The Gospel according to St Matthew
It all started with my shower, the fine thread which unraveled into importing my Tall Ship into France.
I lived on the ship; I expected to wash; I liked showers; I had already installed the plumbing to deliver the water; but thus far I stood on some loose planks inside the hold wondering at each shower how I could improve the arrangement. In the luxury of a hot shower, I really didn't much take to gazing at the filthy bilge water only a few inches below my feet. Nor did I like hanging my wash cloth on the studding which defined, but did not enclose, the area of the shower.
I had brought the ship into Dieppe for repairs the previous Fall in a sinking condition. My wife and six children had left for the winter to go back to our house in England. She had to send them all back to their various schools. The ship now repaired, I was tucked into a quiet corner of a disused basin for the winter doing duty as a ship husband - that is, looking after my ship.
I had everything I needed, warmth, food, respite from a trying summer, that is, everything but a finished, private, enclosed shower. It needed a base, but all the bases I had seen were attached to sides, tops and all the plumbing. The trouble was that I merely wanted the shower base.
I discovered the correct French translation for a shower base and scoured Dieppe's few department stores, each time receiving the same answer: you don't get a base without the side, top and plumbing. The shop assistants sometimes went a stage further and said what they had to sell me was the then equivalent of "plug and play": why do-it-yourself?
Then one day I saw exactly what I wanted in the glass front of one of the plumbing supply shops. It was clearly intended for another use but unlike an ordinary shower base, it was as deep as a bathtub. If we could afford the water, we could take a hip bath in port, and if we used a normal amount of water for a shower it wouldn't slosh over in a seaway.
I went inside, gazed at it, and became intrigued by two internal slots moulded into the sides. Instead of being horizontal, they were at a good rake. My bottom wasn't raked. It was flat. So I asked what the slots were for.
"For washing," the shop assistant explained.
My French was improving all the time, but I felt I must have misunderstood. The shop assistant moved off. I still couldn't figure out what or how one could wash at an angle.
I went after him and explained my problem.
"Oh well, monsieur," he said. "You put a piece of wood in there, between the slots from one side to the other. We don't supply the wood, of course." He laughed at his own joke.
"What's the wood for?" I asked.
"As I have just explained," he said. "You use the wood for washing."
"But, I still don't see. I can't sit on it. It's at an angle."
"Normally," he said - in this context, the French word 'normalement' is intended to be insulting to the abnormal interlocutor which I was rapidly becoming - "Normalement, I would not expect my wife to get into the bac à laver with the clothes she is washing," another titter at his own joke. "She stands outside. Let me demonstrate."
He then stood on one side of the bac à laver, removed his jacket, folded it inside out shoulder pad to shoulder pad, flicked out the creases and laid it down on another piece of monumental porcelain, undid the buttons of his cuffs, carefully rolled the cuff back once, smoothed it back on his left wrist and then on his right wrist, and then gave each wrist a second fold. He was ready. He took an imaginary shirt in his hands, leant down to the place where the inclined board should have been and started rubbing the imaginary shirt against the imaginary board with some imaginary soap, stating the obvious that the bac à laver must be installed at the right height for the person who was doing the washing. "You see," he finished. "my wife is rather short. She would need it about this height. It is on the low side for me to give a proper demonstration of how to wash clothes."
So, I thought, in modern France:
washing machine + electricity = wife + bac à laver Q.E.D.
I said I would buy it.
A week or so earlier when I had paid our floating dock bill I had noted with pleasure that our repairs were tax free. Why? We were a foreign vessel.
Could we not buy the bac à laver without paying tax I now asked the salesman. Assuredly, he answered. "Since you are foreigners, you merely have to go along to the Taxes & Impôts with the requisite documents, and all will be well."
I had gotten into the frame of mind that if I couldn't buy the bac à laver without paying tax, I couldn't afford to have the thing at all. It had become the nearest and dearest thing to my heart by this time. Frontier life has never appealed to me.
At the Taxes & Impôts things turned out to be not so simple. To get a drawback of tax, the bac à laver must, of course, be exported. It couldn't stay in France. But, we had a foreign vessel - couldn't it be exported to that? I enquired. In principle, Yes (and here again the French phrase En principe, Oui invariably means No), but that would be within the competence of the Douanes, the customs service.
