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Sunday, May 13, 2012, still in Port Napoleon boatyard, in Provence, France

Hi everyone and a happy Mother’s Day to all. We’re still in the boatyard, partly because we’re waiting for parts to arrive, and mostly because the weather is preventing us from leaving. The winds are blowing at about 30 knots or more here in the marina, and it’s just sort of unpleasant to be outdoors, even though it’s sunny and warm. Last week, we were trying to get the yard’s busy workers to fix the issues that had arisen over the winter.

Monday brought workers, but it gave us new issues. The dinghy outboard was fixed, and the refrigerator and the freezer were loaded with refrigerant. They found and fixed the refrigerator leak; the freezer leak would remain a zombie for the time being. Art tested the water tanks, which didn't leak at all, and he was thus left with virtually no avenues to check for the perplexing fresh water leak that came from nowhere.

Art discovered a small new leak under the galley sink which, he told me in a somber manner, if it got larger, would sink the boat. We didn’t waste any time taking care of that, which was caused by a melted hose (yes; we had hose fondue; anything in French sounds like something delicious.) It was clear that some of the work we’d hoped to delegate was not going to happen while the yard was particularly busy, so Art began to crawl around the decks polishing fiberglass while he waited for people to fix the things that would kill us if left unattended.

On the plus side, I've learned a new French word. Unfortunately, the word is fuite. It means “leak”, and I had been quite content that I didn’t need to know it before.

Apparently it wasn’t easy to find the right hose to fix the propane, and we went from cautiously using the stove to having a dissembled stove sculpture aboard until the proper connectors could be found. Poor Damian, the stove guy, kept showing up with parts that didn’t fit. I wasn’t all that upset to learn that we’d just have to eat dinner out more often than usual until the proper connection arrived.

In the end, we decided to keep the car for an additional week. Avis couldn’t give us more than a day’s extension by making the arrangements on the phone; we’d have to go to an Avis office. In May, there are 31 days and France has about 40 holidays. The day we arrived was a holiday, and the day our car contract ran out was on one of them, a reasonably festive May 8, the day that France was freed from the Nazis. So there were no offices open, and we had to wait until Wednesday to head to the nearest Avis office in a neighborhood of the nearby town of Martigues.

We got to the Avis office just after noon, thanks to the GPS, and it apparently shared space with some sort of automotive garage. The garage sign spanned the building, and the Avis sign sat above a doorway on the side. There were Avis spaces in the parking lot, and Avis vans sprinkled about. Yep, this was the Avis office.

But at mid-day, the metal garage doors were clamped down and I would have bet that the business had recently been shut down for good. Art wandered up to the door skeptically. The sign on the door said that the office was closed and that it would reopen at two, after lunch. The French take lunch very seriously. We decided to take our cue from that and find lunch in the main part of town.

Finally, we were to visit some undiscovered Provence. Well, Port St. Louis du Rhône, where we are, is so undiscovered that there’s nothing there. Martigues is a destination. It sits on a lake that connects to the Mediterranean via a channel. There are canals everywhere, and the town calls itself the Venice of Provence. Living in Fort Lauderdale, the place that calls itself “the Venice of America”, we tend to collect these analogies, and this one is a bit of a stretch. But the main town of Martigues is lovely, two banks along the lake with an island in the middle. It’s a postcard waiting for someone to visit.

The town was settled by the Romans in the fifth century BC. Its strategic location led to medieval fortifications of both banks and the central island to protect the lake. The three villages – Ferrières in the north, L'Isle in between and Jonquières in the south – weren’t united until 1581, and each still has its own individuality.

We walked around the town inspecting the offers for lunch, and settled on a place overlooking an ornate lakeside carousel. After lunch, we wandered the long way back to the car, by some of the tourist sights listed by the only article I could find about Martigues. Our walk was limited by our errand; soon, the Avis office would be open, and we could revise our contract.

