On New Year's Eve day, we decided it would be a good idea to go to the Horse for a "Giraffe."
It was late afternoon, and we were just back from the Champs-Élysées, where, by 3 pm, people were already shoulder to shoulder, and anticipation for the new year was electric. Walking along the boulevard, we heard every imaginable language spoken. Paris was bursting at the seams with tourists who wanted to welcome the year 2001 in the city of light.
On the metro ride home, packed in with all the other tourists, we watched as young couples from all over the world practiced kissing in preparation for midnight.
Back at the Horse, we made a few new friends when we offered glasses of beer from our giraffe to neighboring customers.
Conversations with other travelers are always fun, and we asked everyone where they were planning to be at midnight. It seems that Paris attracts people, and most had no pre-planned ideas of where they would be as 2001 rolled around. It was enough to be in Paris.
On the recommendation of a Parisian friend, we made reservations at what she referred to as a traditional French restaurant in our neighborhood. We wondered whether that was the right choice. Would we regret missing activities at la tour Eiffel, Place de la Concorde, or on the Champs-Élysées?
La Petite Cour is an elegant restaurant where we enjoyed a fabulous 7-course dinner with spectacular wines. We were happy as the hands of the clock approached midnight, but we still wondered if we should get the check and head out to celebrate with everyone in the streets of Paris. We had walked to dinner in a hail storm, but maybe the weather had improved. The couple at the table next to us got up and left at about 11:30. Should we go too? We were so cozy that we decided a quiet, delicious dinner with family was enough for us. Midnight came, and we exchanged toasts and kisses.
Suddenly, all of the waiters came out from the kitchen in a line, holding trays over their heads. They marched around the room, delivering a party sack to each diner.
In an instant, this very French, very fancy restaurant was like a high school cafeteria on the last day before summer vacation. The mood went from subdued to playful as the quiet background music changed to disco, and everyone donned silly hats and blew their horns and noisemakers.
The fun began as everyone found the best toy in their sacks, the 21st-century version of the peashooter, with little Styrofoam balls the size of marbles. These small colored bullets began flying through the air like confetti. Then, feeling something hit us in the head, we would turn to see a sophisticated smiling couple waving and laughing, very proud of their direct hit.
A conga line started weaving its way through the restaurant, the music was good, and soon everyone was hopping up to join the other dancers. We felt sorry for the couple who had decided to leave just before midnight because they missed the fun. We danced, followed along with the woman leading the Macarena, blew our horns, scored hits across the room with our peashooters, and enjoyed being silly in such an elegant setting.
Walking home through the streets of Paris in the early morning hours, it was cold, but there was no hail, and we giggled our way back to the hotel full of good food, wine, and fun.
We think our New Year's Eve party in Paris has set just the right tone for 2001. We hope to have a happy and playful year, and we wish the same for you.
Bonne et Heureuse Année 2001
Julia Child said that eating is France's national sport, and we feel like major league players when we visit our favorite country restaurant, Le Petit Prince.
Many Sunday afternoons have disappeared in this charming country restaurant while enjoying a delicious meal with friends.
The restaurant has been in the same family for generations and has a long and interesting history.
We love bringing friends here because everyone is constantly amazed by the food and the superb service. It is so wonderfully French to care about the quality of the food, its proper preparation, and presentation, even in a restaurant in a village as small as Saint-Alban-les-Eaux.
We have been here so often for lunch that when we recently asked to make a reservation for Easter lunch as we were leaving the restaurant, they said, "C'est noté" as they marked it in their book. They never asked our name, and we suspect they wrote, "The Americans with a dog."
We stopped by our local gym on the way home from our last leisurely lunch to inquire about membership. We were with neighbors from our port, and we had all been talking about joining the gym for months. Going into town, we would walk by and look, but all alone, we were a little intimidated to enter and ask about joining. We didn't know if we would feel out of place, but together, we gathered up our nerve that afternoon, and we walked in and signed up. We are glad that we did.
