Winter in Paris was not what we expected. We thought it would be cold, at least during January and February. We imagined that we would spend cold gray days wandering around museums or department stores to escape the freezing temperatures that would chase us off the streets.
Barging legends, Bill and Francis, who have wintered in the Arsenal, told us how they shopped for supplies during the dead of winter without having to spend more than a few minutes out in the cold. Having learned over the years to trust their advice, we made a trial run in the fall, taking line #1 at the Bastille to La Defense, where we could exit directly into a shopping mall. We went back once, but only because we wanted to shop there. We never needed to return because of the cold and were able to shop all winter in comfort on rue Saint-Antoine, where we had the pleasure of getting to know our local merchants.
Since Paris is North, and Roanne is South, we never dreamed that this winter would be so full of California blue sky days, warm enough for us to walk happily along the streets of Paris, making discoveries around every corner. We never thought that we would join our port neighbors for potluck dinners out on the quay without having to eat wearing hats and gloves.
In Roanne, our winter habits during January and February were more closely associated with hibernating bears. We were used to settling in during the coldest months; spending days cuddled up with blankets and good books, our slippers suspended in mid-air as our recliners were in the full-back position. During short cold days and longer, colder nights, we occasionally watched movies in the evening with our next-door barge neighbors Karen and Barry. They would run over for dinner and a movie, wearing their comfy clothes and carrying their fuzzy, warm slippers in a bag along with a bottle of wine and a treat for dessert.
We knew that winter in Paris would be different from winter in Roanne, but we never realized that any winter could come and go so quickly. We found ourselves in the fast lane for the first time in years, and we loved the pace. The only books that we read this winter were for homework assignments, and chairs and slippers only happened at the end of long and exciting days.
We met people from all over the world, and we found that Paris is a friendlier city than we would have thought. Our friends from Roanne came to visit, but with the mild climate this year, we all left our slippers in the closet and spent most of our time outside under blue Paris skies.
Life at the port was not what we expected either. Because most of our barge neighbors are French and work in Paris, we did not anticipate having a social life here in the port. But we did. There were several winter potlucks. We were to bring a dish and a poem or a song about food for one memorable evening. We selected simple verses by Ogden Nash, being a bit timid and not knowing what to expect from our neighbors. In contrast, Karen and Barry, our Roanne neighbors from barge "Eleanor," who were visiting us, were more daring and wrote a song and a limerick, respectively. The weather was amazingly mild, and under the clear evening sky, the excellent food and wine inspired some great poetry readings and songs.
On what happened to be one of the few rainy days of the winter, we joined our port neighbors in an assembly line set up under a tent in front of the Capitainerie to bottle our own Château Bastille. When not talking or taking a break to eat something fresh off the barbecue, twenty-five people worked together, filled, corked, and labeled 700 bottles of wine. It was an all-day operation that finished with dinner in the Yacht Club, where together we managed to empty a few of the freshly filled bottles.
The last weekend in March, we participated in the "Carnaval Vénitien de Paris," an event created by one of our French neighbors.
Eight years ago, Michelle Santi organized the first carnival held in our port. Using her artistic talent and passion to created fabulous costumes and masks, Michelle and her group of dedicated volunteers create new outfits all year in anticipation of the next carnival. The event has grown over the years, and now participants arrive from all over Europe. The number of people who come to view this event has grown as well. They estimated that 15,000-20,0000 people came to our port on Sunday to enjoy the carnival and take photos of the beautiful costumes.
Since most of our French neighbors in the port work full time, Michelle rounded up the foreigners, mostly English speakers staying in the Arsenal for the winter and convinced us to volunteer for this event. The work started in early March. Using the tables in the port clubhouse as a workspace, Michelle gave us precise instructions on cutting the material that would eventually cover the mooring posts to give them a Venetian appearance. She handed us rulers and scissors and left the room after telling us that every measurement had to be exact before we started cutting. We measured and re-measured, and no one dared cut into the material for a long time. We all decided to work on the same project together, so we would share the blame if we made a mistake. Michelle had a vision of what she wanted, and we were there to bring that vision to life, and we did not want to disappoint.
