Thursday, February 17, 2011

Never Smoothly

Who would’ve thought that a simple weekend outing to IKEA would turn into one of the most arduous, emotionally draining, physically painful, soul destroying experiences of my life…and this is coming from no softy but a triathlete. Not to mention I narrowly avoid death on not one, but two occasions.

The whole trip, which quickly became an adventure of sorts, or perhaps a comedy of errors to be more precise, almost didn’t even happen. I had arrived at Europecar with my newly found friend, and fellow adventurist Andrea, to rent our little van. Andrea, was there with me the night of the “Great Handbag Theft”, and whilst being American, her fluent French has gotten us out of a number of sticky situations…quite a few actually, surprising considering I’ve only been here just over a month now.

I have now learnt that in France you cannot and should not ever expect that anything that requires formality such as bookings, form filing, changes of details, establishing contracts, etc will ever go smoothly. It simply doesn’t! And I truly believe that it will never ever go smoothly simply because the French being socialists look for reasons to keep numerous people employed, thus creating bureaucracy and illogical inefficient methods of completing simple tasks. Well that’s my theory anyway.

Back at Europecar I had booked our van over the internet and had my International Drivers Permit in hand waiting at the desk. Predictably, I was asked to show my Australian Drivers Licence to which we had explained that it was stolen. I further explained that I wasn’t able to get an International Drivers Permit unless I had proved that I had valid driver’s licence at home. It was touch and go, was she or wasn’t she going to let me hire the car? Being 5:30pm on a Saturday afternoon she bent the rules for me. That’s another thing about the French, they can be flexible when they want to be, but this is generally when they can’t be bothered and it’s usually at the end of the day I’ve notice.

Whilst I had hired the car, our plan was for Andrea to drive it. Left hand side drive is enough to contend with, let alone driving in Paris where there is no order or even lane markings on the road. For convenience, I had booked the van for the Etoile depot. For those of you that know Paris, you would know that this is the area of the Champs Élsysées, which meant that the first thing we had to do is drive the van right onto the most craziest roundabout in the world, that of the Arc de Triomphe!

Near death experience Number 1 – arghhhhhh!! It felt like we were in a video game, there were cars coming from every which direction, oh and you have to give way to those coming from your right, which were those heading directly at me in the passenger seat. Bracing ourselves we had to go to the opposite side of roundabout…but of course, and after stopping and starting and then becoming aggressive and deciding that pushing in is the only method for driving the roundabout we made it – phew!

We get to Andrea’s place where we have to parallel park the van. “Yep, no probs, Andrea hop out and I can do that” I suggest. I jump into the driver’s seat and I suddenly realise that I have no hope of doing it given the whole back of the van is boarded up and I can’t see a thing and it’s an impossibly small space.

Another quirk of Paris is that you can ‘bump’ other cars. Meaning that you can actually hit them when parking. The reason for this is that space is so limited that people literally park millimetres within each other. For this reason, French car manufacturing standards are such that all bumper bars must be at the same height to allow for the ‘bumping’. So even with the ability to bump, I had to give up even before attempting to park and we called Andrea’s boyfriend to come and park the van.

The next morning we set off for IKEA which is about 20km from Paris. We take a small, intended, detour to another store called Interiors to check out their wares, and eventually get to IKEA just before 11am. The day before I had finally bought a pair of flat boots to walk around Paris in, and by this stage, which had only included catching the metro and walking to Andrea’s house, I could already feel a blister coming on. I knew at that point that it was going to be a long day.

Nothing much is open in Paris on Sunday, they still haven’t embraced Sunday trading, although this is slowly changing, and in the high tourist areas it’s not the case for overpriced cafes. However, as a result, IKEA was pumping with people.

We tour through all the displays and we stop off in the DYI kitchen section as Andrea is remodelling her kitchen and needs to get a printout of all the items that we’ll need to pick up from the storeroom downstairs. We grab our printout and head to the home accessories area where we start loading our trolley with all the things you could think of when moving out of home for the first time…all for my new apartment.

Everything is going swimmingly and we’re starting to get hungry as we hadn’t had any lunch and virtually no breakfast. We get to the storeroom to pick up the DYI kitchen cabinets and realise that the attendant upstairs had given Andrea all the wrong dimensions. This is the beginning of the frustration. No one downstairs is able to help us or printout a new list, oh no, too simple, too logical, no. Andrea has to go back upstairs. This process takes 45 minutes.

It’s almost 2:30pm at this stage and we only have 3 hours to do everything and return the van. I’m starting to get worried. Andrea finally comes back and we run around getting all the pieces for the kitchen and proceed to the checkout, which like every other IKEA globally I’m sure, had lines as long as Great Wall of China. Oh no!

We’re standing in the queue, not moving, and not speaking because we’re both hungry and impatient, when a couple approach us and the husband explains that his wife is pregnant and asks whether he could skip ahead. “Is she having the baby now!?” I snap. Andrea looks at me a bit shocked. Oops, “ok” I say, grumble grumble.

One more person gets served, we only have one more person if front of us when another couple approach us and again we get told that his wife is pregnant and asked if they could go ahead. “What is going on here???”