The first morning that we went to work out, everyone immediately made us feel welcome by introducing themselves and asking how in the world a group of Americans happened into their gym. We told them that we were wintering on our boats at the port, and a whole group of people stopped what they were doing to ask us questions about where we were from in the U.S. and what brought us to France. The members are a diverse group of fun-loving people whose desire to stay fit is somewhat challenged by their love of conversation and morning pastries.
We have noticed that this gym always has more people conversing than exercising. There is quite a bit of joking going back and forth during the workouts, and then someone turns the joke into an extended conversation. It is not unusual for the only treadmill in the gym to be tied up while the person who was working out gets into a long and interesting conversation that soon attracts a crowd and keeps the equipment tied up until the story is over. No one ever seems to complain or interrupt the group; they wait until the discussion is over and everyone has stopped leaning on the treadmill and gone back to their respective exercises.
We have never belonged to a gym before where everyone greets us with kisses as soon as we walk in the door. Christian and Gisele go out of their way to make us feel welcome. They give us restaurant advice, tell us where to find the best produce markets, and where they shop for wine, and we do all this while working out. Since food is what everyone else working out around us is talking about, we feel like we fit right in.
If you read Toby's last page, you know that he went to Lyon for knee surgery in January and has been confined to the house since then. This has kept us from wandering too far from the boat. Unfortunately, we didn't get to Rome in February as we had planned, but we found other things to keep us occupied.
Friends and neighbors have been dropping by to check on Toby's recovery. Gisele, a friend from our gym, came over and gave Toby a big get-well kiss. He likes her so much that he didn't wash the lipstick off his forehead for days.
Neighbors tap on the door to give him a little pat on the head and a cookie.
He had to go to see his Roanne vet, Dr. Isabelle, because of an ear infection, and she was happy to see him walking so well after his surgery. He didn't like what she was doing to his ear, but, as always, he was a good little trooper.
The people at our gym are lovely. One of the men, whose son-in-law is a fireman, invited us to the firehouse near our port for a VIP tour. An American, the local basketball coach, and a regular at our gym came along with his family. His son tried on some of the gear and loved seeing the fire equipment close up.
It was interesting to see a European firehouse. In Roanne, there is one large complex that houses all of the area's equipment. They respond not only to emergencies in Roanne but to calls from 21 surrounding villages. There are 37 specialized pieces of apparatus: pumping engines, ladder trucks, a heavy rescue unit, ambulances, boats, water tenders, foam equipment, and trailers with miscellaneous appliances. The department's brand-new four-wheel-drive pumping engine was on the apron, awaiting a call.
A large field behind the firehouse is an additional training area. Training is continuous and extensive. They were doing some Hazmat training the other morning when we were there, and a fireboat passes our barge every Saturday morning on a training run.
Since the firehouse is next to the port, they often go by with their lights and sirens. It makes us feel right at home, and we always wish them a safe return.
Lunch at Le Santa Monica, the bar just across the street from our boat, is becoming a regular item on our social schedule. Now that spring is almost here, people are returning to their boats, and between spring cleaning and painting, we have all gotten in the habit of occasionally meeting in this charming little bar to enjoy the Plat du Jour.
Martine, the owner, and her friend, Otilia, always welcome us and frequently sit down to join us over coffee after lunch.
Everything stops between 12-2 in France. It is a great time to ride your bike around town because all cars are off the road. It is also a good time to grocery shop in the big supermarkets because most of the other customers are at lunch. So if you want to drive somewhere on small country roads, leave just after noon and miss all the truck traffic. But really the best thing to do is to join everyone else for lunch in a warm and friendly restaurant.
The idea of a weekly Happy Hour at Le Santa Monica was born at lunch the other day. We decided on Wednesday evenings from 6-7, and about 30 people from the port showed up for the first night. One or two regular customers must have been wondering what had happened to their quiet little bar because suddenly, at 6 pm, the bar was full of conversations in Dutch and English, with just a smattering of French.
Martine's dog, Chopinette, was beside herself. She usually acts as the doorbell, running to the door and barking whenever anyone arrives. She got a workout last night, and she must have been exhausted this morning.
Spring in Roanne is acting just like the stock market. It just can't seem to get started. Every bright, sunny morning, all of the cafés put out their outdoor tables and chairs. The boaters start their painting projects, and everyone smiles and waves to each other. Optimism is in the air, but spring has not yet taken hold. One day of sun is followed by several days of rain. We have had more rain in the last month than we had during our sunny and mild winter.
