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 chilly with blue skies when we arrived by train after a pleasant train trip. Our seats were the last in the lower TGV car, which allowed Toby to have his own place to sit for a change. He was able to hop into an empty luggage compartment behind us. Usually, he sits 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, they tell us to leave him be.
We have to buy a half-fare ticket for him, and this time his ticket required a muzzle, something new since our last train trip. But, of course, after we bought the muzzle, we carried it in our pocket, and the train's conductor never asked why he was not wearing it. Everyone just patted him on the head and said he was hands
In the taxi queue at Gare de Lyon, we did not get rejected by any cab drivers, which sometimes happens when they see 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 outfit.
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. Warmly dressed, even walking at night was pleasant.
Denise had not been to Paris since she was a child, so we did a walking tour in many of the major tourist sights on our first full day together. 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, 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 checked it off, we played tourist with them.
On the 31st, after a leisurely and delicious dinner, we decided to take a walk. The moon was full and the sky clear, and we walked around enjoying Paris, stopping here and there, and eventually headed over to the Eiffel Tower. As midnight approached, we watched the tower disappear into the fog. There were many people gathered together to watch the lights flash in the new 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 restaurant windows seeing all the people sitting at tables wearing their party hats.
It was a fun week. Denise and Mick 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 means it's more congenial.
Here in Roanne, we can go to a famous restaurant or a fascinating 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 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 we recently attended.
Our young port neighbor 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 showed the school's teaching methods and demonstrated to the parents how their children progressed 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. Their teacher put the students through their paces. They did their best, but occasionally they became distracted and lost track of what they should do next.
If the little girls at the ballet bar were not performing correctly, their teachers would call out their names, sometimes more than once. This cultural difference, where the teachers were not worried about destroying their students' self-esteem, amused us. 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 evident love of dancing. Someday we may have to make a special trip to Paris to see her on the Opéra Garnier stage.
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 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 10 am. 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 French broadcast was like sitting in the stands in New Orleans. There were no commercial breaks, and it included the half-time show. 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 là là's," "Formidables!" and the occasional "Oh Bébé!" Each week they show the Monday Night Football game and one other NFL game. 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 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.
Chandeleur 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, financial good fortune will bless you. Martine made the crêpes, explained what to do, and everyone lined up to take a turn flipping. Bad crêpe catches might mean some of our friends will 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 worldwide, but we celebrated it with the same enthusiasm. Everyone wore masks, and even the dogs were invited. The fun began when Otilia brought out a little bag containing the item that we like best about French parties, the pea shooter. Small colored Styrofoam balls were soon flying through the air and bouncing off 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 more popular as people return to their boats after spending winter at home. Martine and Otilia always prepare something to please everyone, and there is never a shortage of wine. Lunch lasts about 3 hours, followed by boules if the weather permits. Our February lunch was on such a beautiful day that no one wanted to go inside after our boules match, so we joined the parade of French port strollers and took a walk around the port.
Now that we have made all of our winter improvements, and there are no more parties scheduled for a while, it is time for a break; we will pack up the car and head south for our spring vacation. Toby is already waiting in the car, smiling, just thinking of the fun we will 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 already filled the streets along the Cote d'Azur's beach towns, 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 glad to be back in Antibes.
Strolling together along the busy harbor with our friends, we stopped to look at the enormous 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 of us who already has his own crew, decided he wanted the yacht with the helicopter on top.
After a couple of fun evenings 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. Living out of our suitcases and finding hotels for the night 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 in your home, including the kitchen sink.
The Capestang Bridge is famous in the barge community for its minimal dimensions. It prohibits many barges, including ours, from cruising on the Canal du Midi, so we wanted to visit some of the towns along this famous 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 in Castelnaudary and found it a very relaxing stop. Like many small towns along the canal, the restaurants and tourism-related businesses were not yet open for the season, so we had lunch and dinner in the only restaurant open near the canal. They greeted us like regulars after the second day.
In Carcassonne, 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.
Our pace had slowed enough 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&Bs 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 ponies 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 with the other guests forced us to converse in French with our dinner companions; we were happy 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 beautiful B&B, again offering table d'hôte. At the Relais de La Vergne, dinner was with the owners and the guests, and once again, we were the only non-French. We decided that this would be a delightful 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 post office bikes' repairs. 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 effect 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 autoroute to 6 kilometers per hour limit on the canals.
