A Difficult Transmission

We travelled mostly by train during our September trip in France. And in general, we found travelling by  train to be a pleasure. However, in Chartres we discovered that there was no practical way to take the train to our next stop: Amboise, in the Loire Valley. So we rented a car.

Turns out that it can be difficult or even impossible to find a rental car in Europe with automatic transmission. In Paris perhaps, but in Chartres it was not an option.

Problem is: I have never driven a car with manual transmission. Judy has, so she became the designated driver. Of course, the last time she drove a stick shift was about thirty years ago, but we figured hey, it’s like riding a bicycle. Once you learn, you don’t forget.

So off we went. Unfortunately, by the time we had found the rental car agency and taken care of all the paperwork, it was rush hour. You wouldn’t think that a cathedral town would have a heavy rush hour, but Chartres is bordered by a number of industrial communities that generate considerable traffic.

So there was a lot of stop and go. And driving a manual transmission for the first time in three decades requires some re-orientation. Stop and go is not the best sort of traffic in which to get re-oriented to a stick shift.

The car stalled a lot. And when It wasn’t in the proper gear, it tended to make alarming noises that put me in mind of a cow in labor.

But the traffic wasn’t the only challenge. French roads are full of roundabouts. Because of this, you feel as if you are spending most of your time driving in circles.

This requires even more slowing down and speeding up, more stalling, more bellows from the bovine maternity ward. Plus it requires more decisions about which way to turn. Which is more difficult because you are dizzy from driving in circles.

I was doing my best to serve as navigator, but I couldn’t make sense of the map. And neither Judy nor I have the kind of composure behind the wheel required of, say, race car drivers. So we had a lot of panicky exchanges like this:


Me: I HAVE NO #@!%$ CLUE!

We revolved multiple times around several roundabouts, stalling and starting up again, like a little moon with unstable gravity. Finally, though, we got within sight of the A10, the highway that heads south towards our destination. At this point we noticed a burning smell. A burning smell that perhaps was related to the smoke billowing out from under the hood of our car.

So we pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the engine. We decided that we would stay there for a while, let the car cool down, and let our pulses return to normal. If the car was still smoking when we got back on the road, we would head back to the car rental office.

car rental in France
Judy with our rental car in Amboise.

Fortunately, that turned out not to be necessary. After about 45 minutes we started up the car and got on to the A10. Judy was more comfortable changing gears, and we made it the rest of the way without smoke, flames, or explosions.

While on the road we did discover some important common ground between French and American cultures. In both countries, highways are a good place to find bad to mediocre food, something not easy to do in France.

In this case, the source of the food was a French chain called The Buffalo Grill. The Buffalo Grill is clearly aimed at harassed French parents who have been stuck in the car with their kids for too many hours. It has a Wild West theme that would probably inspire protest rallies in some parts of the USA. For a little taste, here’s a picture of the plastic teepee/playhouse adjoining the restaurant.

Buffalo Grill France

The remainder of our driving experiences in France were uneventful. Fortunately we were able to leave the car in Amboise and take the train back to Paris.

For those of you who are American, have you ever tried driving in Europe? And for the Europeans, have you ever rented a car in the USA? Was it a challenging experience?


51 Comments on “A Difficult Transmission”

  1. I was laughing all the way through this post! No doubt Judy can now count herself an expert on driving a manual transmission, because, although she was suffering from bovine labor pains and ended up scorched around the edges, she pushed on through and managed to get you there! She deserves a medal!

  2. Hmmm….yes, it is different! We lived in Europe and our first car, a Peugeot, was a manual. I too hadn’t driven one in several decades but once I got use to it I loved it. I had to get use to an automatic when we returned to the U.S. Round-a-bouts are tricky at first especially when you are not use to them but they are an extremely good for traffic flow and again, we got use to them in The Netherlands (we had lots of them there) and they are fun to maneuver once you get the hang of them. Sounds like Julie did a great job with the driving and traffic. It can be very intimidating. I would also add that getting a drivers license in Europe is much, much more difficult than in the U.S. I know several people who had to take the test multiple times before qualifying.

  3. 1) At no time did smoke billow. It wisped.
    2) I recall no sounds, bovine or otherwise, except a little cursing perhaps.
    3) The Buffalo Grill was so much worse than we can possibly convey. The interior was decorated like a bordello.
    4) We were forced to stop there because I did not want to get too far off the road, once I was getting the hang of shifting. It was an easy glide-off, glide-on.

  4. Well done Judy for driving in France. Most Europeans drive ‘stick’ shift and I actually often feel sick in automatic cars! You made me smile all through this over my breakfast espresso (and that’s something you can’t find in the States – a decently strong, small cup of perfect coffee, something everywhere in Italy seems to be able to produce).

  5. We thought the large roundabout a blessing as you could just go round and round until you had identified the road you wanted.Fortunately, we were used to standard shift but not being used to the car at one point at night we turned off the headlights by mistake and it took several seconds before we managed to turn them back on. Speeding in pitch darkness, these few seconds seemed very long.

  6. I have driven a stick-shift vehicle most of my life, but my problem would have been those round-abouts. I get antsy when I don’t know where I am going. GPS is my friend. I can really feel for you guys. It is funny now, but not during. What a crazy story…. 😀

    • I like having regular signs that can reassure me that I’m on the right road. In France they are very stingy with the signs. It’s as if the system were designed only for people who already know how to get where they are going.

