In early June of 2009, my husband David and I traveled to France, and rented a self-driven house boat on the River Lot for one week. We thought it would be fun and romantic. Even relaxing!
The boat’s exterior was extremely charming. Strangers in other boats would smile and run for their cameras when they saw it. It was also large and sluggish, and difficult to maneuver, compared to some of the faster, slick little boats we saw on the river … usually passing us. Inside the boat, the sleeping areas were cramped and moldy, and the kitchen/living area reeked of years’ worth of accumulated BO. The first night, we killed the boat’s battery after having too many lights on at a time.
The owner had to come rescue us the following morning. He scolded us for having too many lights on at a time. “Oui, oui, we get it.” Subsequent nights were spent in darkness, one dim bulb in use at a time. A few days in, we lost hot water just as I was going to take a shower. Some minutes after that, we realized we actually had no water. Thus we learned about refilling our boat’s water tank, and began to make a note of which mooring stations provided these facilities.
The River Lot also held a delightful surprise that we had not prepared for properly, and that was the locks. Operating each lock was extremely physically demanding, and “parking” the boat in order for one of us to get out and operate it was terrifying. The river’s current was strongest in these locations, and there were many instances when I was certain we were going to hit rocks and/or go over the weir.
So our boat trip was basically the opposite of relaxing. And though there were moments of fun and breathtaking scenery, it did not feel romantic.
One significant stressor that we had also neglected to anticipate when planning our little misadventure was that we happened to have a difficult time finding food. Turns out there were very few grocery stores in the small villages that we had access to on the river. Also, there were not a lot of restaurants, and some weren’t yet open for the official summer season. And the few stores and restaurants that were in operation actually closed for several afternoon hours a day, every day. That was when I learned that the siesta tradition is not exclusive to Spain.
We were hungry. And being hungry in a foreign country, under stressful circumstances, creates a unique feeling of vulnerability. On the rare occasions when village business hours and our eating and boating hours aligned and we managed to eat at a restaurant, we resorted to always taking the bread, shoving it in our bag when no one was looking. A hot meal was a rare luxury. Bread, cheese, and chocolate became our staple foods, with wine at the end of the day.
So it was that one evening we came to a small, family-run restaurant in a secluded camping area, which happened to be open for dinner. A warm and friendly woman seated us. The tables and chairs were (cheap) plastic patio furniture. The woman told us, apologetically, that they were not completely set up for summer yet. But we were so relieved to find this place, and so comforted by her kind welcome, that we didn’t mind. We proceeded to inhale a basket of bread the moment it was placed in front of us, and promptly ordered two glasses of champagne to toast the occasion. We also ordered a bottle of water, and finally allowed ourselves to relax a little while browsing the menu.
By the time the friendly woman came back with our drinks, we were straight-up giddy about all the food we were about to eat. Before she could take our order, however, our new friend wanted to make sure we understood that it was cash only. The restaurant typically accepted payment by credit card, but because they were not yet set up for summer, they didn’t have the ability to do so that particular week. One week later, no problem. Just not that day.
David and I quickly realized that with the roughly 30 Euros we had in cash, we’d only be able to order one entrée for the two of us. We looked at each other, took one quick glance back at the menu, and settled on a plate of sausage and fries. It was all we could afford. The woman saw what was happening, and offered to split the entrée into two plates, so we each could feel like we were getting our own dinner.
When the two plates of food came out, each one had a whole sausage, and was piled high and heavy with fries. Our friend had a big smile on her face. The photo below shows David’s plate thoroughly cleaned, and mine well on its way, plus two empty bread baskets on the table; the second helping of bread we received—free of charge—had probably already made its way into one of our bags. On top of the other empty basket sits a red rose.
When we first arrived at the restaurant, our friendly waitress had offered me a flower in honor of Mother’s Day (that day happened to be Mother’s Day in France). This was before we had our son. So I thought it was very nice of her, but I tried to tell her, “Thank you, but I’m not a mother.” It didn’t feel right to accept the flower. But she insisted, simply saying that she really wanted me to have it.
A few days later, we’d had enough of boating in France. We were sporting bruises and blisters. I’d wake up in a panic at night, with visuals of either the inferi from Harry Potter, or of our boat coming unmoored and drifting toward the nearest rock, which was sure to break us in half … right before the inferi came out for us. We’d been smart to plan our Paris stay—our real vacation—for after the boat instead of before. I contacted our hotel in Paris to ask if we’d be able to check in a day early; they said yes! So we cut our first and last boating vacation short, and gleefully boarded a train back to Paris, where we had a wonderfully romantic and relaxing few days. Nine months after that, I became a mom.