Back in Roanne
Our California vacation was fun and easy on our brains because we could speak the language and understood the culture. If we wanted information, we could ask without having to look up words in the dictionary first. The day after we arrived in San Francisco, we went shopping for a prepaid SIM card for our French cell phone. We asked many questions, explaining that we were visiting from France; we said that we just wanted to buy a card that would allow us to make calls on our tri-band phone during our visit.
As we were paying for the card, the salesman said, "Where did you learn your English? You speak it very well".
One language down; one to go. In the hope that someday someone might tell us that we speak French well, a few weeks after we arrived back in France, we repacked our suitcases and drove toward Lyon to a small village in the Beaujolais region. We settled into our room in the farmhouse at Fondvielle Language School and went for a walk around the nearby town of St.Vèrand. That evening we met our classmates, teachers, and some of their neighbors and friends at a cocktail party before dinner. Since only French was allowed, it was like diving into the deep end of the pool on your first day of swimming lessons.
We exchanged stories about why we chose to live in a country where we had to learn to speak a new language, and we tried to find the words to express what it is that makes France such a lovely place to live. We have had this conversation many times with friends in the boating community.
After they cleared away the breakfast dishes, our classroom appeared, and our school day began. We were seven, eight if you count Toby, divided into two classes by our ability level, with one group in the farmhouse and one in the main house.
We had morning and afternoon classes, and we did our homework in the hours in between. Our plans to walk in the countryside each afternoon usually gave way to the greater need to finish this task. Writing an essay is a slow process when you have to look up some words' meaning and check the spelling on most. Each night as dinner time approached, we brushed off the eraser dust before heading to the main house to enjoy a delicious dinner of traditional Lyonnaise dishes served with a generous supply of the local Beaujolais wine.
French was the language of choice at dinner, and with a teacher at each end of the table and a full day of speaking French already behind us, it was easy to relax and enjoy the evening.
Just like when we were kids, the school work was hard, and we complained about the amount of homework, but we also laughed often, and we're pleased to be in the company of our teachers and classmates. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
When our week was over, we said our thank you's and goodbye's and drove to Lyon to do some errands. We marched up to salespeople full of new confidence and described what we were looking for with more ease than ever before. We were in and out of each store in a flash, proving that paying attention in class and doing your homework helps you succeed in life. We rewarded ourselves with a nice lunch.
Our little village is on the move again. Friends whose company we have enjoyed all winter are again heading north, south, east, and west.
Almost every day, we go to the lock to wave goodbye and say, "See you in October." to another boat. The port is beginning to look a bit empty.
We're not lonely, though, because good friends from home just arrived to cruise with us and help us get our canal legs again.
During the winter months, we could forget while our boat is moored in Roanne and acting as a house, how enjoyable it is to cruise along the canals in our home when it has become a boat again. But every year, the minute we pass through that first lock, we remember exactly why we choose this life.
Sunny, spring days and friends on board made our first week especially fun. There is only one canal in and out of Roanne, so we have traveled it several times before, but this time with enthusiastic friends on board, we saw the journey with new eyes. Their trip over from the states was a quick one. They just needed a short break from their busy lives back home, and they enjoyed the fact that along the canals keeping track of time means occasionally asking, "What day is it?".
At Digoin, we waved goodbye as their train pulled out of the station. Then we walked back to the boat, cast off, and continued along on the canal du Centre. Our destination this season is Strasbourg, near the German border. We are in no hurry to get there, which is fortunate because our travel speed is unbelievably slow. One day as we were cruising along, we noticed two young women pushing baby carriages. They were walking along the towpath that runs parallel to the canal. They had been keeping up with us for a while, but then we found a straight stretch, and we were able to speed up a bit. That made us happy because we didn't want to think that we were traveling at baby carriage speed. We have often said that we travel at butterfly speed, which is just as slow, but somehow it sounds so much more romantic.
