Riding Through a Lock on a British Narrowboat

Awe-struck by the sight of the colorful, long house boats, I peppered the people floating past with questions. Friendly folks answered all of my silly inquiries.

‘One guy, Pete, even offered to let me ride through the lock with him. I hopped aboard and sat on a tractor seat in the stern where he guided the boat with a tiller. As we went through the lock, I waved like the queen to the boaters on the shoreline waiting their turn to go through the locks.

After we went through the lock, Pete suggested, “Fancy a walk-through tour?”

His 11-year-old son, Alfie led me through the narrow galley of their boat that reminded me of a skinny RV without the wheels.

The average 7 foot by 50 foot narrow boat has about 350 square feet of space for a bedroom, kitchen, living area, toilet, and cockpit. A small refrigerator, stove, cupboards and a narrow table squeezed on one side of the boat. Most have electric heat or a wood burning stove.

In the mid section, Alfie proudly showed a lounge area. His comic books were scattered on the coffee table along with checker board.

“Me ’n dad sleep on the couch that folds out into a bed right in front the telly,” he added. “Granddad sleeps in the bow and this here is the toilet and shower.”

Unlike most, their boat had the luxury of two bathrooms, one in the bow and another in stern. Across the narrow walkway was a built in washing machine.

“We’ve been with my grandparents for three weeks of holiday. Wish I could live on the boat forever,” Alfie told me, “except when granny yells at me for sitting on the roof! She’s afraid I’ll fall through.”

When the canal transport of goods was replaced by trains, holiday makers began renting 'narrowboats' and roaming the canals, visiting towns and villages they passed. Waterside pubs and village shops cater to boaters. Most towns along canals have free moorings that can be used for 1 to 2 days. Boaters lasso mooring posts along the canal side with heavy braided ropes. Then they hop off and head to the nearest pub.

Much like the English cottages in the village, each boat on the canal has its own name and unique identity with eclectic collections of artifacts, various potted plants and flower boxes decorating their colorful painted exteriors with names like Athena, Beulah Mae, Lady Anne, Jemima, Tubby Bunny, Rollin Along, Bubbling Billy, End and Beginning

Trying to decipher the lingo of canal boaters is like learning a foreign language. References include: Back pumping. Blow - a warning of collision. Bow, or fore end. Deck. Fore and aft.

Cruising the canal can be enjoyed by all ages and “boat” people were an eclectic groups of families, retirees, free spirits and throwback hippies

For some canal boat living has become a way of life. Getting back to nature and rural living, riding the canal is a great escape from our frantic modern-day pace and offers slower way of life that everyone envies at times.

For more information follow adventures of The Rum Wench vlog here

Normandy 1944-2024: Eighty Years Later The Memory Lives On

I climbed into the steel reinforced bunkers overlooking the Normandy landing beaches on Pointe du Hoc eighty years after the Rangers overtook the strategic German lookout 90 feet above the English Channel. I pictured a 19-year-old American boy jumping out of a PT boat into icy waters, with nothing more than a gauze bandage for comfort on a stormy dawn illuminated by gunfire.

I imagined him staggering across the dunes, dodging bullets and booby traps, clawing at the red cliffs, crawling through the hedge rows, groping for life in a foreign land, shooting at the shadows that could be his own comrades. He was an American soldier killing boys/men, who would have been his friends in another time and generation.

Here rests in honor glory a comrade in arms known but to God

I am of another time and generation — an American with a French-Normand spouse and German friends. Though I’ve been to Normandy hundreds of times, I visited the Normandy American Cemetery (outside St. Laurent) just once.

Only when standing on the hallowed grounds, where Americans lay under a blanket of emerald earth, marked by 9,386 white crosses, could I truly understand the enormity of their great and tragic endeavor on June 6, 1944.

On a rainy day, Normandy’s landscape offers a bleak reminder of her sad past, but on sunny ones the murky coastline, black sea, and gray fields are transformed into a tapestry of colors. Orange cliffs drop off into purple waters. Inland reddish-brown Norman cows and pink apple blossoms dot verdant hills under powder blue skies. Soft light white washes half-timbered houses and solid stone farm houses that remain as they were centuries ago.

The beauty and tranquility of Normandy today could drive a full-grown man to tears. And I, who am too young to have understood the impact of World War II, get a lump in my throat every time I return to the dairyland of northwestern France on one of those pinch-me-I-am-dreaming days of sunshine.

my husband's village on Normandy shores

Decades ago, on one of those sunny days, I pedaled my bike past red poppy fields and green valleys where newborn calves and lambs romped. I devoured veal “à la Normande,” Camembert cheese and berries in cream. Somewhere between the first and last course, I fell in love with a Norman.

