I am just going to cut right to it. I have the ultimate travel advice here. Truly, this is counsel of paramount importance, the preeminent trekking tip. And I am willing to share it, free of charge. Are you ready now? Then here it is. The best tip for road travel is this: DO NOT LOCK THE KEYS IN THE RENTAL CAR! It's just that simple. Do not under any circumstances make this mistake. Seriously. Avoid it.
This I recommend especially if you are traveling in a rural area of Northern France on say, Easter Sunday. You must understand that it is extremely unlikely you will find a garage open or any assistance available on Easter Sunday. In fact, help may not be manageable until the following Tuesday morning, as Monday will be Second Easter Day and the shops and businesses will be closed. Now if you do choose this particular adventure, you can potentially make it easier on yourself and your fellow travelers—aka your children—if one or any of you speak the language of your host country. Speaking the local language will make asking for help and explaining your predicament oh-so-much easier. However, if you do not possess this skill, charades and over-exaggerated facial expressions—the lingua franca of all stranded foreigners—may help to get your point across.
Our journey began on a Thursday. We left our row house in The Netherlands and hit the road in our hired car, headed for adventures in Northern France. It was now Sunday afternoon and we were bound for the province of Normandy to see the D-day beaches. As is common for a family traveling with children—Ian, 12, Emma 10, and a precocious two and a half year old Andrew—we made a stop to eat. The stop was of course at a McDonald's. As is also expected for an expat American family with children who seem to be hungry most all of the time, this is the easiest, fastest, cheapest and most desirable way to eat on a road trip. Also, it provides great space for the toddler of said family to run around and make some noise. It is a family friendly place in a way that other restaurants in Europe are not.
So, the conspicuous arches called to us and we followed the signs, turning from the highway and winding through an isolated and quiet industrial area to find this tucked away McDonald’s, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. All of us were looking forward to the leg stretch. This was the day we had coined our ‘Normandy Beach day’ and it was day four of our travels; four days of road trip wherein we had already covered miles and miles of France, visiting Rouen, Amiens, and Giverney. The sights, sounds and tastes of France had tickled our every sense throughout the week.
Now, our children generally are fabulous travelers, even on very long road trips, but saturation points were met and each was hitting the end of his or her rope. To remedy the bickering in the back seat, Don and I decided to move Andrew’s car seat to the center of the bench, requiring Ian and Emma to sit on either side of him. We hoped this might eliminate the “you’re touching me!” conversations which had become habitual the last 100 kilometers or so. As soon as we had ordered our culinary delights at the counter, Don went to the car, adjusted the car seat and returned to the restaurant. He had a very odd look on his face as he approached. I queried if everything was set. He raised his hand in front of his face, shook it slightly in a kind of wave and then folded his fingers into a tight fist.
He whispered “I’ve just locked the keys in the car”
Have you ever had one of those moments where the blood rushes to your face and what feels like a boulder descends into your stomach? I had a moment like that just then. I looked at my husband and knew that he was having his own moment like that too.
Dozens of thoughts and questions began swirling in my head, beginning with the obvious ‘What are we going to do? How are we going to get out of here? It’s EASTER SUNDAY! We will never find any help!’
Underlying the frustration of the situation was the dawning realization of just exactly how spoiled we are as expats in The Netherlands, where although we speak a little Dutch, we rely upon the fact that English is used everywhere in the low lands. And the realization that we spoke no French and were thus woefully unprepared to explain our predicament to anyone—let alone solicit technical help—was overwhelming.
I was frightened. I was nervous. I was nauseous. I grabbed Don’s hand and squeezed hard.
“It’s okay” I said. “It’s going to be okay” I repeated, hoping to convince myself.
What do you do in the middle of rural France on a holiday weekend when you have locked the single set of keys into your rental car? You rely on the kindness of strangers. Our first step was to solicit help. While the kids cavorted around the play land, Don and I circled the restaurant using one of the two French phrases we had memorized. “Pardon et moi, parlez-vous anglais?” A gentleman standing in line to order was able to help us make our situation known to a manager. She in turn determined what we needed was a phone book so we could call for help. But, of course, the phone book was in French and the word for locksmith is not one of the many borrowed from the French and adopted into the English tongue.
Our desperate expressions prompted her to conscript one of her young (French) fry cooks to our aid. This young man was tireless in his efforts over the next few hours to help us reach a solution. Between our lack of ability to speak any French at all, and his limited English, we spent a lot of time making guesses and grunting affirmations of understanding. At one point in the manager’s office there was a multi-language conference call as Don spoke Dutch with the representative at the car rental agency who then spoke French to our young assistant, while I stood at the periphery pestering with questions in English. But somehow, at some point we hit the communication jackpot. A garage was found. A willing mechanic was located. He would reach our location within the hour. As I retell the story I am unsure just how in the convoluted path of phone calls and charades and sign language it was even possible to make it all happen. Perhaps that certain French je ne sais quoi made the magic.
The mechanic arrived in his truck, a stocky French fellow in the classic garb of his profession, wearing dirty jeans fastened below his rotund belly and a t-shirt stained with grease. I remember thinking it funny that the caricature repairman is universal in design. He hitched up his jeans and rubbed his deeply oil-stained hands together as our translator explained the situation and pointed out the errant automobile. The mechanic immediately got to work. He spent a short time assessing the situation and, in minutes, was able to release the lock. En Voila! Our keys! I wanted to reach out and kiss him at that moment. A fitting reaction when you consider just how long I had been sitting inside a McDonald’s play land. And in the spirit of that legendary French romance, of course. Appearances notwithstanding. Instead, we dipped deeply into our pockets to pay the fee and were quickly on the road again.
Before we left home for that journey, I received an email from a friend,
“Hope you have a fabulous time in bonjour land!! Happy Easter to you too. Wow, someday you'll get to say "remember that Easter that we spent in France?”.
As we drove away—three hours late for our rendezvous with Omaha Beach—I sat in the passenger seat of the rented sedan and recalled that simple, yet profound, message. I started to giggle. Soon all of us were giggling, and a few short kilometers beyond the crisis, we recognized that we had made a memory. We had a new, unforgettable family story to tell.
We carried on down the long stretch of highway, determined to take the next moment—whatever it might be— in stride.
And remarkably, no one was fighting.
*This post was pulled from my archives, re-worked, re-titled, edited, spell-checked and sent to Seal Press Submissions for consideration in this project.. Happily, it also fits the theme for the May Write-Away contest over at Scribbit's place. So I am submitting it there as well.
Wish me luck for both ?