Canals twist and turn their way through the countryside, with the tight turns and narrow bridges acting like speed bumps, while the locks are forced rest stops. Because of the tight turns, the bridges, and the locks, the women with the baby carriages eventually caught up with us. We waved to them while we were still in the lock, and they waved back and laughed as they passed us up again.
Eclaircie Moored in Paray-le-Monial
Paray-le-Monial is a pilgrimage site in modern-day France, a town whose spirituality began during the Middle-Ages, so we thought it was appropriate to stay here for a few days over the Easter weekend to enjoy the beauty of the village.
We rode our bikes into town on market day and filled up our baskets and saddlebags with wonderfully fresh produce, local cheeses, homemade sausages, and regional wines. Our winter neighbors from Roanne were coming to moor behind us, and after our trip to the market, we had all of the ingredients to make them dinner on our back deck.
When we went out to catch their lines, we saw that their dog, Malcolm, was on deckhand duty, running along behind Jadel everywhere she went. He looked like he wanted to help.
Like us, "Festina Tardé" took 4 days to cruise from Roanne to Paray. Later, when our friends from "Eleanor" drove up from Roanne in their car, we all commented that it only took them one hour to make the same trip by car.
Everyone stayed for the weekend and enjoyed a delicious Easter Sunday lunch at Hostellerie des 3 Pigeons.
After a great weekend with our friends, we moved on to Montchanin at the Canal du Centre summit, where we moored in our mechanic's boatyard.
Jeff gave us the mooring spot next to his newly acquired 1954 Andre Citroen, type 55, series U, No. 912320, fire engine. He uses the fire engine around his yard, mainly to lift boats out of the water.
When the local fire department learned that Jeff had a working fire engine, they asked him if they could use it in their volunteer fire department as a reserve unit.
After thirty years as a San Francisco fireman and many years of mustering as members of the California Firemen's Muster Association, we felt right at home with the fire engine parked next to us. It has been several years since we have been to a muster, and musters were always so much fun that we're wondering if they have them in France. If they do, maybe we could enter Jeff's engine in the motorized events. And since all boaters have at least one bucket on board, we could probably put together a pretty good bucket brigade team by just calling a few friends. Who knows, maybe we could even win a trophy.
Our dear sweet dog Toby (March 19, 1994 - May 7, 2003) was our constant companion and goodwill ambassador. Taking immediately to his new life in France, he learned the language, nobody could say more with their eyes than he could, and he quickly acquired the savoir-faire of a native. Toby helped us meet people wherever we went and became known as a bon vivant along the French canals. He adored fine dining, and because of his impeccable restaurant manners, he was always warmly welcomed.
Dr. Isabelle, his vet in Roanne, who had been taking care of Toby during his illness, said about him, "C'était un chien tellement attachant et Toby restera toujours pour moi la gentillesse incarnée du golden retriever."
We agree, he was the most endearing dog, and his gentle presence added so much to our lives. Now, we miss him, and our boat feels so quiet and empty.
So, what do you do when you're sad and miss your sweet dog? We decided to take two French teenage girls on board for a short cruise, hoping that they would distract us, make a little noise, and fill up all of that vast, empty space where Toby used to be.
Nina had been our French teacher when we first arrived in France. We were next-door neighbors when we were living in her mom's gîte in St. Symphorien. We had initially booked our room for two months while we made some changes to our newly purchased barge, but since remodeling projects always take longer than expected, we ended up staying there for seven months.
We hired Nina to come over a couple of evenings a week to help us learn French. At the time, she didn't speak English, but she would come over with a blackboard, chalk, children's books, and sometimes a shopping bag full of items from her kitchen that she would show us and ask, "Qu'est-ce que c'est?". She was always very well prepared for our lessons, and she tried her best not to laugh at our mistakes. She was ten then, and now she is thirteen and studying English in school. She needs to practice speaking English, so we thought it was only fair to pay her back for all of those evening lessons three years ago.
