After gagging down as much hot and sickeningly sweet Coca Cola as we could stand, Carolyn and I set off for Nice France, one of her must-see places even though, according to the Five Dollars a Day book, it had no one star hotels. Nor did Cannes, its sister city. Still, several movies Carolyn absolutely adored had been filmed in that vicinity so she just had to go, even if it meant sleeping on the beach.
The road through the mountains started out gently but soon we found ourselves on a series of unguarded switchbacks clinging narrowly to the side of steep slopes. We crept along behind beat-up delivery trucks, too afraid to pass, unlike the French who swerved around us tires squealing and horns blaring. Every time we were passed, a wave of doom swept over me.
Sure enough, about an hour into our trip, the trucks we crawled behind abruptly came to a stop. Ahead was a plume of smoke. I can still remember the sound of sirens echoing against granite cliffs and the look of profound sadness on the face of the truck driver who’d walked forward to investigate. There was nothing anyone could do, he reported. It was head-on crash between car and truck and the car lost. After what seemed like forever, one lane was cleared and the police began to direct the backed up traffic in both directions around the nauseating scene. As a result, we didn’t arrive in Grenoble until sunset.
The town of Grenoble sits in a deep valley in the perpetual shade of the French Alps, which, even in August, were snow-capped. We stopped, bought baguettes and cheese and looked around the laid back city center where old men played bocce ball. Then we set out for Nice. On the outskirts of town a young man and woman hitch-hiked in the growing darkness. She had thick, wavy blond hair that hung practically to her butt and model good-looks. He wore leather pants and was scruffy. We judged them safe to pick up (or rather I did, Carolyn had her doubts).
Her name was Elizabet and she was Swedish. His name was Soboric and he was Hungarian. Neither spoke English but he spoke a little German which we used to communicate. He claimed to be a political refugee on asylum in Sweden and I really never figured out what she did other than be beautiful of course. They were on their way to the island of Corsica for vacation.
Too soon night fell and we found ourselves on an even more torturous mountain road, one with tight hairpin turns every hundred feet and narrow lanes whose edges dropped off into ink-splot ravines. We could only guess how high up we were or how far we would fall if we missed a turn and plummeted off the unguarded side of the road. The wimpy headlights on the VW only provided a thin stream of light directly ahead, the stars in a moonless sky, far away. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, fog billowed up from the valleys below. It enveloped the car often without warning, dropping visibility to around zero. Thus we inched along and didn’t make it to Nice until five in the morning. Exhausted, we stumbled onto a pebble beach where fishermen untangled their nets in the pink dawnlight.
When I woke hours later, the beach was full of people in bathing suits or naked, eating lunch or just sunbathing. Soboric had disappeared. We walked to the car to find him bent over, head in hands on a nearby park bench. The car had been broken into. Carolyn’s camera was gone, as was Soboric’s satchel containing all their money and their passports. Their trip was ruined.
And that’s when we met the real life Inspector Clouseau. He was manning the front desk at the tiny police station in Nice. Unfortunately I’d never learned the word for thief or robbery or even stolen in Madame Burkholder’s French class so when Soboric and I walked up to Inspector C. railing on about “bandidos,” he naturally assumed we were confessing to a crime. He summoned another constable and they put us in handcuffs, took us downstairs and locked us in a cell. There we sat stunned until an interpreter was found and the situation cleared up. Soboric, who claimed to have been jailed by the Hungarian police for his dissident activities, became outraged. Especially when Inspector Clouseau made it quite clear that the case was sans importance and if we did not departee immediatement he would lock us up again. So we drove Elizabet and Soboric to the Swedish Embassy and then sadly went on our way.
Next: Jan jokes with the Spanish border guards and it ends badly…