Another Trip, Another Car

St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, April 2000

One advantage to taking trips to France in the off season is the Auto Europe automatic upgrade: rent a compact, get an intermediate; rent an intermediate, get a full-size car. A full-size car is really too big to easily negotiate the narrow streets in the towns we visit, not to mention the many narrow roads with hairpin turns once you get a few miles away from the Riviera; i.e., towards the Alps. So we book a compact to get an intermediate, although a good proportion of the time we do end up with a large car because those who show up without a reservation usually want the cheapest one that is still available. Some people take advantage of this fact by renting a subcompact, nearly always ending up with an intermediate.

This year Auto Europe gave us a sexy red Alfa Romeo turbo diesel.

The diesel does lower fuel costs ($3.10/gal. vs. $4.25 – and we complain about $2 a gallon? – and 35 mpg vs. 28) but the turbo is really needed to boost the otherwise sluggish acceleration. (See One Week Isn't Enough for our experiences with the full-size Renault, non-turbo, diesel we were given during our 1996 visit.) We carefully looked the car over before leaving, for damage as well as for unaccustomed features. We did note a small dent on the passenger side door, which the attendant documented, and the only new feature was a seeming keylock on the inside of that doorwell. It turned out to be the means to disable the passenger-side airbag if desired. Having in the distant past survived a head-on collision with few lasting injuries because we used the seat belts and shoulder harnesses, we left it enabled.

It took quite a while to get used to the really low friction point of the clutch (as opposed to the really high one of my Miata) and we had to drive completely through Nice from west to east during the morning rush hour to get to our first destination. Four narrow lanes, completely filled with cars and jockeying motorcycles, occasionally decreasing to three lanes to accommodate left turns or right lane parking. The road was the famed Promenade des Anglais that borders Nice's stony beach, but I didn't get much chance to enjoy the view. It was still a little early for topless bathing, anyway. And based on Betty Lou's running commentary about how close I was to the car in front, or to the right, or her expletives directed at the motorcyclist who just cut in front of us, I don't think she managed much sightseeing either. And the occasional stalling when I misjudged the clutch ratcheted the tension level up another couple of notches.

Eventually Nice was left behind, traffic thinned out, and we turned off toward St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat – and were immediately detoured from the main route via a roundabout approach to the Hôtel Clair Logis. Fortunately, Cap-Ferrat isn't a large peninsula and signs soon directed us into the high-rent district, to the converted mansion where we'd be staying for the next three days.

We had barely gotten settled in when the proprietress called our room and told us that we'd left our car lights on! She accompanied us out, and sure enough the taillights were on, although in the bright sunlight I could barely see that the headlights were also glowing.

So I got in and tried to figure out what the problem was. The light stalk was in the off position, so I checked the ignition switch. It had the usual four positions for, I assumed, Start, Run, Accessories, and Lock, with an adjacent push-button to press to permit key removal. Of course the abbreviations weren't English, or at least not all English: AVV, MAR, STOP, PARK. (Evidently there are still areas that the French language police haven't been able to control.) I reinserted the key, moved it a position or two and was told that the lights now were out. However, when I removed the key the lights were again on! At least now I noticed the instrument panel icon that indicated this fact, so I would be able to tell in the future if I had this problem before I exited. After three or four more tries, the lights stayed off. "It's Italian!" the proprietress concluded with a shrug.

Since the whole process had been rather unnerving, I decided to consult the manual. Fortunately it wasn't written in Italian, but even my French doesn't include an extensive vocabulary of automotive terms. However, the French-English dictionary I had was adequate for what I really needed to find. Namely, that although the first two positions were as expected, the fourth was for "motor off, starter disengaged, steering locked, and parking lights automatically illuminated." Also, "to turn the key to the PARK position, it is necessary to press the lighting contact." Now I recalled during past trips having seen parked cars along the road at night with headlights faintly glowing. Obviously, my successful removal had been with the key at the STOP, not PARK, position.

Fortunately the proprietress was so observant; a dead battery was not the way we wanted to start our vacation.

Unfortunately, there was no equally satisfying explanation for why the radio continued to play after the key was removed! (This required a particular alertness in remembering to turn it off manually each time we left the car. There was also the uneasiness of wondering whether the valet might turn it back on while taking it to the hotel's parking garage to stay for a couple of days.)

I guess it's because "it's Italian!"

Which reminds me of another adventure with an unfamiliar rental car. Several years ago, after spending several days in Paris, we picked up an intermediate Renault Megane to tour Brittany. Within a couple of miles, still within sight of the Eiffel Tower, we heard a beeping sound. I slowed and scanned the instrument panel but found nothing amiss. Then the sound stopped. Maybe it was an anomaly.

A few minutes later, more beeps, then silence. I pulled over, focused all my senses and waited for a reoccurrence – nothing. I activated all the controls, one at a time, revved the engine – still nothing. We pulled back into traffic and soon the beeping recommenced – and as abruptly ceased. Did it happen just after I applied the brakes? Just as I was turning? None of my attempts were able to elicit the now-familiar sound. We considered the consequences of breaking down miles from nowhere. I had a memory from a trip to England years before, when the floor-mounted gearshift lever of our Ford Escort broke off near the town of Wool – I'm sure you're familiar with its location – and I had to use a towel to grasp, with my left hand, the really hot two-inch remnant of lever to shift until we were able to locate a Ford dealer to repair it. (It was still under warranty and there were more Ford dealers in the hinterlands than auto rental dealers.)

So we retraced our path. Although the rental people spoke English reasonably well, the mechanics didn't. There followed an interesting discussion period, which also involved some pantomime and sound effects. (My automotive vocabulary was even less extensive then.) I despaired of their being able to determine the cause of such a strange, intermittent, symptom, and there were no other cars available. However, it turned out that my sound effects were key – the mechanic immediately started adjusting the radio!

Evidently the previous renter had selected certain critical traffic information subchannel options. In Europe, many FM radio stations broadcast alerts of serious traffic problems within their broadcast range. (That's how we heard about, although didn't heed, the nasty Autoroute accident near Aix-en-Provence this year. See Week 1's second footnote.) One menu selection sets the radio to automatically increase the volume when such an advisory is received. Another sets the radio to notify you, with beeps, when the signal is weakening to the point where you should switch to a new station in the area you have now entered! Obviously, Paris was at the fringe of the selected station's reception area – the one thing I hadn't thought to check was the radio!

© Copyright 2000 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved