Try this once in your life: Stand on a boat as it moves slowly down the narrow waterway of a foreign country. The world passes by, close and observable, and you watch it with a sense of elevated station. The clarity, the buoyancy, the cushiness make you feel privileged in a way even the sportiest rental car can't. You have moved from tourist to grand marshal.
I know, because I did this last June with my wife, Hania, and our friends, Donnette and Graham from Chicago, and their friends, Dan and Barb from Melbourne, Fla. We picked up our boat from Rive de France in the little town of Colombiers on the Canal du Midi in the South of France. The port was full of what looked like pleasure boats: gleaming white 42-footers with pointed bows. I had envisioned dark, boxy, old-fashioned barges. There was one model that approximated the shape, but Graham hadn't chosen it because the steering wheel was inside. Our model had two wheels: one inside and one outside, which is where you want to be if the weather is good. It also had three cabins and three heads.
We reached the first town, Capestang, a little before 7, and pulled in front of a long row of boats, including a couple of old-fashioned barges. It was an idyllic spot: shaded, just beyond an old stone bridge and a waterfront cafe. This is the other nice thing about a boat: You see a fine location and you install your hotel.
The table on the open deck filled with sausages, cheeses, bottles of rose. What a change from your usual arrival in a new town: the search for lodgings, the stares from locals. Dan sat back with his glass of wine (literally, as Barb had packed two wine glasses in her suitcase) and announced, "It's nice to be king."
We crossed the bridge and headed into town. It was the first in a series of quaintly drab settlements drained of life. It was hard to tell if this was the result of depopulation or simply French disinclination toward public life. We wandered the streets like an invading army, coming to the fortress church. We stopped by a restaurant cave and bought two bottles of rose from a smiling waitress.
In the morning, a community yard sale --vide grenier ("empty the attic") -- stretched along the canal. The table in front of our boat had boxed LPs of Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf. In town, a market filled the square in front of the church. This being France, it included a bookstall. The owner spoke to us in American English; she had spent part of her childhood in Iowa, where her father had worked for John Deere. I asked where her bookstore was; she said she didn't have one; she traveled from town to town, catching them all on market day. Hania purchased a novel by Georges Simenon.
We bought a roasted chicken (plucked from its spit) and roasted potatoes with a little sack of gravy; olives and tapenade; local cheeses from a man whose white sideburns dramatically and luxuriantly connected to his mustache. Then we carried our booty back to the boat.
I assumed that would be our lunch, but we stopped a little before noon at a pretty restaurant along the canal, L'Auberge de la Croisade. We were led to a table for six by the front window. Hania explained to the waiter, who spoke good English, that both she and Donnette were celiacs and couldn't eat anything that contained wheat, barley or rye.
The amuse bouche was a delicate pea soup with a hint of mint. The delicious seafood appetizer hid bits of barley, so I had to force down two. For dessert, Hania ordered the creme brulee.
"No," the waiter told her. "It has flour."
"The creme brulee has flour?" she asked, astonished.
"Madame," he said, with an almost mock-Gallic flourish, "we do what we WANT!"
A cake was presented to a woman who had just turned 90. We all sang "Happy Birthday." Three hours and several bottles of wine after we were seated, we returned to our boat.
"Ninety percent of boating accidents," Dan said helpfully, "happen on the dock."
And then the lazy float through unsullied countryside. It wasn't just the slowness of the boat that transported us. (The speed limit on the canal was 8 kilometers -- or about 5 miles -- an hour.) We were getting a backyard view of rural France, from which highways, factories, used-car lots, billboards -- all the depressing clutter of modern life -- had magically been deleted. The world was reduced to its ancient elements: village, vineyard, farmhouse, tow path. The straight lines of plane trees on either side painted our passage in a dappled light. It was like sailing through the 17th century, the one in which the canal had been built.
We stopped to fill our water tank at a charming cafe called Le Chat Qui Peche (its shingle a painting of a cat with a fishing pole). A short while later, we sailed across a stone aqueduct over a river. We docked for the night in the little town of Ventenac-en-Minervois, under plane trees just down from the chateau.
"It's strange to be on a boat and see trees overhead," said Dan.
"It usually means you did something wrong," said Graham.