Winter was cold this year, and for a couple of weeks the water froze around our boat making ghost-like noises in the middle of the night as the hull shifted in the ice.
From the comfort of our barge, we watched fluffy snowflakes transform our port into a scene from a Christmas card.
During the coldest days of winter with our pond frozen and snow on the ground, we chose to stay at home. Ensconced in our easy chairs, we watched movies and read books.
On Wednesday evenings, we bundled up to dash across the street for "happy hour". When friends came over for dinner or for a movie night, they brought along slippers to help warm their feet up after they ran quickly from their boat to ours.In between snow storms, barge friends who are moored in the south of France came to visit us. During their stay, the weather was cold enough to keep us inside. We pulled out our "A Year in Provence" DVDs and rationed out the four seasons over two days. One season in the afternoon and another after dinner.
Watching the Mayles struggle along in their first year in France, we laughed so hard that we had to stop the movie so that we didn't miss a minute of their adventures. Nous avons ri aux larmes at the situations that they found themselves in as foreigners; we had all been there and done that.
We couldn't get over how well the movie was cast, because we had met those idiosyncratic workmen, neighbors and shop keepers. They live here. They entertain us everyday. Watching the seasons change in Provence, we tumbled back through time and re-lived our first years in France. "A Year in Provence" or "A Year on the Canals", we all had lived through those same joyful but frustrating days full of simple adventures. When we came to the end of the series, we felt as though friends were moving away, and we already missed them.
The gym has always been great place to enjoy the company of friends while getting some exercise, and we go there regularly, but with the consistently cold days we needed new activities.
Our hiking club found a bilingual member to teach an English class, and they asked us if we would come along to help. Helping them helps us because, during class, a student starts a sentence in English and finishes it in French. Then suddenly, everyone starts talking at once and jumping from one subject to another. It takes a while before that English sentence ever gets finished. To us, it feels like a French class because we get to speak more of their language than they speak of ours.
It's a fun way to spend Thursday mornings because it is a friendly group of people who are eager to learn, and also because everyone laughs a lot. It's hard not to laugh when someone says, "I am a donkey." (She lives in the country and what she meant was "I have a donkey.")
That mistake reminded us of the time that a friend of ours said, in her very best beginning French, "I am a pizza." She was trying to order a pizza, and she had worked out in her head just what she should say, but when the waiter came, she got nervous and mixed up her verbs.
Through conversations with our French friends during hikes in the countryside last fall, we learned that we could volunteer to help cook for "Les petits frères" at a monastery in the village of St. Goddard.
To provide a day off for the young brothers who usually operate the large industrial kitchen, a team of volunteers, some retired professionals, come in on Thursdays to cook for Le Commune de Saint-Jean. We were happy to join them.
The afternoon starts in the coffee room, sharing a cup of coffee with some of the brothers. They are an eclectic group of young men from all over the world. St. Goddard is the novitiate where they are required to study philosophy for three years, making for good conversations.
In the kitchen, they give us simple jobs. Usually, we make desserts. It has been a great experience, helpful for learning French and also for learning how to cook for hundreds. At St. Goddard, when we make cakes, we make about 20 of them.
One day the head chef decided on brownies for dessert. Because we are Americans, he had great confidence in our brownie skills. In his mind, I guess he sees Americans making brownies a couple of times a week, and we didn't tell him that we hadn't made them since we were kids. In the middle of making those brownies, we both had the same thought, "How did we end up baking brownies in the kitchen of a monastery in the middle of France?"
For a long time, we thought an organized tour with a French group would be cheaper and more fun than a French immersion class. No homework, more cocktails!
So when a local friend told us about an organized tour to Spain that the travel agency near her house was promoting, we jumped at the chance to spend a few days in the sun with French speakers.
For the unbelievable price of 130 euros each, the trip included:
Travel (by bus).
Four nights in a four-star hotel on the Costa Brava.
Three meals a day, including beverages (wine and beer with lunch and dinner).
We decided that we would spend more than just staying at home, so we signed up with boating and town friends.
One frosty morning, we crawled out of bed at 3:30 am to meet our bus in front of the town hall at 4:30. It was snowing as everyone climbed on the bus. We were 46 French and 4 Americans, so from the moment that we stepped on board, our immersion course began. In this course, the difference was that no one minded if you took a nap during this class, and we nodded off until the sun came up and we could glance out the windows and watch southern France rolling by.
