Saturday, August 13, 2011

The French Holiday - Part Two

This is the most discombobulated trip I've ever taken.  
The latest disaster began last Thursday night, which now seems like a bazillion years ago.  I had kept possession of my daughter's passport for safety.   She was carrying it around during our daily excursions and I was afraid some pickpocket would nab it from her.  So I put her passport in a bag with Kellie’s and mine and never thought about the passports again until last Thursday evening, around 8 p.m., when my daughter, Dani, asked me for her passport.  She had a noon flight home the next day.  I couldn't find her passport, mine was missing too, so was Kellie's.
Thus began a panicked search for the passports.  Dani and I tossed every piece of luggage we had.  We searched the house.  Dani and I both have OCD so we repeated the process several times for good measure.  When Kellie returned from her bicycle ride with our daughter, Kyra, she rechecked our work, no passports.
I distinctly remember lecturing Dani about proper passport safety while traveling.  I remember taking her passport.  Beyond that, any recollection of what I may have done with all three passports is lost in the mental fog that starts rolling in as one passes 50.  
If the passports were not with us in the Loire Valley, then we, and by we I mean I, must have left them in the apartment we were staying at while we were in Paris.  Dani packed her suitcase, Kellie and I quickly grabbed a few things, and we jumped in the car for quick 300-kilometer drive back to Paris. It was 9:30 p.m.
Kellie drove.  By mutual agreement, and for the benefit of our marriage, I'm not permitted to drive in Europe, or any other time we are outside the U.S.  If it were not such a terrible inconvenience, I'm sure she would also revoke my U.S. driving privileges.  
The ride to Paris was very quiet.  Earphones plugged Dani's ears.  Kellie focused on driving.  Only my apparently unwelcome attempts to engage Kellie in conversation punctuated the silence.
We arrived at the apartment just after 1 a.m.  Kellie and I do house swapping, which is how we scored the apartment in Paris and the house in the Loire Valley.  Our host's friend, Joelle, met us with the keys. We rushed up to the apartment, sure that the passports lying on some table or shelf.  Our certainty quickly faded when the passports were not to be found in the most likely places.
Thus began a second panicked search for the passports.  Dani and I tossed every piece of furniture.  We searched the entire apartment.  Dani and I both have OCD so we repeated the process several times for good measure.  Kellie rechecked our work, no passports.  We finally went to bed.  It was 3 a.m.
The wake up alarm sounded at 7 a.m.  We ate, posed for passport photos and made it to the U.S. Embassy by 9:30 a.m.  Obtaining temporary emergency passports was remarkably easy.  The passport clerk told us that we could exchange the temporary passports for regular 10-year passports once we returned to the states, except for me.  My new passport would be valid for only a single year.  Seven years ago I lost a passport, so I was on passport probation.  
Despite how quickly we got our new passports, Dani could not make her departure time and rebooked the same flight for the following day.  Relieved that everything worked out, we hugged and said goodbye to Dani.  Kellie and I had to get back to the Loire Valley where our other two children were waiting for us.  We left them stranded with little food and no money.  It was noon, and with any luck at all, we would be back in Loire by 3 p.m.  
We had no luck at all.  The car jerked as we drove. Kellie depressed the clutch and tried to shift but the car refused to go into second gear.  Gliding now, we came to a red light.  Kellie depressed the clutch as she applied the brake but the car stalled anyway.  A line of Parisians gathered behind us.  Nanoseconds after the light turned green, the Parisians started helping us with their horns.  Unable to get the car in gear, I jumped out to push the car to the side of the road.  A motorcycle pulled up and the rider jumped off to help push.  I got back in the car and we debated about what to do next.
With the engine off, the gears shifted easily.  So I got out and pushed the car while Kellie started the engine with the car in gear.  It worked and I ran alongside and jumped in the passenger seat.  Again, the engine stalled when Kellie attempted second gear, so we repeated the push start process.
Kellie had now decided that she was going to remain in gear, pedestrians and red lights be damned.  We crept along in first gear, running red lights, weaving through pedestrians, avoiding other cars, and spreading American goodwill among the locals.   
Ahead, Kellie saw a gas station. It was on the other side of the street; we were going to have to make a U-turn at the next light, which for the moment was still green.  But as we reached the intersection the light turned red. Kellie was going for it.  She turned left into oncoming traffic.  Looking at the approaching bus, I closed my eyes and wondered if atheism had been a bad choice.  I heard the blare of horns.  Kellie made it into the gas station and we parked.
We had the car towed to a nearby auto shop.  No one spoke English except for the Moroccan who seemed to be running things. The head mechanic checked the car immediately after the tow truck driver released it from the hitch.  He quickly concluded there was nothing wrong with the car.  Incredulous, Kellie took the car for a test drive.  Before she departed she asked if it was possible to just drive around the block; the mechanic nodded yes.  She probably should have asked the Moroccan since the mechanic did not speak any English.  Kellie did not return. 

