PARIS, FRANCE – Fasten your seat belts and unfasten the cap on the Valium bottle because we’re going to be starstruck, enclosed, embroiled, trapped in l’Etoile. It sounds like a swell place, l’Etoile (the Star), but beware. It’s a nice place to visit – in a tank or armored car – but you wouldn’t want to drive there. The guidebook says: “For motorists it is the ultimate challenge.” That’s an understatement.
Just as Odysseus, the storied wanderer of ancient times, dreaded the ship-swallowing whirlpool called Charybdis, so I quaked at the thought of motoring on my own through l’Etoile, a gigantic traffic circle about the size of Rhode Island at the heart of Paris.
A wheel of misfortune with a dozen spokes (points of a star in the Parisian view), it is constantly clogged with traffic pouring in from 12 important boulevards such as the renowned broad and elegant Champs Elysees, and Avenues Victor Hugo, de Wagram, and Foch.
It isn’t too difficult to get in, but how do you get out of this automotive hades? Maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re like Boston’s lyrical Charlie who never returned from his endless journey on the MTA. Round and round and round on an eternal whirligig?
Centerpiece of the scene, the lofty, substantial monument Arc de Triomphe, offers a terrific view of the city from its flat roof, nearly 200 feet on high. It’s a better place to be than circumnavigating in the traffic below. Beneath the arch is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a gentleman I hope not to join as I slide into the pack.
Up to this moment the drive from northern Italy to Paris had been a pleasure. My friend Aurelio felt kinship on a highway called Via Aurelia that stretches north from Rome along the west coast to France. In the small town of Comogli, a restaurant, La Rosa, clings dramatically to a cliff above the roiling Golfo Paradiso. Obviously, it’s a good spot to drop a line for seafood. Proprietor Maria Costa gained our approval with her spaghetti with clams.
The Maritime Alps, gray with sprinkles of green forests, signaled the entry to France at Menton with the Mediterranean and a marina on the left. Outside of Roquebruns the mountains seem buttes out of the American West.
A luncheon stop in sleepy Brignoles was delightful, spent walking skinny streets past houses with multicolored shutters and eating at Le Central, a mom-and-pop cafe next to the city hall, near a 200-year-old fountain festooned with ferns and moss, and shaded by plane trees.
The jovial proprietor, Michel Durando, said nobody could do steak-and-fries or Salade Lyonnaise better than Anita, his wife. Their daughter, Amanda, did the serving. France is blessed with thousands of similar little joints, nothing impressive outwardly, but – ooh-la-la! – the fine gastronomical touch is there.
You can always find a room, or so I thought on pulling into Beaune, a city of excellent wines of the same name. Lots of wine but no beds. Some sort of holiday had filled every inn.
It was getting late. Leaving the motorway, we headed deeper into the lush countryside.
“There’s got to be something,” said Aurelio, “but I guess we can sleep in the car.”
A sign promised that a village called Pouilly-en-Auxois was near. At the base of a wooded hill where white cows grazed, the settlement of 1,500 had, amazingly, three small hotels on the village square. Two of them, both two-star, were packed. The third, no-star, La Croix d’Or, had rooms. Clean. Adequate. Cheap. Hurrah.
No English spoken. So what? Could we eat? “Oh, oui,” said Marie Therese Rouhette as we registered in the dining room, oak-beamed with large fireplace and potted plants. She is the mom of a mom-and-pop in reverse. Pop, Bernard, is the cook. His boeuf bourgignon and apple tart made it a good evening.
A stroll after dinner elicited greetings from little kids trying out English gleaned from TV: “Hello!” “Goodbye!” “I love you.” Older kids buzzed the square on motor bikes, but no teens were cruising in cars. Gasoline prices are prohibitive.
Paris was down the road, reached by noon. But between us and the hotel, Prince de Galles on Avenue George V, lurking immovably as a circular ambush, is l’Etoile.
Parisian friends Pascal Charpentier and Tracy Annis had told me it would be “an adventure.” Pascal said, “Everybody should try it. It is a constant game of chicken, but, believe me, nobody wants to hurt you.”
The car is French, a Peugot, so maybe it knows the way?
“But it doesn’t know the rules,” Constanza Borde, a Parisienne who once lived in Boston, had warned me. “No car or driver knows the rules because there aren’t any. It’s every man or woman for himself or herself in that torture chamber-in-the-round. Massachusetts rotaries are tiny, simple in comparison. After doing l’Etoile you can handle them blindfolded.”
I don’t think the cops would approve.
So . . . here goes. Like the hopeless but gallant Light Brigade, almost surrounded by cannons as it mounts its charge in the Crimean War, we realize there’s no turning back. Patting my charger, the Peugot, on the dashboard, I cry “Attack!” and edge into the action, though somewhat cautiously. A semi-charge.
Zoom-zoom-zoom! Vehicles flash past in the counter-clockwise whorl. Cuckoo-clockwise is more like it. They come at us in waves and phalanxes, sometimes six abreast, veering, angling. I try to drive for daylight, go with the flow. The only daylight is above.
Everybody else is the enemy, to be avoided somehow. This isn’t bumper cars at a carnival. Keep moving and hope the old peripheral vision is working. Don Quixote, going head-to-head with windmills, comes to mind.
“Hey, bus at 3 o’clock!” warns Aurelio. I’m looking left, at 9 o’clock, but give way quickly. Two trucks cut us off. I slow, then give it the gas to slip through a narrow corridor, and try to get to the outside – to exit at the Champs Elysees.
Too late. Blocked by a Mercedes or two. Have to go around again. And again. Can’t escape the vortex. I want to stop and get out, wave a flag of surrender and catch a taxi.
“You almost caught a taxi on our right fender,” scolds Aurelio. “Work your way to the right. Follow that Citroen.” The Citroen stops. I stop. A stampede of steel, glass, and chrome thunders by.
“Damn Baron Haussman,” I mutter. It was Haussman who reshaped Paris in the 1850s, approving the plan for l’Etoile. Now we were following his star.
“Star-crossed losers I’d call us,” says Aurelio.
Herds, hordes, mobs of cars come and go and I try to fit in among them. With some dumb luck, I’m getting used to the fluctuation, penetration, hesitation.
Gripping the wheel so hard it squeaks, I’ve nevertheless stopped thinking about my will.
Hemingway would have called this crawl and sprawl of machines “a moveable beast.”
Can’t get out yet, but after the sixth time around, feeling possessed by an eggbeater, I sense getting closer to escape.
“There . . . over there,” Aurelio shouts and points. “There – the Champs. Hard right!”
An aperture. I gun it and we’re liberated. A couple of blocks, then a right on Avenue George V. The hotel appears like an oasis, and it’s no mirage. Nor is Rolando Davolio, the Prince de Galles’s jocular, efficient doorman whose green greatcoat matches my facial color.
“I’ve just survived l’Etoile,” I tell him. “Will you please take the keys and get rid of this car, which has barely survived me?”
Rolando nods. “I understand completely. You will be happier in our revolving door, or on the carousel by the Eiffel Tower.”