Updated: Mar 18
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 lonely? 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.