One of my favorite songs is ‘Peace Like a River,’ an African-American spiritual that has brought me hope and peace in hard times. This song always carries me to a village on the banks of the Seine River, in France, called Les Andelys. My family and I have been visiting this little-known spot nearly every other year for the past 18 years. Some of our best family memories have been forged here, as the river gently carried away all our stress.
On the banks of a river
Find the direction of the current
Symbolically throw your anger and worries there.–Unknown
In 2003 we came here for the first time, two babies in tow. We rented an old house, a gîte, with a courtyard that overlooked the river. It was the perfect place to enjoy a few days surrounded by beauty, keep the kids safe and happy, and help us all relax. The mundaneness of normal life was somehow transformed by the French surroundings, and we found that we could really soak in the beauty of our family there.
A couple of years later, we had to come back. That solitude, that stillness, and natural beauty was exactly what we longed for, to step away from the busyness of modern life. We were drawn to the simple village with its unpretentious inhabitants, the ruined castle on the hill, and of course, the river.
This time we rented part of the same house, while other guests from Britain rented another. The owner of the house, a kind and friendly woman whom I will call Annette, invited us all to an evening buffet on the house’s courtyard lawn, along with some of her friends from the village. We chatted in French over hors d’oeuvres and drinks. My broken French was apparently good enough to be understood, and won me a few new friends and laughs that evening. I stepped into bed that night with a sense of accomplishment, and connection with a place I barely knew.
We returned nearly every other summer thereafter, sometimes bringing family friends or relatives along for the adventure. We lured them over with promises of “the best bakery croissants,” “the most peaceful air,” and “the most beautiful views”; nearby lay Paris, as well as Monet’s beautiful home and garden at Giverny. No one was ever disappointed–usually they were stunned!
Some of our sweetest memories were being made during those relaxing trips. Our daughter learned to crawl there! A few years later, I spent a few weary days of my third pregnancy there, as comfortable as I could be at that time, surrounded by flowers, castle turrets, and rugged cliffs. Annette brought down some toys from the gîte’s attic to entertain my older children, a great kindness to me while I needed extra rest. An enduring friendship was beginning!
Each time we returned she greeted us, eager to hear our latest family news. She watched our family grow by increments. We visited her home in Versailles where she taught us about French cheeses. Up the river, the gîte waited for us with its high ceilings, linen curtains with Jacobean prints, ornate mantels of cold stone, and lush river views. As the children grew older they found a small creek that fed into the Seine, where they could wade in the cool water, climb the rocks, and explore. Sometimes we even switched our more exciting and expensive plans, at the last minute, for a week on that river, a truer vacation.
Our days in Les Andelys always prompted creativity. Val finished his first novel, The Deceit of Riches, in the house there. Somehow only that place could provide the peace needed for that type of concentration. I created numerous watercolor paintings during those days. The imagination could wander, the eyes could see more clearly, unhurried and inquisitive in the warm French air.
A few weeks ago, Val and I returned to Les Andelys. This time was different because the old house we loved had been sold, and we came without children, but we still managed to stay on the same street, in the hotel that had inspired Val’s novella The Plucked Hen, with a view of both castle and river. Our children were with us in spirit. We texted them photos of our riverside views, our breakfast, and our spontaneous creek adventures. We posed before the old house, and one child commented, “seeing these wooden doors is like a warm hug.” The flow of happy memories came flooding back to us all, as if brought by the river itself.
Our minds still drift to dreams of living out our last days in a cottage on that same river, never to return. It’s become a reflex, a happy habit, to keep going back. Why fight it? We ask ourselves: “Would it even be possible to make that river our home and enjoy eternal peace (like a river) there, or does it have to remain in vacation memory to retain its magic?”
I don’t really know, but I’d happily find out!