Friday, September 25, 2009

In Which We Discover the Link Between Dirty and Tidy

Reader Warning: While the previous R-E rating has been lifted for today's post, things do get pretty weird.  Can someone tell me how pornography has become a running theme of this otherwise chaste little blog?    

During our last three days in Sillans-la-Cascade, Bill became obsessed with the project of finding and purchasing a used car.  There really aren’t an awful lot of subways here in the Haut Var to help us get around, and we quickly realized that our schedule, as simple as it was, would require a second voiture. 

Additionally, our special lease on the Renault can only be 180 days.  That seemed like ages at first.  I wasn’t counting before, but I just did, and we’ve been here 43 days already.  That’s a lot of baguettes down the hatch, and a lot of days without doing all that yoga I promised myself.  I could have been so buff by now. 

But when I went to count, it occurred to me that not only am I not crossing days off the calendar, I am actively wistful to see each and every sunset.  It’s amazing how good my head feels now that I’ve removed the giant anvil of overwhelming responsibility that I had been balancing so precariously up there.

Following the vein of this sort of hedonistic mindset, (I will wear no anvils for a whole year!!) I was hoping for something exciting by way of a second car.  My goal was to have a lust-worthy automobile for the sweet short time we are here; not like a Porche or something crazy like that, just a sweet and sensible cute German machine like the ones my sister and my sister-in-law drive.  Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, but I sure as heck coveted both of their cars. 

Back home, I’m totally fine with having a super-practical car that Bill can easily fit inside. Well, maybe not totally, but certainly resigned to what is reasonable, and there are few cars more reasonable for a family like ours than a RAV-4.  But this year, when the rules all add up to unreasonable, why not give in to my baser automotive desires?

Bill had his own goal: to lose as little money as possible in the short span between purchase and resale.  As he frequently points out, with impeccable logic, a dollar saved is way better than a dollar earned, since you pay no income tax.  

After we looked at a few used cars in Draguignan (remember the used Jaguar?  Mmmmm.  Purrrr) he found the French version of the U.S. Bluebook – here called Argus – and started looking up prices. Once we realized that the standard dealer markup on a used car in Europe was positively ridiculous, Bill quickly turned to the internet, source of nearly everything good in our modern society – rogue angry e-mails from frenemies, time-sucking social networking sites, ads for phone sex, blogs.    

To describe not only how he found Diesel Liesel, but also how she came to be parked in our driveway, I will once again interview Mr. Lienhard.  During today’s conversation, he was no longer lounging in bed, but rather more industriously stretching for a run.  He was wearing his bright red Gorilla coffee shirt, which he wears to keep the local hunters from shooting at him any more than they already do.

Launa:  So I’ve been getting a lot of requests to hear more about how you found Diesel Liesel.

Bill:  Well, I was instantly irritated with the markup on used cars that was applied by even decent used car dealers.  At one place, the guy instantly added 2,000 Euros to our maximum price and only showed us cars that cost more than we were willing to pay.  The second guy slapped 6,000 Euros on the Argus price.  I tried bargaining with them, but they didn't come down much at all.

So then I locked myself in our Hobbit Hole for three days and used our spotty internet service to set up a cage match among pricing, availability, and options.  I took numbers from and cross referenced them with “Autos D’Occasion”  (which sounds really fancy, but is just French for “Used Cars.”)  It lists and sorts tons of car by area, brand, or price.  My goal was to use this cage match to find a car that you would like but that was as close as possible to the Argus price, so that when I resell it in eight months, the spread will be as small as possible.

That is, of course, how I ended up calling Chanson.  And his wife.  I actually spoke to her first, but got flustered and called her an Audi.  I don’t think I made a great first impression.  

Launa:  You mean those super-strange strangers who showed up in our courtyard, took your check, and then left Liesel in our driveway?  The guy with the white jacket that looked like a marching band uniform, with decorative safety pins down each sleeve?  The teeny woman with the spike heels and the gold-plated cell phone that made the sound of a music box when people called?  The guy who made everything he touched suddenly look like stolen merchandise? The guy who kept taking calls from x-rated video stores and looking up prices in his notebook during our conversation?

Bill: I wouldn't refer to them as strange.  They are a lot more like us than you would like to think.  They may not act like us, or dress like us, or talk like us, but they were really incredibly helpful.

Launa:  I’m sure those video stores find him awfully helpful. 

Bill:  Good point.  But really, they were really nice. When I called, Chanson was perfectly lovely on the phone, very patient with my French, and took great pains to enunciate clearly.

I really came to trust him, but it took me awhile to see past his exterior.  Chanson insisted that I meet him at a random parking lot, which was the first thing that made me nervous. He wanted to meet me at the cooperative olive pressing place rather than at his house.   When I couldn't find the cooperative, I parked at a wine store and had him meet me there.

Chanson was a few minutes late, and I was a little nervous.  I thought the women in the wine store might think that I was stalking them, so I pretended to talk on my iphone.  When he didn't show up, I started to get worried that the store’s staff would call the gendarmes.  I’m pretty sure that the beneficence of French civil society does not extend to their police force.

Then Chanson rapped on my window, and I started to worry about other things.  Suddenly having cops around seemed like a good idea.   

