A year-and-a-half cruising the French canals and rivers, south, east and north of Paris. The cities, the history, the food, the wine, the castles, the cathedrals. Did we mention the food? And the wine? France captured our hearts. Life here is rich, deep, slow, intense. And polite, oh so polite. That will be an adjustment when we return home, just getting down to business without introductory hellos and discussion of the weather, and long, drawn out good byes, all accompanied by a festival of kissing on the cheeks, both cheeks. Sometimes all three cheeks, returning to the first – always their right – for just one more moowa of the lips.
All of that – all the tourist things – was fascinating. But what made our time here most special was the people, the French people, who opened their hearts and their homes to us, who were excited that we were Americans and who welcomed us with arms wide and lips puckered. For a year-and-a-half our joke has been to roll our eyes at one another and mutter “another nasty French person” after a stranger goes out of her way to be helpful to a couple of Americans who are perdu – lost – without a clue. However the myth of the rude French was created, we found it to be so inaccurate, so totally missing the mark, that it became a joke, an endless, and totally unsuccessful search for that rude archetype.
So, here, in photos, are just a few of the people (and a few animals, of course) who transmogrified us from being tourists to feeling like guests. Thank you so much, each one of you, and all the others we never photographed.
First, the cohort from VNF, the Voies Navigables de France, the government agency that operates the 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) of navigable rivers and canals. We passed through 860 locks, most had a resident or itinerant lock keeper, an eclusier. These patient people were Sandra’s language victims as she chatted about their work, their studies or just life in general as locks slowly filled and emptied.
The thing is, you never know who you’re going to meet on any given day. It might be a group of kids fascinated by our old barge (kids love the boat, and often don’t seem to even notice the people on the boat). It might be the accordion ladies who resolutely outplayed an electrified rock band. Or the man with a pitchfork who told us – on the anniversary of the end of World War Two – that he’d watched General Patton cross the Marne on a floating bridge at the exact spot where we were moored. Or the teachers of Paris, marching on city hall in a one-day strike protesting adding a half day of school on Wednesday, but striking on a school holiday so students wouldn’t miss classes.
We bought a lot of wine in France. We drank a lot of wine in France. We visited a lot of vineyards in France. Without exception the vineyard owners – generally small, family-run businesses – gave us their time and patience, and cases of their wines, usually delivered to the boat at the end of their work day.
So many people went so far out of their way to be helpful. The friend of the tourist office manager who worked through the night to write out her first-time guided tour in English. The couple who operate a small dairy farm who sat Sandra in their kitchen and showed her the boar the farmer had shot. The fisherman who waited two weeks before starting a conversation with us, then spent hours telling his life story, all in French. The tourist office lady who worked in a 300-year-old pigeon coop. The architecture students spending their summer rebuilding a castle, one stone at a time. And the hundreds of patient fishermen lining the river and canal banks, slowly reeling in their lines to let us pass, and always returning a wave and a smile.
One surprise was how rural almost all of France is. And rural means animals, wild animals and farm animals. And, of course, dogs. Who wouldn’t want to be a French dog. They get the best seats in restaurants and never bark. Our favorite dog was Rep the Airedale.
Best of all were the friends we made in France. Lots of boat people, members of what we called our “linear village.” These are people we met at random when our boat and their boat happened to be at the same place. Sometimes we’d meet again elsewhere. Sometimes, we know we’ll meet again in the future. But most special were the French friends. Sandrine and Herve were the first people to invite Sandra and Harvey into their home. New Years Eve with three families – 17 people – was a treat in food, wine and conversation. Closest of all are Francoise and Phillipe, who shared our winter mooring in Auxonne.
So, our first French barging experience is over. We’ll be returning every summer, an oddity in nature, the only creatures to migrate eat and west rather than north and south. We look forward to seeing more of France. And, most exciting, to meeting more of France.