International Writers Magazine: France
Vs Les Rues
Phil Grimes/Kristeen Griffin-Grimes
French cars are small. Drive through a typical village, and you
realize that your basic SUV would never make it here, not in this
land of narrow, winding streets. So, on our familys first
trip to France, I figured our tiny Peugeot 106 was a sure-fire guarantee
to get us through even the narrowest of spaces. I was soon to be
We had spent the
past few days driving south through the spectacular French countryside,
en route to a village somewhere in the hills high above the Mediterranean,
where wed booked a "gite" (apartment) using only the
Michelin map as our guide. Wed picked it almost at random, simply
looking for some place that wasnt too far from the beaches, and
wasnt too expensive. But as we drove the winding, mountainous
road that seemed to go on forever, the four of us packed into our little
"106", I began to wonder if maybe we should have done a tad
more research during the lodging phase of our preparation. This was
rapidly beginning to feel like the geographical center of nowhere.
Finally we rounded a bend and there, tucked into the dry, broom-laced
hills like an oasis in the desert, was our destination Rabouillet,
population 96. Little did I know, as we pulled into town, that my driving
skills would be tested within the hour, Peugeot or not.
Our host, Monsieur Dalbies, a small man of Catalan origin, greeted us
warmly, and soon we were safely ensconced in our new home for the week.
Trouble began, however, as soon as we ventured out into the maze of
streets that was Rabouillet. Perhaps I was overconfident; after all,
how could one get lost in a town barely the size of your average football
stadium? But it didnt take long to find out. One "rue"
looked like another, and soon enough I was wishing Id dropped
some breadcrumbs to mark the way Id come.
Never one for turning around (its a guy thing), I plowed ahead,
figuring wed emerge from the labyrinth sooner or later. The street
got narrower and narrower, and I began to feel this subtle sense of
panic that we would become wedged forever between the unforgiving walls
of the village. What would happen if we got stuck? Who would come to
find us? How could they make a street too narrow for the smallest of
small French cars? What were they thinking when they built these houses
a thousand years ago anyway?
Finally, I had to stop, as going forward even another foot could jeopardize
the nice new paint on our bright blue Peugeot. It was time to take stock
of our situation. I needed a tape measure.
Sure enough, at just that moment, an older man walking his dog came
into view around the corner. Climbing out the window, I grabbed my pocket
dictionary, looked up the word for "tape measure" and, in
my faltering French, asked "le monsieur" if he happened to
have one. By golly, he did, and a few minutes later he emerged from
his doorway, tool in hand. So I set about calculating the distance between
the walls that now seemed ready to engulf us forever.
Meanwhile, our new friend had something else in mind altogether. He
was speaking to my wife, and mentioned that hed once had a Peugeot
106, and had managed to navigate this very passage more than once without
a hitch. Might he take the wheel and see what he could do? "Mais,
So in he climbed through the window, while I squeezed in to the back
seat just behind him. Instructing Kris and myself each to hold back
one of the rear-view mirrors (thank God for hinges), he slowly steered
our Peugeot between the walls of death. At one point, I tried to tell
him to cut a little to the right, but he waived me off without a thought.
This man knew what he was doing, and clearly we did not. Inch by inch,
we coasted between the now-ominous stone "murs" on either
side, engulfed in the late afternoon shadows.
By this time, a small crowd had gathered at the far end of the bottleneck.
As we finally emerged into the sunlight of the village square on that
memorable August day, the townsfolk spontaneously broke into applause.
We had become the days entertainment.
Meanwhile, our hero calmly got out of the car and, after effusive "mercis"
from all of us, calmly vanished into the streets of Rabouillet, dog
To this day, Im sure were still talked about by the old
men who line the stone benches each evening, recounting the story of
those silly Americans who couldnt even drive their way out of
a tiny village.
Phil Grimes and his wife Kristeen first visited France in August, 1998.
In 2005 they launched "Chez French Girl Tours" (http://frenchgirlknits.com/chezfrenchgirl.html),
leading small groups on themed tours through the Languedoc region in
the south of France. Phil is currently writing a book about their travels
in France over the past ten years.
knit. crochet. couture.
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