Winter was cold this year, and for a couple of weeks the water froze around our boat making ghost-like noises in the middle of the night as the hull shifted in the ice.
From the comfort of our barge, we watched fluffy snowflakes transform our port into a scene from a Christmas card.
During the coldest days of winter with our pond frozen and snow on the ground, we chose to stay at home. Ensconced in our easy chairs, we watched movies and read books.
On Wednesday evenings, we bundled up to dash across the street for "happy hour". When friends came over for dinner or for a movie night, they brought along slippers to help warm their feet up after they ran quickly from their boat to ours.
In between snow storms, barge friends who are moored in the south of France came to visit us. During their stay, the weather was cold enough to keep us inside. We pulled out our "A Year in Provence" DVDs and rationed out the four seasons over two days. One season in the afternoon and another after dinner.
Watching the Mayles struggle along in their first year in France, we laughed so hard that we had to stop the movie so that we didn't miss a minute of their adventures. Nous avons ri aux larmes at the situations that they found themselves in as foreigners; we had all been there and done that.
We couldn't get over how well the movie was cast, because we had met those idiosyncratic workmen, neighbors and shop keepers. They live here. They entertain us everyday. Watching the seasons change in Provence, we tumbled back through time and re-lived our first years in France. "A Year in Provence" or "A Year on the Canals", we all had lived through those same joyful but frustrating days full of simple adventures. When we came to the end of the series, we felt as though friends were moving away, and we already missed them.
The gym has always been great place to enjoy the company of friends while getting some exercise, and we go there regularly, but with the consistently cold days we needed new activities.
Our hiking club found a bilingual member to teach an English class, and they asked us if we would come along to help. Helping them helps us as well, because during class a student starts a sentence in English and finishes it in French. Then suddenly everyone starts talking at once and jumping from one subject to another. It takes awhile before that English sentence ever gets finished. To us it feels like a French class, because we get to speak more of their language than they speak of ours.
It's a fun way to spend Thursday mornings because it is a really nice group of people who are eager to learn, and also because everyone laughs a lot. It's hard not to laugh when someone says, "I am a donkey." (She lives in the country and what she meant was "I have a donkey.")
That mistake reminded us of the time that a friend of ours said, in her very best beginning French, "I am a pizza." She was trying to order a pizza, and she had worked out in her head just what she should say, but when the waiter came she got nervous and mixed up her verbs.
Through conversations with our French friends during hikes in the countryside last fall, we learned that we could volunteer to help cook for "les petits frères" at a monastery in the village of St. Joddard.
In order to provided a day off for the young brothers who normally man the large industrial kitchen, a team of volunteers, some retired professionals, come in on Thursdays to cook for Le Commune de St. Jean. We were happy to join them.
The afternoon starts in the coffee room, sharing a cup of coffee with some of the brothers. They are an interesting group of young men from all over the world. St. Joddard is the novitiate where they are required to study philosophy for 3 years, and that makes for good conversations.
In the kitchen, we are given simple jobs, usually we make the desserts. It has been a great experience, good for learning French and also for learning how to cook for hundreds. At St. Joddard, when we make cakes, we make about 20 of them.
One day the head chef decided on Brownies for dessert. Because we are Americans, he had great confidence in our brownie skills. In his mind, I guess he sees Americans making brownies a couple of times a week and we didn't tell him that we hadn't made them since we were kids.
In the middle of making those brownies, we both had the same thought, "How did we end up baking brownies in the kitchen of a monastery in the middle of France?"
For a long time we have been thinking that an organized tour with a French group would be cheaper and more fun than an immersion French class. No homework, more cocktails!
So when a local friend told us about an organized tour to Spain that the travel agency near her house was promoting, we jumped at the chance to spend a few days in the sun with French speakers.
For the unbelievable price of 130 euros each, the trip included travel (by bus), four nights in a four star hotel on the Costa Brava, three meals a day including beverages (wine and beer with lunch and dinner). We decided that we would spend more than that just staying at home, so we signed up with boating and town friends.
One frosty morning, we crawled from our beds at 3:30am in order to meet our bus in front of the town hall at 4:30am. It was snowing lightly as everyone climbed on the bus. We were 46 French and 4 Americans, so from the moment that we stepped on board our immersion course began. The difference was that in this course no one minded if you took a nap during this class, and we nodded off until the sun came up and we could glance out the windows and watch southern France rolling by.
At a rest stop, we met Le Mistral for the very first time. We had heard about this wind that blows down the Rhone, and now we understood its power as we fought our way through the legend to get a cup of coffee and a croissant.
In Spain, we piled off the bus and overwhelmed the hotel reception desk. 50 foreigners ready for lunch, everyone wanting their room keys at the same time. The French don't form neat lines, they prefer to clump, but they are polite, and even though it looked like total chaos, we were all soon checked in and enjoying a buffet lunch in the hotel dining room. We, the four Americans, shared a table with French friends, and the Americans smiled at each other in surprise to see that it was the French women who went back for generous second helpings, and extra desserts. Stereotype broken!
It wasn't really warm in Spain, but the sky was blue and you could be comfortable in just a jacket. We took advantage of the sunshine walking through town or along the beach. We explored the outdoor markets in the morning, and spent lazy afternoons playing cards in the hotel bar after lunch. Other days we took the train to Barcelona where the department stores offered us products and prices that we can't get in France. Everyone remembered a good restaurant or a special tapas bar from previous trips, and we walked up one back street and down another until we succeeded in finding those spots, and we rewarded ourselves with a good Spanish meal or a drink and tapas. We struggled with the language, and enjoyed walking along the Ramblas, with all of the other tourists, stopping to watch the street artists.
Every night after dinner at the hotel, our group gathered at the tables around the dance floor. Our bus was only one of four making this trip. So there were about 200 "French tourists" in the hotel, and it was during the evenings that we had the chance to get to know some of the people from the other buses.
Everyone enjoyed dancing after dinner. Some of the couples in our group were beautiful ballroom dancers, while others just enjoyed bouncing along with the music. French women dance together when their partners are not in the mood, so the dance floor was always crowded. We danced too, but sitting back and watching everyone was almost more fun. We applauded our favorite couples when they glided by our table, and then noticed that all of the good dancers seemed to be coming by more and more often.
The French dominated the scene in the hotel and on the dance floor until the last day of our trip, when a bus full of young Spanish families came to stay over the weekend. That evening the mood on the dance floor changed. As the tempo of the music increased, we sat back and watched as there seemed to be a struggle for control between the two countries. The elegant French dancers were holding the floor early in the evening, but as Spanish songs began to out number the French songs, more and more people from our group decided that it was time to say good night. By the end of the evening, the elegantly dressed French dancers were replaced by stylish young Spanish couples in "cool outfits".
Meanwhile, back in Roanne
It wasn't until the end of March that we saw the first signs of Spring.
This winter was colder and longer than all of the others that we have spent in France, but we always felt warm and cozy in the company of good friends old and new.