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The International Writers Magazine: France

Peugeot Vs Les Rues
Phil Grimes/Kristeen Griffin-Grimes

Thank heaven 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 family’s 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 proven wrong.

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 we’d booked a "gite" (apartment) using only the Michelin map as our guide. We’d picked it almost at random, simply looking for some place that wasn’t too far from the beaches, and wasn’t 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 didn’t take long to find out. One "rue" looked like another, and soon enough I was wishing I’d dropped some breadcrumbs to mark the way I’d come.

Never one for turning around (it’s a guy thing), I plowed ahead, figuring we’d 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 he’d 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, bien sur!"

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 day’s entertainment.

Meanwhile, our hero calmly got out of the car and, after effusive "merci’s" from all of us, calmly vanished into the streets of Rabouillet, dog in tow.

To this day, I’m sure we’re still talked about by the old men who line the stone benches each evening, recounting the story of those silly Americans who couldn’t 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" (, 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.
Kristeen Griffin-Grimes
knit. crochet. couture.

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