Driving around the country in between sightseeing stops is one of my most favorite traveling pleasures. Pastoral landscapes aside, you can truly experience a foreign country only when you get away from its obvious touristy spots. And getting lost – figuratively speaking, of course, – on some back roads is the surest way to achieve that.
Sometimes, you can even gain a valuable lesson.
Our first trip to France had several segments in it, all linked by car journeys. One of those drives took us from the banks of Loire to the industrial town of Clermont-Ferrand (which was nothing more than a stop-over for the night and dutifully failed to impress us).
In those pre-GPS days we relied on road atlases and printed directions from MapQuest to get from point A to point B. I also over-confidently relied on my sense of geography. On that particular day, it failed me, and I ended up on a wrong motorway going southwest, when I actually needed to be moving southeast. By the time I realized my mistake, we drove at least 100 kilometers in the wrong direction and lost at least two hours if decided to retrace our steps.
(Would you believe it if I told you that I realized my mistake right after having had passed a motorway exit advising me that the next exit would come up in mere 30 kilometers… That type of thing never fails to occur.)
Long story short, we consulted the road atlas, and charted the “shortcut” across the French countryside. We estimated that in less than two hours we would be able to join the motorway that we needed just about an hour away from Clermont-Ferrand. That would take us less time than going back to our starting point and proceeding from there, and we would actually enjoy better scenery than what usually surrounds motorways.
The small flaw in that plan was the seemingly inconsequential fact that it was all happening on a Sunday afternoon. And the car was running short on gasoline.
See, Sunday is almost universally a “dead” day across Europe. Everything is closed. In tourist-heavy areas, shops may stay open, but didn’t you want to get away from tourist centers! I was not sure whether even local eateries were serving meals in the towns that we were passing through. But all businesses were shuttered. Even supermarkets.
Credit-card-enabled gas pumps were a big rarity in Europe then, so in order to fill up you more often than not had to find a warm body attending to the cash register. On motorways, service areas operate gas stations more or less around the clock. In countryside – no such luck. Not on a Sunday, for sure.
I was becoming increasingly concerned about possibility of running out of gas in the middle of French nowhere when we thankfully came across a supermarket gas station with one pump enabled for credit card purchases.
I pull up with a great sense of relief washing over me. Take out a Mastercard and stick it into the card reader. Carte inadmissible, pops up the message on the reader screen. No problem, this happened to me several times already, somehow not every American credit card seamlessly works everywhere in Europe. I have several different credit cards to cover exactly this eventuality. I try a Visa. Carte inadmissible. American Express? Same result. Another Visa? Nope.
I went through every single one of my half-dozen cards, and none of them was accepted by the pump. There wasn’t any receptacle to put bills into either. How the hell were we going to get gas?…
Another car came to the same pump. Since no other pump was credit-card-enabled, the unsuspecting Frenchman had to wait for me to vacate the spot. I tried a couple of cards for the second time – with the same dismal result – and had to pull out to the side. The guy popped in a credit card and – presto! – started fuelling.
While I was mulling over our options, Natasha got out of the car and went to talk to the Frenchman. We are both reasonably proficient with the language, but she normally defers to me when we need to use it in a live situation. This was not one of those times. Using a vast array of words and gestures, she managed to explain to the guy the situation we were in. Moreover, she managed to arrange for him to pay for our gasoline with his credit card with us giving him cash.
The rest is history. The guy filled up, pulled away from the pump, I pulled back in, he used his card, I filled the tank, gave him €10 more than what I pumped, and we went each our own way.
We arrived in Clermont-Ferrand a couple of hours later, with no further adventures. (Our short stay in the city was an adventure in itself, but that is an entirely different story.)
The lesson, you ask? Since that day, I have always been very careful to plan our European Sundays in a way that did not take us too far away from major towns and motorways.
To say nothing of the fact that having a partner who is not shy about asking strangers for help is invaluable in any tight spot.