Small children and their dogs 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 the French company we hired to repair our steel canopy frame move more slowly than we do as we cruise along. Which explains why after almost two weeks of daily travel, 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. 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, 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 some improvements here and there. And not only that, when he saw that being stranded here in his yard was beginning to get us down, he organized a campfire and sing-along that cheered us right back up again.
This year we promised ourselves that we would travel slowly, with no schedules, no deadlines, no hurry.
We planned to cruise north to Nancy, then west through the Champagne region to Paris, before heading back home to Roanne. So far, we have been following that plan. We have not been able to keep a schedule because of a series of small problems, no deadlines because we can't even get started, and we certainly have not hurried. We are only a little more than 2 hours away from Roanne by car. Still, we are having a wonderful time.
We left the Canal du Centre and sailed smoothly up the Saône, heading for Saint-Jean-de-Losne to wait for a spot in one of their dry docks. We had a minor barge problem, but we could only repair it out of the water.
It has been two years since we have been in St. Jean with our barge. It felt like we were coming home when we cruised into port.
We lived in nearby Saint-Symphorien-sur-Saône from January to August 2000, and during that time, we grew to love this town. We bought our barge here, had her remodeled here, renamed her here, and learned to drive here; this town is full of memories for us. We called Nathalie, the owner of the gîte where we lived, to tell her that we were on our way and that we looked forward to seeing her again.
After we arrived and moored, we walked into town to do some errands. What a treat; everywhere we looked, we saw familiar smiling faces. Mme. Breuil at the bakery smiled when we walked into her shop. She wanted to know what we had been doing since we cruised away two years ago.
Nelly and Marc at France Decor gave us hugs and kisses and remembered that Toby loved the duck-flavored dog cookies that they keep behind the counter. They said, "You can talk now." about our French. They are as funny as always, and only their shop looked different. They remodeled it last year.
We went across the street to buy a newspaper, and Joel greeted us and gave us the news that he had sold his shop and was retiring the next week. He commented on our French also, and we told him that Toby was learning French too. We had Toby do some tricks in French to the delight of everyone in the shop. "Il est bilingue.", they all said.
Later, walking up the main street toward the river, we heard someone calling our names and turned around to see Nathalie running up the road, waving hello to us. That made us happy to be back, even if we had hoped to be well on our way north to Nancy by now.
Since Saint-Jean-de-Losne is a crossroad on the inland waterways and the largest harbor on the Saône river, you can almost always count on finding boating friends here or nearby at Bourgogne Marine on the canal du Rhône-au-Rhin. A bike ride around town takes longer than expected as you stop saying hello to friends you have met before on the canals. The boating community is like a small floating village. Everyone is so friendly, and in a foreign country, if you meet another boater who speaks your language, you are almost always immediate friends. If we have to be stranded somewhere for a while, this lively little town is the best choice.
For over a year, good friends from San Francisco were planning to visit us while they were vacationing in Paris. As luck would have it, the timing of their trip found us still under repair. Knowing that we would not be able to cruise while they were here, we hopped on a train and went back to Roanne to pick up our car. We kept our fingers crossed that we would not still be in the dry dock when they arrived, and luckily we came out just after we met them at the train station. Getting out of dry-dock and seeing old friends' familiar faces was reason enough to celebrate with our favorite champagne.
In between our work projects, we were able to be on vacation with our friends. We did things that we never had time to do two years ago while remodeling the barge. Dole, Beaune, and Dijon all have lively markets on different days of the week, and we had been to them all before, but this time we went as tourists and stayed to enjoy café lunches.
Since we were just minutes away from the Côte-d'Or, we toured several wine villages. One of our best days was spent in Meursault, wine tasting before and after a leisurely lunch. When we moved from our mooring near the dry-dock to the gare d'eau, we went through the lock, and then we took a cruise on the river just because the sun was shining and it seemed like a good idea at the time. That's what vacations are all about, doing what you want when you want.
Who needs a schedule anyway? We know so many people who are also in town right now that we might decide to stay for a while longer. After all, this is what we were looking forward to during those months of hard work two years ago, having the time to enjoy the sunset from our back deck with good friends and a glass of wine.
The lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer in Saint-Jean-de-Losne reminded us of some of the resort areas near San Francisco that we knew as kids, like the Russian River or Lake Tahoe, where the days were long, full of simple pleasures, and time passed slowly.