Once we got back, everything on the boat went wrong. We’d taken the Wi-Fi antenna off to store the boat at the time it was removed from the water, but we’d forgotten to have them put it back on. So the boat was now in the water, with the fitting for the wireless too high for anyone to reach. Art thought that this was a good time to learn how to take the radar pole down and rest it on deck. It’s something we’d need to do in the fall. The lift in Malta is smaller than the one in Port Napoleon. They wouldn’t be able to get the boat out of the water with the radar pole upright. It would have to come down. No time like the present to figure out how to do that.

The boatyard would have to provide some sort of support against the weight of the pole with the radar still on it. We asked Markus, who’d been taking care of the boat all winter, and who was always there when we needed him, to help with the task. I was pretty sure that I’d be useless in maneuvering the very heavy pole even if it was strapped to a forklift. In preparation for Markus to arrive, Art loosened the bolts holding the pole in place, and wondered about a bolt that seemed to be doing nothing at all that he could see under the lazarette (the storage locker at the very back of the boat.)

He decided that the bolt must not be going through the pole, because he could swivel the pole from side to side after the bolts to the deck were gone. This meant that the bolt he felt wasn’t going through a hole in the radar pole inside the sleeve in the locker. He didn’t realize that the bolt was actually supporting the weight of the pole from the bottom of the lazarette locker, where it would otherwise crush the wires that led to all the antennas atop the pole. Well, he realized that later, when he pulled out the bolt, and the pole slid down with a thud onto a nest of delicate electronics wires.

While we waited for Markus to arrive (to help, or maybe just to commiserate), Art tested all of the systems. We might have been saved by a very fat unused radar wire that acted as a pillow to protect the thinner wires underneath by a matter of millimeters. Everything seemed to be working, except the radar pole would be rattling around until we could get some help to lift it back up.

As soon as the boatyard began work in the morning, we asked for their help with the pole. They designated a spot near the launch slip, and we moved the boat there. The yard found room for us in their frenetic launch schedule to help us by strapping the pole to a forklift, removing it and laying it carefully on the deck. I spent a good deal of that time sprawled across inside the lazarette, closed in at my head. It was a lot like being locked up in the trunk of a large car. My job was to push wires into the sleeve as the pole was lifted and lay on the deck, and later to pull wires out of the sleeve when the pole went back in after the bolt was replaced. I’m not sure anymore why I had those jobs instead of Art or Marcus, who were mainly directing the yard worker on where to set down the pole. Maybe my tasks seemed sort of non-technical.

In retrospect, I wish that it had been assigned to someone else. All I know is that I had lots of trouble pulling the wires out as the pole sank into its sleeve, and somehow the pole jammed on that dumb dead radar wire that actually could have been cut and removed. When the bolt came out and the pole slid down, the wire probably protected the other wires. This time, it appeared to be the problem, not the solution.

There was some confusion causing the forklift straps to be removed from the pole when they were probably still needed for support. I don’t like dicey moments, and there were several. Eventually, the antenna was installed, the bolt was where it needed to be, and we could go back to our slip to assess the damage.

By the time we got the boat back to the pontoon, Markus, busy as he was with other important things, was already there to help with the lines on his way back to his office. Anyone who takes a boat to Port Napoleon needs to know about this guy. He’s a find.

Art tested the systems again and concluded that the wire to one of the two GPS receivers was probably sliced. Whether this would be a minor repair or a big deal was unknown. But both of us wondered hard about the wisdom of dropping the radar pole again in the fall. And that meant reconsidering the whole idea of coming out of the water.

Later, Art decided that he wasn’t sure that the GPS had even been tested earlier, so the fact that it was now defunct might have had nothing to do with our radar pole adventure. I still felt lousy about it, though.

Packages from elsewhere began to arrive. The replacement hose for the oven, courtesy of Hallberg-Rassy’s parts shop, arrived overnight and was just perfect. We weren’t as lucky with the part for the watermaker, for which we’d been waiting five days. The supplier had to try one more time, ordering the part from the manufacturer, who is in California. That means, by the way, that the guy in Sweden had to wait until six o’clock at night just to get to the West Coast switchboard when they open at nine in the morning.