After several discussions over dinner with Nina's mom, Nathalie, we worked out the details for a short test trip with Nina and her friend Emilie to see how it would go. Since having them on board to learn English would also be helpful for our French, we thought that maybe they could cruise for a week with us later in the summer if all went well this time.
We had been enjoying the social scene in Saint-Jean-de-Losne for a couple of weeks, and when it was time to leave, we cruised up the river for one hour, went through one lock, and moored at Bourgogne Marine for the night. Nathalie and Nina live within walking distance of this marina, so it was convenient for them to hop on board there.
Nathalie came with the girls, and after they got settled, they went for a swim in the river before dinner. They came back refreshed and giggling, and we showed them our CD collection so that they could choose some music they liked. Speaking slowly in English, we set the table on the back deck together, naming each item that we laid out. We barbecued cheeseburgers and showed the girls how to prepare their burgers American style. We made potato salad and stocked up on sodas, and we had also bought some ice cream for dessert. We didn't know what they would want to eat, but we decided on typically American meals. Fortunately, we had also stocked up on lots of fruit, yogurt, milk, and cereal. It was interesting to see what they chose to eat during their visit. They preferred water to sodas, and they ate more of the fruit and yogurt than the American-style snacks that we had bought just for them. They did eagerly raise their hands, however, when we asked who wanted ice cream for dessert.
Early the next morning, we cast off for Dole, a lovely old city in the Jura department in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region in eastern France.
The girls sat on the bow, and we enjoyed the pleasant sound of their conversation and their laughter. We were impressed when they brought out their schoolbooks, and we worked on their English pronunciation as we traveled along on the canal. They told us that they wanted to learn to talk like Southern California surfers, so we put on a Beach Boys CD because that was the best that we could do to help.
Once in Dole, we settled into the mooring, where we would stay for a couple of days while the girls shopped in town. Later, we joined them at a café, where we spoke English together, and they had to find the words to explain what was making them giggle as they watched people walk by. Sometimes it was someone's flowery purse or an unusual pair of shoes. They had to stretch their English vocabulary to explain some of the things that they found funny.
People seemed to find us amusing too. We noticed at lunch one day that people at neighboring tables were turning around to take a peek at us because the girls were speaking English and were speaking French to correct each other's mistakes.
This odd arrangement puzzled everyone around us. Because of our accents, you could tell that they wondered how we came to be together and that they couldn't figure out why we were speaking different languages to each other.
Nina and Emilie were amusing, very well behaved, and a delight to be with, just like Toby always was. With their smiles and the sound of their laughter, they helped us begin to heal.
The transportation workers in France were striking at least one day a week during June. The strike was over important issues, but the workers must have also been happy to have time off because it was too hot and humid to work.
We cruised slowly up the Doubs River and down the Rhine River on our way to Strasbourg. We planned to stop early on days that we moved, staying a few days when we found a mooring that we liked, and not rushing at all. Usually, something comes along to change our plans, but this year the hot weather and the strikers help us keep a slow pace.
The weather was hot every day, and during the early part of the month, the one-day strikes sometimes expanded into three or four-day strikes. For us, it was lovely, like a vacation within our vacation. We rode bikes in the morning, and in the heat of the day, we relaxed in the shade on our back deck. We had time to read books and take naps. If we had a hammock, we would have been in it almost every afternoon.
In Besançon, we rode our bikes everywhere in search of a cool breeze. The path along the river was pleasant, and we often returned to the city park's shade. When we missed the little train that leaves every hour for the citadel, we decided to ride up on our bikes. From the guard tower at the fort, we could see our barge moored just below. It was a long and challenging climb up, but we created a nice breeze for ourselves on our speedy descent.
Because of all the strike days, we were in constant contact with the VNF offices. VNF stands for Voies Navigables de France, they are the people who control the French waterways, and we began each cruising day with a phone call to them to make sure that the locks ahead would be open.
