Sunday, July 22, 2012

Through the canals of France to Italy and Greece

Isabel & the Sea, George Millar

Despite the intriguing subtitle, "A Voyage through the Canals of France to the Mediterranean," I passed this up twice at Half Price Books before finally succumbing last week. I had no idea who George Millar was at the time, nor did I realize that the voyage took place in 1946, through countries still devastated from the Second World War. I have since learned that Millar, a journalist before the war, was already well-known for two books he had written about his work with the Resistance in France, Maquis and Horned Pigeon. This trip would take him back to areas that he knew well as a prisoner of war and later from years fighting behind enemy lines.

In the spring of 1946, Millar and his second wife (the Isabel of the title) bought a 31-ton ketch, the Truant, built in 1919, which had been laid up during the war. Neither of them had much experience sailing, and Isabel invariably became sick in any kind of heavy sea, but they were determined to sail to Greece, over the advice of many people. The first chapters deal with the necessary repairs and outfitting, complicated by post-war shortages. The Millars were also learning what they could of navigation and sailing. All my knowledge of ships and sailing is book knowledge, from Patrick O'Brian and Tony Horwitz, and I was soon out of my depth, but never enough to put me off the book.

On June 8th they set off from Southampton, bound for Le Havre and the mouth of the Seine, which would take them into the canals that would lead them eventually to the Mediterranean at Port St. Louis. From there they traveled east along the coast of France, then south toward Italy. Rounding the toe of Italy they set off for the Grecian Archipelago. After reaching Athens, they turned back to spend some time anchored off the Greek Island of Poros, where Millar focused on writing (what he was writing is never clear, perhaps newspaper articles or a draft of this book). With winter setting in, the Millars decided rather suddenly to sell the boat and return to England. In comparison with the lengthy preparations for their trip, its end came abruptly and almost as a surprise.

This book is fascinating on several levels. As a travel narrative, it took me to unfamiliar places that I now want to see for myself. I had no conception of the chain of canals that stretch across France. Nor have I ever read an account of a pleasure cruise along the northern coast of the Mediterranean. I enjoyed even the mundane details of their life aboard Truant. Their trip down the Italian coast and east to Greece reminded me again of Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, though their experiences were in many ways very different. The most striking difference is that the Millars were traveling through Europe only a year after the end of the Second World War, and we see the devastation and the lingering effects of war through their eyes. Most of what I've read about the post-war era has been about America or Britain, and this book made me realize how little I know about Europe in this period.

Life for the civilian populations was slowly returning to normal, though food and other necessities of life remained in short supply in many areas, and people showed the effects of years of effectual starvation, particularly in Greece, exacerbated by a civil war. German POWs were at work in France, under both American military and French civilian authority, hated by the French people. The towns, especially port and dock areas, were frequently in ruins from Allied and German bombing. There was constant danger from the unexploded mines that webbed harbors and shipping lanes, which were also clogged with sunken ships and abandoned war supplies.

The Millars talked to anyone and everyone that they met along the way, frequently inviting people aboard the Truant for tea or drinks, or visiting them in their homes. They chatted to the lock-keepers, to fishermen along the rivers, to workers in the ports, to people waiting at communal fountains or taps for water. Millar noted that traveling as they did, handling all the work themselves, allowed them a connection with local people that many tourists never found:

I doubt if so many people would have spoken to me and treated me as a friendly equal if I had not been dressed in clothes faded and worn by work in the sun, and had not, like themselves, been working. . . Truant's water-cans were heavy, yet when I think back over the times that I filled them in foreign places I realise that the simple task was always enjoyable, because the mere fact that I was doing something necessary gave me a place in all those varied surroundings, a place among the native peoples and the growing things. Tourists who travel in more ordinary conveyances . . . are deliberately putting themselves in another category, and they will be misfits wherever they go.

They also had friends and acquaintances to visit, as well as letters of introduction to others. Millar's war books opened other doors to them. He and Isabel were also perfectly content with each other's company. I didn't realize until I'd finished the book that they had been married only a short time. His love for Isabel is clear, as is his pride in her. Friends constantly warned them that this trip could prove too much of a good thing, that a relationship could break under the stresses of such a difficult trip. Millar concluded instead that "Such people can have no conception of the strengthening tonic on companionship, and still more on love, of discomforts as well as pleasures faced together, accepted and overcome with some degree of fortitude."

As with Eric and Wanda Newby, I am looking forward to further travels with the Millars, and to learning more about George Millar's war-time experiences. I'm so glad I didn't pass this by a third time.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!