Back in the last century, from the comfort of our San Francisco home, we made plans for our new adventure as barge owners in France. We read. We researched. We made decisions. We started dreaming. We did the best that we could to plan for a life that we knew nothing about, and amazingly, looking back, we have never been disappointed in the reality vs. the dream. In fact, we can honestly say that the reality has turned out to be better than the dream.
In the spring of 2000, when we were barge owners looking for our first winter port, we dreamed of wintering in Paris. Our new barging friends, who had been cruising around the canals for years, told us that it was unlikely that we would actually be given a mooring in the Paris Arsenal because the demand is great for the few mooring places for barges over 20 meters. It was their collective wisdom that lead us to sign up for a winter in Roanne, just in case we did not get into the Arsenal.
During that first winter, we realized that Roanne was a better fit for us than Paris would have been. We were still debutantes in our barging life, and debutantes in our French life as well, and Roanne was a good place for us to begin. Life in Roanne vs. life in Paris was the difference between wading into the kiddie end of the pool or diving into the deep end from the highest platform. We might have made a painful belly flop into our French life, if we had been given a mooring in Paris in that very first year.
Our winters in Roanne taught us how to appreciate France. We made French friends who took us under their wing. They introduced us to their favorite restaurants and their favorite wines. We loved learning from real experts. We were attentive students with excellent teachers, and we enjoyed their company even if we didn't always understand what they were saying. Looking back, we are amazed that they wanted to spend any time with us at all, considering that during that first year we could not put two sentences together with taking five minutes to think out how to conjugate the verbs and pronounce the words. These friendships would never have happened to beginners like us in a big city like Paris.
Almost every summer, we have stopped in at the Arsenal for a short stay either at the beginning or the end of our cruising season. And one year, we made Paris our destination and stayed for more than a month. Paris has always been a magnet for us, and we love enjoying the city with all of the other tourists, but we always wondered what it would be like to spend the whole winter moored in such a beautiful and exciting city. In 2005, while we were in the port during the summer, Bruno, le Maître de Port Adjoint, finally gave us the okay for a winter stay.
So, we arrived in mid-September to spend this winter. We were planning to leave in the Spring, cruise along the canals during the summer, and then to return to Roanne in October 2007. That was our plan, but Paris being Paris, after just a couple of weeks we realized that we didn't want to leave in six months.
Paris felt different, we were immediately struck by the change in our own attitude. We didn't feel like tourists this time. As we settled in, choosing our favorite stands at the Sunday Bastille outdoor market, deciding who would be our baker, our greengrocer and our butcher on rue Saint-Antoine, and finding a grocery store that would deliver our heavy items directly to our boat, we started feeling very much at home. We were busy working on projects, going to French classes, meeting people and making friends. Suddenly, we were living in Paris. We were grateful to have finally been given a winter mooring at the Arsenal, but like greedy children, we wanted more.
We had already filled out a request for an annual contract, so at the beginning of October, we went to the captain's office to see where we stood on the waiting list.
With pleading eyes, we must have looked a bit like our dog Toby. He had perfected his ability to beg with his eyes, and he used that skill often in restaurants. It always worked for him, and this time it worked for us too, because, in December we received the news that we were being offered an annual contract. We are going to be able to stay in Paris!
We took our good news out to dinner with us and toasted our new life in Paris. As we begin our 8th year in France, we know that we are ready for Paris. We have learned about France from the inside out. Life in the small villages during the summer, and Roanne in the winter has taught us many useful skills. We wouldn't go so far as to say that we understand the French culture, but we certainly have made progress in that department. Our French improves with every lesson, and we are learning something new about Paris every day.
Every time we leave the boat, walk up the stairs to Boulevard Bourdon and step out onto the streets of Paris, we realize our good fortune and thank the team in the captain's office who were kind enough to make our dreams come true.
Walking over to our conversation group in the 6th arrondissement, we enjoy watching the tourists on l'Île Saint -Louis, and listening to the different languages spoken by the people taking pictures of Notre Dame, and we love watching people who are people watching from the cafés of the Latin Quarter.
We have been helping the DBA organize "Rally 'Round Paris 2007" and meetings with dinner cruises companies and the EDF (Électricité de France) or le Service des Canaux, have taken us to neighborhoods that we have never visited before, introduced us to some very charming people, and challenged our French skills.
By the end of October, we notice a drop in tourists, most notably in the fact that we could find seats on the metro. November was beautiful with clear, crisp blue sky days that flew by as we ran around the city going to classes, meetings, renewing our Cartes de Séjour, and shopping for our first Thanksgiving dinner in our new home.
Paris was all dolled up during the Christmas season with lights everywhere and elegantly dressed Parisians in winter coats, scarves and hats. For the last few days of 2006, the tourists came back by the bus load, and Paris was vibrant with people from all over the world who wanted to drink Champagne and kiss in the New Year by the light of the Eiffel Tower.
We pinch ourselves often, and just as we always felt lucky to be part of the barging community, we are now overjoyed to be able to add, "Nous habitons sur une péniche à Paris."
Recently, after enjoying Les Nymphéas au Musée de l'Orangerie with our friend Nathalie, (our gîte landlord in 2000, good friend and since our move to Paris, our most frequent house guest), we walked out of the museum into a clear and mild December night. We stood transfixed by the beauty of the view before us. There was La Place de la Concorde just below, le Tour Eiffel to the left, the lights on L’avenue des Champs-Élysées drawing our eyes up to l'Arc de Triomphe, and turning slowly around, we saw le Jardin des Tuileries et Le Musée du Louvre et sa pyramide. Standing there, we knew why we are here, and why we want to stay................
Tout simplement, c'est la magie de Paris!