A friend was staying recently and had hired a car through one of the major rental companies. It didn’t have a conventional ignition key but came with one of those systems known in French as an Intelligent Key. Needless to say, the day before her departure the Intelligent Key had forgotton everything it had ever learned and the car refused to start. She called the company’s help number, who passed her on to another helpful agent who passed her one to a further helpful agent and so on for some while. Eventually I heard her patiently explaining to someone in her excellent French, exactly where she and the car were stranded. She was apparently connected to Mission Control, located in Bagnolet just outside Paris, but for all the progress she was making she might as well have been speaking to someone in Bangalore. Finally she was assured that help would arrive within the hour and we settled down to wait with a cup of coffee under the vine.
An hour and a half later, with no saviour in sight, she rang again. This time she was given the number of the garage in a town about 40 minutes from us, and was told that the rescue service had just left.
We had invited Brice our neighbour to lunch and set about laying the table. Brice arrived exactly as the garagiste rolled up, in an immense low loader, complete with flashing lights, and parked precariously along the garden wall, blocking the road. Climbing down from the cab his face broke into a broad and toothless grin as he realised he knew us from our visits to St Symphorien de Mahun and Veyrines. This was turning into a social occasion.
We looked under the bonnet, tried jump leads, pushed the car down the hill, connected it to a more powerful electrical source and eventually got it going. Jean Louis said he would take it for a spin to be sure that the battery would be sufficiently charged for the Intelligent Key to do its stuff. Meanwhile we made a start on lunch.
When he returned we offered him a prudent glass of elderflower lemonade and he settled down to discourse on the frustrations facing a true garagiste such as himself in having to deal with modern cars, where expertise goes for naught when faced with so-called Intelligent Keys and digital systems which are impervious to such time-honoured techniques as a clout with a spanner.
Growing up in the wilds of North Wiltshire my father’s closest friend was a car mechanic who had opened his own garage in the village, and my childhood was marked by a succession of unreliable cars and long periods spent in the gloom of the workshop surrounded by tools and oily spare parts. Still today I have an eccentric affinity with the atmosphere of a car repair workshop and its compound aroma of tyres, oil and grease, which tends to surprise the mechanics at work there.
Jean Louis moved on to regale us with tales of the various old bangers he has acquired over the years and to tell us about the best Restaurants Routiers on the N7. By this time we had passed him a plate and filled his glass with rouge. He tucked in appreciatively, spearing pâté on the end of his knife and waving it about to emphasise his point.
Periodically his phone would ring and he would break off to answer it, nodding gravely and saying “Ah yes, une dame is stranded in Tournon” or “I see, a camping car overheating on the Autoroute, I’ll be right there”, before cutting himself another bit of cheese.
He left before the coffee, heading down the lane in his vast truck with considerable panache. His parting words were “My philosophy is: there’s no rush; what doesn’t get done today will be done tomorrow!” We spared a thought for the stranded motorists awaiting their Sir Galahad, but decided that there are worse ways of seeing life.