Relaxing on our back deck one day, we watched a small parade of bateaux vapeurs, (steam engine boats) glide by looking very Monet-like among the lily pads.
The lazy pace established during a record-breaking heatwave meant that the biggest event of the day was strolling into town to find a café with a table in the shade. Going to the café almost always included bumping into friends who had the same idea.
The coolest café in town was L´Amiral, with a breeze from the river on one side and its outdoor tables shaded by the constant shadow of the church on the other. From there you could see who was coming and going on the river and the main street in town. The atmosphere in St. Jean was so pleasant that even though everyone talked about leaving, no one ever did. We were not the only boaters who came for a week and stayed for six
One festival after another filled the warm evening air with music and laughter. Sitting by the river during a performance of Le Club Country, the local line dancing group, we all tried working on the lyrics for a country-western tune with the title of Stuck in Saint-Jean-de-Losne Again or The Boatyard Blues.
With a large group in attendance at L´Amiral for dinner one night, we formed the St. Jean chapter of the Hotel California Club. Many of us had completed our work but still remained in town. As the song said, we decided that you could check out, but you could never really leave.
When we were kids, we never wanted to leave the summer resort either, but back then, we had our parents to tell us when it was time to go. We set a "get out of town" deadline for ourselves and then changed it when we realized that we would miss the blessing of the boats by only one week. Staying meant that we could enjoy La Fête de la Musique with friends.
One of our favorite nearby towns is Dôle, and we decided to go there for the national music festival, which is held in every city, town, and village each year on the summer solstice. Just like last year in Paris, music was around every corner. The European champion youth brass band played in front of the church, and people listened from their balconies. There were rock bands and jazz groups everywhere. As in Paris, everyone was out enjoying the evening.
The next evening, we moved out onto the Saône to enjoy yet another festival on the eve of the blessing of the barges. There was a local contest for selecting Miss du pays Losnais, baton twirlers, carnival booths, and a county fair atmosphere.
Sunday was a bright and sunny morning, thankfully not as hot as it had been. Everyone was in place on their barges with all flags flying and sun umbrellas in place, awaiting the morning mass that preceded the blessing of the boats.
We had never seen a priest saying mass in a captain's cap before, and the alter boys
providing shade during communion service added to the festive feeling of the day.
After mass on the local restaurant boat serving as the church, the priest, altar boys and choir, and local dignitaries boarded a launch. They sailed out onto the Saône behind us, and with his hand raised, the priest sent a good sprinkling of holy water flying towards us. He blessed our barge and our flag as well. We sighed in relief and immediately felt better, confident that we could continue cruising without having any new problems.
Back in the harbor that night, the sun set on a beautiful day, we said so long to our friends, and early the next morning we cast off and began, yet again, our summer cruising adventure.
The joy of summer cruising is not knowing what you will find around the next bend. If you worry too much about sticking to your original itinerary, you may rush right past the most interesting little village or an opportunity to make new friends.
Studying our charts told us that we should save our plans to travel on the Canal de l'Est to Nancy for another season and that instead, we should take the Canal de la Marne à la Saône. That would get us to where we wanted to be mid-summer without having to hurry.
Since we were also in need of time to regroup after all of the events and dinners with friends in St. Jean, this rural canal fit right into our new plans. The weather was lovely, and for a week or two, we were out in the middle of nowhere enjoying the quiet of nature. Cruising past farmland, seeing more hay rolls and cows than people, we slowly made our way north from the Saône River to the Marne River.
After leaving the canal, we entered the Marne River, arriving in Epernay the day before la Fête Nationale (Bastille Day). We learned that the parade on the 14th of July would begin at 10 in the morning at Place de la Republique. We went there early with our friends who were visiting from San Francisco, found a table at a café and watched, over coffee and croissants, as the parade started forming.
Band members sat at the next table, and we relaxed until we saw them leave; then we followed them out. We had time to say hello to some of the firemen before we settled in to enjoy the parade.
From two blocks away, we could hear the soldiers singing as the Army marched in, signaling the beginning of the ceremonies.
The Veterans took their places in front of the war memorial, each carrying their unit's flag, and the band began to play. Men in uniform received medals, the band played La Marseillaise, and everyone paraded off down the Avenue de Champagne.
