The Kindness of French Strangers

For anyone out there who might have been wondering if gas stations along highway N-20 in southern France are plentiful and readily apparent to the passing traveler, let me just satisfy that curiosity for you. No. No, they are not.

Allow me to back up a bit…

Yesterday morning we borrowed Mari and Ori’s car and drove up to Toulouse, France to pick up the long-term rental car we will be using for the rest of our time in Europe. It was a beautiful drive through the Pyrenees and the French farmlands. After some initial confusion we eventually found the rental location in Toulouse, had a nice interaction with the friendly French sales manager and then headed downtown for lunch.

With two cars to get to Andorra, Brian and I divided up the kiddos and set out separately for the 2.5 hour drive back. Everything was going smoothly and the GPS system was getting me, Em and Liv back to Andorra easily.

When my gas tank signaled that I was getting low I started looking for the next exit. And I looked…and I looked…and I looked…. Yeah, you know where this story is going. When I finally got to the exit I was breathing a sigh of relief because we were getting very close to empty. The one gas station in this quaint little town looked somewhat abandoned, but appeared to have working pumps, so I pulled up, got out…then got back in and turned the car around because the tank was on the other side.

Like a true American idiot, I was expecting “diesel” to be some sort of universal word that would be used at every gas station in the world. Needless to say, it’s not. I was staring at words I didn’t know, couldn’t find anyone around to ask and my translation app refused to work. (Damn you Google Translate!) This station wasn’t going to work for us. Oh well, I was sure there were tons of gas stations along the highway.

So I hopped back in the car, went back to the main highway, and drove to the next exit. My translation app had started working again so I now knew that “gazole” means “diesel.” I drove to the next station I saw, pulled up to the gazole pump, got out…then got back in and turned the damn car around because I had AGAIN put the tank on the wrong side. As I took the handle off the pump a man came running out, yelling at me in French and pointing to a sign above the pump (which of course I couldn’t read). I had to make the assumption that he was out of gazole. In an effort to be helpful he started talking and gesturing about what I assumed was another gas station I could go to that had it. Back into the car I go. After following my interpretation of his vigorous arm movements, I wound up back on the main highway again.

If you’re assuming that I didn’t figure out where his gestures were leading, you would be correct. Nor could I figure out the gestures of the woman carrying a loaf of bread down the street…nor the pharmacist smoking a cigarette…nor the lady pushing a baby stroller full of groceries.

At this point, it was getting serious. The gas light was flashing at me in a very admonishing and judgmental way because there was no blue color left in her cute little digital indicator. We were officially on E for empty…or V for vide…or whatever the word is in this god forsaken country! We’d gone through an 1/8 of a tank of gas while looking for gas in a land where they apparently have no gas. And just to add to the fun and excitement, we drove into a tunnel!

Whee! My car is on empty and I’m going 90km/hour through a freaking tunnel in heavy traffic with two of my kids in the backseat! It was like a heart pounding roller coaster minus the fun and laughter. For the first time in my life I fully understood and appreciated the phrase “the light at the end of the tunnel”. In fact, I think the person who coined that term had been in this exact same situation. I was straining my eyes to see when daylight would start showing up in this seemingly never-ending, underground, high-speed prison!!!! Yes, I’ll admit I was starting to freak out a little. (That might be a teensy bit of an understatment.) Suffice it to say, it was becoming very obvious to Em and Liv that this was not the ideal situation.

By some miracle of the gas gods, we made it through the tunnel. I tried a couple more exits, but to no avail. How were these other drivers even on the road! Clearly there are no gas stations in all of southern France!

Finally, in a stroke of genius (albeit a somewhat delayed one) I remembered that I had a GPS system in the car and on my phone. Duh! Why hadn’t I thought of this sooner! They would be able to help me find gas. So I pulled off the highway and began erratically pushing buttons on both the car navigation system and my phone. Either because I was stressed out and doing it wrong or because they couldn’t get a signal to search for gas stations or maybe because both computers were simply saying to me, “Just forget it, lady. You’re screwed,” – for whatever reason, no gas icons appeared on the screens.

I had given up at this point. The last time I’d turned on the car it had belched out a weird gurgly sound before finally starting. (Oh, shut up spell check! Gurgly is to a word!) I knew we were on fumes and figured it didn’t make sense to keep driving around aimlessly. I was near tears. I was finally able to at least get my location on my phone’s map, so the only thing to do was get Brian back here to rescue us with a gas can. As I was standing on this gravel side road off the highway, an older man dressed in full black leather came striding by carrying a motorcycle helmet. I gave it one more shot and guess what! He spoke English! Not great English, but a hell of a lot better than my French!

