Follow Will: Facebook Twitter

A Yankee Notebook

October 29, 2012


POËT LAVAL, FRANCE – An ancient truism, designed to ease our pain at bad moments in our lives, says that we learn best from our mistakes. If that’s the case, I should’ve gotten a Ph.D. for the major one I made at a busy fueling center somewhere west of Antibes.

It’s long been a principle of mine that simplicity of plan is always the best policy when any small malfunction can lead to cascading calamities. I’d ignored it in this instance, and suddenly the wheels were falling off our day. The plan was that I’d fly to Paris, change planes, and then fly on to Nice, where Mother, who’d already been in France for a couple of weeks with a friend, would meet me at the airport in the early afternoon. Then we’d drive about four hours to this elegant medieval hostelry up in the hills where we had a reservation for a couple of nights.

Looking back on it now, I can see clearly that my plan ranked right up there with an another one, just 100 years earlier, to set a transatlantic speed record while steaming through icebergs in the dark. My scheme required the success of every individual component. One glitch, and we were on our way to a shipwreck.

The Dartmouth Coach shuttle, as usual, was right on the button to Logan. Inside, I checked in at the Air France counter and discovered that my flight was delayed at least an hour and I’d miss my connection in Paris. The computer had helpfully moved me to a later plane, but there was no way I could tell Mother, waiting for me in Nice, that I’d be a few hours late.

In Paris, I realized that, going through customs, I’d be ejected into a non-secure area of the terminal. Not only would I have a lengthy fast walk (with my duffle bag) to another terminal; but I’d have to go through Security again. Which I did, and made my flight in plenty of time. My plan was wounded – I’d probably be driving in the dark on unfamiliar roads, which I hate – but it wasn’t maimed beyond reclamation...yet.

Mother was just a but relieved to see me emerging from the Arrivals chute; she hadn’t been able to learn if my name was on any passenger manifest. We collected my bag and went hunting for our rental car in the huge, inscrutable parking garage. We found it by cruising the area where she thought she’d left it, and clicking the key, looking for flashing tail lights A little black Fiat Punto, it was, better than her usual economy car. A few minutes later we merged, more or less successfully – rush hour was upon us – onto the superhighway toward Marseilles and headed west.

“What if we can’t make it to our hotel until really late?” I asked her. “Is there any way we can call and see if they’ll slide our two-night reservation back one night?”

“I have their number,” she said. “But nobody at the desk speaks any English.” Oh, boy!

Driving in Europe is quite different from driving in the States. Because getting a driver’s license requires so much training and expense, you rarely encounter an incompetent operator. They all know the rules of the road and follow them pretty scrupulously – if a tad aggressively. I like it a lot that you know what the drivers around you are up to, or are about to do. You never see a lane-blocker motoring serenely in the left-hand lane. “Serene” would be about 65 miles an hour; the speed limit on the Autoroute is 130 kilometes per hour, about 78. Our little Fiat never broke even a mild sweat doing that. I was almost beginning to have fun.

The fuel gauge was down to about half a tank, so I decided to fill up for the run north into the hinterlands in the dark. I stopped at a large roadside area with a McDonald’s attached. Mother went inside for a quick sandwich while I tackled the fuel. When I opened the cap, the little thong holding it was unattached. It fell to the ground, so I tossed it into the car while I refueled.

Finished gassing up, I retrieved the cap and screwed it back on. My horror can be better imagined than described when I saw on it the word, “Diesel.” Holy Toledo! What do I do now?

The man in the glass booth whom I attempted to ask about my predicament expressed nothing but the fervent wish that I would go far away. Desperately, I turned to the line behind me and asked, “:Does anyone here speak English? I think I’ve put the wrong fuel in my car.”

No one did; but one of them had a friend who did. This samaritan arrived, inquired about the situation, and – I couldn’t believe it! – took me inside to the desk to call a tow truck, made sure the car rental agency was alerted, and stayed with us till a huge flatbed truck driven by a French version of Popeye’s nemesis Bluto picked us up: car, luggage, and me and Mother, and took us to his knacker’s yard. After a long, long wait (I can’t believe the tedium of paperwork in France), during which my plans went down in flames, but Mother got through successfully to the hotel, a minivan arrived and returned us to the Nice Airport car rental agency. More extensive paperwork, and we were on our way at last.

We agreed to at least get away from Nice and look for a room. Mother located a Formula 1 hotel in Antibes; if you haven’t experienced one, you haven’t lived. It’s Roger Miller’s famous “8-by-12 four-bit room,” bathroom down the hall, for about $50 a night. We slept like zombies, enjoyed a leisurely continental breakfast, reviewed our wedding vows, and headed into the hills.

Photo by Willem lange