I often read travel memoirs, especially ones set in France and, being as England is just across the channel, most of them are written by English men or women so I was pleasantly surprised to find one by an American, in this case, Cris Hammond, author of From Here to Paris-Get Laid Off, Buy A Barge, Take It To Paris. He’s a Californian who had a successful business in San Francisco, found himself laid off so started taking “paparazzi” photos of people on yachts on the San Francisco Bay and becoming successful at that but finally selling that business and, through a series of events, finds himself the owner of a Dutch barge in France. This book will make you want to go out and buy a barge yourself or at least book the next canal trip you can find. Read along as he and his wife, and faithful dog, learn about barging, find how beautiful France is, how lovely the wine and food and, as most learn when they are in France, a slower pace of life. His sense of humor made me laugh and there were some tender and sad moments as well when he tells of his Dad and best friend. Live your dreams now, don’t put off happiness until later-that’s in his book too. Cris, it turns out, is also a cartoonist and a successful artist. You can see some of his cartoons and, indeed, receive one via email once a week, on his website. I enjoyed his book so much that I decided to write and see if he would answer some interview questions for me. To my delight, he was willing.
Cris-where are you right now as you answer these questions? From your book I know you divide your time between California and France.
Right now weâ€™re moored on the Yonne River at the town of Auxerre. Itâ€™s in northern Burgundy, not far from Chablis. The mooring is on the quayside, across the river from the old town. Thereâ€™s a beautiful view of the two massive churches and the lovely abbey St. Germain from our aft cockpit, where we wind down each day with our mandatory wine tribute to France.
Phaedra spent the winter moored at the boatyard a dayâ€™s journey down river from here, at Migennes. I spent a week at the yard de-winterizing and cleaning before bringing her up here to Auxerre. The last couple weeks have been a lot more boat maintenance, which is the norm. This year itâ€™s new paint on cabin tops and deck and refinishing the teak on the forward cabin sides and skylights. All that said, Iâ€™ve found time to go out and do some plein aire drawing in a couple of the villages near here, so it hasnâ€™t all been work. I also admit to several nice lunches and dinners out with friends and a couple Saturday markets in Chablis and Toucy.
2.How do you decide what dates you want to spend in France?
When we first bought the boat, we came over as early as March, which was a mistake, weather-wise. I would go back to the U.S. mid-summer to photograph sailboats on San Francisco Bay. Then, return to France for the fall and weâ€™d leave again when winter started coming on. Thatâ€™s been our pattern ever since. I no longer do the boat photography thing but I do participate in one, two-week, art show in July back in California. Iâ€™ve been lucky enough to sell pretty much everything I produce in France each year at this show, so it pays to bail out of France for July and August each year. Those months are also the time when the canals are the most crowded with rental boats, so we do avoid a lot of traffic.
Winter in Burgundy is not a great time to be living on a boat. Itâ€™s too cold, wet and dark for this Californian, so we go back to the U.S. This year though, weâ€™ll be taking Phaedra back to Paris for the winter. The canals close during the winter so weâ€™ll be sort of locked in at the Arsenal harbor until May. That, Iâ€™m looking forward to. Paris, to me, is heaven no matter what time of year.
â€¨3. Why a barge and not an apartment in France?
Thatâ€™s easy. It moves. Itâ€™s also always on the water.
â€¨4. Anything you wished you had known before you bought your barge? Any regrets that you didn’t do something differently? What surprised you about owning a barge? How expensive is it, for instance, for docking for the winter?
We bought Phaedra having absolutely no experience in barging in France. Iâ€™d never been through a lock and had only the vaguest notion of what the whole canal system was. I had over 35 years of experience with sailboats, mostly wooden boats, but nothing like this. Maybe thatâ€™s why I chose Phaedra out of all the boats I looked at. She was designed as a sailing vessel 90 years ago and she has the graceful lines that Iâ€™m familiar with. I canâ€™t imagine a better handling boat. Sheâ€™s also dependable, comfortable, and pretty. I was very, very lucky.
The cost of owning a boat? I learned long ago that a boat is not anything that could be called an investment. You buy one because youâ€™ve got the bug. The expenses associated with maintenance are pretty comparable to U.S. prices. I do most of my own work, but my biggest challenges have to do with accessing parts and materials. There isnâ€™t a chandlery on every corner like there is back home, so getting parts for odd pumps, or obscure motors can sometimes be difficult. The bright side is that the mooring fees are a fraction of what Iâ€™d pay in California. Weâ€™ve been renting out our house in Sausalito while weâ€™re in France and it more than covers our costs to live on the boat here.
Of course, Paris will be more expensive than Burgundy, but it is still less expensive than our housing costs in Sausalito. All in all, itâ€™s working out amazingly well.
â€¨â€¨5. So far, what has been your favorite area in France while exploring the canals? What memory comes to mind when you think of your last voyage?â€¨
My favorite canals are the Nivernais and the Loing. They are both beautiful, meandering canals that gain and lose elevation through wonderful country.
