Over the last three weeks, Mr. Gren has had to chauffeur me everywhere because the car I drive had died. Why can’t I drive his car? Because it is a stick-shift. And why can’t I drive a stick-shift? Because I am inept. Believe me, I’ve tried. It just doesn’t work out for me. There’s just something about adding an extra foot and an autonomous hand into the mix that eludes me. I couldn’t be a drummer for the same reason. Sewing machine: One pedal, two hands working together. Automatic vehicle: One foot, two pedals, two hands working together. Drum sets and standard cars: every limb doing something different equals disaster waiting to happen. So I’ve been handicapped for the past three weeks by not having a vehicle I could operate. No big deal. While we lived in France, I didn’t drive for three years. I wasn’t quite as handicapped because the public transportation is fabulous (as long as the drivers aren’t on strike), but that’s a post for another day.
There did come a time, though, towards the end of our three years, that I was compelled to drive a stick. It wasn’t pretty. But I’ll get to that in a minute. First, to set the scene.
Mr. Gren had a rare week of vacation that we chose to use on a little driving tour from Paris towards the south of France. Rana was a baby at the time and had already made several journeys in her short life. And we had learned from the experience that, if she felt comfortable in the place where we stayed, she would sleep well. And for new parents, sleeping well is the holy grail of life. We booked our trip to stay at a series of Formule 1 motels in each of the cities we intended to visit. My first experience with Formule 1 was during my study abroad. Our program director had planned an excursion to Chamonix and we stayed in a Formule 1. I learned later that they are a subsidiary of Accor Hotels, which also owns Motel 6, but Formule 1 is infinitely cooler and more space-agey than any Motel 6 I’ve stayed at.
First, every room is the same, right down to the blue and orange comforters on the beds. It doesn’t matter if you are in room 105 or 205, in Lyon or Dijon, they are all exactly the same. The sleeping arrangements consist of a double bed with a perpendicular twin bunk across the head. In one corner is a tiny little table with a chair and in the next corner is a little sink and mirror. A TV is mounted on the wall and that’s your room! Did you catch all that? Notice anything missing? There’s no microwave (that’s in the lobby), no coffee pot (there’s a vending machine for that, also in the lobby), and, oh yeah, no bathroom. Here’s where the adventure starts.
Each wing of the motel has a bank of 2 to 4 bathrooms. Over the door to each bathroom are two lights — a green one and a red one. Think traffic lights, which is essentially what they are. The bathrooms are a step up from the floor. Once you go in, you’ll find yourself in a large tile room with a dividing wall between the toilet and the shower head. So, you do your business, take your shower all to the constant whirring of fans and motors in the wall and ceiling. It’s like being in the world’s most spacious airplane stall. All that whirring and humming really kicks in once you leave the bathroom. The door automatically locks behind you and the bathroom goes through a self-cleaning cycle, spraying sanitizer over the entire room, then rinsing it and drying it. Apart from the noise, the red light above the door tells you that it’s not a good time to go in. I always thought the self-cleaning was actually kind of ingenious. I never found weird or questionable things in a Formule 1 bathroom.
(From here on out, I will pepper this post with random pictures of Dijon that we took on our way back to Paris. I have no idea what these buildings are, but they look cool.)
So, the reason we chose Formule 1 was because of its predictability. We figured we could fool Rana into thinking we were sleeping in the same place every night. And you know what? It worked! The downfall to our vacation was that it rained nearly every day. It was hard to justify wandering around an unfamiliar city in the rain with a baby in tow. In Dijon, our Formule 1 was inconveniently located on the far outer reaches of the fringe of the most modern part of the city (read: industrial). In other words, not near a thing worth seeing. The motel was in a huge parking lot shared by an enormous grocery store and an athletic wear store (we spent a fair amount of time in there out of sheer boredom and to buy Rana a jacket for the lousy weather). It was an ideal place for the circus to set up camp. We didn’t have any money to actually go see the circus, but anyone who wanted was allowed to walk through the makeshift animal corrals and visit the zebras and camels. And we did. They were under a tent, so it was one of the few dry activities we had open to us.
The next day, we decided to hit the road earlier than we had originally planned since there was no point in sitting in our Formule 1 room to watch the rain. Mr. Gren drove us over to the grocery store where he was going to go get us some sandwiches for lunch while I nursed Rana in the car. It had been raining all morning, but less than a minute after Mr. Gren entered the store, the sky unleashed a pounding, watery fury like I had never seen before. Even Rana was impressed enough to stop nursing and watch. The water cascaded down the windows of the parked car with such force that I couldn’t see a thing outside. It was worse than going through a car wash and nearly as noisy. Several minutes passed. Rana finished nursing and I buckled her back into her seat and waited for Mr. Gren. Several more minutes passed and the torrent hadn’t let up one drop. I pictured him, standing forlornly at the door to the store, just waiting for a break long enough to sprint to the car. I kept waiting for a lull, but it never seemed to come. Finally, I made a momentous decision: I would drive the car — the stick-shift car — up to the front of the store to meet Mr. Gren.
I didn’t get it started on the first try. The second time, it did start and I got it into gear and slowly heaved out of the parking space. With the windshield wipers whipping, I could see in front of me. Like a drunk rabbit with a broken leg, the car lurched and staggered through the parking lot. Amazingly, I didn’t kill the engine, but it couldn’t have been a pretty sight from the outside. Now, I could see in front of me, but I couldn’t see a thing through the water sheeting down the sides of the car. So, what I didn’t see when I began this odyssey was that Mr. Gren was a mere 15 yards away from us, meaning he had already traversed 2/3 of the massive parking lot. In the pouring rain. With an armful of groceries because, oh yeah, this store didn’t use bags. Mr. Gren knows full well that I don’t drive a stick, so you can imagine his surprise and horror at seeing the car pull away when he was oh, so close. He watched helplessly as I drove (in the loosest definition of the word) down the next aisle of the parking lot, then bolted after me in a desperate attempt to catch my attention. Meanwhile, I cruised past the front of the store, looking hard for my stranded husband, but when I didn’t see him waiting in the doorway as I had imagined, I decided to keep on driving around until I saw him come out because I was afraid I’d never get the car going again if I stopped. So down another aisle I turned, moseying along just fast enough to stay out of Mr. Gren’s reach. From his point of view, his unpredictable wife was defying all logic and allowing him, and our lunch, to become a soggy mess in the process.
As I was meandering through the parking lot, a strange figure caught my eye through the moire effect the rain made on the windows. It looked a lot like a salmon jumping upstream, tail paddling furiously as its body wriggled and thrashed. A large… man-shaped salmon. Hampered by an armful of sandwiches and drinks. And bellowing. “Oh!” I thought, “He must have been standing in the door after all and came out when he saw me drive by.” I pulled into a parking space and climbed over the stick to allow Mr. Gren to get in.
“I’ve been following you all over this parking lot!! Didn’t you see me?! What were you doing?!”
“Well… I saw you now. [sheepish grin] I was trying to be helpful… How long were you following me?”
When he told me that he had nearly reached the car when I began my epic journey, I started giggling hysterically. The mental image of him chasing a bucking car up and down a parking lot in a torrential downpour was just too good. That’s sitcom fodder right there.
Five and a half years later, I still giggle hysterically when I remember this story. Mr. Gren still just gives me a wry smile. And that’s why I don’t drive a stick-shift.