Transports of Delight
08 October 2016 | or 'Driven to Distraction'
San Marino is an enclaved microstate in north east Italy, lying just south and west of Rimini. It's tiny. It has an area of about 25 square miles and a population of about 32 000. It's also extremely rich, with an economy based mainly on finance, services and tourism (in that order). It has a car ownership rate of 1263 per 1000 people. That makes the United States' tally of 797 look positively anaemic by comparison, and qualifies San Marino as the only country in the world with more cars than people. Most people don't even know the place exists.
For the average boatie, in contrast to the average San Marinese, life ambles gently along almost completely uncontaminated by the demands and influences of the automobile. Most boat travelling is done at walking or cycling speed and land transport usually means public transport. There are instances however, such as needing to transport heavy loads or wanting to take a sneaky look ahead, when having access to a car would be distinctly handy. As a result, we occasionally succumb to the siren call of modernity and hire a car.
In most countries this has posed little problem (other than financial), even in the more out of the way spots in places such as Greece and Turkey. In France, however, the logistics of car hire display the same charming, idiosyncratic individuality as do so many other aspects of French life and culture.
In most countries, car hire firms base their depots in places where people actually wanting to hire a car are likely to find themselves; places such as airports, ferry terminals, railway stations, harbours, city centres, tourist resorts and the like.
Not the French.
To a Frenchman, the obvious place to site a car hire depot is in some remote backwater, as far from any transport hub as is humanly possible. Ideally, it should only reachable down a rutted dirt track, which should preferably be lined with stunted trees occupied by in-bred retards displaying virtuoso banjo playing skills. Or failing that, on an island in the middle of an alligator farm, accessible only by using the livestock as stepping stones á la 'Live and Let Die'.
We have form on this. Early in our live-aboard days we were storm-bound in Trebeurden and, desperate to escape the claustrophobia of the cockpit, we decided to hire a car with a view to checking out possible upcoming anchorages before indulging in some industrial-strength shopping.
We approached the local tourist office for guidance. Where in this tourism-orientated town, we asked, could we hire a car for a couple of days? Nowhere, as it turned out. The nearest car hire depot was in Lannion, a large conurbation some fifteen kilometers away. "No problem" we said, only in sort-of French, "When's the next bus to Lannion?" .
"Á deux heures et demie" she replied helpfully, in proper French. Half past two, no problem - it was only 11:30.
"OK - Nous prenons le bus á deux heures et trente"
"Ah non M'sieu - á deux heures et trente jeudi."
Thursday?! It was only Monday. It turned out that there were only three buses a week each way, and two of them weren't running that week because their scheduled days happened to fall on jours de fête, of which there appeared to be an awful lot.
Never mind - the storm was forecast to last for another week yet, so we resolved to hire the car on the Thursday. I got her to mark the car hire office on the map of Lannion and was gratified to see that, contrary to French tradition and practice, it was situated in the middle of town, just opposite the railway station and bus stop. Things were looking up.
We caught the bus on Thursday and by some unusual quirk of navigation managed to get off at the right stop and to find the hire car office before winter set in. I strode purposefully up to the counter and asserted that I wanted to hire a car. This didn't faze the chap behind the desk one iota and he proceeded to list the models available. I chose the cheapest, filled in the necessary forms, paid by card and cheerfully asked where the car was parked.
He got out a map.
This somewhat took the wind out of my sails. Why would I need a map to find the parking lot behind the office? How big was this bloody company?
I should have known.
Apparently where we were was merely The Office. The actual cars were in The Depot, which was about 5 kilometres out of town, back on the road on which we had just come in by bus.
"Couldn't The Depot just deliver the car here to The Office" I asked. Apparently not. Something about politique d'enterprise, which appears to be French for 'Company Policy', which in turn is English for 'The company refuses to even attempt to justify its cynical and totally arbitrary business practices to oiks like you. It also refuses to allow employees to divulge any information that might reveal just how rapacious, amoral and ethically bankrupt its senior management and shareholders are. We've had your money now sod off.'
I should at this point have made a scene and demanded my money back, followed by insisting on speaking to the most senior executive within a 200 mile radius so that I could give him graphic instructions to roll his company policy manual into a tight, phallic bundle and make sure it was well lubricated in preparation for the second part of the forthcoming procedure.
What I did was meekly ask if we could get a bus to The Depot. Again, apparently not. Although the bus must have passed within 20 metres of The Depot on the way in, it followed a circular route and getting back to The Depot would involve a thirty km round trip. It seemed that the only options were to walk it or to take a taxi, which would have cost more than the two days' car hire. We walked. Or, more accurately, we scrambled.
Apparently, there is a word for 'pavement' in French. (1) The word is a complete waste of dictionary space. They may have the concept but the materialization of it is never seen in practice - a bit like 'uninhibited' in English. The choices available to us ranged from the suicidal (walking in the road) through the just painful (picking our way through barbed wire and thorn bushes) to the merely seriously unpleasant (traversing muddy, semi-dug trenches). We finally arrived at The Depot covered in scratches, clothes in tatters and plastered in mud, looking like the last couple of survivors of the Somme Offensive. The employee looked at us, looked at the hire contract and pointedly put some extra paper protectors on the seats.
We had, however, prevailed - we had our two days car hire and could explore and shop to our hearts' content. All we had to do then was return the car to the depot and reverse the whole process.
It is a testament to our failing memories that, despite this fiasco, it was only ten years later (last Tuesday, to be precise) that we once again tried to hire a car in France. This was in Stenay, which is a lovely place but also, it has to be said, a bit of a backwater. Imagine my surprise then, when Mr. Google assured me that there was a car hire depot (depot, mind) only a ten minute cycle ride from our mooring. Not only that, but we could book it and pay for it online, which I did.
I rose early the next morning to get things ready to cycle in and pick up the car. Just before I left, the phone rang. It was a woman from the hire car depot, speaking in machine-gun French. Apparently, they didn't have the model I had reserved.
'No problem' I replied, 'What models have you got available?'
"Well, none, as it happens"
"I thought you were a bloody hire car company! Your website assured me you were a bloody hire car company. Aren't bloody hire car companies supposed to have bloody cars? What have I done, tried to hire a car through a bloody builder's merchants? How about a brace of acrows and a couple of lengths of expanded polystyrene mock Tudor architrave - could you manage that?
She ignored my pathetic attempts at satire.
"I am sorry M'sieu, but we are The Depot, we just store the cars, we do not hire them. For that you need The Office"
"and The Office is where?" I asked, already having a fairly good idea.
"That's Verdun as in 50 bleedin' kilometers away?"
"Avec regret, oui M'sieu"
""And your depot, your office and your website communicate with each other, if at all, by smoke signals, an old Aldis lamp, a pair of knackered tom-toms and two tin cans connected by a piece of string?"
"Je regrette, je ne peux pas commenter sur ces questions M'sieu."
"Politique d'enterprise, peut-être?"
The whole internal logic suddenly became clear to me. Just as banks will only lend money to those who don't need it, so the French will only hire out a car to someone who already has one. Hence the barriers they put in place in terms of distance and access. You need a car to get a car. It all made a convoluted, surreal, peculiarly French sort of sense.
Mind you, things don't improve much when you do actually get a bloody car, as will be shown in the next, unedifying, installment of Transports of Delight.
(1) Trottoir, since you ask.