Not only did we have front row seats, but after the ceremony ended, one of the firemen we met earlier was kind enough to find us in the crowd and invite us back to the firehouse for champagne.
We dashed back to the port, hopped into our friends' rental car, and, checking our map, found the Caserne de Pompiers on the outskirts of town.
As we walked into their social hall, they announced us as visiting San Francisco firefighters. All of the pompiers applauded and offered us glasses of champagne. We toasted both fire departments, and everyone made us feel incredibly welcome. They gave us a tour, some T-shirts and other trinkets, and we left with big smiles on our faces.
The Epernay fire department is a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters. Daniel Legrand, a volunteer for over 30 years who is also a local champagne producer, took us under his wing. Because of the fire department brotherhood, we quickly formed a friendship.
That night he came by the port, bringing two bottles of his champagne. We sampled a bottle and placed an order for a case.
We explained that we needed a special Champagne to serve our Roanne friends at our next Thanksgiving party. When we went to Daniel's house to pick up our order, we met his wife, Michelle, and they invited us in and opened a bottle of their best champagne. We visited for a while, and they invited us back the next day for their family barbecue.
Sunday lunch is one of our favorite French traditions, but usually, we have to enjoy our lunch in a restaurant. Being invited to the home of new friends made the day very special for us. Arriving at noon, they introduced us to their family, and everyone went out of their way to make us feel comfortable. Daniel mixed up a champagne punch, fired up the barbecue, and Michelle started bringing out the food.
The pace of the day was slow and relaxing. With liberal amounts of delicious food, wine, and lively conversation, the day progressed. Time moved slowly, and we felt as though we were in the middle of a French film. We returned home at 8 pm, full of appreciation for the Legrand family and their hospitality.
To the Epernay Fire Department, "Merci et soyez prudents".
Damery, a little Champagne village on the Marne River, is so pretty that we almost forgot to leave.
While we were there, the days were sunny and warm with big puffy clouds in the sky, and the nights were peaceful and moonlit. Or maybe it was just the overwhelming beauty of the river and the rolling vine-covered hills that made it seem that every day was perfect. Swans gliding gracefully by our barge, and the fact that small Champagne houses dot the village did nothing to dispel the illusion that we had caught a bollard in paradise.
Days drifted by as quietly as the swans. We waved at boats passing on the river, and pontoon neighbors came and went, but we just stayed because it was too beautiful to leave. We worked a bit on the boat, took walks, and rode our bikes through the vineyards. We became regulars in all of the shops in town and the friendly café just a few steps from our mooring.
Friends rode their bikes over from where their barge was moored on the canal above Reims. They left in the morning, and they arrived looking pretty peppy after a five-hour bike trip. They came to spend the weekend visiting and to watch the end of the Tour de France with us.
When life is this pleasant, time passes very quickly, and we were surprised to look at a calendar one day and realized that we had already been in Damery for a month. For the second time this summer, we found that we had fallen into a time warp. It was time to move along.
A couple of days before we left Damery, we went on one final champagne tour with our pontoon neighbors, an American couple on a sailboat who were making their way to Tunisia for the winter. We didn't need to buy any more champagne, but it is always fun to taste with friends.
As we were walking into Damery to start our tour, we passed a small champagne house that caught our eye because there was an old American flag hanging on the courtyard's back wall. We peeked in, but no one was around. We lacked the nerve to tap on the door because it looked more like the door to a house than a business. We continued into town and found tasting rooms that were a little more formal, and we spent a pleasant afternoon sampling and buying champagne.
On the way home, we again passed the courtyard with the American flag, but this time we were braver. We walked in and found the family busy putting labels on bottles. We didn't want to disturb their work, but the owner and father of the family, Maurice Gonel, stepped forward and said he would be delighted to open a bottle for us, which he did. He poured very generously and took a glass for himself. He then said we must try a different blend and again poured full glasses for everyone, including himself.
A friend of his stopped by and joined our tasting, which was taking place in the courtyard. A delivery truck pulled in; Maurice signed for the delivery and invited the two guys from the truck to join our tasting. He brought out more glasses, another bottle and refilled everyone's glass. Then he asked if we wanted a tour of his cave. "Of course!" we all said, and the tour began. Caves ran under many of the homes in this village. During the war, the houses were destroyed, but not the caves. When he was young, Maurice helped his father expand the caves by doing the digging himself. Maurice is a small guy, but his personality is huge. His jokes are funny, and he is a firm believer in never leaving an empty glass empty. He explained the whole process of champagne making in a small family business. They don't freeze the bottle's neck to disgorge the sediment as the large champagne houses do. Maurice demonstrated his technique which was all skill. He lifted one of the bottles from the rack, gave it a gentle shake, and popped the cap expelling the sediment without losing a drop of champagne.
