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stalling–roadtrip to bruges (part 1)

I’ve seen pictures of Brugge (or Bruges), Belgium and have always wanted to go there. They call it the Venice of the north, with picturesque ancient buildings flanked by canals. A town untouched by World War II. A gem. According to mapquest, it’s 168 miles away or a 2 hour and 48 minute drive from Auvers (they lie) or a 2 ½ hour train(s) trip from the Gare du Nord in Paris, so about 7 hours roundtrip.

If I take a train, it’s over 240 Euro round trip to get to Brugge. Flying might be cheaper, but there’s getting to the airport, security, waiting, fees… As opposed to the train, which is quick and painless. But I lose time in connections (ie: from Brussels to Gent to Brugge) and there’s that price thing.

I check the prices of a three day car rental and it’s a no-brainer. Three days unlimited mileage for more than half the price of a train ticket.   And this way, I can stop where and when I want.

But I quickly discover a catch…there’s a premium on cars with automatic transmissions. The difference in prices is huge. Which presents a huge dilemma.

The last time I attempted driving a car with manual transmission was in San Francisco (probably one of the world’s stupidest places to attempt such a feat). It was one of the most mortifying experiences of my life. Not only was I in constant fear of death by rolling backwards down a vertical hill, I was also constantly humiliated by my inadequacy in shifting—stalling at every intersection and being forced to stop people on hills and ask them to hold the car in place while I shifted. I think I lost half my weight in sweat that day. I swore I’d never touch a stick shift again.

But poverty does funny things to a person. I decide driving with a stick shift will be an exciting challenge. A new experience. And there aren’t a lot of hills up north. I gamely click “reserve”.

The next two nights I spend studying maps and travel websites like I’m cramming for a final.

The night before I’m to pick up the car, the enormity of what I’m attempting hits me. I try desperately to come up with a reason, or find a sign that I should really cancel this whole junket. I’m sure I’m coming down with something. I can’t find my glasses. I can’t drive without my glasses. Oooooh, I have a bad cramp in my clutch leg. Where are the damn keys? Not being able to find the keys must be God’s way of telling me not to go. A black cat just crossed my path several times….THAT’s got to be a sign, even if it is Denzel.   Every little thing seems a warning of impending disaster.

I tell myself to calm down. It’ll be all right. I’ve got every conceivable route written out and mapped. How hard could it be? Less coordinated, dumber people than me have driven a stick shift. I temporarily ignore the fact that less coordinated, dumber people than me can also walk and use a cellphone at the same time and I’m totally incapable of that.

I mentally practice shifting until the xanax kicks in.

I must be maturing, because I don’t recall being tortured the by nightmares of sleeping through the alarm on the morning of my final exam or being at school naked. Only a few sane waking moments wondering whether seeing Bruges is worth dying for as I drift off to sleep.

When I wake up the next morning, I have that feeling I used to get before finals of being too tired and brain dead to cope with the task at hand. Being a trooper, I lumber towards my goal.

Armed with maps, instructions.credit cards, passport, drivers license, snacks and bottled water, I take the train to Pontoise, where I’m to pick up la voiture.

By 8:30 AM, I’m at the Pontoise Europcar. The car rental process itself is painless. The rental agent seems amused (in a friendly way) by my caveman French. The only rocky moment is when I sign the receipt and realize (after I signed it) that the number on it is E 500. Not the E116 I’d been quoted. The agent seems to notice that I’ve turned white and reassuringly tells me “c’est une deposit.” I’m relieved and terrified all at once. One false move and I’m broke. That’s worse than a fatal accident. I wonder if they’ll charge me for the day if I return it now?

No, I will hate myself if I don’t attempt to go to Brugge while I have this damn car. After stalling three times and almost backing into a Volkswagen Golf before getting out of the parking lot, I resolutely tell myself that I’m definitely driving up to Bruges while I have this goddamn car in my possession.

Just not today.

I stall 12 times on the 5 mile drive back to Auvers.   Fortunately, the French drivers are kind.   One person  honks when I stall at an intersection, but two jump out of their cars and offer to help.   In New York, I would have caused a riot.

The rest of the day, I intermittently practice driving the damn car interspersed with taking naps to recuperate from the physical and mental tension of practicing driving the damn car. My left leg will be very muscular from this experience. I have so many “my little goat moments”, I’ll be surprised if I don’t have permanent brain damage. I’m still trying to unfurl my hands from clutching the wheel in terror.

With a deep sense of foreboding, I make a delicious dinner of pasta with sausage, mushrooms and tomatoes before I go to bed. I figure it could be my last supper.


roadtrip to bruges part 2 (lost in the nether regions)


2 Responses

  1. I went to buy a car with standard shift never having driven one before. At a stop light with the salesman beside me. I mistakenly shifted into reverse. Hit the car behind me. The salesmen asked if he could drive back. I obliged.

    • You kind of get used to the shift after awhile…thank goodness it’s flat in Belgium. Funny thing is, a French person told me he was terrified of driving in America because of the automatic transmission. Go figure.

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