The dividing line between a long vacation and a lifestyle change is far from clear, as with so many dividing lines. (Harvey once had a business client who told him that his job as a lawyer was to tell the client where the line was between what was legal and what was not, and then to tell him just how thick the line was so he could push his toes against the far edge of that line. The client was told to keep his shoes on and just do the right thing.) However, there are some pretty good indicators of when you have gone beyond the limit of a simple vacation. The second haircut away from home is one indicator. Buying shoes to replace the ones you’ve worn out. Changing the battery in your watch. Receiving a notice from the post office that the period for which it will forward your mail has expired. And, of course, the killer indicator, signing a two-year lease on your home at home.
We’ve passed all those landmarks. After three months it is obvious we’re not on vacation. We’ve moved to France. Changed our residence. Changed our lives. When asked a question we respond with “oui,” rather than “yes.” We buy a baguette every morning, and feed yesterday’s leftover crusts to the swans because who could eat day-old bread? We flush the boat’s toilet by pressing a button and barely remember those lever things. Most of all, the social lubricants have changed. Rather than nodding at everybody on the sidewalk, you respect their space. On the other hand, you never leap into any conversation, at a store, on the street, in a restaurant by just saying what you have to say. Instead, you ease in with a bonjour, with a comment on the weather, with a Madame or a Monsieur or, if both are together, with a single word contraction “monsieurdame,” accompanied by the appropriate nodding of your head.
Most of all the difference between a vacation and a lifestyle change is the matter of time. Vacations have an end, a definite day by which you will return to your real life. Whatever is to happen on vacation has to happen by that time. We have a target for returning home – maybe permanently, maybe not – but it is so far off, after the summer of 2014, that it is not, yet, a factor. We don’t know who will be President then, or whether the country will be in a depression, whether there will be mandatory health insurance, whether the U.S. will still be at war in Afghanistan, or Iran. It is so far in the future as to not, yet, be real. Instead, we’re still at the stage where when we motor the barge into a new town we don’t know whether we’ll leave in the morning or stay for a week. It depends. And we may return next year, or never again.
Our trip to Fontainbleau this week is an example of this. We’ve left Paris, happily, after overdosing on The Big City, and are working our way up the Haute Seine, the portion of the River Seine that goes beyond Paris. The river here is wide and swift and filled with large commercial barges lugging sand and gravel to city construction sites. The river banks are a mix of expensive vacation homes for wealthy Parisians, ultra-modern homes that are more glass than walls and homes with towers and turrets and whimsical outbuildings that attempt to emulate medieval chateaus in miniature. In the midst of all this is the town of Fontainbleau, where the kings of France had their summer hunting lodge and palace, and where Napoleon spent most of his time when he wasn’t out conquering the world. It has been fully restored, the only royal residence in Europe that has been returned to near its original, ostentatious state. Well worth a visit for any tourist trip.
So, we decided we’d visit Fontainbleau. Our canal chart showed a port for Fontainbleau on the Haute Seine. We pulled in to a marina there. The problem is, our 86-year-old Dutch barge, 70-feet or so long, isn’t quite a “marina” sort of vessel. After an hour tied up there the vibe was wrong. We untied our mooring lines and moved on. This isn’t what can be done on a vacation, where schedules and well-laid plans predominate. Take One at Fontainbleau was a flop.
We motored on up the Seine until we came to the next lock. We’d learned that both upriver and downriver from these large locks on the Seine the waterways authority had built long walls for the commercial boats to tie up for the night. We could snuggle up against the far end of these walls without interfering with the huge commercials, like the mice in the horse barn, and spend a night. We did just that at the next lock, in Champagne-sur-Seine (which has nothing to do with the bubbly wine), and tied ourselves to a wall between the largest boats we’d yet encountered. Stayed three nights. Free. The town had two boulangeries selling bread and croissants, and a small market in which the sole clerk carefully sniffed every melon in the bins until he found just the right one for us to buy, addicting us to the boule de mielle, the “ball of honey” melon.
