“Where did you book a room?” Jürgen asked a few hours ago, while we sat on the deck
overlooking his yard in Belgium. I was nursing an espresso that would help me
stay alert for our nighttime drive into France.
“We didn’t book one yet,” Hubbie replied, “We want to be flexible and stop when we’re tired. It’s not as if we need anything fancy. Just two double beds and a clean shower will do.”
“Oh, okay…,” Jürgen said, “I guess that could work.”
His slight hesitation should have warned us. In a previous life, Jürgen had worked in the European hotel business after all … .
Four hours later, at 12.30 AM, we feel satisfied, having left a relatively uncluttered Parisian périphérique behind us. The effects of my espresso slowly wearing out, I am ready to break for the night.
Hubbie flips on his I-phone. Some ten minutes later, after first realizing that France has not yet embraced our last-minute-hotel-booking-app, then realizing that the big hotel chains in France don’t seem to take last-minute online reservations, he dials the number for a hotel some thirty minutes away.
“Oui, we are a family of four,” he says in his best, friendly French. “Ah bon? No rooms for four? Oui, two rooms for two, alors. Ca va. Et c’est combien au total? … 200 Euro?” he glances over at me.
“No way!” I mouth. We only want to crash for a few hours. A simple, clean room is all we need. $280 is vastly overrated. Besides, what happened to last-minute discounts at this hour of the night?
“Okay, merci Monsieur,” Hubbie says, “I will first check a few other options.”
He decides to call a cheaper hotel chain, but hangs up after a while.
“Maybe they don’t staff the desk after midnight?” he wonders out loud.
He tries another hotel, only to get informed that no rooms are available. His next phone call goes unanswered again.
“Okay, maybe we should go for the 200 Euro deal after all,” I say after forty minutes.
“Well, we’ve passed that hotel,” Hubbie says, “It would be stupid to retrace our steps now, wouldn’t it?” I guess it would.
“I’ll just book another room, further down the road,” he offers.
I nod, feeling tired now. My body yearns so much for the touch of crispy, white hotel sheets that I would swear my nostrils are picking up their faint vinegar scent.
Another thirty minutes pass. Oh, what I would give for the sight of a grubby American highway motel sign! Now I understand why Jürgen was surprised we hadn’t booked a room yet. Having lived five years in America, we’ve come to expect around-the-clock customer service. Of course, that’s not the way things work in Europe! How could we have forgotten so fast?
“Maybe we should just sleep in the car?” I offer.
My 6’6” Hubbie’s eyes scan the interior of our modest Renault Megane, then rest on me in slight disbelief.
Okay, maybe not.
We briefly debate about driving on to our final destination, but decide against it. True, our friends would welcome us at their newly opened ‘Chambres d’hôtes’ once they awake. But skipping a night so soon after having just recovered from our jet lag doesn’t appeal to either of us.
There’s movement in the back of the car.
“Eloise is pushing me,” 8-year-old Thibaut whines.
“Well, you’re taking up all the space!” 15-year-old Eloise retorts.
I sigh, my eyes fixed on the road ahead of me. Hubbie sighs too, his fingers glued to his touch screen. Driving four more hours is definitely not an option. We need a bed and we need it soon!
“Bonsoir,” Hubbie says yet again, still using his best French, but sounding far less enthusiastic, “Vous avez une chambre pour quatre pour cette nuit?” Silence. Then, suddenly sounding upbeat, he says, “Ah oui? Super, we will arrive in thirty minutes.”
Yes! That’s not too bad. If check-out is at 11.00 AM, that gives us plenty of sleep.
“Oh…,” hubbie says, after punching the address into the GPS, “it’s actually going to be
more like an hour drive. Want to stop at a rest area so I can take over the wheel?”
“No, I’m fine,” I reply, feeling energized again at the prospect of a welcoming bed, “I can handle one more hour.”
At last, at 2.45 AM, the GPS instructs us to leave the highway.
“Yes!” I exclaim, “We made it! I’m sooo looking forward to a good night’s rest!”
I slow down at the toll area and select the lane that reads ‘Cartes’. Hubbie hands me the toll ticket and his Visa card.
‘Paiement refusé,’ the display on the toll machine reads. I look at my husband, who promptly hands me an American Express card, which I slide into the slot.
“Paiement refusé.’ Again… Hubbie grabs my purse and fishes out my wallet. He hands me my Visa card, which I slide into the slot. Marking its disagreement with American cards, the machine now aggressively spits out my credit card AND our ticket. I catch both before they hit the pavement. I insert the ticket again, and then try to pay with my Belgian card, which gets rejected as well.
What? Does this chauvinist machine only accept French cards?
I back out of the ‘cartes’ line and drive into the unmarked line, glad that we stopped to pick up cash before leaving Belgium. A big sticker on the machine informs me that it will gladly accept our 5, 10 and 20 Euro bills. Too bad we only have 50 Euro bills … !
I ask Eloise, who’s blinking her eyes against the bright overhead light, to search her wallet. Unfortunately, she can only produce dollar bills.
