Wednesday, February 06, 2008

La 2CV

Like just about any self-respecting Francophile of my generation, I've long had a dream of restoring a stone farmhouse in la France profonde and driving around the countryside in a Citroen Deux Chevaux.

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.

Stay tuned.

Porte de Versailles
February 8 - 17, 2008


My Inner French Girl said...

Dear Polly, what a fascinating story! I can see why you would fall in love with such a charming car. It just exudes history and adventure, doesn't it? One look, and you know it promises extraordinary rides.

I think we all feel that way when we're nineteen -- open to the world and all it has to offer our young, hungry minds. At 35, I look back on some of the things I did even just ten years ago and think, Wow, I couldn't do that again. But such things are what lovely memories are made of.

Sigh. Good times.

Thanks for sharing your beautifully written story!


The Late Bloomer said...

Polly, what a beautifully descriptive recounting of that anecdote from years ago! You have such a way with words. I really enjoyed reading about your love of the 2CV. A uniquely French car, n'est-ce pas ?

(But man, what bad luck with the orties! I hope that wasn't TOO uncomfortable!)

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Yes it's such an evocative car. I'll be posting more about it after I visit RetroMobile.

A few people have emailed me their own 2CV stories, so I guess it strikes a chord -- and I hope more people will send their stories.

I never ran across stinging nettles in the States, and had no idea what 'orties' meant when I was told to watch out for them (I thought it was something like "watch out for the bogeyman!"). Ouch! More acute sting but less lengthy agony than poison ivy, anyway...

anna said...

My (now husband) bought a 2CV in the mid-1980s. It was white and grey and fabulous and we travelled all over England in it. And my sister-in-law bought one too (red). We never ever knew that they would be going out of production - and we sold ours! And so did my sister-in-law. If we'd known we'd have bought several more! Such fun to drive. And capable of quite a high speed too. I loved the gear stick that came out of the dashboard. And the floppy windows and the rain coming in through the poorly sealed windows and windscreen. Great on petrol consumption too. Why did they stop making them?

Panic in New York said...

Thanks for that post, Polly. The 2CV reminds me of the VW beetles and buses I used to drive back in the day. I want to try the four wheels and an umbrella tour with my family.

Geoff Wulff said...

Hi Polly

What a charming blog!

Driving a very late grey 2cv Charleston, and living in Kent,not 60 miles from La Manche, means that I can easily hop over for a day trip to France or drive the 800 odd miles to the Med.

The feeling of joy and anticipation when the doors open after the ferry has docked in Calais and you roll the roof back and set off for the lovely French countryside, your little car singing its high pitched but entoxicating song, is to die for.

And the 2cv is the perfect car to explore France,with the roof back and the windows flapped open, you are open to all the rustic smells and sounds as you pass, in tiny villages people smile and wave sometimes, you are not an intruder, you are blending with the cars natural homeland.

Did I say car, well,as Jacques Wolgensinger, PR head of Citroen in the Sixties and Seventies said...''Its not a car, its a way of life''


And I have just been gifted a rather tired blue 1986 Celeste blue 2cv as its owner having just had a baby and not driven the car for a year and really wants to give it away to someone who will revive love & cherish it.

Best of love

Geoff, the grey Charlestoner

Polly-Vous Francais said...


Thanks for your lovely story of 2CV love.

When would the owner like me to come pick up the 2CV Celeste? I'll be there in a heartbeat!


Geoff Wulff said...

Hi Polly

Sorry, that ones taken!

Closer to your home, I am certain that Xavier of Generation 2cv who are the Paris branch of the friends of the 2cv of France who I believe meet at Le Petite Corporal near the Gare de Nord would be able to cater for any lovers of the deuch, visitors or otherwise.

The next Rencontre of ALL the Amis de la 2cv of France plus a smattering from the rest of the world is a friendly & noisy camp in Dunkirk at the beginning of May this we 2cvers say...

''see you in a field sometime soon''



Polly-Vous Francais said...

Thanks for the update, Geoff. Upon closer reader of your first post, I realized that you were the lucky recipient already. Enjoy!

I'll check out some of the other 2CV enthusiasts here in France. The references are very helpful.

I had heard about the Dunkirk gathering, and am waiting to hear more about the event at LaVillette in Paris.

More 2CV news to come!

Geoff Wulff said...

Hi Polly

Well,the tout petite voiture TPV
as the 2cv was originally called, has burst into song for the first time in years after a new battery was fitted and a half a cup of neat,

I nearly wrote Cognac...

gasoline was poured into the carburettor, and she started with a bang!

Next stop a British Controle Technique



Polly-Vous Francais said...

How exciting! And I bet a dose of cognac in the engine might give your little Deuche a bit of pep. Or else a little shot for the owner..

Keep us informed when she hits the road (legally).


ACC said...

Hi Polly

I hope that you are well?

Just an update on my personal 2cv situation in Kent.

Celeste, my blue 2cv is now up and running, I have sold my Audi A4 Avant and am Celeste is earning her keep during the week and Beatrice my grey 2cv Charleston for sunny days and holidays, indulgent, moi?

Off to the Czech Republic world meeting of 2cv friends in end of July, early August this year, along with tons of other 2cvs from around Europe! stop off in Giverny and Paris en route for us Cest la vie!

Geoff Wulff said...

Hi Polly

I hope that you are well?

Well, we made it to Paris, via the Czech Republic 2cv World Meeting, imagine 10.000 happy 2cvers, and over 3,500 2cvs!

We spent a week in Czech Reublic visiting Prague and Dresden amongst other day trips, then on to Reims and the Champagne district for 3 days and a week in Paris...our grey 2cv never missed a beat and we visited the Left Bank Pompidou Centre Monmatre and oh, all over the place by Metro on some days and in the Deuche on others.

Summer warmth all the way!

Polly-Vous Francais said...


How envious I am of your trip. I'd love to see photos. 3500 2CVs! Wow. And oh, the dream of driving around Paris, up to Montmartre, in a deuche. Heaven.

Thanks again -- and keep those updates coming!

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