Life on the Seine

A message from Life co-author, Helen Stephenson
This article, from the May 2014 edition of National Geographic Magazine, evokes memories of my first holiday abroad. We were young teenagers on a school trip to Paris, and every day seemed to bring ‘awesome’ new experiences – that word wasn’t used so much then! The River Seine dominated the city: the view from the Eiffel Tower, the way it wrapped around Notre Dame and our endless strolls along the banks and across the many bridges.

On the Île de la Cité, in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, is a bronze compass set into the paving stones. From here — point zero — all distances from Paris are measured. And at the centre of Paris is the River Seine: its liquid heart. ‘For Parisians, the Seine is a compass, a way to know where you are’, says Marina Ferretti, an art historian.

I love my boat
A coup de foudre is to fall in love suddenly, fiercely. So it is with men and their boats. One day 34 years ago Claude Tharreau, a young market researcher, was walking along the Seine when he saw the Cathare, a 70-foot-long Dutch boat built in 1902, for sale. ‘I had been actually looking for an apartment,’ he says. It was Sunday. By Wednesday he had signed the contract. ‘It was only afterwards I noticed it was a boat with no electricity or water.’ There are 199 houseboats in Paris and, undoubtedly, 199 stories of infatuation.

Instant beach
The sandbox-on-the-Seine was the brainchild of Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë twelve years ago. To accommodate the beach, the Georges Pompidou Expressway on the Right Bank of the river is blocked off for four weeks. For this period,  the Seine becomes an urban Riviera, a constant movement of beach-volleyball players, sand-castle engineers, samba, tango, and break dancers, rock, jazz, soul musicians and of course sunbathers of many shapes and sizes. Project manager Damien Masset ticks off the ingredients for an instant beach: 5,500 tons of sand, 250 blue umbrellas, 350 deck chairs, 800 chairs, 250 loungers, 40 hammocks, 200 tables, four ice-cream stands, eight cafés, 875 yards of wooden fencing, 250 people to put it up, 450 to run it.

No waterskiing allowed
On one of those exhausting summer days when heat rises from the road in visible waves, the river outside the office of the chief of the police who patrol the Seine looks cool and inviting. ‘Can you swim in the Seine?’ I ask Sandrine Berjot, the down-to-earth police commandant who heads the Brigade Fluviale. ‘Non,’ she says simply. ’38 euros.’ The fine for breaking the rule. ‘What about paddling?‘ I ask.  ‘Not so much as a toe.’ Other rules include: no waterskiing in certain zones; no tying your boat around a tree with a rope; no protesting or putting up banners. But more serious is failure to help someone in distress. The penalty: up to 75,000 euros and five years in jail. ‘If someone is drowning, you don’t have to jump in. But you do have to call the police.’

The river
All kinds of objects flow past the famous architecture of Paris: lost plastic toys, balloons, cigarettes ends, empty wine bottles. You cannot experience the same river twice. The Impressionist artist Claude Monet kept a floating studio on the river near Argenteuil. Henri Matisse, a post-Impressionist, had a studio on the Quai Saint-Michel. The flat grey ribbon of water which was painted by earlier artists became a dance of light through the lens of these painters. What colour is the Seine? It’s complicated. The Seine reflects life and everything around. Its colours are infinite.

paddling (n) walking in water
infatuation (n) strong feelings of love or passion
Riviera (n)  an area of the Mediterranean coastline


actually (adv) really, in fact
cool (adj) a bit cold, but nice
down-to-earth (adj) sensible, realistic
exhausting (adj) extremely tiring
fiercely (adv) intensely, strongly
inviting (adj) attractive, tempting
simply (adv) in a plain, simple way
suddenly (adv) unexpectedly, with no warning
undoubtedly (adv) certainly, definitely

Listen to a recording of the text: 

Reading comprehension: 

Read the article and choose the correct option.

1. What is the main idea of the article?
Parisians are starting to appreciate the Seine for the first time.
The Seine is an essential part of the character of Paris.
The Seine is more popular with tourists than with local people.

2. Which statement is true?
It’s not easy to get access to the river itself.
The river looks different at different times of the year.
The Seine is a place to live, work and enjoy water sports.

Read the article again and choose the correct option.

3. According to the first paragraph ...
Parisians are emotionally connected to the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
people can use the river to work out their location in Paris.
the compass tells people how far different places are from Paris.

4. What suggests that Claude Tharreau fell in love with his houseboat?
he first saw it on a Sunday
he was looking for a boat without basic utilities
the speed with which he bought it

5. What does the article suggest about houseboats?
There are only a handful in use on the Seine.
They are an alternative place to live for some people.
They are cheaper than apartments.

6. The beach on the banks of the Seine ...
was the idea of Georges Pompidou.
is a major project to organise.
takes a month to set up.

7. Which statement is true?
The article compares the beach on the Seine to a seaside resort.
The beach can accommodate 450 people at a time.
The roads along the Seine are closed during the summer months.

8. Which statement is true?
The police chief doesn’t know how to swim.
There’s a special group of police who look after the river.
You can pay to do different sports activities in the river.

9. What would happen if you didn’t assist someone in difficulty?
Nothing: that’s the job of the police.
You could be fined for jumping in the river.
You could be fined or go to jail.

10. According to the final paragraph, Monet and Matisse ...
found a new way of painting the Seine.
found the river too complicated to paint.
painted the river as a grey ribbon.