She amazed everyone when she placed a piece of yellow fabric on a work table and guided us along step by step as we painted her design, turning it into a larger version of the small Venetian flag that she used as the model. It took a few days and many hands working together, but in the end, it was a beautiful Venetian Flag. Our group became known as the contingent international as we were English, Danish and American neighbors working together to make the carnival decorations.
Saturday morning, everyone was on duty early, setting up tents used as dressing rooms for the visiting costumed foreigners and decorating the port. That afternoon, some of us dressed in costumes; others helped out with security or helped costumed people on and off of the boats that cruised around the port. Saturday was a gray day with enough drizzle to chase the costumed people under the tents. The day went by quickly. We all stayed up late on Saturday night enjoying a dinner dance at a restaurant near the port that Michelle organized for everyone participating in the carnival.
Saturday night at the party, we learned that there is a carnival circuit in Europe and that groups of costume-loving people travel from one carnival to another to dress up in their costumes, put on their masks and have fun.
Once you have worn a costume at a carnival event, you understand their motives. Looking out at the crowd from behind your mask, you see nothing but paparazzi snapping photos, asking you for just one more pose, and you get a slight sense of what it must be like to be famous. While it is a little disturbing at first, you soon settled into the role of being a star. Everyone wants to have their picture taken with you, even friends from your French class. Crowds part and let you pass, and photographers beg you to stand here or there to get a perfect image. You look like you are striking a provocative pose, but you are only trying to find your mouth in the mask because you are thirsty.
Sunday was a beautiful spring day that brought many people to our port. The gondolas were taking passengers for rides around the harbor, and opera singers serenaded from a cruising barge, and costumed neighbors were enjoying the fun. We felt like we were dreaming, but we were not. We were living in Michelle Santi's imagination, and it was a lovely place to be.
Late Sunday evening, uncostumed and back in the real world, we helped Vicki and Lee, English neighbors who were the real movers and shakers of the contingent international, take down the decorations. We finished just before dark, and too tired to cook, we dragged ourselves up the stairs and out to the Bastille Circle to settle into our favorite café, where we enjoyed our meal while Parisians and tourists strolled past.
In Paris, last fall was summer, winter was fall, and spring was winter.
April announced itself with rain and cold winds, and after a two-week heatwave at the end of the month, when everyone worried about global warming, the cold weather returned. People who live in Paris dug into the back of their closets to bring out their winter clothes, and the poor tourists had to layer everything they had packed to keep warm. The souvenir shops were selling more umbrellas and rain ponchos than T-shirts and sun hats. It was cold, it rained most of the time, and we felt sorry for the soaked and shivering tourists who, we imagine, had planned their trips picturing romantic strolls along the Seine under a blue sky with warm spring breezes.
In our old homeport of Roanne, the constant rain kept everyone from finishing spring boat work, and many boats were still in Roanne when the rain caused a canal bank to collapse. The Canal Roanne à Digoin runs right next to its source, the Loire River, and a breach in the bank not far from Roanne dumped all of the water out of the canal and back into the Loire. The 18 kilometer stretch between locks lost some 500,000 cubic meters of water overnight, and the people in the port of Briennon and along the canal found their boats and their lives on tilt when they woke up in the morning sitting on the muddy bottom.
Friends in Roanne, being boaters familiar with changing plans at the drop of an Avis à la batellerie, just made a slight mental adjustment and started looking at their boats as homes. Instead of cruising along the canals, they stay in Roanne or take other types of trips, and everyone seems quite content with the forced changes. It is funny to think of the question that friends who are thinking of visiting during the summer as boaters, "Where will you be in June (or July or August)? It just goes to prove that life on the canals is full of surprises, and surely no one in the port would have answered "Roanne" to that question a few months ago. Until they repair the breach, the boats in the port of Roanne are not going anywhere. The word is that the canal will reopen on the 15th of August...On verra!
