France & Belgium

For three weeks in September and October 1995, I was in Europe on business.

I first flew in to Brussels, Belgium, where I rented a rental car with manual transmission. The only manual transmission I had ever driven before was a tractor, but the rates for automatic were too outlandish to even merit consideration.

The car was small by American standards. A sticker on it said “Renault Elf”. I assumed that was the make and model. I spent about ten minutes just trying to figure out the clutch and get the car out of its parking place. Once I got it going, things were not too bad. I got on the expressway and headed north to my company's branch office in Antwerp.

Antwerp (Antwerpen in the native Flemish tongue) literally means hand-throwing and is an historical allusion to some conqueror in bygone days who severed his enemy's hand and threw it across the River Schelde.

I stayed in Antwerp a few days teaching the folks there about forthcoming technical innovations, answering their questions, and gathering up all their European concerns for consideration when I get back home.

When I said I was driving a “Renault Elf”, the one to whom I was speaking assumed that I meant “Renault 11” (as elf is German for 11), for all Renault cars had numbers—not names. He asked to see the car. He laughed when he saw it, for the “Elf” was an advertisement for a gasoline station of the that name. The “19” on the car was the model number.

Tour Eiffel

I drove to France. The place where I would be working for the next few weeks was a western suburb of Paris, near Versailles. I perfected my clutch skills on the péripherique, the expressway encircling Paris. I had to start and stop so many times—and this was not even close to their rush hour.

The French have an interesting way to parallel park. They choose a spot far too small for my liking, usually a spot about 4 cm longer than the length of their car. They back in to the spot until the car bumps the car behind them. They then adjust the steering wheel and pull forwards until they hit the car in front, too. This back & forth bumping is repeated, each time nudging the neighbouring car a little bit to provide some more room.

What if someone be in one of the cars being bumped? Easy—just don't make eye contact. Well, I can't personally say it's easy, for I never had the gaul (ha ha) to try it—I just found two empty spots in a row.

Touristy places

I went to the Louvre, the Palace of Versailles, the Musée d'Orsay, the Tour Eiffel, the Sacre Cœur cathedral, and many other such places.

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