French car rental

June 30, 2018 at 2:56 pm (Uncategorized)

Florence – the kind and clever matriarch of our wonderful host family – told me months ago to rent a car well in advance of our arrival to the south of France. It’s summertime, she explained; folks from England and all over other regions in France would descend upon this southern corner of the country and snap up all the available cars. She was right; when I clicked to the site to rent a car, many already had been reserved. Still, I secured a small, zippy four-door manual Renault for a very good price.

We made it to France, and then two days later we went to the car-rental agency for our scheduled pickup. There, Florence sat by my side to ensure I understood everything about the car and what the company, E.Leclerc, expected upon returning its sporty vehicle. At the time, only one small hiccup presented itself. After I’d reserved the car, Hayley and I learned from Gilles, the family patriarch and lover of North Africa, that he’d take us with him on a four-day trip to three cities in Morocco. So I told the rental-agency employee I’d turn in the car four days earlier than scheduled and I’d like a refund for those days. She was kind, but dense. When she said, “It’s probably not a problem but I’ll ask my boss,” I knew I’d be paying the full fare. But hope springs eternal.

She explained that for the car return, it’s the client’s responsibility to clean the vehicle inside and out (“Just a few quick wipes will do,” she’d said) but no need to refill the tank with gas. OK, I thought, so the rules are the inverse of what we do in the States: We don’t wash rental cars prior to their return; and we always refill the tanks.

Off Hayley and I went: We drove a total of 900 km (nearly 560 miles) throughout this region, from the highest point of the Pyrenees, to a prehistoric grotto/cave, to Toulouse, and to Foix, which borders the principality of Andorra.

On our final day with the car, we vacuumed it out and, at a do-it-yourself station near the rental return, we gave it a good washing. Brush, soap, steady stream of water. The proverbial shower Hayley gave me with the powerful hose felt so nice because it was about 90 degrees out.

Then, we met Florence at the rental agency. A different representative – Lionel, whose nametag was turned upside down (the first sign of his professionalism) — had us trail behind him as he went to inspect our wash-up job. Much tsk-tsking preceded his telling us just how dirty the car remained, and he pointed out here, here, and here that needed to be rewashed. Oh, and you need to fill the tank. Oh, and we can’t offer you a refund for the days you didn’t drive the car. Still, we thought we’d try that argument again after the additional wash.

Florence and I returned to the self-wash station, but instead defaulted to the automated wash system adjacent to the sub-par DIY spot. There was a line. Of course. So we sweated in the car while waiting for other folks to spic-and-span theirs. Unlike an automated American car wash – where you drive in to the monstrosity, put your car into neutral, and let the system do its thing – this piece simply was a bright-orange, stand-alone structure with brushes attached to its top and sides. The square machine resembled a Transformer.

One drives the car onto a small metal platform indicating the car is in the proper position for a clean. Then you roll up the windows, get out, lock the doors, and stand back to admire the clever machine working its wonders on your vehicle. (A small audience literally watched – awestruck — as this process took place, over and over again.) The Transformer’s top moved forward and back over the car, all the while its brushes swirled and twirled to return the car to the luster it never possessed in the first place.

Our car shiny as a dime, we then went around the corner to top off the tank. The first pump was out of order. But the woman who’d tried it before us – thus realizing it was not working – never told us it was out of order. I caught her just staring at us as we futzed with the pump, the digital display, and my overused credit card. Then, as we put the pump back on the hook, she said from one aisle over, “It’s broken.” We went to a second pump. Also out of order. The third did the trick. Suddenly, it no longer felt like 90 degrees, but 100.

We returned to the rental-car agency. We waited for monsieur to finish with three clients before he put on his proverbial microscope-like lenses to check out our car. The second wash did the trick. “But,” I told him, “you should know the air conditioning never worked, and I’d like a discount as a result.” He said nothing. He turned and got back in the car. He turned on the A/C system, slowly got out of the car, and said, “Get in.” Implication: “It DOES work, you dummy.” I got in. Yes, the cool air that we never got to experience our entire week of driving in 90-degree heat indeed was blowing forth from the vents. He then lectured us briefly on the proper number of buttons we’d needed to press and dials we’d needed to turn to work the cooling system. “No discount. It works.”