On May 8th, wearing our Gortex rain jackets and Gortex pants, très à la mode this spring in Paris, we went to the Champs-Elysées near the Arc de Triomphe to watch the annual parade to remember the end of WWII in Europe.
We were not alone. Crowds and TV news cameras were out in force. After the election, everyone was interested in seeing Jacques Chirac for the last time and maybe even catching a glimpse of Nicholas Sarkozy.
Waiting for the parade to start, the soldiers spoke quietly, and the horse smiled.
The Republican Guard has their stables on Boulevard Henry IV, near the port, and we love seeing the horses as they pass through our neighborhood on their way to special events.
The Republican Guard has a horseback band that is thrilling to see and to hear.
Jacques Chirac passed by in a black sedan with a police motorcycle escort. He waved goodbye to the crowd, and everyone tried to take his picture.
Some tourists staying on the boulevard must have stayed up late the night before because they were still in their PJs at 10 am, and it looks as though they were wondering who was making all of that noise.
Paris creates one spectacular event after the other, and each one is more impressive than the last. The city leaders are very imaginative.
On May 13th, to celebrate the new world speed record of 574 kilometers per hour, set by the TGV that runs between Paris and Strasbourg, the SNCF, the French National Railway System, ran the train through the center of Paris, on the Seine River!
There were bands on all of the footbridges that it passed under, and we went to see Jackie, our French teacher, whose band was playing on the Passerelle Solférino, near the Musée d'Orsay.
Just as we arrived on the bridge, a dark cloud passed over and dumped buckets of rain on the band as they were in the middle playing a sunny little tune. A small crowd had gathered, and everyone scattered, eventually regrouping under the bridge. The music started up after the band dried off their instruments and blotted the water off their sheet music, and after a while, their happy music coaxed the sun out again.
Jackie's band, Afreybo, is made up of people who work in medicine and science. They relax away from work by being playful with their music and band uniforms, lab coats with self-mocking cartoons drawn on the back. For this occasion, they were also wearing caps celebrating the "SNCF World Record 2007".
To announce that spring was here, Paris transformed the plaza in front of the Hotel de Ville, where the skating rink had been during winter, into a whimsical garden.
When it started raining on market day, as it often did this spring, we found a comfortable place to wait out the storm at Le Baron Rouge. You can taste by the glass or buy a bottle and a plate of cheeses and pâtés to share with friends while waiting for the rain to stop. In fact, with its ambiance bon enfant, this little wine bar is not only a warm refuge on a cold or rainy day, but also because of its stone walls, it is a cool hideout on hot days too. We know this because the first time that English friends from the port brought us here was one of those hot "summer" days that we had last fall.
On June 21, the longest day of the year, it was warm, and although there were clouds in the sky, it didn't rain. It was
La Fête de la Musique, and we walked from the Arc de Triomphe back to the Bastille, stopping to listen to different musicians along the way. Near the Louvre, we found comfortable chairs near a fountain, and we stayed for a while to listen to the music and to watch the people strolling by, hand in hand, enjoying Paris on one of the best nights of the year.
Even if the seasons seem a bit out of sync, Paris is still a great place to be.
Eight years ago, when we bought our barge, we moved into a village that we never knew existed until after living there for several months.
Being a member of the international barging community means that you live in a "moving village" with different neighborhoods that appear wherever there are boats, water, and something to throw a rope around.
This summer, for the 15th anniversary of the DBA-Barge Association, a new neighborhood formed in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. By the end of June, barges started arriving in Paris from Holland, Belgium, and France, with many others coming from England, crossing the channel to stay in the basin for a long weekend celebration. By the Canal St. Denis or the Canal St. Martin, boats cruised through the streets of Paris, passing through the locks and entering the basin at the rate of 15 a day. By the weekend, La Villette, which is usually home to a few 38-meter barges and a couple of day trip boats, was transformed into a village of well cared for barges, each one decorated with code flags and pennants, and it was a beautiful sight.
