Savez vous la route pour San Jose?

As you know, other people are idiots.

That was my father’s opinion, anyway. They are also bastards, he assured me. He had many redeeming features, my Dad, but the ones concerning other people certainly needed redeeming.

Other people cease to be so when we realize that we are idiots, and in no sphere of human activity are there more idiots than in the process of finding our way somewhere by road.

Without satnav.

The old-fashioned way involving using a map until it runs out of detail.

…and this is the most recent one you’ve got?

Then you’re reduced to asking people. That is hard enough when they speak the same language as you, let alone when rough translation rears its ugly head.

I recently found myself relying on directions given by a stranger in a service station who didn’t speak English and barely spoke the local language, because it was a weekend in French Guiana where, of course, they speak French(ish). Picture the scene: you’re buzzing around a country you’ve never visited before, in a rented car which Henry Ford himself has just finished assembling.

“We’re looking for the Hotel Parapluie. Is it around here?”

He says yes, but it’s a long way, and when pressed, adds that that means six or seven minutes’ drive. Unconvinced, I stop at the next petrol station for confirmation, only to find that the Chinese woman running it is pointing back the way we have just come and indicating left while saying right.

This inability to tell left from right is a built-in weakness in about half the world’s population, and I’m not necessarily saying that’s the female half, although there is compelling evidence to support that assertion, not least in my own household.

Anyway, this woman’s earnest performance is entirely unreliable and I decide she probably couldn’t find her way out of her own underwear, so the jury disregards her ramblings and we proceed as per the previous witness’s efforts.

“At the first rondpoint [roundabout – you might find this useful some time], take the third exit.” In other words turn left, I thought, patronizingly, as the man sketched the route on a piece of scrap paper.

Remember, they drive on the right there and the roundabouts are all back to front.

“Second rondpoint, go straight ahead.”

We turn left at the first one and soon find the second, which turns out to have no straight-ahead option. In such circumstances all you can do is try to think as your instructor thinks. If he considers five or six minutes’ drive a long way, does he mean left or right when he says straight ahead?

Left looks more promising, so we take a gamble on that. Note the plural: as darkness falls and patience runs short, the last thing you need is a difference of opinion inside the car. Decisions must be unanimous, or appear so, anyway. We succeed together and we fail together.

One more roadside consultation, this time in a fast food outlet, where I receive confirmation that it’s just up there before the school. Oh, the school, of course. Just because I’ve never been here before, that doesn’t mean I can fail to know where the school is, and if I do find it, it means I’ve missed the hotel.

But wait, another clue: turn right at the “weet a weet”. Long-ago French scholar turns detective and decides this must be a convenience store that’s open from eight to eight. Now you’re talking.

Back in the car with a wave of optimism struggling to assert itself. Curse the traffic for putting you under pressure when you’re crawling along like a numpty, head extended tortoise-style to gain a few precious inches of zoom.

And there in the gathering gloom is a corner shop with a 8 a Huit sign shining like a beacon outside a harbour.

Made it against all the odds. The hotel is there as promised, and not only that: the bar and the restaurant are still open.

Shower? Who needs one? I’ll have an internal rinse with French beer while I look at the wine list. If I’d wanted to behave myself I’d have stayed at home.


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