At a rest stop, we met Le Mistral for the very first time. We had heard about this wind that blows down the Rhone, and now we understood its power as we fought our way through the legend to get a cup of coffee and a croissant.
In Spain, we piled off the bus and overwhelmed the hotel reception desk. Fifty foreigners ready for lunch, everyone wanting their room keys at the same time. The French don't form neat lines; they prefer to clump, but they are polite, and even though it looked like chaos, we were all soon checked in and enjoying a buffet lunch in the hotel dining room.
We, the four Americans, shared a table with French friends, and the Americans smiled at each other in surprise to see that it was the French women who went back for generous second helpings and extra desserts. Stereotype broken!
It wasn't warm in Spain, but the sky was blue, and you could be comfortable in just a jacket. We took advantage of the sunshine walking through town or along the beach. We explored the outdoor markets in the morning and spent lazy afternoons playing cards in the hotel bar after lunch. Other days we took the train to Barcelona where the department stores offered us products and prices that we can't get in France. Everyone remembered a good restaurant or a particular tapas bar from previous trips. We walked up one back street and down another until we succeeded in finding those spots, and we rewarded ourselves with an excellent Spanish meal or a drink and tapas. We struggled with the language and enjoyed walking along the Ramblas, with all of the other tourists, stopping to watch the street artists.
Every night after dinner at the hotel, our group gathered at the tables around the dance floor. Our bus was only one of four making this trip from Roanne. So there were about 200 French tourists in the hotel. During the evenings, we had the chance to get to know some of the people from the other buses.
Everyone enjoyed dancing after dinner. Some of the couples in our group were beautiful ballroom dancers, while others just enjoyed bouncing along with the music. French women dance together when their partners are not in the mood, so the dance floor was always crowded. We danced too, but sitting back and watching everyone was almost more fun. We applauded our favorite couples when they glided by our table and then noticed that all of the good dancers seemed to be coming by more and more often.
The French dominated the dance floor until the last day of our trip when a bus full of young Spanish families came to stay over the weekend. That evening the mood on the dance floor changed. As the music's tempo increased, we sat back and watched as there seemed to be a struggle for control between the two countries. The elegant French dancers held the floor early in the evening, but as Spanish songs began to outnumber the French songs, more and more people from our group decided that it was time to say good night. By the end of the evening, the elegantly dressed French dancers were replaced by stylish young Spanish couples in "cool outfits."
Meanwhile, back in Roanne
It wasn't until the end of March that we saw the first signs of Spring.
This winter was colder and longer than all of the others that we have spent in France, but we always felt warm and cozy in the company of good friends old and new.
Minutes and hours creep by, and days drag along, making weeks feel like months. Even our weekends go on and on and on. The pages of our calendar have stopped turning. Time has slipped into slow gear.
We have entered the time warp that happens when there is no water under your boat.
We are in the Meuse & Sambre boatyard in Andenne, Belgium, where the workers refer to us as "le petit" because we are the only pleasure boat. Our neighbors are 38 or 100 meter long commercial barges.
We came here because it was time to have a hull survey for our insurance company, and while no one ever looks forward to being out of the water, we have been eager to make some improvements that we can only do in a boatyard.
Plan A was to spend about ten days to have the survey and complete our list of work. We didn't expect that our surveyor would tell us that we needed double plating in a few places on the hull. Oops! Scratch plan A, go to plan B!
Since making one improvement in a barge can lead to the need to make another, we have moved right along through plan C to plan D. Each adjustment to our original plan adds to our time out of the water.
Time might be moving slowly for us, but the workers are moving in real-time. Every morning at 7 am when the work whistle blows; we see men with tools marching toward us. They attack from all sides. While they work, we scurry around inside our crawl space, making sure that the welding heat doesn't set our home on fire. When we are not fire-watching, we are searching our brains for the right words to explain how we want a specific job done or deciding how many anodes and how much new anchor cable to order.
We watch as the welders put a fin on our rudder. The yard foreman comes over, and we all decide to make the fin longer. Our fin goes back to the shop. We move over to the propeller. Marc, the foreman, draws chalk pictures on the hull to discuss how they will build the tunnel over our propeller. Less than two hours later, we watch them weld on our new, longer fin. These men work fast.
