Plan B - The Art House

 We bought a house-!

In the south of France. 
Bize-Minervois. 

- In retrospect, that went fast.




Last year, sitting on the aft deck of Maggie May - month after month, watching the world deal with covid, it was clear that travel - as a sort of lifestyle - was becoming less desirable. 


We began to consider houses. 
All over the world, in fact. 




From Hawaii and Oregon to Laos and Thailand. 
Back to New Mexico. Various Caribbean islands. 

An old château. An olive farm. 500 year old stone houses. 
Beach houses. Glass houses. Tree houses. 

Eventually, we realized - we like it here. 
The boat is here. We have friends here. 

Why not - here? 




So I made a little book. (I'm always making books-)

I wanted to identify exactly which elements were important to us. 
Which were "needs" and which were "wants". I was very specific. 




As usual, I had a list. 

It took a LOT of searching - mostly online. 
We almost gave up a few times. 

But - it happened-!

Here's what it looks like: 




Even online, we fell in love with it. 

It's easy. Simple. A bit quirky. 
Unusual, but still - kinda French.

Just big enough. 
But - there's space for a music studio for Stan - and an art studio for me. 

Of course, compared to Maggie May, it's quite large. 




It's about 20 minutes from the boat. 

(Oddly, the boat has MUCH better storage! There are NO closets in this house.)

We're still in the south of France, between the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees. 




The area is beautiful. 
Full of flowers and birds and markets.
Good food, good friends and wines. 

We're on the edge of the village, just below a pine forest.




Bize is a great little village - we'd stayed here once before with the kids in 2014.
A river runs through the village. 


The atmosphere is completely different from the Canal du Midi. 




After signing the documents in December, we had to wait 3 MONTHS to get the keys. 

We had NO furniture. No dishes, towels, linens, tools, containers. 
No house stuff. Nada. 
Starting again from scratch.

In March, we went into lockdown for the third time. 
About the same time we got the keys to the house. 
So glad we decided to get the house!
Stores were closed, but we could order things and have them delivered.

So - first thing we did was - put in a pool. 
Yikes! What a project. In May.

Cranes and tractors and what a mess. 
But - they started on Monday. By Friday - we had water in the pool. 




Okay, it's not really finished. 

They're all booked up over summer, and will come back in autumn to make it look pretty. 
Lay the stone surround. Finish the wall. 

However, it's fully functional, if not super attractive yet. 

It works. - And on hot days, man, it's great. 


In the last few years, there were some VERY HOT days on the boat. 
We DREAMED of - jumping into a pool.

Now we have one.




We're also gardening. 

That was the main thing we missed on the boat during the confinement. 
Not TV. Or a freezer. Not being on the grid. It was - puttering in a garden.

(Ice cubes came a close second.)

 The soil here is absolute clay. 
Terrible stuff and full of rocks! 
(How do they grow anything here?) 

But - plants seem to thrive.




We even planted tomatoes in May. 
By June, we were harvesting them!


Stan - looking for loquats...tomatoes in front.


Plus, in our garden, we have olive trees.
A plum tree.
An apple tree.
A loquat tree. 
Blackberries.
Figs.

Even banana plants.
And a "strawberry tree".


These are loquats. Who knew?


And a cat - who seems to think he (she?) belongs here.




So - it looks like Plan B is working out just fine. 
It usually does. 

Again - we got lucky. 





"Won't you stay - we'll put on a day? 
And we'll talk in present tenses..."

- Joni Mitchell


Death on the Canal, Pagan Crossroads and Medieval Laundries - Mysteries Around a Canal Boat


Living here, on the Canal du Midi, there is time to solve mysteries. I like that.
There are plenty of things we don't understand. Mysteries.

For example - this building, just across the canal from us.

Maggie May is the second boat - the dark blue one. That's ours.

What in the world is it? A nautical bus stop?

Turns out - when the canal was built, in the 1600's, (!) they provided laundry areas, or "lavoirs" along the way, as a service to the villages. The villagers were cranky about the canal taking up so much valuable agricultural space. Plus, they had to help dig the canal, whether they wanted to or not. Thus, the lavoirs as an appeasement.

Now, they are used occasionally by local fishermen.

Here's what they might have looked like - back in the day:



Now - every evening, the doves come down to drink unsuspectingly from the lavoir.
 However, there are large catfish lurking underwater, waiting for prey.

Suddenly, a fish GRABS the bird as it drinks - and it's gone!
Not a feather left!
The first time I saw it, I thought I must have imagined it.
Then - we both saw it.
- No wonder not many ducklings make it to full duckhood.