As he was telling me in his broken English that the nearest gas station was 4 or 5 kilometers away, I couldn’t stop my eyes from welling up with tears. There was no way this car was going to get that far. According to the gauge we’d been on empty for the last 30 minutes. Sensing my reaction he said, “Are you to be okay wis zis? Your car weel go zare, yes?”

All I could do was shrug my shoulders and try to smile. “I don’t know…we’ll see,” I said.

“Okay, zees eez what we do. I go to my car and bring eet to here. I follow you. Zen eef your car no get to zee gas, zen I take you, okay?” I turned into a grateful, teary, blubbering idiot. Thank you thank you thank you motorcycle man! “You to no fear me, okay? I em a good perzone. I get my wife too and you are to feel safe wis zee children, okay?” I think this man must have had grown daughters or something.

When he returned he was very apologetic in saying that his wife had taken their car shopping. “I am zo zorry. Eet weel to be okay. Eef your car cannot go to zee gas, I weel come wis zee gas to you, okay?”

So we followed a friendly, French motorcyclist down the highway, and by some miracle our car made it all the way there. I don’t know the name of my knight in shining leather, but he will not soon be forgotten.

It was a lesson in the kindness of strangers, particularly French strangers. I think on our last visit here I’d come to believe the stereotype of the rude Frenchman. In our limited interactions with people from France they had either been reprimanding us for something or simply annoyed at our American tourist existence. This visit has changed my tune. A few weeks ago I had dinner with my sister-in-law’s French friend and she was so much fun. Our rental car salesperson in Toulouse had been very friendly and helpful. And now here was a man going out of his way to get me and my kids safely back on the road.

My lessons from this whole debacle:
#1 – When a lost foreigner asks for directions, pay it forward by letting them follow you to the location.
#2 – When traveling in other countries refill at every opportunity once it hits half a tank.
#3 – French people ain’t so bad.

I was so relieved that I did something I thought I would never do overseas – I took the girls to the home of Le Big Mac. After that whole ordeal, the McDonald’s sign next to the gas station looked like an oasis in the desert. And the staff at that McDonald’s was extremely friendly. Another score for France!

About the Author

Tracey Carisch

Mom, wife, friend and change agent traveling the world with my family to learn our place in it. After spending a career in organizational change management and community initiative implementation, I put my career on hold for our family's trip around the world. In April of 2014 we sold almost everything we own, put the rest in a storage container, and departed on this journey. While my husband continued his software development work to financially support our trip, I planned and documented our adventure, homeschooled our three daughters, and found volunteer work opportunities for us to do in the communities we visit. Now that we've returned to the U.S., I'm completing book about our family's adventure and our lessons learned.

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  1. I love reading your posts…I don’t know you at all, but it seems that maybe you are experiencing more than you dreamed you would personally, on this journey. Having applied your project manager skills going into this and coordinating your family’s moves, just to run into situation after situation that defies all of the planning in the world, seems like it may impact you in new ways. Your children aren’t the only ones developing profound appreciation for the life they had back in the U.S. What great stories you’re building to re-tell over dinners in the future. Hang in there…you made it through another daily adventure!

    1. You are you so right! It’s a crash course in how to expect that anything can happen and then go with the flow when it does! :-)

  2. This story reminds me of the movie National Lampoons European Vacation. If Chevy Chase can make it then girl, you are golden!!!!! Lol
    Love all your posts

  3. Trace – this post cracked me up! I could feel your anxiety – no panic more accurately – in your words. I can hear your voice. I can hear the Frenchman. I can relish every detail as you describe it. You are truly a gifted writer and I am loving every post. People around town often ask me if we’ve talked or what I’m hearing from you and I am always sending them to this site. It’s just great! Keep telling your story and living la vida loca baby!!! I miss you tons….

  4. Great story. French people are very friendly, Americans have a jaded view of the French. Parisians can be a bit tough, but in the countryside you will meet many friendly, helpful and interesting people.

    And yes, driving around Europe you need to be a lot more careful with the gas situation, we don’t have stations at every exit, nor as many exits.

    Enjoy your ride through Southern France, it’s a really beautiful area.

  5. So true, Chris. They do get a bad rap among Americans. The French made up for it yesterday in my mind, though. :-)

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