Workers run back and forth through our house as they fit a new through-hole pipe in the bow bathroom. Do we want it to go this way? Wouldn't it work better like this? Other workers are in the engine room replacing our old exhaust system and muffler. An electrician is installing new Mastervolt products for our electrical system. Speaking French with the electrician is a massive challenge because we can't even speak "electrician" in English.
We love the sound of the lunch whistle, but no sooner does it blow to announce lunch than it blows again to say that lunch is over. We've been in France since the turn of the century. We've learned to think of lunch as a leisurely event. Here in this Belgian boatyard, the workers get a half-hour lunch break. That's not enough time for us to eat, let alone recover from a smoky morning in the bilges on fire watch. As we grab the last bite, we see the workers coming at us again, and we brace ourselves for the afternoon attack of pounding, grinding, and welding. We watch the workers with a combination of admiration and fear. They are a hard-working, experienced group of men who come at our boat with hammers and fire.
Mid-afternoon, we start listening for our favorite whistle, the one that signals the end of the workday. We love the sound of this whistle, and we have come to enjoy the sight of our workers' backs as they head toward the showers. Our stress level decreases with every step they take away from our barge.
Left alone with our boat for the rest of the day, we do the jobs we can't do while the workers are here. The yard will spray paint our hull to the waterline, so it is up to us to paint the rest. We roll the tar on the hull with a roller on a long pole, and we slowly move a ladder around the boat to paint the yellow trim above the rubbing strip. It is a big job, but we can't complain because the owners of the 38-meter barges are out painting too, and their giant hulls make our job look easy.
From our perch overlooking the river, we watch commercial barges chugging by from dawn to dusk. Their wake hits the shore like ocean waves, and the sound brings back memories of lounging around on beach chairs on our last Hawaiian vacation. How come time never passes this slowly during a vacation?
We cast an envious eye at the pleasure boats that pass, heading for new adventures upstream or down. We long for the freedom to cruise again.
We are stuck up on blocks, and although we know that we will be back in the water "soon," "soon" is taking its own sweet time to arrive.
Our consolation is that the workers here are very kind to us and are working hard to complete our jobs. Also, the location of the yard is excellent. Not only do we have a scenic view of the river, but it is only a 3km bike ride upstream along the Meuse to go into Andenne to shop. The train station is less than 2km away, and we found a B&B with a great restaurant, Le Champerdrix, just 3km downstream.
Part of plan A had been to go to the DBA, Barge Association Rally in Namur after we left the boatyard. Since plan A didn't work, we had to scratch that idea, but we took the train to attend their Champagne reception. We had fun meeting other barge owners, drinking Champagne and just taking a break from boat work. The evening passed too quickly, of course, because time always flies outside of the boatyard.
With our bathrooms on the boat out of commission, we shower in the workers' locker room after they leave for the day. While their shower room is clean, it lacks amenities like a soap dish or towel rack, and the path between our boat and the locker room is dusty.
One weekend we rode our bikes about 20 minutes downstream along the Meuse to stay in the B&B. When we arrived, we noticed that there wasn't a bit of dust or dirt for miles around. We checked into a tidy room and took long showers in the comfort of a large bathroom that was just steps from our bed. That evening, sparkling clean from long showers and very relaxed from the peaceful surroundings, we enjoyed a delicious meal in their restaurant's elegant atmosphere. It was a lovely little vacation, but time was back in its fast mode, and our get-away didn't last long enough. Before we knew it, we were back on our boat with non-functioning bathrooms and construction zone decor.
As the work is winding down, we are beginning to think about the day that we will slip gently back into the water and out of this time warp. That night, after we have cruised to Namur and moored just below the citadel, we plan to sit on our back deck, with the chair cushions and table cloth back in place and not a tool in sight. We will open a bottle of Champagne and toast the water under our barge and the passage of time.
Pleasant moments before time stood still in the boatyard
We left Roanne at the end of April, and after a couple of sunny, week-long stops in Paray-le-Monial and Saint-Jean-de-Losne, the weather reverted to winter. There didn't seem to be any point in stopping at some of the small village ports in the cold and the rain, so we put in long days just moving the boat. Somewhere around Epinal, we were shocked to run into an icy wind that a lock keeper told us was the Northwind. As the locals call it, La bise blew us around for a few days while we cruised, and we turn on the heat to try to keep warm. It wasn't until Verdun that we found blue skies again.
