Huddled around our Godin heating stove during our first French blizzard, this seems like a nice time to write about our winter home in Auxonne. We’re in the region of Bourgogne (Burgundy in English), about midway between the cities of Dole and Dijon, just a bit north of the most prolific wine area, where the best Burgundy wines come from. We are, the Tourist Office tells us, just 292 kilometers (181 miles) from the Eiffel Tower. Auxonne is famous for its onions, although “famous” might simply be a polite expression, in the sense of “everybody is special in his own way” or “every place is famous for something.” Onions don’t hold quite the same panache as the world’s best wines produced by our neighbors. As a result, the Auxonnoise have an inferiority complex, evidenced by the universal response when we tell people we are Americans living on a boat in Auxonne for tout l’hiver, all the winter. “Auxonne?,” they say, a puzzled look on their faces. “Pourquoi Auxonne?” Its sort of like choosing to spend the winter in Saugus, to use a Boston North Shore analogy.
Nonetheless, we like it here and are having a quintessential French experience. Here’s a quick profile and tour of Auxonne.
Auxonne is a military town, known for its fortifications. It once guarded the boundary between France and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The story goes that until recently professional barge folk navigating on the River Saone, where Auxonne is located, referred to the right bank, on the west, as “France” and the left bank, on the east, as “l’empire.” Most of the fortifications still stand, although in various states of repair. We are moored right up against one section of these ramparts.
The French artillery school was located here. Its most famous graduate was a young lieutenant named Napoleon Bonaparte. Where we live in Massachusetts, unless your town has at least one building with a plaque confirming that “George Washington slept here” the town has no claim to be historic. Napoleon, it seems, slept around as much as did Washington. His statue looms over the town square beside the church. His name adorns everything from streets to pharmacies to bars.
While the famous artillery school has moved on, perched above our boat are the barracks for the 511th Regiment du Train of the French Army. We march past these soldiers on our daily voyages to the boulangerie. They don’t appear to be doing much military but they look awfully martial in their camos and their tiny black berets perched on their foreheads. We pass a sign every day walking to and from the barge with a warning that Google translates as “Danger zone. Forbidden to enter when the shooting pennant is in place.” Interesting, as this is about a hundred feet from our boat.
Soldiers, men and women, are all over town. Some French military protocols remain mysteries. One day four soldiers stood in line at an ATM. An officer walked up. One soldier saluted, one soldier shook hands, one kissed the officer on both cheeks, one ignored him.
We feel a special affinity with these soldiers since 500 of their predecessors in the Auxonne Artillery Regiment were critical to the ultimate American victory at the battle of Yorktown in the American Revolution. Reenactors still dress as Auxonne Artillery in the States. Coming from Ipswich, Massachusetts (don’t you Brits have one, too, we’ve heard) where our town seal proclaims us as the birthplace of American independence, we take both the American Revolution and, even more so than for the originals, reenactments of our local battles quite seriously. So, thanks to all you Auxonnoise soldiers.
— Auxonne Artillery reenactors in the U.S.
The admiration is mutual, however. As appears to be universal in France, folks in Auxonne have a mystical image of New York City as equivalent to the Emerald City of Oz. On our main street we have a bar named Manhattan. A kebob shop named Happy Days features New York’s Chrysler Building on its sign. Our Tuesday night pizza shop – Star Pizza – is decorated with huge photos of New York. Incongruously, a hangout bar in town is the Cactus Cafe. Here are some photos of town:
Getting to know people in town we delight in cultural differences between France and home. Life is so much slower paced. And life is richer and savored. A frantic New Yorker might say the pace is lazy and self-indulgent but it becomes a choice in life style. To us, this pace, and this richness in life is preferable. Here’s an example. School kids have two hours for lunch. It causes a longer school day but it gives time to appreciate something more than a bag of Cheetos and a can of Coke. Here is the menu at the local elementary school. If you can read this you’ll be shocked at what is served to five-year-olds at lunch. Today’s school lunch was four courses: salade d’endives, emince de porc a la moutarde a l’ancienne (you can find this recipe at http://www.lesfoodies.com), pommes rissoles (described online as “a French classic”), edam cheese, organic yogurt, barre de cereales (a cereal bar) and fruit. Prepared by a chef, not a cafeteria lady.
Auxonne isn’t flashy, as is Paris with its wide avenues chok-a-block with upscale shopping. It isn’t nearly as historic as Dijon, filled with ancient buildings and museums. It isn’t prosperous as its Burgundian wine neighbors. Streets fill with public school students, not oh so sophisticated university students. With the rental boat season long past, there are no tourists. We, and the handful of other boaters overwintering in the river port, are a perplexing anomaly.
But despite Auxonne’s relative anonymity, or perhaps because of it, we are having the time of our lives this winter. Once again, we’ve met the most wonderful people: the retired Parisian lawyer who spent a day driving us through the rain to Dole and then translating for Harvey’s cardiologist there, our boat neighbors who sold their farm and built the boat on which they travel the rivers, the hotel owner who lets us use a meeting room for our weekly language get together and the women with whom we alternate French and English questions and answers, the Johnny Depp lookalike butcher where Sandra shops, Harvey’s boulangerie buddies who smile as he butchers their language, the people who inhabit the pizza shop every Tuesday evening who have taken Harvey into their circle and appear shocked that we are still in Auxonne, Sandra’s internet pen pals who meet her in Dijon before language lessons there, the wonderful family who dined on the boat and have since invited us to meet their friends. Maybe because Auxonne lacks flash, we ourselves have become an item in town, the Americans on the boat spending the winter in Auxonne.
Pourquoi Auxonne, they still wonder. Our response, because it is Auxonne. Because it is France.