescue cat, Bella, who is not the friendliest of cats and so they wanted to make sure she would accept Rupert. This resulted in our taking Rupert over to their place a couple of times a week for ‘play dates’. While Bella didn’t accept Rupert with open paws, she did not seem overly agitated by his visits. Dave delivered Rupert just before we moved out of our property.

Since we have left, Rupert has often wandered back to our place; the tenants liked him and agreed to adopt him for the duration of their tenancy. However, they are out a lot and go away often and Rupert, being a cat who does not like being home alone, often goes back to Jill and David’s place. So he has two homes.

Change of plans

We planned to move out the day before Easter, with the tenants moving in next day. Dave had a family reunion in Manawahe to go to and I had a flight booked to Auckland so I could spend time with my son and family in Auckland, and daughter In Kerikeri. The plan was Dave would go to his family reunion, taking three grandchildren with him, then drive back to Wellington, put the Touareg into storage and fly up to meet me in Auckland, ready to fly out on 26th April. 

All was going to plan until two weeks before Easter a CT scan I had, to check out a suspected kidney stone, revealed that I had a very large ovarian cyst that had twisted and had to come out pronto. To cut a long story short, I was under the surgeon’s knife at Keneperu Hospital, at almost exactly the same time as we should have been taking off for France. 

I was advised not to travel for at least four weeks …. the main problem with that (apart from the surgery etc) was that we had rented the house out and were in affect homeless from Easter! Fortunately the tenants had asked if they could delay moving in by a week and then agreed to another week. Friends also offered us their home in Kaitoke, Upper Hutt as they were going down the South Island for three weeks. So everything fell into place.

Dave still went to Manawahe and had a great time with his family and I went up to Auckland and enjoyed Easter weekend with my offspring.

The operation went well but unfortunately I picked up an infection during surgery which resulted in my needing to spend five days in Wellington Hospital on IV antibiotics (to treat sepsis and a SSI). The SSI has continued to be troublesome, resulting in a number of reviews at the hospital and three further courses of antibiotics – I’m still not 100% recovered but definitely almost there.

Covid scare

Once I felt up to it, we started our move north. First stop was Manawahe where we stayed a week, as Dave’s sister and her husband had gone down to the South Island for six months. We then moved on to Kerikeri, stopping in to have lunch with my son, James, in Auckland. The following day James texted to say he and my 4½ year old granddaughter, Grace, had tested positive for Covid – just a week before we were scheduled to fly out! Luckily isolation rules had changed or we would have had to postpone our flights yet again. 

We spent a couple of days in Kerikeri with my daughter Gabrielle, and her partner Sam, before returning to Auckland. Unfortunately, James and his family were in isolation so we could not spend time with them. We did manage to say goodbye, with Possum their cat looking on from the top of the stairs.

We were very careful to maintain our distance from others, monitor our symptoms and take regular RAT tests. Luckily, we missed that bullet. There does not seem to be any rhyme or reason to who catches Covid. My daughter-in-law did not catch it – only her mother did (but her father did not, despite their having both had Grace with them all day James had tested positive). 

Finally underway

Right until the time we were checked in and were in the departure lounge, I did not really think we were going to get away. But we did!

We left early afternoon and arrived in Singapore early evening, so in essence this was a day flight. We experienced a bit of turbulence, and the flight path took us over South Australia, which is a bit unusual but there were massive storms the pilots were presumably trying to divert around. Otherwise the flight was uneventful. I feasted on French movies, the service was good, seats comfortable etc and the 11 hour flight went well.

We had a short wait in Singapore before boarding our 12 hour flight to Munich. This was a night flight and we both managed to get quite a bit of sleep, landing around 7am. 

Lack of Covid restrictions

The first thing that struck me on entering the main area of the airport at Munich was that there was hardly a mask to be seen. In view of falling Covid numbers in Germany , rules have been relaxed over the summer months. France has also suspended vaccine mandates and requirements to wear masks.

This is a bit scary because when you look at data available, Germany and France have had 1661 and 2268 deaths, and 316,896 and 453,275 cases per million respectively, whereas New Zealand has only had 248 deaths and 242,242 cases per million. On the other hand Germany currently has 108 active cases per million, France 154 active cases per million and New Zealand 116 active cases per million (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/).

Not seeing everyone in masks seemed so different to what we had become used to, but it was good to be able to take off our masks (we maintained our distance from others) after having had to wear them, without a break, for over 36 hours.