Now the sacrifices of the men of the great war, their silent testimonials of white crosses that cover the rich green hills above the beaches Utah, Gold, Juno, Sword and Omaha have taken on special meaning for me.

They are my countrymen laid to rest in my adopted country. In a sense they saved my family.

freedom for the next generation

Every time, we used to visit Dieppe, (France) to see my grandfather-in-law, he’d greet me at the gate chanting the Star Spangled Banner.

“Ah, ma petite Pat,” he’d say recounting the highlight of his career as a trumpeter in the Garde Republicaine “I’ll never forget riding Lustucru (his horse) across the courtyard. The Allies landed in Normandy on June 6, but didn’t make it to Paris until the end of August. We waited for four long years…never quit believing they’d make it.”

He’d stop and pull a handkerchief from his suit pocket and wipe his eyes, before continuing, “Never forget how I blew the trumpet that day to welcome the Americans — greatest day of my life.”

The old heart does not forget. Now even though my generation never knew the horrors of war, my young heart will remember. When I stood in front of a sea of stark, white marble crosses, I felt overwhelmed by a debt that can never be repaid.

Suddenly I knew the unknown soldier — he was my father, my brother, my countryman, who died so nobly and unknowing, so that today I might live in freedom and peace in a land whose magnificence offers its own thanks to the skies.

Rest in peace my comrades-in-arms. You have not died in vain. I wish my words could transcend time so you could know. Because of you Normandy today, like the true Normans, remains proud and gracious.

England’s Intricate Canal System Had Me Trippin’

From the window of our son and daughter-in-law’s home in Warwickshire, England, I was admiring the red, brick barns and lush, green fields when suddenly a head floated past, just above their back hedge.

“I saw a ghost!” I screamed.

“No, that’s a real person,” Nic said. “C’mon, I’ll show you.”

Then he led us down a trail down the road from their home and we arrive at the Oxford Canal. I felt like I entered another time period. Narrow houseboats puttered along until jammed in traffic by ancient brick bridges with old fashioned locks every hundred yards.

On busy days pleasure boats floated up and down the canal. People congregated on the bridge shooting the breeze while waiting for next boat to go through the locks.

The rustic lock system, which allowed only a single boat passage, has changed little from the past century. In the past, a boy riding a bicycle prepared or set locks ahead of a boat's arrival. Nowadays, the woman aboard, carrying the lock key, hopped off onto shore to open the gate letting the water rise or fall, while the mister stood at the stern manning the rudder bar.

The Oxford Canal, inaugurated in 1769, is one of England’s oldest. In earlier days, coal and limestone were transported cross-country along canals that followed the contours of the land. In yesteryear, horses pulled supply boats by trotting alongside the canal on the shoreline’s narrow dirt paths.

Four thousand, seven hundred miles of navigable canals and rivers cross the United Kingdom; two thousand seven hundred miles of these are part of the connected system. During the Industrial Revolution, the canals system provided a commercial transport network until the the railways prevailed.

Narrowboats are usually built 6 feet 10 inches wide and a maximum length of 72 feet, because they must be under 7 feet wide and 75 feet long in order to fit into the lock.

Most of the old vessels, converted into houseboats, are now rented out for family holidays, but 8580 narrowboats are registered as 'permanent homes' on Britain's waterway system. Fifteen thousand Britons live their lives entirely on the water, and separate themselves from much of what defines the economy and life of the average British citizen. The boat people represent a growing alternative community living on semi-permanent moorings or continuously cruising.

Only a sunny day, a carnival atmosphere prevails. I felt wistful watching the colorful boats parade past on the lazy canal. Whimsically, I imagined ditching real life and drifting down the canal without a care in the world.

My First UK Walk in Wellies

I was excited as a two-year-old to take my first walk in wellies across the beautiful British countryside (I am easily amused.) Wellies, the symbol of British culture, reflect the lasting legacy of the Duke of Wellington and the term carries a sense of tradition, practicality, and British identity.

Wellies, aka. Wellington boots, date back to the 18th century. Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, enlisted his shoemaker to modify a military Hessian boot. Originally designed for battle, wellies were later used by farmers and outdoorsmen.

In the early 19th century, they became a staple of practical foot wear for the British aristocracy and middle class and a popular choice for various occasions, including evenings out.

