Moto Europa

A True Story

"Are you the American who doesn't know how to drive?" asked the middle-aged businessman looking straight at me through the open passenger window of my car. His sharp double-breasted suit and gentlemanly delivery — with only a slight French accent — intimated his status as some sort of bigwig.

Uh-oh, I thought, I'm in trouble.

I leaned toward the passenger window, offered up a "That's me," and held a shrug of an expression on my face.

My words, all English, passed in front of the bearded French mechanic who sat beside me. Amiably yet without using a single word of English, the mechanic had spent the past fifteen minutes trying to teach me how to drive a manual transmission car.

Preserving my leaning position and pitiable countenance, I awaited a response from the businessman. Surprisingly, although he remained silent at the window, he didn't seem upset with me. I relaxed a bit and settled back in my seat.

Meanwhile he had produced a small rectangular case which he was presently holding open before the mechanic. Exotic brown cigarettes lined the inside. (I was told later in my trip that they weren't cigarettes but cigarillos, miniature cigars.) Apparently my situation was so serious it called for some sort of contemplative smoke — not, it seemed, a good sign, especially for a twenty-something, jet-lagged non-smoker from Iowa who couldn't drive a manual and who, on the first day of his first visit to Europe, sat behind the wheel of such car in downtown Paris just minutes before rush hour.

The mechanic took the case and snapped up a cigarillo while the suit introduced himself to me. "President of Renault USA" is all I heard. This was a bigger wig than I'd expected. They've called in the top brass, I thought. The mechanic was now offering the cigarillos to me. I pinched one. The mechanic took a light; I took a light; the bigwig lit up too. Voilá, the cig was smooth. I took another drag. … The jet lag, Paris, the poilu of a French mechanic, the extremely urbane businessman, the cigarettes — altogether surreal. Hey, I thought, this is cool.

"Why didn't you get an automatic transmission?" asked the businessman.

"Uh, well, the manual transmissions were quite a bit cheaper," I answered. "I didn't think it would be so difficult to learn."

My anxiety was back and it punctuated the end of my statement with a series of nose-laughs exhausted across my ironical grin, which grin presently deliquesced, all evidence of my anxiety retreating to my eyeballs. I looked at the businessman, then at the mechanic, then back at the businessman. Go ahead, I wished, laugh at me. Please. I know I'm foolish but you gotta credit my bravado. Typical American bravado — both our strength and our weakness. Laugh. Laugh. P-leeze, I need a good laugh.

The businessman looked at me, nodded slightly, took a drag and looked away in thought. The mechanic stared at the car floor and began his own subtle nodding. I wasn't gonna get my laugh. No, these guys were too cool to get mad or laugh at me; they just wanted to help. Nevertheless I wanted to escape.

Suddenly I remembered sleep and instantly began to drift off to it. But my ego, considering this phase of the trip more a mission than a vacation, slapped me straightaway with the stolid injunction it'd been holding all along: There will be no turning back. Adhering to the mission meant driving a manual transmission. I knew that an automatic would cost some US500 more; I didn't want to pay US500 more. Still, I thought, maybe I should give in and get an automatic. I asked the businessman whether he had an automatic available and if so how much it would cost.

"I'll have to investigate," he responded with typical equanimity. "It will take about one-half hour. How long do you want the car for?"

"Ninety days," I said.

Perfect. I had a half-hour in which to hone enough skills and summon enough guts to get out and about on the streets of Paris. If I couldn't cut it with the manual, I could come back and get an automatic. I stubbed out the cigarillo.

"If I'm not here when you come back," I added, "it means I decided to take this car."

The businessman went to check the inventory. The mechanic got out and tended to other business. I methodically put the car in gear and circled where I'd been circling, around the pillars dividing the entry and exit to the parking garage. First gear, second gear, first gear, neutral, reverse, neutral, stall. First gear, second gear…. I circled several times before pausing, consciously taking a deep breath, re-reconciling my mental map of the city with the stylized one — half map, half advertisement for McDonald's — on the seat next to me, and tentatively rolling toward the street.

Now under the unforgiving afternoon early May sun, I promptly stalled the engine for the umpteenth time that day. These people are ignorant of the dangerous tyro now on their streets, I thought. Pedestrians were going about their business — old men shuffling, mothers issuing children across the busy street, fashionable women striding with purpose — all as if the two-ton projectiles zipping past them were driven by souls possessed of Mario Andretti's skills. I chuckled in the high pitch of disbelief and set out to make my unique contribution to the chaos.

Less than a hundred meters later — and before making my first turn — the high resistance that is Paris's desultory web of roadways had upped my anxiety enough to melt the mental map which moments before had seemed so crystalline, leaving a fugitive remnant that, despite all my straining to read signposts and to reinterpret Ronald McDonald's Paris, I couldn't build on or even save. If taken as the summation of my wrong turns, I became effectively dissolved, here there and everywhere, Schrödinger's Cat in the black box of the "City of Light."

Yes, Paris had swallowed me with all the perfunctory efficiency of a septuagenarian taking a pill.… But I wasn't going down smoothly: I stalled the car one, two, three, four — I don't know how many times. The French reserve honks for the most awful driving exhibitions; I felt like a hated goose on some mad migration I'd caused to go awry. I refused to make eye contact with anyone for fear of suffering a just humiliation. I shrank down like the vowels in the word fool, the car's body affording thin consonants of protection against an imaginary paragraph — no, page — of human types who from virtually all positions possible shared singular delight in deriding my every action.

Maybe I should take this thing back! No, just don't hit something or someone, I told myself, remembering the mantra of my high school driver's education instructor. "It doesn't matter if you miss'm by the width of a hair," he loved to say, "  — as long as you don't hit 'em!"

I turned on the radio. Almost instantly a familiar song commenced. It was a new hit by Lenny Kravitz, and one of my favorites. The initial buzzing guitar riffs and screaming vocals soon gave way to the title question — " Are you gonna go my way?" The song still raging, I stopped at a red light. Without taking my eyes off the light, I lifted the spent cigarillo from the clean ash tray of the spanking-new car and stuck it loosely under my upper right lip. The smell of the tobacco mingled with the ambient, uniquely French new-car smell (blueberries?). The light turned green. I took a deep breath. The tobacco hit my taste buds. Lenny hit a high note. I hit the accelerator. Ninety days and 24,696 kilometers (14,817 miles) later, on schedule, unscathed, and guilty of only a few minor and inconsequential traffic offenses, I would return the car to Paris.

— Eric Bredesen, Moto Europa author and Managing Director of IdeaMerge