When I first started planning my trip, I realised I didn’t have a Plan B. My biggest concern was rain. The only ‘Plan B’ that came to mind was one which I didn’t mention to anyone and figured I would make happen if absolutely necessary. In Pontoise, I felt it was necessary. And at the petrol station just off the N14/A15, serendipity was once again at my side.
Plan B was a man with a van.
I figured I would negotiate a lift – me and Vespa – in a van. And offer to pay, obviously. I’d considered it back in Lewes when Vespa wouldn’t start.
Just as I was tying my backpack onto Vespa, wondering what to do, a white lorry pulled up to the air-tyre-pressure pumps, and a pair of young men hopped out to top up the tyres. The lorry didn’t have any seats in the back: the space was just right for me, Vespa, suitcase – everything.
The more I looked at the van, the more I began to wonder whether it could actually make it to Paris.
I haven’t got any photos from the most challenging parts of my journey because, obviously, I was busy. But this van was the most dilapidated piece of junk you have ever seen. It is the last thing any mothers in my life (mom, mother-in-law, friends, mother-hen types, etc,) would want me to climb into. The outside was banged, scraped, and dented. It was absolutely filthy inside and out. It looked like something had caught fire in the back – the carpet was scorched. There was junk all over the place.
I approached one of the young men (they both seemed about my age) and asked if he spoke English. None. I launched into some (probably very bad) French explaining what I was after. He didn’t understand. It was time for Charades. With many gestures and some French, I said, ‘Me, Vespa, Paris. Gare du Bercy.’ I took out a map and showed him. I pulled out some cash and showed him.
There were some complications, but he seemed interested. At that moment, a woman pulled up to use the air pumps. She spoke French and English, and kindly translated back and forth for us. The young man was concerned whether it was illegal. She said it wasn’t a problem. I showed him my passport. He showed me his driving license. She said it was probably 30 km to Bercy station. His friend returned and he explained. They said they needed to stop by their house and drop off their shopping – there was a Lidl bag in the back (that’s a cheap chain).
Next thing, I was taking my suitcase off Vespa, and the three of us were lifting her into the burnt-out back of the filthiest van in France. And I was thrilled. The young man kindly gestured that I take the passenger seat, and he crouched in the back next to Vespa. We drove for a little while and pulled up outside of what can only be described as the slum district. The first boy (The Talker) went through some corrugated fence / gates. The other one waited in the driver’s seat.
I was incredibly, incredibly aware that I had shown The Talker my wallet full of cash and my US Passport. I had most of my most expensive material possessions on me – brand-new MacBook Air, brand-new iPhone, and Vespa. (I’d brought my cheap ukulele rather than my Gibson, and I had left my engagement ring at home.)
I mimed / spoke French to the driver: ‘Where are you from? I’m from America.’
‘Roman – Romany.’
‘Ah,’ I said, ‘Romania.’
I was in a van full of gipsies.
A woman, dressed in many-layered, many-coloured shawls and skirts, came out to look at us. Two of the scruffiest little children I’ve ever seen ran out and stared, wide-eyed. A gaggle of men came out to look. The Talker came back, his arms full with another seat for the van. Another very tall, skinny man followed him. There was much discussion and arm-waving as The Talker fitted the seat in the back. Then he and the first driver squeezed in together beside Vespa, on the single seat, and the tall guy got into the driver’s seat.
‘He is very good,’ said The Talker. (Presumably as a driver. Because not even these boys wanted to drive in Paris.)
I was never afraid, but I was extremely aware. There atmosphere wasn’t threatening. The Talker was getting things done, and his concern about this arrangement being legal struck me as very important. Because I’m willing to bet that most of the people I saw there weren’t living in France legally. And my offer to pay them for this lift was going to be feeding that woman, those scruffy children, and probably most of the men I saw, for months. Their encampment – their home – was a handful of rusty sheds. If one didn’t look closely, if one didn’t notice the people amongst the spare tyres, torn rags, and broken glass, one would have thought it a rubbish dump.
We were off. The smell of petrol was thick in the air. It was from Vespa, laying on her side. The van, despite looking horrible, ran smooth as a whistle. The Talker lit a cigarette, and I nervously pointed to Vespa lying beside him. ‘Is that safe?’ I said in English. He put it out. There was much map-and-hand-waving. My map wasn’t great – it wasn’t a full map of Paris. They wanted to take the peripherique (ring road) and take the best entrance into the city.
We ended up going straight through the heart of Paris.
The Arch de Triomphe loomed, enormous, from the mist. A giant French flag hung, waving, from its arch. The weather was still so heavy, only the bottom 1/3 of the Eiffel Tower was visible.
We stopped for directions about six times. We figured out that asking cab drivers was best. There were, it seemed, millions and millions of people – on foot, in cars, on scooters. I was unspeakably relieved to be in a van, being driven to Gare du Bercy. It took us over two hours to navigate Paris. Goodness knows how long it would have taken me, on Vespa. When the driver lit a cigarette, I didn’t stop him. At that point, I almost asked for one myself.
My next text-update to Dani, who was passing on messages to my mother, his mother, and Verity, was at 2:30pm: ‘In Paris! Nearly there. All well.’
I did not tell him I was in a rickety van full of gipsies.
With much error, direction-asking, and some arguments all around (they wanted to drop me off at the first sight of a sign for auto-train, but I made them take me right to where it was: heck, we’d gone this far…) we made it. I could tell from their discussion that they were going to ask me for more money than we’d originally agreed upon, but it had also taken a heck of a lot longer than we’d all thought, so I didn’t feel that was unfair. The original price I’d offered, and we’d agreed upon, was €60. The woman had said it was 30km drive, but it was 90km, The Talker explained. They wanted €100. I offered €80. We agreed on €90, I said ‘merci,’ and we parted ways.
I hastily tied my suitcase onto the back of Vespa and made to push it across the road. The suitcase fell off. I dragged everything to the side of the road and tied it on again. Then I rode Vespa up the drive and right to the Auto-Train check-in.
It was 3:30pm.
After checking in Vespa, I staggered to the taxi queue and got a lift to the Gare du Lyon. It was maybe 5 minutes away from Gare du Bercy, but I was in no state to navigate anything by this point.
After getting my ukulele stuck in the turnstile for the loos, paying €0.50 to use the toilet, and riding the escalator back to the main station, I collapsed at the only sit-down restaurant at Gare du Lyon and ordered a croque monsieur, chips, and an Eidelweiss beer. At 4pm, I tucked into the most expensive, and most delicious, grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich I have ever eaten.