Welcome to the 19th Blog of The Olivia Rose Diaries on September 11th 2020
Our trip on the Saar-Moselle loop so far has passed through both industrial and rural landscapes. The third and final part of our journey is more urban in nature, taking us through two major cities, Nancy and Metz.
The main attraction in Nancy is the Place Stanislas, an imposing and grandiose square designed and constructed during the 1750’s. The entrances are marked by magnificent iron gates incorporating fountains and statues within their design.
For the first time we found that masks were obligatory in the open air, rather than just indoors, and so we cycled around the square breathing through our disposable masks, weaving past people enjoying lunch out on the pavement tables. If you’re eating, you don’t need a mask. As with so many Covid rules the logic sometimes escapes me.
I was glad we made the effort to go in and see the square but I shall remember our visit for a very different reason. Inside the cathedral we found a team of people putting together the displays for what I assumed would be a harvest festival service. When it comes to floral displays the French know how to make an impact and what hit me as I walked into the cool, dark interior was the smell. I closed my eyes and could imagine I had walked into the middle of a giant posy of sweetly fragrant flowers. Women worked in pairs on artful floral arrangements which would have cost a fortune in a flower shop, whilst a group of men were constructing the basis of a sweeping display in front of the alter, tacking green baize on to a wooden frame. I should love to have seen this work of art when it was finished. No harvest festival would be complete without the fruit and vegetables of course, and these were laid out fittingly on large wooden barrows – carrots, pumpkins, giant leeks, apples and tomatoes all jostling for prime position, and surrounded by yet more colourful blooms. The sheer beauty of it all moved me more than I could account for. It wasn’t just the glorious colours and the smells. Perhaps it was nothing more than the fact that it was a ‘normal’ thing to do, evoking memories of a tradition that I remember from my childhood when life was simpler and somehow purer. A time without masks, a time when we weren’t bombarded by endless doom-laden statistics and when shaking hands and giving a hug to people we cared for was something we took for granted, never thinking that such a precious freedom might one day be denied us.
A few days later we cruised in to the marina at Metz. We have been here several times and it is one of my favourite cities. We were last here in June and the mood was subdued. Not so this time. The waterfront was buzzing, people milling about everywhere, hire boats and pedalos skimming past us. We even had a young Italian lad stick his head in our door and ask how much it would cost for a boat tour. No social distancing here.
We took Maddie out for a walk, turning away from the city and the crowds, and out along the old canal. If you’ve ever wondered what happens to the big commercial barges when they get past their sell-by date, have a look along the canal bank and you might find your answer.
Here in Metz, as in many cities in France, they have been given a new lease of life as tourist accommodation, either on a B & B basis or as self contained studios. Their travelling days may be over but an eye-catching paint job and a skilful conversion of those great holds turns them into super living spaces.
From Metz we had one last day on the water and then we were back in the marina at Basse-Ham. Given how much time we have spent here this year, this little port feels like home and it will be home to Olivia for this winter yet again. She is ideally placed here for us to return in the Spring and try to do what we had intended to do this year, which is to brave the Rhin and take her through Germany and into Belgium and the Netherlands. This will be very different cruising from what we have done for the last three years and we are ready for that change. We love the French waterways but they are perhaps too familiar now, too comfortable. We are looking forward to a new challenge.
And so now to our plans for this winter. In previous winters we have returned to the UK and worked in order to keep our coffers topped up so that we can come back again in Spring and carry on cruising for another six months. That isn’t going to work for us now as the next stage of the Brexit drama looms on December 31st. The new regulations will limit us to three months in every six, forcing us to return back to the UK for two three-month stretches. It was hard enough building the work back up again when we had a six month stretch in the UK; it will be impossible with only three months at a time.
If we want to stay longer we can apply for a ‘Brexit card’, a new form of residency card that the French are introducing as a direct result of Brexit. There will be a number of requirements to fulfil before we can apply for a card and one of these is proof of an address, such as a utility bill. You can’t get a utility bill without either renting or buying a property and we didn’t want to do either of these things. We deliberately and willingly walked away from that life and we didn’t want to go back to it.
We have been struggling with how to get over this problem for some weeks now. There is a slightly ridiculous irony in the idea that we have to buy a property just so we can spend more time on a boat, but so often in life you have to bend a little to get what you want.
Our solution is to buy a property, but not a conventional one. We have found a very cheap, one-room, off-grid cabin down in the south-west of France, about an hour away from the Pyrénees. It comes with approx five acres of land, part field, part wooded, some of it so overgrown we actually couldn’t get through it to look at it. Surprisingly, it is connected to the mains water but there is no electricity. The building is more of a shack than a cabin, and so we have imaginatively christened it ‘Le Shack’. It is basically a shell – no bathroom, no kitchen, no bedroom. The loo is a bucket in one of the outbuildings as there is no septic tank – so looking forward to using that! Most crucially, there is a wood burner so we will have a source of heat.
Initially we made the decision to do this purely as a means to an end. We would spend the winters here and the summers on Olivia, which is our real home. I’m glad to say that our feelings have shifted in a more positive direction over the last few weeks. We can’t sit idle over the winter and this a perfect project for us, as well as a long-term investment. The idea of living off-grid is exciting and seems a natural progression in our lifestyle. And I think I feel another book coming on, a tale of our off-grid life to keep me busy on cosy winter nights by the woodburner, before we get back out on the water and I start writing Just Passing Through Part 2 next year.
We hope to be in by September 21st. I haven’t mentioned it until now for fear that it could all fall through but, fingers crossed, I think we are past that stage. So my winter blogs will follow us as we learn about composting toilets, and as we design a power system of batteries and solar panels. If our life on the boat has always been on a shoe-string, then life in Le Shack will be just on a string – no shoe. We shall have to be inventive and frugal and there is something wholesome about that to my mind. You will be able to see us fighting our way through the brambles and planting trees in our wildly overgrown field – and hoping we don’t have too harsh a winter for our first year. And when we need time out we have the Pyrenées and the Atlantic coast on our doorstep.
I hope you’ll stay with me and share our ups and downs until next Spring, when we return to Olivia and become nomadic once more. I’ll leave you with a picture of Le Shack – with a promise of more to come very soon.