Exploring France's Enchanting Villages With My Father on a Seine River Cruise
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Exploring France's Enchanting Villages With My Father on a Seine River Cruise

A roundtrip sailing from Paris to Normandy on Viking's new Seine longship was the perfect place for some father-daughter bonding.

The first time my father, Tony, visited Paris, he fell in love. Not (as far as I know) with a girl, but with the city. Then a 16-year-old immigrant from Jamaica who arrived in the U.K. only two years prior, he spent a week there with his high school French class in 1960. And he’s talked about it ever since. He was astonished how “different” the Black men in Paris appeared to be. “They seemed so sophisticated and stylish,” he’s told me many times, “wearing their coats open over their shoulders and smoking through elongated cigarette holders.” They had a confidence, an ease that Daddy had never seen before, and opened his eyes to a reality of which, back then, he could only dream.

 So, when the opportunity arose to bring a guest on Viking’s new Fjorgyn as it cruised roundtrip from Paris, I knew I’d take my father. I wanted to walk with him down Rue Lamartine, and (hopefully) to find Café Charbon, where he “practiced French conversation” (wink, wink!) with Emilienne Ruc, the owner’s teenage daughter. It would also be a role reversal. My parents have towed me around the world since I was three. Now, as a professional traveler, I’d be in charge. I used my membership to get us into the airport lounge; fetched us celebratory flutes of bubbly at the bar; and leveraged my frequent flyer status for priority boarding, while Daddy gamely followed along for what would be his first river cruise.

Viking Longship in Paris

Viking Cruises

 Arriving in Paris that crisp November morning, we were well placed for our trip down memory lane. *Fjorgyn—*which debuted last March—docks on the Seine, in the 15th-arrondissement neighborhood of Grenelle. From our stateroom balcony we could see the Eiffel Tower, only a 20-minute stroll down the tow path; the nearest Metro station just a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction. So, the next day, as passengers set off on excursions to Montmartre and the Louvre, we went rogue.

 Again, I took the lead and—using French skills decades fresher than my father’s—purchased a carnet of Metro tickets so we could go in search of his past. Reaching Rue Lamartine, I watched my father’s brow furrow as he searched for a familiar landmark on the now unfamiliar street. His face lit up when, at the end of it, we reached the park where he’d seen those smoking sophisticates. But there was no sign of Café Charbon. Characteristically, my father was more sanguine than disappointed. Also characteristically, I was the opposite. So, with nothing to lose, I asked at a bistro if anyone knew what had happened to Café Charbon. An older gentleman directed us to AJ Musique, the musical instrument repair shop that now stood in its place. With my father standing stoically in front of it, I snapped a photo. It was intended as a fresh image for his memory bank but instantly also became a precious one for my own.

 On board Fjorgyn for our departure toward Normandy that evening, we dined on parmesan-crusted veal scallopini. To commemorate our French adventure, I suggested a “Boom” toast: clinking his wine and my cocktail together as I recorded the event on my iPhone using the Boomerang app. It captures one second of video, then replays it forward and in reverse to make a fun video loop. It took my father several unsuccessful tries to “sync his clink” with mine that night. But the next seven days’ lunches and dinners presented several opportunities to perfect his technique.

 A veteran of more than 20 ocean cruises, my father took to river cruising like a swan to the Seine. And with just 84 staterooms spread over four decks, and a single restaurant and lounge, Fjorgyn was easy for him to navigate. Built to fit the Seine’s smaller locks, the longship offered a slower, more relaxed and less obtrusive way to see the region’s small towns and villages, which, when we docked, were mere steps away.

Longships Aquavit Terrace

Eric Laignel/Viking Cruises

In Rouen, we walked to Notre Dame cathedral (famously immortalized by Monet) and the centuries-old, half-timbered buildings of Old Town, which made us both feel as if we’d regressed to Medieval times. The following morning, since neither of us had a connection to D Day, we seized the opportunity to revisit Rouen (where we’d overnighted) after most passengers left for the U.S. and Commonwealth beaches. I presumed my father would want to do his own thing, returning to Notre Dame while I browsed the boutiques. But shortly after we separated, he texted a request to reunite because my latent French skills made navigating the city so much easier for him.

In Les Andelys we braved rain to visit the 12th-century Chateau Gaillard, me bounding ahead, my father sheltered under an umbrella, slowly and carefully placing his feet on the mud-slicked path. At the hilltop ramparts, I snapped a succession of photos (“Can’t you put that phone down, Sarah?!”), most of the view across the undulating landscape, cloaked in a fine mist. Little did Tony know that my favorite was the candid I took of him, standing on the brow of the hill, looking down at the countryside. The low angle made him look larger-than-life, exactly as he’d appeared to me as a child.

Returning to Paris, we toured Versailles. For Tony, I imagine that those gilded palace gates were a portal to the time when he first saw them, more than 60 years ago. For me, seeing Versailles for the first time was special too, its size and opulence staggering. Still, decades from now, I probably won’t remember the history I learned on our tour. But I’ll never forget how happy I was to share it with him.

 Two days after our return from France, my father fell ill. As paramedics loaded him into the ambulance, I feared I might never see him again. Our week together flashed through my head like a time-lapsed ticker-tape: our days in Paris; our adventures in port; his perfect Boomerang (at last!) at dinner on our final night. Thankfully, he’s completely recovered now, and our trip is but another happy memory in a lifetime of many. But the lesson has been learned: Travel with your parents now, while you’re able to offer them the opportunity and they’re well enough to enjoy it. Time—and the river’s tides—wait for no one.