You know what's a great idea? Deciding to drive a stick in a foreign country when heretofore one's only experience with a stick was at age 13. Convincing oneself that driving around the parking lot of one's junior high school with one's father riding shotgun was enough schooling to handle driving around the better part of France 20 years later is, simply put, delusional. And classic Sally.
It's 2003. The Frenchies are getting hitched and I'm invited to the shindig. They're having it in Middle of Nowheresville in the Auvergne section of France. Rather than caravan with a bunch of stuck up Parisians (I love The Frenchies, but their friends not so much) I figure renting a car would be a great opportunity to experience the countryside and then head down to Provence after the wedding, so I took the TGV to Clermont-Ferrand and rented a car at the local Avis.
It's hot. I'm a little hungover from the night before, sweaty and really, really nervous about driving the car. I roll up to the parking space where my little Opel awaits my arrival. It's cute - kind of like a Ford Focus - and new, with the new car smell. I get in and start the engine and turn on the a/c. The gush of cool air refreshes me both physically and mentally. I have faith. I can do this. I put it in first gear. The car stalls, the air goes off.
The first gear thing is the problem. I had trouble with it 20 years ago and I had trouble with it when I drove Suzie's VW, Dieter, in Griffith Park. Finding the right balance of clutch and gas is akin to finding a woman's g-spot: you can't just poke around, you've got to ease into it. I managed to put both my father's Fiesta and Dieter into first but I never really understood how I got there. Specifically in the case of Dieter, I was very fond of the 'bunny hop' wherein I'd give it too much gas and release the clutch too fast, thereby jarring it into gear. If a car could give someone the finger, I'm sure Dieter would have done so.
Back in the Avis parking lot I spend the next 15 minutes starting the car and stalling out. By now the little rent-a-car chippie has emerged from her stuffy office to inspect a car that's just been returned. The look on her face as she watched me start and stall the car repeatedly is burned on my brain: a look of bewilderment and scorn. Finally - finally - I get the car into gear and make a loop around the parking lot to the exit. Except there's a little problem with the exit - it's on a small hill, and at the top of the hill there's a stop light.
I'm not good with things attached to me that roll, especially when there are hills involved. This goes for skis, rollerskates and cars with stickshifts. Stopping at the light on a hill I knew there would be several attempts at moving forward - and probably several lights - before I actually moved forward. The good thing is, the French apparently don't honk as much as your typical American would. They do, however, curse just as colorfully. By the grace of God and 3 lights later, I managed to move my car up the hill and onto the main thoroughfare.
Fortunately for me, I had spent so much time studying the map to the Autoroute and beyond that by now I've become a human GPS system. I might not know how to drive the car, but I know where I'm going. Remarkably I make it halfway to the Autoroute with no problems, but I still don't know quite how I managed to get the car into gear. I come to a light in front of a Darty, France's version of Target. I feel as if my luck is running out. Then it does.
I can not get this motherfucker into gear. 2-3-4 lights turn and I cannot manage to move the car one inch before it stalls out. Add to this I'm alternately sweating and freezing, since the air keeps going off then blasting me. Add to this I'm now in tears. I have visions of abandoning the car and calling Nico, telling him he has to pick me up. I try to bunny hop - Opel does NOT like the bunny hop. Je suis foutu.
Suddenly a little old man and his wife approach the car. They tap on the glass and mimic rolling the window down. I do so. I'm crying, sweaty and now I'm going to be reamed out by an old French man. But lo, the Gods of Fortune have something else in mind.
Man: Qu'est-ce qui ce passe? (What's up?)
Moi: Je ne sais pas conduire. (I don't know how to drive.)
The man and his wife exchange looks.
Man: Quel est le probleme?
Moi: Le...le (since I don't know the word for stickshift, I just point to it instead)
Man: Ah. Fais pas trop dur. (He mimicks working the pedals with his hands.) Il faut etre doucement. Doucement. (Don't be so rough. You have to be gentle. Gentle.)
Time slows down. I suddenly remember Suzie's words a week ago - "You just have to feel it" - and I finally understand how to drive this car. The man and his wife make their way to the Darty. The light changes. I put the car into first and gently ease it forward. I feel it, just like Suzie said. It is as if the old man's hand movement was the Rosetta Stone to figuring out how to drive a stick.
I pull away and head to the Autoroute. There's a light at the ramp like they have in LA. I get in line to merge and inch forward without any problems. 10 miles ahead traffic slows for an accident. I manage to inch forward on a generous incline for the next 20 minutes without stalling. I get to town and weave around the teeny streets and find my destination. I park the car and melt into a puddle of goo. The hardest part is over.
I meet Nico at his soon-to-be mother-in-law's house and he gives me a big hug. This is important, because the French don't hug, they give bisous, or kisses on the cheeks. I must have looked like I really needed it. "How was the drive," he asked. "I almost called you from a Darty in Clermont-Ferrand," I replied, which was met by the prototypically French pursing of lips and hand shake that usually accompanies the phrase, "Oh, la la."
Three days later when Nico sees me off he hands me a bottle of champagne left over from the wedding. I tell him I don't think I have room for it in my luggage. Nonsense, he says. "C'est pour conduire (it's for the drive)."
I do successfully make it to Avignon later that day, and then off to Aix and all the way down to Cannes, Nice and the very, very hilly town of Villefranche-sur-Mer, where I camped out for the remainder of the vacation. But that's another story. The moral of this story is: next time I decide to drive around France I'm spending an extra couple hundy and renting a goddamned Mercedes automatic.