I'M AFRAID my first thoughts on arriving at the hotel Bleu Marine in St Raphaël weren't very charitable. There was such an incredible noise, like a surreal fairground or railway station music: you couldn't separate out the strands of music be
I'M AFRAID my first thoughts on arriving at the hotel Bleu Marine in St Raphaël weren't very charitable. There was such an incredible noise, like a surreal fairground or railway station music: you couldn't separate out the strands of music because of the booming echo and the overlay of other sounds, traffic, children playing, doors opening and closing down the corridor, people laughing round the bar downstairs. If that flaming disco doesn't stop pretty soon there'll be trouble . . .
Josephine, as always much calmer and more collected, said she was sure it would and stepped out on to the balcony with a view over the Bleu Marine swimming pool, into which a couple of presumably untenanted plastic poolside loungers had been gusted, to the crowded and bobbing marina beyond and the white horses of the Mediterranean stretching to the horizon. The noise screamed and howled in fifty different sharps and flats. Disco nothing: the mistral, which blows for days on end, the Provençal north wind with the ice of the Alps in its teeth, had found a thousand masts and ten thousand taut forestays and halyards to thrum and drone in a demonic, unnerving wail.
Not a good augury for the Great Launch the next day. Clint and Annabel (not their real names: I asked them what they really wanted to be called when they were kids and they came up with this. I shouldn't have asked, should I?) were pushing the boat out, literally and metaphorically. This was Chapter 1 of A Life On The Ocean Wave, golden years to be spent cruising the Mediterranean, from St Raphaël to Marbella, from Ibiza to Capri, to Corfu, maybe finally, like returning Odysseus, to Ithaca. It's really good to see people taking their retirement seriously. It was clearly the occasion for a champagne launch.
But foaming champagne and a howling mistral aren't good bedfellows. The Dawn Treader (again, not her real name, nor any reference to Clint's and Annabel's homecoming habits from waterfront boites de nuit (night-clubs), but C.S.Lewis' Narnia fans will recognise the name) was far too new and pristine to have a bottle of Mumm or Veuve Cliquot cracked over her bows. In any case she was already in the water, swaying at her berth as the cockpit filled with guests. Such a waste of champagne, too . . . but King Neptune, lord of the wind and waves, claimed his tribute all the same.
Now the great art of opening champagne, unless you've just won the Ashes or the Formula 1 championship, is to keep the bottle still and ease the cork out so gently that there's the merest whisper of escaping bubbles. No such finesse, however, from my cockpit neighbour, the French agent who'd sold C and A the Dawn Treader and who was obviously a supporter of the Big Bang theory when it came to loosening the cork. The mistral snatched at the foaming cascade from the shaken bottle, flung it in a bubbling spatter across the water and over the deck and sprayed it all over his wife's windcheater.
She barely noticed, pausing only to flick an errant droplet out of her eye. Her windcheater, like her husband's, was a very pale greeny-yellow and didn't show the stains. We imagined them earlier that morning wondering what to wear. Champagne launches must be all in a day's work to them, getting sprayed an occupational hazard: they must put on champagne-stain resistant clothing as readily as you and I would find an old pair of gloves to prune the roses in. Nice work, though, if you can get it . .
DECISIONS ABOUT what to wear may have troubled another of the St Raphaël waterfront residents, no connection with the launch, but an elderly grande dame of the utmost chic on her way with her impeccably groomed West Highland white terrier to collect her daily baguette. Jeans, old sweater, flip-flops, the usual quayside kit? Mon dieu, no. Court shoes, rings and bracelets and . . . a full length mink coat.
Just as well that the Big Bang theorist was otherwise occupied when she passed.
THE MISTRAL died down the next day and a maiden voyage was possible. The Dawn Treader slipped out of her berth under a cloudless sky with Captain Clint at the wheel, her diesel engine purring as only a split-new Volvo Penta can, along the marina fairway and then out beyond the digue, the harbour wall, and into le Grand Bleu, the Mediterranean, an equally split-new Red Duster flapping proudly from the backstay.
This flag was a present from some other guests at the launch, a quartet of Charlton Athletic supporters, among the more unexpected phenomena that weekend at St Raphaël. The Big Bang theorist asserted that the Red Duster was illegal, at least flown at the stern: how could a craft registered in Toulon – and indeed the letters TL were obvious on the stern – fly anything but the French tricolor? Even Panamanian-registered boats had to fly the Panamanian flag, non?
Capt. Clint was unrepentant. He'd change it in a day or two, but for the moment he was going to leave it there out of respect for the Charlton Athletic fans, to whom he'd accorded the honour of crewing for the maiden voyage. He was feeling bullish, the Nelson Touch was upon him. Did we know what Napoleon had said to Admiral Villeneuve on the eve of Trafalgar? To the water: it is the hour. A l'eau: c'est l'heure. You've got it, of course: Hallo, sailor. Ho ho ho.
We watched them from the quayside out of sight, listening intently in case the ship's company should suddenly break into song (well, we did have Rule, Britannia! the day before) and One Shaun Bartlett, There's Only One Shaun Bartlett should come wafting across the sun-sparkling waters like the song of the Sirens in the Odyssey. (For the uninitiated, Shaun Bartlett plays up front for Charlton Athletic.) If they did, they were too far out on a course for St Tropez for us to hear them. Too bad. You can't have everything, can you?
THANKS TO all those who e-mailed entries for last month's competition to name the lady who personifies the French Republic in countless statues (including the Statue of Liberty), busts in Mairies, on government rubber stamps, parking tickets, etc. Chapeau (congratulations) to switched-on Francophile Cynthia St Clair, of Lake Forest Park, Wa., USA, the first to name her as Marianne.
A bottle of the Languedoc's finest, an AOC Faugères red from the Alquier Frères cave, goes to Cynthia. Tschin! as they say here. Cheers!