“Also, I simply cannot refund you for the days you no longer need the car because you’d reserved it online.”


“So, I cannot rent it out, now, until the day you’d said you were turning it in.”

“But there’s a woman here who needs a car at the last minute, and mine now is ready to go.”


This circular conversation went around and around a couple times, just for fun. My clothes had dried out from the initial car wash; so, too, had my sense of humor and patience.

Yes, I still love this country. The wine I drank that evening with dinner really hit the spot.


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June 24, 2018 at 5:55 pm (Uncategorized)

Hayley loved Toulouse, and I felt like the proud parent showing off a new baby. I basically was a baby when I lived in Toulouse, from 1992 to 1993; I turned 21 in the south of France. Returning for the first time in more than 25 years was exciting, and I was nervous about it, too. Would I remember where my favorite spots were? Would the feeling I had of being in a second home return, or would I feel quite removed from a place in which I spent only a single school year? Would the place even look the same?

As we drove into the center of town — to the Place du Capitole, since Toulouse once was the capital of the southern region of France — so many buildings looked the same, whereas others no longer were there; updated structures had been installed in their place. It looked, too, like the metro system was being expanded, from the train station on the opposite bank of the Garonne to the center of town. Tons of street construction made our way slow-going. There was so much construction, in fact, that we needed to park in a garage; there simply was no street parking.

Hayley was willing to try the few key things I’d talked about incessantly for weeks, and showing her around made me feel simultaneously like a college student again and like a wizened widow telling the youth how things used to be. For example, I’d remembered my route from the center of town back to the apartment where I’d lived; it was a path I’d trod every day of the week, as I’d taken a bus to and from the icky suburb where the Universite de Toulouse stuck its liberal arts program, so the important things — like poli-sci, law, and economics — could enjoy a lovely building in town. What a time warp it was for me as we walked past Le Place Wilson and observed some stores and restaurants that clearly were quite new — tons more Northern African eats than a quarter century ago, for instance — whereas others, like Le Ver Luisant (the lit-up worm), still were open for business.

Around the corner from the apartment I’d rented from an older couple who wasn’t terribly nice, there had been a phone booth where I was to make all my phone calls. In its place today is a lively restaurant; I showed Hayley the exact spot where I used to need to leave the apartment to place any phone call I needed to make. “Oh, right, you didn’t have cell phones.” “Not even close,” I told her. I’d felt like a thief in the night when I needed to make a call after sundown. The feeling came rushing back just standing on the spot.

In addition to getting a $6 coffee at the very fun and well-known cafe Le Florida — which is much larger than I’d remembered — we had lunch at Le Sherpa, the best creperie on the planet, I’m convinced. For it wasn’t just its inexpensive food that was so wonderful, but its ambiance and the fact it was a real hangout for university students (on a tight budget and craving something warm, melted, and all wrapped up in a tasty packet made of flour and eggs). While sitting at a table for four right up against the kitchen, I told Hayley stories about hanging out in the creperie until late at night. Turns out our waiter had started working at Le Sherpa — when not working on his photography career — around the same time I lived in Toulouse. So we figured we’d met one another a quarter century before. At that moment, time felt like it had no meaning, like I’d opened a door in 1993 and stepped into 2018.

Hayley even humored me my desire to go into the post office I’d frequented; I always was writing and sending letters to my roommates, my parents, my boyfriend (hi Dave!). Inside, there used to be a few phone booths for private calls away from the public, the rain, and the cold on crummy days. I’d always steeled myself before approaching the postal workers; they were the rudest of the rude. I needed to know if there’d been any personnel turnover since my final day in Toulouse. We walked into the post office and, today, there is an information booth with an actual person manning it, and she was very kind, responding to my questions. We then went over to the worker from whom we could buy stamps and send letters. At first, I asked for six stamps, and he started to count them. Then I said, “I’ve changed my mind. Ten, please.” You’d have thought I asked that he also prepare my dinner and clean up afterward. Seems the job requirements for La Poste de Toulouse hasn’t changed since ’92.


