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.
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
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
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
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
Return to list of archived articles