French Circus & Life on the Way: A Tale of Travelling Acrobats.

This is a little write up I did on a family of French acrobats who sail the world, performing live circus on their precarious yellow home. You can read the original here, and check out La Loupiote’s website here.

Photo: Bob Grieser

Photo: Bob Grieser

It was the sort of day that might make you question your choices in life. Summer threatened to leave and Auckland grew gloomy in response. I cycled the marina in the rain, scanning the moored boats for a sign of life. The description had been vague and in the weather my optimism waned. I was looking for a Frenchman on a yellow boat; surely he would be easy to find in an area as small as the Viaduct?

A few circuits later and I finally spotted it; my hesitant “bonjour” met with enthusiastic reply as Franck came on deck and surpassed my rudimentary French with a rapid-fire reference to rain and wind from the south (I think). I hopped on board and entered their gently rocking world, squishing in at the table while Franck put the kettle on.

From where I sat I could see the whole cabin: a basic hob and sink, several small beds, and a cramped toilet to the right of the captain’s desk. Despite the size and sailing equipment it was homely and well lived-in. The shelves were full with books and toys, and in the forward section one of Franck’s daughters worked dutifully on her home schooling.

It’s not surprising, to have so much going on below deck – for this isn’t just a boat. Franck and his wife, Delphine, perform acrobatic shows around the world and the jovial yellow vessel is their family home, stage and transport. The couple moved on board in 2004, before crossing the Atlantic in 2007. What began as a loose plan to meet new audiences around the European coast eventually became much more: leading them from Europe to North America and down into the Pacific.

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Despite the considerable travel necessary for such a world tour Franck insists that it was never the motivating factor: “It wasn’t, for us, a way to travel. But to meet a new audience we need to travel, and that’s why we are on the way. We are pushed by the audience.”

The audience certainly has a lot to be responsible for. Franck is resolute in his commitment to providing shows for free and they survive largely on donations, be they money or, as was the case in Marquises, boxes of fresh mangoes and avocadoes: “If they don’t like then they [don’t] give. And we are able to be here today!”

I ask whether it has been liberating, to take the show out of the theatre. Franck is considered: “In the dark rooms of theatre, there’s always people coming to see you, but you never go to see the people. It’s so different when it’s live – it’s real… there’s some kind of energy we can’t match today. We feel the audience when we are performing; we feel [their] spirit and they perhaps also feel our spirit – and there’s something, some communication you can’t match.”

Even if travel hasn’t been the motivating factor, it is an inescapable aspect of life on the sea. Their longest stint offshore was 24 days, as they languished sans wind between Mexico and Marquises. I ask about storms, expecting tales of swelling waves and gritty survival – but am disappointed by Franck’s realistic take: “Yes we have some storms, but it’s not a problem, it’s just storms. You reduce your sail, and it doesn’t last a long time… when you are offshore you are just like a nutshell, going up and down.”

They carry a basic location system, so friends and family can see where they are but Franck is blunt about its capacity to send a distress signal: “I will only use it if life is in danger. If the boat loses a mast, I don’t have to use it, it’s okay, I can do something to fix it, and change the way, and continue the travel. If we have enough food and enough water there’s no dangers, you can just continue the way.”

Is time not an issue though? Franck laughs: “but time is nothing, time is just butterflies. Perhaps now, we meet the time differently than people from the new society. Before, when you want to go to the next town it was like half a day, and… you have time to arrive. We meet this kind of relativity… [and] have time to adapt.” He mimes being spat out of a plane: “not-blerg-where am I?”

Photo: Nathan Ward
Photo: Nathan Ward

Of course, life in the cramped confines of a boat isn’t without its difficulties. Franck describes it as three full-time jobs: promoting and performing the shows; moving and maintaining the boat; and looking after his children. The younger of his two daughters was born in France in 2008 and came on board when she was just one and a half months old. She isn’t there when I visit; someone who saw the show offered to take her to visit their class.

School isn’t the only thing absent on the seas and, noticing the lack of one, I ask how they’ve adapted to life with no showers. Franck is cheekily philosophical: “When you are sailing so far, it’s okay; you can stay in your odours. But when you meet people you need to be clean… and, uh, I like showers! But in another way… when you don’t like your neighbour, you have just to move. It’s easier by a way. And we have a big garden around us and no grass to shave. That’s good!”

Franck admits to being a searcher: “I like to find new ways” – and the autonomy of their lifestyle obviously appeals. His advice for others inspired by their story is simple: “Don’t expect anything… just offer what you have to offer and take what people offer you.” Theirs is an existence without boundaries and Franck is keenly aware of this. “In the same day we can eat with a billionaire guy and after that with a poor guy on the street … I like this!”

I jumped off the boat and back into the weather. The sky was still grey and rain lingered, but there was a smile on Franck’s face as he bid me adieu. There was no anguished self-doubt or second-guessing here: time was a butterfly and audience and ocean alike awaited its visit.

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