We had no trouble with border control but had a bit of a wait before our flight to Toulouse. While waiting I heard a couple talking with Kiwi accents. We struck up a conversation and discovered they were returning to their second home in the south of France after a three year absence. We have their contact details and will likely meet up with them later in the year as their home is quite close to the canal.

On arrival in Toulouse we picked up a rental car and drove to Castelsarrasin. We stopped in at a supermarket to get a few basic supplies before checking into the gîte we had booked for two nights. The term gîte originally meant a form of shelter but is now akin to what we would refer to as accommodation booked through Airbnb or Booking.com.

Reunited with La Caunette

We then went to the boatyard and were pleasantly surprised to discover La Caunette had fared well with being abandoned, uncovered, and exposed to the elements for almost three years. 

There is no doubt she was dirty and some of the paintwork is flaking but she should clean up okay and she was due for a repaint anyway – we will tackle that in autumn.

It was also a great relief to open up the front door and not be met by any unpleasant smells. There was no mustiness or any signs of damp. However, there must have been a couple of leaks as there was a small stain on one corner of the mattress and a corner of the kitchen bench. The tiles surrounding the bench area had lifted. But, the stains can be removed and the tiles stuck back on. There were however a number of strange mushroom and finger like fungi sticking out by these areas of leakage and under the kitchen sink. They were very dry though – maybe they grew during the winter or when the leaks occurred and then were dried out over the summer as it would have been very hot inside. 

It appears that a louvre-type vent intended to help the cooling air circulate around the fridge and freezer was the source of the water under the kitchen bench and into the cabin where the mattress was sitting. Dave suspects a few violent storms had driven rainwater through the louvres and drenched the unsealed edge of the kitchen bench chipboard and mattress in the next room. The fungi loved growing out of the chipboard. On the plus side, all the lino coverings and air vent covers that were fitted on top of the cabins worked really well to keep the water out.

Non-celebrations

By this time, we were both feeling whacked – it was 27°C and we had been on the go for almost two days. We decided to lock La Caunette up and start work on her the next day. As we were leaving the boatyard we spotted another Kiwi couple, Neil and Arawhetu on Moderato. We stopped and had a quick chat before heading back to the gîte.

In New Zealand we had talked about cracking open a bottle of champagne on arrival and discussing what we would eat, how we were looking forward to buying a baguette etc. In the end we blobbed out in the gîte and heated up some pizza we had bought from the supermarket, accompanied by a bottle or two of Leffe beer, which Dave had been really looking forward to. 

Unwinding and catching up with friends

Needless to say we slept well. After breakfast, we headed off to the boatyard to find Sébastien, the person in charge of the boatyard, to ask about getting water and power hooked up etc. In March, we had also asked him to check the anodes and replace any as required, but despite several emails we had not had a response. As it turned out he was on holiday. We were told he would be back demain (tomorrow). We were both feeling a bit tired and decided that until he was back there wasn’t much we could do on the boat. We therefore decided to spend the next two days catching up with friends moored nearby.

Before heading off, we went for a walk along the port to see if there was anyone moored there that we knew. There wasn’t but we spotted a small group of cyclists, one of whom was transporting a small dog in comfort. She was happy to stop and let me take a photo.

We also wanted to check on a boat, Rosemare for a friend Jess, (an Australia who at this stage is a pen friend as we have only connected initially through our blog and then email). We saw the boat and let Jess know.

We then drove to Escalatens, about 10 kilometres away, and enjoyed catching up with Malcolm and Debra, both from England, on their huge barge Janna II. Malcolm was the first person we spoke to when we started our French adventure in 2018. They had done a lot of work on it since we last saw them. While enjoying a beer and wine with them I discovered another couple we know, Jack and Sanne, from the Netherlands were also moored at Escalatens on their beautiful boat Artemis (Jack bought it when he was 19 in 1963, and he and his family have cruised the canals for nearly 60 years). 

We spent some time catching up with them before heading back to our gîte and another early night. We woke in the early hours and spent a couple of hours repacking our suitcases so we just had what we needed for the next couple of days handy. We couldn’t get to sleep again so after breakfast we drove over to the boatyard and Dave unloaded the bikes and then uplifted our two big suitcases – no mean feat, but as always he did that with aplomb.

There was still no sign of Sébastien, who we were once again told would be back demain so we set off to meet up with friends, Gloria (American) and Mike (English but with an Irish passport), moored at Villesèquelande, 130 kilometres away. We had organised to arrive late afternoon, go out for dinner at a restaurant in the village and stay the night on board their lovely barge GEM.

