Last day, first day and GPS in Wonderland


I’m sitting in a cosy yellow stuffed armchair in a grand old house in Bonnes. It’s my first day here, having arrived last evening at 6 pm.

It was raining lightly and having taken 7 1/2 hours to drive the 200km from Clermont-Ferrand where I picked up the car, the warm kitchen and welcoming apero and an invitation to join the household for a dinner of fish pie prepared by the friend who happens to be a chef, were enough to make one weep.

I said goodbye to Saint-Flour on Tuesday.
..................A motor scooter was churning up the road far below- a blowfly in a bottle- the sound disappearing and re-appearing as it was swallowed and regurgitated by folds in the the hillside.

Madame Chaumiers picked me up in her taxi at 8 am on Wednesday morning for the short run down the hill to the station.

I bought a ticket for Clermont-Ferrand from the sour-looking chap behind the counter- even singing “Bonjour” didn’t have an effect. I “composted” my ticket- I understand it now! The ticket you buy is good for two months and has no date on it- the “composter” prints today’s date on the end so you can’t re-use it. The sound is a cross between canvas ripping and a short circuit.

The countryside was lovely- as on the same trip going the other way a week ago, rolling hills, but, of course, rolling in the opposite direction.

After being deposited at the Clermont-Ferrand railway station, I had a map of the car rental place’s street so I could walk to it, but needed help figuring out where exactly off the edge of the page I was starting from.

Car rental: My “micro car” was bigger than I’d expected, but quite nice.

It had keyless entry which I wasn’t expecting because my car at home doesn’t have it - the lady must have thought I was a bit thick unlocking the doors with the key. The car was pointing out the gate so I didn’t have to reverse, thankfully, and the nice fellow who beeped at me is probably used to customers rolling out of there, a bit stunned, forgetting to look.

The car: Overall I did pretty well, only forgetting to use the clutch to get it to change gears at one major roundabout, and kangaroo hopping when I turned on the ignition once. I signalled with my windscreen wipers a couple of times but people got the gist.

The driving: Clermont-Ferrand looks harmless as a small blue dot on a map. I thought I’d just set the GPS for Bonnes and sit back only having to worry about remembering to use the clutch and signals and driving amongst French persons. Just whip onto a main sort of road, and I’d be off. What I didn’t know then is that once Clermont-Ferrand gets a taste of you, it doesn’t let you go. Roads and crossroads keep stop a bit too far forward so you can’t see the traffic lights (which are only placed at the approach to intersections and not on the far side) so have no idea whether to stop or get caught in the middle of a huge intersection which you’ve navigated twice already but still don’t understand...and a man throws up his hands in frustration at you (which makes you feel’ve survived your first abuse) so you try a different road and back you arrive yet again at the intersection from Hell...from exactly the same direction. You listen to the GPS for a bit, you ignore it for a bit, but you CAN’T GET OUT OF CLERMONT-FERRAND!!!!
You experience driving along narrow cobbled roadways, are in danger of having to do a u-turn inside a cathedral, squeeze past people on footpaths, take left turns and right veers and only once forget which side of the road you’re meant to be on, but nothing works. An hour later you end up back at the station which is five minutes from the car rental place, but on the other side of the tracks from where you started. You get out , (your knees don’t shake as much when you’re standing) and in fear, panic, and frustration decide to return the car and take buses, trains, marry a taxi-driver, whatever alternatives there might be to get you to...anywhere.

The GPS: But that would mean driving the car back to the car rental place. On the other side of the tracks. Damn. You take a deep breath, get back into the car, and tell yourself you can do this. But you are at the end of your rope. You have no choice. You decide to trust the GPS.

GPS Guy sounds confident enough. Apart from his hilarious pronunciation of the French road names (which you’re sure you’ll be able to laugh at in a day or two) he takes you in a new direction. This is promising, and yet you are suspicious. Clermont-Ferrand is in the lap of mountains and you have been frantically avoiding uphill as you haven’t driven a manual for 22 years except for two lessons in Ottawa a few weeks ago. The road appears to be going up. You have no choice; he still sounds relaxed. The incline steepens, the road narrows, you squeeze through a tunnel under the railway line, veer up and left, have to change from second gear to first, now pure survival is the goal. It gets steeper, your underwear will need a good wash.
At last he tells you to turn left onto the bustling road above where people are obviously coming from and going to somewhere else, but the road you’re on is blocked off!!!! They don’t connect!!!! HELP!!!! The only possible spot to turn around is in the mouth of a small patch of driveway at the very top of the road. Luckily you are good at 12 point turns.

It dawns on you that the GPS is looking at a flat map. It probably takes you straight up mountainsides because it doesn’t know, although you’re inclined to suspect a touch of malice at this point.

You decide to take a chance. Bordeaux is to the west. You want to go west. You spot a sign for Bordeaux...that will do! Missed the turn...third time signs...are you still on the right road?...seem to be in somebody’s driveway...ah....success!!!

Over the next 6 hours, the GPS will navigate you along backroads which you take in 2nd gear while calculating how long it will take to go 200 km without getting into 3rd, and will take you onto and off of tollways (you had asked to avoid tolls but now know that one sort provides you with a ticket at the beginning and you make payment at the end, and another you have to put coins or card in at the beginning - you wish you knew your PIN) You meander around cowpats then are directed back onto the main road you’ve recently left, off again, through tiny villages, up more cobbled lanes, around fields of dairy cattle and depressed sunflowers (going brown, heads and shoulders stooped, staring at their feet)
, along one-lane roads through glowing green tunnels of branches interlaced like a guard of honour, over bridges, a stop for coffee and sandwich, back onto main roads, then you exit at its suggestion and spend two hours wandering more narrow back roads through woodlands and farms. The most worrying aspect is that the estimated “time until arrival” on the GPS is increasing.

6 pm, light rain, green iron gates and two labradors - you’ve arrived!..............................