A week ago Saturday (that would be May 19) we woke our kids, packed the car and headed for PTI. Our ultimate destination was a place called Chateau du Pin near the small town of Champtoce-sur-Loire in France. Having a checkered history with flights out of PTI I was not at all sure that we would make it to France in less than three days, but thankfully our flight to O’Hare went without a hitch and we made our flight bound for Charles de Gaulle outside of Paris without a problem. It was when the wheels hit the ground in gay Paree that we started to have an “interesting” trip.
We made our way through customs smoothly and headed to the Hertz counter to pick up our mid-sized family sedan. All was going swimmingly until they tried to process our credit cards and all were declined. This was interesting for two reasons: first, all of our bills are paid and with the credit limits on the cards we should have been able to buy the car (not saying we can afford it, just that Wachovia keeps upping the credit limit in an effort to get us to accumulate enough debt so that we’ll stop paying all of our bills in their entirety and thus depriving Wachovia of interest on our debt), and second we had called the bank before we left to let them know that we were going to be in France so that they wouldn’t put a security hold on our transactions. Because I could only find an 800 number for Wachovia the folks at Hertz couldn’t call them so we trooped off to figure out what to do.
Originally we thought we might take the TGV train out to the chateau and figure things out when we got there, but when we went up the escalator to get back to the terminal and head to the TGV station we found a log jam at the top. The police were beginning to cordon off the area for some reason and at the same time a small woman speaking Spanish blocked the top of the escalator while she tried to get someone, anyone, to tell her where her gate was. I started pushing my way through the crowd and Celeste and the boys were right on my tail, but Erin got caught in the crowd. Eventually a woman was pushed down the escalator, letting out a blood curdling scream as she fell, and at this point Erin started to cry and get a little panicked. In my infinite wisdom I shouted the following to her: “Hold it together until you get to us!” How sensitive of me, huh? Anyway, that seemed to light a fire in her because she made like Larry Czonka and pushed through the crowd to get to us and then collapsed in her mother’s arms while sobbing and cutting me some not-so-nice looks.
So now we’re stuck in between the crowd of folks trying to get away from the police scene and those trying to push their way in the other direction. This lasted for about 20 minutes until we heard a loud whistle and then an explosion, which we found out was the police blowing up a suspicious package. Once the crowd thinned out a little I told Celeste that I was going to buy a phone card to call the Wachovia 800 number to see if I could get our card situation worked out. I figured it would be easier to do that than to make a two hour train ride and then a cab ride and still be without our car and then have to get the car from a satellite Hertz office in Angers. (Note to self: invest in a mobile phone with a SIM card before traveling overseas again).
I bought a phone card at the American Express window (20 Euro got me 120 minutes anywhere in the western world), found a pay phone, muddled my way through the French instructions (I don’t speak or read a word of it) and called the 800 number only to find that it had been changed. Because I’d left my bag with Celeste I didn’t have anything to write on so I had to remember the new number, which wasnt’ easy considering I hadn’t slept on the flight over so we’re talking serious jet-lag and sleep deprivation. I went through the whole process again and eventually got through to a live human being at Wachovia. She was very nice, but what she had to say wasn’t. Here it is (I’m paraphrasing):
Mr. Lowder it seems that our system is down for routine maintenance and as a result all accounts have a $400 credit limit on them at the time. I’m sorry for the inconvenience, but there’s nothing I can do until the system comes up.
This was bad enough, but the Hertz lady had already tried to rent the car to me for one day in an effort to get me the car and allow me to get to my destination and then get the card issue resolved from there. That amount was less than $400 I’m sure, so I asked the lady at Wachovia if her records showed that we had called and were going to be in France. She said that yes her records did show that, so I asked if she could tell me when my cards would be usable. She said that she was told the system would be up by 7 a.m. eastern time which was 1 p.m. where I was sitting. I was on the phone with her at 11 a.m. Paris time so that meant I had a two hour wait. Since I couldn’t think of anything else to do I thanked her and hung up.
I found Celeste and the kids and decided to see if our cards would work. We got back to the Hertz desk and a new woman was working and she tried my card and miraculously it worked. I’m now pretty well convinced that Wachovia either screwed up with the whole security thing, or they simply decline your cards to make you call them so that they know for sure it’s you overseas and then flip the switch to approve your usage. Honestly whether or not the story about the system being down is true they still put me in a bind at a time when I was exhausted and had an exhausted family on my hands. To say I was (am) irked would be putting it mildly.
