There is a song by Marianne Faithful called “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”, in which she sings about a woman living a small suburban life who starts to fear that she will never experience all that the world contains.
“At the age of 37,” rasps Marianne, sounding a little like a World War 2 tank changing gears, “she realized she’d never ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair.”
My girlfriend was turning 37 and we were going to be in Ireland, but the thought occurred to me that I might plan a surprise for her. No surprise I have ever planned has turned out well, but this one would be the exception. This one would be triumphant. We would fly into Paris for a day and a night, and I would hire a sporty convertible and we would drive down the avenues and boulevards beneath the flowering chestnut trees, her lovely dark locks blowing behind her in the sultry Paris air. What could go wrong?
It did occur to me that the Paris air in April might not be as sultry as I was expecting, but that was a small detail. It’s true that Paris in April is usually less like balmy spring and more like the walk-in fridge at the bottlestore, but I wasn’t worried about it. Paris is the city of lovers: she would smile up our endeavours and reward us with golden rays and gentle zephyrs that carry the scent of hay that has been resting in the sun.
I booked the flights, I booked a hotel on the Left Bank. All that remained was to book the car. This was before internet offered such things as car rental websites with photographs of the car you want to rent. Telephones were the way we did business back then - just talking to each other on telephones, like animals. I called one of the large global car rental companies. I spent some time listening to French muzak, which sounds like South African muzak, only with more accordions. With every second that ticked past at international call rates, I felt as though some burly French sailor was using my heart as a concertina. Finally someone answered, but they didn’t speak English, so I waited while they called someone who did. At last I asked to rent a convertible. The person on the other end spoke a certain amount of English, but the word “convertible” was a step too far.
"A car with no roof,” I tried.
“Our cars have everything necessary, m‘sieur,” purred the Frenchy, as slick and debonair as a gigolo, in a tone of voice that suggested he was adjusting his cufflinks.
“A roof that can come down,” I tried again.
He made an exasperated tutting sound, as though I was some slow-witted child trying to play an especially dense prank, taking up his valuable, sophisticated time that could be better spent sipping a pastis and conducting a discreet affair.
“A cabriolet!” I suddenly remembered the word. “I want a cabriolet!”
“Alas, m’sieur, we have no cabriolets available,” he said, and hung up.
I had to restrain myself from calling back to yell some strong language at him - of all the people who get my goat, no one gets my goat quite like a snooty Frenchman - but no, I was on a romantic quest and I couldn’t let base emotions like anger dilute the romance.
I called another rental company. And then another. And then another. For the amount of money I was spending on these calls I could have bought a convertible. I should have bought a convertible, because no matter where I called no one would rent me one. I became incredulous, then paranoid. Was it some kind of a conspiracy? Had the first guy phoned ahead and convinced all his buddies from the Car Rental Union to join him in making my life a misery?
“Are there no cabriolets in Paris?” I demanded in disbelief of the fifth car rental company.
“Zat I cannot say, m’sieur.”
“What about all the women who listened to The Ballad of Lucy Jordan? What are they supposed to do.”
“I do not know zis Lucy Jordan, m’sieur.”
The way he said “m’sieur”, it sounded like “m’sieur” was a French word that means “imbecile” or perhaps “worm”.
I knew that I should keep cool. I knew that it never helps to shout at anyone down the phone, especially not when they are half a world away, especially not when they are French.” I yelled. “
“How can there be no cabriolets for hire in the whole of Paris? Are you people just trying to keep them all for yourselves?”
In the back of my mind, I was repeating over and over, “Don’t mention the war.”
“ Have you forgotten the war?” I yelled. “What about some gratitude? If it wasn’t for my grandfather, you’d all be wearing lederhosen and eating sausages with mustard for your supper! I demand you rent me a cabriolet! Right now!”
And that is how, on her 37th birthday, when I finally told her she could open her eyes, my girlfriend looked around to discover that she was sitting on the upper level of an open-topped tourist bus, trundling down the Champs Elysee. It wasn’t a sports car, and the wind wasn’t warm, but it was in her hair and two out of three ain’t bad.
Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a columnist, screenwriter, travel writer, author - follow him on Twitter.
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