But, I asked, if the shipyard, a French national, not me, the foreigner, installed it in a foreign ship, there would be no tax, would there? It must be routine for them to do this sort of thing, I asked them. They agreed. I had my bac à laver tax free. I persuaded the shipyard to cooperate by paying and then billing me.
However, Dieppe is a small place. The Taxes & Impôts evidently lunched with the Douanes. Very promptly, a Madame Pilar summoned me to the Customs where she informed me that we were a foreign vessel without permanent papers and would have to leave by 18 January the following year, taking our bac à laver with us, if we wished to avoid taxes (by implication, they would heavy, if not penal) on the importation not only of the bac but also of my entire ship into France. The period of grace for a foreign vessel was six months, she explained frostily, and that dated from our arrival in Calais a few miles up the coast on 18 July.
Madame Pilar was not negotiable. I left to contemplate the implications.
January would be a decidedly unpleasant time to leave Dieppe. Besides, I had nowhere to go in England. I had no plans for the future other than to have a quiet, warm, well-washed winter. The following summer was a long way off. On the other hand, I had certainly not expected the price for this to be so high.
I went back to see Mme Pilar. Could she give me an idea how much duty would be charged? She did not know, the ship would have to be valued, she was not competent herself to do this. Rapidly accosting a future I had not intended to face so soon, I asked her if we would have to import the vessel before being allowed to charter it in French waters. That was so, she answered, but we would also have to comply with safety regulations and that sort of thing. How would I find out, I asked. Go to the Affaires Maritimes, she answered, and see what they have to say.
While the job of the Douanes was to levy duties on goods passing the frontier, the job of the Affaires Maritimes was to police and regulate the French commercial fleets. I presented myself in their offices, and asked some questions which, of course, led them to ask me which particular vessel I had in mind.
"The GRAY," I answered. "we were in the Bassin Duquesne, and now we have been moved to the end of the Bassin de Paris for the remainder of the winter."
"Oh that one. And you want to charter in French waters?"
"Aren't you flying a British flag," the official asked.
"Well, the Affaires Maritimes has no jurisdiction over British vessels."
"I imagine you regulate chartering, even for foreign vessels," I ventured. "How do you do it?"
"Up here, there really isn't much chartering, so we don't have a lot of experience. But the Mediterranean..... that's another matter."
"That's the idea." I said. "we have to leave France in January, or pay import duty into France. But, I am the owner, I am British, so apparently the ship remains British. Then we would go to the Mediterranean in the summer to see if we could charter."
"The question of import is, of course, a matter for the Douanes, and so long as you do not change the nationality of the ship, we cannot help you," he said. "But, speaking privately, I feel sure that you will not be allowed to run a business in French waters without importing the ship."
"All right. I'll try again to find out more, but I am sure the answer won't be quick. Meanwhile, I am working on the ship and don't want to do something to which you might subsequently object. Is it not possible for you to give me some guidelines?"
"We have to make an inspection first, and we cannot do that, we cannot set foot on your vessel unless it is doing something flagrantly illegal, without the British Consul's permission."
"Could we ask for it?"
"No. We know in advance that this permission would be refused."
"By the British Consul," the official looked round at a colleague and smirked. "Wouldn't you say so, Jean?" he enquired. It sounded as though they didn't think much of the British Consul.
"What do I do?"
"I am not competent to say," he shrugged.
At this point, I began to wonder whether it really was just a matter of another visit to Mme Pilar. She would tell me: no importation without a valuation; the Affaires Maritimes couldn't inspect, so I might find myself importing the ship, and the Affaires Maritimes refusing it for safety reasons. I needed someone with an overview. Perhaps the Commandant du Port would have some good advice. I went to see him.
As usual, he seemed to have too little to do, and therefore to have the time to be as welcoming as always, even in the needy days when I had just arrived with my sinking ship in the rain and I was pleading with him to give me a priorité to go on their floating dock. He had put me off then for weeks saying that he had heard of my reputation as a diver who could repair ships, the French word for which was plongeur, the same word as used for a man who goes from restaurant to restaurant washing dishes. It had always greatly diverted him to greet me once again with Voilà monsieur le plongeur when I returned to say my ship really was sinking this time.