Paris is always a great place to celebrate New Year's Eve, but this year it was better than ever, because we were there with our daughter and son-in-law. Denise and Mick visited his family in England for the week around Christmas, and then flew over to Paris to spend a week with us.
Paris was cool but clear when we arrived by train after a great trip. Our seats were in the back of the lower TGV car and this allowed Toby to have his own seat for a change. He was able to hop into an empty luggage compartment behind us. This was better than his usual place, which is to lay in the middle of the aisle, forcing everyone, even little old ladies, to step carefully over him. It is remarkable that no one ever complains though, and when we attempt to move him out of the way we are always told to leave him be.
We have to buy a half fare ticket for him, and this time his ticket even said that a muzzle was required, something new since our last train trip. But, of course, after we bought the muzzle, we carried it in our pocket, and even the train's conductor never asked why he was not wearing it. Everyone just patted him on the head and said he was handsome.
In the taxi queue at Gare de Lyon, we did not get rejected by any cab drivers, which sometimes happens when they see we have a dog. The first cab let us get in when we said we would put a sheet over the back seat to protect against the dog hair that Toby always leaves behind. That made Toby very happy, because he did not have to put on his special taxi suit. You can tell by the look on his face that he feels a little silly in this getup.
This year we didn't make any advance plans, other than our hotel reservations, because we all just wanted to visit and we decided it would be easier to let each day flow around us rather than conforming to a schedule. We were lucky with the weather, it rained for a couple of days at the beginning of the week, but then the skies cleared and although it was cold, it was beautiful. All of the colors were so crisp and clear. Dressed properly, even walking at night was pleasant.
It was Denise's first trip to Paris since she was a child, so our first full day together we did a walking tour, taking in many of the major tourist sights. We went to la tour Eiffel, but didn't wait in line to go up. Then we went to les Champs-Élysées for lunch at our favorite people-watching café. We visited the Arc de Triomphe, but we didn't go up there either. We hopped on the metro, and went over to the Bastille to show Denise and Mick the Arsenal, the port where we stayed this summer. From there we walked over to the Île St. Louis on our way to Notre Dame, and then back along the left bank toward the 7th Arrondissement, where we were staying this time.
For the rest of the week, we went our separate ways during the day and met each evening for a long visit over dinner. Mick and Denise enjoyed their vacation in a great city, while we took advantage of being in a big city to shop for all of the things that we cannot easily find in the countryside. We had a list of things to do and after we check it off, we played tourist too.
On the 31st, after an early dinner, we took to the streets. The moon was full and the sky clear early in the evening. We walked around enjoying Paris, stopping here and there and eventually headed over to la Tour Eiffel. As midnight approached we watched the tower disappear into the fog. There were many people gathered together for this non-event, no major fireworks this year. Some people had come early and found benches with a good view for their picnics. Others, like us, seemed very happy to be strolling through Paris as 2002 approached. After midnight, as we walked back to our hotel, we enjoyed peeking into the many restaurant windows seeing all the people sitting at tables wearing their party hats. There were parties everywhere we looked.
It was a great week and we all had a great time being together again. Paris captivated Denise and Mick. They are already planning for their next trip, and we can't wait to see them again.
We all had sad faces when it was time for them to leave.
Roanne is a pleasant little town, and we feel quite at home here. It is not Paris, where we originally wanted to spend our winters, but it is just big enough to offer some of the same leisure activities. Everything is on a smaller scale than in Paris, of course, but in some ways that just means it's more congenial.
Here in Roanne we can go to a famous restaurant or an interesting museum. We have an ancient church and good people watching cafés. It is easier to decide where to go for dinner or what to do for entertainment, because we don't have l'embarras du choix that are available in Paris.
We also have charming pedestrian streets where everyone window shops on Saturday afternoons, and an elegant opera house where even little girls can feel like prima ballerinas.
The opera house has a regular saison théâtrale, but they also host some smaller local events like the dancing school recital that we recently attended.
One of our little neighbors at the port was dancing in the show, and we went along with her family. The excited dancers said goodbye to their parents at the stage door; parents and friends found their seats and prepared their cameras for the action.
This recital was intended to show the school's teaching methods and to demonstrate to the parents how their children were progressing after taking lessons for several months. Later in the year there will be a more traditional dance recital complete with fancy costumes.
The program began with the little ones. Guided by their teacher, the students were put through their paces. They did their best, but occasionally they became distracted by trying to wave to their moms and dads in the audience and they lost track of what they should do next.
The little girls at the ballet bar were admonished by name if they were not performing correctly, and during their exercises quite a few names were called out, sometimes more than once. We were amused by this cultural difference, where the teachers were not worried about destroying their students self esteem, and it was evident when the older girls danced that strict teachers produce good dancers.
Our little neighbor's debut as a ballerina was a great success. She performed beautifully. Her family gave her roses and kisses, and we decided that it would not be long before her skills caught up with her obvious love of dancing. Someday we may have to make a special trip to Paris to see her on the stage at the Opéra Garnier.
