On our very first visit to France as a couple, Rob and I collected our hire car at the back of the Hotel des Invalides in Paris. It was an appropriate spot considering how sick I felt at the thought of careering around the city on the ‘wrong side’ of the road.
As the attendant handed Rob the keys I grabbed my notebook and pencil. I wanted to get down every word he said about road rules in France, and left-hand- drive cars. I had already been given one piece of advice by a friend – ‘Tell Rob to be careful when he’s turning‘ , she said. ‘The windscreen wiper controls are often where you expect the indicator button to be.’
Our attendant did not mention this, in fact all he said was;
‘Never fill zee car with petrol Monsieur, eet ‘as to ‘ave diesel.’
Yes, and we’ll ‘ave to ‘ave zee guardian angel,’ I thought, as we swung into peak hour traffic with windscreen wipers squeaking across bone dry glass.
‘Other side for the indicators!’ I shouted, comforting myself with the knowledge that we would be visiting lots of cathedrals on our tour of Normandy. I am not at all religious, but hypocritically I intended praying fervently at every one.
Actually Rob was quite confident about the first stage of our trip; he had worked it all out on the flight from Heathrow. A left turn down to the Seine, hug the bank for a couple of K’s then straight onto the ring road. From then on, he told me, he might need some help with navigation. Well of course he would. I opened the map I’d found in the glove-box and gently slid it over his knees.
We heard the roar of the ring road long before we saw its terrifying blur of traffic. I watched Rob turn pale in alarm as we approached, but before he could contemplate an illegal U-turn we had been sucked into the vortex.
‘Get that bloody map off me!’ he yelled, as we hurtled down the inside lane wedged between trucks the size of container vessels. ‘And find Porte d’Auteuil……. NOW!’
‘Who, Moi? Oh Mon Dieu.’
I did my best, but by the time I got my bearings we were six map centimetres past Porte d’Auteuil and approaching Porte de la Chapelle far too quickly to get into the correct lane. I closed my eyes and said, ‘Turn off here, Rob!’
My word, burning rubber smells dreadful doesn’t it? Strangely enough, not one French driver gestured or swore at us as we cut across five lanes. I can only assume their voice boxes were paralysed with fear.
We pulled up under a road sign bearing the worrying word BRUXELLES and a large arrow.
Rob turned to me and said, ‘We’re supposed to be heading for Normandy, right? Isn’t that where you wanted to go?’ My nod was almost imperceptible, but he yelled; ‘Normandy is in France, right‘?’ (sarcastic !*#&*!) ‘SO WHY THE HELL WOULD WE TURN OFF HERE?’
I looked to the heavens for deliverance and saw the windscreen wipers going full bore, ‘Oh you know what they say – any old..(I mumbled the rest because his hand was over my mouth)…porte in a storm.’
It wasn’t easy to get back onto the ring road, but we made it to Normandy before dark (the days are long in June).
Our tour of the region was fantastic, except that we never really coped with those turn-offs. I tried to be a responsible navigator, but as I said to Rob; ‘So many cars moving so very fast Darling, and so little distance twixt sign and intersection.’
It was also difficult to keep zee car full of zee diesel, because we missed the exits to so many service stations.
We also missed a number of my cathedrals, but I compensated by praying twice as hard at the rest. God seemed to be listening too, as the trip was without serious incident until we overshot the turn-off to Camembert.
‘Oh no, we’ve missed the cheese place, Rob. You’ll have to go back.’
He was hungry enough not to complain, so as soon as there was a lull in the traffic he attempted a quick U-turn. Unfortunately, in his haste he ventured too far onto the grass verge and suddenly our front wheels were spinning in a ditch. The rest of the car was blocking the road. Streams of traffic descended on us from both directions and I briefly wondered whether we would be crushed to death by French motor vehicles or beaten to death by their drivers.
But then, a miracle! Two giant trucks stopped in their tracks and without so much as a toot from a French horn, kilometres of traffic politely queued behind them. Angels of mercy appeared; strong, handsome Frenchmen murmuring words of comfort. They rolled up their sleeves, surrounded our car. and gently lifted us out.
After brushing a few clods of earth from our bumper bar and patting our bonnet they returned to their vehicles; except that is for the most dashing Frenchman of all. He leaned through the driver’s window, flashed me a knee weakening smile….and turned off the windscreen wipers. Oh my word, I do adore France.
And yes, so does Rob. Once out of that wretched voiture, he was all smiles.