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?
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.
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!
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.
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!’