While waiting for the sun to come out for more than 10 minutes at a time, we have been working on small projects. We are fabricating screen doors for the wheelhouse and window screens for the rooms downstairs. We find that there is a lot of looking in creating something like this. Sometimes that means just looking at the door or window until a friend walks by and looks with you. Ideas are formed, discussed, and reformed. More neighbors, more looking. Then you go wandering around the bricolage stores, looking at what materials might be available to complete your ideas. With all of that looking, no wonder we can't figure out where our days go.
Since there has been more rain than sun lately and we can't paint, we decided to take a vacation. So we rented a car and headed back to Lyon. The countryside between here and Lyon is beautiful. We never fail to comment on how far you can see or the richness of the colors. The winding road offers, with each turn, a new picturesque view of small villages snug in green valleys. The last time we drove this road, there was snow at the higher elevations. Now it is green, and the trees are beginning to blossom.
When we checked in to our hotel, Toby got a big hug from the owners. We have stayed in this hotel several times before, and they were happy to see Toby looking so well after his operation.
Entering Lyon, we saw how high the Saône River had risen. It was approaching the bottom of the bridges. When we walked over to the river to get a better look, the ship's chandlery, located on the bank of the Saône, where we were going to shop, was underwater. People living on barges moored nearby could only come to shore by dinghy.
The sun came out in the afternoon, and we roamed around enjoying the city's relaxed pace. We happened upon one of the 150 Murs Peints, painted walls scattered around the city. This one was of the celebrities of Lyon.
Some friends had sent us a newspaper article from the San Francisco Sunday paper's travel section on Lyon's beloved bouchons. These are family-owned bistros with simple menus and food like grandma used to make (if your grandma was French and lived in Lyon). Armed with the article and our trusty Gault Millau, we forced ourselves to try new restaurants this time rather than returning to old favorites. Saturday night after dinner, watching the world go by from a sidewalk café on the Rue de la Republique, we decided that we must come and stay in Lyon more often.
We went to the open-air market near our hotel on Sunday morning, where you can buy food, clothes, household items, and even puppies. Since we had been here before, we brought our kitchen knives, hoping to have them sharpened by the man on his bicycle. While he sharpened our knives, we shopped and then found a table at a sidewalk café with a good view of the market. While sipping our coffee, it made us happy to see a puppy leaving the puppy market in the arms of his new owners.
After Lyon, we stopped in Pérouges, a fortified hilltop village of medieval stone houses and cobblestone streets. Pérouges is listed among the most beautiful villages in France.
Leaving Pérouges, we drove on the back roads, enjoying the scenery and watching a bicycle race roll by until the speed of the toll road lured us.
It was getting late, and we had plans to meet friends who were returning to their boat in France after wintering in the states. We had all booked rooms at Nathalie's gîte in Saint-Symphorien-sur-Saône, where we lived last year from January to June during our barge remodel.
It was like going home again as we drove along the now-familiar country road and pulled into the courtyard. We got out of the car and shouted, "Nous revoilà!" but no one was there to greet us.
Our friends had not yet arrived, and Nathalie was not home. We entered the gîte and found a Canadian couple in the TV room. Since Nathalie never locked the doors, they had let themselves in and were waiting for the owner to ask for a room for the night. Knowing the house well and feeling at home, we helped them settle into the downstairs room. We found towels for the downstairs bathroom and shower and ensured they had everything they needed.
Soon our friends arrived, and as we all gathered in the kitchen, everyone happily talking and laughing, it felt like we had just stepped back in time. We poured the wine, our friends put appetizers on the counter, and we invited the Canadian couple to join us. They told us they were here to buy a barge, and when they learned that we were boaters, the questions began. We all had to laugh at the fact that now, instead of being the people looking for barges and asking questions, we were the people with experience answering questions. What a difference a year makes.
We all had to laugh at the fact that now, instead of being the people looking for barges and asking questions, we were the people with experience answering questions. What a difference a year makes.
