The sun was shining when our plane landed in San Francisco in mid-January. Exiting the airport, we didn't need to wrap up in coats, hats, and scarves as we did the day before in France's colder climate.
We saw signs along the freeway in the cab riding home from the airport that we didn't understand. So we asked the cab driver what they meant. Of course, asking what something means is not unusual for us, but it was amusing to have it happen on this continent.
Being confused by signs along the highway was also our first clue that things had changed while we were away. Some were San Francisco changes, but many of these changes had happened in our heads.
The old saying, "you can't go home again," speaks to the fact that we are not the first people to stay away from their hometown long enough to have a bit of culture shock when they return.
One morning we were at our dentist's office in a 1930's sky scrapper in downtown San Francisco. This is a place where, ever since we were kids, entering the building has made us think of earthquakes and about how we would rather be anywhere else when the "big one" happens.
We were in the waiting room when a woman entered and sat down across from us. She didn't greet us with a polite "good morning" or even acknowledge us with a slight nod of the head. It felt strange, and we felt uncomfortable. It took us a moment to realize that greeting everyone as you enter a waiting room is normal in France but not expected behavior in California. We were Californians thinking French thoughts. That got us thinking about other differences between our American home and our French home, aside from the fact that one of them is a boat.
Having become accustomed to supermarket checkers in France who sit down while ringing up your purchases, we wonder why American supermarkets haven't made this change. In France, the checker's job is also made easier by having the customer bag their groceries. Doing your bagging is sometimes stressful as the food comes at you pretty quickly. The latest French measure meant to help the environment is that markets no longer provide bags. Customers must bring their reusable bags or pay a few cents for bags at the check stand.
It took us a few shopping trips to relearn the American way. At first, we felt strange letting the groceries pass us by without bagging them ourselves. We tried to help, but everyone gave us odd looks, so we learned to stand back and watch someone else do our job. But we couldn't help thinking how much more sensible the French system seems. After putting away the groceries at home, we wondered what to do with all of the plastic and paper bags.
The French also have a better system for keeping shopping carts under control. They don't need to hire anyone to round up the carts in the parking lot because the customers always return the carts to their barn. Having put a coin in a slot on the cart to release it, they must return the cart, plug it into the cart in front to get their euro back.
Some Americans we know who bought a home in France didn't understand how the shopping carts worked when they first arrived. They complained about paying to take a shopping cart, and they refused to return the shopping cart on top of having spent a euro to take it out. On their first few shopping trips, they left the cart next to their car and drove off complaining to each other about this French rip-off. They had to laugh at themselves when they realized that French kids were probably rejoicing when returning their carts and retrieving the one euro coin they left behind.
San Francisco is known for its excellent restaurants, and we enjoyed many fabulous meals. Everything was delicious, and we found the lively and sometimes loud atmosphere of the restaurants a charming change from the subdued French style of dining. We could hear conversations taking place at neighboring tables, and sometimes that was very interesting. The French are much better at keeping their conversations private, and the fact that we are still struggling to understand "argotique" exchanges between friends helps them keep their secrets from us. We had to laugh at the fact that understanding everything that was said for the first time in years only pointed out how banal most conversations are. We know that is true in France also. It is just that everything sounds more attractive in a foreign language.
Six years in France have also changed our dining habits. We adjusted quickly to leisurely restaurant lunches or dinners, meals when you reserve a table, and it is yours for the whole afternoon or evening. We have become accustomed to small, artfully arranged dishes presented, one at a time, with long relaxing conversational breaks between courses. Some people find this an annoying cultural difference when they first arrive in France and trying to get the waiter's attention to bring the check after a meal drives most newcomers crazy. Still, after a short adjustment period, the slower pace of meals in France becomes a preference, and it is pretty shocking to return to speed eating in the U.S.A.
Dining again in the States, we often found a waiter's hand on our plates while being distracted by a conversation with friends. We would have to reach out and retrieve the meal that we were still enjoying, explaining sometimes twice to the same waiter that we did not want him to take away our plate until we finished. Keeping the waiter from taking our meal away from us was something that we don't ever remember before moving to Europe. We don't know whether everyday life in the United States has speeded up since we left or whether our life on this side of the world has slowed us down.
As we have been learning to bag our groceries, eat slowly, and speak French, we also now know how to write our numbers and indicate numbers with our fingers in the French way. This unconscious and seemingly small change became apparent when we went back to our gym in California. In one room with treadmills, steppers, and bikes facing five different big-screen TVs, you have to hold up fingers to ask people already exercising which television they watched before changing the channel on one of the screens. Starting by gesturing with our hand to ask if anyone was watching screen number one, we got no response. We got some odd looks. It took a minute to realize that in holding up just a thumb, as we would in France to indicate the number one, it looked more like a "thumbs up," "good job," "way to go" gesture back in the States.
That mistake reminded us that friends who were visiting us in France couldn't understand why they got two of something whenever they held up an index finger to ask for one; because the French start counting with their thumb, holding up your index finger means two to them.
In a related cultural difference in numbers, another friend could not get over being charged 70 euros for two glasses of wine while dining in a restaurant. He thought the waiter was ripping off American tourists until he returned home and saw his credit card bill. The European #1 is written very much like an American seven. Our friends didn't realize that Europeans cross their sevens to avoid any 1 and 7 confusion, and they laughed with relief when they discovered that the wine was only 10 Euros and that they had made a simple cultural mistake.
We knew when we moved over to this side of the world that it would be an educational experience. We understood that our lives would change in dramatic but straightforward ways, and we knew that we should expect a pretty severe culture shock when we finally return to our California home. We didn't realize how much we would notice these changes in our way of looking at the world when we returned to California for a short visit.
April 18th was the 100th anniversary of The Great Earthquake and Fire in San Francisco.
We returned there to help friends put on the three-day "1906 Expo" at Pier 48. We worked long hours, but the payoff was that we got to be part of a great event. One of the highlights was our fire parade through the City at 2 am. We were going to the staging area for the early morning event at Lotta's Fountain. With a police escort, three horse-drawn steam engines, and 21 antique fire engines, we startled people out of bars that had just closed. We caused interesting traffic jams as the horses majestically trotted through the downtown intersections.
Every year, survivors return to Lotta's Fountain at 5:13 am to remember the earthquake and fire and celebrate San Francisco's rebuilding. This year it was "100 Years After," twelve survivors were present to be the ceremony stars.
At the end of April, we flew back to France and became boaters again.
It wasn't a hard transition to make.
After spending time in San Francisco, we were back on the canals in May. We waved to friends as we left the small port in Montchanin; it was 8 am, and we were on our way again after a pleasant week-long stopover. We had smiles and warm fuzzy feelings about this cruising life. The sun shone, and birds sang as we cruised downstream, away from Montchanin. Then we felt a slight bump and were suddenly dead in the water. It was only 8:15 am! Dread replaced those warm fuzzy feelings. What was going on?
Our propeller would turn but made clanking sounds, and the barge would not move forward or back. Our first thought was that we had run over some garbage and that something had wrapped itself around the propeller. So we called Jeff, our mechanic whose port we had just left. He had to walk down the canal bank opposite the road, and when he arrived, we threw him a rope. He tried to pull us to the shore, but we weren't budging. So we were grounded even though we were out in the middle of the canal.
Looking down at the rudder, we saw oil in the canal. Oh no! That is not a good sign. Then, just as we began worrying about engine problems, we saw something black float to the surface. Pulling a fishnet off the wheelhouse roof, we scooped it out of the water and were surprised to learn it was a woman's purse. While we stood there contemplating this purse that dripped water but was still zipped up and full of personal items, a woman's running shoe floated to the surface. For a horrible moment, we thought of murder and someone dumping the body in the canal. We pictured a dead person wrapped around our propeller.
With this gory image in our minds, we leaned over the rail on our back deck, trying to stare down into the water at the propeller. Then a freshly broken log popped up to the surface. Seeing this piece of wood made us look from the water up to the guard rail that separated the road from the canal. We realized that the wooden guard rail had a car-size hole in it.
Now the puzzle was taking shape. We suspected a car had crashed into the canal, and we began to picture ourselves stuck on top of a car with a dead woman in it; it was not a pleasant thought. We called the police.
