29 August 2010

Driving Along in my Automobile

During my 18 months of 'prefield training' I tried to look ahead as much as possible and learn new skills that I would need in Niger.  I thought it would help make the transition a bit easier.  I went a summer without airconditioning, tried out recipes from More With Less, learned how to pluck a chicken, and had a few lessons in driving a manual car. 

My friend V. used to take me to a parkinglot in SouthPhilly and let me practice parking, reversing, and driving (very) slowly.  We even left from time to time to cruise the streets of the city . . . but with all the lights and pedestrians, I don't remember ever making it up past second gear.  And a few times in rural SouthAfrica I ran a few errands . . . on the left side of the road . . . but never had any great success reversing.

Well, here in France it is extreemly difficult to obtain a drivers license, and insurance is very expensive for anyone who hasn't driven for more than 3 years.  So here at the camp, very few of us are legally allowed to drive . . . of which I am one.

We had a day off this weekend and since we were down from 21 to 5, we asked to borrow a car to go visit the ancient Roman city of Arles.  But being as I was the only one who could drive, I wanted to be sure to have a bit of practice.

Practice went well.  As did our day trip to Arles (with only one stopsign-at-the-top-of-the-hill-with-oncoming-traffic-from-both-directions stall . . . okay, that 'one' was actually made of 'four' stalls . . . but they only count as 'one' since it was the same stopsign).

In fact, I quite enjoy driving manual.  I'm no pro . . . but I'm no longer intimidated.

That is, until it comes to filling the tank up with l'essence (gasoline . . . petrol . . . fuel).  We had only used a quarter of a tank to get to Arles and back, but we did have to replentish the resevoir before returning the car.  Since the station is next to our little town's only grocery store, two EVPer's came with. 

M. hopped out to pump the gas. 

He popped his head back in the door and asked 'Could you push the button to release the hatch?'  'What button?' I said as I searched.  After several minutes of cherching and trying random switches and levers, nothing.  M. came around and had a look for himself.  I went over and tried the hatch.  Didn't budge.

In the mean time, a sleek black little sports car pulled in behind us.  I approached the passengers side window and warned the driver that we were having quite a bit of difficulty and it might be a while.  She backed up and drove away.  Feeling unable to do more dammage, I climbed back in the car behind the wheel. 

Minutes later, M. popped his head back in.  He released the hatch . . . turns out there is no button . . . you just pull the hatch open. 


Inside the trapdoor, the gas cap was locked.  Since I had the keys and M. was fiddling with the credit card reader on the pump, I got out and went around to unlock the resevoir.  I inserted the only other key on the ring into the slot on the cap.  Tried turing left . . . hard stop.  Managed a full turn right . . . then a second . . . a third . . . and after a full minute of key turning sans results I gladly handed the the gas-cap-opening responsibility to M.  Thinking he was much more cleaver that I am, he twisted the key to the right and continued with the pattern I had started.  He tried left . . . hard stop. 

I'm pretty sure that by this point A. in the back seat chimed in as well, but when all had failed and three Anglophones couldn't succeed in opening a French gas tank, I opted for Plan B and asked for help.

While we had been twisting and pulling, turning and tugging on the seemingly impossible cap, an RV-sized truck pulled up next to us.  Two men stood on the opposite side of the pump basking in their successful pumping.

Excusez-moi.  I said to the bald man.  I explained that this was in fact not our car, we were borrowing it from a friend, and we were having some difficulties, as where I come from, gas caps don't lock. 

If I had a nickel for every condescending look I've received this year.

As the gentleman turned the key to the left (prideful interejection: we had both tried that pluseures fois) he explained in English that in France they turn things left to open them and right to close them.  I guess there really are some concepts that do in fact cross cultural borders.

1 comment:

I.S. said...

I have had similar missadventures with the French powerstrips. WHY do they put child safty blocks on industrial power strips? How many babies have you seen hanging out at construction sites? The only person who is hampered by those obnoxious internal strips of plastic is ME. As I sit there and struggle the French come up and ask, "Isn't it the same in the US?" Oh, if they only knew...