I explained to the Moroccan that Kellie was probably lost.  He asked the tow truck diver to take me and go look for my wife.  I jumped back into the tow truck with the driver who didn’t speak English and we began our search.  We didn’t find Kellie.  Back at the shop again, the Moroccan lent me his iPhone (mine would not connect to the network) and I called Kellie.  As expected, she got lost in a series of one-way streets and dead ends.  She ditched the car and was awaiting my call at a nearby Starbucks.
Kellie was just two blocks away.  The tow truck driver took off on foot to get her.  Minutes later they drove up; the tow truck driver was behind the wheel of our vehicle, and the car was apparently working just fine.  This time I got in and checked it myself – it seemed to shift without a problem.
Frustrated, tired, and annoyed, we paid the towing bill and got back in the car.  We didn’t get 20 feet before the damn car jerked to a halt.  A warning light illuminated on the dashboard.  Eventually, we got to the root of the problem; oil was leaking from the clutch.  The car would not be leaving Paris on Friday.  It was 4 p.m.
We finally caught a break.  Insurance covered the cost of our trip back to Loire. The Moroccan helped with the arrangements. Within half an hour, the insurance company arranged for a taxi to pick us up at the auto shop, take us to the train station where they made a first class reservation for us, and had another taxi waiting to pick us up when the train arrived back in Loire.
When we got to the train station, there was no reservation.  Even though we had a reservation code, the clerk could only look up the reservation by our name, which was obviously misspelled. With so many ways to mangle Cereola, there was little chance of finding our reservation.  We paid for another pair of tickets.  Later, when we met the taxi driver at our destination, we saw the misspelling.  Only the fourth letter was incorrect, an L versus an E, which made the spelling CerLola.  Since then, I have not been able to get the song Lola out of my head.
We ultimately concluded that a pickpocket must have taken the passports.  I am fairly certain that I placed the passports in the outside pocket of one of my bags.  And yes, I use a man-bag, I have several of them.  That’s what I get for carrying a man-bag.  The next pickpocket better beware.  The outside pocket now contains dirty socks and underwear.
I’ve left a lot out but this post is already too long.  Let’s tally up the damage:

Gas for the drive to Paris
Snacks for the drive to Paris
Metro tickets in Paris
Passport photos X3
Temporary passports X3
Tow truck
Train tickets to Loire

There’s nothing priceless here.  Total cost of this fiasco, €725, or $1015.
I need a vacation from this vacation.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The French Holiday

It’s late, I’m tired, so I’ll edit this later; I just wanted to get it posted.