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So French

June 23, 2018 at 3:13 pm (Uncategorized)

  • Hayley already had gotten the OK to be Ines’ special guest at her school for a couple days. Upon arriving at the principal’s office before her first morning, the principal seemed entirely unprepared for Hayley’s visit. She began rattling off to Ines’ mom in very rapid-fire French and with furrowed brow (indicating to Hayley there was a problem…or two) that she needed not only to have her passport (which she had on her person, knowing in advance this was required) but also her insurance card. I broke in, saying I had the card in the car; they could make a copy of it right now. The principal turned to Florence, saying, “Does she understand French?”  I got her attention by saying, oui, I understood, and would she like that I get the card now? She paused a beat and said, “Non. Tomorrow is fine.” Done with her initial tirade, she excused Hayley and Ines to class and then turned around abruptly, called a hangdog-looking student into her office, began yelling at him, and slammed shut the door behind her.
  • In class, Hayley told me, the students must stand at their desks before the teachers enter, bid them hello, and offer them their seat. Such respect! Then, Hayley continued, they talk among themselves during much of class. Such disrespect!
  • I love the look I receive as folks try to decipher my accent. Slightly furrowed brow, eyes boring in to mine. I love, too, the different ways the French ask the question, “Where are you from?” There are a number of ways to ask, and I find their socio-economic station in life dictates how they do so. Regardless, I’ve turned it into a game; instead of just saying, “Je suis Americaine,” or “Je viens des Etats-Unis,” I’ve said, “Guess.” Turns out I could be American, Canadian, Quebecois, English, or — my favorite — Dutch. Because I’m a very tall blonde on a bike. Not.
  • Today in Toulouse, Hayley and I walked into a Toulousain tchotchke shop (stuff I love). I selected a few items to give as gifts once back in Portland. The madame looked at me square in the eye and said, “I will wrap these, making them into a gift. For a gift that is not wrapped is not a gift.”
  • Also in Toulouse, I took Hayley to the wonderful cafe, Le Florida, I’d remembered with such fondness from my year at the local university. A very aloof waiter at last made his way to our table. It was starting to approach 80 degrees at noon, and I asked if we could order an iced cappuccino and an iced tea. Clearly believing himself a waiter at a cafe along the Champs Elysees, he barely made eye contact and responded, “Sure, but you’ll have to wait.” I told him that was no problem and he raised his eyebrows and strutted away in his tight pants and crisp white dress shirt. He returned in just a few minutes, which I thought was pretty good, since we prepared ourselves to wait a bit. He dropped our beverages on the table and again strutted away. Steam rose from both our mugs. I touched them. I looked at Hayley. I said, “I guess he’d meant we’d have to wait … for the drinks to cool themselves in the heat of the day.” She said, “Don’t they have ice?”
  • World Cup, World Cup, World Cup.
  • There is absolutely no respect for speed limits, and tailgating should be a federal offense but instead is high art. At 130 km — or more.
  • Why are many roads here as narrow as bike lanes?
  • Speaking of rules of the road, while driving for the first time in our zippy manual Renault, an emergency vehicle with blue lights flashing approached from the opposite direction. We were driving down the narrow, two-way streets of the small town of St. Gaudens. I pulled over and stopped, of course. Ines, in the back seat, yelled, “What are you doing?!” The guy behind me stopped suddenly and made the WTF sign in my review mirror. As the driver of the vehicle approached, he, too, gave me the WTF sign. “We don’t do that here,” Ines informed me. So I learned the hard way.
  • We met a few folks today, waiting for Ines to finish a horseback-riding lesson. They were so intrigued we were Americans, as they’re used to the English in this region, but not the specimen we represent. Boy oh boy were they excited to practice their English. And demonstrate they’d clearly never met an American before. “What do you eat? Nothing but hamburgers?” followed by a laugh like that of the French chef in “The Little Mermaid.” But theirs was real.
  • We want to give Siri a French lesson. We’re grateful that she *usually* gets us from point A to point B, but it’s incredibly hard to follow her verbal prompts because her French sucks. Case in point: Siri directed us earlier today toward the signs that indicate the town of Foix. That’s pronounced roughly like “fwah.” To Siri, though, it came out “Foycks.” Imagine how she’s been doing with certain street names, like “Avenue Marechal Foch.”
  • Hayley has three recommendations for the French: 1) install screen doors; they do wonders keeping out flies and the like; 2) install actual air conditioning; it does wonders keeping people comfortable; and 3) neuter your dogs.

