Every now and again when searching for Airbnbs something pops up that you just can't resist. A home so unique you change your plans just to stay there.
In our case, that "home" was a Peniche (a cargo barge converted to a houseboat) sitting on a spur of the Seine not too far from our daughter's village of Samois-sur-Seine. We had plans to return to France after Portugal anyway, so instead of staying in our usual home-away-from-home in Samois, we spent two weeks living on a 175-foot barge. It was definitely a change of pace.
But first, we spent three days in a small, but very nice Airbnb in Bois le Rois, the closest village to Samois, because both the barge and our usual Airbnb were both booked. We were excited to be back because we had tickets to attend the French Open. We have a long history with that event, and professional tennis, that goes back over 40 years when Michael put on professional tennis tournaments in Seattle. That included six years of the women's Virginia Slims and Avon tournaments and exhibition matches between the likes of John McEnroe and Jimmy Conners.
In 1986 we moved to London for five years where Michael opened an office for ProServ, an American sports marketing company. ProServ was deeply involved in representing the world's top tennis players and putting on events in Europe. That meant we spent a lot of time at Wimbledon and The French Open - and Michael started a grass court tennis event in Edinburgh, Scotland held the week before Wimbledon.
In Seattle, Michael partnered on the women’s tournaments with a promoter named Boyd Browning who happened to be married to the legendary French tennis player, Francois Durr. We kept in touch with them over the years, and in fact, spent a Christmas in their home in Compiègne in 2015. Sadly, Boyd passed away three years ago but we try and see Francoise whenever we are in Paris.
This year we reached out to to see if she could help us get tickets to The French Open so that we could take Colette and Marcel to see their first professional tennis tournament. She was able to get us four tickets for the first Wednesday of the two-week tournament. Francoise was the first French woman to win the French Open Championship back in 1967. In total, she holds 26 singles titles and 60 doubles titles, so joining her at Roland Garros where she was recognized by tennis aficionados was like spending time with the Queen.
Our tickets allowed us to stroll the new grounds , and watch matches on all of the outside courts. That was great because we could find an interesting match to watch for a while and then easily move on to another. Perfect for a 7 and 9 year old. We watched parts of two women's doubles matches and two men's singles matches. That got them hooked and we watched tennis on TV on and off during the rest of the tournament.
Before we moved onto the barge we asked our host if we could come by and take a look. We wanted a better idea of the space and what we might need to make it work. We set out in Mary's car and ended up in the wrong place. There were plenty of very nice barge houseboats stretched along the canal where we parked, but when we called our host to tell him we couldn’t find the boat, he told us we were on the wrong side of the canal. We were in the village of Saint-Mammès, and our barge was on the other side near the village of Veneux-les-Sablons. So we looped around and over a bridge to the other side. In order to find it, our host gave us a street address for a house in the village that was close to the barge. From there we called him again and he directed us to a narrow gravel road that paralleled the canal. We wouldn’t have found it otherwise! Once we arrived we had to laugh because we could look directly across the canal to to where we had been standing when we called first time.
We boarded the barge and met our host Emmanuel and his daughter Luna. Emmanuel was a jolly man who for many years was the business partner of Marcel Marceau, the famous French mime actor. Now he is a playwright and musician. He moved his family onto the barge over twenty years ago, and it looked like very little had changed in all that time. Overall the place seemed charming, so we asked for it to be thoroughly cleaned before we arrived and committed to our dates.
When Emmanuel has guests aboard he moved to the private captains quarters in the back of the barge. That worked fine - in fact he was traveling for most of our stay, although his 20 year old daughter stayed on board. That worked well since she could keep the two live-aboard cats at her end.
So we settled in for a romantic two weeks aboard a converted barge in a quaint French village. Sounds like a dream, doesn't it? While the experience was interesting, I don't see us taking up the barge-life any time soon. Maybe if the boat was in better condition, a bit cleaner, and updated we would have a different opinion, but we made the best of it. We even mused over what it would be like to buy a dilapidated barge ourselves and turn it into our dream home - but it didn’t take much to imagine the “money pit” that project would become.