“Everyone in England has a pair of wellies, “Larissa explained. “In the UK, the public has the right away to cross the fields. It’s known as Public Bridle Way.”

When our son, Nic, bought me a pair, I thought they looked so chic that I could wear them as dress boots, which many people do these days. Wellies evolved from being purely functional to becoming fashionable accessories with many brands offering trendy designs, colors and styles.

“Don’t you have wellies in the US?” my British daughter- in-law asked surprised at my exuberance.

“In the Midwest, we swap out tennis shoes directly for winter boots,” I said, “Only thing close to your wellies was the clunky, buckle up galoshes we wrestled on over shoes in grade school.”

The British waterproof gumboots are usually made from rubber or PVC. Traditionally Wellies come in black, olive green, tan color or print and hit just below knee level.

Walking in wellies looks simple, but it takes dexterity. Larissa’s family maneuvered the rough terrain far better than me or Gerald. Could advancing in gumboots be skill passed down from one generation to the next?

Fortunately, before we left home, Larissa advised, “Wear heavy socks to prevent blisters.”

“Slip your orthopedics inserts in the boots,” Nic, the chiropractor added. “It may help your back.”

Nothing helped my spine; I winced every step forward. The UK family, even Lari’s sister lugging her ten-month-old child in a baby carrier, glided across the uneven terrain gracefully. I lumbered along behind, as if on two left feet, stumbling every step of the way.

Wellies, designed to protect feet from getting muddy or wet in damp environments, are the quintessential symbol of British footwear. To the non native, they feel awkward and offer little support for someone with like me with crooked toes, poor balance and a bad back.

Today's wellies, with varied color options and patterns, permit people to add personal style to functional footwear. They can be paired to match every outfit and occasion.

But no one wears wellies with greater style and aplomb than five-year-olds. Larissa and Nic’s nephew mastered the skill. In his “dinosaur” wellies, with a jagged flap along the spine of boot, he galloped ahead, circled back and jumped in every puddle along the way.

For me, slipping on a pair of “wellies,” sloshing along the sublime English countryside and singing with our UK side of the family made me feel like a kid again.

Do It Yourself Home Projects so Fun (Not)

Between our old furniture falling apart after three years in storage and builders mistakes, each day in our new house brings a challenge. One morning, I opened the closet and the hanging rod broke, burying me under an avalanche of clothes. The next day the drawers collapsed, stripped from the support rail.

Meanwhile, Gerald struggled to assemble the innovative Swedish do-it-yourself home furnishings and shelves. IKEA is like Lego for adults.

“I need more shelves,” I whine, “Move it higher. Lower. To the left. To the right.”

We nearly split up over the process of making do known as “bricolage,” which is derived from the French verb bricoler (“to putter about") and related to bricoleur, the French name for a jack-of-all-trades.

Bricolage projects can put any marriage at risk.

A trip to a Swiss equivalent of Menards or Home Depot does my head in with its rows of wood, tile, kitchen, bathroom and plumbing fixtures and endless racks of tools, clamps, brackets, bolts and shelving.

While Gerald headed down aisle five to find a specific size screw out of a billion choices, I meandered down thoroughfare where I’m sideswiped by a motorized vehicle hauling lumber across the store. To escape traffic, I ducked into aisle three where I breathed deep and touched my toes ten times.

Then I wandered over to the luminaires department where hundred of different light fixtures blink. Imagine the spectacular light show? There were suspension, platform, ceiling, wall, desk, and table lights in three categories - incandescent, fluorescent, and high intensity discharge - all with various strengths of bulbs to choose from.

We needed to buy twenty-two different light fixtures and I can’t decide one!

Home improvement retail stores are Candy Shops for the amateur bricoleur, but they make me feel discombobulated. It’s as if I am taking psychedelics and trapped in Disneyland. My brain short circuited from the sensory overload of bright lights and cacophony of voices and canned music.

Gerald, once a successful CEO, managing a big company, has a meltdown trying to figure out which hook to buy to hang one light fixture. He gave up and bought a dozen in different sizes.

I can distinguish between a classic nail and a screw, but there are 25 different kinds of nails and 26 different types of screws in dozens of sizes. Even worse, Swiss measurements are in the metric system (ie. centimeters, millimeters), but my poor brain is stuck in inches, feet, and yards.

