Life on the Seine

A message from Life co-author, Helen Stephenson
My first holiday abroad was on a school trip to Paris. As young teenagers, we were all hugely excited. I remember that the River Seine was a massive part of the ‘Paris experience’. It dominated the view from the Eiffel Tower and we seemed to walk along the banks and across the bridges every time we visited the centre of the city. This article, from the May 2014 edition of National Geographic Magazine, certainly brings back some happy memories.

On the Île de la Cité, in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, is a bronze compass set in the pavement. From here, point zero, all distances from Paris are measured. And at the heart of Paris is the River Seine. ‘For Parisians the Seine is a compass, a way to know where you are,’ says art historian Marina Ferretti. The river flows through and around the lives of Parisians and is the stage on which they live their lives.

I love my boat
There are 199 houseboats on the river in Paris. One day 34 years ago Claude Tharreau was walking along the Seine when he saw a 70-foot-long Dutch boat built in 1902 called the Cathare for sale. ‘Actually I had been looking for an apartment,’ he says. It was Sunday. On Wednesday he signed the contract. ‘It was only afterwards that I noticed it was a boat with no electricity or water.’

Instant beach
The beach-on-the-Seine was the idea of Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë about twelve years ago. To make the beach, the Georges Pompidou Freeway on the Right Bank of the river is closed for four weeks each summer. For these weeks, 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. Project manager Damien Masset ticks off the list of 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 stalls, eight cafés, 875 yards of wooden fences; 250 people to put it all up, 450 to run it.

No waterskiing allowed
It’s one of those hot summer days when you can see the heat rising from the road. The river looks cool and inviting.  ‘Can you swim in the Seine? ‘ I ask the police commandant Sandrine Berjot. ‘Non,’ she says. ’38 euros.’  That’s the fine for swimming. ‘What about putting your feet in?’ ‘You can’t do that.’  Here are some other things you can’t do: go waterskiing, tie your boat around a tree with a rope, fail to help a person in the water. This is serious: the fine is up to 75,000 euros or five years in jail. ‘If someone is drowning, you mustn’t jump into the water. But you do have to call the police.’

The river
All kinds of objects flow down the river past the famous architecture of Paris:  lost plastic toys, balloons, cigarette ends, empty wine bottles. Claude Monet kept a floating studio on the river near Argenteuil. Henri Matisse also had a studio on the Quai Saint-Michel. In their art we can see the constantly changing and dancing light of the river.

compass (n)  an instrument that shows the directions north, south, east and west
drown (v) to die in water
yard (n) a measure of distance, about 90 centimetres


beach volleyball (n) a game played on sand with a net, a large ball and two teams
bronze (adj) made from bronze – a shiny orange-brown metal
contract (n) a legal agreement
fence (n) a structure around a garden or other area
plastic (adj) made from plastic – a light artificial substance
sand castle (n) a small castle made from sand, usually by children
stall (n) a temporary table for selling things
sunbather (n) a person who lies in the sun
urban (adj) in or relating to a city or a town
wooden (adj) made of wood

Listen to a recording of the text: 

Reading comprehension: 

Read the article and choose the correct option.

1. Which statement is true?
It’s difficult for people in Paris to enjoy the river.
The river is key to Parisian life for many people.
People are starting to appreciate the Seine for the first time.

2. Which statement is true?
The best time to go to the river is in summer.
The Seine flows through the middle of Paris.
You can take part in water sports on the river.

Read the article again and choose the correct option.

3. According to the first paragraph ...
roads from Paris count the distance from the Île de la Cité.
the compass in front of the cathedral points to the river.
the Île de la Cité is in the middle of France.

4. The Seine helps Parisians ...
feel their city has a heart.
know their location in Paris.
travel to other places in France.

5. What was unusual about Claude Tharreau’s actions?
He made his decision very quickly.
He spent years looking for a houseboat.
The boat he bought was in front of his apartment.

6. The beach on the Seine ...
is a focus for all kinds of different activities.
has always been part of a traditional Paris summer.
was a one-off experiment 12 years ago.

7. Which statement is true?
It takes a month to build the beach each summer.
The beach is there all year round but is only open in summer.
There are many elements to the construction of the beach.

8. Which statement is true?
If you see someone in difficulty in the river, you must jump in and rescue them.
It costs 38 euros to get access to swimming in the Seine.
The activities you can do on the river are strictly controlled.

9. What has a maximum fine of 75,000 euros?
calling the police for no reason
jumping into the river
not trying to assist a drowning person

10. According to the final paragraph, Monet and Matisse ...
collected objects that they found in the Seine.
shared a studio on the river.
were two artists who worked near the river.