As part of our aspirations to restock the enclosed section of our forest with indigenous wildlife we decided to buy some rabbits. The previous population had been decimated by a particularly virulent strain of myxomatosis and the introduction of limited numbers would help keep the track verges in trim, and contribute to the natural balance of the area.
A friend of ours told me about some game farms that specialise in breeding ‘lapins savage’ for release into the wild. The even better news was that there was one such establishment fairly close to where we live. Excited by this, I studied the lapin website and made my order of 25 eight-month old fully inoculated rabbits – five bucks and twenty does. That was the easy bit.
I telephoned the man in charge, Benoit, about the delivery. It was as much of a struggle as I’d feared because Benoit had an extremely strong S-W French accent and spoke at around Mach 2. He didn’t seem to take a breath at all during our conversation, and gaily steamrollered each of my pleas to speak a little slower.
By the end of our semi-conversation I had what resembled a plan. I would drive to his farm near Cahors at the end of May and he would have the livestock crated and ready to go at 2 pm. My attempts at garnering directions failed miserably but I didn’t pursue it too many times. We have satnav in the car and it was less painful to plug in the coordinates than attempt to understand his instructions.
The pick-up date coincided with a visit from my sister, Di, so I refused Jack’s offer to accompany us. I told him we’d be perfectly fine, assuring him I knew exactly what I was doing and where we were going, so there wouldn’t be any problems. Jack knows me too well. With a sceptical nod he told me that I wouldn’t be able to hear the satnav lady issuing instructions over the non-stop noise coming from my sister, and drew me a fail-safe map of our route, just in case...
Our rabbit pick-up day was beautiful so we decided to have a leisurely lunch in our local city of Montauban. We’d drive the 15 minutes or so up the A20 autoroute and take the exit to the farm, which was only a couple of kilometres further on.
We parked our car and wandered down a sunny boulevard following our twitching noses, increasingly allured by wafts of baking. They quickly led us to a perfectly French café filled with freshly baked bread, patisseries, cakes and deserts. With oodles of time on our hands we surveyed the culinary offerings and chose two meals that turned out to be every bit as delicious as they looked.
The concept of time is utterly lost on my sister, but happily not me. I clock-watched my way through a particularly yummy desert of tarte aux fraises à la crème mascarpone, and after a couple more sips of velvety espresso, announced it was time to go. Jack had given us an errand to run on our way to the autoroute so I’d allowed time to pop in to see his mate, Hubert.
Hubert is a super chap. Short, very sturdy and permanently attached to his phone. He consistently fails to perfect the art of serving multiple customers whilst issuing instructions to the caller. Nevertheless, every time we visit, he’s still trying to get it right. One does have to admire dogged determination like that.
The only way to win Hubert’s full attention is to wait for his phone battery to run out, and it frequently does. Luckily we arrived at such a time so I quickly made our purchases. Just as a precaution, I produced my Jack-map along with the rabbit farm telephone number and asked Hubert if he could telephone Benoit to double-check the location. Knowing that Hubert wouldn’t be able to pass up the opportunity to use a telephone, I passed him mine. He grabbed it enthusiastically, slapped it on the shop counter, dialled the number and prodded the loudspeaker button.
What followed was a rapid-fire conversation between Hubert, who I understood a bit, and Benoit, who I really didn’t much at all. The first signal of alarm was when Hubert’s eyebrows shot up to his hairline. The second was when he began to shout (a very French habit for those in charge of the phone) and poke my map. He bellowed ‘attend’ a couple of times at the phone and then stared fixedly at me, “You are not meeting monsieur at his farm, no! You are meeting him in Cahors!”
“Oh dear, how awful. How far away is that?” I cried.
“Easily 50 minutes from here.”
We stared at him boggled eye. Di gave me an accusing look, which I ignored, and quickly asked Hubert to arrange a new meet time for us. That done, he told us how simple it would be – Benoit would be waiting outside a shop called La Cave in Cahors at 3 pm. What a stroke of luck I had asked Hubert to help. We thanked him profusely, rushed back to the car and sped off towards the A20. There was no need to use the satnav system so that was switched off.