I never ask for help. A French speaking salesman will tell me where items can be found, but I can’t translate his words to English. I have no clue what a “lathe” is in any language. I can differentiate a hammer from a screw driver, but I’d never know a Phillips from a flathead. Learning the lingo for DYI terminology is like trying to master Chinese.

Ever the good sport, back at the house, I tried to help Gerald put together shelves and hang light fixtures. All I learned was that “I hate bricolage!” But now I can appreciate why guys swear so much when doing home improvement projects.

I still have no idea when our house will be finished, but no worries. In the meantime, I am broadening my French vocabulary.

 

Endless Challenge Flying Internationally

For me, a seasoned traveler having lived abroad nearly half a century, air travel has never been more challenging. Especially internationally. Especially for mixed nationals.

I have lived in Europe so long, I may becoming one of those historic icons tourists love to visit!

 

With my savvy, I should be cool as a cucumber. Instead, I hyperventilate weeks before flying, knowing “what can go wrong will go wrong.” And more!

I have experienced every disruption possible except, thankfully, a plane crash.

Our latest travel saga started at the Delta counter at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport where we waited to check baggage for our return flight to Switzerland via Amsterdam. Due to a technological glitch between code sharing companies Delta (MSP hub), Air France (Paris hub) and KLM (Amsterdam hub), my husband’s luggage could not be registered even though we mastered check-in online 24 hours before without a hiccup.

“Sorry Mr. Lechault, our computer flagged your name in red with DO NOT ALLOW TO TRAVEL status”

The desk agent's colleague saw our distress and offered his assistance by staring at the screen another ten minutes.

“Call the manager,” he insisted.

The manager arrived repeated the identical process and demanded, “Call the supervisor.”

An hour later, a starting line up of aviation personnel glared at the computer in front of us, while behind us the line grew down the terminal and out the door.

I searched for more documentation to permit our authorization to board the plane. International travelers never go to a airport anywhere on the planet without the mandatory paperwork. (ie.birth certificate, marriage license,US tax payment proof, children’s birth records, COVID vaccination card)

Uh oh. Dual citizenship?

Bring French and American passport. Swiss residency card.

Do multi-nationals qualify for an extra carry-on bag to haul aboard aforementioned official documentation?

Whaaat? You want to see a valid driver’s permit?

In the event of unforeseeable, adverse circumstances, you want me to pilot this plane with a Minnesota vehicle license?

Finally we board. Seven hours later, our flight touches down on Schiphol tarmac “on schedule.”

“It took so long to reach the gate,” Gerald said. “It’s like we landed in Belgium and taxied across the border to the Netherlands.”

With only an hour to catch our KLM flight to Geneva, we anxiously fidgeted in line at the customs gate. At the booth, I presented my US passport.

“M’am how long will you be staying in Switzerland?”

“I live there,” I said.

“Then I must see a Swiss residency permit,” she said. I dug out the darn document, issued under my French citizenship, which aroused suspicion. “Where is your other passport?”

“Madame, enter only the US with American passport,” the Dutch border official stipulated,“When arriving in the Netherlands or any other European country (except the UK) you must present your European passport.”

Aiihh the last time, I was reprimanded for switching passports during transit. However, never argue with the official in front of you, even if you cannot understand rules that change overnight.

Starting in the near future (supposedly May 2025), American passport holders traveling to 30 European countries will need an authorization via the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS).

This is similar to the ESTA requirement that the US has always demanded of European visitors. Tit for tat or part of the legitimate security regulations in ever increasing unsafe world.

We hurried to the boarding gate just before it closed. I flashed my ticket and French passport and slipped through the turnstile. As I headed down the tunnel, I heard,

“Pat, wait. I can’t fly!” my husband hollered on the other side of the gate. “My passport’s gone! I’m going back to see if I dropped it where we last stopped.”

Naturally traveling with me, our last stop was the ladies room.

As he sprinted back through the terminal, I searched the pouch of my old fashioned bum bag. (I know. Does anyone wear those anymore?)

Voila!

From my magic money belt, I retrieve not one, not two, but three passports.

How did Gerald’s passport jump in my fanny pack? I never carry his passport, credit cards, cell phone, wallet or keys. Never.

I dashed back through the terminal and smashed into my husband racing toward me.

“My passport is lost!”

“I found it!” I screamed, waving the priceless booklet like a billion dollar lottery ticket.

 

At last, we boarded the Geneva flight. Still, I wondered, what happens to the poor beleaguered passengers that lose passports in transit?

Could we apply for asylum in Amsterdam?

How long does it take to build a house in Holland?