February flew by faster than Jim Shea at the Winter Olympics. Still we managed to get a lot done, checking off item after item on our boat improvement/maintenance to do list. We enjoyed the company of new and old friends. There has been a great group of boaters here in Roanne this winter, and there was never a dull moment.
Early in February we got together with our oldest American friends here in France. We met in early 2000 when we all bought boats from the same broker at the same time. Buying a boat can be a somewhat traumatic experience, and we all held hands and helped each other through. Ardente is moored here in Roanne this winter, but with the Canal du Centre closing early last September, Allez les Bleu, who planned to winter here, had to stay in St. Jean de Losne. They came to visit by car instead, and we brought out the party hats and horns and did a take two on New Year's Eve.
The Super Bowl brought our American friends together for another party. We could have watched the game late on Sunday night, as it was broadcast live here in France at midnight. Instead, since the Niners were not playing, we decided to catch the first rerun on Monday at 10am. We were careful not to listen to the news that morning as we didn't want to hear who won. We settled into our comfy chairs in front of the television, watched the game and enjoyed a Champagne brunch. The game was broadcast as if we were sitting in the stands in New Orleans. There were no commercial breaks, and the half time show was included. Great game, great day.
We have enjoyed watching American football this year thanks to our Canal Plus satellite subscription. The commentary of the games is in French with lots of Oh la la la las! Formidables! and the occasional Oh Bébé! The Monday Night Football game and one other NFL game are shown each week. During the colder days of winter, football and cable movies have kept us happily entertained.
Next on the busy Roanne port social schedule was Chandeleur, a new event for us. We had never heard of it before, but our English friends said that it is similar to Pancake Day in England. Martine from the Café Santa Monica, the official port hangout, which is just across from our barge, invited everyone from the port to come to the café on a Saturday afternoon for some pancake flipping. This is a French tradition, a week or so before lent, where you flip a crêpe while holding a piece of gold in your other hand. Tradition says that if you successfully catch the crêpe you will be blessed with a good year financially. Martine made the crêpes, explained what to do and everyone lined up to take a turn flipping. Judging from some of the catches, some of our friends are going to have to go on a budget this year. After lots of laughs, we all sat down to plates piled high with Martine's delicious crêpes.
Our Port Mardi Gras party at the Café was tamer than most Mardi Gras parties around the world, but it was celebrated with the same enthusiasm. Everyone wore masks and even the dogs were invited. The fun really began when Otila brought out a bag of the little item that we like best about French parties, the pea shooter. Little colored Styrofoam balls were soon flying through the air and bouncing off of party hats as everyone perfected their pea shooting techniques. Not only did the kids turn out to be the best shots, but they were great at collecting the balls from under the tables to send them on their second and third trip toward your hat.
On the second Friday of the month, we all head over to the café for lunch. Our port lunches are getting bigger and more popular as more people are coming back to their boats after going home for the winter and everyone makes sure to sign up during Happy Hour on the Wednesday before. Martine and Otila always prepare something to please everyone, and there is never a shortage of wine. Lunch lasts about 3 hours and is followed by games, boules if the weather permits. We are working on Charades, but with all of us coming from different countries the book, movie and song titles are a bit challenging. Our February lunch was on such a beautiful day that after our boules match no one wanted to go inside, so we joined the parade of French port strollers and took a walk around the port.
Now that all of our winter improvements have been completed and there are no more parties scheduled for awhile, it is time for a break, so we are going to pack up the car and head south for our spring vacation. Toby is already waiting in the car, smiling, just thinking of the fun that we are going to have.
Early one Sunday morning, we put our suitcases into the car and headed south for our spring vacation. The South of France with its promise of warm sunshine was calling to us. Actually it was boating friends, renting a house in Antibes for the winter, who called and invited us to come for a visit.
A reasonable level of pre-season tourists were already filling the streets along the beach towns of the Cote d'Azur, and we were happy to have arrived early in the afternoon after a pleasant drive. The warm hospitality of our friends and the spring sunshine made us happy to be back in Antibes.
Strolling together along the busy harbor with our friends, we stopped to look at the huge yachts, and we each selected our favorite. Seeing large crews at work on each boat made us all jealous, not for the yachts, but for the workers.
Toby, the only one among us who already has his own crew, picked out the yacht with the helicopter on top.
After a couple of nice dinners with our friends, and a great day of sightseeing on the way to and from lunch in San Remo, Italy, we left Antibes for points west.
Traveling with no set plans, we headed towards the Canal du Midi. Beziers, with its step locks, was our first stop. We used our French guide books, Gault Millau and Guide de Charme, to call ahead each day to reserve a room as soon as we decided where we might stop for the night. This and the fact that we had to live out of our suitcases made this trip a very different experience than traveling on the canals by barge. Traveling by barge means that you stop for the night when you see a pleasant mooring, and instead of packing a suitcase you bring along everything including the kitchen sink.
The Capestang Bridge is famous in the barge community for its minimal dimensions. It keeps many barges from cruising on the Canal du Midi. Since our barge is too big to squeak under, we wanted to visit some of the towns along this popular canal. We knew when we bought our barge that we would never fit under this bridge because of the height and width of our wheelhouse, but looking at the tiny passage we began to doubt that our dinghy would be able to make it through either.
We loved our hotel on the canal in Castelnaudary, and found it a very relaxing stop. Like many of the small towns along the canal the restaurants and tourist related businesses were not yet open for the season, so we had lunch and dinner in the only restaurant open near the canal. We were greeted like regulars after the second day.
In Carcasonne, while checking into our hotel, we met an American couple who had gladly moved to Paris last year on a work assignment. Since we kept bumping into them all over town, we decided to have dinner together. Conversation, of course, revolved around adventures with the language and the culture.
By now our paced had slowed so much that we drove right through Toulouse because it was much too big and too busy for our vacation mood. We did stop to check out the barges wintering there, and then we headed north to the peace and quiet of the Aquitaine Region. Being pre-season and traveling with Toby limited our choices of where to stay for the night in this rural area. Many of the B&B's did not open until after Easter and some did not take dogs. We called ahead from our Guide de Charme and found a fantastic ranch near the village of Villereal that was open and welcomed dogs.
At the Auberge du Moulin de Labique, they raise ponyies in beautiful surroundings deep in the countryside. We were careful not to disturb the new two day old colt and his mom as they watched us stroll past on our afternoon walk.
Dinner and breakfast are served in common with the other guests. Forced to converse in French with our dinner companions, we were happy to be able to put our winter lessons into practice.
The next morning, after looking at a local map with the auberge owners, we planned our day. They told us not to miss the market in Villereal and they were right, it was charming.
The Chateau Biron was beautiful and although it was closed for the day, we loved reading all of the quotes from the town's people on the living war memorial.
We stood on the bluff in the bastide town of Domme and admired the view of the Dordogne River and Valley.
On the last night of our vacation, we stayed in another wonderful B&B, again with a table d'hotes. At the Relais de Lavergne, dinner was with the owners as well as the guests and again we were the only non-French. We decided that this would be a very enjoyable way to learn how to speak French.
The next morning, we said goodbye and waved to the donkeys in the field as we headed back to our boat.
It was a great vacation, and now we are ready to finish our spring painting before we begin another season of cruising along with the butterflies.
The life rings are back in place, and geraniums have replaced the winter pansies. Eclaircie is cruising again.
At least, we were cruising for a few days.
Before we left Roanne we found a great garage to rent, right near the train station. If we should ever need to go back and get our car during the summer, it will be easy to hop on a train.
On our last night in Roanne, we carefully drove our car into the garage, covered it up and locked the door. Then we walked back through town to our boat. Parking our car was the last item on our "To Do" list before casting off.
Our bikes had already been tuned-up, we took them to the same bike shop that does all the repairs on the post office bikes. Just as we hoped, the man did a great job and they are now just like new.
During the summer, we depend on our bikes as we do on the car in the winter. We love our summer routine of biking everywhere, whether it is riding into town to shop or biking out onto the country back roads just for the pleasure of it. There is something about hopping on our bikes that always makes us feel like we're 12 years old.
We left Roanne early on a sunny Saturday morning when there was no wind to worry about, and by the end of our second cruising day, after about a dozen lock entries, we felt like we had our canal legs again.
The weather was soft and gentle with powder blue skies, and we floated peacefully along enjoying the calming affect of moving so slowly and quietly past farms and villages. Moving at canal speed again was a pleasant change after our winter of driving at what, in comparison, seems like warp speed. You need to drive fast if you want to survive on the French roads. We have gone from a speed limit of 130 kilometers per hour on the auto route to 6 kilometers per hour limit on the canals.
Dogs and small children ran along on the sidewalk as our barge crossed the canal bridge over the river Loire at Digoin. They beat us to the other side. Along the canals, when something sets the cows in the fields to running, they outrun us too. Only snails and French companies doing work for us, move more slowly than we do as we cruise along. This explains why after almost two weeks we are only about an hour by car from Roanne. It always amazes us to learn the driving time of a route that we just completed by barge. It took us four full days of cruising to arrive here. We had planned on stopping here for less than a week, but we forgot that the French clock runs very slowly. So here we sit, waiting for work that is always going to begin tomorrow, but never does.
Fortunately for us, we are comfortably moored at Montchanin Marine, in our mechanic Jeff's new boatyard. Jeff taught us how to drive our barge, and he has been doing the maintenance and minor repairs on Eclaircie ever since other boating friends were kind enough to introduce us.
While we wait for the local steel company to begin their work, we are now on our third postponement, Jeff is helping us make little improvements here and there. And not only that, when he saw that being marooned here in his yard was beginning to get us down, he organized a campfire and sing-along that cheered us right back up again.