As we came around the bend to moor, we saw a friend's barge, and with his help, we squeezed our 22-meter home into a 23-meter mooring.
With warm weather for the first time in almost a month, we put up our yellow sunscreen to keep the wheelhouse cool and stayed for a few days to enjoy a lovely mooring in the middle of the city.
Our neighbor had his car with him, and together we toured the WWI battlefields. As told by the museums, Verdun's history, followed by a visit to the burial monuments, leaves a lasting impression.
We found the north branch of the Canal de l'Est to be very beautiful and peaceful.
A donkey showed up at our door at a lock along the way, looking for something to eat. The lock keeper told us to be careful because his donkey eats geraniums, so we gave him some dog biscuits to keep him away from our flowers.
Near Toul, we ran into this interesting group of navigation warnings. It is the most we have ever seen in one place. The signs note that we are about to go through a narrow space with a low bridge above and not too much water below.
On the Meuse river near the Belgium border, we enjoyed the mooring provided by the village of Laifour, took a photo of a house in town, and gave our Bateau Eclaircie pencils to a group of kids that we collected at the picnic table next to our boat. They liked the pencils, but they were fascinated with our battery-operated pencil sharpener. By the time they left, they had sharpened most of their pencils down to the eraser. The little boy in the red jacket has his pencil in his pocket. He was busy making noises with the modern-day version of a whoopee cushion, proving that little boys are the same the world over.
April and May might have been frigid this year, but it was still springtime, and we met many swan families as we cruised along the Meuse heading for Belgium.
By mid-July, we were back in northern France, ready for some rest and relaxation. A month in the boatyard got us thinking about a vacation, and we decided to hurry down to the Marne.
We wanted to sit on our back deck and watch the swans float along with the current.
We thought about the grapes ripening in the sun,
So we pointed the bow in the direction of the Marne River.
and friends that would arrive to become our neighbors for a time.
Along our way to the Marne, we met Chris and Charlotte, a Swiss couple who had written to us about barging before they retired and bought their barge, "Kinette."
When we were about to moor on the quay in Rethal, a small town above Reims, they recognized the name "Eclaircie" and came out to catch our lines.
We were both traveling along the canal l'Aisne a la Marne, moving slowly toward the Marne, so we met often in different ports. We shared meals in Reims and peaceful country moorings along the way until we finally became next-door neighbors in Damery.
Their enthusiasm for everything was addicting, and we loved watching them enjoy every minute of their new adventure.
If you can read German, you can read their website, and if not, you can enjoy their excellent photos.
Once we moored in our favorite Champagne village, Damary, we called our friends Michelle and Daniel. Daniel recently retired from the Epernay Fire Department, and he and Michelle are small Champagne producers under the label "Legrand-Mondet."
We met him at the July 14th parade in 2002, tasted his Champagne, became customers and friends. During an excellent Sunday lunch at Le Vieux Puits in Ay-Champagne, we amused ourselves by simultaneously taking photos across the table.
As Champagne producers in Dizy, a small town near Epernay, they took us on a personalized tour of the Route de Champagne. Dinner together at an Epernay restaurant with some of their friends included an after midnight Champagne tour and tasting at their friend's cave.
Our vacation was full of pleasant surprises, as people kept giving us gifts.
Every casual encounter seemed to end with us receiving a present. From lock keepers giving us tasty tomatoes fresh from their gardens to these little boys who made us boats.
We gave them a tour of the barge early in the afternoon after a conversation with their grandmother as they passed by our back deck.
They returned later that day with these boats, and their grandmother brought us a bottle of Champagne and some of the crepes that she had made for the boys' dinner.
We gave Yoan and Luka San Francisco Fire Department pins to thank them for their boats.
From the Marne, we moved on to the Seine and entered the Port de Plaisance, Paris-Arsenal, a gift we gave ourselves because, in that port, we consider it a real treat to make ourselves at home right in the middle of Paris.
We put on our city clothes, picked up our pace, and went out to enjoy Paris.
