Trying to save money, I borrowed a car, actually a van, from a friend in Paris. As has happened in the US, car rental prices have doubled, even tripled in some areas, and it can be very difficult to find a car. The van gets great mileage she told me and it certainly seemed to. I drove from my apartment in Paris to Lessard-et-le Chêne, a distance of 200 km/125 miles, this past Monday on less than a quarter tank of gas. The van drives well and I was comfortable. I had left Paris at 9am in an attempt to beat the heat. All of France was suffering a second heatwave of the summer, and predictions said that Paris would top out at 102o and Lessard at 105o. When I arrived at 1pm, it was a mere 92o.
Tuesday morning, I thought I’d fill up the tank before it got too hot and be ready to go anywhere. So off I went, sure of where I was going, but got lost. Not having anywhere to be, it was ok to get lost, and I had my phone with me. Soon I saw a familiar landmark, the LeClerc supermarket that also has a large gas station. I pulled in and filled up the tank. Then off I went again headed to the Intermarché for a few groceries. I was inside for thirty minutes.
Back in the car, I turned the key and nothing happened. Well, something happened. The van made that sputtering noise telling me it was trying very hard to start but it wasn’t turning over. I tried three times. Then I sat there and a familiar anxiety settled over me like a heavy blanket. I had no idea where to go or who to call. My friends had not yet left for the airport but they were packing and I didn’t want to disturb them if at all possible. I felt like the ugly American who doesn’t know how to cope in a foreign country and resorts to panic out of habit. I saw a well dressed adult male pull up in front of me. I jumped out of the van, crossed over to him, and as he opened his door, I told him in my best french that my car wouldn’t start, I had checked everything, and could he help me. He followed me to the van. I turned the key but again the van would not start. After checking the obvious, he asked me who put the gas in the car. I told him that I had. He motioned me to step out of the car and we walked to the gas tank. He pulled open the cover and there in nice big letters was the word DIESEL. I must have looked like a cartoon character as I slapped my forehead, groaned, and my anxiety turned quickly into deep embarrassment if not shame.
I immediately wanted someone to blame. Why hadn’t my friend told me it only took diesel? Yes, dummy, and why hadn’t I checked to see what kind of gas the van took especially as someone was so kind as to write in large letters….. Even I, who knows little about the inner workings of cars and vans, knows that you don’t put gas in a diesel van. Even I know that the damage can be extensive. I thanked the man and he went on his way.
I had to call my friends–who rightly were annoyed with me. Not nearly as annoyed as I was with myself but, hey, who’s measuring. The husband came and got me. Did I mention they were leaving for the airport in less than three hours? On the way home, M reminded me that it is July, and could be very hard to find a mechanic, and it could be very expensive, and it could be in the garage three weeks. Leave it to the French to come up with the worst case scenario. All I could sputter out was that it never once occurred to me that the van took diesel. In the US, very few cars take diesel. Here in France, I don’t know anyone who owns a diesel car and I’ve never rented one. It’s just not on my radar. It should have been. Ninety-five percent of cars in France are diesel. It used to be far cheaper than gasoline. Farm workers and low income people were encouraged to buy diesel cars. Then Macron decided that diesel was damaging to the environment and told everyone to buy regular gas cars. The price of diesel went up. Incentives were given for buying gas cars. I have no idea how many sold their diesels. It’s asking a lot of a worker who is 100% dependent on her car for her living especially if she lives in the south of France.
Le marché des véhicules de loisirs va prendre un tournant majeur dans les prochaines décennies. L’interdiction de la vente de véhicules thermiques est prévue dans les calendriers d’ici 2040. Alors qu’aujourd’hui 95 % des véhicules vendus roulent à l’essence ou au diesel, quel avenir pour nos vans et fourgons aménagés ? Quelles alternatives possibles face à l’interdiction du diesel en France ?
Back at the house, I texted my friend who owns the van. She happens to be in the US at the moment which is why she was kind enough to make the loan. She is six hours behind me. She received my information and contacted her insurance agency immediately. She let me know that a tow truck would meet me at the van at 10 the next morning. Meanwhile, everyone in the house was talking about solutions for me. My head was swirling. I still felt both helpless and ashamed. Like an old record player, I replayed me at the gas station hundreds of times, seeing the word DIESEL, and putting it in the gas tank. It’s like waking up from a nightmare. The ending is always the same. I’d made a mistake and I had no idea what the consequences would be. I was at the point where I wasn’t sure if it would be ready when I had to go back to Paris. I went on the internet and rented the last car in Lisieux from an obscure place with the original name of Rent A Car.
The afternoon and evening passed. My friends left for Charles de Gaulle to fly to California the next morning. The not so friendly voices were whirling around in my head having a good time with my sanity. I asked a friend of theirs, John, for a ride and promptly at 9:40am he showed up and we went to Intermarché. The tow truck was already there. I watched as this skilled man pulled down the ramp on his truck, moved my van that wouldn’t start into a perfect position to roll up the ramp, attach one cable, and pulling a lever, up the van went. All of this with a friendly smile. Then he looked at me and asked me where he should take it? Huh? I didn’t know and said so. Kindly, he said, he’d take it to his garage and await further instructions.
John came out of the store just at that point and off we went to Rent A Car. I drove home and texted all this info to my friend in the US. By that evening, I knew it would be repaired at the garage it was at and possibly could be ready by Friday! Really!! That meant that little or no damage had been done to the motor. I had also talked to quite a few people, all lending support to help me feel better. One person actually said that everyone she knew who has owned or rented a diesel has done the same thing. I don’t think any French person would do it so she must have meant Americans.
Noon the next day, Thursday, US called and told me the van was ready for pick-up AND it would cost one hundred and fifty euros. Forty of that was filling the van with twenty liters of diesel. The fact that I couldn’t get a ride until this morning (Friday) meant little. This unintended but ultimately huge mistake I made was turning out to be ok. That means it didn’t break my piggy bank and the motor wasn’t damaged, all the affected parts just had a bath, and I have the van back in forty-eight hours. And probably/hopefully, I didn’t lose the friendship which was on my mind the whole time.
So here’s the final thing. I’m a good student. I do my homework and learn my lessons. But there are some lessons that I only seem to learn the hard way–by making a mistake. This one I thought was going to be a dilly. It was hard enough though it had a happier ending than I expected. I will ALWAYS look to see what kind of gas or diesel or otherwise a car takes (by the time I ever own a car again, they’ll all be electric!) All the cliché inspirations, that many of us are inundated with, remind us how important mistakes are and how to learn from them. They forget to mention that sometimes you want the world to stop, that the feelings can often be overwhelming. But…life ticks on and the consequences show themselves. And infuriatingly, the clichés are all true. Mistakes are the greatest teacher of all.