Google Earth told us this town was no farther from Fontainbleau than the marina we’d fled from. We planned a bicycle expedition for the next day. After unloading our two bikes from the aft deck, Sandra fell into conversation with an older man walking his dog along the river bank. Eventually the conversation turned to our plan to ride to Fontainbleau. What is the best way to get there, Sandra asked. The man’s eyes lit up and, simultaneously, his French sped up. He pointed up the river. Follow the Seine that way, he said. Then turn off onto the River Loing. Go to the ecluse, the lock, and cross over the barrage, the dam. Then just go a droit, a droit, a droit: straight, straight, straight. That sounded like a rather nautical set of directions for a bike trip and, on further inquiry, it turned out he’d spent his life delivering “farina,” grain, in his barge, on which he still lived. He was a Frenchman who knew his rivers and canals, but the rest of his country was as much terra incognita as the far side of the Hudson River is to native New Yorkers, they know it exists and possibly people of some sort live there but they certainly don’t know anybody who has actually been there. Nonetheless, or maybe because of his barge connection, we followed his directions, riding our bikes along the towpath further up the Seine, coming to the junction with the Loing, riding down to the first canal lock and over it and then riding straight, straight, and even more straight, ending up … somewhere that was most certainly not Fontainbleau.
But it was an interesting place, a village surrounded by stone walls, across an arched bridge over a river, with a tower and a gateway and arrow slits and all the accoutrements of medieval architecture.
The town of Moret-sur-Loing. Not a king’s summer residence, certainly, but the home of a Benedictine convent that from 1638 to 1972 (when they moved to Paris) used its secret recipe to manufacture Sucre d’Orge, barley sugar candy. And Napoleon did spend a night there. So, we ended up spending a day in Moret. Take Two at Fontainbleau was not quite a failure, but not quite successful.
The next day we just took the train, a 10-minute ride to Fontainbleau. It was all it had been billed to be, totally over the top gaudy, room after room after room of gilt and brocade and splendor and ego, surprising us with just how short Napoleon’s bed was, not that size matters. If nothing else, Fontainbleau explained, and justified, the French Revolution.
The point of this is not to discuss how superfluous the heads of French kings were but, rather to focus on the difference between a vacation and a change in one’s life. You can’t spend three days of a vacation trying repeatedly to see one “attraction.” But because you can’t do that you miss out on the serendipitous events that take place when time is not an issue, meeting the Frenchman whose country is limited to what can be seen from the waterways, spending a day at the home of the Benedictine nuns with a 450-year sweet tooth, or simply succeeding through perseverance.
France, for us, has been filled with these unexpected interactions and events. Today’s motoring up the wide and slow River Yonne was punctuated by a shortcut on a narrow canal that cut across the river’s meanders. Unfortunately, that was the only part of today’s travel in which we met not one, not two, but three large commercial barges, 100-meter-long boats loaded to the waterlines with piles of sand, like 15-story buildings turned on edge and floating through a canal wide enough for them, our barge and maybe a basketball to fit between us. One such boat slowly approached us as Sandra hummed the theme from Jaws and then slid by with barely enough room between his sides and our side to fit a boule de mielle, a small one at that. The driver never put down the cell phone on which he was chattering away. By the third such barge we passed in the canal, we were patting ourselves on our backs for becoming such barge-handling pros. It was satisfying work squeezing by these boats.
Or maybe what made the day special was coming to a bend in the river and glancing at our river chart to see a notation warning us, in French, German and English, “shoals, keep to right bank when passing castle.” When passing castle. Not, hey, look at the castle, but, oh, there is a castle that makes a spiffy navigational marker.
So, after a tad more than three months here, with almost two-and-a-half years to go, this has gone far beyond being a long vacation. This is our life now. We tell people that we “live in France.” On a boat. And we do. Somebody else lives in our house at home – whatever “home” is – and we live … on a boat. In France.