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Travel With Bender

Uncovering the best family holidays

France

The French Police Stole My Car

Me: Hello? Hello?

Mum: Hiss...Rattle...Where are you?

Me: Hello? Can you hear me?

Mum: We’re going to hit the road now. Pamplona is four hours away. We will see you there. It’s getting late.

Me: What? No. We have no car.

Mum: Hiss...Rattle...Crackle...Where... hiss ...car?

Me: Hiss...Crackle...Rattle... The car... hiss crackle ...is gone!

Imagine my surprise when on a sunny Sunday morning in Toulouse France, I looked out of the window of my French country loft too see a massive market filled with people selling all sorts of antique goods. Well, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. It was our last day in France and we were packing our bags ready to leave. My parents were meant to meet us on the street. Although the street was blocked off for the market, I thought ‘It’s not a big deal, we’ll meet on the top of the street. That is where our car is anyway.’

We packed our bags, left our beautiful apartment and headed for the top of the street. At the top of the street was a car park. You have to imagine my unfathomable shock when I saw this car park filled with fruit and vegetable stands as far as they eye could see. Hang on a minute; I parked my car in that car park. Didn’t I?

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I took a wander around the street directly to the spot I knew where I parked the car. The scent of overripe bananas filled my nostrils while the vendors yelled at each other in French. All I saw was a sea of bananas, apples, oranges and a crowd of people standing in the one spot I was sure my car was located last night. There’s a little bit of denial, ok maybe a lot. Perhaps I parked my car somewhere else? I wandered around in circles for a little bit, but am only met with more markets. Now I know I definitely parked it in that parking lot, in that direct spot where the banana man was still yelling.

I sauntered back to my husband and family, who were standing on the sidewalk with all our bags, and tensely stumble on the words, “the car is gone”. Our walkie-talkie batteries had needed replacing for several days now and we kept meaning to do it, but hadn't. And now it was causing issues, dropping in and out. The batteries were in the car, the car was gone, my parents were wondering around trying to find us and all I could hear is them telling us that they wanted to hit the road now, but they couldn’t hear anything I was saying.

Finally with a few stunted, repeated phrases they drove by us and I ran out to meet them. They still had no idea what had happened by the expressions on their faces, and I raced to them screaming, “my car’s gone!”

It would have been comical if I were not so upset.

While I was trying to communicate with my parents through our failing walkie-talkies, my husband went to a fruit vendor and managed to inform him that our car had gone in some crazy obscure Frenglish. It seems to be a common occurrence because the fruit attendant knew exactly what to say, in broken English, and drew my husband a little map of how to get to the police station. Ah, yes. The car had been towed because of the markets.

Were there any signs? Apparently they put up new signs, in French, that supersede the normal parking signs. How were we to know? I had paid for my normal parking ticket the previous day, which in my understanding stated that you have to have a ticket until 8pm at night and then it would start again at 9am the next morning. It was with much alarm that I found our car missing and our four-and-a-half hour drive to Pamplona was now very much delayed.

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With some of my refined tetris-inspired skills we managed to get our bags into my parent’s car and with not much room left after that I hopped in the car with the kids while Josh walked the 1.2 kilometres to the police station. When we arrived at the police station, there was a fairly long queue and a bunch of people in the waiting room. Most of them, we guessed, waiting to pick up their impounded cars.  We joined the line and watched the ticking clock pass extremely slowly from 10am to 10:15am and just when I am about to break down we managed to get to the front of the line half an hour later.

The police officer did not speak a word of English and I poorly mimed ‘my car is missing’ using my hands to pretend drive with an added shrug of the shoulders. She asks me for the registration papers in French and we kinda worked out what she meant. Where were our registration papers for the car? In the glove box! She told us that we had to go to the impound yeard to get the registration papers, come back to the police station, show them, get them signed and then go back to get our car and pay the fine there.

Where is the impound? It is 4 kilometres away. We ask her how to get there, she signals us with her fingers to walk. I tried to explain that I have two young children and I don’t think that will be possible. She shrugged her shoulders with complete indifference, rolling her eyes and moved onto the next person. Ah, you’ve got to love the French.

My husband hopped into my father’s car and they went off to the impound yard. My mum, the kids and I headed to a cafe for a drink. I had lost my appetite. I was wondering how much this was all going to cost and I’m more than slightly annoyed at all the kafuffle that had happened. We got back to the police station just as my dad and Josh arrived. His got the papers, we gave the papers to the police officer, she made us sign something all in French that we had no idea what it meant and then told us to go back to the impound yard. It’s just crazy! 

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With my son sitting on a suitcase and my daughter on my lap, we all squeezed into the car this time and drove the 4 kilometres back to the impound again, they let us in, we had to pay 102 Euros ($140 AUD) via credit card to get the car out. As expected, these guys didn’t speak a word of English either. It could have been a fairly simple process if only they’d thought that we could do it all at the impound instead of having to put the police into the middle of it as well. We paid the fine and finally were out of the gate, putting the luggage back into the car and getting ready for the four-and-a-half-hour drive to Spain.

What a mission! Honestly, how was a tourist supposed to know about these things? I guess a helpful tip could have been when host of the apartment we were staying in, told us it was fine to park on the street, except during market Sunday. I guess… Well I’m not sure what we could have done differently. 

It didn’t seem there were any signs telling us there was a market and that the car would be towed away at 6:30 the following morning. We certainly paid a nice little fee to Toulouse that was unexpected and, as it was our last day in France, it certainly didn’t leave us with the fondest feelings towards the country. I guess you could say the whole experience kind of summarised our trip throughout France, with the insurmountable language barrier and the unfriendliness of the French people we had encountered.

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I guess I should have paid more attention to my French classes in high school because maybe then I could have read the invisible sign that said ‘markets will be here in the morning, don’t park your car here… or else!’

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"I respond to every comment by private email. So please leave me comments, I love chatting to you" -
Posted by Mrs. Chasing the Donkey on
Ohhh I am giggling. I mean what happened is a giant PITA, but you made it sound so funny. Just another funny tale for you to remember when you get home. Ohh and I LOVE that photo of you - such a drama queen hehehe
Posted by Robin on
You handled that much better than I. I would have broken down into tears at many occasions. And I would have likely stayed around to yell at the parking attendant who sold you the over night ticket!
Posted by Jess on
And people wonder why the French have a reputation of not being friendly to tourists. I suppose it's better then having your car actually stolen - but not much less aggravating!
Posted by Vanessa on
Lessons learned. Sigh. All I can say that is that France is filled with fine print and unwritten rules. No one would have thought to tell you anything as they've all learned to just keep the impossible spreadsheet of what street gets closed down when/what parking lot gets transformed as what in their head, along with information on how to tie a perfect scarf and how to eat huge wheels of Brie and stay a size 4.
Posted by Rhonda Albom on
I love how you told this story. Sorry you "lost" your car, and had to pay the fine. Thanks for the laugh.
Posted by Kathrin on
We had a similar experience in Paris. As it turned out we weren't able to pick up our rental car in the city as promised, we all had to hike out to the airport with our kids and bags. We asked in Paris about the ticket and were waved through. As soon as we got off (after taking one wrong line on the train and having to backtrack to catch the right one - still with kids and bags), we were accosted by a train inspector at the Paris airport who told us that we had to pay a fee for having the wrong train tickets. Come on! Not only had we asked downtown and were told to go through, in EVERY other country we've been to, you are simply required to pay the difference if you didnt understand the correct ticket cost. But, NO. Not in Paris. My husband even speak fluent French and we were so clearly foreign tourist. No sympathy or consolation. Just a large fee for each of us. Yikes! I swear they must have a thing going with the inspectors downtown. Over $100 USD later, I was so ready to hit her or cry... I should have done the first... ;)
Posted by Michael Winters on
...so effectively you're bashing the French for not being accommodating, because of all these issues you encountered that were caused by you not being able to speak/read/write in French?
Newsflash : when you're in __France__, people generally speak __French__.
If I came to _your_ country and had little knowledge of English, I would love to assume that everyone would be friendly and accomodating, but I highly doubt this would be the case. If I illegally parked my car (for example) because I couldn't read the road signs, are the impound going to take pity on me? I think not.
Being a tourist doesn't give you the right to evade local laws and customs. Quite frankly, with your attitude, and your need to blame everyone else for your problems (the police, the French, etc.) I would probably be hostile with you as well.
Posted by Erin on
You have a very good point, Michael. I don't think I was bashing the French, but I definitely was unable to communicate in French to sort out the issues we experienced. Sorry you missed the humour of the post.
Posted by Gina E on
Oh Erin, that's so sad you experienced this. I have several very different stories in France where French people who could not speak English tried so hard to help us, France is a wonderful country, don't give up on it :)
Posted by Cheryl Pasquier on
I live in France (as an expat) and your story made me smile - the French certainly love their paperwork and procedures ! ;-)
Posted by Caroline Durand on
Dear Erin, I do understand the frustration you experienced in Toulouse because It happened to me in 2004 when I lived in Toulouse. This market and its parking restriction is a scam! I am sure the city knows about it and is very happy to get money from it.
I am so glad you wrote a post about it because again it shows how the French are not welcoming people. I am ashamed because I am French. You have all my support. If you plan a trip in France, I am your guide! Big hug to the Bender Family. Caroline
Posted by Selsley on
maybe the bad experience and unfriendliness you received was due to you being ignorant americans,
the french love us english who try our best to speak french badly, but then getting to the point with the minimal amount of words is usually a safe bet, reading your post was like reading a novel, are people really going to be friendly to foreigners who just wave their arms at them? i think not.
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