Then - there are cormorants. They dive smoothly to the bottom - and catch the fish.
They bring it back to the surface, swing it in the air and swallow it - in one gulp.

-Poetic justice in the world of eat-and-be-eaten.

A poor photo of the cormorant eating a LARGE fish.

(I might add - I have NEVER seen anyone else catch a fish here.
In spite of the number of fishermen, complete with all the latest equipment:
 - boots, gear, chairs and multiple poles. Nary a fish.)

Another mystery:
We  found these round metal disks - on bridges, churches, towers.
Were they a sort of inventory system?
Nope.



No decent map of France existed until surprisingly recently.
The hinterlands of France (which includes Languedoc, where we are) didn't care much for Paris.

 - If they even knew it existed.


We're in Languedoc-Roussillon. WAY south - on the Mediterranean.

Back in the day, strangers running around with odd instruments, peering through strange eyepieces. This was bad news. Plague, pestilence, two-headed cows - anything was possible.

The safest thing to do was - obviously - kill the mapmaker.

It took decades to complete the map.

Turns out - these round disks are survey markers - and are still there.

Mystery solved. Cool.




The next mystery we found in the engine room of the boat.




Under the floorboards, between the huge engine and the huge generator, there were 2 spiffy looking jerrycans and a heavy duty dolly. What for?

After we owned the boat for several months, we asked: 
Where are the nearest fuel pumps on the canal?
The answer: There aren't any.

Really? All these boats - and no fuel pumps?
REALLY?
Pretty much - no.

So where do you get fuel?
-At the supermarket gas station.

-With the dolly. And the jerrycans.



The other option is to call a fuel truck.
You share 1000 liters with another boat. Or two.

-No wonder you have to get along with your neighbors.

However - the tanks on the boat hold 900 liters (about 240 gallons) of diesel.
I got to thinking - 900 liters of diesel - that's over $2000 to fill your tank.

-No wonder they do it a bit at a time!

The steps up from our boat to the road. No dolly here.

Then: We got bicycles.

Tour de France, here we come - well, maybe not.
(There are a LOT of bicyclists here, and they take it seriously. Up and down mountains.)

We're just exploring the countryside.
Trails along the canals are flat.

(Although we DID go up one pretty good sized mountain, and I cycled to the top. 
Well, actually, I took a long break or two part way up. Then cycled up the rest of the second half. 
A passing Tour de France type saw me and gave me a surprised thumbs-up. I didn't really deserve it-!)




The winding canals - and the vineyards - provide good trails.

En route, we find odd markers - tree trunks, carved into the shape of crosses.
Stone monuments at corners of fields, with an old iron cross on top.

Even dolmens with crosses.



So what's the story?

Apparently, when Christianity came to France, it wasn't very popular.
Most people were strongly pagan.

The Church used the existing sacred sites - trees, stones, menhirs - where the spirits already lived. And simply added the crosses.

That way, the locals wouldn't destroy the monuments.
Over time, the ancient sites became conveniently "Christianized".

Maybe everyone was happier that way.



And then -- the bikes go back onto the boat.

 - In just the right place, over the propane locker .
And - that's another story - until next time.

And the next mystery.

What's it Like - Living on a Canal Boat in the South of France?


If you're not used to the concept, it's kind of hard to picture it.

There's Maggie May, in her regular mooring spot.

How do you get power? 
Do you have neighbors? 
Where ARE you? 

What kind of boat do you have? 
Do you sail all the time? 

And - WHY are you there?

Why a boat?
Boats are great in some ways.
Less so in others. 

A boat is easy to lock up and leave. 
A turnkey operation.
Empty the fridge and go.

Since we still plan to continue to travel a lot - this is a major factor.

No house sitters. No pool service.
No tweaking the garden drip system before leaving.
No yard. No cat.


It's simple
No utilities or property taxes.

Mooring fees are low.
Insurance isn't hard to find. 
And - if you don't like your neighbors, you just loosen the ropes and - go.

You have 360° views. 
From the galley and salon, we can see in all directions. 
It's living outside as much as inside.

It's still a bit romantic.

The water reflections on the wood ceilings at dawn. 
Fish jumping in the evening. 
The sound of the ropes straining in the wind.

It's sociable. 
Friends on boats. 
Friends in the village.



It's comfortable. 
Everything has its place, and is within reach. 
Having a boat prevents you from collecting too much stuff. 

It's off the grid.
I always liked the idea of being off the grid.