  7. Judy is a champ and I applaud you both for being so plucky.

    I learned to drive a stick at 12 (a tractor, not a hot rod) but I’m afraid I don’t have the nerve, especially in the UK where everyone drives on the wrong side of the road.

    Thanks for the morning chuckle!

  8. Anders has driven all over Spain and in parts of France because I don’t drive stick. The hill towns in Andalusia made for some challenging parking experiences: narrow streets and teeny spaces all at an incline.

    Perhaps our most harrowing rental car story though was when we rented a car in Patagonia and drove from Argentina to Chile. We rented a Fiat or some small car. Most of the highway was paved in Argentina. But in Chile the roads were another story and, at some point on our way back, we punctured the gas tank on a stretch of unpaved roads. Luckily, gas was cheap because we had to stop and refuel every hour to make it back to the rental car office in Argentina. As they swiped our credit card for final payment, I remember looking over my shoulder at the car undercarriage steadily dripping fuel.

  9. We just got back from a trip to Croatia and Slovenia. Rented a car, with two stick-shift veterans as designated drivers. And the burning smell? Well it was the manifold, or something like that, which prevented the clutch from engaging (both of the men aboard know a lot about cars). We waited in the rain hours for a tow truck carrying a second car.
    The tow truck driver said that the reason the clutch went was that “Americans can’t drive manual cars.” We all took umbrage at this grievous insult, each stating that we had been driving stick-shift cars since before he was born, but that didn’t cut any ice with him. And it probably WAS American stick-shift ignorance that started the whole thing, but, as we were the last ones to have the car . . . you get it.
    The end of this debacle is still not in sight, with the rental car company accusing us of gross neglect and demanding that we pay for the replacement clutch. Investigating this issue on the internet showed that this happens frequently and that renters are screwed.

    • Wow, that’s alarming! I had paid for the kind of insurance where you are not supposed to have to pay a nickel, no matter what happens, because I was nervous about the whole thing (and Rick Steves recommended it). I will say, once I got the hang of it, and we were out of stop and go traffic, we had no more problems. And when we returned the car, they used it to shuttle us about five miles to the train station — and the driver did not comment on any problems (I was holding my breath…). After I got back, I read an article in which someone paid for a driver’s ed class in a stick shift before going to Europe — that would have been a good idea, had I thought of it. You forget a lot in 30 years!

  10. Love this post, I laughed out loud at your wonderful descriptions, we’ve driven in the states and through Europe. We drove through Italy this year, without a sat nav or a map, mainly at night and through Naples in the pouring rain. I think we both felt so harassed by the end of our trip we needed another holiday. The train sounds a great deal more civilised.

  11. What a wonderful post, you had me laughing out loud! I can just imagine the stress of it all! Hubs and I would have killed each other!
    We hired an automatic in Australia and almost died about ten times in ten minutes on the highway!!! xxxx

    • It’s interesting to me that driving an automatic can be difficult – it seems like the point is you don’t have do anything except put the car in drive or reverse. But I guess it all boils down to what you are used to! I will admit the drive did get us both pretty testy but we managed to overcome!

  12. Loved the description! We had the experience of taking the 5 of us to Germany and needing to rent a car. Europeans just don’t usually need to transport that many people and their luggage (which partially ended up in our laps). We got a BMW 5 Stick shift, which we could drive but was difficul to deal with in the towns. While it’s not a huge car here, it is over there. We had so much trouble maneuvering about the small towns and parking was just a nightmare. We felt like we were driving a huge RV or something by all the trouble we had. A memorable experience.

  13. I know the A10 quite well and know about driving in France, but to me it’s like driving in the UK only better as although the population count is similar for the UK and France, France is a gazillion times bigger – so easier on the driving 🙂 What’s trickier is driving a right hand drive car on left hand drive roads……. and that’s when roundabout become a LOT OF FUN 🙂

  14. Hi Jason, I haven’t done any of the two, and haven’t even to the mainland US, haha, but i love your description of things as examples of the present experiences. The billowing cow on maternity ward evoked a loud sound, which felt like from my tummy! Judy is a great driver, imagine after 30 decades! And i guess maybe in France it is a right hand drive, is it? The more i am awed.

  15. A truly amusing story, I laughed all the way through it. I have never driven a car with automatic shift, so I would be scared to drive in your country. We once hired a car in southern Spain. Driving in midtown Malaga is no fun!!! I was scared to h…… I also prefer the train. It´s relaxing and you can enjoy the landscape much better.

  16. Oh my, this brings back memories of driving in Italy! Same thing–except it was my husband driving (poor guy). The stories I could tell–but there isn’t enough space in the comments. 😉 Good for Judy! Actually, the autostrada highways in Italy were much more impressive than our interstates here in the U.S., and had plenty of space–must be different than France. But the language, roundabouts, motorbikes, and unfamiliarity with the geography made it just a bit stressful. We’ve vowed to avoid rental cars when traveling abroad whenever possible. London was so easy with the Tube!

  17. This was hilarious! Glad it all turned out ok. Judy sure has guts. I had a similar experience vacationing in the south of France years ago. No automatic transmissions, period. I wasn’t the driver (I have enough trouble with automatic) but it was scary and bumpy while we got used to it. Do you think they do this to torture Americans?

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