We enjoyed the demonstration, and we all had a drink from that bottle to toast his skill. When his Champagne tour was over, he mentioned his pinot noir, a private supply, not for sale. Did everyone want to try some of that? That brought out a big "bien sûr!" from the two French guys. Hopefully, they didn't have any more deliveries to make that day. Off we went to the back of the cave. Along the way, Maurice pointed out private cellars for himself and each of his two sons. He told us that it is a French tradition to purchase wine from the year a son is born and then present the collection to him upon his marriage. One son was born in a good vintage year, and Maurice had laid down a full range of the very best French wine labels from that year. The other son, born in a bad vintage year, had bottles from the year before and the year after. The collections were fabulous. We asked Maurice if he would adopt us.
When we reached an area lined with barrels, Maurice used a glass siphon to pull the wine from an oak barrel and pour it into our glasses. First, we tasted the 1999 vintage. It was as good as he had promised. Next, we sampled the 2000 vintage, which was different but equally good.
Suddenly, standing there in the cool air of the cave with our glasses full of pinot noir, we realized that this was one of those special moments, the kind that happens when you have the time to relax and let the day go in any direction it wants to take. Looking over at Maurice and his friend and the two delivery guys standing behind them, everyone smiling and enjoying themselves as much as we were, we knew that this was one champagne tour we would never forget.
After we finally pried ourselves off the dock at Damery, we cruised along the Marne to Château Thierry to meet our niece and her boyfriend, who had come to visit us. It was great to see them again. We began a leisurely cruise toward Paris, stopping at rural moorings along the way. The summer weather cooled off, the skies turned gray, and we brought out our jackets and umbrellas. On our last stop on the Marne River, before moved onto the Seine and entered Paris, we spent a rainy but pleasant day in Meaux.
We had called ahead and received permission to enter the Arsenal, the pleasure boat port near the Bastille. After settling in and spending a few days taking care of business, we could once again enjoy Paris.
Last year we discovered that Paris had improved the bike lanes throughout the city, and we couldn't wait to hop on our bikes and go sightseeing.
Last year we discovered that Paris had improved the bike lanes throughout the city, and we couldn't wait to hop on our bikes and go sightseeing.
The bike lanes are marked, some have barriers to protect you from the traffic, and they have traffic signals. We were amazed to see how much ground we could cover by breezing along with the Paris traffic. We flew around Paris, enjoying the sights and stopping whenever we saw something of interest. After making a circuit along both sides of the Seine, we found that by merely following whatever bike lane was in front of us, we saw neighborhoods that we had never seen before without caring where we were going. And this year, just like when we were kids in San Francisco, most of our bike trips ended up at the beach.
Someone in charge in Paris was very daring this year. They closed off more than three kilometers of a busy Paris roadway along the Seine with the sole purpose of creating a beach. Paris Plage was open from mid-July to mid-August along the right bank, starting near the Bastille. The typically busy street became a long promenade filled with happy pedestrians, bike riders, and rollerbladers. They brought in sand on either side of the roadway and created a beach complete with palm trees, beach chairs, and sunbathers.
It was well done. There were snack bars with tables and chairs under the shade of the trees next to the river. The cool air and the excellent acoustics under bridges drew street musicians, and an ever-changing audience as the crowds strolled by. At the beach, you could rent a bike, take rollerblade lessons, or play boules on the courts they had created.
A long cool traffic tunnel, now closed to cars, became a trendy place to bike or rollerblade, especially on hot days. If that didn't cool you off enough, there were misting stations full of wet little kids no matter what the weather.
Bateaux Mouches, full of tourists, flew by on the river creating waves slapping on the shore and adding to the beach illusion.
We always returned to the beach at the end of our bike rides because of its playful atmosphere. Even on days when the sun barely broke through the clouds, we never saw an empty beach chair and everyone always seemed to be enjoying themselves.
The beach and the bike lanes are just two more reasons why we love returning to the city known throughout the world for its savoir-faire.