Di and I congratulated ourselves on narrowly avoiding an embarrassing situation and agreed that, on the whole, it was just as well that Jack wasn’t with us. With his zero-tolerance attitude towards moments of incompetence, I could just imagine how he would have reacted to this minor misunderstanding. After a couple of sisterly chortles we resumed our meaningful discussion about nothing in particular. Time was on our side and we were confident that nothing could go wrong now.
A feature of the A20 is that there are very few sortie’s (exits). I’ve never noticed this before because my attention has always been taken by the beautiful scenery. That, together with the constant chatter, might possibly have been the cause of our first mishap. After about 30 minutes and apparently no exit junctions, I began to feel the odd pang of anxiety.
“Hang on a minute, Di, we haven’t blinked and missed our exit have we?”
“No I don’t think so but…ahah! Look over there, that’ll be it.”
Di pointed towards a dot on the horizon, which I assumed would be for our sortie. That was a relief. Sure enough it was a sign telling us that in 20 kilometres the next exit would be for Cahors Nord, which was promising – at first. It took a couple of moments for the penny to drop. Ignoring Di’s whoops of joy I cut in, “But that doesn’t make sense.”
“Why? What’s the problem? We’re nearly there.”
“I hope so it’s just that Montauban is south of Cahors and it looks like we’re driving towards the wrong end of it.”
Di stared at me blankly, momentarily caught off balance. “Really?”
I switched the satnav system on and sure enough we were passing the city which was somewhere to our left. Mystified, we reluctantly conceded that we might just possibly have been talking so much that we’d missed our junction. Feeling slightly foolish we decided to get off at the next sortie, make a U-turn, and drive back down the autoroute to the southbound exit. Simple.
Still feeling confident that we had oodles of time we duly took the next exit. Di was in charge of finding the correct turning while I negotiated the traffic.
“There isn’t one!” she howled.
“What? What d’you mean?” I retorted, narrowly avoiding an old tin can on wheels.
“There isn’t a southbound on.”
“There must be, we’ve just got off so there must be an on,” I cried, feeling distinctly queasy.
“Yes, but it’s the same side on, not the southbound on – honestly, there isn’t one. Go round again so I can check.”
“Oh come on, Di, stop messing about – just look properly will you?”
“I am – or at least I would if you could keep the car on the road!”
Much to the fascination of a herd of cattle watching from the field, I duly trundled round again, desperately searching for the elusive southbound sign, but Di was right – there wasn’t one.
There was nothing for it, we had to continue north. This was a worry.
Back on the autoroute I checked my watch – we had half an hour to go. Determined we could still make the time we vented our frustrations on the French road planners who didn’t have the foresight to provide junctions that enabled drivers to retrace their steps. It was then that things took a turn for the worse.
“I don’t believe it!” shrieked Di in horror.
“What’s wrong now now?”
“That sign – in the distance, [my sister has x-ray eyes] it says Paris!”
“Does it? Oh don’t worry about that, lots of them do. It’s a bit like saying ‘all roads lead to Rome’.” I giggled nervously.
Sure enough it indicated several hundred miles to reach the capital but, far more significantly, there was no further mention of Cahors. Equally worrying, the exit was another 20 kilometres away.
“Oh nooo,” I moaned.
“What are we going to do? All I can see is countryside around here.”
There was nothing for it, we were stuck. It was boiling hot outside as we hacked northwards through an endless heat haze in completely the wrong direction. There was no point asking satnav lady for directions because we didn’t have an address, and she added to our misery by losing Cahors off her monitor altogether. Di produced a map from somewhere which she studied for a good 10 seconds before using it as an armrest.
Finally the exit came into view. Di gesticulated at it frantically from around a kilometre away, but it was alright, I could see. We pulled off and found a place to stop. There was no avoiding the horrible truth, it was nearly 3 pm and we were going to be very late. I telephoned Benoit to explain what had happened – it didn’t go well.
