Bourg-et-Comin, France, 31 October 2012
49 23 N, 003 39 E
“Wat’cha doin?” asked Klaus. (Actually, English is Klaus’ second language, so he actually said “What are you doing?” But it had all the intonation of the less formal words written.)
Good question, Klaus. I was standing on the dock next to Leander, reeling in some thread onto a spool. The line trailed off into the rushing current of the canal.
“I’m, uh, fishing.” I said.
Klaus had wandered over from his boat, Jenny, a big barge that was berthed on the other side of a grassy knoll, separating the river Aisne from the start of Canal de l’Oise a l’Aisne. There were no other boats around. Daylight was dimming.
It was Halloween.
Klaus moved to the water’s edge for a closer look. The thread was under tension. “Looks like you caught something,” he said.
I eased the thread out of the water very slowly. Tied to the end of it was a Ziploc bag, filled with coins.
Klaus’ brow furrowed. Just what type of fish was I looking for, he must have wondered.
“I can explain,” I said sheepishly. “I threw this bag into the water on purpose. Tied to this, uhm, string. See, I wanted to see where the bag filled with coins would go.”
“To the end of the thread!” suggested Klaus.
“I dropped some things in the water,” I said.
“I see. Looks like you’ve got it back.”
“No, I dropped a different bag of coins,” I said.
“You already threw another bag of coins into the water? Why did you do that?”
“No, see,” I explained, “it fell in by accident, and it was more than just coins. My primary credit card, my driver’s license, 150 Euros, a postcard to mail, a handful of change, and a to-do list, all inside a Ziploc bag. I am trying to figure out whether that first bag fell straight down, or drifted downstream with the current. I had tried to see if I could snag it out with a sinker and a fish hook, but I can’t see more than a foot into the water, and the depth here is ten. After swirling around in the muck for fifteen minutes feeling nothing, I thought I’d try this experiment.”
Halloween hadn’t started out very well. I had taken the bike off the boat, and was getting ready to take Alexander into Bourg at Comin, a small town not too far away from where we’d stopped for the night. But in the midst of preparations, the bike fell over onto the deck, spilling the contents of its front basket.
I had leapt to the dock side when I heard the crash. I was able to grab one of my gloves and a headlamp. Then I raced down the dock and fished another glove out. Then I saw my glasses, in their case, moving out of my reach. I just was able to grasp them, with my fingertips, as my balance teetered.
But the Ziploc bag was nowhere to be seen. Not even any tell-tale bubbles from the deep.
“Come on,” said Klaus, after hearing the story. He began to walk back towards his boat. “I’ve got something for you.”
I followed him. Klaus rummaged about on his bridge for a few moments, and then handed me a magnet. It was enormous. “Try this,” he said.
So I did. And fifteen minutes later, hunting around the spot where the second bag had settled, I pulled up the magnet, very slowly, feeling some slight amount of extra tension.
Dripping wet, the Ziploc bag and the credit card, the license, the paper money, and the spare change. What were the chances?
Maybe Halloween was turning around. We hoped so. It is our favorite holiday.
Several days earlier, in Reims, we had been debating about where we should celebrate the day. We had decided that we were not going to take Leander to Paris, after all. The canals and rivers in France cross this way and that, and one has a limited ability to choose one’s final destination in the north of France, and to pick among several routes to get there.
One of those routes would have taken us directly through Paris. But the relevant canal was closed, and we took a more easterly route instead. We could still take the boat through Paris, but we would have to backtrack for six additional days of traveling. Adding to that travel time a stay in Paris of several days, it meant that we might get out of France at the start of December rather than the middle of November. Given that (1) northern France is north of any part of the contiguous United States, and colder weather was coming, and (2) we’d been to Paris several times, we thought it best to pass it by.
And we really enjoyed Riems, and found it a good substitute for Paris.
But then what to do for Halloween?
Should we train to Paris? It was only 40 minutes away by the TGV. We could surely find some fun Halloween things to do there.
But some time on the Internet suggested that Parisians were not especially down with Halloween, and that we’d be hard pressed to find something that both we and two year-old Alexander would enjoy.
How about Disneyland Paris then!? We learned that they celebrate Halloween for days, having character-parades and other events to mark the holiday. Sima spent some time looking at train schedules, hotel prices, and park fees.
We decided against it. Sima loves theme parks, and I like them OK, although we both dislike the name-brand character assault on kids that sometimes comes with a visit. And hanging out on Disney’s Main Street USA, while in the midst of France, seemed incongruous, even if it would be a sure-fire way to address our Halloween fix.
In the end, we decided to leave Riems and spend the daylight hours moving further north on the canals, to our stop here at Bourg et Comin, where we’d celebrate a quiet Halloween together. As a family.
I carved a couple of small pumpkins to get us in the mood.
We arrived at about 3:30, providing plenty of time for Alexander and me to bike into town, while Sima made dinner. But then the bike spilled, followed by the fishing expedition. Suddenly it was 5:30, and too dark to bike safely on the country roads. Town was a mile and a half away. I bundled up Alexander, put him on my shoulders, and off we went, on foot.