When it was time for us to leave the comfort of the Paris Arsenal, the pleasure boat port near the Bastille, and cruise out onto the busy Seine River, we did so with the same reluctance that we always have when it's time to leave Paris. No matter how long we stay, it never seems long enough.
Out on the Seine, we once again marveled at the huge barges that cruise so gracefully along, families working and living together, flying through their day on their way to pick up or deliver their payload.
They have priority in the locks, and we know to wait patiently aside until they enter the locks first. Even if the rule books didn't say so, it wouldn't take too much to convince you to give them the right of way.
It took two days on the river to arrive at Moret sur Loing on the Canal du Loing. Moret is a charming medieval village that attracts many visitors. Riding along on the bike path to town we saw people fishing, boating, enjoying a picnic, swimming or just walking along the river. Families being together or couples being alone, everyone was out enjoying a sunny day in very pretty surroundings.
Entering town and riding along the narrow cobblestone streets was a bumpy but pleasant experience. We made a tour around town and then settled into comfortable chairs at a sidewalk café to watch the world go by. After a few days, our friends on Pelican arrived to join us once again. We had been meeting them on and off all summer, as we were all following the same route. Meeting friends always requires cocktails on the back deck. It's a boating rule. Heading back to our home port in Roanne along this canal, we knew that we would be seeing old friends all the way home.
As we cruised closer to the towns of Montargis, Rogny and Briare, we started passing all of the hotel barges that travel in the upper Loire valley. They travel with vans to take there passengers to Renaissance châteaux, medieval towns, the beautiful aqueduct at Briare and famous wine villages like Sancerre; the same places that we like to visit.
The crews on the hotel barges are good sources of information about what to see and do in the areas that they cruise. They also usually know about any problems ahead in the canals.
We love waving to the mostly American passengers as they cruise by, and surprising them by saying "Hi, where are you from?". They are always so friendly, and when we moor near them at night, they often come over to ask how we came to be living on a barge in France.
This is the same canal that we took home last year, and we were happy to know that good moorings were ahead. We wanted to stop again in Ménétréol to make the long trip up the hill to the wine village of Sancerre. Since we stopped here last year, we knew that to plug into the electricity here, we would have to knock on the door of the little lady who lives across the street and has the key to the box.
The pressure was on because we were arriving just before noon, and we know better than to tap on her door during her lunch. She is French, after all, and lunch is sacred. We hurried and moored as quickly as we could. We were pleased to see that it was 15 minutes before noon. Lucky us, we thought, until the little lady scolded us for interrupting her lunch. She said that we would have to wait until after she finished her lunch before plugging in our electricity. We quickly jumped into the "We have a little problem, please help us." mode that seems to work best for getting what you need in France. We added our most pleading looks, she stared at us for a while, and then she very reluctantly agreed to come over and open the little door to the electrical box.
That problem solved, we were free to explore Sancerre, have lunch at one of the outdoor cafés on the square, and stock up on some of the town's famous wines.
Back on the canals, heading to Roanne for our third winter there, nothing much happened, and that was fine with us. We relaxed and enjoyed the scenery.
Slipping confidently into our mooring in Roanne, even though it was a tight squeeze, we recognized how much our skills have improved over the last two cruising seasons. We tied off our lines, plugged into our city power supply, and reconnected our land telephone line. We suspended both of these services for the summer, and we had called ahead to reactivate them.
Every October, at the end of our cruising season, our boat becomes our house. With 30 amps of power supplied by the city, we no longer have to be careful about which appliances are on at the same time. With our landline, we can use our speakerphone to call family and friends back home, or we can search for information on the Internet with our computer. After we pick up our car from its summer garage, we will be ready to settle in for the winter.
Shortly after we returned to Roanne, friends from San Francisco called to say that they were on vacation in the South of France and invited us to visit. We hopped in our car and went to see them. They are old SFFD friends who, because they love to travel, we have seen as often over here as we did back home. This time they were trying out a house exchange in the Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur region.
Their house was in the countryside near the village of Barcelonnette, which, the owner told them, was a two-hour drive north of Nice. French drivers familiar with the roads might make the drive in two hours, but the trip took our American friends almost four hours as they wound their way over the summit on narrow two-lane roads.
