Calais, burghers and a tragedy

We don’t sleep well that night. We have moored just opposite a funfair that doesn’t stop until the early hours, and we are kept awake by the bass notes of the music. Even earplugs don’t make much difference.

Fun for some …

In the morning I sit drinking my cup of tea when I hear someone walking along the pontoon outside. I peer bleary-eyed out through the cabin window and see a young lady with a pony-tail scrutinising Ruby Tuesday.

Bonjour. Êtes-vous, êtes-vous ….”, I say, my schoolboy French failing me just when I need it most. It has been a while since we were in France last.

Startled, she looks around to see where my voice is coming from, and after a second or two spots my face at the window.

Oui, je suis la directeuse de la marina. And you are Ruby Tuesday, of course. Good morning!”

It’s her. The voice from the night before. All I can say is that the person matches the voice. Usually when I build up a picture of someone from their voice, 99% of the time I am completely wrong. But not this time.

“I am glad you managed to get through the bridge last night”, she says. “Sometimes they are so busy with the ferries coming in, they forget to check to see if there are any boats waiting to come into the marina.”

All in perfect English. I tell her that that is exactly what happened, and receive a sympathetic nod.

“So sorry. These things happen. Anyway, when you have finished your breakfast, you can come up to the office and we can sort out the paperwork. You need to bring your passports and boat papers. And don’t forget to wear masks.”

How does she know I am having breakfast?, I wonder. When she is gone, I check in the mirror. Sure enough, there is a crumb of muesli on my chin.

Later, we both put on our masks and go up to the office. From behind her perspex screen, la directeuse writes down the details of our passports and Ruby Tuesday’s SSR number. We are legally in Europe now at least, I think to myself. But what will we have to go through next year, when the UK finally leaves the European Union?

“You are leaving us soon”, says la directeuse, reading my thoughts. “I can’t understand why you are doing it. Europe will miss you. We should all be sticking together the way the world is going. Instead we seem to be going in the opposite direction. ”

“Not every one in Britain wants to”, we say.

Ah, oui. C’est les politiciens. They have caused all these problems, just to further their own careers. Anyway, enjoy your time in Calais. Here is a map, and don’t forget to wear your masks in the town centre. C’est obligitoire.”

“What a nice harbourmaster”, says the First Mate on the way back to the boat. “And that French accent!”

Ruby Tuesday tied up to the visitors’ pontoon in Calais marina.

We explore Calais. Both of us have been here before, but only on the way to and fro between the UK and France, and never in the town. First up is the lighthouse, dominating the city. Apparently on a clear night, its light can be seen from Dover.

The Calais lighthouse.

Then sculptures of Charles De Gaulle and his wife. It seems as if he is quite a hero in these parts. Apparently his hobby was collecting wastepaper baskets and mounting them on ski poles. Each to his own, I suppose.

Charles de Gaulle and his wife.

Then a model of the town hall, all in sand. Obviously no rain is predicted for today.

Model of Town Hall in sand.

All this sightseeing is exhausting work. We find a café in the square and order a coffee. There is something appealing about the French way of life of warm weather, sitting outside, and watching the world go by.

Enjoying coffee and sweets in Calais.

Since we are in Calais, we have to see the Burghers of Calais. I had read the story of them when I was growing up. In the 1300s, Calais was under siege by the English king Edward III during the Hundred Years War. After nearly a year, supplies ran out and the city was about to surrender, but Edward said that he would spare the people if seven of the city leaders gave themselves up and came out to him and dressed in smocks with nooses around their necks. To their credit, seven of them volunteered and came out of the city, fully expecting to be hanged, but at the last moment Edward’s queen pleaded with him to pardon them as they had done nothing wrong. He did, and the city was freed. Centuries later, the story was captured by the sculptor Auguste Rodin in a sculpture.

“I know just where they are”, says the First Mate. “I’ll take you there.”

She heads off down a street leading off the square and disappears into an E LeClerc supermarket. It seems to me to be a strange place to have a famous statue, but I follow her. She stops by the meat counter, dives into one of the coolers and hauls out a packet.

“Here, look”, she says, smiling. “Here are the burgers of Calais. We can have them for dinner tonight. They will fry up nicely with some onions.”

“Ha, good one”, I say. “But somehow I don’t think those burgers are the ones that were willing to sacrifice themselves for the city of Calais.”

We buy the burgers anyway, just to be able to say that we had eaten the burgers of Calais.

Burgers of Calais.

We continue down another street leading southwards.

“What about these ones?”, says the First Mate pointing to a takeaway shop. “Or those on the other side of the street? One of them must be the burgers you are after. Or what about the tacos of Calais instead?”

More burgers of Calais.

She is obviously on a roll. I let her have her day. When she makes a joke, you have to make the most of it.

We continue on, and end up on front of the rather elegant town hall. In front of it is a statue of the Burghers of Calais. These are the real ones, and non-eatable as far as I know, unless you have teeth of tungsten carbide. Even then, it would be a bit of a struggle.

The real Burghers of Calais.

It’s a remarkable statue. Rodin has somehow managed to capture the abjectness of the seven men, facing what they believed at the time to be certain death, and yet somehow also conveys their strength of character and their pride in their city, defeated but not beaten. We wonder at the skill of a sculptor being able to capture all of these emotions in a bronze sculpture. How did he do it?

In the evening we hear on the news that a body of a young boy has washed up further down the same Sangatte beach that we had an ice cream on earlier in the day. He was a refugee from Sudan who had tried to cross the Channel in a small inflatable that children use, using shovels for oars. He had fallen overboard, couldn’t be recovered, and was drowned. The thought suddenly crosses our minds that this might have been the focus of the Border Patrol’s exchange by VHF the day before to Eastern Princess, and that the body may have been swept from near the Varne by the same tidal current that we had used to sweep Ruby Tuesday along towards Calais. But we don’t know for sure. Either way, we feel awful that we were so close to a human tragedy unfolding without realising it. Or being able to do anything about it, for that matter.

Sangatte Beach.

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