We arrived at the town’s main square thirty minutes later. It was small and peaceful. A local shop beckoned us, and we entered.
I wanted to buy a candle for the Jack-O’Lantern, and found one in the shop. As I moved to the clerk, two little kids entered the shop.
THEY WERE IN COSTUME!!! One was a witch, with a painted face, a wig, and pointed hat, and the younger boy was something too, although a bit hard to tell what.
What was going on? “The French supposedly don’t do Halloween,” I said to the adult walking them around.
“Some here do. We go to the shops, and house to house too.”
As they left, I followed them back out into the street to see if there were others. There were. I saw a gang of children in costume leaving a tobacconist (or “Tabac” here in Fwanzzz.”)
“Let’s make a go of this,” I said to Alexander.
Alexander just happened to be wearing his “dog hat,” a grey woolen winter cap with big ears that flop over the side. So I pulled that onto his head and we walked into the Tabac as the others were leaving, candy-filled plastic sacks in hand.
Did the shopkeeper have a plastic bag I could buy? He did. Alexander now had all that he needed. I picked him up, to eye level of the Tabac proprietor, and said “Trick or Treat,” or what I had been told was the equivalent in France.
The shopkeeper looked back blankly. There was an uncomfortable pause.
I tried again.
“Comment?” he replied. “What’s that?”
It’s Halloween. You know. Trick or Treat.
The shopkeeper did not look happy. “I suppose that you want a bon-bon,” he said.
He fished out a bag of goodies from the counter, and glumly gave it to Alexander. And then, stern-faced, “You must understand, this is not an obligation.”
I smiled and moved to walk away. The shopkeeper kept at it. “I don’t HAVE to give you anything.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Paul said opening the door to leave. “So it was very gracious of you to do so.”
“Pas obligation!” he barked, as we moved out into the street.
OK! Got it, Monsieur Halloween Scrooge! His face was so sour!
Maybe there was more to this French trick-or-treating than meets the eye. Did he blame me, the American, for foisting this completely unFwanch holiday about the Gallic people? I’d better stick with the others, I thought. For protection.
We caught up to the other children and their parents in the street, but hung back at first. They headed to a house. I felt like an interloper.
When I saw the door open and a friendly face greet the kids, I let Alexander loose.
He scurried forward, almost tumbling. He was excited, but I don’t think he knew why.
The other kids, still milling at the door, parted as he came among them. Alexander was ushered to the fore. One of the kids showed him how to hold his bag open. He looked down into it. The woman dumped a handful of candy in, enough to knock the bag from Alexander’s hands. He made no movement to pick it up. In the dark, I don’t think he realized that all the candy in her hand had been transferred into his sack.
The woman smiled and waved and then went to close the door. Alexander went to follow her in. She had more candy, no?
One of the boys picked up Alexander’s bag, reached to pull him back. He then put his arm around his shoulders, and shepherded him away, explaining to him what the game was all about.
The other kids, seeing that Alexander was new to this, were laughing and talking, trying to explain the rules.
Now THIS was Halloween.
We left after doing only a couple of houses. Just to experience it. Sima was back home getting dinner ready, and would be waiting. We had invited Klaus to dinner. I suspected that she’d be really sad about not being part of the fun.
It was a long, cold walk back home. Once away from town and into the fields, it was dark as pitch. (The moon was full, or close to it, but obscured by clouds.) But we had a flashlight, and were both buoyant.
I got back to the boat to discover that Sima had “Halloweened” it! There were ghost balloons about. The jack-o-lanterns were lit. She had a costume ready for Alexander. She had painted tangerines as miniature Jack-O’-Lanterns and with other Halloween themes. The table was set, and there were cards for Alexander and me at our places. Oh boy!
Before dinner, we put Alexander in his costume, and went over to Klaus’s boat. He had agreed to let us trick-or-treat there, and we had given him two candy bars to give to Alexander. But he outdid himself, and had a gift bag prepared for Alexander, with a hat, a key chain, and an assortment of candy bars and other goodies.
Back to the boat we went. Sima had made lasagna. It was scrumptious. So was the pumpkin pie she’d made, light as a feather. Served a la mode, it was the perfect ending to the night.
It was a reaffirmation of a lesson that we’ve learned so many times – you don’t need to spend much to have the time of your life.
Postscript: In the end, even though we hadn’t traveled to see the theme park, one found us anyway.
The day after Halloween, we stopped at San Quentin, and stumbled upon a beauty pageant for “Miss Picardie,” Picardie being the region in northern France through which we are currently traveling. A marching band paraded around the square. They were good! – both as musicians and as creative yet disciplined marchers. They were followed by several convertibles toting the beauty pageant contestants, as well as a fellow in a huge dog costume, floppy ears and all. We tapped and swayed to the clickity-click-click staccato of the drum corps, and Alexander introduced himself to the dog.
And we didn’t even have to travel to Main Street U.S.A.