Dave was keen to go via Albi and see the gorges that he said were surrounded by high cliff faces. So off we set. We arrived in Albi but it seems Dave was mistaken about the gorges, so we just drove through and then on to Revel. 

I will write about this in more detail when we are on the Canal du Midi, but in summary, just south of Revel, where the land begins to slope upwards into the Montagne Noir (Black Mountain) regional park, is Le lac de Saint-Ferréol, a 67-hectare lake built by Pierre-Paul Riquet in 1667. The waters captured in the lake run down to, and supply water to the Canal du Midi, in both directions (i.e. some towards the Mediterranean and some towards the Atlantic). 

We enjoyed a nice picnic lunch over-looking the lake, before driving on to Castelnaudary where we called in to see Odile, the Capitainerie of the port, to book a winter mooring. The canals close over late autumn to early spring and Castelnaudary has a reputation for being a great port to stay in. There is quite an expat community and it would be a safe place for me to stay on my own if Dave decides to go back to New Zealand for his granddaughter’s wedding in October and/or daughter’s wedding in early February ….. or to build his Vanaboat.

From Castelnaudary, it was just a short drive to Villesèquelande. Mike welcomed us with his rendition Po karikari Ano on his ukulele. We enjoyed catching up with Gloria and Mike, chatting over wine and beer and being entertained by a large group of locals playing pétanque nearby. It was however very very windy, which was a bit annoying, but at least it was warm. Mike and Gloria also introduced us to another English couple, Steve and Maggie, who were moored nearby on their boat La Belle Vie as they will be also wintering over in Castelnaudary. Apparently Maggie is renowned for organising get togethers of boatees.

Later we drove into the village for dinner. The menu was essentially meat and more meat but the entrées had a bit more variety. The waiter was proud to pose for the photo of the menu.

I ordered a baked camembert and was more than somewhat surprised by the size of what was meant to be an entrée – a large camembert, salad and huge mound of kumara/sweet potato chips served on a large slate platter. 

It was delicious but it didn’t leave much room for the main course. I ordered prawns, Dave and Gloria had duck and Mike a lamb shank. They were all served in a similar fashion to my entrée – on a large slate platter with salad, the main protein, a mound of chips and sauce (either pepper or roquefort). It was all delicious but none of us could finish our meals – or the wine! 

Dave and Gloria walked back to GEM through the vineyards. After a bit more chit chat, we retired for the night, after what had been a very enjoyable day.

Next morning we were treated to a leisurely and delicious breakfast of hot cakes, strawberries, maple syrup etc before we set off back towards Castelsarrasin. On the way back we called into Toulouse to catch up with more English friends, Heather and Simon, on their boat Madeleine.

Back at the boatyard

On arrival back in Castelsarrasin we went to the boatyard and finally caught up with Sébastien. He advised that none of the anodes needed replacing which was good news. He was very helpful sorting out electricity, water, ladders etc and booking in La Caunette to be launched on Friday.

Mike had kindly been charging our eBike batteries every few months while we had been away. Dave fitted the batteries to our bikes – mine worked perfectly but the battery on Dave’s controller was flat. He has managed to source one in Montauban but that won’t be available until next week.

There was also an amusing moment (for me anyway) …. the first day Dave had gone on board La Caunette he had retrieved the bike keys. He complained he couldn’t find another set of keys. He was adamant he hadn’t taken them back to and left them in New Zealand or that he had put there somewhere else for safe keeping. He suggested ‘someone’ (I wonder who he meant) had moved them. I hadn’t. He needed one of the keys to unlock the padlock on the front hatch so borrowed some bolt cutters off Sébastien to cut the padlock off. That done he then went to get something out of the drawer – and lo and behold he found the missing keys … to be fair and he is a bloke – they were under a pad of paper! But I must admit that it is likely we were both a bit jetlagged and we hadn’t slept that well due to the temperature and long (13+) hours of daylight.

Temporary accommodation

Prior to leaving New Zealand, because of my health issues, we had agreed we would not live on board La Caunette until she was in the water. Jess kindly offered us to stay on her boat until La Caunette was in the water but we managed to arrange to stay with an English woman, Helen, in Moissac, about 10 kilometres away. She has a fully kitted out one bedroom gîte in the basement of her three stored 120+ year old home. She does not officially rent it out other than to family, friends and people recommended by people she knows (we had originally been told about her by the Moissac Capitainerie in 2019 and my brother and his wife had stayed with her). The gîte looks out on a lovely small potager and has everything we need, including a cat that comes and suns itself of a bench each day.