After Paris, we returned to the Lateral à la Loire, where we made a habit of quiet country moorings.
To make our summer vacation end on a perfect note, we moored in the peaceful village of Beaulon with Barry and Karen, our barging friends who love their bikes.
They had been enjoying the area for a week or so, and we followed their lead to the best lunch spots, supermarkets, and a country store that sold everything and was well worth the long bike ride to reach it. We found things there that we had been looking for all over France. For our stay in Beaulon, the sky was blue, the breeze was warm and light, and from our peaceful country mooring, we could ride off in several different directions.
With Karen and Barry as our guides, we rolled past farms with frolicking goats and fuzzy lambs. They knew all of the peaceful back roads, where curious cows watched us pump uphill past their pastures, and where we coasted downhill enjoying the beauty of rolling farmland and ancient farmhouses. The air was fresh with the scent of rural France. We were pleased to keep up with them, even knowing that they had slowed down their pace for us. By the end of the day, we were ready to follow their lead and make longer bike trips, like the bike trip they made in June from Roanne, France, to Barcelona, Spain. Well, maybe we'll ride shorter distances, and perhaps we'll walk up steep hills, but while we were riding through the French countryside with our friends, we felt 12 years old again. We were cyclists who could climb any mountain or ride any distance.
Pedaling along peacefully with the wind at our backs and smiles on our faces, those summer days belonged to us.
It is hard for us to believe that we have been living in France for six years. We had to count on our fingers several times before we convinced ourselves that it was true.
In 1999, while we were planning to come to Europe, we thought that we would come over to stay for two years. That seemed like a reasonable amount of time when we were still looking into the future.
Looking back into the past, we can see now that after just two years, while we would have been travelers rather than tourists, we would not have experienced what it is like to make a new life in a new country. We didn't know back in 1999 that learning to live in another country was what we wanted to do.
The sun rises, the sun sets, and time passes as gently as the current in the canals. We are learning to live on a barge, we are learning to live in a foreign country, but we have already learned that our future in France will always be full of surprises. Living in a foreign country gives meaning to the phrase, "to learn something new every day." So with this feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, we were delighted to realize that we have been putting down roots over the past six years.
The first clue that we had about our roots was during a car trip to Holland that we made in October. Along the way, we spent the night at a small hotel in Belgium. We had stayed there this past spring, and when we returned this time, the owners remembered us well enough to ask about our summer cruise. We had another great meal in their restaurant and felt comfortable in familiar surroundings.
The next day we drove to a ship chandlery in Holland to buy some things for our barge. We have shopped there over the years, but this time the two brothers who own the store greeted us by name when we walked in. We spent time talking with them about friends we have in common and catching up on their news. That afternoon in this same small Dutch city, some English-speaking tourists asked us directions, and we were amazed that we were able to direct them where they wanted to go.
From Holland, we drove to Paris to spend the night with friends. Driving in Paris felt comfortable instead of scary, and we knew where we were going and how to get there. Once we arrived at our friends' apartment, we felt pretty lucky to find a parking space just down the block and even luckier to spend such a pleasant evening with old friends.
After Paris, we drove to Saint-Symphorien-sur-Saône, our first home in France, to visit Nathalie and her daughter, Nina. Nina was ten when we first arrived in France, and now she is 16. We sat at Nathalie's table, with a fire burning in the fireplace and good food on the table, and we felt at home. Not only did we feel like we were in familiar surroundings, but we also realized that slowly, over the years, we have been putting down roots.
When we returned to Roanne, we looked around with new eyes and saw how deep our roots have become in our winter home. Not only have we made many friends in town, but we have also established relationships with local shopkeepers. During our six years in Roanne, we have searched for and found what we believe to be the best local businesses, and we have become loyal customers.
We have to start with Vincent, of Via Satellite, our TV guy.
We met Vincent in 2000 when he set up our satellite TV and hooked us up with Canal+ to watch Monday Night Football.
Vincent is from Roanne, but he went to college in the U.S. and he loves all things American.
He has been a great friend. He helped us wheel and deal in French when we bought our car, and he is the source of most of our Roanne information, including the best restaurants in town. Everything that we know about French politics, we learned from Vincent.
When we need reliable advice about something French, we call Vincent, and we love when he stops by to say hello because he is just as funny as he is nice.