The first word he uttered was “Merde!” After persuading him to speak slowly enough for me to understand, he explained that we were about 65 kilometres from where we needed to be. Quite understandably he didn’t sound at all pleased, but grudgingly agreed to wait.
Back on our new roundabout, as luck would have it this one had an ‘on’ in the correct direction. We were both getting a little snappy towards one another now, so I put Di on gendarme alert, which diverted her attention, and hammered the poor car back towards the elusive southbound junction.
Satnav lady teased us by gently bringing Cahors back into view as the sign for Cahors Nord finally came into view. This was fine, just one more to go. Our mood was raised by this so we began chatting lightly about our mishap. But our gossip was interrupted by the harsh ring tone on my hands-free phone. Di peered at my phone. “Oh my God!” she squeaked, looking as though she’d had an electric shock.
“What? Stop sounding frantic – you’re scaring me.”
“I’m not! Anyway – you’ll be scared in a second – it’s Jack!”
“Oh my God!”
“Yes. What are you going to say? You’re not going to tell him are you? He’ll be furious!”
I answered the phone and sure enough it was Jack, who naturally assumed that we were fully armed with rabbits and on our way home. He wanted to know if everything was going to plan. Using airy tones I explained that there had been a tiny change to the arrangements, but otherwise everything was going very well. Suitably comforted, he rang off.
Finally, and really very close to where we had started, we cheered with relief as another sign came into view. I slowed right down and prepared to pull off but, to our absolute horror, there was no mention of Cahors on it at all. Was it possible that we had missed it again whilst I was talking to Jack? Completely appalled, we made a snap decision to stay on the autoroute, persuading ourselves that this was a sign for a minor town, and continued towards what we assumed to be our correct exit. It wasn’t to be.
The tension was palpable, even Di had stopped talking. It was also swelteringly hot. The heat penetrated the windows like laser beams causing me to become decidedly moist around the edges and Di’s freckles to merge. Another sign appeared – but there was no mention of Cahors.
“I just can’t believe it – it’s like Groundhog Day,” Di groaned.
“What d’you mean?” I sniped, about ready to snap with tension.
“We’re going to end up driving up and down this autoroute all afternoon at this rate. I can’t believe you didn’t get the right instructions.”
“Oh don’t start – I thought I had! Look we’ll just have to get off here.”
I pulled off into a truck drivers’ stop and reached for the phone, intending to ring Benoit to confess that we had somehow missed the junction for Cahors Sud again. Di stared at me, owl-eyed as I keyed in his number. Here is the English version of our very short conversation.
“Yes, yes it is me. Where are you now?”
“We’re in a truck stop just off junction 16. I’m terribly sorry but we must have missed the exit for Cahors Sud again.”
“Ha ha ha! But there isn’t one.”
I thought my ears had gone wrong, “Erm I don’t understand.”
“No, you should have taken the signs to Lestatier, this will lead you to Cahors.”
“Should we? B…but we were told…, never mind. We’ve just passed that one, it’s very close. Can you still wait for us please?”
“I cannot stay much longer – I have to feed my animals.”
“Okay, we’ll be with you very soon.”
“H’m – okay.”
With that the phone went dead. I turned to Di, “Okay, he’ll wait for us – I don’t think it’s far now.”
“Hope not, I can’t stand much more of this.”
“Don’t be pathetic – I’m more worried about running out of petrol.”
“Oh God, no! Are we?”
“No – only kidding.”
“Huh! You never were any good at telling jokes.”
I fired up the car again and cannoned back towards the autoroute. We tutted self-righteously about being given the wrong information all the way back to the correct junction and made our exit. We circumnavigated the roundabout a couple of times, just to make sure that we were finally on the correct road, and shot off towards Cahors which was only five kilometres away.
Feeling as relieved as we could be under the circumstances, we faced our next challenge. Finding La Cave. Benoit said we wouldn’t be able to miss it (famous last words) – it was at the start of the town on the right hand side. As we reached it the road narrowed and was extremely congested. Di scanned each shop while I drove as slowly as possible, ignoring the irritated drivers hooting their car horns behind me. I was way beyond caring about that sort of thing by this time.