We gave them our best advice. But unfortunately, the couple had not yet found a boat at the two brokers they knew of in town, so we sent them to see Jean-Luc Broudic, a broker we were happy to recommend. Through Jean-Luc, they found a barge they were excited to see in the south of France.
We look forward to hearing the rest of their story. We exchanged email addresses, and hopefully, we will hear from them and maybe cross paths on our travels. Our gîte has a magical way of bringing people together.
The dawning of each new day in Roanne now brings the departure of another boat. Since mid-April, we have been to the lock many times to wave goodbye to friends made over the winter.
The first of our friends to leave were Bill and Francis, the only other Americans who spent all winter on their barge. They were great gym, country drives, circus going, lunch, dinner, happy hour, and just plain hanging around talking to friends. They taught us how to braid rope to make elegant bumpers for our barge, and we took French lessons together. Of course, being friendly Texans with personalities as big as their state and a million funny stories, everyone missed them as soon as they left.
Winter has brought us many new friendships. The port is large, with boats on each side, so we slowly met the other boaters, first with a greeting, then a conversation, and soon an invitation to come over for an afternoon or an evening. We have had drinks, snacks, lunches, and dinners on neighboring barges while getting to know each other. It has been fun with all the boaters' different nationalities to experience foreign dishes cooked by someone who considers it home cooking.
George and Maggie are English but have lived in many different countries, most recently in Cypress (where their dog Korri Mou was born). They have been great neighbors and friends. We went to our first Boxing Day party on their barge, Limey.
Korri sat outside, wagging her tail to welcome everyone as people came and went all day. The food never stopped coming out of the kitchen.
Whoever started the rumor that English food is bland has never been invited to eat on George and Maggie's barge.
Limey got a makeover this winter and looks terrific with her new enlarged wheelhouse.
Peter and Jane owned a French restaurant in Cape Town for many years, where Peter was the chef. They just bought a new barge and are remodeling from bow to stern. They will stay in Roanne all summer having the work done, and we look forward to seeing the finished project in the fall.
They cooked a delicious meal for us in their old kitchen, and we can hardly wait to taste what they will be able to do in their new kitchen with their restaurant-quality stove.
Roy and Anneke are our next-door neighbors, and we have enjoyed their company all winter. We tap on each other's doors to borrow a cup of sugar or whatever we might need at the moment but forgot at the store. They are Dutch, and Roy's family was originally from Indonesia. Anneke cooked us a delicious Indonesian meal one evening, recipes she learned from her mother-in-law.
John and Lizanne are English but have lived in Africa and Asia for many years. It was their idea to start a weekly happy hour, which has turned out to be a big success. They invited us for lunch on their barge one Sunday afternoon along with Bill and Francis. It was dark when we came home about 8 hours later. John, Lizanne, Bill, and Francis have been living on Barges for almost ten years. There were some great stories and more good English food with a hint of a foreign accent.
Willy, Ilse, and their dog Bruno are Swiss; they have a barge and a camping car. They travel on the canals in the summer and then take car trips in the winter. Ilse works out at our gym, and Willy works out on their boat; he is always busy improving something.
One of the winter's social events was a trip to the local theater for the musical La Belle Helene. John and Monique, French neighbors wintering here in our port, had joined a local amateur production and were singing in the chorus.
Dymphna, a Dutch woman who lives on a cruiser with her husband Andre, organized the evening, and 20 of us went as a group. Before the musical started, we were surprised when an actor came on the stage and thanked our group from the port for attending. The audience applauded, and everyone smiled at us. It was a lovely moment, and we felt the warmth of the people in this town. We realized we were lucky to be here and that something like this would never happen in a theater in Paris. As the port's rookies, everyone wintering here has been so helpful that it has been like taking a Boating 101 class in college. We are now ready to cast off into our first season of cruising.
Sailing Notices: 10 May from the Port de Plaisance, Roanne
Eclaircie's Designation: Namur, Belgium
Enfin, we are cruising. There is a lock at the entrance of our port in Roanne that we came through last year when we arrived, and we have been eyeing that lock all winter, eager to start our first cruising season.
