Continued from Part 1
In the morning Joker was packed in snow, her lines festooned with ice teardrops. The power was still out. As I disembarked onto a skiddy pontoon a foot across, Sam chirped “If you fell off now, you’d probably die”.
Death averted- this time- we trudged through the storm to the Capitanerie. A generator burred in the jagged air. The heavily swaddled staff mooched around a dark office, devoid of screen glow.
Our cheese had arrived! Cradling it, we questioned the staff, who now said the powercut spanned the whole area of Val de Saire. “Maybe tomorrow” was the grim prognosis, complete with Gallic shrug. We asked how the tidal lock gates were powered, and they assured us the generator had it covered. Sam rigged the beaching legs when we got back. Just in case.
Huddled in the cabin, our breath swirling, we briefly succumbed to the homesick bliss of West Country Cheddar. We listened to French radio for any mention of the powercut, specifically any nuclear factors. France gets a higher percentage of its electricity from nuclear than any other country- over 75%, though Francois Hollande has pledged to reduce that figure to 50% by 2025. Sam was ready to whip out the Potassium Iodide tablets, but after a lot of amiable wittering about delayed trains and icy roads we figured there was no meltdown. Either that or they kept it very quiet.
We layered ourselves in all the warms we could grab, pocketed 70 euros and climbed back out with a rucksack each. Trudging through St Vaast, all the shops, restaurants and banks were closed. The streets were empty and white. Then again, it could just have been lunchtime. The French take lunchtime very seriously.
It was good we had cash on hand, because every cash machine was dead as a doornail. By the time we reached the SuperU we’d decided there was no chance of it opening. Approaching the doors, we saw a pair of crossed snow-shovels barricading the front door and a note: ‘Ouverture a 15h’. It was 14h. We made a snowman to pass the time. Several families arrived in crisp, clean snowsuits and hovered by the doors.
When the doors opened, about 20 people went in. Sam sprinted for the meths and snagged two large bottles. By the time we’d loaded up two baskets in the half-light of flickering flourescents, it was all gone. There was no bread. The meat counter was shut but there were some prepackaged cuts in warmish fridges. As we joined the queue the shop assistants closed the doors to new customers.
People ahead of us started groaning and packing up to leave without their food. Were the staff thinking twice about opening in this half-assed fashion? But they were only turning away people who tried to pay by card. It seems the generator wasn’t up to running the tills. We realised the people ahead of us had written all their prices on a piece of paper and were reading them out to the cashiers, who were unable to scan anything. We ceded our place in line and cadged a pen and paper. We had to return all our weighed veg as the electronic scales were out of action. Nobody had thought to replace them with a set of battery operated scales from their own stock, and had I felt more confident about my language skills I’d have suggested it. When we returned to the queue an old man was being turned away with nothing, having selected only unpackaged veg.
We struggled back to town with full rucksacks. By the time we reached the marina the sky was clearing, the wind had softened and the first meltwater drooled from the icicles. We bundled back in, fired up the stove and I made an epic beef stew with barley and carrots, boiling the bones for stock. We ate, then watched a film. In the morning the sun was bright, the air was calm, and nearly all the ice was gone. The power came back on around midday.
We could have lasted another week with the tinned and dry food we had, but we wouldn’t have felt as nourished and happy as we did after the stew. Having cash on hand was mere coincidence, but it kept us warm and fed. We’ve set some aside in the boat for emergencies, and ordered some freeze dried meals to backstop the fresh and tinned food.
And that’s how we spent the two days the local papers called ‘Apocalypse Snow’. It was by far the longest and coldest powercut I’ve ever experienced, and despite a few inconveniences we were able to enjoy it. Others in the area were not so lucky. 44,000 homes were without electricity, 14,000 without telephone service. Some were stuck on trains for two days, while others sat around in emergency help centres or camped out at work.
Many bonnehommes de neige were born. All perished.