By Ann | April 8, 2014
You’re never far from the Seine in Paris. It snakes across the city creating a natural boundary between the right and left banks, carrying tourist boats and transport vessels in its swift-moving current. But what if, instead of strolling along the romantic but odiferous cobblestone quais (is it just me, or do they usually smell like a toilet?), or admiring the river from one of the many bridges that cross it, you actually lived on the Seine—in a houseboat? On my last trip to Paris, I met Marie, who told me all about living on a péniche with her family, a way of life that’s “very special and very Parisian,” she says.
Marie’s péniche—the “Justine”—dates to around 1890 and is still seaworthy (or, rather, river-worthy). Marie moved aboard twelve years ago, but her husband, Francis, has lived on the water for almost forty years. “He bought the boat in the 1970s when people were searching for other ways of life,” she says. Initially, it was a cargo vessel—he transported freight between France and Belgium—but he eventually used his training as an architect to transform the hold into his primary living space.
On the best part of péniche life:
“The space. It’s really wonderful. We have about 180 square meters indoors”— almost 2000 square feet—”which gives us a huge living space and four bedrooms below deck. Above, we have an enormous terrace, which is great—in the summer we’re out there all the time. We also have the advantage of living right in the middle of Paris.”
On houseboat logistics:
Marie and her family pay a monthly fee to park at the Quai d’Austerlitz, but houseboats are anchored at many other quais in Paris. The rent, due to the Port de Paris, can be about €700/month and only covers stationnement—currently, however, there are no longer any free spaces in Paris. “Our running water, electricity, internet, and television come from hookups on the quai. We pay them separately, just like in an apartment,” says Marie. “Our mail is delivered to a postbox—there are seven of them grouped together on the quai. But it’s difficult to receive packages—they never find us!”
On relying on her neighbors:
Marie’s péniche is anchored at the Quai d’Austerlitz, where the boats float three abreast. The Justine has a center position, kind of like the filling in a houseboat sandwich. “We’re parked at the quai with seven other boats and it’s like a little village. We eat lunch and dinner together all the time—we’re obliged to be a community. We depend on one another to pass to the quai, and so much more,” she says. “There are advantages and disadvantages to each spot. The first boat is closest to the quai, but you often hear the footsteps of people passing overhead. The second boat is well protected, but there’s no view and the light is blocked by the two outer boats. The third boat is farthest from the quai and the most private—but it’s rocked by other boats on the river, especially the Batobus (sightseeing boats) that make their u-turns here.”
On the passerelle:
Marie and her husband recently constructed a passerelle, or small bridge, which gives them the freedom to cross to the quai without walking on their neighbor’s roof. “In the summer, when the Seine is low, the descent to the boat is quite steep. In the winter, the river is high, and the passage is more level,” she says. Regardless of the season, Marie has strict safety rules for her two young sons. “There’s no running on the passerelle. No going upstairs to the terrace alone,” she says. “With kids, you have to be more vigilant.”
On life on the river:
“The boat is always rocking. The leaves of our plants are always in motion, trembling, when the boat moves,” says Marie. “We are constantly surveying the boat’s physical state, always checking to make sure it’s shipshape and watertight. During the winter, for example, on the coldest days, there’s a risk of our pipes freezing. We have to keep the kitchen tap slowly dripping so our pipes don’t burst. Luckily, my husband is very handy and he keeps an eye on everything,” she says. “He makes sure that every ten years, we dock the boat, clean it, and paint. Living on a houseboat means accepting that you’re part of a constantly changing situation.”
“We used to go out every summer for at least three weeks. You can go all the way to Avignon on the river. It’s wonderful moving on the water—there’s light from both sides of the boat. And we have everything with us, we’re waking up in our own beds—except we are traveling. It’s like a caravan,” she says. “However, taking the boat out also means disconnecting the water and electricity lines—we’re connected to our neighbors, so it requires at least a day of preparation.”
On welcoming guests:
Marie and her husband created a guest suite out of the timonerie, or wheelhouse—the captain’s cabin, which was once the boat’s only living space—and they regularly host visitors through Air BnB. The space has an adorable kitchen and salon upstairs, with a bedroom and private bathroom underneath. “The people who come feel like they’re truly in the center of Paris,” says Marie.
On fielding odd questions:
“People are curious about life on the Seine. They ask me, does it smell funny? Is it damp?” (For the record, no and no.) “We have friends anchored near the Musée d’Orsay and they can’t eat on their terrace during the summer because of people staring at them. And one night around two or three in the morning, my husband and I heard voices directly above our bedroom. It turned out to be a couple of young men drinking beer on our terrace. They saw the boat, were curious, and decided to take a tour! Sometimes I forget how picturesque péniche life is.”
Merci, Marie! If you’d like to stay aboard the Justine (or see some lovely pictures of it) visit Marie’s Air BnB page. And just for fun, here are a few péniche photos I snapped last summer: