Vespa for Beginners, part IV: In which Kelley makes an Error

A note: My friend (historian Richard Barnett) writes: ‘You surely knew I’d say this…the deepest level of Dante’s Inferno is indeed ice, not fire. Check out Inferno, canto 34.’ 

– Thank you, Richard! I knew Dante knew what he was talking about…(And I really need to read it – copies as gifts welcome, ahem-hem.)

Part IV:

I arrived at Gournay-en-Bray at about 7am. It was still dark, but signs of life were finally beginning to appear: there were a few more vehicles on the road, and I passed a pedestrian street where people were setting up for what would certainly be a market. And the bakeries were open! I stopped at a boulangerie for a croissant. (About 230 calories – I’m mentioning this on purpose and will come back to it.)

Alas, it was a tiny shop where there was really no room to warm up, and certainly no room to sit down, and no hot drinks. I’m not sure if I was less cold by then or just numb – I think the latter. You would think I gobbled the croissant, but I actually didn’t eat all of it – I was wound so tightly that I was afraid I’d be sick if I ate it all, so I had about 2/3 and then stuffed the rest in my bag.

How many Frenchmen does it take to fix Vespa?

It was about this time I began to think that I’d probably need to refill my gas/petrol tank. I was well aware that this village was a much better place to re-fill, or run out, than in the middle of nowhere farmlands I’d been riding through. I’d stopped at two petrol stations earlier in the night, but the first one only sold a minimum of 5 litres (the Vespa tank is 5 litres total and you must add oil to the mixture, and it wasn’t empty when I stopped,) and the second wasn’t working at all. The other petrol stations I’d passed weren’t ‘pay at the pump with your credit card’ stations, and they had been closed.

My timing was right: just as I was cruising away from the boulangerie, Vespa ran down and I had to switch to my reserve tank. It’s impossible not to notice this, because when I say ‘ran down,’ it actually runs down – it runs out of gas. It’ll stall unless you switch right to reserve. Then you know you have about 30 miles left before you’re really out. I decided to risk riding a little bit out of town, continuing on my journey, and to my pleasure there was a petrol station with working pumps that accepted credit cards.

The instructions on the machine were, as one might expect, in French. I went through about three rounds of putting my card in and not getting petrol and getting a receipt marked ‘zero’ before I figured out that you took your card out before pumping petrol. The Error occurred during this confusion.

There were three options: ‘Gazole,’ a ‘Super 95,’ and a ‘Super 98’. The latter two were ‘sans plomb’ which I knew meant ‘without lead’ or ‘unleaded’. I was thinking, does ‘Gazole’ mean ‘gasoline?’ when all the while a small voice in my head was going, ‘no, Gazole is Diesel, Kelley. It’s Diesel.’

And of course, by the time I got a pump to work, it was Gazole. As it was frothing out of the pump, into my tank, and as I was thinking, this doesn’t look right, the other half of me was thinking, oh, please just work; just work, even though I know this is Diesel and I’m really screwing things up right now…’

Vespa started, and for a moment, I thought, ok! Then I rode about two metres before she stalled. This happened a few times and then I couldn’t start Vespa at all.

Day was finally breaking. The sky was heavily overcast and grey, and the air was cold, but at least it was light. It was about 8am.


I pulled Vespa off the road and onto the wide pavement. There were a few houses along the road, and as I was pulling out my paperwork for my European Breakdown Cover, a man opened his shutters from his first-floor room. I waved and said ‘Bonjour,’ and he said Bonjour, looking at me quizzically. I could hear a buzzing and banging from the house next door and guessed some sort of construction work was going on.

After spending far too much money calling my Insurance, finding out that my Breakdown Cover was with another company, looking them up online and learning they wouldn’t open for another hour, and phoning Dani a few times in between, I decided to take matters into my own hands. This was entirely my fault, and Vespa wasn’t broken. I had to siphon out the Diesel and fill her up with the right stuff, and it would be fine. Plus, all of that would take less time than waiting for a company in England to open and send someone, somehow – if they would send someone at all (since the scooter wasn’t, in fact, broken).

I noticed a woman peeking out through the kitchen window of the house where I’d said ‘bonjour’ to the man. Remember, I had on jeans, a brown leather jacket (and  a lot of layers underneath,) and my white scooter helmet. There was this little blue scooter with a purple suitcase tied to the back, and a bright orange backpack tied to the seat. I was clearly travelling, and I was clearly stuck. (I’m willing to bet I also, clearly, looked foreign.)

I walked to the house where I’d heard hammering. All of the houses had gates, and all were locked. Then I saw a man in the garden of the house next door. I waved and said ‘bonjour!’ He did the French thing of looking at me, then going back to what he was doing for a few moments. Considering. I waited. After a few moments, he put down his gardening stuff and walked over.

A Practical Lesson in French:

I had out my French phrasebook and asked if he could help me call an auto-recovery service (l’assistance autoroute). He told me it was a national holiday (fête  national) and there wouldn’t be anyone to call. He asked if the scooter was broken (cassé) & I said no, I’d filled it with diesel (je fais le plain au gas-oil) and I needed to siphon it out – ‘Siphoner.’ I said that a lot on Friday morning. I tried to say ‘I am dumb,’ ‘Je suis bête,’ but I’ not sure if that’s right!

He thought for a moment, went inside, got a key, unlocked his gate, and went to the middle house, to find the guy doing construction work. There was much discussion and waving of hands, and a bucket & length of hose were produced. There was a great deal of back-and-forthing which seemed like arguing, but in a problem-solving sort of way. The first guy from the house I’d parked in front of came out. The hose siphoning wasn’t working very well, and he disappeared and returned awhile later with a pump thingy with a hose attached. Perfect! The first guy went and got three empty 1.5 litre water bottles and instructed me to fill it with petrol – NOT GAS-OIL! (I must say that they were all really nice the whole time. Goodness knows what they were thinking.)

And then there were three…

When I returned with three bottles full of lovely clear petrol (which had gone right to my head,) a fourth guy had joined the neighbours. He had the side panel on Vespa’s engine taken off and had wrenches and all sorts of things which made me a little nervous. It didn’t take me long to see that ‘just siphoning the diesel’ was not enough.

A wonderful assembly line formed, with seemingly no instruction. The fourth guy who had the engine open would take out a plug (a spark plug?) and the construction-work guy (guy 2) would rinse it with the clean petrol. Then guy 4 would put the plug back in, kick-start Vespa, and the engine would start up, spewing tons of smoke from the little exhaust pipe (burning off the Diesel). Then Vespa would stall. Guy 4 would take out the plug and hand it to Guy 1, who would sniff it (presumably for diesel) and return it with a few words of discussion. Guy 2 would rinse it, and Guy 4 would put it back in to start the process again.

I, meanwhile, looked on, along with the first neighbour (Guy 3) and his wife, who had joined us at some point.

This process was repeated about 7 times. Each time there was less smoke, and Vespa ran a little longer before stalling. Finally – HOORAY! – she didn’t stall.

Guy 1 explained that it would smoke a little bit but it wouldn’t be a problem (‘Sa va fumes encore in petite moment pas grave.’)

There were a few mutedly pleased looks and lots of wiping of oily hands. I tied everything back onto Vespa (fortunately, I hadn’t had to remove my suitcase, which Dani tied down very tightly before I left the day before – was it only the day before?) I asked if I could pay anyone for anything. Guy 1 directed the question at Guy 4 (the one who had dealt primarily with the engine). All said no, no, no.

I said ‘Merci, merci beaucoup,’ about a million times and thought of kissing them on cheeks but thought maybe that would be a little too much. Then I got back on the road, beeping my tiny little horn and waving as I drove away.

Merci! Thank you, kind French people just outside of the village of Gournay-en-Bray along the D915, who took a good two hours out of your day off to help me! What teamwork! What problem-solving! What a lesson for me! (What an idiot I am…)

Oh, yeah: I was back on the road. Va-rim, rim rim. It felt like Vespa was running better than ever.

They’re going to be dining out on this story for months.

5 thoughts on “Vespa for Beginners, part IV: In which Kelley makes an Error

  1. I know I don’t have to keep commenting on all these posts, but I can’t tell you how much I am enjoying reading them. I’m sitting here (now in Ireland) with a big smile on my face….je suis bete (with an accent which I can’t find on my ordinateur). Is that right?

  2. I am enjoying your story. Clearly you shouldn’t stop at the South of France, I insist you spend the next 5 years travelling around the world on your Vespa. Pouring diesel into it the whole way!

  3. Oh pal, what an epic trip. How about taking a few months to recover from it, in a mountaintop retreat with a cat? 🙂

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