(Photo - Barge friends Gail and Walt from "Les Vieux Papillions" and Pauline from "Peppa")
The rally brought together 60 barges with several planned events, but the rally's highlight was, as always, spending time with other boaters. It was a chance to catch up with old friends and meet boaters whose paths you had not yet crossed along the waterways.
After the rally, barges that wanted to stay in Paris either came here to the Arsenal or moored near the Eiffel Tower at the other port in Paris that used to be called Port Grenelle.
The rally immediately increased the number of people we knew in Paris. We were lucky enough to be invited to a couple of parties on some spectacular barges, with friends gifted in the kitchen.
While shopping for dinner at the morning market at Place d'Aligre on the 13th of July, we drifted into Le Baron Rouge with friends and began what turned out to be a spectacular day. From the Baron, we moved directly to lunch on "Libertijn's" deck, and the lunch lasted long enough that dinner became irrelevant, and we just moved down the street to the local firehouse for the Firemen's Ball.
France's national holiday is July 14th, and because the French love to have a good time, the celebration starts the night before with different firehouses hosting dances.
It was a warm summer night, the dance was under the stars in one of the firehouse courtyards, and the crowd was a mix of young girls there to flirt with the firemen, families with kids, and people of all ages just out to enjoy one of the few warm summer evenings.
We danced with friends and friendly French people, talked with the firemen, met other Americans who live in Paris, and enjoyed the party until well after midnight. When we were walking out, there was still a long line of people waiting to get in, and the real party was just warming up.
The good weather held up for the next night, the 14th, and we went across town with friends who were staying in the Arsenal to enjoy a pre-fireworks pot luck dinner at Port Tour Eiffel.
Many of our winter port neighbors were staying on this side of town during their required 21-day absence from the Arsenal. Several others had cruised over just for the day so that they could moor close to the Eiffel Tower and enjoy a great view of the fireworks set off from the Trocadero.
Our friends on "Les Vieux Papillons" had pulled out all of the stops and made enough Cajun food to feed everyone in the port and anyone else who happened by. We ate well, drank champagne, and watched the fireworks in comfort from Papillion's deck. The evening was perfect, and when it was over, we headed for home.
Even though we had not planned to return to our barges on the other side of Paris on foot, the fact that they had closed all of the metro stations near the Eiffel Tower for crowd control meant that we had to start that way. By the time we had walked far enough away to find an open metro station, we were enthralled by the beauty of the moon shining on the Seine, and we all decided to walk back to the Bastille. We left at just after midnight and didn't get back to our boats until after 2 am, but no one complained because Paris on a warm summer night is a magical place.
At the end of July, we went to the captain's office to tell them the date and time we would leave for our required absence from the port. At the appointed time, we entered the lock, they let the water out, and when the gates opened onto the Seine, we turned left and headed up to the Marne towards Epernay. We love the Marne with all of its wonderful Champagne villages, and we planned to cruise along and stop wherever and whenever pleasant moorings presented themselves.
We didn't get very far. Instead of cruising down to Epernay, we stopped in Meaux for one night and ended up staying there for a couple of weeks.
When we arrived, the port was packed, and Roanne friends on "Peppa" let us moor on them. In the morning, boats left, we moved over to an empty pontoon, and after that, the days just flowed along like the river current.
Boats came, stayed for one day or several, and we got into the rhythm of the place. It was peaceful.
Meaux has an excellent Saturday market, but aside from that, there isn't much to do, so after being very busy in Paris, it was nice to find a place where we were not tempted to leave the boat every day.
We read, worked on projects, and did nothing and enjoyed it immensely. The biggest event of the day was the arrival of a new boat.
