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Week Eight: Castles, Caves and Fluent Conversation: Reveling in our Francophonie along the Loire

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

Saint-Brevin to Paris: 465km; total 3,636km

Another week, another mad dash to a must-reach destination.

This time, however, there was no possibility of a next ferry. Our pricey, once-in-a-lifetime tickets to see the Mona Lisa were set to expire in 40 minutes - that 500-year-old coy smile waits for no one.

And this time, there was no straight green line on our BikeMap app guiding the way. Paris is a city-cyclist’s dream, but only once you get to know it. Fresh off a train for our weekend tour de force in the City of Lights, we were stuck on a busy mid-town route, 6km away, with stop lights every 50 metres - that seem to switch from rouge to vert to rouge again in far too short an interval for a string of five newbie Parisians to ride across. Every intersection split our group in two, then the next light would go red just as we arrived again.

This time, “there’s always a way” didn’t seem to apply.

But this time, we had Auntie Brook - Joce’s sister whose long-anticipated two-week visit from Whitehorse has been a turbo-boost of sunshine for the past seven days. Brook was naively chirping optimism from the back of the bike train, keeping us all from losing all hope.

And cette fois-ci, we realized… we speak French.

Hé bonjour, Monsieur,” Ed asked the biker ahead of us in the traffic line, in his best, calmest impression of a Parisian accent. “Si nous voulons aller au plus vite jusqu’au Louvre, comment le ferions-nous?”

A quick peek over his shoulder and he knew we were foreigners: nobody wears bike helmets in Europe.

But: we were foreigners with fluent French. A big, reassuring smile.

“Bien, vous prendriez le Parc Rives de Seine. Suivez-moi!”

Soon we had dashed across several crosswalks, descended an old exit ramp and were floating along the bank of the famed Seine River, weaving briskly through the weekend walkers on a thoroughfare recently reclaimed by the city to replace heavy car traffic with a cyclist-and-pedestrian paradise. Brook shouted that she knew all along we’d make it.

As we pressed to keep up with our new friend, he explained the remainder of our route, which would include a long tunnel before dropping us near the gates to the famous museum we’d been planning for weeks to visit - including securing time-sensitive tickets to avoid the long day-of line-ups.

As he accelerated ahead and bade us Bon courage, he paid us the greatest compliment an anglophone Canadian family from the Yukon could ever hope to receive in France:

Vous êtes du Québec?”

So far on our Europe Epic family bike tour, we’ve gotten by fairly well with our Spanish, and we’ve wrestled gamely with Portuguese. Communicating has been a wonderful learning experience, but always an effort. But for the past two weeks, we’ve felt completely at ease in la langue de Moliere, going about our daily travels without a second thought in our second language. It’s partly because we’ve each spoken it since we were very young, but mostly it’s because French folks - once they realize we genuinely speak French and understand what they say back - welcome us into their world like family come home.

When we moved to the Yukon in 2017, we were nervous about fitting in to a new community. Teaching jobs were scarce for Ed, and Jocelyn was a new naturopathic doctor seeking new patients among strangers. By stroke of fortune Ed nabbed a semester-long contract at the French-first-language high school, where his francophone colleagues seamlessly included the new Grade-12 French teacher with the most English-sounding name of all time. Arriving the first morning after gaining permanent status the following autumn, Ed felt like Norm walking into Cheers, accosted by each passing adult with hearty greeting and startling excitement that he was “de retour chez nous.” Joce happened to treat a couple francophone women in her first month of clinic and subsequently began seeing dozens more who heard par la bouche à l’oreille about the new médecin fabuleuse in town.

As such, we have been proudly declaring to everyone from campgrounds in Blois to traffic lights in Paris that we’re not actually from Quebec - we’re Yukonnais. And the reception we get after that is just as warm and enthusiastic.

Aside from all the traditional arguments for encouraging your kids towards an immersion program or to learn a second language, then, there’s the purely social reason that life can so much more vivant when you can communicate fluently in another land.

It could also just be something about France, too. There’s a je-ne-sais-quoi uniquely special about the way France-French women seem to sing the word « Bonjour » when you pass by, and France-French men unfailingly offer a sincere « Bon appetit » whenever they notice you eating.

We certainly felt French this past week especially, as we cycled carefree along the marvellously flat and uninterrupted Eurovelo route along the famous Loire River. This peaceful stretch of country riding is highlighted by its series of majestic feudal castles that dominate the vast wheat fields, recalling childhood fables and Disney princesses, Jane Austen novels and Netflix episodes of Bridgerton. The Chateau d’Usse could well have had Rapunzel’s mane dangling from a high tower window, but instead it housed an elaborate telling of Sleeping Beauty (which it claimed to have inspired) over several rooms up and down a fantastic spiral staircase.

Ed’s not-so-inner history geek pranced jauntily through the various castles’ grounds, running his hands along millennium-old walls, envisioning the daily lives and thoughts of the seigneurs who’d stood in those same spots over the centuries, and staring out at the fields and villages below where hundreds of peasants would have been bustling about, making the whole system work.

Sitka, for his part, noticed that the ceilings were very tall, yet the beds were very short. Heron was mesmerized by the lavish decor and wondered what they had for dinner on those golden plates.

Joce smiled quietly to herself, and we all knew she had the voice of Lady Whistledown narrating the whole thing.

Just as fascinating as the castles were the nearby caves that had been carved out from 40-foot-high escarpments to provide the tufa stone blocks to build those ritzy estates. Back in the day, peasants might have lived in the small niches - but most recently, the excavated escarpment faces have been renovated with windows and extensions to create actual homes, restaurants and art studios. On a date night celebrating 20 years from the day we met (in addition to Brook’s endless well of encouragement, she’s gone above and beyond pitching in with dishes, dinners, bike maintenance. groceries and babysitting - the ideal bike-tour buddy!), Ed and Joce peeked into one such workshop in Turquant and met the ingenious Max Orlu, an artist who creates uniquely cool columns and other abstract sculptures from molten aluminum - and is literally a modern troglodyte.

Of course, we couldn’t have had such a fascinating interaction with Max in Portuguese or Spanish, with sentences cobbling together our growing vocabulary. But in French, we could dig deeper and truly get to know this funky old soul.

The utility of our French fluency would also come in handy while discussing some mechanical bike complications we’d been waiting to fix, with local whizzes Pascal in Mimizan and Aurélien in Saint-Brevin; when deciphering that the unattended floating platform at the dead-end of our bike path outside Angers was actually a DIY ferry (!) across the river to the path on the other side; and when scoring the lowdown on local must-sees by passing (helmet-less) cyclists who inevitably slow down to ride alongside us for a while to hear all about our trip.

We’ve partaken in quintessential French life by ordering a croque monsieur (Sitka had dug into the ham before Ed could explain that the ubiquitous menu item is more than a regular grilled cheese), visiting the patisserie every day for our desserts of Europe challenge; playing near-nightly games of family petanque (the French version of bocce that is played in every campground, park, and even in the middle of bike paths), and making fun of the British (“Ah, oui, ils sont fous ces Anglais…”).

We didn’t mock the Brits who showed up to the Chateau d’Usse in a line of eight Porsches, however. That was awesome. Especially when Ed started into his (usually embarrassing) going-over-and-striking-up-conversation routine with his new buddies in the Porsche Owners’ Club of Great Britain (turns out that’s a thing), who then offered Heron and Sitka a turn sitting behind the wheel in those legendary bucket seats for a little photo shoot. Seems Dad’s small-talking charm comes in handy every now and then.

And then there was Paris. An intimidating city, even for a family who hasn’t spent the past five years in the northern Canadian wilderness. The inexplicably shaped intersections, tobacco smoke hanging in the air everywhere, and the labyrinthine subway tunnels were causing our bumpkin heads to spin. For the first time in our bike-touring lives, we had a heckuva time trying to get off of a dedicated bike path and onto a regular street - all the green lines on our BikeMaps app crossed in two dimensions, but they were 20 feet apart in height with all the overpasses and tunnels.

Ed gave it his best shot as tour guide, and we were never lost for too many minutes at a time. We checked out the restoration effort at Notre Dame cathedral, still reeling from the fire that ripped out its roof; returned to that pedestrian thoroughfare in a less stressful state and discovered a whole world of live music and weekend revelry; rented electric scooters (Heron has now mastered the app) at the Egyptian obelisk and scooted the length of the Champs Elysées - even braving the treacherous 12-lane roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe; made Mother’s Day calls lounging on the Champs de Mars at the foot of the Eiffel Tower; and watched Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar Jr. play live for Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des princes.

Oh, and we made it to the Louvre just in time. Actually, ten minutes late. But Ed’s forethought (not normally his strong suit) still got us to the front of the line, and we spent two glorious hours in complete sensory overload. It takes becoming a parent of two teenagers to really notice that classical art entails an awful lot of breasts and penises. Nevertheless, we all marvelled in appropriate measure at the Greek statues (Sitka could name all the gods and goddesses represented after reading voluminous amounts of mythology over the past year), intricate Egyptian sarcophaguses (“sarcophagi”?), and paintings of Biblical scenes. We took selfies next to the Venus de Milo, Ed’s favourite painting Liberty Leading the People, and of course the Mona Lisa (Heron’s pre-Louvre reading assignment was The DaVinci Code, so he found extra interest there). In the end, though, our wise eldest son summed up our experience neatly:

“I really liked the history of it all. But I don’t get why some pieces of art are any more special than the rest of them. Especially when they don’t have any arms.”

We took a train away from Paris after our 36-hour whirlwind tour, happily back in the peaceful French countryside next to the Canal de Centre for another week of smooth riding before we begin climbing into the Swiss Alps.

Then, in a town we can’t remember, we saw perhaps the most French thing of them all. Two middle-aged people, then a half-dozen more, were chasing a duck up and down the street. One had a cloth grocery bag. Another had a butterfly net. We stared for a while, wondering if we should offer to help. But we weren’t sure what exactly we would be helping them do. As we rode away, Sitka saw a man catch the duck, dangle it briefly over an open sewer grate, then place it in the woman’s grocery bag. And they all walked calmly away.

Sure, we speak French. We could have asked and understood what that whole scene was about. But there are some things, we figured, that we don’t really need to know.


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