On a sunny morning in May, we made our way through the lock and waved goodbye to our winter home. Then, heading north along the Canal Lateral à la Loire, we found that cruising is everything that we expected it to be and more.
Setting out early each morning, while a fine mist still lingers on the canal, the air is alive with bird songs and butterflies.
Spring is everywhere. There are ducklings in the water and calves and foals tottering on new legs in the fields along the canals.
As beginners, we take everything slow and easy, and the other day, we noticed a butterfly fluttering around our bow for quite a while. We were driving through the French countryside at butterfly speed.
The view is constantly changing. Sometimes we pass houses along the canal where people come to the window to wave; sometimes, we are approaching a magnificent canal bridge over the Loire River designed by Gustave Eiffel. Other times we enter the port of a new town to explore like Decize or Nevers.
We have been leapfrogging along the canal with our friends on "Limey" and some hotel boats with American passengers. The Americans from the hotel barges seem to be having a great time, and we have enjoyed their friendly interest in our life here in France.
Toby has been a big hit with everyone. We were moored in Montargis when we heard people calling, "Toby, Toby!". We looked up to see the Bonne Amie and the four couples from Pennsylvania, who we had met in Rogny, arriving to moor next to us.
A Canadian family on a rental boat traveled along the canal with us one day. In conversations, while descending in the locks, we learned that he was a barge captain on the Puget Sound. He was enjoying a busman's holiday. We were happy when he told us we were handling our boat well.
We are slowly making our way to Paris, listening to birds sing, following butterflies, and feeding swan families from our back deck along the way.
We had planned to cruise into Paris last July, but with one thing or another, it took us a full year to make our way there on our barge.
The thrill of looking up at the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame from the deck of our boat made it worth the wait. What a fantastic way to enter such a beautiful city. We arrived by plane, train, or car many times, but this was our first time cruising in on our barge.
Knowing how heavy the river traffic can be with sightseeing boats and commercial barges, we planned our arrival on a Sunday morning. We were hoping that the traffic would be lighter.
Outside of Paris, we fell in behind a small commercial barge, and luckily for us, we could follow them into the city. Tagging along after them, we mimicked their every move. They stayed to the right and cruised at a slow speed, just as we had planned to do. When it was time to move to the left side of the channel, as indicated on our charts, we did not have to wonder if we were doing it correctly; we just followed their lead. Thanks to our escort, we had time to enjoy the sights and savor the moment.
The Arsenal, the pleasure boat port in Paris near the Bastille, was full when called to say that we were arriving.
We called around and found that we could moor at a dock near the Pont de la Concorde while waiting for a place in the Arsenal. The view and location should have made it a spectacular mooring. We could see the Ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde off our bow and Pont Alexandre III and La Tour Eiffel from our back deck, but because of all the sightseeing boats flying back and forth, it was an incredibly choppy mooring. The bouncing forced us off our barge early each day, and we stayed out as late as we could because the river traffic did not stop until 11 pm. Toby came with us because he was afraid of all the bouncing and noise on the barge, and we found dog-friendly places to spend our time. Le Champ de Mars and Jardin des Tuileries have great benches and lots of people to watch. Cafés became our home away from home.
We spent so much time café sitting that, like many café sitters before us, we could have written a book. It was fun, but we were still thrilled when we called the Arsenal and found that they finally had a mooring for us.
The Port de Plaisance de Paris Arsenal, located off the River Seine on the Canal St. Martin at the Bastille, is the place to moor in Paris. After four days of rocking and rolling on the river, it was a treat to enter calm waters. Now the view from our back deck was the Colonne de Juillet, and because Toby was not afraid to stay on the boat, we were free to ride the metro. (Dogs are not allowed on the Metro.) We bought a book of tickets and went about Paris, enjoying our new freedom to go out and come back home as we pleased.
Summer in Paris was a pleasant surprise. On vacations, we have always come to Paris in the off-season to avoid the crowds, but there were not as many tourists as we thought, and the weather was great most of the time.
There were parades, festivals, and a Sunday Skate.
