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Tomber en panne

When traveling in France, one expression you do not want to meet in any form is the following: "en panne." A few years ago, upon arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport from the U.S. after a long night's flight, I headed to the nearest distributeur, or ATM, to get some euros for the taxi ride into town. However, as I pulled my loaded chariot (luggage cart) up to the one ATM in the terminal, I discovered that it was en panne (out of service). Zut! (darn!) Who knows if it was broken or out of money or just being temperamental? In any case, my temper was none the better for that little travel setback.

Mas des BarresThis summer, I was going into my second week in Provence with nary a travel hitch-except for the continued sky-high euro-when "tragedy" struck. A good friend and I had been zipping about the Provençal countryside in our rented car. We had just made a fruitful stop at Le Moulin du Mas des Barres, one of my favorite olive oil mills near Arles and St. Rémy, and were headed towards the town of Mouriès. A quick lunch at a local café was on the agenda, followed by a visit to Le Jardin de l'alchimiste, or The Alchemist's Garden, an intriguing set of gardens on the grounds of the Renaissance château of Mas de la Brune near the village of Eygalières.

As we pulled into Mouriès, a terrible screeching noise started up. I suddenly realized it was coming from the back of our car. Obviously something was quite wrong so I pulled into a parking area off the road-thank heavens we were in a town!-and looked under the vehicle. I saw nothing out of the ordinary but knew we could not go on.

The next step was to call the Avis emergency phone number and get some help. Unfortunately, the number was toll free in France which meant that my American cell phone could not access it, even with international roaming. As my vision of a perfect Provençal afternoon began to evaporate, we grabbed our purses and headed for the nearest café to borrow a phone. We turned the corner and entered Le Vieux Four, a charming regional restaurant so named for the huge stone oven in the main room. Lunch service was in full swing so it took a few moments to get the owner's attention. I explained the situation, and she graciously allowed us to use her phone.

In all the time I have spent in France and rented une voiture (a car), on n'est jamais tombé en panne (no car has ever broke down). Hélas (alas), there is always a first time for everything. The Avis representative was perfectly nice and explained that un dépanneur (breakdown mechanic) would be dispatched right away and arrive within an hour. I wanted to believe him but personal experience has taught me that everything happens more slowly in the south of France. At least we could wait over a good lunch and a glass or two of local rosé wine.

We sat down in the main dining room of Le Vieux Four and ordered. Soon, une carafe de rosé (a carafe of rosé wine) and de la tapenade (black olive spread) with bread arrived. We started to feel better immediately. I then had le plat du jour (the day's special): la cuisse de lapin à l'huile d'olive avec compote de fenouil aux olives (rabbit cooked in olive oil with fennel compote and olives). C'était délicieux! To finish le repas (the meal), I tried the nougat glacé, a type of nougat ice cream. Le nougat is a specialty of the region given all the almond trees that grow in the area. Yum!

Of course, I kept checking my watch throughout the repast. More than an hour had gone by. I had mental pictures of us baking in the heat in Mouriès all afternoon while our beautiful hotel pool was only a few kilometers away. Much too far to walk.

An hour and 20 minutes after our S.O.S. call, Monsieur le dépanneur arrived. He checked out the car and immediately pronounced that un caillou was most likely the culprit. I was incredulous.A little stone could make all that racket? Sure enough, he removed the back right wheel in a flash and found that a pebble had become lodged in the wheel plates. He explained that this is a common occurrence when the roads get hot in the summer. While it had been seriously embêtant (annoying), I was glad the problem was easily fixed. I did a test drive, and we were back in business.

In the spirit of thanks and also good human relations, I invited our day's savior into the restaurant to join us for quelque chose à boire (something to drink), expecting him to order a pastis (licorice flavored liqueur) or something similar. He had a quick expresso and then left for his next job. We paid our bill and headed down the road to Eygalières. Our travel plans were a little bruised but we were certainly wiser in the ways of a car breakdown while abroad.

August 13, 2008

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