Last fall on the Nivernais, we decided to travel only until lunchtime each day. We also set no destination. Weâ€™d simply dawdle along, moor up at noon and kick back the rest of the day. The next day, weâ€™d move on, or not, we didnâ€™t care. We found a sweet little mooring in the town of Clamecy and just sat there for three weeks. We perfected â€œlazy.â€
6. Favorite food and wine you discovered here?â€¨
Our favorite white wine has been the St. Bris by Felix et Fils. Itâ€™s a crisp chardonnay from a village near Chablis. I say it â€œhas beenâ€ our favorite but this year, theyâ€™ve been offering a 2013 that isnâ€™t as good as the 2012, so weâ€™re searching among the other St. Bris, Chablis, Sancerres, and Vire Clesseâ€™s. We do tend to go through it pretty fast so price is a consideration.
Our favorite cheeses are the Compte, Delice de Bourgogne, Petite Basque, and Tome de Savoir. (pardon my spelling if I got any of them wrong.) Also those little croton dâ€™ chevre are fun to explore.
My wife, Linda, makes the best boeuf bourguignon in France. (She says itâ€™s the cut of meat the butcher gives her here.) I also love salmon tartare and the stuffed trout at Le Petit Guyon in Auxerre.
â€¨7. Any words of wisdom to someone thinking about buying a barge?â€¨
Donâ€™t get more boat than you need. I see some of these people piling bells and whistles on their boats to the point youâ€™d think they were planning to round Cape Horn in the dead of winter. By the end of your first day of cruising, youâ€™ll discover that granite counter tops and an Aga stove wonâ€™t be of any use in getting you safely into a lock off a stampeding river. Also, tons of expensive electronic gizmos usually are of no real use and tend to fail at the worst time. Remember, a canal is mostly still water. If itâ€™s raining, or foggy, or the riverâ€™s in flood, take a break. This isnâ€™t the Royal Navy.
Make sure the boat youâ€™re looking at will go on the canals you want to explore. Iâ€™ve known people who have bought boats because they wanted to travel the Canal de Bourgogne or the Nivernais, only to find out that the boat is too tall to fit in the Bourgogne tunnel or too deep to go on the Nivernais. Kinda puts a damper on things.
Love your bow thruster. (This is a part of a barge-it’s in the book.)
â€¨8. What do you love most in Paris?â€¨
The list is too long, but Iâ€™ll just say itâ€™s the feeling that comes over me when Iâ€™m there. I donâ€™t know where it comes from, past lives? I donâ€™t know. But when Iâ€™m in Paris I feel youth washing all over me and Iâ€™m happy. I discovered Paris on a backpacking summer when I was in college and it just grabbed something deep in my soul. Maybe it touches the artist in me.
â€¨9. Your life in California-the differences. What you do when there? How often do you paint? How long does it take you to come up with a cartoon? Does being in France add to your creativity? Other than the subject, has it changed how you paint?
In California, I have long established roots and connections, friendships and family that I donâ€™t have here in France. Life back there has its routines that are admittedly comforting. Life on the boat in France has its routines as well, but they are somehow fleeting, making each day seem a bit of an adventure. Going to the hardware store in the U.S. wouldnâ€™t normally be an adventure, but a trip to Mr. Bricolage in France can be full of surprises.
I do art in both places but Iâ€™m starting to concentrate on bronze sculpture in California where I have a studio and workshop. I donâ€™t have the same set-up here in France. Actually, Iâ€™ve been doing more simple pencil sketching and drawing the last couple years. Painting in oil on the boat pretty much takes over the whole cabin and the mess and smell is tough on Linda, so Iâ€™ve concentrated more on just drawing. I get in the car and wander around until a find a nice village church or something, then sit down and go to work. Then I come back to the boat and work over four or five days to do a finished rendering.
Cartoons are another thing. Iâ€™ve been doing cartoons all my life, with and without captions. For the last couple years Iâ€™ve been doing single panel cartoons with captions. The inspiration starts with the writing. It comes from a different part of the brain than the drawing. I get into a writing mode for a couple of weeks and end up with 10-30 captions. Then I switch to the drawing brain, and see if theyâ€™re funny. Frankly, the cartoon inspirations come more often when Iâ€™m in the U.S., perhaps because of all those long established roots, connections, and friendships.
There is an emotional routine that this life has created. Weâ€™re in California for six months through the winter, and by spring, weâ€™re really looking forward to getting back to the boat. Itâ€™s all excitement and jet lag when we arrive, with so much to look forward to. The energy is high. Then, about late June, we start missing our kids and friends a little, and the idea of getting back home looks good.
July and August at home, taking care of business and sliding back into old routines and the images of cruising through some beautiful countryside start to beckon. So, weâ€™re ready and excited to go back to Phaedra and do some exploring. The cold starts to set in and the rain comes more often in late September and into October. The warm, dry house with forced air heating starts to look pretty good, and we begin to long for home. Six months of winter later, and the cycle begins again.
Itâ€™s great to always have the next adventure to look forward to.