I grew up learning to drive in the unruly, unregulated, and congested roads of Manila. It was often said if one can drive in Manila, one can drive anywhere else in the world! I certainly put this skill to good use living in the
U.S. in the last 30 years. I can count in one hand the number of car issues I have had to deal with personally and, 9 out of 10, the causes are directly linked to the make and model of the car.
In France, however, it has been an
Armed with the confidence of youth and several years experience driving in Manila and Washington, DC, I had no hesitation renting and driving a car in Europe in the early 1990s. On a trip to Geneva with an aunt
from New York, we drove over mountains and valleys, through highways and country roads to visit my childhood friend in Provence. My aunt, a lifelong Manhattan resident, claimed experience driving a manual car but never actually demonstrated this during
our trip. So I did all the driving. Lucky for us, my friend took over when visiting places like Cannes, St. Tropez, and Aix en Provence which gave me bountiful opportunities to appreciate the sights.
On the return drive
to Geneva, my aunt and I stopped for gas. This was an earlier time when those elevated road bumps with sharp traffic spikes were not yet introduced in the US. Now of course they are ubiquitous in every car rental place. There
were signs in French which baffled us and which probably served a warning like “Do not back up. Severe tire damage.” But since we didn’t speak or understand French, we drove over these traffic spikes. But our gas tank was
not aligned with the pump so I backed up slightly and heard a loud pop followed by a hissing sound. Aha! The universal sound of trouble. We apprehensively filled the tank and limped slowly to the side. We didn’t know how to change
a tire but we pretended to fiddle around the trunk and spare, trying not to look too helpless. Viola! A mechanic of sorts came over and took charge. Soon we were on way back to Geneva for our U.S. flight. In my youthful
ignorance of anything automotive (other than the ignition and gas), I did not know that one should not drive with a spare tire in major, cross-border highways. But we did. Safely. Two months later, a bill arrived for replacement of
the two tires.
That first experience did not deter our car rental practices as we have a preference for visiting and staying in places not readily accessible by plane or train. Once, perhaps due to lingering work stress and
an extensively planned road trip from Brussels to Provence, we filled the gas tank with unleaded fuel instead of the usual gazoil. Somewhere along the highway, in a rest stop between Normandy and the Loire Valley, the car would not start. We called
the number recommended and a tow truck appeared to take us to the nearby village and assess the situation. The mechanic eventually diagnosed the fuel problem. We were told that we had to go to the next big town where the car dealership with the
proper tools can flush out the gas tank. This kindly gentleman took us in his truck, car in tow, and drove us through beautiful countryside eagerly pointing out places of interest for our pleasure. The girls thought it was the adventure of
their lifetime. I was seething; worried about hotel and auberge reservations with strict cancellation clauses. Husband was trying not to look guilty!
At the dealership, the manager told us that we needed to leave the car overnight.
With my Provencal friend on the phone, she made arrangements with him for an overnight stay. He drove us to a local hotel explaining that he would pick us up in the morning after our breakfast. The next morning, we returned to the dealership and
settled our bill. The cost was much lower than we anticipated or feared. Using my cell phone, my friend talked with him and later told me that he liked us and was concerned about our vacation experience. And with these sentiments, he severely
discounted the charges. Sometime after, I read a magazine article on the same experience of American vacationers. The author concluded that locals in the area still remember and appreciate the role of the U.S. during WWII and, because of this
memory, we Americans are received with open arms and open minds.
Our car woes (and expenses) did not end then. Years later, on a Christmas holiday trip, husband drove over a curb located near a construction site and burst a
tire. Fortunately for us, the gas station in the next village replaced both tires within an hour so we were able to enjoy the rest of the trip. And once, in a desperate rush to make our luncheon reservation at a Michelin star restaurant, I dented
the rental car when turning it around quickly and hitting a low stone wall unseen and unnoticed by any of us. The resulting bill was husband’s mother’s day gift to me.
Despite these car mishaps, we do not feel so
helpless or discouraged that we regret the trip or the residency in this part France. We have only encountered kindness with our situation, honesty with the transaction, and sympathy with our inability to communicate our dilemma and requests.
As another example, during the recent visit of an aunt from the Philippines, I made a sharp turn and hit a curb on our way to a scheduled lunch. I heard the familiar loud pop and steered the car off the main road and into a side street
besides a pair of recycling bins. First daughter jumped out and opened the trunk. She took the spare and tools out but was puzzled on how to proceed. She ordered me to call her father. “Mom, he promised us he was going to
show us how to change a tire before we left for France and he didn’t,” she whined. She then badgered me to call him. “Honey, it’s 6 am in Virginia, “ I said. “He won’t even be awake enough to give
instructions. Just figure it out.”
Meantime, I was rapidly dialing and emailing friends to cancel the lunch that I was hosting for my aunt. I managed to get hold of Jen, a local friend, and asked her to call the restaurant
because I felt that we would not make it. “Where are you?” she asked. “I am in Puisserguier.” “I’m on my way, “ she responded. Between trying to get through the car rental assistance line
and another invited guest, Jen called asking for the specific location. I told her I will be in the main road so she can see me. Then first daughter called out that someone is helping her. I rushed to the car just as Jen arrived and saw an
elderly man taking over from first daughter. Within minutes, we were on our way to lunch none the worse for wear. Except perhaps for my aunt who is accustomed to having a chauffeur and/or someone handy to deal with automotive issues in her hometown.
She was silently worried that she would not be able to catch her flight back to Asia if there was no car to take her to Toulouse. But that worry, of course, dissipated when she realized that we were at ease.
At ease, calm,
unworried… none of these can aptly describe the confidence and knowledge that assistance will come. Whether it is a new friend who, after coming to our aid and getting us to lunch, drew directions to the Peugeot dealership in Bezier. She also
wrote, in French, instructions that I should hand to the mechanic with a directive that I should be given another car if the tires are not in stock. Or a neighbor who insisted on my calling her from the Peugeot dealership if and when I needed assistance
or translation that afternoon. Or the kindly couple in the small villa across our disabled car whose husband changed our tire and gave recommendations on where and how to drive the spare so the police will not give me a ticket. Such generosity of heart
and hand. And such a privilege to be their beneficiaries.