We drove in from the north along similar roads, at one time getting stuck behind a tractor. We followed along slowly behind the tractor, thinking that we had no other options on such a narrow road. Suddenly a car came from behind and flew around both of us, disappearing around the bend. We were flabbergasted!
Soon other cars came up behind us and without hesitation did the same thing! It didn't matter that they passed around blind curves, with the mountain on one side and a steep drop to the valley below on the other. This death wish style of driving would explain the discrepancy between the two-hour French driving time and the four-hour time for our friends.
We arrived, only one hour behind schedule, and as planned, and found our friends waiting for us at an outdoor café in town. They had been to the town's farmers' market and wanted us to come back to the house for lunch. But first, we sat in the warm October sunshine and toasted our meeting with a glass of champagne, a custom we have enjoyed since our first reunion in Paris. When we went back to their house, we opened the guest room's shutters and found a fabulous mountain view.
Our friend Jim is a chef, and he and Mary have authored cookbooks, so not surprisingly, our lunch was an inventive and delicious salad that we enjoyed with local wine, bread, and cheese from that morning's market. We talked the afternoon away as we caught up on the news from home. Reveling in the pleasure of a lazy lunch on the back deck, we asked each other, "Where are we?". Later, as we took a walk along the river, we felt more like we were in California's mountain resort area, Lake Tahoe than in southern France. In Tahoe, if we crossed the mountain, we would be in Nevada. Here, in the Ubaye valley, if we crossed this mountain, we would be in Italy.
We found Barcelonnette to be a unique village because it has a strong Mexican influence. You can buy all kinds of Mexican clothing and trinkets in the shops. The Mexican shops and restaurants were exotic in an area where the surrounding mountains made you feel like putting on lederhosen and yodeling. We were a bit confused as to what country we were visiting.
At the Mexican tourist office, la Maison du Mexique, we learned that in the early 1800s, some young people from this valley made a trip to Mexico, stayed, and became successful. Others followed over the years, and in 1845 when two men returned with fortunes in gold, and a rush to Mexico began. While many people stayed in Mexico and became citizens, several returned to France and, with their newfound wealth, brought prosperity to this mountain village. They built beautiful mansions and gave the town its Mexican flavor.
When it was time to say good-bye to this beautiful corner of France, we helped our friends clean and closed up the house. They had been using the owner's car during their stay, so we offered to drive them to Lyon, where we could all enjoy a few days enjoying the city before they had to catch their train to Germany.
Toby jumped in the back of our car, as he always does, but was disappointed to find his view out the back window blocked by luggage. He wiggled into a nap-size spot, and we didn't see him again until we arrived at our hotel in Lyon.
Lyon is a city that you could imagine Hollywood had created. Peeking into the restaurants around Vieux Lyon and Presqu'île, they all look precisely as French restaurants would look if set designers were in charge of their creation. Building murals scattered throughout the city are reminiscent of the facades created for movie sets. The farmers' market that runs for blocks along the Quai St. Antoine on the Saône River is so French in its sights, smells, and sounds and so cinematography perfect that walking through you would not be surprised to hear a movie director yell, "Cut and print."
Lyon is not far from Roanne, so we come here often during the winter. Returning with friends who enjoy good food and are enthusiastic traveling companions was a real treat. We took them to some of our favorite restaurants. We like simple bistros and traditional bouchons, places where the waiters greet Toby like an old friend, and we always feel welcome, even in our comfy clothes.
The weather was warm enough for us to enjoy dinner outside on Rue Mercière, a restaurant street crowded with outdoor tables, where the atmosphere was as delicious as the food. We ordered the rum baba dessert so that our friends could see how they bring a bottle of rum to the table in case your baba is not rummy enough.
We went to La Voûte-Chez Léa for lunch. We wanted our friends to taste their mixed green salad with fresh herbs vinaigrette so that they could try to help us figure out the secret ingredients. It is said to be the world's best salad, and we hope that our friends will be able to recreate it in their kitchen and then send us the recipe.
We had a light lunch but then ordered dessert. We were, after all, on vacation. We laughed about the rum baba dessert of the night before when our waiter placed a full bottle of calvados on the table to accompany the apple tart with calvados.
We tried walking and sightseeing to make up for all of the meals we enjoyed, but we kept stopping at outdoor cafés for refreshments instead. Sitting in the sun, enjoying how the light reflected off the old buildings, we decided Lyon would be the right place to visit if we were actors required to gain 20 pounds for upcoming roles.
