Year round, moored in the river, mostly unused and waiting, are two small punts—one blue, one red—each with a raised platform at one end. On one side of the prow is written: “You will go.” Tu iras. On the other side is written: “So will you.” Toi aussi. These are the fighting words of la joute nautique—acquatic jousting, and these are the jousting boats. Yesterday was the day they’d been waiting for.
It was the day for the French national championship. A small crowd was amassed on the bank of the canal. There was wine aplenty. Grilled meats. Unruly children. Contenders—women, men, children and seniors—accompanied by supportive families and onlookers. Yelling is de rigueur. So is disappointment and/or elation.
The sport is a bi-polar mixture of slow-moving boats and endless minutes of preparation punctuated by the bizarrely thrilling instant of impact followed by a brief above-board struggle and the inevitable splash of one-man-down. Each contender dons a thick pad to protect chest and guts. He (or she) then stands on the platform of his boat preparing mentally for the coming confrontation. As the boats approach each other (here they are propelled by motor, in other towns by rowers) the jousters assume the elegant lunge of a fencer. The lance arcs out over the water, planted firmly against the hip of the jouster and supported by one hand only. Faces are stern. This is a time for concentration.
The weather yesterday was unseasonably cold, and I felt for every man, woman and child that fell into the wash. But that is the price allotted to the loser. Victory is dry and warm. I don’t know when the jousting finished, but last night as the northern sun paid its last, weak respects, the party by the canal raged on. The fires of the grill glowed, and wine sloshed, ruby-red, in the unsteady hands of revelers with hours still to go.