Thursday, March 01, 2007

finding the key to a good vacation

We set out for Provence on Tuesday morning. Our destination for day one, Carcassonne. We arrived in the afternoon, parked below the medieval city, and walked up the stone streets to spend some time sightseeing before getting a room for the night.
While most of the world here is skiing in the mountains we're gambling on good weather and empty streets in some places we've always wanted to visit. Turns out our instincts we're very good this time. It's sunny most of the time, a little cool but not bad at all.
The village is lovely, the fortress is impressive. The kids want to see the dungeon. They are fascinated by all things having to do with mortality, sarcaphogus, tombstones, swords, helmets, dungeons...makes me wonder if they've been reading Tolkein without our knowing it.
We are walking back to the car along a road the Grand Puits when we see a sign advertising rooms. I step inside a boutique and inquire.
There happens to be one room left for 60 euros. It's adorable, it has a tiny courtyard, it's inside the walled village, it's right here...We take it.
Now all we have to do is transfer our stuff from the car to our room...the owner tells me how to access the old city by car...tricky business but we've gotten over our fears of driving the tiny labrynthine roads of ancient villages.
I go back to the parking lot, stamp my ticket in the machine, and go to the car. I turn the key. It coughs and dies. I try again. This time no cough only the persistant turning over and over. I give it some gas and it coughs again but in a sickly fashion. I'm pretty sure it's flooded now. I'm annoyed because I've had the car in for service twice in the week preceding our vacation - once for a persistant problem of stalling and a second time when the key assembly (they call it a neman) broke making it impossible to turn the key. It just so happened that I had also ordered a remplacement key on the first visit so when I picked up the car after the second visit and discovered that a free key came with the new neman I was a bit nonplussed. The free key was less bulky so I put it on my ring and stored the one I had ordered in a safe place. Meanwhile back in the parking lot in Carcassonne I'm cursing the Clio, the Renault garage, and my parking ticket which will be expired in fifteen minutes time. I call the Renault garage back home and ask them how long to wait for the flooded carburator to clear...fifteen minutes they say.
I grab the guitar and a suitcase and walk back into the walled city. Beth is distressed to say the least to learn that our car is acting up. The news casts a pall over the upcoming week. We sit in the courtyard and have an apperitif trying to distract ourselves. Beth sends a puff of smoke in the air and muses, "Maybe you should try my key."
"Your key?"
"We've been driving the Clio with my key all day. Maybe we should try it. Maybe I have a lucky key."
"What's wrong with my key?"
Beth looks at me and shrugs resignedly.
I get up to go back to the parking lot. I grumble, "I don't want to live in a universe that operates like that."
Five minutes later I'm ready for another try. By now the Clio is nearly the only car in the lot as it's approaching six thirty in the evening. I turn the key. It turns but it won't start. I feel myself starting to get a little wild inside. I check my surroundings. I'm parked next to a descent that leads to a lower lot where the barriers and the exits are located. It occurs to me that if I could roll the car down that slope I could pop the clutch and be on my way. It's pretty level where I am. The car is small...I can do this...I put it in neutral, get out and start to push backwards against the door frame. The Clio rolls slowly, my shoes slip a little on the pavement, I can't get enough traction to get any momentum; nevertheless I've gotten her about then feet back. I need another fifteen or twenty to be able to make the turn and get on that downhill road. I push with all my might, trying with my left hand to turn the wheel a little. I'm barely moving it now. But I've attracted the attention of some people now, and a couple of older men come over. Is it the battery, they ask? I tell them it's flooded. I point to the road winding down to the next lot. At first they don't get my plan but then one of them catches the vision and motions me inside. They move me back far enough, I crank the wheel left pretty sure I'll miss the guard rail. I turn the key on and wave the men off thanking them. I step out, give myself a good push, we're rolling freely now, I jump in, push down on the clutch, put the car in gear and aim for the exit ramp. We pick up speed steadily and about two thirds of the way down I pop the clutch. Nothing. I'm shocked. I'm still rolling along so I try again but it's useless. I coast into a parking spot shouting curses inside my sound proof booth. I look up and see a man walking toward me. He's the parking lot attendant. He listens to my sad tale and then he tells me there's a Renault garage not far away but that it's closed for the day. He tells me not to worry about leaving the car there for the night. He's a friendly guy but his provencale accent is very thick and hard for me to understand. I thank him and I grab the rest of the bags and go back to our apartment. Under most circumstances we'd be pinching ourselves at having found such a great spot to spend the night but Beth and I are now trying to entertain the kids and somehow imagine how all of this is going to play. We've reserved an apartment in Arles starting the next day for a whole week.
We go out with the kids and wander the now deserted streets of the medieval city. It's only 7:30. We go to a restaurant and have a delightful meal and listen to a young man sing and play guitar. Then we walk the ramparts of the city, again completely alone. It's the sort of place you'd expect to see Hamlet's ghost hanging about.
Back in our apartment and in bed at last, Beth and I decide to hope that the car will start in the morning. If it doesn't, I'll have to call the garage...after that it gets murky. Needless to say neither of us sleeps very well that night.
At eight thirty I'm in the Clio. I turn the doesn't start. The attendant comes out. It's the same guy. I ask him if he slept here in the lot all night. He laughs. We commiserate. I call the gargage and they tell me the tow truck will be there in about fifteen minutes. I run back up to the apartment to tell Beth the bad news. (I can't call her because her cell phone doesn't work anymore...yet another rant-in-the-waiting!)
I run back down and sure enough the tow truck comes right on time...which is to say fifteen minutes late. He takes my key, gets in and tries to start it. He lets it turn for only a couple of seconds when he stops abrubtly and asks me if I have another key. I tell him my wife has one.
"This one doesn't work," he says.
I tell him about the neman and the new key. He listens and explains to me that this key is only good for opening the doors. He points to the display and turns the ignition, a red light comes on. I don't know what the hell the light is supposed to mean, except that in this context it means I have the wrong key.
My wife has a key, I repeat. He says, "Go get it."
"Five minutes."
He smiles at me and waves.
As I sprint up the hill and through the gates to the walled city, I am buoyed by hope that all of this will soon be resolved. Beth has the key. I remember telling her that I don't want to leave in a universe that operates like that. Suddenly I do want to live in it, very much...although, in my own mind I'm already at work on an account that will reconcile the facts to principles that are not so random, not so arbitrary.
I get to the apartment and am annoyed to discover that I left the key to the outside door with Beth. I try knocking. I try the bell. Did I mention that Beth cell phone doesn't work? It's incredible, I think to myself. So I knock, I ring, I call on the phone (it actually rings, you just can't talk into it or hear anything...maybe beth will hear the phone and think "someone's at the door!") and finally, the owner's head pops out from the second floor window. She's obviously been in the shower.
To bring all of this to a close. Beth serenely gave up her key. I sprinted back. The tow truck driver started the Clio. I thanked him profusely. He smiled and charged me a hundred euros, apologizing but saying it was required. As he filled out the paperwork, he got the part on the form where it said reason for towing. He wrote "wouldn't start". I looked at the words and I said to him, "Thanks for not completing the sentence."
"Thanks for not completing the sentence - Wouldn't start because the driver is an idiot."
He laughs again. Already I'm finding that smiles and laughter are a staple of life in the southern France. He gives me the forms and tells me to file a claim with my insurance. "They'll reimburse you, I'm sure. Just be sure not to finish the sentence."
With that he is gone. I hold the good key in my hand. There's nothing quite like knowing what works and what doesn't.
I get in the car and drive to the barrier. The attendant is there smiling of course. He makes out a new ticket and waves me through without charge. "Bonnes vacances!" he says.


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