“Non!” I state in French, “non, non”. The guy starts arguing with Andrea, and I start getting conscious that we’re making a scene. “Fine if you want to be an asshole!” Andrea finishes with in English. The woman turns to her husband and clearly says to him ‘do you know what she just called you?’ and I chime in and turn to Andrea and tell her that she should ask whether the husband was also having a baby, by the look of his physique.

We’ve now clearly getting catty. One final guy ends up pushing in, in between the purchases that Andrea and I were making because he was some war veteran and he had a card to prove it. Whatever! I give up!

Andrea has to go to another desk to pick up some more items while I unload both of our trolleys in the van. My right foot is aching now and I know that behind my sock there is raw skin rubbing rubbing throbbing throbbing with each step I take. It’s getting close to 4pm and the situation to return the van is getting dire. We call Europecar, they kindly extend our rental for no charge if we bring it back before closing time at 7pm. Sweet!

After waiting some more and both of us fading away to shadows giving how hungry we were, we finally get the last pieces of the kitchen. Back in the van we’re high-tailing it back to Andrea’s place. We couldn’t get a park close enough to her place so we had to unload her kitchen and carry it down the street and into her cellar in stages. Thanks to the help of her boyfriend, who incidentally was missing the France vs. Ireland rugby union match…I was feeling his pain too, I couldn’t have thought of anything better to do on a Sunday arvo. We then carried Andrea’s cupboard, which I was taking from her for my new apartment, down 4 floors of stairs and loaded it into the van to then zoom to my place.

Cruising down the Paris ring road we hit Sunday night traffic with all the people coming back from their weekends away and of course just our luck, there was an accident right near our exit. Time is ticking and my foot feels like it’s blown up to size of an elephant's as I’m pressed up against the windscreen just so we could get the cupboard to fit into the van.

We’re finally at my place. Thank goodness I live on the ground floor. We start running stuff inside, it’s just after 6pm and we have to fill the car with diesel and return it to the depot.

Back in the van we’re on our way to the depot which happens to be on level 2 of an underground car park. We decide to fill the car at the petrol station there. We ask the attendant how to get to Europecar from where we were in the car park, he simply tells us that it was behind the station.

We’re not sure where to go and can’t see any signs for Europecar. It’s 6:45pm now. I point to a ramp going down and suggest we take that. Andrea isn’t so sure but with my instance we drive down it and then we come across the international sign for ‘no entry’ (half way down mind you).

Near death experience Number 2. We continue along the ramp as we’re too deep into it, knowing that we’re going the wrong way and praying that no cars are going to come the other way, until we finally reach another upward slopping ramp and a boom gate, which is only operational from the other side. And before you ask, there wasn’t an option of reversing the van back up the ramp because we couldn’t see out of the damn thing.

I hop out of the van and try and put in our exit ticket from the day before hopping it would operate the boom gate, when a smartly dressed woman drives up in her grey mini cooper. She starts speaking frantically to me French, I’m looking to Andrea still sitting in the van, then back to the woman, then back to Andrea. Andrea hops out of the van and explains we went the wrong way (thanks to the stupid Aussie I’m sure she added) and we couldn't reverse the van back.

It turns out that the woman happened to have a permanent parking spot in the car park and so she drove up to the machine and swiped her card. Hey presto the boom gate opens and Andrea dashes back to the van and drives it through.

6:55pm and we realise that we’re on level 3. We drive around the car park trying to get to level 2 but there are no boom gates everywhere. Andrea suggests that I hop out and go to level 2 and tell Europecar that we’re here but we’re lost in the car park.

I jump out and walk up the stairs to level 2 but I can’t see Europecar anywhere. 6:57pm. I run back to the petrol station and ask the attendant again where Europecar is. He says it’s at the bottom. The bottom? Yes, at the very end of the car park.

Shite! I start sprinting. My new Parisian flat boots are clunky and inflexible and my blister is burning! This car park is massive and it’s about 500m to the other end. As I was blocking out the pain of my foot I was in awe of the parked cars I was passing, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Bentley, Porsche and Maserati – this is gold mine. No time to stop. I’m running even faster now!

I get to Europecar  at 6:59pm. Heavily panting, “parlez-vous anglais?”

“Yes I speak English” the guy at the counter says, not too phased that a girl just burst through his doors.

I explain that we’re stuck on level 3 and we can’t get up. He hands me an exit ticket to put into the machine. He tells me to put the keys in the afterhours box once we’ve come up onto level 2.

I hobble out of Europecar, turn the corner and bump into Andrea. She had parked the van on level 3 at the correct end of the car park and walked up the stairs.

We finally make it to level 2, park the van, return the keys, explain to the Europecar attendant where we parked the van and head the nearest bar we could find. Where is it was happy hour, lucky for us!

As an addendum to the story, Europecar proceeded to charge me twice for everything, as well as filling up the car with diesel. They have promised to fix it, or so they say, fingers crossed!


  1. Next time some one pushes in say:

    va te faire foutre you flag waving surrender monkey. We liberated you from the Germans

  2. NEVER hire a car from Europecar! I did it twice:
    1. Unroadworthy car in France...
    2. Additional refuel charges in Italy...
    They may appear cheap but not worth the pain!

  3. Oh Talz what a few weeks you have had!! Very funny story though even though i am sure it wasnt for you. I felt like i was watching it is fast forward like a benny hill show!!! with that music going on!! LOve Lize xxx

  4. way cool stories girl, love the secret agent bit. Ian