Les fêtes de Pentecôte

Helen had been worried that it was going to be very noisy over the (long) weekend as Moissac was celebrating Pentecost (the Christian festival celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Jesus after his Ascension, held on the seventh Sunday after Easter. Whit Monday, being the day after Pentecost is a public holiday in France) with a Fêtes de Pentecôte

Moissac was once a major river port for the transport of goods, mainly wine and grains, and many of the festivities centred around sailors – Les Marins de Moissac. This includes sailors distributing holy bread on Sunday and featuring in brass bands, parades etc. Children dressed up in sailor outfits and could be seen throughout the town over the three days.

A key feature of the festival is that a young woman is selected as La Rosière by a panel made up of the mayor, elected officials, members of the festival committee and the association les Marins de Moissac as well as a bride and groom of the previous year. The history behind this is that in 1888, Dominique Clavier, a wealthy bachelor watchmaker with only distant relatives, made several donations, including one to the town of Moissac. In return for this annuity of 500 francs in gold, the municipality has been required each year to crown, “the most virtuous and deserving young person from Moissagaise (Moissac resident female over the age of 18)”. La Rosière is the centre of many of the festivities. For example, one event took place on a barge with La Rosière, the Mayor, sailors and band for a short cruise to throw a wreath into the Tarn, in memory of sailors who drowned or who went missing on the river.

Amusement park

A huge fair ground/amusement park was set up on Helen’s/our back doorstep, and there were live concerts into the early hours of the morning etc. But we were not worried about that as it seemed like fun, and we are both sound sleepers. In the event the amusement park and concerts were cancelled on Saturday night because of a storm warning.

Dave was fascinated with one rides in particular, the manège Inversion 360°, in which people are strapped into harnesses in seats that rotate in a full circle, for several rotations, stopping for a few seconds at its highest point (20+ metres above the ground). The yellow brick wall is at the back of the gîte we are staying at, so you can see how close it was.

Provisioning

We have enjoyed reacquainting ourselves with the supermarkets here and trying to remember where to find what. The supermarkets are huge and I love the displays. There is no doubt in my mind food is a lot cheaper here. 

Interestingly the shelves were empty of mustard  nothing to do with panic buying. According to Reine de Dijon, one of the country’s largest mustard producers, the shortages are being driven by climate change issues. France’s Burgundy region and Canada are the largest mustard seed producers in the world. A heat wave in Canada at the beginning of July last year dried up the mustard seed crops and a cold snap in Burgundy also affected supplies. Apparently the war in Ukraine is also contributing to the shortage, because both Russia and Ukraine are huge exporters of the seed, and the conflict has disrupted global supply chains for many agricultural products.

On Sunday morning I went to the local market and stocked up on fresh produce – there’s nothing quite like the market – the array of fresh produce, delicious aromas, locals greeting each other with bissoux (kisses) chatter and general bonamie.

On Monday morning we drove to Toulouse Blagnac airport to pick up some friends, Kathy (Aussie) and Richard (Kiwi) who were returning to their boat. We met them in 2019 and continued to have contact with them in New Zealand. This included spending a night with them on their catamaran which they lived on in the Bay of Islands. We took them to their boat, Rangimãrie, that has been moored at Buzet-sur-Baïse since late 2019.

On the way back to Castelsarrasin, Dave couldn’t resist calling in at a roadside stop for Burger King. He reckons I made him stop, but those of you who know Dave will know that is unlikely.

On the last night of the Fêtes de Pentecôte there was a large fireworks display on the river.

Over the next few days, Dave spent most of his time working on the boat. He has methodically worked through reconnecting batteries, getting water and electrics running and general mechanical things sorted that are needed to get La Caunette ready for the water. He encountered a bit of a problem with keeping the engine running. The motor would start and run only while the key was in the starter position. As soon as the key was released the motor stopped. The motor battery had not been fully charged so that was recharged overnight until the charger showed ‘full’. This would allow the fuel solenoid to have plenty of voltage. With the help of the boatyard Mechanic, who speaks no English, adjusting the engine idle speed up a bit overcame the problem. Needless to say Dave has also spent time chatting to fellow boaters at the yard, including another Kiwi couple, Vicki and Lynsay who have been living on board their boat Tui, firstly in the yard and then in the canal.

