I first rode in a 2CV when I was 19, the summer I spent six weeks backpacking around France with my friend Letitia. ("Backpacking" is stretching the term a bit -- I actually lugged an orange Samsonite trunk from youth hostel to youth hostel. But that's another novel.) Jean-Baptiste, a guy we'd met through Letitia's cousin in Paris, invited us to spend the weekend at his farm house in Brittany. We lunged at the enticing opportunity. He kept a car in the country, he said, so he agreed to meet us at the train station in Guingamp on Friday evening.
We descended from the train and there She was. Not just Jean-Baptiste, but his ancient, dented, rusted, utterly fabulous 2CV. He jumped out of the car to greet us, trying to leave her running, but she sputtered and died. I was in love -- not with the rakish and charming Jean-Baptiste, but with his perfect French car. Somehow we wedged my orange locker and Letitia's duffel bag and me into the back seat. Then to start the engine, JB ran to the front of the car, whispered something lovingly into the hood, cranked in earnest, dashed back to the driver's seat to wiggle the choke knob, and off we chugged down the street. JB's door was flapping in the breeze. "Oh," he remarked nonchalantly as he stretched a giant rubber band from the steering column to a handle in the door, "her door doesn't stay shut."
The summer evening was soft, and the canvas roof was rolled back so we could appreciate the Breton sky. I was already in heaven. After about 20 minutes we reached Squiffiec, and finally rambling down a small country lane, we pulled up to a small weedy spot next to JB's stone "house." House? Yes, it had walls. Yes, it had a roof. Yes, it had electricity: one dim lightbulb hanging on a wire next to the bed. Yes, the bed. There was only one. Yes, there was a floor: good old-fashioned Breton dirt. Yes, there was a kitchen: a faded wooden table and four rickety chairs next to the fireplace. That completed the scene, except for the straw.
Straw. Right. JB had a straw mattress on his ancient oak bed, which he gallantly offered to share with one or both of us; otherwise there was a pile of straw which could be slept upon on the ground. Once we got the sleeping arrangements cleared up (Letitia and I opted for sleeping bags on the straw on the ground), we actually had one of most magical weekends in the country I've ever experienced.
Oh. Plumbing? Who said there was any plumbing?
The next day JB drove us all around the local villages. Kergaff, Plourthan, out to the sands of Binic. Once she was awake and moving that little 2CV gurgled merrily over the narrow country roads. I gave up worrying about whether we would get flung from the non-closing doors as we veered around curves. Hanging onto the seat, all was well; anyway the grass shoulders looked soft enough. It was sheer delight skittering around in that creaky 2CV, until she splashed through a puddle. A puddle next to a cow field. The water geysered up through the gaping rust holes in the floor boards and spattered cow-pie mud juice on our bluejeans and shirts. Oh well, we were young and carefree. We could clean it off when we got back to the house. Where there was... no plumbing.
Ultimately, except for the nettle bush I squatted in while peeing behind the car by moonlight, it was a perfect weekend, the perfect French adventure. Never again, however, will I ignore the phrase "attention aux orties!"
But I still wonder. How could I, at age 19, be so instantly smitten with a decrepit car and with a French cow shed masquerading as a country house? Is there some Francophile virus that attacks the brain so that the minute you experience something so authentic you simply melt? I knew on the spot that some day I had to have my own pile of French stones and my own 2CV.
When JB dropped us off at the train station on Sunday afternoon, we bid a sad farewell to a memorable and quirky weekend. And when I thought his sweet 2CV couldn't get any more idiosyncratic, JB cranked her up and raced to his seat to rev the engine for departure. We witnessed, to our amused horror, the choke throttle pulling completely out of the dashboard in his hand. All the way out. We waved a hasty goodbye to JB and la petite 2CV, and couldn't bear to look back.
Ever since, I have longed for a Deux Chevaux of my own. In subsequent trips to France I always scoured the classified ads in provincial newspapers, just for fun, to see if there were any for sale, and what price. Each trip, I did in fact purchase a 2 CV. Miniature. I've amassed a tidy little collection, which I love. But it's mere substitution and doesn't really cure the itch.
When I first arrived in Paris in 2006, I paid to ride in a 2CV, with Quatre roues sous 1 parapluie (Four wheels under an umbrella). What a treat to view Paris through the open roof of the icon of all auto icons. But it merely made me hunger for my own 2CV all the more.
So imagine how thrilled I was to discover that 2008 is the 60th anniversary of La Deuche, and the Birthday Girl's fans will be celebrating right here in Paris, at antique car show RetroMobile. I'll be at the doors when it opens Friday morning.
Porte de Versailles
February 8 - 17, 2008