As expected, today was our last day in Paris.  After a short visit to Notre Dame, we went back to the apartment where we had been staying, packed our bags, cleaned up, and headed out for a 6 p.m. train from Paris to Port Boulet in the Loire Valley.  We arranged a home exchange with a French family.  What we forgot to do was arrange transportation from a desolate train station in a taxi-less town to our intended destination 12 kilometers away.
Two cars were at the station to meet other passengers.  One car had already pulled away and the other car was about to do the same. The remaining car looked like an early 1900s vehicle.  I was not paying sufficient attention to the car to remember the make, but it appeared completely rebuilt. It turned out I was wrong.  Kellie is the only one of us that has even a minimal grasp of French and I rushed her over to the car before our only life line departed.
The driver and his passenger obviously noted our distress and they rolled down the car window before Kellie even reached the door. Luckily, their English was substantially better than Kellie's French. She explained our predicament and inquired about taxi service. The driver got out and helped us search the signage on the exterior of the deserted depot for a taxi phone number.  We didn't find one.  
Finally, our friendly Frenchman offered to drive us to the house.  Unfortunately, five of us, plus baggage, were not going to fit in his car.  Fortunately, we had also agreed to exchange cars with our French hosts.  We decided that Kellie and Jordin would retrieve the car from the house while Dani, Kyra, and I would wait at the train station.  After a short panic and tossing bags to find Kellie's phone (she had the phone) they departed. It was 9:38 p.m.

I estimated it would take about an hour before they would return to get us.  At about 48 north latitude, it stays light fairly late, but it was starting to get dark now.  Then it started to rain.  We moved our bags under the plexiglas enclosure covering the automated ticket machine.  
The building lights on the depot went dark.  Soon after, the lights in the parking lot went dark too. The television monitor displaying the train schedule still provided good light - until it also went out.  At least we had the glow from the automated ticket machine and the light of a half moon.

Dani declares that she needs a bathroom. I respond, "Well if it  were Kellie, she would just drop her drawers and go."  
Dani responds, "I don't have to pee."
The three of us start looking for a suitable toilet paper  substitute.  I tell Dani to just use her underwear and throw them away, but apparently she likes them. Then I offered a pair of my previously used, but clean tighty-whities. That offer was promptly rejected. Soon Kyra found a pack of mini tissues in her luggage.  Dani found a spot behind some trees.  It was so dark she could have picked the middle of the parking lot and no one would have seen her.
Ninety minutes passes and still no Kellie.  I was hoping I hadn't sent her and Jordin off with a pair of ax murderers.
It looked like it was going to be a long night.  Kyra and I changed out of our shorts and into long pants.  We opened a bottle of wine and even gave some to Kyra.  Opening the wine was the key.  Kellie and Jordin arrived before I finished my first glass.  Then we learned the other half of the story.
That rebuilt car; it broke down before they reached the house.  Our friendly Frenchman, Bernard, flagged down a young couple, two friendly hippies with a dog, and placed Kellie and Jordin in their care. The couple spoke no English.  
Despite having GPS they still managed to pass the house and wound up at some chateau. Apparently there was a lot giggling going on because nobody understood what was being said.  Eventually, they found the house.  

The couple's car was very old and beat up so Kellie tried to offer the pair some money for their trouble, but by the perplexed look on their faces it was clear that Kellie said something quite different.  By the next morning Kellie realized that she had asked the couple to give her money, which would explain their puzzled look.
The driveway to the house was gated, and like the train station, it was pitch black outside.  Jordin climbed over the gate, but then Kellie figured out how to open it.  
They entered the house and found some instructions left by our hosts.  A narrow stairwell led to a creepy, below grade basement-garage combo where the car was parked, but car would not start.  The girls did not know how to start a diesel PT Cruiser.  The good news - the owner's manual was in English.  
Now if they could just get the garage door open.  Unlike a typical U.S. garage door that slides up and down, this garage door slide sideways, provided you find and release all four latches; Kellie only found three of them.  Thank goodness for Crossfit; Kellie just pushed until the final latch gave way - we'll have to pay for that one.
The garage door was on the side of the house and Kellie should have turned right to get to the street.  Did mention it was dark?  They turned left and drove into the backyard, but luckily stopped well short of the unfenced, in-ground swimming pool.

Earlier, before departing the train station, Jordin dropped a pin on the GPS map so that they could easily find their way back to us.  Somehow the pin moved.  So, when they finally got on the road, they headed in the wrong direction.  They drove for maybe 15 minutes just to make sure they were really lost.  We were just lucky that phones today have GPS, otherwise I would just be waking up outside the train station instead of drinking coffee while updating this blog.
We gathered some contact info because there are a few very nice French men and women that we need to thank.  Kellie keeps reminding me that every step of the journey, is the journey. Last night was a journey.