He has also been chatting to an English couple, who have been hugely disappointed with what they have found when they returned to their boat. They g-had had it cling wrapped but unfortunately this had blown off. They were not told about this and the boatyard did not fix it. As a result their boat is extremely dirty and partly damaged. Anthea has had enough of boating and it will cost a bit to clean the boat up so Tex is keen to sell it. He is only want €20k for it – it is probably worth four times that. Dave is very interested in it. Some friends have suggested going halves with them – they would front up with the €20k and Dave could get it canal worthy again. It is a beautiful boat but maybe just a dream – a lot of practicalities to sort out!

While Dave has been busy at the boatyard I have been sorting out phones, money, dealing with ‘paper work’, writing this blog etc. I’ve also been dealing French bureaucracy – as we will be staying more that 6 months, and despite having a one year visa, we need to register with the local Préfecture (Council). It’s all quite straight forward but takes time and will involve a health check and x-rays. I also enjoy popping out to the local boulangerie to get our daily baguette and pain aux raisins and sit watch the world go by over agrand crème.

La Caunette returns to the water

La Caunette returns to the water

La Caunette has been surrounded by boats and other paraphernalia. Much of this was difficult to move so it was necessary to lift her up with a crane. This was positioned on Thursday afternoon.

First thing Friday morning Dave went to the boatyard and was told La Caunette would be lifted up in half an hour, so he came back to Moissac and picked me up. Not long after arriving at the boatyard a motley assortment of men, all with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, assembled around the boat. Sébastien arrived and the men positioned strops under the boat attached to a lifting frame. Sébastien operated the crane while the men maneuvered La Caunette using ropes – no health and safety restrictions here! Between them they did a remarkable job turning the boat around 90° and then positioning her on a trailer behind a tractor with only inches of clearance from four surrounding boats. She was then towed to a slip at the side of the canal where she was launched. In all this took about an hour. They really did an impressive job.

A dog joined in the fun.

Once tied up alongside the canal, Dave started the engine and soon encountered problems. The chantier’s mechanic, Christian, a Frenchman with NO English and who had adjusted the idling setting previously arrived for the start up, as had been agreed the previous day. He was accompanied by his partner, who impressed Dave with her mechanical know-how. All was good with starting and going into reverse but as soon as ‘forward’ was selected the engine stopped.

A repeat performance suggested a problem. Christian removed the fuel filter and that seemed ok. He then checked a few other things. The end conclusion was that the solenoid valve needed to be replaced. It meant that the whistles and bells for ignition and glow plugs activation didn’t come on and the only way to stop the engine was by manual pull string of a separate fuel stop valve. This was all beyond the Captain – Dave the Super Tech!!! 

In the middle of this Christian had said at midday he would return at quartorze heurs (2pm). He turned up at 3pm. But hey, this is France! But soon he had the engine running, and we were able to travel 300 metres to Jacques-Yves-Cousteau port. Lynsay (from Tui) kindly helped with ropes when we left and he cycled the short distance to the port to catch ropes and tie us up. 

So at last we are underway. We are moored under the shade of a trees which is a blessing given the temperatures are in the high 20s, low 30s. 

We need to wait for a replacement part, but who knows how long that will take. But we have plenty to do and it will be good to finally unpack and settle into our French adventures.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about our adventures and I look forward to hearing back from you with any feedback for suggested improvements. As I mentioned at the beginning, I won’t be sending out any email reminders so if you want to follow along and get notification of when I have posted a new blog, put your email into the box below. The site is secure.

11 Comments

  1. Awesome Barbara, I love reading your blog and be cos I’ve been with you guys on the canals ,I kinda have a ” feel” for it and can picture stuff in my mind. Happy travels…..

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  2. It’s been a long wait and the relief on seeing your “home” in such sound condition must have been enormous. Not sure that leaving a boat to weather for so long in New Zealand would have had the same result! Pleased all is finally going to plan and that injuries & health set-backs are now behind you. Safe journey on your next escapades – keep up the good work on the ‘blogs’ Barbara – I’m sure all back in NZ enjoy reading – maybe not about the warmth & fine weather though – our turn will come 🙂 Helen & Tony

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  3. Glad to hear you have been able to leave New Zealand and that You both are healing.

    Any photos of the boat that is for sale? Who knows maybe we and Trev might be interested in an arrangemement?

    Pat

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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  4. It sounds like you’re having a great start to being back in France …and keep those photos of delectable French good coming!

    Claire

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  5. So lovely to see an email for a new blog post! Would love to keep following your journey and are extremely envious of your plans for the next few months! Hope you are both feeling better after your health challenges of recent months x

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