The people who answered the phones in the office would never know if the lock-keepers would show up for work until they did or didn't appear at their scheduled starting time. There were several mornings where we made all of our casting off preparations and had our engine running when we called so that we could leave as soon as we got the word, only to learn that no one had shown up for work that day. It took a few false starts before we backed away from our Besançon mooring and entered the tunnel on our way to Mulhouse.
Backing up maneuvers and going through tunnels are two things that used to make us very nervous. Every cruising season, we realize that our skills have improved when we find ourselves calmly doing something we would have been afraid to attempt in our first year. In Mulhouse, we impressed ourselves by making a smooth 90-degree turn, backward, into our shady mooring.
La Fête de la Musique, France's national music festival, on the 21st of June, is one of our favorite events. On the longest day of the year, all over France, in the big cities and small villages, music fills the air, and everyone is drawn out of their homes to enjoy the summer evening. After a barbecue with other boaters at the port, we went into town to see what Mulhouse had to offer.
Walking through the park, we passed a loud band that was attracting all of the teenagers. Turning the corner, the lead singer of a rock band was prancing in front of what looked like his backup singers in the dress shop's window. On a street with several restaurants, people enjoyed American rock and roll from the '60s with their dinner. In the main square in town, in front of the Hotel de Ville, a group of native dancers from Reunion, a French island in the Indian Ocean, performed to a drums' beat. There were gospel singers in the church and an excellent youth orchestra in the cathedral. There was something for everyone.
After midnight when we began to head back to the port, we passed young families pushing sleeping babies in strollers, outdoor cafés full of music lovers, and teenagers dancing in the park. The music and the people were still going strong.
The next morning, Sunday, we took the train to Switzerland, just because both the train station and the country were close. Once in Basel, we found that they speak more German than French, and we had forgotten all about the fact that they still use Swiss francs. Suddenly, we couldn't make ourselves understood, and we had no money.
It was another hot day, and we found the city practically empty. It was too hot for the natives, and the only people we saw on the street seemed to be tourists, like us. We headed for the Rhine River and found the people. They were enjoying the restaurants, biking, or strolling along the river. We found a table on a pleasant shaded terrace in a restaurant that accepted our credit card, ordered lunch, and watched as the people and the river flow passed. After a while, we realized that we were seeing the same wet people walking purposefully by wearing their swimsuits and shoes. Some of them carried what looked like flotation devices, but we later discovered that these were waterproof packs for their clothes and towels. The current was flowing swiftly. Once we started watching these people, we found that they were walking upstream, jumping into the river, riding the strong current downstream, coming back into the shore where the river curved, getting out, walking back upstream, and jumping in again. They did this over and over again. It looked tempting.
Leaving Mulhouse, after about ten days, we were rested and ready for the challenge of a trip down the Rhine River. For the past three years, we have heard so many times that you should hire a professional pilot to take you through all of the traffic on this big river with a strong current. This portion of the Rhine was not in our French charts, so it also had a mysterious air about it. In the port of Mulhouse, we asked questions of the boaters who were familiar with the trip. They convinced us that we would not need a pilot, and armed with copies of the German charts from one particularly helpful French boater, we set off, feeling more confident but still with some apprehension.
Maybe because it was a Sunday, we did not encounter as much traffic as we had expected, but the barges that did fly past were 100 meters long, and they created ocean waves in their wake. We rocked and rolled a bit and thought of our American friends who made the same trip a few days before in a cabin cruiser.
Thanks to our German charts, we had the phone number of a port that we were approaching at the end of the day, and when we called, they said that they had space for us. Following the chart, we turned right at the top of an island and circled to the other side to find the Port de Plaisance de L'ile de Rhin. We carefully entered the port and moored along a pontoon. It was easy to moor, but we knew that we would have to think about making our exit in the morning, as there was no room to turn around. We would have to develop another brilliant backing-up maneuver to get us out without bumping into small boats or the large rocks that narrowed the entrance.
Sitting on our back deck relaxing after we did all our mooring jobs, we looked across the river and saw a German city. We looked further along and saw a bridge that we could walk over to get there. We couldn't pass up the idea of dinner in Germany, so we dressed and prepared for the long walk. The port captain and his wife were sitting in the shade near their office, and when we asked them some questions about how to best walk over, they suggested that it would be easier if the captain took us across the river in his motorboat. We happily agreed and suddenly found ourselves racing toward the city of Breisach am Rhein.
The captain delivered us to a German yacht club on the other side of the Rhine, from where we could easily walk into Breisach. Walking into town, we realized how familiar we have become with life in France. Suddenly, we wondered whether any stores would be open on Sunday, what time a restaurant might begin serving food, or even if the restaurants would be open at all.
How were we going to asked directions to get home again, since we couldn't expect to get a boat ride back? Suddenly, we were foreigners again. We have a German phrase book, but we forgot to bring it along. It was getting late and we were hungry, so we went directly in search of a restaurant. Along the pedestrian street, we found several to choose from, and we chose the one that had a shaded courtyard and the most customers.
We didn't recognize many words on the menu, and we could have used that phrasebook we left back on the boat. With some help from our waitress, who spoke a few English words, we asked for something typical of the region. We ordered a local wine without knowing whether it was going to be dry or sweet. We could have ordered glasses of beer the size of Texas, as our neighboring German diners, but since we feel now more French than German, we chose the wine.
Dinner was good, not too strange considering that we didn't know what we were ordering, and we were able to pay with our Euros. About three hours after our German experience began, we decide to call a taxi. We began to doubt that we could find our way back to our port in the dark, and we were already pretty exhausted from just trying to communicate.
Since we only know how to say please, thank you, good morning, and God bless you in German, we thought it would be better to have a taxi take us back to the French side of the Rhine River.
Our little adventures into Switzerland and Germany helped us appreciate the progress we have made in our French struggles. Spending time in countries where we didn't know more than a few words of the language helped us recognize how large our French vocabulary has become.
We now look at our French language skills as a glass half full instead of a glass half empty.
On July 14th, we were in Nancy when Le Quatorze Juillet parade started with a bang. Air Force jets appeared suddenly, flying low over the buildings. They filled the air with noise and were gone before you could tell what was happening. Boom! Whoosh! The ceremonies had begun.
The army band began playing, and military units marched past the reviewing stand, followed by a long line of tanks, missile launchers, and other pieces of military might. The crowd was still vibrating from the jets when helicopters gently followed their path.
The veterans were honored during a brief ceremony, and then the fire department appeared. The crowd applauded, and the military saluted as les pompiers marched past, leading a parade of bright, shiny red trucks. A fire department band finished up, exiting the square and disappearing onto waiting buses. Just as suddenly as it had started, the parade was over. This parade was as short as the July 14th parade we watched last year in Epernay. That parade marched around a roundabout, and this parade marched in one corner of Place Stanislas and out the other. As the crowd dispersed, we followed the locals' lead and strolled over to a nearby restaurant for lunch. While enjoying our meal, we pondered the differences between French and American parades.
At 8:30 that night, we returned to Place Stanislas for a program of music and fireworks. When we arrived, all of the cafés were already full, and we felt lucky to find a table. We thought that our seats were pretty good, as we were sitting next to the wall of the café, a little higher than everyone else, and we had a view of the whole square. We were hoping that we would have a good view of the fireworks too.
We watched the square fill up as darkness fell.
The band was good, but we had to laugh when they began their show celebrating France's national holiday with Mac the Knife. They played for a long time before we heard their first French song.
We were happily ensconced at our table, enjoying the music and watching all of the activity, while the waiters were busy trying to keep up with the crowd, which kept expanding. Friends found friends, carrying extra chairs from one table to another to squeeze in together. New tables and chairs kept appearing, spreading the café further out into the square. We were captivated by the scene when suddenly all of the lights went out, and KABOOM! An explosion filled the sky.
