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A Cautionary Tale of Driving in Provence


This is the headline I imagined splashed across every newspaper in Provence any time I took the wheel on our vacation to the South of France.

I hadn’t planned on us needing a car at all. My pre-trip dream had been to take trains everywhere, the way we had when we visited Europe in our early 20s. Backpacks hovering over our heads, we’d simply arrive at the train station, see when the next train heading to our destination was leaving, and hop on.

But then the woman who owned the house we would rent said we’d need a rental car. The town we were heading for was small, and not within walking distance (or with much of a train system) to other towns.

And so we rented a car. But not your typical tiny Renault hatchback clown car. We’d invited both my mother and her friend to visit for 10 days, as well as my ex-husband’s mother, sister, and niece for another 10 days, so figured we’d want the comfort of a full-sized sedan to shuttle these folks around.

Excuse me while I laugh and then cry.

Certainly, having a larger car was more comfortable for all parties inside the car. It’s the outside we weren’t counting on.

You see: the tiny winding streets of Provence weren’t meant for American-sized cars. They were, in fact, meant for horses, since the towns were built more or less 600 years ago. Those quaint cobblestone streets, narrow winding alleyways, and oh-so-delightful stone bridges barely big enough for one Mini Cooper were invented in a time that did not include 6 passengers and 300 horsepower.

Mario Andretti I am Not

About halfway into our five week trip in Provence, I had the opportunity to take a short trip by myself. My requirement was simply that the trip had to be two hours or less by car. I found my target: Greoux-les-Bains, a remote Provençal town that boasted a Roman bath. The drive would only take an hour and a half, Google told me, so I grabbed my bags and took off.

The first hour was fairly easy, as most of it was interstate. But once I exited, everything changed. The road became incredibly winding. Like you-can’t-see-around-the-mountain-to-see-if-someone’s-going-to-crash-into-you winding. And that wasn’t the worst of it. French drivers came careening around those curves and drifted into the middle of the road. You see, they assumed that I also was a savvy French driver who knew how to get out of the way. They didn’t know or care that I was a little American girl in a big car on a narrow and twisted road.

As I drove at an escargot’s pace, other cars whizzed past me. I pulled over several times to let them zoom by. I didn’t want to succumb to peer pressure and speed up just to end up going over the edge.

By the time I got to Greoux, my stomach was threatening to relieve me of the brie sandwich I’d eaten for lunch, and my back was in knots. After checking in, I shakily walked over to the Roman baths and begged for a massage. I’d never needed one so badly in my life!

The Clown Car

Once we had shuttled our families back to the airport, we had no reason to keep our behemoth of a vehicle. So to cut down on the money it was bleeding from us (as well as the stress), we decided to switch it out for a smaller model.

If you’ve been to Europe, you’ve seen those tiny bugs of cars: hatchbacks that, despite their petite stature, seem capable of holding a surprising number of people and items. Kind of like a clown car. So we thought, “No problem. We’ll be able to load up all our luggage in a smaller car.”

Picture a middle-aged man putting on his high school jeans. Despite being 50 pounds heavier, he’s sure he’ll fit into them — and he does, but just barely, and not for long. Luggage oozed out of every door, and the humans inside competed with the bags for space. The ride was short, otherwise we would have had to leave something — or someone — behind.

For the rest of our trip, parking was a relief. Rather than the 25-point turn he’d had to do to fit in a space (and still have room for us to open the doors), my husband was able to slide into the spot with our teeny tiny car. When we opened the doors, though, suitcases and humans sproinged out in every direction. I never was so grateful to get back to America, land of the wide roads and giant parking spaces.

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