We did enjoy the ever-changing scene from the deck. Working barges lumbered past, along with pleasure boats and the occasional kayak. And we enjoyed the swan families that came by each morning for a breakfast of stale baguettes. In fact, we were witness to a pair of swans mating (talk about the birds and the bees!) It didn't look like much fun for the lady swan as she was held firmly by the neck in the male swan's beak and had her body, and often her head pushed underwater!
We also had all three grandchildren overnight a few times, and of course, they thought the barge was awesome! They were up and down and all around looking in the hidden crannies,feeding the birds, and making bedding nests for themselves. There was a grand piano aboard (we didn't lack for space) and Michael was able to teach Marcel a simple song or two, and of course, we had the French Open on the television so we could keep on the action. Coco's only complaint was there were too many bugs and spiders. She was right about that!
The nearby medieval village of Moret-sur-Loing was postcard perfect. To get there we walked along the canal past more barges, intricate locks, and small parks. When we reached the fortified walls of the town young and old alike were splashing in the pools formed by ancient dams, and riding the sluice created by a huge water wheel. The old town was filled with little alleys and half-timbered homes that kept their dignity even in the face of hordes of tourists.
One afternoon we watched a barge like ours cast-off its heavy lines and slowly head out for the weekend. It was hard to imagine you could take such an enormous craft "out for the weekend" but that's what they did. We watched them dock it three days later, and it was no easy task.
Mary had to work a quite a bit while we were visiting. She continues to be a much sought after food-stylist and she took on one last large project before she and the family head to America on holiday. We did managed to spend a couple of mother daughter days together. One in Paris where we had a lovely lunch and took in the La Lune, an exhibit at the Grand Palais. It was a fascinating look at the moon through science and art, and included artifacts from the Apollo 11 mission, ancient astronomical tools, film clips (including the 1902 French classic Le Voyage dans la Lune), famous paintings, sculpture, religious art, and folk lore.
The second featured another delicious lunch (always a priority for us) and shopping for their upcoming trip. They will start in Los Angeles with a visit with her brother Alistair and family to give the kids time with their revered American cousins, Spencer and Lucy. Then they will camp along the coast ending with a lengthy stop in Seattle, while ironically, we will be back in France!
We book-ended our three-week return to France with another international sports outing. This time we took Colette and Marcel to a Women's World Cup match at Parc de Princes in Paris. Tickets were challenging to come by, but Michael persevered and we had really good seats for the USA v Chile match in the group stage. In order to get there an hour before the match, we had to start from Samois at 2:30 in the afternoon to arrive at the stadium by 6:00. We literally crossed all of Paris via train and metro.
The USA fans were in full regalia and as we got closer to the stadium we were surrounded by people decked out in flags, team jerseys, and even red, white and blue tutus (not necessarily on girls) Headgear ranged from eagle masks and Statue of Liberty halos to glittered deely-bobber stars, and most everyone had some sort of face paint dubbed on their cheeks. There were more Chile fans that we'd expected and they, too, were geared up and ready with flags and chants. My favorite was "Che-Che, Lay-Lay…CHEEE-LAAAY, Oh Ay, Oh Ay! The match was sold-out and the kids participated in their first "wave". With over 45,000 fans in the stands, it was fun to watch it ripple over and over around the stadium.
Happily the USA won 3 - 0. We joined the crowds pushing out of the stadium and toward the metro station. It was absolutely packed so Michael had the brilliant idea of getting a train heading in the opposite direction, get out at the first stop and then get back on going the “right” way. Thankfully his strategy worked and we boarded a nearly empty train and even found seats. When we reversed course and stopped at the crowded station near the stadium dozens of fans packed into our car but we were safely together and sitting down.
We made our way back across Paris and to Samois under a full moon where we delivered two wound-up kids at 10:30 pm on a school night. A grandparent's prerogative. Next year Jacques will be old enough to tag along with us to events and learn all about sports at Grandpa Michael's knee.
After saying goodbye to the Bourons we got on a train to Hamburg, Germany where we would spend ten days before heading out on our annual car trip. This time around the Danish peninsula known as Jutland with stops in Ribe, Aalborg, Aarhus and Odense before returning the car to Hamburg. From there we will fly to Copenhagen for a dash more Denmark before returning to France for the rest of of July and August.
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads