Hit the Road, Jacques: Two Gals and a Van

Hit the Road, Jacques: Two Gals and a Van

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It began as a simple enough concept: rent a station wagon or van, drive all the excess crap in my tiny Paris apartment to my slightly larger and already well cluttered house in Provence. Makes sense, right?

The complications began almost immediately: I require ‘la boite automatique’ – in fact, I haven’t driven stick shift since I was 14 years old and was required by law in the State of Texas to do so. It’s not that easy to find a van or a truck or even a station wagon with automatic transmission in France, especially if you don’t want to do airport pickup.

Then there was the issue of drop off charge. Although the 700+ km journey from Paris to Provence is a killer, I figured I could handle it if I knew I could get rid of the car the next day in Avignon or the nearest big city.

Ha. Although AutoEurope rentals have no drop off charge, they also did not have automatic transmission. When I explained all the problems to my friend Karen Fawcett, her eyes lit up and began to dance with glee.

“This is perfect” she announced. “We’ll drive your stuff down to Provence and then I’ll drive my stuff up to Paris.”

As it happens, Karen is renovating a bathroom in her Paris flat and knows that supplies purchased outside of Paris cost much less than when bought in town.

“We were Born to Schlep” Karen whispered, “I’ll call AutoEurope immediately. They have the best prices especially on a three day rental which is what we need. ”

And so it came to pass that Karen V. Fawcett, who can drive manual transmission, See the REAL Europe with Rail Europeand her husband Victor Kramer arrived at my apartment on the Faubourg St. Honore at 9AM on a sunny Saturday.

I had already filled the courtyard of my 1803 building with a minibar, carved wooden book shelf, 4 suitcases, 6 tote bags, 2 boxes of books and assorted boxes of nonsense. .. the kind of nonsense that was far too precious to throw out and/or give away but is unspecific enough as to not fit anywhere in anyone’s life or closet.

The van’s back seat is a neat row of padded seats, as cushy as a classy movie theatre. With manual in hand, Victor learns how to fold down the seats so we have an enormous lake of open space. We filled a VW van to such capacity as to have to ask Victor to take the train to Provence.

Our van is so new it has all of 7 km on it. Every time I hoist another box or piece of furniture into the tail gate Karen reminds me to be gentle, to care for the car. We run relays from the courtyard to the curb, one person always standing next to this beauty of a van, to guard it and make sure we don’t get ticketed.  We name the van Mother Trucker.

Although the tele had announced that Saturday would be a Jour Rouge—one of the worst traffic days for French highways—and we were already plotting an alternate route for the 7-hour-long drive, we were delighted to note there was no traffic in the city. We zoomed past Paris landmarks and said prayers to the gods of le circulation. Ciao to the 2012 Olympics sign on the Assemblee Nationale; bye bye Eiffel Tower; we’re off to see the wizard.

Since the trip would be of indeterminate length, we decided ahead of time that we would be relaxed, would make many stops, and would take our time. Before we even hit the A-6 southbound we were parked in the garage at IKEA. Pit stop.

Well, if you were Born to Pee and Born to Shop, whatya gonna do?

IKEA has a Swedish epicerie with ginger snaps and lox and chilled pear drinks in tall skinny cans. I hate lox, but succumb to the ginger snaps and pear drink. We touch all the furniture on two floors; we leave without a purchase—except our eats. On y va—we hit the freeway.

The night before the trip I dreamed in stick shift. That is to say I not only dreamed I could do it, but I shifted the car as the dream chugged on. I am convinced I can get to 4th and fly. In dismay, I note that our VW has 6 speeds. Mon dieu, I am screwed.

I feel terrible that I cannot contribute to the drive in any way other than to insert my carte bleu into the toll-taking machine.

As we marvel at the open road ahead we discuss the plan: we will drive all day to reach our homes in Provence by dinner time. We will have a day off and then turn around and drive back to Paris the next day. The prospect of two full days on the road and more than 1500 km is daunting. We decide to stop for lunch.

French road stops are easy and pleasant. They are marked along the highway with two forms of signs—each is called an Aire. The one with a pictogram of a pine tree (I call this Aire de Pinetree) is a rest stop with a toilet and probably picnic tables. The pictogram of a coffee cup (Aire du Coffee Cup) means there is a real restaurant. The bathrooms tend to be cleaner and more generous than at an Aire de Coffee Cup.

Karen chooses a light lunch from the cafeteria line; she is driving and doesn’t want too much food in her stomach. I am navigating and, as always, starved. I have the hot plat du jour—ham and rice and veggies. We drink Coca Cola and say we need it for the caffeine.  We decide to wait 100km for our coffee break.

When we need gas, we announce it’s time for a coffee break. French coffee gives me heartburn but I am desperate, so I buy a bottle of chocolate milk and an espresso from the automat machine and mix the two—my own frappacino.


Karen calls me across the rest stop—she has discovered a row of massage chairs that do more than vibrate, they actually give you a substantial rub down for the cost of a two euro coin. It’s as close to a spa as you can get at an Aire du Coffee Cup. We are blissful.

We make our final exit from the highway at 7PM, pretty much on schedule considering the number of stops we made. In Bollene, we hit the first traffic jam of the day—especially maddening because we are almost home. We curse in two languages until we see the cause of the bouchon—there is a wedding caravan. We smile and wave at the bride. She is wearing a gold crown and a glum expression.

We pull into Karen’s driveway before 8PM. We have decided to unload the van the next day—we are both dreaming of our own beds. My car has been living in Karen’s driveway so I nudge it homewards.

We are not feeling so loose or generous for the trip back. We both question our sanity.  But a deal is a deal.

Karen and Victor have hired a man to load up the van with their haul—a mix of all the parts for a cabine de douche (shower stall) including its glass door and side panels—which don’t happen to be too flexible. There’s a giant tub of glue, boxes of turquoise tiles, layers of plank to form the parquet floors. There’s piping and a toilet bowl and sheets of insulation and an air conditioning unit the size of R2D2. The door to the van will not close properly, so we tie it shut with a clothesline.

“You should put a red flag at the end” says Victor.

“Yeah? We haven’t got one!”

I remove the Hermes scarf tied around my hair to hold it out of my face. We tie the scarf—orange—to the car door and say our goodbyes.

“Tie me up, tie me down,” I suggest as I hoist myself into the van and try to wedge my long legs into the space allotted me. Because of the size of the shower door, my seat has to be pushed as far forward as possible.  I concentrate on the fields of sunflowers and lavender we will pass and the Snickers bars I will reward myself with.

We sing the score from Oklahoma. I shift on my buttocks every half hour, checking to see if we are almost there yet.

On our first break,  we buy multi-packs of Snickers bars, guzzle soft drinks and spring for a stack of trashy magazines, the kind that have photos of royals, movie stars and Johnny Hallyday on the cover.  As she drives the next miles, past Lyon and the Valley of the Ouch (well named, I think) I read aloud to Karen, translating from the French and making up the parts I do not understand.

We arrive in Paris at 4PM, quite proud of ourselves and swearing we will never do it again.  Nonetheless, we saved $1500, made two moves in three days and know that deep inside, if it came down to it again, we’d call AutoEurope in a heart beat. And a bunch of strong guys.




Exclusive for Bonjour Paris from Suzy Gershman – author of C’est La Vie.