Road trips in Europe are not the same as in the states. There’s the obvious differences, new languages, new monies (not all countries in Europe are using the Euro.  See: Chufs), new customs, and there’s the not-so-obvious.

We’d done our homework, and we knew to expect toll roads.  What we didn’t know is how different each toll road, toll station can be.  Not just country-to-country, but also different systems within one country!  We really liked the Italian way.  When we entered a toll section, we’d get a little ticket, same as you’d get in a parking garage or lot.  When you left the toll road, there would be another ticket machine, it would read where you came in, give you a € amount, we’d pay… on our way.  It was simple, no fuss, the same at each booth.  We had plenty of money stashed in our ashtray, it was easy.

Then we came to France.  Our first toll stretch worked exactly the same as it did in Italy, except it was more.  A lot more €.  We needed an ATM.  Sadly, no ATM. So at the second toll booth, there was a sign that said “cards accepted” and then it listed all the different cards it accepted.  Including Visa, MC, and Maestro (my German “MasterCard”).  I had all of those.  We tried all of those.  None of those worked.  And a voice came over the toll booth. In a French I didn’t understand;

“Parlez-Vous Anglais?”  I did take French in high school, you know. “Non, Madame.  Un moment.” Again, understood thanks to that high school French.  And a no.  Um.  Silence.  Thankfully a heavily-accent English speaker came on next.  We explained that our cards wouldn’t work.  They asked us to pull forward, park, and come into the towering toll booth office.  Dave parked, I took my cards & our remaining cash & went in.  Because I spoke the best French.

I walked in a darkly-tinted, glass door.  It immediately closed behind me and I was in another world.  Does anyone remember one of the first computer games ever, Colossal Cave Adventures?  I felt like I entered that cave.  I had a choice of stairs leading, up, up, up or going right into a troll hole. Maybe it wasn’t really a troll hole, but it was an open passage with a very low ceiling. A ceiling shorter than me (and remember, I’m 5’2″).  I choose up.

I went up. And up.  And up.  No doors.  Finally, on the 5th level, a door.  I went in.  I had a choice of a door, or a locked, sliding window, like a Dr.’s office.  I went to the window.  And waited.  Finally a young woman came;

“Oui?” “Parlez-Vous Anglais?” “Non.” And nothing else.  She just stood there.  My high school French failed me. So I held out all three of my previously-rejected cards, and my remaining cash, she looked at me. Took my cash, counted out 14+€ and gave me back the rest. “Au revoir.” “Au revoir.”  And I found my way back out the Colossal Cave into the normal world.

Shortly thereafter we found a fantabulous rest stop, with an ATM, and we got a LOT more €’s.  We also let each of the kids buy something small so we’d have some coins.  This turned out to be prescience on our part.  We got no more tickets.  We still hit toll booths, and lots of them at that, but these all wanted pièces de monnaie.   I’m guessing the French do not have the word “coin”.

At our first pièces de monnaie we only needed maybe 2-3 €’s.  Dave took great joy in driving up, tossing coins in the handy-basket and driving on.  It is a faster system that the ticket-taking, ticket-giving method of toll.  However by the 7, 8, 9th time… giving pièces de monnaie got a lot less fun, and a lot more expensive than the ticket-taking, ticket-giving method of toll.  We guesstimate it’s about 1 € every 10 km.  When you are driving through all of France (at least all of France South-to-North) that adds up.  Big time.  The only positive I can share about all those booths, asking for all those pièces de monnaie is that all of us are very, very good at saying pièces de monnaie.