Since we aren't actors, we went home.
(How to host a Thanksgiving dinner party for 26 people when you live on a boat.)
Step 1: Find two lovely people, like Martine and Otila, who will let you use their café for your party. The people you find must let you come over and rummage around in their kitchen looking for baking dishes or matching salad plates. They mustn't mind when you stop in for a drink with friends and start moving all of the tables and chairs around, trying to figure out how to seat everyone at one long table.
Step 2: Have good friends who are professional chefs. If they owned the best French restaurant in Cape Town for many years, that's even better. Having chefs as friends is probably the most crucial step in having a great Thanksgiving dinner party.
After they agree to help you with your party, hand them a couple of aprons, and let them run wild in the kitchen, where they will create masterpieces.
Step 3: Walk around the port to invite your friends. You will need to do this in person because, if some of your friends don't speak English, you may have to use some sign language to help them understand your invitation. Inviting everyone is an easy job because walking around the port is a pleasure, and your dog will be happy to go along with you.
After you invite everyone, find all of your favorite traditional Thanksgiving recipes and start making your shopping list. It will take you a long time to shop for American products in France. After you look up the word for yams in your dictionary and ask for them at the produce market, they will show you something so unfamiliar that you will decide to use sweet potatoes in your recipe instead. Don't worry about this problem as most of your guests won't know what sweet potatoes are and after your party, they will tell you that the "carrots" were delicious.
Be sure to go to the bulk spice stand at the Sunday open-air market to buy fresh spices so that you can make your mom's famous applesauce spice cake.
If you want to dance after dinner, your next job will be to listen to all of your C.D.s to find appropriate songs, songs that will make everyone want to jump up and dance. You might choose to make a composite CD that starts with a couple of French songs, like "Ricans" with lyrics about how the Americans helped the French during W.W.II, and "J'habite en France," because you do, and then you can go straight into dance music that your friends will like. Mostly Motown and Beatles, some Blues Brothers, Beach Boys, Willie Nelson, and B.B. King to add to the evening's American ambiance. You can add Y.M.C.A. so that your friends can show off their French skills by singing "igrec, emme, cé, a" while forming the letters with their arms. You could finish with Louis Armstrong's "It's a Wonderful World," knowing that everyone will dance to that.
In the weeks before your party, it will be necessary to search the Internet to find a straightforward account of the story of Thanksgiving because most of your guests will not be familiar with the holiday and its history. You can then run it through an Internet translator and print versions in French, Dutch, Swiss-German, and English. The translations will be more amusing than accurate, but at least your friends will know that you tried. While you are searching around on websites, you can find pictures of turkeys, pilgrims, and Indians to print out for your table decorations because you will not find these items in France.
The week before Thanksgiving, at your chefs' request, you can walk over to the plumbing supply store near the port to buy a length of plastic drainpipe. When you see that another neighbor has set up his table saw out in front of his barge, you can run over with your pipe and ask him to cut it into equal pieces. Then you can take the cut pieces of pipe to your chefs' boat, where they will use them for molds for the Ceviche of Salmon in Watercress Sauce starter. Thanks to the drainpipe, they can be made and chilled ahead of time and then gently pushed onto the plate and topped with caviar just before dinner is served.
Early on Thanksgiving morning, look out your kitchen window to see if the Café Santa Monica is open before you run over to borrow something else, like a cup of sugar or another baking dish. They will be happy to see you, as they always are, and you will need to be sure to kiss everyone while saying "Ça va?" "Ça va!" You will make many trips between your boat and the café before your guests arrive, but you will only have to kiss the first time.
Be very careful when you are running back and forth decorating, setting the tables, and carrying over the apple and sausage stuffing, homemade cranberry sauce, baked sweet potatoes basted with lime, brown sugar, and dark rum sauce, and your mom's famous cake. Because you have a lot to do and it is getting late, it will be tempting to try to dash across the busy street when you see a tiny break in the traffic. Please don't do it. With your arms full, you will be a bigger target.
Later in the afternoon, just before your guests arrive, your chefs can drive the turkey from their boat to the café, delivering him to his place of honor on the buffet table. With your chefs, you will have just enough time to finish the canapés and then dash back to your boat to change into something nice before your guests arrive.
Voilà, a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner in the middle of France.
C'est simple comme bonjour.