I wanted to drive from Nice up to the towns of Vence and St. Paul de Vence for a weekend, so I rented a Fiat Panda. Panda - such a cute, cuddly, harmless animal! The car was no different. Tiny, wee, compact, petit!
J'aime le Panda!
After filling out the paperwork at the Hertz counter (which, in French, I pronounced "Ertz"), I was given the key to my Panda, and directed to a nearby parking garage to pick up the car. There it was, in stall #134, my little Panda. He was black, he was sassy, and he was facing forward as if to say "I'm ready to go!", or "Allons-y!". The Panda, as nearly all other European rental cars, had a manual transmission so I stepped on the clutch, shifted easily into "1", pulled out of the parking spot, then up and out of the garage into the brilliant sunshine of a Cote d'Azur afternoon - carefree and joyous as could be.
Driving in the South of France is only carefree and joyous if you know where you are going. The signs are confusing, and the roundabouts ubiquitous. The Ertz counter had not had any GPS systems available, so I asked for a map. The woman happily handed me a black and white photocopied page of something that did resemble a map, however it was a map without road names or numbers. The routes all jumbled together like a plate of plain, cold spaghetti. I hate plain, cold spaghetti. The Ertz counter woman had also said "It is very easy! Just follow ze Bord du Mer to Cagnes sur Mer - zere will be signs to St.Paul/Vence!"
I followed ze Bord du Mer (the road that runs alongside the sea) to Cagnes sur Mer, and looked for ze signs to Vence. Before I knew it, I was in the next town, still not seeing any signs for Vence, so I turned around to go back to Cagnes sur Mer. Coming from the opposite direction, perhaps there would be signs to Vence? I passed through Cagnes sur Mer again, and was now on my way back to Nice. URF! I turned around again, to go back through Cagnes sur Mer, trying to drive slowly enough to read the signs carefully, yet not so slow that the other drivers would get annoyed and honk their horns at me. None of ze signs said "St. Paul" or "Vence". Exasperated, I followed the next roundabout and exited toward a town that I knew was North-ish, Grasse. It wasn't Vence, but it was in the same general direction, and there would have to be signs along the way...
There were not. I was driving up a long, winding road through beautiful wooded pine forests, but all I could think of was how lost I was. I would distractedly glance at the scenery thinking "I should be enjoying this - where the hell is Vence???". I finally reached a town called Roquefort les Pins, and decided to stop at a roadside restaurant and ask for directions. I pulled into the small, gravel parking lot, then walked across the road to the restaurant. I entered the squat stone building, and approached the bar where a woman was sitting, and said "Je suis perdu" (I am lost). I was quite pleased that I was able to say that correctly, and the fact that the woman responded in French was confirmation that she had understood me. Hooray! I was able to understand her response enough to know to go south on the road until I reached a roundabout, and to take the second exit toward Vence. Okay. Whew. I felt better.
I walked back to the Panda, climbed in and attempted to put the car in reverse. As the transmission whirred, I realized I was in "4", rather than "R", so I shifted out and tried again. Same whirring sound. I stared at the gearshift, which very clearly indicated where "R" was, and I was pushing the clutch into the floor, and shoving the gearshift with all my might. Nope. The Panda did not reverse. "Come ON Panda!" I did not want to have to go back into the restaurant to ask someone to help me put the Panda in reverse. I was already embarrassed enough about being lost in such a tiny, seemingly easily-navigable region.
I found the manual in the glove compartment, but only halfheartedly flipped through it. The manual wasn't going to have a page on how to shift the gears. Oh the things that are assumed to be known by everyone. The makers of the Panda probably thought that putting a blurb in about how to put the Panda into "R" would be akin to explaining how to put on the seat-belt. Only idiots would not know how to get into "R". I knew there was SOME sort of button or switch or something that would enable "R", I just couldn't find it. Stupid tricky Panda! They should have called it The Ferret - those things are sneaky. The Fiat Ferret. Also sneaky were those people at Ertz! They probably have the rental cars parked facing out of the parking spots intentionally, so that poor unsuspecting non-Europeans don't realize that they can't put the car in "R" until they are well away from the Ertz office. Zut alors!
How was I supposed to get back on the road if I couldn't use "R" to get myself out of the parking lot? GAH! I was exhausted and the despair was beginning to creep over me, when I remembered how small the Panda was - how wee! how compact! how petit! So, I left the gear in neutral and walked around to the front of the car and braced myself for some big pushing. Yes, I physically pushed the Panda backwards until there was enough room for me to turn the wheels and pull the car forward out of the parking lot.
I was even more proud of this than of busting out with "Je suis perdu". You can't beat me, Panda! Now, if I could just manage to get through the rest of the weekend without needing to put the Panda in "R"... could I do that? I probably could if I were very, very careful...
The roundabout was marked, just as the woman in the restaurant had said it would be, with a sign that said "Vence". Bless her. And curse that woman in the Ertz office! "Easy" and "signs to Vence". Pfft. I drove the rest of the way to Vence, actually enjoying the beautiful woodsy hills, and the confidence that I knew where I was going.
My hotel in Vence was part of an old fortress, and the "road" leading to it was more of a very narrow driveway. There was a parking spot nearby, but it would have required parallel parking, which would have required "R". Hmph. Stupid "R". I kept driving until I was able to pull in, head-first, into a temporary street spot, about four blocks away.
My savior was the proprietress of l'Auberge des Seigneurs, Sandrine. I explained to her that I was unable to get the Panda into "R", and asked if she could possibly help me. She was so sweet, and walked the four blocks with me to the car, where she climbed in the passenger side and showed me a disc located just beneath the gearshift. To get into "R" you had to push down on the disc, then shift. It was just that simple. I laughed and shook my head, then drove Sandrine back to the hotel. I thanked her profusely before driving off to find a permanent parking spot for the evening.
That's right. I pulled into the spot head-first. There was no fear. I had discovered the mystery of "R".