I even had an (almost!) self-sufficient farmhouse in the West of Ireland when I was 20.
Using solar energy is very satisfying - and surprisingly efficient.

(More about power and water - and solar panels on the boat.)


There are almost 30,000 km of rivers and canals in Europe. 
France alone has over 8000 km.

They're beautiful.


Our canal, the Canal du Midi, was built in the 1600's.
It's a handmade canal that connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean.  
It's also called "The Canal Between Two Oceans".

Some odd details about the Canal du Midi here.

See that tiny blue line at the bottom? By the number 4? That's where we are. 

In theory, we could be cruising for years and never explore everything. 

But - canal boating is slow. 
Very slow. 
Going through the hundreds of locks takes patience. 

Being on the move is like this.

We move sometimes.
Not often.
Usually we enjoy where we're moored.

So - what are the boats like? Sailboats?

Some are sailboats.
But most are not.

Bridges on the canal are very small. Very low.

So they have to take down the mast.

This is one of the smallest bridges, in Capestang. This boat got stuck.

A lot of canal boats are restored barges - built over 100 years ago.




Some are fancy "Hotel Barges" that take paying guests. 


Plus, there are loads of "drive-yourself" boats you can rent.
Locaboat, Le Boat, Canalous, Nichols, Minervois Cruisers.

All sizes. All prices.  



We rented this boat with the kids in 2014, before Maggie May. 
Later, we cruised the lovely Lot River. And the Yonne. That story is here.


However, all over the thousands of km of canals, there are small communities of private boats.

Some are weekenders.


Some visit their boat for a few weeks in summer.



Some live all year round.


And some boats - become homes for ducks. 


I like that the boats are all different.
Each boat has a different story.

The port at Capestang, the next town over. Where we get our mail.

This is our boat, Maggie May.

Built of strong Durham steel, she weighs about 25 tons.


3 cabins. And 3 bathrooms, which is very unusual.
2 helms, inside and out.

The inside helm. 2 cabins and 2 baths behind Stan. At 6'4", he can still stand up inside.

She's about 15m (50') long, and over 4m (13') wide.
She's very comfortable.

The galley - on both sides of the boat. Main bedroom and bath behind.

But the best space is the aft deck, where we spend a LOT of time.



Friends Ron and Fiona, who live on The Swan. Cruising the canals at 80.

The flat bottom on Maggie May is great for canals. 
On the other hand, it's not a good boat for the sea.  


Our mooring is in Poilhés, a small French village about 2 hours north of Barcelona.

Between Montpellier and Toulouse.

The "lavoir", originally used for laundry. From the aft deck.

People living on boats in Poilhés come from France. 
Argentina. New Zealand. Scotland. England. Germany. Belgium. 

Sunday morning at the market in Capestang with Luc and Anton. We sailed in on Luc's boat, Marolis. 

Why the south of France?



People in Europe assume it's because the weather is better.
But New Mexico has great weather.
Four seasons, dry, clear, good skiing.
And sunshine almost every day.


So why leave a comfy house, pool, garden - to live on - even a large and comfy - boat?
People assume we're "retiring" here.
But that doesn't really explain it.


When I was younger, my motto was:
"All life is an experiment. The more you make, the better."

I wound up living and working in about a dozen countries.

Teaching helicopter maintenance in Iran.
Bush pilot in West Africa.
Airport Manager for Pan Am in Zurich. Geneva.
Ambassador's Secretary at the Japanese Embassy in Liberia.
Owning and running an international import-export company in New Mexico.
And more.

Some of those stories are in the book, "Meanwhile Back in Los Ranchos".



I like the idea of a base somewhere, and then exploring from there.
Learning about the region.
The people. The language, the food.

Being part of the scene.

Similar to what's now called "long term slow travel".

Being "on the road" with just the backpack - is a wonderful feeling.
Having all you need in a compact little bag.
You don't really need anything more.

It makes you feel - anything is possible.
Oddly, having fewer choices - can make life feel easier.

This - Maggie May and the south of France - is a good base.
It's beautiful.
Between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean.

Great food.
Excellent wine.

A small, simple, compact home.


It may not be the last base.
But it's easy to close up and - go.

These days, simpler is almost always better.
Fewer things = more freedom.

So - rather than being a "retirement destination", it's more of a "step along the way".
It's not necessarily a final chapter.

We could still wind up anywhere.



It's a continuation of an adventure that began decades ago.
Exploring the world.

Being amazed by the beauty.
Puzzled by the mysteries.
Touched by the culture.

Living each day - kind of making it up as we go along.


As they say here - "La vie est belle."

Life is wonderful.