The Friday it happened a mistral was sweeping the city of Arles. This strong, gusty wind is either a blessing or a curse, depending on your point of view, but it's an unavoidable part of the Provencal weather in the southern area of France. Legend says it's the harbinger of good health because the gusts blow away the pollution and produce clear skies, but, in our case, the wind that tangled our hair and pummeled our backs as we scurried down the sidewalk heralded disaster.
After a week exploring the medieval city of Arles, Debbie, *Mary, and I were going separate ways. Debbie would pick up a Peugeot rental car to whisk her husband off to their gite when he arrived late Saturday, and Mary and I would be joining some friends of mine from Spain when they drove in on Sunday for another week of sightseeing. Then Mary would return to the US, and I would continue, alone, to join my cousins in Nice.
Even though we battled the wind as we walked from our hotel, tucked behind the old city walls, to the train station, we arrived in ten minutes with time to spare. Debbie filled out forms while Mary and I paced the hallways. We wanted to go somewhere. Anywhere.
We decided to drive to the outskirts of Arles to check out the hotel where my Spanish friends had reservations. I sat in the front to help navigate and Mary decided to monitor the trip from the backseat. Debbie climbed in behind the wheel, and, after five minutes, managed to maneuver the key to turn the ignition.
We'd probably still be sitting in that parking lot if Debbie had had to back out of the stall. It had been fifteen years since she'd driven a stick shift, but she figured if she could remember how to go forward, the backing-up-part of driving would return to her eventually. She asked that everyone please be patient since that backing-up-part hadn't kicked in yet.
Of course we were not about to hit the French streets without a little practice, so Debbie drove around the parking lot. We shuddered, rolled and stalled our way around the perimeter. Mary and I stifled groans when the gears ground and, instead, murmured encouragement. Debbie grew more confident with each revolution. She did, indeed, seem to be catching on to first, second, and third gears.
When we finally stopped shuddering and were doing more rolling than stalling, Deb was ready for the open road. We stalled, stopped and started all the way to the highway, but, then, at 40 mph, the ride suddenly became smoother. We were actually driving normally! Anyone who glanced at our car would think Debbie had been driving a stick shift all her life. I was feeling so confident I even thought about turning on the radio. But then, there was that one little problem when Debbie panicked going over a rickety bridge.
Waving one arm in the air and crying, “I hate bridges,” Debbie veered off to the right and on to what was undoubtedly the narrowest road in all of France. It dead-ended in what appeared to be a housing project of some sort.
Debbie and I stepped outside the car to get our bearings, when suddenly, from almost every doorway, women and children appeared carrying jewelry and clothing. They swarmed around us, shoving items in our faces and exhorting us to buy, buy, buy. Mary stayed in the back seat, while Debbie and I, still somewhat dazed, wondered how to get us and the Peugeot out of this situation and back on the highway. Debbie still had no idea where Reverse was, but, even if she found it, there was no way she could back out of that narrow road, several blocks long, to the highway.
Suddenly a short, swarthy man pushed his way through the gaggle of women and children and offered to back the car out. He spoke broken English, flashed a crooked smile, and waved his arms around in convincing backing-up kinds of gestures.
Debbie and I conferred. We didn't like the looks of this situation, but we'd either have to trust this man or else be more or less forced to buy enough flimsy jewelry and gaudy scarves to last a lifetime. Perhaps, if Mary were willing to remain in the backseat so she could pound the guy in the head should he try to take off with the car, we might manage to get back on the highway after all and salvage our pride as well as our fashion integrity.
Mary was agreeable. (She probably realized that, if the man kidnapped her, she wouldn't have to buy any of that jewelry or clothing.) We made it perfectly clear to the man, or at least as clear as our limited French would allow, that while we were grateful for his help, Mary would be watching his every move. When he nodded understanding, Debbie handed him the keys.
*"Mary" is not her real name.