The gendarmes arrived from both directions on the two-lane road. They got out of cars and vans, and the women in uniform kissed the men in uniform as they greeted each other for the first time that day. Each man made the rounds shaking the hand of every other man. We were stuck in a car in the canal, watching all the kissing and handshaking, thinking that even in emergencies, the French must be French.
The fire department arrived next in red rescue trucks towing orange inflatable boats. Their arrival brought about more kissing and handshaking.
Divers were preparing to enter the water. Everyone was worried about who they might find in the car when suddenly, a car swerved off the road and pulled up to a screeching halt. A woman jumped out. She waved her arms to get the divers attention and shouted to everyone. "No one is in the car!"
She explained that her daughter called her this morning to tell her about the horrible accident she had the night before. She explained that her daughter, who lived nearby with her boyfriend, had jumped in his car after they fought. She was upset, it was 1:30 in the morning, and she was speeding along the two-lane road that follows the canal. Out of the black night, a deer appeared in her headlights. She swerved, lost control of the car, and flew into the canal. She was wearing her seat belt, shocked by the crash but not injured. She found herself sitting in the car at the bottom of the canal. She released her seat belt and tried to open the door. It wouldn't open, but the automatic window lowered just enough before it stopped working to allow her to escape. As the car filled with water, she held her breath, grabbed hold of the car roof, and slipped out the window. She floated to the surface, swam for the shore, and in shock, she climbed up the canal bank and walked back home. The daughter and her boyfriend were too busy making up and rejoicing about her miraculous survival to think about calling the police. No one else knew about the accident until we landed in their car.
Once the divers could nudge us off the car, we backed up and threw a line to the gendarmes on the canal's roadside. They tied us to the guard rail, and we began filling out reports. The police wrote up our version of the incident and then took our boat papers back to the gendarmerie to make copies for their records. We found it amusing that we had to ask them several times if they wanted to take our cartes de séjour. With all our effort to earn the right to stay in France legally, we wanted that fact to be in their official police report. We gave them all the papers, such as proof that we owned the boat, that they requested, but every time we asked if they needed to see our cartes de séjour, they said it wasn't necessary. In the end, they finally looked at them to make us happy.
Once they took all of the reports and our barge papers copied and returned to us, they reopened the canal, and we were finally allowed to start cruising. By now, it was about 1:00 in the afternoon. At the first lock, the one we had planned to cross at 9 am, we found a red light and no one in sight. We got back on the phone and called the lockkeeper. When he arrives, he looks frazzled and explains that the boaters are upset with him because the canal has been closed all morning. He wants us to wait for a barge coming in the other direction. We look, but there is no boat in sight. We guess that perhaps it is that boat that is complaining the loudest. We explained that we were the boat that got stuck on top of the car in the canal and had a rough morning. After a bit of back and forth, we finally convinced him to set the lock for us, and for the rest of the day, we cruised without any problems.
The day ended with us mooring in a pretty little village, and as we finished our chores, we saw two women walking toward our boat. The young woman had survived plunging into the canal and her mother. They had asked the lock keeper to let them know where we stopped for the night, and they came to apologize for the trouble the accident had caused us. They brought us a huge bouquet, and they were extremely grateful that we had not brought charges against the young woman and her boyfriend for not letting anyone know that there was a car in the middle of the canal. It was a nice gesture, and we all hugged each other and said again and again how lucky she was to be alive.
We dined in a restaurant/bar across from our mooring. We could shout across the narrow canal to make a reservation just after we moored when we saw the owner sitting at a table under a tree outside the front door. It was a great little place, and dinner was delicious. The owner, a woman in her seventies with purple hair (not unusual in France) and a big smile, was the hostess, bartender, waitress, and maybe even the cook. We could see no one else working there and were not the only customers. She asked us if we wanted half a bottle of wine when she was taking our order. "Oh no!" We said, "Tonight, we want a bottle." Then we proceeded to tell her our tale.
The following day, when she saw us moving about on the boat, she came out of her restaurant and waved to us from across the canal. She pointed to the local paper. She shouted that we had made the headlines, so we went into town and bought a copy.