What was happening? Everyone around us was suddenly running for cover. Burning embers were falling from the sky. Our ears were still ringing from the noise of the explosion as we watched the waiters race to crank in the awnings before they caught fire. From our seats against the wall of the café, where the overhanging roof protected us from most of the falling flames, we could see the crowd staring over our heads with their mouths open. Cautiously, we looked up and saw that the fireworks were exploding directly over our heads. We should have been afraid, but we couldn't stop laughing. It was all so daringly French and so different from our American fireworks experiences.
Like Dorothy in Oz, we knew that we weren't in Kansas anymore.
Photos from our summer vacation
The intense summer heat made us dream of the light snowfall around the port last winter. It had been hot almost every day since June, and being cold became a vague memory and something that we looked forward to feeling again.
When canals began announcing early closing dates because of a lack of water, we pointed our bow towards Roanne and chugged along at a steady pace. This winter will be our 4th in Roanne, and we did not want to risk being locked out by canal closings.
We had planned to return to Roanne early, pack up the car and finish our summer vacation in Italy, but somehow time drifted away, and that never happened. Instead, Roanne welcomed us with its warm heart, and as the summer heat softened into fall warmth, we found ourselves enjoying the company of friends, old and new.
Cruising is always a pleasure, but so is coming home again.
We wouldn't have believed this while we were back in San Francisco working full time, but just giving up your job doesn't ensure that you will have extra time on your hands. That doesn't seem possible, but it is true. Somehow chores and social events rush in to fill up all of your newly found free time. In our case, it probably doesn't help that without our alarm clock, we get up later, or that breakfast is now a leisurely meal instead of one eaten on the run.
Without jobs, we don't need to wear watches anymore, but we couldn't do without our calendar. Our calendar is still an important tool. It helps us keep track of the days of the week. Without a job, it is easy to mix them up because Saturdays and Tuesdays flow by at the same speed.
The seasons dictate how we spend our time. While cruising, our days are full of travel and discovery, and once we return to our home port, we are busy with boat maintenance and improvements. No matter the season, we always need our calendar to help us know what month it is, and whenever we hear about an interesting upcoming event, we jot it down because otherwise, it is just too easy to miss something when the days flow by so fast.
La Table Ouverte and Le Salon de la Gastronomie were two recent food events here in Roanne that we might have missed if we hadn't marked those days and then checked the calendar.
La Table Ouverte, held at Roanne's covered marketplace, was an evening event where local food producers, from vintners to restaurateurs, provided samples to a hall full of people jostling around with a plate in one hand and a wine glass in the other. The crowd was jolly and joking, a happy and well-fed group of people, so even as crowded as it was, it was also fun. We went with friends, who we kept losing and finding again with the evening's ebb and flow, and we all agreed that it was a great event.
Le Salon de la Gastronomie, held in a large hall in Le Coteau, the town just across the Loire River from Roanne, lasted all weekend. We went with friends on a Saturday afternoon, and we liked it enough to go back again on Sunday. The hall was full of booths with vendors from all over France, and we not only found some excellent wines, but we also found hot dogs from Alsace, where the German influence means that these will taste more like American hot dogs. We had been looking for American hot dogs since we started our Monday Night Football parties.
During the winter, Tuesday nights have a big red circle around them. This year, we have fellow Californians as our next-door neighbors. Monday Night Football, which is broadcast here on Tuesday nights, has become an important American cultural event for all of us.
We have hosted a few World Cup Rugby parties with English and New Zealand neighbors, but it's good old American football that makes us feel at home.
We probably don't need to look at our calendar to remember Tuesday nights because our neighbors always show up right on time with big smiles on their faces. That's because this has become a favorite night for all of us. It is when we all comfortably slip back into our own culture. For one night a week, we understand all the rules, and the familiarity relaxes us.
Back home, we had 49er season tickets, and we always tailgated with friends before the game. We took turns bringing the food, but whoever was in charge always brought something healthy. It's different here in France.
When you live in a foreign country, no matter how happy you are to be there, you miss your own culture, and on Tuesday nights, we enjoy wallowing in ours.
Foods that remind us of home have become favorite treats just because of their warm and fuzzy memories. That's why our weekly football menu is hot dogs and Pringles, with ice cream bars as a 4th quarter treat.
Watching the fans reminds us of how much we like Americans. Since we have been in France, we have come to appreciate the friendliness and warmth of Americans.
This year we were lucky enough to have six other American boaters around our Thanksgiving table. It was lovely to enjoy our favorite holiday with people who understood and relish all of the traditions.
Living in France has also given us a greater appreciation of the endearing little quirks of our culture. What we might have once considered silly or annoying, we now find charming. Who couldn't love a fan who could wear a goofy hat with such confidence?
As soon as the local firemen come by with their 2004 calendars, we'll buy one so that we can put a big red circle around Superbowl Sunday and all of the other events that we won't want to miss next year.
The annual winter festival blew in overnight like a snowstorm. We knew that La Foire Froide would arrive, but it was still surprising to see a blanket of booths dusting the streets around our port when we woke up that morning.
Martine and Otillia, at the café across from our barge, had prepared a special lunch menu, and they knew that it would be a busy day. They opened their doors at 4:00 am to provide coffee for the vendors arriving early to set up their booths, and they were snowed under by customers for the rest of the day.
Looking out the wheelhouse windows, we realized that we were "boothed" in by the festival that fell on the port during the night. A nearby vendor noticed us and came over to ask if he could fill a container with water. We noticed that another vendor had plugged into our neighbor's electric box while we were talking with him. They were away, so we searched for Franck, the weekend port captain, and turned the problem over to him. His solution was to turn the problem over to the police patrolling the festival. When they arrived, the vendor came over and offered twenty euros for a day's worth of electricity, saying that he needed to have the power for his refrigerators. The police were okay with that idea, and Franck, who was standing behind the vendor, was busy shaking his head up and down. We accepted the money for our friends, the vendor said thank you and invited us to come over later for free andouilette. These are sausages made of chitterlings and served hot, a favorite among the French, but a taste we have not yet acquired.
At noon, we passed on the andouilette offer and headed over to Café Le Santa Monica for lunch.
They were serving Tripes à la mode or Tête de Veau, not yet home cooking to us, but they are to the French, and we went for lunch to support Martine and Otilia, who have become friends over the years since we moored across the street from their café, Le Santa Monica.
The ordinarily quick trip over to the café was suddenly tricky with all of the booths and the crowds blocking our way. We stepped gently over the birdcages at the back of a stall selling beautiful birds and fish, and we stopped when a group did to watch someone demonstrating one of those fantastic kitchen devices that you see on TV. When we finally made it to the café and opened the door, we were shocked to see how many people were inside. They had put extra tables in every available space, and there were still no empty seats.
The improvised staff consisted of Martine, Otilia, Jacky, their friend who is also our port captain during the week, Martine's friend Gui, Martine's mom, and Martine's teenage daughter. One young girl was working as a waitress; she was probably the only one getting paid.
We joked with Otillia at the bar as we came in, and when she didn't give us her typically big smile, we looked around and saw that Martine and Jacky were also missing their smiles. Everyone looked unusually stressed. We decided that we should skip lunch and offer our help instead.
We went into the kitchen to tell Martine that we would be happy to help, and a nanosecond later, we were at our dishwashing stations in the kitchen and behind the bar. Relieved from her job doing dishes in the kitchen, Martine's mom sat down with a weary sigh and put her feet up. Otilia, who had been working alone behind the bar, was delighted to have some help finally.
Since the café found itself in the heart of the busy festival, there was a never-ending stream of new lunch customers, and we worked hard to keep up with the dirty dishes and wine glasses. Drying became a problem when all of the dishtowels became ringing wet, so we dashed home through the crowds, tossed their wet towels in our dryer, and grabbed our clean supply and some aprons.
