It took me one hour and forty-five minutes to drive to an offsite meeting this morning. I'd planned for an hour, which was more than it took me yesterday, but then there was an accident on the A13, and after thirty minutes of inching ahead I cut over to the A86 and got stuck in the tunnel under La Défense. There I sat for a long time breathing concentrated diesel fumes on an underground off-ramp in Nanterre, stuck in a single immobile lane while motorcycles and scooters zipped past me on the shoulder to the left. My only entertainment was listening to the honking fits provoked by cars squeezing in around me at the last minute, since Chante France on my car radio ("Your favorite French songs! Sing along at least once a day!") was reduced to static.
I arrived at the off-site meeting in a terrible mood. And yet, I have to admit the frustration was tempered with a certain satisfaction because I can drive in France. I can not only drive in France, I can drive in Ile de France, the region around Paris. I can even drive in Paris proper if I have to (though I'm still not sure I'm brave enough to attempt Place de l'Etoile).
There are aspects of my life now that once felt strange and are now commonplace, like firing off e-mails in French, debating French politics, or vociferously defending my design decisions to my French boss. There are other things I do regularly but which never quite feel natural, like consulting a French doctor. And then there are things that once upon a time in a faraway land were everyday but now feel unfamiliar. Until recently, driving was one of these foreign activities. For eight years I didn't drive at all before finally suffering though obtaining my French driver's licence. Then we moved to Versailles, off the Métro grid, part of another suburban world. Sure, I can still walk to get bread, or a little farther to get downtown, or to the Opera at the Château (one of my favorite places for a night out, in fact), and my husband takes the train to Paris most workdays. But I work in another suburb a short drive away, and a car just makes more sense than relying on an infrequent bus.
In September, my mother-in-law generously loaned me their second car, an old Renault Clio which since her retirement had been sitting in an expensive municipal parking garage and not getting out much. When my husband told me the news, he was surprised at my lack of enthusiasm.
"Don't tell me you're scared!" he scolded.
"It's not that!" I protested.
It was that. It was totally that.
So I reluctantly began to take the wheel each morning, more stressed out at first that I'd been with my freshly-minted Washington State licence at age 16. By October, my heart rate was finally approaching normal on my way to and from work. By November, I was brave enough to drive into the heart of Paris to meet my sister-in-law for dinner -- leaving the car in a handy, overpriced underground parking garage, but still, it took courage. By February, I was going on solo runs to hardware stores and to IKEA (one of my biggest motivations for relearning to drive, I must admit).
So it was that in this age of ecology and interdependence and the Eiffel Tower disappearing behind a curtain of smog, my life was transformed for the better by the automobile.
Mid-February, I had to admit, however, that the loyal Clio had a problem. Periodically while driving it would lurch, make a horrible noise, and drop into a lower gear. Eventually the automatic transmission light starting coming on as well. I got it checked out at a local garage, with the diagnosis that the transmission would need to be replaced and it would cost far more than the car was worth.
"You know, automatic transmissions... especially on French cars..." When I mentioned the situation to my colleagues, they all seemed to think I should have expected as much. Who else but an américaine would require something so contrary to true esprit of French engineering? That's when I would proudly explain that it was my mother-in-law's car and that *I* would have been perfectly happy to drive a manual and by-the-way-my-parents-only-had-manual-cars-so-I-had-to-learn-the-hard-way-and-it-was-uphill-both-ways.
Quickly I started shopping for a new-to-me car, thinking at first I'd buy used, then learning that with a trade-in of the Clio I could get a shiny new Citroën C3 for a very good price. Me... in a new car. In a new French car. There was something enticingly exotic about the idea. I looked at a Toyota as well, but the price and my motivation just weren't there. Toyota is just so... California.
When I was in elementary school in the eighties we hosted a French-speaking Belgian exchange student. The same year, Renault started marketing the less-than-iconic R9 in the US as the "Le Car." This annoyed our exchange student to no end. "Why do they call it 'Le Car'?" he would ask, "It's ridiculous! It isn't even le. It's la voiture." Naming issues aside, it wasn't a success and Renault disappeared from North America leaving nothing but a crappy reputation.
Citroën, my husband insists, is a different matter: "It's like the difference between Ford and Cadillac!" he told me, and when I looked doubtful, he cited the famous Traction and the classic DS. The cute llittle C3 which will be mine in May has compact curves that remind me a bit of the Deux chevaux, which though before my time, remains the only French car most Americans of my generation can recognize. There were plenty of C3s stuck in traffic with me this morning. I admired them, reassuring myself at the same time that when I'd ordered 'Shark Gray', I really had picked the best color. And it'll be a manual transmission... of course.