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Recently published, Mark Greenside’s latest memoir continues the journey started in his first popular book, I’ll Never Be French. Two decades ago, Greenside bought a house in Brittany and the quirks of French living still manage to confound him. The faux-pas–filled anecdotes he shares are full of wit and whimsy, as illustrated by the following excerpt from (Not Quite) Mastering the Art of French Living, about driving a rental car from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport…
I pick up the phone, and before I can speak, the person on the other end says, “Oui.”
“Parlez vous anglais?” I ask.
“Bon. Je suis Greenside. Vous êtes Renault?”
“Oui. Votre nom?”
“Greenside,” I repeat, and realize I’m going to have to spell it. G is zheh; R is ehr; euh is E; enn; ess; ee is I; D is day; euh. “Zheh-ehr-euh-euh-enn-ess-ee-day-euh.”
“Cinq minutes,” he says and hangs up.
Five minutes what! Walk? Drive? Crawl? I go to them? They come to me? Merde. Double merde. I wait five minutes, ten, fifteen, convinced I’m supposed to be somewhere else when a young man of eighteen or nineteen arrives, calling, “Monsieur Greenseed, Monsieur Greenseed!”
“Oui,” I call back.
“Américaine,” I say. An American girl.
He shakes my hand and smiles. I smile, too, happy to be found even if he thinks I’m a transvestite. He leads me to the van, puts my bags in the back, and races to the car rental location, chatting all the way in rapid-fire French and heavily accented broken English, not caring in the least that I don’t understand a word he says in either language. He stops at a tiny shack with the sign TT on it: the Renault office. It looks to me like a shed for a lawn mower.
I walk in. There are no chairs or benches to sit on, and no music to comfort or distract. It’s worse than the Department of Motor Vehicles in Oakland, and the woman behind the counter looks just as forbidding, jabbing the air with a pen when she speaks, her hair and face pulled tight in a bun. I get in line and wait. When it’s finally my turn, I say, “Bonjour,” and resignedly ask, “Parlez vous anglais?”
“Yes,” she says, “bien sûr, of course,” and transforms into a freckle-faced fairie, speaking flawless English with an Irish lilt. She hands me a sheaf of papers, all in French, and tells me where to sign. I do, not knowing or caring if I’m making her my heir. She tells me the insurance covers everything except flat tires, how to get road service, and, most importantly, where to get gas.
I already know leased cars in France come with an empty gas tank. Basically, what I’ll get is fumes. I’ll have five minutes to find a gas station, and God help me if I don’t. So when the lady says, “Take the first right after you exit to the left and you’ll find the Total station,” I write it down: take first right after the exit. I fold the paper in half and put it in my shirt pocket. She hands me a map of Paris and its environs, says, “Bon voyage,” and points out the window to my car, a Twingo.
It looks like a stubbed toe, a windup toy, something designed by LEGO. The only distinguishing features are the red license plates that tell everyone I’m a foreigner and that they should stay far, far away from me and this car.
I place my bags and briefcase in the back, which surprisingly has a lot of space, open the driver’s door, and sit down. I feel like I’m on a ride at Disneyland. The car’s so basic, I’m glad it has seats. The fellow who met me at the airport walks over and explains how to operate the car—in French. I nod whenever he pauses, and say, “Bon. Bon. Oui,” not having a clue what he’s saying. When he finishes, he gives me the keys, shakes my hand, and says, “Bonne chance.”
I adjust the mirrors and the seat, start the car, and look at the gas gauge: sure enough, a milliliter above empty. I back up and exit left, feeling confident until I get to the first right and see it’s a service road. The next right is the A-1 freeway entrance to Paris. There are no cars behind me, so I stop. I definitely do not want to go to Paris, and will never get there anyhow, given the amount of gas I have. But a service road? That doesn’t seem right either. I take out the Mapquest directions I smartly printed a week ago—who needs a GPS when there’s Mapquest?—and look at them for the first time.
Step One says, “Start out going south.” I open the window and look for the sun. It’s Paris, June, there is no sun. Step Two says, “Take the first right.” I take the note out of my pocket. The Renault lady also said, “Take the first right.” I remind myself of the pride French people take in their use of precise language and logic—and how first means first, not second . . .
I follow Mapquest, the Irish lass, and French logic and turn right, onto the service road, and immediately realize they’re all wrong. I take the next right, hoping to loop back, and begin driving in circle after concentric circle around the service areas of Aéroport Charles de Gaulle, watching the fuel gauge dip, drop, slip, slide closer to E, then beyond to the red, flashing panic light…
I have no phone, no language, no AAA card—and no idea where I am or where I’m going—and I’m about to run out of gas. My hands are so sweaty I can barely hold onto the wheel. I turn right again and again and again and drive down another service road winding up back where I started. I take the next right, the second right—so much for French logic!—and see the Total station up ahead. I coast to the pump.
My legs are shaking when I get out of the car. I wait several seconds and carefully remove the green unleaded gas hose, making sure not to use the yellow diesel hose, because I made that mistake once before, and start filling the tank, amazed as always that I pay after it’s filled. In the U.S., I’d have to leave a body part or a family member as a down payment.
I go inside to pay—it costs sixty dollars to fill the tank of the economiest of cars—then return to the car and look at the Mapquest directions. I’ve already driven the first thirteen steps—from Renault to the Total station. There are fifteen more to Senlis. I’m going to Senlis because it’s twenty miles away, less than three miles from the highway exit, and avoids— at least for today—the Périphérique, the thirty-six kilometer bypass loop that allows you to circle Paris forever and is the best representation of the eight circles of hell on Earth.
I start the car and enter the A-1…
Excerpted with permission from (Not Quite) Mastering the Art of French Living by Mark Greenside, Skyhorse Publishing. Available at booksellers and on Amazon below.
Lead photo credit : Renault 4CV, 1946. Photo: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT / Wikimedia Commons