The life aquatic
Seasonal work first brought Michael Pattison to Burgundy, where he fell in love with the region’s canals, ch�teaux and vineyards. He tells Eleanor O’Kane why the waterways remain close to his heart
As a fan of French wine, history and life on the waterways, it’s not surprising that Scotsman Michael Pattison feels right at home in Burgundy. This rural region, packed with fairy tale castles, Romanesque churches and world-famous vineyards, is home to a canal network visited by thousands of tourists every year and which has provided Michael with his livelihood for almost two decades.
He has lived in the region permanently since 1997, first in Auxerre, the capital of the department of Yonne, before settling in neighbouring Sa�ne-et-Loire. These days the village of St-L�ger-sur-Dheune on the Canal du Centre is home to Michael, his wife Carlene and their two children: Benjamin, five, and Samantha, three.
After studying history and business at university, then completing a three-month language course in Grenoble, it was seasonal work aboard hotel barges (known as p�niches) that brought Michael to the region. Burgundy’s canals were constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries as part of a national network of industrial highways.
Unfortunately, Burgundy’s waterways, which transported products such as wood, wine and wheat to the French capital, were soon superseded by the railways and never quite fulfilled their potential. In the mid-1960s, Englishman Richard Parsons converted an old coal barge into a floating hotel to cruise Burgundy’s waterways, which sparked a new wave of pleasure boating and brought new life to the canal network, as restaurants and caf�s sprang up along the towpaths. Today, Burgundy’s waterways attract tourists seeking an alternative way to explore the region.
“Burgundy chose me. I didn’t choose it,” says Michael, talking to me on one of his days off over the busy summer season. “It reeled me in very slowly.” Now working as operations manager for Orient Express, which runs a fleet of boutique barges on France’s canals, he’s swapped the deck for a desk and works mainly from the office.
“In 1992, I first came here to do seasonal work on a campsite then returned the following year. That’s when I got the Burgundy bug,” Michael remembers.
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In 1994, he started working on hotel barges as a deckhand and barman through a contact he’d made in the camping industry and took to it like a duck to water. He describes his next three seasons as “very full on”, working from late February until November, spending Christmas and January in Scotland before returning to France ahead of the summer season. He got his first full-time contract in 1997, by which time he was working as a guide, and rented a property in the medieval town of Auxerre, a boating hub due to its position on both the River Yonne and the Canal du Nivernais.
While Michael was building a new life in France, he found that many of his colleagues on the barges only stayed for a few years. “Lots of people love it but after a few seasons their personal circumstances change and they move on,” he says. In 2004, he met Carlene, a chef from New Zealand who was working seasonally on barges while travelling around. They married the following year and even worked together for a few seasons as part of the same crew.
Michael acknowledges that integration can be difficult, especially for those without children or a group of colleagues to use as a springboard for meeting new people. “I know people say you’ve just got to get out there and make friends but I do understand that it’s hard,” he says.
Despite this, he believes that for those living in villages, the local mairie can be the first step to finding your feet. “You do really need to pop into the town hall and say hello. In Burgundy all the little villages and towns have events, charity fairs and brocantes; there’s something on all the time. It’s tough but it’s really worth getting out and about and talking to people.”
As a particularly inspiring example of the rewards to be reaped by a bold attitude, Michael cites his own mother who lives nearby.
“She moved here about 10 years ago,” he explains. “She only had basic French but for her it was the start of a new life so she absolutely threw herself into it, integrating into the local community and getting involved with the town hall. Now she’s part of the local community, a member of the wine brotherhood and knows everyone in the street. She’s so happy here.”
He thinks that expat organisations have their place, especially when settling in, but feels they should form just part of the bigger picture for anyone wanting to integrate. “They are very useful when you first come here but it’s good not to let them dominate you so you don’t have time for anything else,” he says.
The language skills he gained on his initial three-month course gave Michael confidence but he found that it was through working with the locals that his French really improved: “I made sure I spoke French as much as I could and asked the people I worked with to correct me; they were delighted to. On top of that, I used to open the dictionary at any page and make a note of different words, which was good for the vocabulary.”
He now speaks French with ease, having made a breakthrough after a few years. “Sometimes when the conversation is more technical, for example if it’s about politics or economics, I have to concentrate to keep up,” he admits. “I’m quite comfortable but I’m still learning all the time, still progressing.”
Two years ago, Michael and Carlene sold their house in the neighbouring village to Michael’s mother and moved to St-L�ger-sur-Dheune on the Canal du Centre. “The village is perfect for us. It sums up Burgundy in a way. It has everything we need but is small enough to be able to walk down the street and know people.” With its links to the canal network and a small marina, the location has a special resonance for the couple. “It’s part of our work history,” explains Michael. “We’ve become addicted to the waterways.”
The family has lots of French friends and feel right at home among the locals. “They can be hard to crack at first,” says Michael, “but actually they are generous, open and welcoming. People are really curious about why we came here, why we want to live here; once you gain the trust of the locals you’ll be round at their houses all the time.”
As operations manager, Michael oversees many aspects of Orient Express’s French barge holidays, from interviewing and recruiting all staff for the boats to organising refits, and creating new itineraries. Each barge crew includes a guide who is on hand – and equipped with a minibus – to enable the guests to discover the surrounding countryside.
Before moving to his current role, Michael worked as a guide for many years and still steps in when needed. As a history buff, he enjoys being able to share his love of the culture of his adopted region and waxes lyrical about what the area has to offer. “History has always been a bit of a hobby,” he explains. “When I go somewhere new I always read up about the place. It’s not hard, though, because here in Burgundy, history is impossible to avoid.”
He believes part of Burgundy’s charm is that it’s off the beaten track. “It always has been,” he explains. “We’re not really affected by mass tourism but there are lots of hidden vineyards and castles.”
Another side of local life that is close to his heart is the wine culture. Living close to the C�te Challonaise vineyards, the wine industry permeates every aspect of village life. Together he and Carlene enjoy visiting vineyards and discovering new wines, from grand crus to undiscovered village vintages. “Wine is such a part of local culture; in many of the villages people make their own wine,” he explains.
“Everyone fancies themselves as a wine expert but sharing opinions is what it’s all about; it encourages banter!” He says that unlike in regions such as Bordeaux, the wine culture is a bit more relaxed. “It’s more about local farmers than large estates and that’s in the character of the wine too. You sip Bordeaux but with Burgundy, you gulp!”
While the holiday season’s in full swing, Michael’s days are spent ensuring that the clients get the best from their holiday although he does grab time to spend with Carlene and the children exploring the local area. “Burgundy is a real family destination,” he says. “Lots of attractions are orientated for a younger audience: you can go canoeing, kayaking, learn about battles and old castles… it’s easy to put together a fun itinerary.”
By November the pressure will be off and the process of preparing for the 2013 season begins as Michael oversees the refitting of the barges and recruitment of new staff. After several busy months, it’s time to relax and enjoy the delights that Burgundy has to offer, from historic ch�teaux and pretty villages to sampling some of the best wines in the world – all in the name of research, of course! LF