La Fête de la Musique on June 21st was Fantastic! Music filled the evening air throughout Paris. From what we saw as we wandered from neighborhood to neighborhood, the music seemed appropriate for each arrondissement. For example, on the Île Saint-Louis, there was a saxophone group and two choirs; at the Place des Vosges, there was a great jazz ensemble, and at the Bastille, a young Bob Dylan clone.
Music was everywhere. It was a warm evening; throughout the city, the streets were full of people enjoying the music. It was a magical night.
We always loved being in Paris, and this time, with our barge moored in the middle of the city, we felt as though we lived there. But after three weeks of enjoying Paris, it was time to fire up the engine and castoff for our next major destination, Namur, Belgium.
Au revoir Paris.
Do you remember your first car trip after learning how to drive? Instead of just going across town, imagine that you went from San Francisco to New York. And instead of driving a car, imagine that you were driving an 18-wheeler. You would be sure to have an exciting trip. That's how it was for us.
When we saw the fireworks on our first night in Namur, Belgium, we felt it was a fitting welcome for beginning drivers who had come a long way and learned so much during their first voyage.
It took us about two months to reach our destination in Belgium, and there is not enough room on the Internet to tell all our incredible adventures. Over dinner some night, ask us to tell the story of the optical illusion that caused us to think we were sinking. Can two people qualify as mass hysteria?
This cruise was a storybook adventure, and when we arrived in Belgium, we found it to be a storybook-beautiful country. Namur is located at the confluence of the Sambre and Meuse rivers. There is a citadel overlooking the city, and the views are magnificent from there. We happened to arrive on July 21st, their Independence Day, hence the fireworks. There was also a huge flea market along the river, music in the air, and a festival atmosphere.
The next weekend we traveled to Dinant, another ancient city along the Meuse River with a citadel to protect the city. While touring the fortress, we learned that the fort did not provide too much protection in this case. Over the centuries, enemies brought down this town more times than the New Year's Eve ball in Times Square.
On this particular weekend, though, the sun was shining in this resort town, and summer was in full swing. A live band played under the bridge for full acoustic effect and smiling people strolling along the river soaking up the sun and the atmosphere.
We found a great place to moor along a row of outdoor cafés. Dinner was just two steps away, and the people-watching was fun. Resort towns attract people from all over, so it was fun to sit on our back deck and identify the country of origin of the passing tourists.
Mission accomplished. We had our barge measured in Dinant, and we now have detailed drawings depicting our widest, narrowest, longest, highest, and deepest points.
We traveled south on the Meuse, a river with one pretty little village after another. We passed many beautiful riverfront homes. The weather was hot, and the river was calm. It was a great vacation.
Our next destination is the Champagne region of France. We hope they will chill a couple of Champagne bottles for us; after this long trip, we'll feel like celebrating.
Photos of our summer vacation
September 11, 2001
Our thoughts and our prayers are with the victims and their families, and especially to the members and families of the Fire Department New York "the bravest of the brave". We mourn your loss.
Bill Koenig, retired
San Francisco Fire Department
Canal cruising in a barge is like playing a game of miniature golf. Just as you finish with one tricky section and congratulate yourself for getting past the hazard, you find another hazard just ahead. On the canals, each obstacle is waiting to scrape your paint or dent your hull, and if you are not careful going under a very low-arched bridge, you would not be the first person to peel off the wheelhouse roof.
Most of the time, cruising on the canals is peaceful. The pace is slow, and it is heavenly on days when the sun is shining, and the birds are singing. But the canals are narrow, and even though you follow a chart, you never really know what you may find just around the next bend. It seems that every time you are lulled into daydreaming and have your head spinning with the beauty that surrounds you, oops! Hazard ahead!!!
Even if you know that a canal bridge over a river is ahead, it is always surprising to see how narrow it can be. Just as in miniature golf, you must drive straight to avoid bouncing all over the course.
And while canal bridges are narrow on the bottom and low-arched bridges are narrow on the top, tunnels are a bigger hazard.
In a tunnel, the fit is so tight that you worry that you might damage your boat from top to bottom. Seeing a tunnel ahead on the chart makes people with freshly painted barges very nervous. And emerging out the other side without any new scrapes or dents is cause for celebration.
Drawbridges are yet another hazard waiting for you. They pop up occasionally along the canals, and it seems that no two are alike. And to make cruising more interesting, their operators don't seem to think it is necessary to lift them all the way, which makes passing through very exciting.
Locks are exciting too. There are big ones, small ones, short ones, tall ones, usually with boats of all sizes maneuvering in a small space waiting to enter and exit. Passing port to port is not always the case. Again, like miniature golf, you must weave your way through the moving hazards of the course.
Their unpredictability complicates moving hazards. While seeing a huge commercial barge come around the bend can make your heart beat faster, they almost always follow the rules. It is the summer rental boats that will, more often than not, do something wildly unexpected. They are on a week's vacation and haven't had the time to learn how to drive.
Boat traffic, though, is generally more predictable than cows.
Cows don't read the canal navigation rule books. When you come around a corner and see a cow in the middle of the canal, it is hard to know which way to go. You would probably aim the ball straight through the cow's legs on a miniature golf course, but it is best to go around on a barge.
Whether you have had an exciting day cruising along the French canals or playing a game of miniature golf, it is always lovely at the end of the day to sit on your back deck, put your feet up and toast your success.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of our barging adventure has been the absence of daily news. We listen to French radio stations to improve our language skills, but they talk so fast that we can only catch a sentence here or there. Life is much more relaxing, and you sleep better at night without the constant input of troubling news. How blissfully our summer passed. There was nothing to worry about except complicated locks, strong river currents, or where to buy bread when all of the village bakers were on vacation in August.
We always knew that we would hear about it right away if there were a significant world event. After all, bad news travels fast. On September 11th, we had just arrived in Briare, and we were still mooring along the quay when someone ran out of the boat next to ours and said that a plane had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.
Like so many other people in the world, our blissful summer ended for us on that day, and we began heading back to Roanne.
Friends from the port were waiting to catch our lines as we moored in our old spot across from the Café Santa Monica. We plugged back into our electric box, reconnected our landline telephone, renewed our membership at the gym, and began to snuggle down for our second winter here.
The sudden loss of so many lives on September 11th and the continuing threat of terrorist attacks reminded us that life is short and that you should live each day to its fullest. We decided that we could do that best in a new car. We biked out to the local Peugeot dealer and found just the one we wanted right there on the lot. We haggled in our best French, enlisted the help of a French friend for the tricky bits, and drove home in a brand new car.
We bought a station wagon so that everyone in the family could have a comfortable seat with a good view.
Now the beautiful countryside surrounding Roanne is ours. Within a ten-minute drive from our boat, we can be out on country roads exploring hillside villages and admiring the scenery as the colors of summer change into the colors of fall.
Visits to Lyon and long lunches with friends at small country restaurants top our list of things to do this winter. On the list, visiting all of the farmers' markets held on different days of the week in the surrounding towns and enjoying local events like the Christmas fair in Saint-Haon-le-Vieux.
Last weekend we invited friends along for a Sunday drive. We were McGooing around the back roads, admiring the scenery, when we stumbled upon a Beaujolais wine fair. We peeked in to see what it was all about and ended up staying for hours chatting with people, tasting and buying great local wines, cheeses, and sausages.
Our quality of life has already improved, and we haven't even left the area yet. If we want we can take a trip to Southern France, Italy or Spain this winter. Or, we can drive around the local back roads, as we did the other day, looking at horses and cows.
Like the other day, some of them will look back at us, and some of them won't. Either way, it will be great fun.
Our Thanksgiving dinner made the local news.
Thanksgiving is our favorite American holiday; back home, we always cook for a crowd. We had planned to invite our American friends here in the port over for dinner, but when we learned that they would be away, we knew that we needed to come up with another idea. After all of the tragic events in America, we did not want to be alone this year.
This winter, Wednesday night happy hour at the Café Santa Monica, across the street from our barge, has become a popular port event. We decided to invite all of the people from the port who are regulars at happy hour for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Since that would mean dinner for about 25 people, we asked Martine, the café's owner, to use their place for our party. She agreed and said that we could take over their kitchen as soon as they finished serving lunch that day. We told her that we would do all the cooking and cleanup and that she and her friend Otilia would be our guests.
