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DRIVING THROUGH FRANCE by Ellen Donker

My driving skills were clutch


Our family recently traveled to France for 10 glorious days as a celebration of our three children graduating college. Before we left, I gave them one piece of advice: When things don’t go as planned, just roll with it. I knew that we would encounter snags (some of them pandemic-related) and I didn’t want us to get stuck. We’d need to problem-solve and move on.


We got to exercise that advice as soon as we landed in Marseille. Our plan was to visit a dear friend by renting a car and driving about 90 minutes to her home in Lourmarin, a charming village in Provence. After waiting in line at Enterprise for over an hour after a two-stop transatlantic flight, the sole customer service agent reminded me that I had booked a car with a manual transmission. Hmm. I guess I had forgotten that part. At the time I probably figured that, if pressed, I could revive my skills driving a car with a stick shift. After all, I had owned manual cars for about 15 years, starting with the Ford Pinto my father bought me for my 17th birthday.


Like many a confident young adult, my son Christian stated that he could probably learn to drive a manual car with approximately one lap around the parking lot, but I disagreed. I remember it took a lot of practice to master that magic moment when you let up on the clutch and first gear magically engages. Mr. DiMaria, my childhood neighbor, would’ve agreed. It was his car that I slid into on my way to high school as I frantically tried to move into first gear on an uphill slope when the traffic light turned green. Talk about embarrassing. But eventually I came to love my manual transmission and was proud of my clutch capabilities.


My husband, Rob, also drove a manual car in his 20s but was not feeling confident about driving one 30 years later. His insistence on renting an automatic quickly dissolved when it became clear that we would be lucky just to get a car. The rental company was literally handing out cars as customers returned them. And that mid-size SUV I had reserved? Not available. Instead, we packed all five of us and our luggage into a Fiat sedan. I would be the appointed driver and, quite literally, we had to roll with it.


I did my best to revive my lapsed skills while asking everyone to be patient and cautioning them that I would probably stall the car several times, subject them to lurching forward, and potentially have trouble finding reverse. Thankfully, my muscle memory kicked in and rewarded me with fairly smooth driving. I even was able to back quickly out of a toll booth on the autoroute that was only for cars with toll scanners. By the second day, I hit my stride with nary a stall as we toured several perched villages in Provence.


My daughter, Madeline, acted as my trusty navigator, repeating to me which turns to take off of the roundabouts – France’s tricky alternative to traffic lights. We were using Apple maps and laughed at Siri’s pronunciation of French roads. Someone sign her up for Duolingo!


After our stay in Provence, where I was advised to park on sidewalks when necessary and become accustomed to near constant tailgating on the narrowest of roads, we hit the autoroute again. Our next stop was a three-hour trip to Dijon where, among other things, we did the obligatory mustard tasting at the local moutarderie. Along the way, we listened to podcasts or one of the kids’ playlists or simply took in the beautiful countryside. A few days later, we ended our trip with a four-hour trek to Paris where we switched out our car for the Métro system.


Now that we’re home, I continue to tell my freshly-minted graduates to “roll with it” as they move into new responsibilities, whether it be careers, relationships or graduate school. I hope they’ll take life step by step and find joy in the moment, navigating the twists and turns on the road of life or weathering an occasional stall. There is beauty in the journey. And sometimes all it takes is looking out the window to see it.

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