Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Les Voitures

I haven’t been to Europe for 30 years, so I was really looking forward to this trip. My wife and I engaged in a relentless marketing campaign to our 14-year old daughter, trying to ramp up her enthusiasm, and it was pretty successful. She was excited and chatty on the way to the airport.

The lines for security were long and there was this rule that any liquids or gels had to be in a quart-size Ziploc-type bag, and no container could exceed 4 ounces. My wife had violated this rule by putting her goods in a clear plastic cosmetics bag that was neither quart-size, nor Ziploc-type. So we had to cram all of her things into my quart-size bag, holding up the line. We weren’t alone. Many people were begging others in line for a quart-size bag, because they had brought gallon-size bags and didn’t want to have to throw away their expensive colognes. I could have made a fortune selling quart-size bags for 5 bucks apiece.

By the time we ran the security gauntlet, my daughter was crabby and irritable, finding fault with everything. She’s at that “mood swing” age, and it’s not pretty.

We flew to Miami and changed planes for the overseas leg, which was long, cramped and uncomfortable. It seemed longer and more uncomfortable than I remember. Apparently I fit into airline seats a bit easier 30 years ago.

We arrived in Paris the next morning, and went to pick up our rental car. Weeks earlier, I had reserved a car online. It seems that it’s nearly impossible to rent a car in Europe with automatic transmission, so I was forced to select from vehicles equipped with a stick shift. I settled on a Citroen C5, which turned out to be the best rental car I’ve ever had. It was quiet, comfortable, smooth and loaded with gadgets labeled in French that I was afraid to touch. For example, here’s a picture of the dashboard. You figure it out:

There were two mysterious buttons on the center console that kept getting pushed whenever we dropped the French/English dictionary on them, and a stern warning message would appear on the GPS display, telling us that the action we were trying to perform was “non possible!” I have no idea what those buttons do:

When you step into the vehicle, it hums softly, adjusting the suspension to accommodate your weight. Kind of cool, but also kind of creepy.

It had one accessory that turned out to be the most wonderful gizmo I’ve ever seen in an automobile: A GPS map display on the dashboard that showed me every road, town, gas station, hotel and Citroen dealership in Europe. Driving was no problem, once I figured out how to use it, which took a couple of days because the car didn’t come with an English manual. Instead, it came with a stack of CDs in the glove compartment, all labeled in French.

When we drove from the airport to our condominium (about an hour and 15 minutes northwest of Paris), we hadn’t figured out how to use the GPS yet. The directions we were given took us into the city of Louviers, which is a nightmarish spaghetti tangle of roads and highways, all connected by traffic circles, which the French seem to love. We got lost, of course. My wife and I were snarling at each other, due to a combination of traveler’s fatigue, stress and the disorienting swirl of traffic and French signage in the traffic circles. Later, thanks to the GPS device, we found a much easier route that avoided Louviers entirely, taking us down the steep side of a hill on a series of frightening switchbacks that I referred to as “Wiggly Line Road,” but which I’m sure the French call “Rue des Touristes Morts.”

After we had been driving for a few days, we ran low on gas, and I pulled into a service station to fill up. To my dismay, I couldn’t remove the gas cap. It wouldn’t twist off, it wouldn’t pull off, and there were no levers or buttons that would release it (not even the two mysterious buttons on the center console). We drove home and I puzzled over the mystery. Eventually, I noticed that the key was unlike most car keys, because it was cross-shaped. There was a suspicious-looking cross-shaped indentation in the gas cap. So I tried pushing the key against the indentation, and voila! So I was spared the indignity of trying to ask a Frenchman how to put gas in the car.

Despite the issues I had with the Citroen C5, I was very pleased to be driving such a comfortable, high-tech machine. Consider the alternatives – apparently the French will drive anything:

The most distressing thing about driving on Paris highways is motorcycles. The city is literally filthy with them, because Paris is an old city, and has very few parking spaces. In some neighborhoods, parking spaces for cars are marked on the sidewalks. Motorcycles are parked in huge numbers in front of office buildings, shopping districts, apartment blocks, etc.

French motorcyclists seem to believe that any open space constitutes a valid motorcycle lane. When you’re stuck in rush hour traffic, motorcycles whiz past your car at 40 miles an hour in the 3 feet that separate your car from the car in the adjacent lane. It’s unnerving, but it discourages people from making rapid, unexpected lane changes. So motorcycles appear to enforce some kind of order on the evening commute.

No comments: