Voies Navigables de France are those brave men, women and teenagers who, on behalf of you and me, prevent chaos breaking out on the canal. Working from slightly after 9 to slightly before 5, with a slightly long lunch break in between, they make sure that when the lock does not work for a proper boat it will possibly be working a bit later.
The reaction of the VNF to your favorite canoeists has been mixed. One helped us put the canoe in the water. One took photos and replaced our warm water with ice cold water from his fridge. One took photos of us and wanted to know about ze old website. Some have let us in the lock tied to a boat or advised us about how to deal with the next lock or bridge. Quite a few have told us no: not in the lock... then been silenced and pacified as we carry our worldly goods around the lock. But there was this one guy who took exception to old Dora and your two tanned tourers.
Monsieur VNF: La canoé. (Gesturing towards Dozza and then at the empty canal...) Non.
In such a situation we have some tried and tested methods.
The first is that I explain that: "Nous portons the canoé arounnnnd the lock. Nooooo, moi, I never, ever go into the lock. C'est bon."
However to this I was met with the following reaction...
Monsier VNF: Non. Ce n'est pas bon. La canal et la ecluse est la meme.
Now, to those without the natural gift of being able to speak in broken and incorrect French, while understanding the odd word, you may be thinking that Monsieur VNF was just saying good morning. In fact he was saying No. It is not good. The canal and the ecluse are the same. (If you need anything else translated I can be contacted at email@example.com)
Unfortunately my captain and the lead explorer, young Jimmy, is still lacking in the high level understanding of the French language which I have come to possess.
So while I had decided to just ignore Monsieur VNF, Jimmy again tried to explain.
Captain Jimmy: Monsieur, je aller arrrrrround ze ecluse. The ecluse. Non. Ecluse dangereux. Ecluse Non.
I didn't say anything at this point and just let Jimmy continue to flog this dead canal horse. Eventually Captain Jimmy recognised that he and Monsieur VNF were not paddling in the same direction. At this point he attempted a classic canoeing the continent technique.
Captain Jimmy: "Monsieur, pardon mon francais est tres mal."
Normally, we have learnt that if you say these magic words, tug a forelock and flutter your eye lashes then angry french people talking to adults turn into understanding people speaking in broken English to some very young children. It's a great technique. However, Monsier VNF was too good for any of that.
Monsieur VNF: Oui. Mon anglais est tres mal aussi.
At this point, even Jimmy was starting to realise that something might just be amiss. So, with one final "C'est bon." from me, and one final "Ce n'est pas bon." from Monsieur VNF we picked up all of the stuff and made as if we were now going to walk to Istanbul. I also took the time to explain to Captain Jimmy what the French was for 'the same' and 'it is good. I walk.'
After about 40m of walking with the canoe and the bags, and until we were around the next corner, we re-entered the canal. We gave the guy 40m of walking, what more could he want? As we re-entered the water, we told each other all of the witty French responses that we would say to Monsieur VNF if he happened to come across us again. I told Captain JImmy how I'm sure canoeing is a basic human right and he told me that Monsieur VNF would have to phyisically drag him from his beloved canal. And that was that. Or so we thought.
Several locks and several hours later, we had once again unloaded all of the stuff. Now, it was a hot day and this was lock 26, so we were pretty shattered. Seeing the stairs that would need to be descended in order to re-enter the canal, we sat down on the food barrels and had a quick check of the map. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a little white VNF van.
Peeking around the corner, like Brum in stealth mode, Monsieur VNF had taken to enforcing his authority over the canal on his way home. Appearing to notice that his cover was blown, the car returned to a normal speed. We put the map away, and I put on my most bored face, ready to be insolent as Monsieur VNF unleashed his fury on these two foreigners who had so blatantly ignored him.
Only thing was Monsieur VNF seemed to have a few false ideas about the impact of the towering authority of his VNF badge. He actually thought we'd walked the last 10k at his instruction. Motioning, he put his hands over his head and said in French that it must be very hard.
I couldn't believe this, and somehow managed to retain a straight face. In reply I could only muster the famous French words "C'est la vie."
Now in the intervening few hours Monsieur VNF had made quite a few evolutionary steps. He now had a smile and had even learnt some English. He now told me in English that it must be very hard, that he was very sorry for what he had made us do, and that if we just walked for another 15k or so then we could paddle on the river around the corner.
I managed to just about keep a straight face. The only words I could get out however were "C'est la vie." To which he smiled in the grandeur of his mighty VNF authority and my apt use of French mannerisms, and I allowed myself a smile before I burst out laughing.
Suffice to say we then continued canoeing down the canal. Laughing all the way to our camping spot and dinner. And then laughing ourselves to sleep. And then laughing the next morning. And I would love to say that that was the end of it. If you like happy endings you should probably stop reading here while Monsieur VNF has an enhanced view of his own importance and me and Jimmy have an enhanced view of life in general.
However, next morning as the locks were beginning to mount and the sun was beginning to burn we bumped into another VNF van. Now, we had already seen three of the things that morning and two of them had waved and smiled and the other had just watched us quietly. But this was Monsieur VNF's little white VNF van.
It was a tad awkward. I happened to make full use of the canal by steering us into the lock and dragging the canoe out in the most direct fashion. Then Monsieur VNF appeared. He was now in overalls and looking like a beetroot that has spent too long at the bottom of the food barrel. However, impressively he had managed to learn even more English since yesterday. He now told us in English that if he saw us again he would call the police.
We again pretended to walk for 50 or so meters (just to be safe) before canoeing onwards on our continent-crossing mission.
Luckily, at the time we both managed not to laugh and I didn't say 'C'est la vie.' However I can do both now.
"C'est la vie Monsier VNF."
Bad boys for life.