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A’ l’ecole

June 21, 2018 at 5:22 pm (Uncategorized)

Ines’ class of fellow sweaty 12-year-old French kids all thought Hayley looked like Jennifer Lopez. Perhaps their vision was warped by the heat made worse by the complete lack of an air-conditioning system (it’s in the high 80s here). Regardless, Hayley potentially just had the best school day of the entire year. That’s pretty good for a school year that, at a small Catholic institution in the town of St. Gaudens, lasted exactly one full day (two-hour lunch included). (And guess who’s been converted to school days with a two-hour lunch?)

This region in southern France attracts many English folks, so they’re no novelty. But Americans rarely visit down here, so the middle school students were very excited to meet an American kid. VERY excited. And I think I know why: Hayley definitely has the 411 on the swear words.  These students have spent years watching, hearing, listening to American films, rap, pop, and more, and of course it’s all littered with the most — er — colorful parts of our language. I’m so proud…

Turns out Hayley really set a few kids straight who were having a hard time properly using mother f*cker. What a worthwhile visit she had. Again, I’m so proud.

Coincidentally, Ines’ final class of the day was English, taught by an attractive woman with mousey-blonde hair who is half-Quebequoise and half-French; she grew up bilingual and was very happy to speak English during a slice of her day. As I’d believed, and as she confirmed, not one fellow adult in the school speaks a lick of English, so she practically broke out in a sweat chatting with Hayley and me this afternoon. (Or was it the lack of A/C?)

Hayley had been asked to speak about herself — “slowly!” — and I’d been asked if I, too, would come in, to talk about my profession (you know, doing laundry, dishes, and the like…). I’d been told to be sure to speak slowly, too. Until I arrived in Ines’ English classroom, where the teacher reminded Hayley to speak “slowly!” and then turned to me and asked that I talk about myself and my work in French. What, me panic? The heat didn’t help, nor did the fact I’d chosen to wear a tank-top-style blouse. Dommage. Turns out I did OK, but I was definitely not the focus (nor was life after school).

The students had the chance to ask Hayley anything they wanted to, in English. It began as a very short Q&A session. The teacher then jumped in and did a great job of reminding the students of all the possible words they could use to ask their American visitor questions.  And so a fun, lively class period ensued. Imagine the shock when the French students learned Hayley eats carrots with peanut butter; races through a 30-minute lunch period; lives a six-hour drive from Northern California (the teacher showed them a map and they were reminded of the enormity of our country versus theirs); and has visited the Eiffel Tower, which many of the students had yet to visit.

As expected, one kid even made a Trump joke (bravo!), and when the subject of pizza came up, the students really lit up. As they did when Hayley confessed to not liking fruit and shared with the class our pets’ names. Sunshine and Jacky really had a quick moment in the French sun. But back to the 30-minute lunch.

Standing next to Hayley in the students’ sparse classroom on the (hot) second floor, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when each of the students gasped — gasped! — learning that what they’d heard about how American students suffer in school was indeed the truth (and not fake news). They had so many questions about the length of the lunch period; they simply could not imagine how one even eats during a 30-minute lunch! (I did share, however, that most students come home starving to death and essentially eat two lunches in a day. But of course, they said. Bien sur.)

Hayley didn’t have the most successful 8th-grade year socially, so when we got in the car this afternoon, she was the happiest that I’d seen the entire year, no exaggeration. For a kid who requires tons of alone time (including during the school day) to get through the day, it was refreshing and fun for me to experience not just a happy girl, but a giddy girl. (Nothing like having carte blanche to say mother f*cker all day, I suppose.)

In other news, I visited a castle today in the medieval village of Mauvezin. Its construction began in 1083 and offers a 360-degree view of the Pyrenees beyond and the unobstructed, green valley and rolling hills below. But its interest and import paled in comparison to my experience for a mere hour this afternoon with Hayley.