It gets better. Unfortunately for us the car we’d reserved was now gone as was the last of their portable GPS units and the only thing left of the size we needed with a built in GPS was a BMW 5-series diesel, which was gonna push the price higher than we wanted to go. So the lady mentioned that if we dropped the optional insurance then it would cost the same as the Peugeot we’d originally reserved. Thinking that our insurance is pretty good and covers us for accidents on rentals, and being in a WTF mood thanks to our escapades with the card I just signed the dotted line. It wasn’t until about a 1/2 hour later as I navigated the A10 outside of Paris that it occured to me that I wasn’t entirely sure our insurance covered collissions outside the US (note to self: check the insurance before going overseas again).
But before we got to the A10 I had one last obstacle to hurdle: I had to figure out how to start the damn car. You see, I drive a 2001 Saturn and I drive in the state of North Carolina in the good old US of A, which means I’ve not encountered an ignition system that requires you to stick the key fob into it. You know, the thing that has buttons that you push to unlock your door and pop your trunk? Well in a BMW in Paris you stick the whole damn thing into the slot that normally takes your ignition key and then you push a button on the dash that says “Start”. I did both things, but it still wouldn’t start so I grabbed a Hertz technician walking buy and asked him to help. He spoke no English and I spoke no French and so he literally got in the car and put his hand on the brake pedal to indicate that I needed to have my foot on the break when I pushed the “Start” button before it would start. Thankfully I was too tired to be really embarassed and we were off to the races.
When it hit me that maybe my insurance wouldn’t cover me in an accident I started to think that my childrens’ chances of going to college were entirely dependant on my not totalling the car. Since we were staying in the French boonies it really wasn’t a problem for most of the week we were there, but of course we had to return to Paris and Charles de Gaulle last Saturday to catch our flight home. We decided to get a room by the airport on Friday night since our flight out of Paris was scheduled for 11 a.m. on Saturday. We left Friday morning and went to Versailles at the request of our oldest, Michael, before heading to the Holiday Inn Express in Roissy.
The drive into Versailles was uneventful, but we didn’t leave until about 5 p.m. to head to the hotel so that meant we were going to be in Paris rush hour on a Friday. The GPS had us on the highway in no time but before long it informed us of a wreck ahead and re-routed us, and the damn thing sent us through the heart of Paris. That means I did the roundabout at the Arch de Triomphe at 6 p.m. on Friday and I’m hear to tell you that it is the craziest thing I’ve ever driven through. It makes Manhattan seem like a sedate drive through the mountains of NC by comparison, and for my friends and family in DC let me tell you that you could combine all the circles in Washington and you wouldn’t come close to this monstrosity.
By some miracle we survived the traffic circle (my son informs me that I was given the French finger several times) and when we got back on the highway we passed an accident involving a motorcycle and my family had the unfortunate opportunity to see the EMTs picking up the body of a dead man to put him on a gurney. Once past the accident we were starting to make progress towards the airport and the hotel in Roissy when the skies opened up with a deluge that created nice little lakes of water everywhere. Again thinking of my childrens’ education I started to drive like an 85 year old retiree on a Sunday drive to church. I swear I could have been passed by a four year old on a bicycle at that point.
Eventually we made it to the hotel and I informed my family that we either were going to eat in the hotel or starve because I didn’t want to go anywhere until we left for the airport the next morning. All agreed and we had a great, over-priced meal together before going to bed. The next morning the GPS pulled its first “brain fart” of the week and almost managed to get us lost in the 5 km between Roissy and the airport so we decided to ignore the thing and follow the signs to the airport. When we pulled into the Hertz rental lot the nice man who greeted us asked if the car had performed adequately and I informed him that it had and gladly handed him the keys. I loved the car, but I’ve never been happier to get rid of anything in my life.
So here are the lessons I learned:
- Never have all of your credit cards through one bank.
- Either travel with a mobile phone with a SIM card or make sure you have some form of back-up communications plan in the event of a snafu with your cards.
- Live within your means. If you’re not a BMW guy, don’t rent one. The headaches just aren’t worth it.
- BMWs go fast. Really, really fast. It is fun.
BTW, the trip was great and I’m sure I’ll have many posts about it in the near future. In the meantime you can check out these pics if you want.
We’re all happy to be home and if you see a tall goofy looking guy driving around Winston-Salem in a little blue four-cylinder Saturn and he has a huge grin on his face you’ll probably be able to guess it’s me.