Monday, August 06, 2012
Over the next few weeks, I'll post stories from my roadtrip across Spain and Portugal. Be warned: This excursion did not deliver a chance encounter with Paul McPherson.
Sarah had a six-week vacation from work and I'm pretty much always on vacation, so we decided to canvas all of the Iberian Peninsula over 43 days.
On the Friday, May 18th, we loaded our backs with backpacks and duffle bags and headed to the airport to pick up our rental car that would become our second home over the next six weeks. Even though neither of us are car people, renting a car in Spain is actually cheaper than taking buses or trains.
I was a little nervous about learning how to drive manual, but with our budget, renting an automatic transmission car – in a continent where they barely exist – was not an option. Plus I figured I’m a fairly competent human and Sarah knew how to drive a manual, so it wouldn’t be that big of an obstacle.
Since Sarah had the prior knowledge of driving stick, I let her drive our four-door Ford out of the rental car agency’s parking lot. I figured this way I would avoid the embarrassment of stalling out in front of the staff. Sarah wasn’t much better as it had been five years since she drove a car and about 10 years since she drove stick.
Less than two minutes after leaving the parking lot, the clutch was billowing smoke. We’re pretty positive the emergency brake was off, but we’ll never know what really happened.
The car still ran semi-smoothly through the industrial zone and I was making progress in my lessons from Sarah. I managed to make it up to third gear, with only a handful of stalls during the learning process. I was getting better and better at slowing to stop signs and getting back into first gear after a stop. I still had no clue how I’d be ready to get on the highway and drive the 365 kilometers to our first stop in Valencia.
Moments later, I was unable to get from neutral to first gear as the clutch pedal was stuck to the floor. This was bad. I let Sarah take over hoping she’d be able to King Arthur the pedal up from the floor. She got the car to start again, but it made a death rattle in the process.
We got the car to move half a block before it died again, in the middle of a street. Within 20 minutes of renting the car we were pushing its corpse to the curb.
I tried to keep cool. "Think. Think," I told myself. “What are our options here?”
Finally we decided to walk back the 100 yards to the rental agency shop and tell them that it's been a while since we drove a manual-transmission car and we think this one is not working properly.
Technically this is true, a “while” for Sarah was the 10 years that have passed since she first learned how to drive a many-times passed-down Jeep Wrangler.
My only manual transmission experience comes from driving around a parking lot for 30 minutes with my step-grandpa in his '88 Honda Accord. He told me it was the first part of a 4-part course.
Unfortunately – for many reasons – he passed away before the remaining three courses.
As we made our shame walk back to the rental car headquarters, we both prayed that there was something wrong with the car we were given, and that it wasn't our faults.
Neither God or Poppa Chuck answered our prayers.
We explained our troubles to the rental car employee and he dispatched his coworker to go retrieve the car. Somehow he got the car to start and circled it around the median. Then he needed to ask for help to get the car into the lot, as the Ford was not in good enough condition to make it up a 1%-grade, 2-foot high ramp that lead to the parking lot.
The driver and shop manager popped the hood and looked at it for a bit.
The manager then walked over and told us the clutch was thoroughly burned and it would cost us €1,000 to repair.
I hoped that something had got lost in translation and I made him say this in Spanish and English twice over.
His Spanish and English were flawless, there was nothing to be misunderstood. We were going to be out €1,000.
It sunk in. We froze. Then Sarah began to cry.
Normally Sarah and I are very good about one person losing it at a time. When I'm freaking out about life, Sarah stays calm. When Sarah melts down, I try to be the voice of reason.
This time I was real pissed that Sarah beat me to the punch by claiming the freak-out role.
I really wanted to cry too.
We spoke with the manager and consulted our other options. He offered us another vehicle from his entirely manual fleet, but we declined as we were deathly afraid we would destroy another transmission.
We sat on a curb between two cars and tried to think what to do.
As I raced though my options I resorted back to my child-like instincts. I wanted to call my dad.
Then I quickly realized he wouldn't be able to do a damn thing for me and calling him was not even a remote possibility.
I tried to keep my head straight. It could've been worse. We could've been in an accident. We both have our health. Neither of us have cancer. It's just money.
But being out €1,000 for damage plus the €550 for the 43-day rental car, all in less than 30 fucking minutes was a lot to take.
I tried not to think about what €1,550 is in US dollars, but after five months of living in Spain, I became too good at multiplying numbers by 1.3.
We eventually took the saddest shuttle bus ride back to the airport. I wasn't sure where to go from there.
Going back to the Barcelona would have be the ultimate shame walk. Taking buses wasn’t that practical for navigating Spain, plus riding buses after looking forward to the car seemed even less appealing.
We decided to bop from rental car agency to agency hoping to find an affordable automatic car. The first three had nothing other than an Audi or Mercedes Benz.
The fourth booth was a charm. They offered us a SmartCar that fit our budget and barely fit our luggage. I handed over my Capital One card, which at this point was able to take one more hit despite feeling like it just landed in Normandy on D-Day.
My nerves were so fried from destroying a car in 30 minutes that driving the SmartCar was tough, let alone trying to drive in a foreign country.
During the entire car ride to Valencia, I tried to focus on the literal and figurative road ahead, but I couldn't get past the horrible start to our trip. I shook my head and said, “Fuck me” at least once for every euro I lost that day.