We told the man who sold us the newspaper that the headline story was about our boat. He wanted to know all the details, "Did she try to commit suicide?" He asked. "No," we said, and we began to explain how she fought with her boyfriend, but before we got to the part about the deer running out into the road, he said, "Well, if everyone who fought with their partner ended up in the canal, there wouldn't be anybody left on land."
Living in a foreign country is a humbling experience. Sometimes trying to integrate into French society makes us feel like teenagers too square to know how to say or do the right thing. This awkwardness has nothing to do with the French, who have offered us their friendship, laughed with us, not at us, and welcomed us into their homes. This feeling is just something that goes on in our heads, where our cultural savoir-faire is American, which often leaves us guessing about simple French rules of comportment. To avoid revisiting all of our youth's insecurities, we spend some of our travel time each year in familiar places where we have some level of cultural comfort.
To round off that square feeling this summer and rest up for our next big adventure, we returned to Saint Jean-de-Losne, our first familiar place in France.
St. Jean and the neighboring village of Saint Symphorein-sur-Saône were where our French life began, so we settled in for a couple of months to enjoy the amitié of our local French friends and the extensive and always lively boating community that makes these two small villages into fun places to visit.
We moored in the Canal de Bourgogne basin near the Saône River. We could see the first lock we ever passed through seven years and thousands of locks ago from our back deck. Before we learned how to pilot our barge, that lock gave us the willies every time we looked at its narrow entrance. Locks are full of surprises, and we have learned to respect them, but they don't scare us anymore.
Saint-Jean-de-Losne is on the Côte d'Or, and with our car rescued from its garage in Roanne, we were free to travel on familiar roads to towns like Beaune, Dijon, and Dole, where we don't feel at all like strangers. Market days in these towns have always been a delight for us. It is easy to get carried away there, and while shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables, local cheeses, pâtés, tapenades, and other tasty treats always find their way into our baskets.
We drove to Monthelie, a village neighboring Meursault, to visit one of our favorite vignerons. We wanted to return to Domaine Charngarnier because our friends who were with us when we discovered this winery years ago were back again. Combining the wines we bought that day with treats from the Beaune market, dinner on our back deck on that warm summer evening was a bit of heaven.
Between the summer festivals, the blessing of the boats on the Saône river, the private fire museum near Beaune (where we felt so warmly welcomed that we became members), and visiting with friends old and new, we had a great summer.
At the beginning of August, refreshed and relaxed, we went through that formerly "scary first lock" one more time and headed toward the Canal de la Marne à la Saône on our way to our winter mooring for 2006/2007. Comforted by a couple of months spent in familiar surroundings, we felt prepared to tackle the hustle and bustle of city life.
Last summer, while we stayed in the Port de Plaisance Paris-Arsenal, they told us we could have a mooring for this winter. Did we have to think about this offer or talk it over? No, we both said yes at the same time, which was just about immediately. Wintering at the Arsenal had been our dream initially, and we had been on the waiting list since 2000. So even though we love Roanne and plan to return next winter, we jumped at the chance to spend a winter in the center of Paris.
We arrived at the Arsenal on the 15th of September and began to settle in for the winter. First, we ordered a landline with high-speed Internet. Then, we signed up for French classes, conversation groups, and Les Amis du Louvre. Finally, we bought our Navigo passes, picked out our favorite cafés, made a few friends, and even got our barge photo taken by Google Earth, and so far, nous sommes heureux comme des Poissons dans l'eau.
In the last century, we made plans for our new adventure as barge owners in France from our San Francisco home's comfort.
We read. We researched. We made decisions. We started dreaming. We did our best to plan for a life we knew nothing about, and amazingly, looking back, we have never been disappointed in what reality delivered vs. the dream. So we can say that the truth turned out to be better than the dream.
In the Spring of 2000, when we were barge owners looking for our first winter port, we dreamed of winter in Paris. However, our new barging friends, who had been cruising around the canals for years, told us that it was unlikely that we would be given a mooring in the Paris Arsenal because the demand is great for the few mooring places for barges over 20 meters. Their collective wisdom led us to sign up for winter in Roanne if we did not get into the Arsenal.
We realized that Roanne was a better fit for us during that first winter than Paris would have been. We were still debutantes in our barging life and debutantes in our French life as well, and Roanne was a good place for us to begin. Life in Roanne vs. life in Paris was the difference between wading into the pool's kiddie end or diving into the deep end from the highest platform. We might have made a painful belly flop into our French life if we had been given a mooring in Paris in that very first year.
