Hit the Road, Jacques: Two Gals and a Van

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, and 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…
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