Back at work, we found our rhythm, and with any lull in dishwashing, drying, or pot and pan scrubbing, we cleared and cleaned the tables, delivered coffee to customers or anything else that we saw needed doing.
We washed, we dried, dishes went out clean and came back dirty. We were part of a team serving a good and hearty lunch to appreciative customers, and we were enjoying every minute of it. French swirled around us as they called orders into the kitchen. Crossing the café brought requests for another carafe of wine or coffees all around. Jacky called us over to speak English at different tables when customers didn't believe him when he told them that we had come from San Francisco to do the dishes in a little café in France. We worked, we joked with the customers, we fell in love with the ambiance of the day.
When the lunch rush was finally over, we dished up our plates, choosing more potatoes than Tête de Veau, and sat down at the kitchen table with our co-workers to enjoy the lunch that we had come in for more than three hours earlier. The kitchen's cozy atmosphere added to our meal's enjoyment, even with all of the interruptions as new customers kept arriving. We finished up a new round of dishes before we left to explore the fair.
We were swept away by the crowd as soon as we stepped out onto the street. Balloons in the shapes of horses, bunnies, dolphins, and Père Noël floated above the fairgoers. Traffic jams occurred at popular booths or when families ran into friends, and everyone had to kiss everyone else hello. We stopped watching demonstrations, tasting sausage samples, or watching South American Indians in full feather headdresses dance to their CDs' music. We made a full circle and ended up back at the café's outdoor tent for a mulled wine. Friends from our gym came into the tent, and after a vin chaud together, we walked into town with them.
The vendors were packing up as we returned to the port that evening, and when we arrived at the café, we found that there was more work to do. Martine's mom and daughter had gone home for dinner, and the young waitress kissed us goodbye as she was on her way out.
This time we helped put away all of the extra tables and chairs, walking them outside and around the corner to the storage room. It was a rather long trip with the tent blocking the shortest route, so it took several of us many trips to get everything neatly stored away.
Customers were still drifting in for coffee and drinks. A few people lingered at tables with wine or hot chocolate, and Martine and Otilia were both now tending the bar. They were exhausted, but we saw a spark of interest in their eyes when we offered to call for some pizzas, so we went back to our barge for the take-out menu. Everyone ordered their own small pizza, and we ordered a couple of extras for whoever might unexpectedly arrive.
Martine's boyfriend brought out a bottle leftover from his son's recent wedding, a delicious mixture of rosé wine and cherries, and we sipped our drinks as everyone finally had a chance to pull up a chair and relax around the bar.
Street cleaning crews passed in front of the café removing all evidence of the winter festival. It was disappearing as quickly as it had arrived. People kept drifting in, including the bar owner from around the corner, followed by his little black dog. This little dog loves to take himself on walks around the port, and he is quite well known for his escapades.
When the pizzas arrived, the room filled with warm and cozy aromas, and everyone moved over to one long table where we spread out the boxes and ate without dirtying any new dishes. The little black dog and Martine's dog placed themselves under the table to take advantage of falling tidbits, and everyone ate in comfortable silence.
For us, the whole day had been perfect. For this one day in France, we belonged in a way that we had not experienced since we left home with all of its comforts and familiar routines. It had been a day full of friendship, working side by side with people that we have come to know and love. There were so many moments during the day where we smiled to think that we had suddenly found ourselves happily working as dishwashers. No one would ever believe that such a simple job could make us so happy, but it wasn't the job; it was the feeling of satisfaction you get when you reach out to help a friend.
We were the last to leave that night because we wanted to help Martine and Otilia finish what had been a very long and challenging day for them. We kissed them good night, and as we went out the door, the street sweepers passed us going in. The sweepers were ready for their nightcap, and our friends would have to wait just a bit longer before they could close up after a long day and go home.