Happily, having a car was experience-changing for us. In the fall, we’d only had bikes, and even they weren’t that useful when the mistral kicked up. There was only one place close enough to go on a bike, anyway, and Port St. Louis du Rhône is only mildly more interesting than sitting inside the boat (better restaurants, of course.) A car opens up a lot of Provence.

The weather forecast wasn’t good, and we were still waiting for parts, so we decided to take a day trip, and we chose Avignon. Now you’re probably expecting me to tell you that Avignon isn’t famous for its melodic bridge (Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y danse, on y danse…). Actually, it probably should be famous for something else and isn’t.

Did you know that seven popes were actually based in Avignon, not Rome? This wasn’t the first time that popes resided somewhere away from Rome, but the seventy years of Avignon papacy (1309-1378) is the longest unbroken residency outside of Rome in history. It occurred because Pope Clement V, a friend of the French king Philip IV, felt threatened in Rome. Maybe that was because of the French king’s influence in getting him elected and his eagerness to adhere to the king’s desires. That might annoy the Romans. In any case, Clement oversaw the construction of a papal palace in Avignon (land that belonged to the papacy.)

Because Clement got to appoint the cardinals who then appointed the next Pope, it isn’t a surprise that seven popes in a row were French and wanted to stay in Avignon. Nor would it surprise anyone that the popes became more involved in secular affairs.

The palace in Avignon had originally been the bishop’s palace, but Pope Clement V moved there in 1309, and the surrounding town became a cosmopolitan haven, attracting artists and thinkers. A university founded in 1303 began to attract the faithful and the thoughtful for many years. Even after Pope Gregory XI was persuaded to move back to Rome, he did so just in time for the Western Schism. During this period, there were actually two elected popes (one described as the antipope), one in Rome and the other in Avignon, in a tense situation that wasn’t resolved for four decades.

The Palais des Papes was our first stop, of course, where an audio tour gives you detailed information about each of the largely empty rooms. The place is sprawling and seemed somewhat unstructured in function compared to, say, a king’s castle. A pope might host some important dinners, and there was a dining room, but I suppose there’s not a lot of dancing going on. You probably have to be a little prudent in demonstrations of grandeur. There’s a treasury, of course, with hiding places in the floors accessible by lifting some large stones making up the floor, and there are some halls and chapels, and the Pope’s quarters. The few furniture pieces in place are from the time of the Avignon papacy, but not from this place. Faded frescoes and other artwork provide interest in what are mostly dark rooms lit by slits in the stone and some stained glass. The audio tour is almost too comprehensive. You feel sort of guilty if you don’t listen to the entirety of the description in each numbered entry of every room.

From the palace, we took a walk through the commercial part of town, characterized by centuries-old buildings, sometimes festooned with flowers or clever trompe l’œil. Even early in the season, people crowd the restaurants on the Place de l’Horlage (Clock Square), so we did, too, as a city-sponsored band played on a small stage in front of the city hall.

Our walk took us through winding streets and on to the famous bridge, the Pont St. Bénezet. This bridge is named for a shepherd whose determination to build a bridge at Avignon led to a divine intervention that gave him the ability to lift and fling a giant rock across the river. This bridge is world-famous, even though it no longer makes it all the way across the river. Only four of the original 22 arches remain, swept away by a 1668 flood. But the remaining bridge is pretty and offers a nice view over the Rhône, if a slightly daunting one when the mistral is blowing. Here, too, the audio tour gives even the most devoted fan as much information as scholarly efforts have unearthed about the structure.

For the record, the song isn’t really “Sur le pont d’Avignon”, it’s “Sous le pont d’Avignon.” People weren’t dancing on the bridge; they were dancing below it. It’s disheartening when childhood fundamentals are debunked. What’s next, that princes aren’t charming?

A great and merry holiday to all of you. We’ll be here for at least half of this week, and if the weather doesn’t get better, maybe half the summer.

Love, Karen (and Art)