“Oh noooo, it’s not there!” she exclaimed.
“Oh for crying out loud, you’ve missed it. It must be there,” I shouted.
“No it bloody well isn’t. You’re driving too fast anyway, turn around and have another go.”
Moaning and groaning with frustration I found a place to turn and started to retrace our steps. Di was right, we couldn’t see a single shop called La Cave. Before we ran out of town, we decided to stop the car and ask for help.
Close to tears with frustration I pulled the car over and stopped in front of a wine merchant. We were heading towards the door when something caught my eye. On the opposite side of the road outside another wine merchants store there was a bashed-up old white van. The car windows were down and inside was a man, head back, fast asleep.
“Oh gosh, that must be him. That must be La Cave there, it’s a wine shop,” I whispered conspiratorially at Di.
“But there are loads of them here! Anyway thank goodness for that – probably no need to whisper from this side of the road. Quick, get the car over there.”
I moved the car and we went to investigate. I peeked in the rear window and sure enough there were several animal crates, some of which had tufts of brown rabbity fur sticking through the air holes. Worryingly, there was also a huge German Shepherd dog curled up in the back. I stepped back gently so as not to disturb it and returned to the driver’s window. This was rather embarrassing, Benoit’s mouth was wide open and he was snoring his head off – but at least he was still there. I gingerly tapped the door which simultaneously roused him and his dog. Fortunately both seemed to be in good humour.
Like a couple of old hyperactive fishwives we repeated our effusive apologies which Benoit waved aside, smiling as though having to wait for over two hours in a stiflingly hot layby was something he did every day. Benoit was a perfect gentleman.
We quickly completed our paperwork and he began to transfer the six crates from his car to ours. We were milling around the back of his car, cooing at his beautiful dog and doing nothing at all useful to help, when he bellowed, “Merde!” I followed his pointing finger towards our open car and to my horror saw that one of the cases had opened and the back of the car was full of enquiring looking bunnies. At that very moment my telephone rang again – it was Jack. I stared at my phone, Di stared at me with red-tinged eyes and Benoit waggled his finger at the bunnies. There was nothing for it I had to answer Jack.
Poor Jack was rather concerned that we were taking so long about our simple, near-Montauban pick-up. I responded as best as I could whist trying not to look at Di who was making strange wafting movements at the rabbits. Once Jack was placated I turned my attention back to the car.
Terrified they were going to escape and meet a grisly end on the busy road, the three of us formed a human wall and advanced on the bunnies. Mostly they were perfectly docile, but there was one adventurer. Quick as a flash Benoit grabbed it in mid hop and slammed the door on the rest – disaster averted. This was about all the excitement we could handle for one day.
We weakly reiterated our apologies, our thanks and admiration at his fielding skills and were just about to go when he gestured for us to stop. Benoit had something else. He delved in the back of his car and produced a different type of crate this time. He plonked it into my arms and said, “Cadeau.” After completely ruining his afternoon, the very last thing we deserved was a present. I peered into the box and calmly peering back were seven pairs of eyes. Benoit had given us a small flock of quail. We shook hands warmly, assured him that we now knew exactly where to come if we ever needed another rabbit, and parted company.
The drive back with our precious cargo seemed to be extremely quick. Jack was mildly surprised that we looked like a pair of damp gibbering wrecks, but grateful that we had returned in one piece. We gently took our rabbit crates out and released the animals into their new pens. They were a fine group of animals. Not at all nervous, just grateful to hop around on fresh turf and examine their new home.
We then turned our attentions to the quail. Benoit said they would live happily with other game birds so we took them into the pheasant pen. As Jack carefully removed each one he cried, “Ah look,” with a broad smile across his face, “one of them has laid an egg. Huh, life is full of surprises isn’t it?” Di and I looked at one another – completely wrung out with nervous exhaustion. Yes, life here in France is fully of surprises. It was a few months before I was able to confess our dreadful misadventure to my husband.