Every morning we go to La Boulangerie Tixier, on Rue Jean Jaures, where either Mlle Nallet or Mme Tixier sells us our daily bread.
M. & Mme Tixier are a young couple who work long hours to create some of the best bread we have ever tasted.
The happy team at La Petite Normande, also on Rue Jean Jaures, sells chocolates, delicious desserts, Normandie treats, and homemade jams and jellies.
Whenever we go to a French friend's house for lunch or dinner, we stop by this shop to pick up some chocolates to take along as a gift.
When you enter this shop, you are always given a warm and friendly greeting by charming people with big smiles.
Les Halles, our local covered market place, is home to the best cheese shop and the best butcher shop in Roanne.
L'Auvergne is our favorite cheese shop. They help you decide by letting you taste, and they sell some excellent local wines too.
Monsieur Seon, the best butcher in town, sells us our Thanksgiving turkey once a year. He has to order it for us because French turkeys don't come onto the market until December.
Monsieur Roussel at La Maison de la Presse sets aside our newspapers once a week so that we always know what is going on in American sports.
When we bought our car, we had to find auto insurance, and Vincent recommended M. & Mme Frainay and their hard-working dog, Pablo.
They had to wake Pablo up from his nap and help him into the chair to take a family portrait.
In France, you can get good advice from your pharmacist. You can stop in and discuss your symptoms and either get some medication or be told that you should see your doctor.
We go to M. Rabourdin and Mme Covizzi at La Pharmacie Rabourdin on Rue Jean Jaures when we have a cold or need to buy some aspirin. They are always helpful.
There is a plumbing store, Sorofi, just across from the port. Boaters always need some little odds or ends, and they don't have it stock; they will order it for us.
Over the years, Didier has adopted us. He greets us with a big smile, making us feel so special that we almost enjoy plumbing problems.
Having your own "plumbing guy" doesn't happen overnight.
French friends told us years ago that we should go see their "wine guy" Jean-Pierre, but we somehow never got to his shop "Aux Vins de France" until last year. Now we are kicking ourselves because we have learned from experience that Jean-Pierre knows everything there is to know about wine, and he always has just the right bottle of wine to compliment our special dinners.
If you ask for a particular type of wine, he can always find it for you, no matter how obscure. Sometimes he walks over to a shelf and points out several choices. Sometimes he disappears downstairs to his cellar, and once in a while, he goes out the side door to the alley, we don't know where he goes after that, but he always comes back with a good bottle of wine.
At the Sunday Morning market at Place Victor Hugo, we always go to the same chicken booth because they are lovely to us and their chickens are the best.
Our loyalty paid off at Christmas because when we asked for " un gros fermier et une cuisse de dinde," they reached into the cab of the truck and, along with our purchases, they handed us a Christmas present, a bottle of wine! What a pleasant surprise.
Madame Orty, of Couleur Café, au Place du Marché, weighs out our Italian Blend coffee beans.
We have experimented with different blends, but in the end, our order is always the same, "Le Mélange Italien en grains, S.V.P."
One of our favorite fall events is Le Salon de Gastronomie in Le Coteau, the town just across the Loire River from Roanne.
In 2004, Pierre and Yvette gave us a sample of Pierre's wine and became friends. Now they deliver one of our favorite wines directly to our barge and stay for a drink.
Our "house wine" is from Robert Serol, a local viticulteur. Recently, we visited Chez Serol for a wine tasting event, and while we were there, we met Phillipe Bailly and his childhood friend Emile.
In 1944, when they were both 20, Phillipe and Emile helped save a downed American pilot.
They told us all about their adventures keeping the pilot safe from the Germans. The next day Phillipe called and invited us over to his house to show us the photos and newspaper clippings he had of that event.
He shared his letters from the pilot with us. Phillipe told us how, when he was in his 40's, he decided to find the man whose life he had saved. He finally succeeded after several years of searching, and the letters from the American pilot, his account of the incident, and the photos of their reunions were interesting to read. We felt blessed to be sitting at Phillipe's kitchen table, reliving this French/American World War II chance encounter that had lead to a lasting friendship.
Roanne, you are a charming city with friendly citizens and lovely shops, and we thank you for making us feel so welcome and so much at home.