Our winters in Roanne taught us how to appreciate France. We made French friends who took us under their wing. They introduced us to their favorite restaurants and their favorite wines. We loved learning from real experts. We were attentive students with excellent teachers and enjoyed their company even if we didn't always understand what they said.
Looking back, we are amazed that they wanted to spend time with us, considering that during that first year, we could not put two sentences together without taking five minutes to think out how to conjugate the verbs and pronounce the words. These friendships would never have happened to beginners like us in a big city like Paris.
We've moored in Paris almost every summer, either at the beginning or end of our cruising season. And one year, we made it to our destination and stayed for over a month. Paris has always been a magnet for us, and we love enjoying the city with all the other tourists, but we always wondered what it would be like to spend the whole winter moored in such a beautiful and exciting city.
In 2005, while we were in the port during the summer, Bruno, le Maître de Port Adjoint, at the Arsenal, finally gave us the okay for a winter stay.
We arrived in mid-September to spend this winter. We planned to leave in the Spring, cruise along the canals during the summer, and then return to Roanne in October 2007. That was our plan, but Paris being Paris, we realized after a few weeks that we didn't want to leave the port in six months.
Paris felt different; the change in our attitude immediately struck us. We didn't feel like tourists this time. As we chose our favorite stands at the Sunday Bastille outdoor market, picked out our boulangerie, our greengrocer, and our butcher on rue Saint-Antoine, and found a grocery store that would deliver our heavy items directly to our boat, we felt at home. We were busy working on projects, attending French classes, meeting people, and making friends. Suddenly, we were living in Paris. We were grateful to have finally been given a winter mooring at the Arsenal, but like greedy children, we wanted more.
We brought our good news to dinner with us and toasted our new life in Paris.
As we begin our 8th year in France, we know we are ready for Paris. We have learned about France from the inside out. Life in the small villages during the summer and Roanne in the winter has taught us many valuable skills. We wouldn't go so far as to say that we understand the French culture, but we certainly have made progress in that department. Our French improves with every lesson, and we learn something new about Paris daily.
Every time we leave the boat, walk up the stairs to Boulevard Bourdon and step out onto the streets of Paris, we realize our good fortune and thank the team in the captain's office who were kind enough to make our dreams come true.
Walking over to our conversation group in the 6th arrondissement, we enjoy watching the tourists on l'Île Saint -Louis and listening to the different languages spoken by the people taking pictures of Notre Dame. We love watching people who are people watching from the cafés of the Latin Quarter.
We helped the DBA organize "Rally 'Round Paris 2007," which took us to neighborhoods we had never visited before, introduced us to charming people, and challenged our French language skills.
By the end of October, we noticed a drop in tourists, most notably because we could find seats on the metro. November was beautiful, with clear, crisp blue sky days that flew by as we ran around the city going to classes, and meetings, renewing our Cartes de Séjour, and shopping for our first Thanksgiving dinner in our new home.
Paris was all dolled up during Christmas with lights everywhere and elegantly dressed Parisians in winter coats, scarves, and hats. For the last few days of 2006, the tourists came back by the busload, and Paris was vibrant with people from all over the world who wanted to drink champagne and kiss in the New Year by the light of the Eiffel Tower.
We pinch ourselves often, and just as we always felt lucky to be part of the barging community, we are now overjoyed to be able to add, "On habite sur une péniche à Paris."
After enjoying Les Nymphéas au Musée de l'Orangerie with our friend Nathalie (our gîte landlady for six months in 2000, a good friend and, since our move to Paris, our most frequent house guest), we walked out of the museum into a clear and mild December night. We stood transfixed by the beauty of the view before us. There was La Place de la Concorde just below, le Tour Eiffel to the left, the lights on l'Avenue des Champs-Élysées drawing our eyes up to l'Arc de Triomphe, and turning slowly around, we saw le Jardin des Tuileries et Le Musée du Louvre et sa pyramid. Standing there, we knew why we were here and why we wanted to stay................
Tout simplement, c'est la magie de Paris!