It is a law of nature in France (maybe it is a law of the Fifth Republic) that nowhere in the country is more than ten minutes’ walk from a bakery.
This means that at 7.00 a.m, as another blazing day began in Les Sables d’Olonne, the town was up and out for the morning’s baguette du moulin.
And I was up with them, nose to the screen, following Google Maps’ little blue dots to La Moulin de la Chaume (boulangerie et viennoiserie).
Actually, I wasn’t just up. I was up and bathed (well, a flannel, the little blue bowl balanced on top of the loo and a kettle of water courtesy of the marina shore-power). A fresh T-shirt and ready to face – not just the day – but a most important week.
For I am here to promote the French edition of Old Man Sailing: Le vieil homme hisse la voile (literally “The old man hoists the sail”). The translator, Christian Calliyannis, normally translates poetry and insisted it was a much better title – it has emotion in the words, apparently.
Apparently, he is right because Olivier Piquer in Montreal, who has narrated the Audible edition emails: “You have a beautiful book.”
This was important because it is a bit presumptuous to rock up in the world’s headquarters of singlehanded sailing and offer oneself for interview (via an interpreter, of course) to TV and radio stations, the local paper – and, frankly, anyone else who will give me the time of day. Particularly, when only last week, they were debriefing Kirsten Neuschäfer on becoming not only the winner of the Golden Globe Race but the first woman to win any Round-The-World sailing event.
But then recently, I have received an ego-boost. A review for the last book, The Voyage, from someone called Cassidy in the United States on May 11th reads:
“John Passmore is my new favorite writer.
“It’s truly wonderful to read someone who infuses all their work with wit and charm. For better or worse, he is a self-aware individual who never attempts to hide his warts. Truly it’s the opposite, he embraces them with humor and acceptance. I can’t recommend his books enough. If you love sailing, you will of course love his works, but I’m certain you could never set foot on a boat and still greatly enjoy the time you spent in John Passmore’s tiny floating world. This is a quote from “Old Man Sailing” I now find myself sharing with everyone, “It is a great comfort to be stupid. Disasters about to happen do not trouble the minds of those too dim to imagine them.” If you can read that and not laugh, you simply have no sense of humor. We have all had that feeling. That moment when we realize the only reason we find ourselves amid a disaster was our own inability to see what was obviously coming our way. Read his books!!”
So, on the strength of that, in Baltimore at the end of the Jester Challenge, I went off on the bus to Skibbereen and got a thousand leaflets printed in French, complete with translations of some of the best reviews of the English version – along with boastful little sub-heads like “10 000 exemplaires vendus en anglais” and “882 évaluations Amazon. 4,6 étoiles”. If I didn’t get on telly, at least I could hand them out in a town which can’t really tell the difference between singlehanded sailors and minor deities.
I wasn’t deliberately setting out to test this theory as I embarked on the search for baguette. But Google Maps landed me outside the boulangerie Moulin de la Chaume only to find the door firmly closed. An ancient, curling print-out informed customers that the establishment would be closed from the 22nd of June until the 6th of July. A hand-written note beside it advised them that their baguette du moulin would be available from the distributor on the quay.
Retracing the little blue dots, I found no sign of a bakery on the quay. There were cafés open at a quarter past seven with Frenchmen arguing about politics over small cups of coffee and even smaller glasses of cognac. But no baguette du moulin.
Not wanting to interrupt their discussion about the riots, I looked around for someone else to ask. There was only the road sweeper in his orange jacket, emptying the bins. I polished a simple sentence and tried it out on him.
Only in France would you find a road sweeper who not only makes an effort to understand your tortured grammar but actually takes you to buy your bread: “But certainly one may buy baguette du moulin. One may buy it from the automat for pieces.”
And certainly one might: A machine delivers warm bread down a chute every morning (and hot pizza by night, according to the sign).
It was a good start to the day – and given that, I turned to my new friend, the road sweeper and asked him: “Do you like the sail?” It was a reasonable question. He was, after all, resident in a town which turns out several times a year to line the breakwaters and wish Bon Voyage to one bunch of sailors or another.
But yes, he liked the sail. In Les Sables d’Olonne, all the world likes the sail.
I gave him a leaflet. He paused to read the headline: “Fascinating history which addresses well also to sailors or landlubbers”.
He smiled. He thanked me extravagantly.
And he put it in his pocket – not the bin, which was most gratifying.