Noticing a ‘cartes’ slot, I try to insert our credit cards yet again, hoping this machine will be less patriotic and welcome foreign cards. No such luck. The aggravated machine forcefully spits out card after card. Just when the machine decides to also eject our ticket, a sudden gust of wind materializes out of nowhere. Our precious ticket rides the gust, floating up above us, before landing softly … beneath our car.
“Oh SHIT!” I exclaim, backing up, getting out of the car, picking up the ticket, getting in the car and then driving up again.
“Okay,” I declare, ”Time to wake up the toll machine people! Somebody must be able to open the highway gates for us.”
I reach for the ‘help’ button, expecting to hear a soft, helpful voice.
Instead, as soon as my finger hits the button, loud electronic music blasts out of the tiny holes in the machine. Really loud, really electronic music.
My jaw drops as I turn to face my husband. What kind of customer service is this? We’re exhausted, paying – or trying to pay – highway customers in desperate need for some help and all we get is loud, lousy music?
Oh, how I long for the kind toll booth operators in the US, who always politely wave me through with a smile; whatever the time of day or night!
Here we are, stuck on the French ‘autoroute’, just minutes from our four-guest bedroom with crispy white sheets! My body aches at the thought of it.
“Okay, we’ll just park here and sleep in the car,” I announce to my fellow travelers as I back up the car and park on the shoulder of the highway.
The three of them stare at me in disbelief.
“In that case, we’d better drive on,” Hubbie decides, “Let’s switch seats. I’ll do the driving.” Obediently, I get out of the car, ready to move to the passenger side.
Suddenly the awful music stops.
“Allô?” a female voice reaches us out of the darkness. I sprint to the machine.
“Allô? Allô?” I yell hysterically when I get there. No reply. I grab the sturdy machine and try to shake it. It doesn’t bulge. “Allô? Allô?” I yell again into the silent night. No reply. The voice has disappeared!
I look at my husband, who pulled up in the car.
“Press the button again,” he says.
I do as I am told and promptly get treated to the loud, electronic racket again.
This time I stay next to the car, however, glued to the toll machine, while bravely undergoing five more minutes of auditory torture. At last the voice materializes again.
“Allô?” it says.
“Oui, allô!” I yell into the white holes of the machine, “Look, your machine doesn’t accept any of our credit cards. We’d love to pay cash, but we only have 50 Euro bills and the note says —”
“Madame,” the voice tries to interrupt me. But I am beyond getting interrupted. The owner of the voice will listen to what I have to say, weather it wants to or not!
“ — but you see, we don’t have 20 Euro or 10 Euro or 5 Euro bills,” I continue.
“Madame,” the voice repeats.
I stop my rant. “Oui?”
“You can just use a 50 Euro bill.”
“You can just use a 50 Euro bill,” the voice repeats.
What? Now you tell me? After we’ve been sitting here for 30 minutes?
“Then why doesn’t your machine state that it accepts 50 Euro bills?” I ask, bewildered.
“Well,” a hint of a smile seems to line the voice, “That’s just because no bills can be returned. So if you insert 50 Euros, you’ll get a lot of change in 2 Euro coins. Most people don’t like that.”
Who cares? At this point I wouldn’t even mind getting 500 Euro in change.
I thank the voice as calmly and politely as I can, then insert a 50 Euro bill. Loads of 2 Euro coins clatter into the metal change receptacle. As I try to catch them with both hands, out of the corner of my eye I see the gates open onto the promise of a relaxing night. I grab as many coins as I can and hand them to Hubbie, then grab more.
Eureka! This feels like winning the jackpot. A very, very hard to handle jackpot. But, oh, how happy I feel to have won it!
The next day, nicely rested after a seven-hour-sleep in a bed with crispy white sheets, we set off for our last stretch to ‘Les Mirandes’.
Upon our arrival, our hosts welcome us with a fresh glass of champagne. From the deck of the old manor, we enjoy the enchanting view of the valley of Montmoreau-Saint-Cybard. It instantly makes us forget last night’s hassle.
The ensuing week we recharge our batteries in the luxury of a cosy bed, covered in refined, soft sheets wafting subtle perfumes of fresh air and the big outdoors. We discover the meadows and the vineyard surrounding the centuries-old precious manor. We visit tiny towns harboring small medieval churches and larger cities named after renowned wines (or is it the other way around?). We lounge around the pool, every so often taking a refreshing dive into the water. We savor luscious dinners at the ‘table d’hôte’. And we catch up with our friends who prove to be perfect hosts. In short, we spend one week in heaven!
As we leave, fully rested and our suitcases packed with lovely memories, we promise we’ll be back to ‘Les Mirandes’.
I just make a mental note to book our midway hotel room well in advance and to stock up on Euro coins before hitting the French Autoroute! When traveling in France, better be prepared!
Les Mirandes’ website : http://lesmirandes.com/
Helene Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on Amazon : http://amzn.com/1493592548