Martine and Otilia were very enthusiastic about our party. They wanted us to decorate with American flags and said we definitely needed music for dancing. Martine said she wanted to learn cowboy line dancing; Otila decided she would come dressed as an Indian.
Our friends and barge neighbors, Peter and Jane, owned the best French restaurant in Cape Town for many years. Peter is an excellent chef, and Jane makes fabulous desserts; we asked them to be our head chefs. They also thought our party was a great idea. The four of us began planning the menu and trying to solve the problems presented by cooking this traditional American meal in France. This year we were also determined to find all the ingredients to make mom's famous applesauce spice cake, a family tradition at Thanksgiving.
Our invitations were extended and eagerly accepted. It would be an international gathering with our Dutch, Swiss, English, and French barge neighbors as guests. We were happy when Jacky, our port captain, and his wife, who live about an hour away, accepted. We only asked that each couple bring an hors-d'oeuvre for the cocktail hour before dinner, and we would provide the rest of the meal, including the wine. For the week before the party, there was an air of excitement around the port. None of our guests had ever been to a Thanksgiving dinner before, and they all felt it would be a special event.
We had several delightful recipe-testing lunches with our chefs. After we set the menu, we gave them carte blanche to do the shopping and cooking, since that is their expertise. Even though they were doing most of the work, we still had a long list of rather complicated chores.
Decorating the café was more complicated than just a trip to the local Hallmark store to pick up turkey and pilgrim decorations. So instead, we used our American flag, flowers, paper tablecloths, and leaves collected on our walks around the port and the fruits and nuts we bought at the market.
The seating arrangements were a real challenge. Even though we are all friends, many of our guests speak only their native language, Dutch, German, French, or English, with just a few words in the other languages. It was essential to put the bilingual people in the right locations to help the conversation flow. We put a group of English at one end of the table, next to them, we sat some Dutch who also speak English and then a Dutch couple who also speak German. They were seated next to the Swiss couple who speak German and French and a bit of English. Next to the Swiss, we sat another English couple who both also speak French and then a French couple who speak some English, and then the French only speakers. We, the cooks and organizers, sat at the French-only end of the table near the kitchen so that we could hop up when needed. With this seating arrangement, if someone at either end of the table said something important, it could be transmitted back through all languages to the other end of the table.
On the day of our party, we prepared some of the dishes in our kitchens. The turkey went into Peter and Jane's oven in the morning, and Jane put the finishing touches on the desserts that she had made the day before. We made the stuffing and mom's famous cake because we were the only ones who knew how they should taste. Then we peeled the potatoes and yams and prepared the vegetables for our chef to cook and season to perfection. When the customers had finished lunch at the café, we set the tables, decorated, and began cooking in their kitchen. Our guests soon arrived, and just before we were ready to serve dinner, a reporter showed up to interview us. Our chefs explained the menu, and we all had trouble trying to explain the cranberry sauce. The word for cranberry in our French/English dictionary did not mean anything to the French, and they did not recognize it by sight or flavor. That explains why we could not find any fresh cranberries here and had to ask English friends to bring us cranberry sauce from England.
Because of the skill of our chefs, our dinner was delicious. The buffet table abounded with good food, and the turkey was wonderfully moist and flavorful, an absolute American dream. The conversation and wine flowed happily around the table, and almost everyone came back for seconds.
As the first Thanksgiving for our guests, there were many questions about the dishes, especially the stuffing and the cranberry sauce.
After dinner, we set out pumpkin and mince pies, a fudge cake, a chocolate mousse cake, and an applesauce spice cake. Even though, in true Thanksgiving tradition, we had all overeaten, the desserts looked so tempting that everyone wanted to sample a bit of each. Of course, mom's cake was a big hit, and people are still talking about all of Jane's beautiful treats.
As we turned up the music for dancing, our guests surprised us with a gift. A beautiful travel book full of good ideas for exciting trips to all corners of France. They signed the book and wrote, "For the 1st Roanne Thanksgiving, thanks for a great day."
Our guests are right; it was a great Thanksgiving Day. Evenings like this must be how traditions begin; everything starts with a first.