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June 21, 2018 at 9:04 am (Uncategorized)

I lived in Toulouse for a year when I was a college junior. That was 26 years ago; I’d not returned to this region since I left “La Ville Rose” in a blaze of glory (read: I wrote my hosts a nasty gram and slipped it in their apartment’s mail box as I left for the airport my last day there in 1993). The de Castelbajacs never looked me up in the States and so never gave me the what-for I deserved. (They were kinda rude people. Turns out they were simply very typical of the French bourgeoisie and, thus, I should have known or learned in the course of my year that their behavior toward me, an outsider, was “nature.”) Truth be told, I’d been a little nervous about revisiting this region in southern France, concerned there’d be bad blood in the air.

I’m happy to report from a village called Bordes-de-Riviere that the bad-blood concern is unfounded.

It’s an amazing irony that the open and kind French family with whom we’d done a home exchange in 2009 now lives in l’Occitaine and no longer in the northern region of Pas de Calais, where we’d first met nearly a decade ago. Hayley and I were able to grab at the opportunity to come stay with the Millescamps in their new home that’s a half-hour drive from Spain and one hour from Toulouse.

So many memories from my year here have come flooding back since we arrived a few days ago. Particularly the “accent du sud.” One never learns this southern accent in French class; rather, we learn the Parisian way of pronouncing words. But here, where a language called “Oc” in the Middle Ages was the lingua franca, traces of that tongue still exist in today’s accented words. For example, the English “-ang” sound at the end of many words in southern French replace what otherwise would be a nasal finish. “Matin” — meaning morning — where the “n” would be dropped in more typical pronunciation, becomes “matang” where the final sound is strongly enunciated, twangy. “Bien” becomes “biyang.” More than a quarter century ago, I could barely understand words like these. Today — as I had after I’d lived in Toulouse for about six months — I seek out the accent and love hearing it.

Ines, only 12 and in this region for a year now, has begun picking up the twang in her speech; her older brother, Hugo, 16, hasn’t done so and likely never will.

Other memories come rushing back, but they’re just more generally “French” than of this region in the foothills of the Pyrenees. For example, take the French work day. If one can call it a “day,” that is. Gilles, our host family’s patriarch, came home from work yesterday at noon. Hayley looked at me and said, “What is Gilles doing home? It’s not dinner time!” I told her, “Remember, Hayley, the French often take an hour or more for lunch and businesses close their doors.” She’d learned that in school but never had experienced it. She said, “No wonder the French get so little done.” She’s 14 and knows this already. But it sure is nice to have a leisurely lunch every day.

She goes to school with Ines tomorrow; on Thursdays, the students enjoy a two-hour lunch period. Hayley is so nervous about what the hell she’ll do during a 120-minute “lunch” period during which, at her school, she’s used to pounding her meal in roughly 10 minutes and then returning to class after a brief period of repose. Ines, by contrast, told us how much she prefers her two-hour lunch period to the days she only gets one hour to dine, relax with friends, not be in class.

While I feel more at ease here than were I visiting for the first time, I still really stick out. Example: I took Hayley to a Lidl, a German grocery store chain that’s also all over France. It was a bit of a crummy one in a village called Capvern les Bains (I believe because it used to be home to a thermal bath, as were many villages in this part of the country). Its lettuces were wilty and even its cheese and yogurt selections — usually plentiful like pasta aisles in Italian grocery stores — were a bit scant. We were on the hunt for peanut butter, of course.

Unlike when I lived in Toulouse many moons ago, peanut butter today is somewhat widely available. Not finding it in this wanting Lidl, I marched up to the cashier (who had a strong southern accent) and asked in my clearly American accent if he sold peanut butter. “Non.” Oh well — we’d try again at another store. We thanked him and turned to leave. Through the emergency exit door. It was marked “secours,” which is a word I know, but to which I’d paid no attention. It was the door closest the cash registers and wasn’t locked. In America, emergency exit doors are locked, right? And peanut butter is available everywhere, right?

The clients who’d been behind us in line gasped and slapped their hands over their ears, due to the screeching alarm that indeed had immediately gone off. The cashier just stuck an index finger into his left ear and kept scanning groceries with his free hand.

We slinked to our car, feeling very much the dumb American. As we got into our tiny but zippy manual Renault, we could hear the alarm still. We were sure it soon would turn off. Or not. To avoid it, we noticed before speeding off in a sweat, a Lidl employee had stepped outside, deciding it was the perfect moment for a cigarette break. Or perhaps simply the end of her work day.


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