A Difficult Transmission
We travelled mostly by train during our September trip in France. And in general, we found travelling by train to be a pleasure. However, in Chartres we discovered that there was no practical way to take the train to our next stop: Amboise, in the Loire Valley. So we rented a car.
Turns out that it can be difficult or even impossible to find a rental car in Europe with automatic transmission. In Paris perhaps, but in Chartres it was not an option.
Problem is: I have never driven a car with manual transmission. Judy has, so she became the designated driver. Of course, the last time she drove a stick shift was about thirty years ago, but we figured hey, it’s like riding a bicycle. Once you learn, you don’t forget.
So off we went. Unfortunately, by the time we had found the rental car agency and taken care of all the paperwork, it was rush hour. You wouldn’t think that a cathedral town would have a heavy rush hour, but Chartres is bordered by a number of industrial communities that generate considerable traffic.
So there was a lot of stop and go. And driving a manual transmission for the first time in three decades requires some re-orientation. Stop and go is not the best sort of traffic in which to get re-oriented to a stick shift.
The car stalled a lot. And when It wasn’t in the proper gear, it tended to make alarming noises that put me in mind of a cow in labor.
But the traffic wasn’t the only challenge. French roads are full of roundabouts. Because of this, you feel as if you are spending most of your time driving in circles.
This requires even more slowing down and speeding up, more stalling, more bellows from the bovine maternity ward. Plus it requires more decisions about which way to turn. Which is more difficult because you are dizzy from driving in circles.
I was doing my best to serve as navigator, but I couldn’t make sense of the map. And neither Judy nor I have the kind of composure behind the wheel required of, say, race car drivers. So we had a lot of panicky exchanges like this:
Judy: WHICH WAY DO I GO?!?
Me: I HAVE NO #@!%$ CLUE!
We revolved multiple times around several roundabouts, stalling and starting up again, like a little moon with unstable gravity. Finally, though, we got within sight of the A10, the highway that heads south towards our destination. At this point we noticed a burning smell. A burning smell that perhaps was related to the smoke billowing out from under the hood of our car.
So we pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the engine. We decided that we would stay there for a while, let the car cool down, and let our pulses return to normal. If the car was still smoking when we got back on the road, we would head back to the car rental office.
Fortunately, that turned out not to be necessary. After about 45 minutes we started up the car and got on to the A10. Judy was more comfortable changing gears, and we made it the rest of the way without smoke, flames, or explosions.
While on the road we did discover some important common ground between French and American cultures. In both countries, highways are a good place to find bad to mediocre food, something not easy to do in France.
In this case, the source of the food was a French chain called The Buffalo Grill. The Buffalo Grill is clearly aimed at harassed French parents who have been stuck in the car with their kids for too many hours. It has a Wild West theme that would probably inspire protest rallies in some parts of the USA. For a little taste, here’s a picture of the plastic teepee/playhouse adjoining the restaurant.
The remainder of our driving experiences in France were uneventful. Fortunately we were able to leave the car in Amboise and take the train back to Paris.
For those of you who are American, have you ever tried driving in Europe? And for the Europeans, have you ever rented a car in the USA? Was it a challenging experience?