With the strong river current, neighbors would go out to catch the newcomers' lines, and sometimes this resulted in conversations that started on the pontoon and ended on someone's deck. "Joie de Vivre," New Zealand friends from Roanne pulled up on our pontoon one day and stayed just like we did. Then we all did nothing together, and several times we discussed the joys of being lazy during dinner on our deck.
We met new people and spent time with old friends. We realized that even though we live in Paris, we still haven't moved out of the village. The port would empty in the morning and be full again by noon. Some days we didn't know anyone, and other days, we knew everyone on the block. Most neighborhoods change over the years, but in Meaux, we sat back, relaxed, and watched our neighborhood change twice a day.
Back in our Arsenal mooring, we felt right at home as our winter neighbors returned to port. Our winter life doesn't start until our French classes resume in October, so September was the time for us to enjoy Paris.
Our family came to visit, and we play tourists walking all over Paris together, stopping for a meal or a snack as the mood struck.
Friends that we had made through our website but had only met through email, we're able to stop by and introduce themselves, and we had the pleasure of meeting them in person. We lunched, brunched, and dined with new friends who live in Paris, old barge neighbors and French friends passing through Paris came to stay at what we are now calling "Hotel Eclaircie."
One glorious Sunday, while we had our friends the chefs on board, we shopped for lunch at the Bastille market. Another San Francisco fireman and his wife were in town, and lunch on the back deck was the plan.
Our guests arrived at 1 pm and left at 8 pm in proper French Sunday lunch style. They lived in Paris last year, so they already knew how to relax at the table.
The sky was clear blue, and the sun was warm. There were people out enjoying themselves in the park across from our back deck, music drifting down from the streets above, and more boats than usual cruising by our "table with a view." It was a beautiful day on our back deck and the perfect end to our summer.
Everyone left Paris in August - except us
Firemen come to the port to train.
This guy came to the park on the other side of our port to do his laundry. He saw us taking his photo from our back deck, so he took one of us.
The 2nd course of our Sunday lunch.
Velib, Paris' newest transportation system, meant that we no longer have to carry our bikes off the boat and up 50 stairs to ride through Paris's streets. We couldn't wait for our annual pass to arrive in the mail.
Now we hop on a bike more often than taking the metro.
There are so many things to do in Paris in the Summer that we reluctantly left the port at the end of July for our required three-week cruise.
We had an Elvis sighting along the Marne canal. The sister commercial barge named "Graceland" passed us just before Elvis appeared.
Three days before Christmas
It was 10:30 when we hopped on Vélib bikes at the Bastille and rode down rue St. Antoine. We bundled up for a cold winter's day, but the sun worked hard to keep us comfortable. We passed the Hôtel de Ville on rue de Rivoli, with its skating rink out in front, and we turned right on Boulevard de Sébastopol to return our bikes to a Vélib station near the Centre Georges Pompidou. We were going to our French/English conversation group for a little Christmas party and then to a nearby bistro for their plat du jour.
It was a perfect winter day in Paris. The sky was blue and the air crisp as we crossed over the Seine after lunch.
The shops were dressed up for the holiday season, and street artists helped Santa spread his Christmas cheer.
We walked for hours, wandering in and out of shops, going to outdoor Christmas markets, enjoying the sights, and joining the crowds in front of the department store windows. Everywhere we went, people wished each other "Joyeux Noël" or "Bonnes Fêtes."
After we walked through the Marché de Noel in front of l'église Saint-Sulpice, we went into the church to see La crèche de Caltagirone. At l'église Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the organ was playing during a service, and we stopped to listen for a moment before going across the street for an espresso at Les Deux Magots.
As night fell, Notre Dame was magnificent under a full moon. We stopped to try to capture that beauty on film, and while surrounded by tourists, we delighted in hearing so many different languages spoken in such a peaceful setting. Heading home across l'île Saint-Louis, we were grateful for ourselves and all visitors to Paris for such a beautiful day.