Trans-Atlantic Travelogue #10

We Blow Our Second Engine of the Tour, and Try to Drive to England Anyway

La Fert Saint Aubain, France

June 5, 2001

Scoreboard: 12,125 miles; 6 Countries, 20 states

I’ve got to say this: We’re not having a great deal of luck in vehicle-related matters. Sweet Pea (the VW bus) blew most of her engine about 100 miles south of Paris, on the freeway, in the Loire Valley, chateau country.

As something was obviously very wrong, even to a mechanical idiot like myself. We rolled up to the next emergency box and called for help. This turned out to not work out quite as well as I’d hoped, partly because the emergency service is nationalized (and thereby doesn’t recognize AAA), but mainly because the tow driver was one of those Frenchmen who refuse to understand anything said to them (I’ve had French majors tell me that people in Paris would pretend not to understand them in protest of either their nationality or pronunciation), and most of all because he drove us to Lamotte-Beuvron.

Lamotte-Beuvron is the inner-bowel of Europe. The inhabitants are quite nearly uniformly ignorant, obstinate and pretentious (the only hotel that wasn’t full due to the Polo convention refused to give us a room because they didn’t like our looks), and none of the mechanics could offer any assistance beyond assuring us that our engine was “mort.”

And so it was. Finally the guy at the Total station (a beacon-like representative of the 20% minority of the population that was civil) suggested that if we stopped every 15 miles and kept filling the engine up with oil, and didn’t drive too fast, we might make it to….where do we want to go?

We decided on Le Havre, the nearest port with ferry service to England. My dream of attending the French Open at Roland Garros (and somehow winning the event, as a spectator) will have to wait another year.

Our new home

Our fine new home in an upscale French parking lot

The bad news is that we made it about 10 miles before Sweet Pea’s engine made one final explosive metallic farting noise and we lost power entirely. I floated to the left, circled around and came to a stop in the far corner of a grocery store parking lot.

“I don’t know a lot about engines,” Theresa said, “but we just threw a rod.”

“Mort,” I agreed.

The good news, and we were desperately looking for any, is that the inhabitants of Le Fert Saint Aubain, while only 10 miles from Lamotte-Beuvron geographically, inhabit a different world.

“Take me to the Bunny Planet!” I wailed from the parking lot (Rosemary Wells’ nirvana of children’s tales). Compared to Lamotte-Beuvron, La Fert Saint Aubain is the Bunny Planet.

Almost everyone is friendly, it’s a picturesque French town with a simple, cultured feel.

Of course the mechanics don’t know anything about Volkswagens, and it’s the long weekend of the Pentecost. Wasn’t half the point of getting a VW that “everyone knows how to work on them”? I’ve reminded Theresa of that statement (by me) a few times these past days.

So now we live in a broken down van in the ATAC parking lot, for at least two more days.

It’s not a bad life actually. There’s a park nearby, and a local pizzeria run by a Russian, Maggie (“Parlez-vous Anglais?” I asked, “Nyet!” he replied with a grin), has the only live internet connection in town. The pizza is very good and spicy, the crust extra-thin by American standards. The chorizo (sausage) is a particularly glorious topping. It’s also inexpensive by U.S. standards (about $8/pie).

Main Street, La Fert Saint Aubain

Main Street, La Fert Saint Aubain

I didn’t think on it at the time, but this makes twice this tour that we’ve blown an engine and compensated with pizza. There may be a story there, the calming secret ingredients of dough or something…

We are, I admit, drawing a bit of attention in our big, pea green VW van in the parking lot. Curiosity, not animosity, but after sitting and playing games and sleeping there (the hotels here would no doubt be delighted to take us, but we’ve got to watch our centimes) for a bit over 24 hours Theresa suggested that maybe I should explain things to the manager.

Ok. There are some conversations in life that one might prefer to avoid, and discussing parking lot sleeping arrangements in a language that I don’t speak well at all might seem to be one of them, but it’s true – we owed them an explanation.

There are a lot of black people in this town (unlike Lamotte-Beuvron), and the security guy spoke great English. He was pleasantly amused at my efforts to speak French, admired my Willie Dixon shirt (see Installment #2, Chess Records), and off we went so that he could interpret matters for the manager.

The manager was very French, waved his arms around a lot in the most vehement manner – couldn’t be good news. I knew that I shouldn’t have turned myself in.

“He says it’s ok with him that you stay in the parking lot, but he wants you to go tell the police, so that they don’t wake him up in the middle of the night.”

The French can get so passionate about a good night’s sleep.

I suspect that it was also a test designed to determine whether I might be a member of some strange political sect.

I thanked them both and headed off to the gendarmerie. It was closed of course, for Sunday, but ringing a bell brought forth the sounds of some very nice classical, Faure I believe. Eventually a voice came on and asked me what I wanted.

I explained, in my rapidly improving French that would make the parents of most 16 month old children proud, that I’d had car trouble and was parked at the grocery store.

The officer was bored, and asked if I would like him to call the local garage. I tried to explain that I’d already been there and they don’t work on VWs. He asked if I’d like him to get a tow truck to tow me there. I began to again question the strategy of turning ourselves in.

Then a strange thing happened, and I interpret it as follows: I decided that since he was obviously bored at the triviality of the situation that I needed to add in a bit of seasoning. The ensuing conversation went something like this:

“Sir! I am on a five year voyage of Europe with my wife and four children! Our motor has had a spectacular explosion! No one here can fix it! It is dead! It will take many men, many days in the city to fix it! We must wait until Tuesday to make further operations!”

Suddenly he spoke English, and liked me a lot. This was a story worth repeating, if he got complaints. We clarified a few minor matters regarding times and dates, my enjoyment of the town, the pleasant weather of the afternoon, the tragedy of my inability to attend Roland Garros….

Chateau Le Ferte

Chateau Le Ferte

“It is my distinct pleasure,” he said, “to offer you the protection of the Stacion de La Fert Saint Aubain, in the parking lot of ATAC until Tuesday. Please let me know if I may be of further service.”

Tune in next week when we continue to rely on the kindness of strangers, even more on the kindness of friends (anyone near Orleans have an extra VW engine for a ’81 Joker?), and with a bit of luck will figure out how to once again set foot on the soil of the island where I was born.

Barring that, brace yourself for several years worth of reports from La Fert Saint Aubain. Hey, it’s a great place…