The thing that made me go from regular old car-buying nervous to full-on panicked was the fact that his rainwear had a snugly cute kitty cat theme.  In my opinion, items with cats on them are just wrong for a man his age to be sporting:  especially on an umbrella.   I have a thing about cat people, especially kitties where they don’t belong, like near an extremely tall, angular, super-fancily dressed middle-aged man.  I also noticed with a little alarm that that his hair was a bottle auburn, and both very thin and very done.  If there were a sign on his head, it would have read “sparsely populated," but each hair was in exactly the right place.  That level of tidiness makes me nervous.

Launa:  Right.  We know.

Bill:  His shoes had a pointy toe that came to a severely acute angle. I couldn't stop staring. If you just put a little ball on the end of them, they would have looked like jester's shoes.  Except they were black leather.  He smelled of cologne and wore all kinds of necklaces. 

But I went and sat in his car anyway.  He showed me all the gadgets, of which he was very proud.  They all seemed very high-tech for 2005.  There was a DVD player in the dashboard, an automatic navigation system, and a thing that plays MP3’s from a sim card.  He was really psyched that everything in the car was absolutely automatic.  There was even an automatic setting to give you the feel of driving a 7-speed sportscar.  He liked how the cupholders came up and then turned up at an angle.

He asked me if I wanted to take it for a test drive, and thinking of the narrow spread between his price and the Argus price, I said, “Oui, bien sur.”  But even though I really liked the car, I wasn't feeling so “bien sur” about Chanson himself.   

As weird as I felt about Chanson’s excessive tidiness in his own dress and grooming, I liked the car because it was beyond clean inside.  Like there was not one speck of dirt.  He was also the only guy on the whole used car website who took a picture of the engine.  He later told me that his wife is a "maniac" for having everything spotless. 

Launa:  Wait, why did you like that car for being clean so much, since our cars invariably become filthy?

Bill: I resent that statement about our cars, and I am going to refuse to answer that question.

There followed a slight pause in the interview before Bill's enthusiasm got the better of him, and he continued.

OK, fine; I will tell you, because there is a good answer.  I liked seeing such a clean car because it made me think, “maybe this guy is super uptight, and therefore the car is in great shape."  I was looking for the car that would have the highest possible resale value of any car.  I also loved the electric blue color, and knew it would please Abby and Grace.  Which it did.

But anyway, back to Chanson.  As we drove along, the first thought that entered my mind as we left the parking lot was, “Oh my God, I’m going to be murdered and left in a French ditch.”   Scenes from The Vanishing ran through my mind.  I realized that nobody, not even you, would know where I had gone to if I did disappear. 

To get rid of this feeling, I started nervously chatting with Chanson.  First of all it turned out that this was not his real name.  It was Jean-Paul.  He was equally confused when he realized that my name was not “Bill” but “William."  But then our conversation gave me a few other things to worry about.

It turned out that the car was not actually from France.  The car was bought in Belgium, the plates were from Germany, and it was only insured in France for two weeks.  I couldn’t quite make all those pieces add up.  The ideal explanation is that this is just how things work here in the E.U.  But the worst case scenario was that this car was not only hot as in pimped out with gear, but hot as in actually stolen.  As in hotter than a pancake.

Then, breaking the sacred rule of all good tourist-residents of France, I asked him what he does for a living.   There was a long pause before he told me that he is now expanding the operations of his sex toy and adult video company here into Provence.   He told me that’s why the car has so many miles on it, because he drives a lot for work.   It was really the only time that I saw him look anything but totally self-assured.

Launa: Bill, do you really want me to put in the blog that the car we will now be driving has uncertain national heritage, is possibly stolen, and was sold to you by a man who also sells things we tend not to discuss in polite conversation?  Unmentionable things that might at one time have actually been in that car?  

Can I remind you that our parents and our friends are not only going to read this, but will also ride in the car when we go pick them up at the airport? 

Bill:  I wish to state for the record that I had no reason to believe it was stolen.  Nor do I know whether the car was used to transport merchandise, whether legal or illegal.  I was merely describing the facts as I heard them.  You draw your own conclusions. 

As it turns out, once he told me what he does for a living, everything fell into place in a weird way.  For some reason, realizing this allowed me to see him in a whole different light, and made his kitty cat umbrella seem less weird.  I realized that he was just coming from a place I don't know much about.  Probably in the sex toys and porn video world, he’s known as a really stand up, super-organized and great guy.   

I also discovered that he was not only really kind, but also willing to talk me through the insane bureaucracy of registering a car in France.   He immediately produced six of the seven documents that I would need to register the car. 

I was for a while worried about the one form that he was missing.  Since this paper, the Certificate de Non-Gage, shows that the car is not stolen, and is in the hands of its rightful owner, AND since it has to come from the local prefecture, I assumed that the whole Germany/Belgium thing might mean that he wouldn’t be able to get it.   I left the ball in his court and assumed he might not call me back.  

So when they did call back, I didn’t at first recognize who was calling.  A woman’s voice said something about a bank check and I assumed it was HSBC bank calling.  I’ve been trying to get them to give me a new interest rate they are advertising, so I immediately launched into a tirade about why wasn’t I allowed to have one.  They had told me it was not for existing customers, so when I thought it was the bank calling, I really lit up. I told the woman on the phone that if that was really the case, I’ll just close my account, and I won’t be an existing customer anymore.

After I got done with my tirade, there was dead silence on the line for awhile, and then the voice said, “I think you need to talk to my husband, Mr. Jean-Paul Chanson.”  So first I called this woman a car, and then I called her a bank.  I was not making any points with the Maniac.  

Nevertheless, Jean-Paul continued to be inordinately kind to me.  Or perhaps just desperate to unload the car before his two weeks of insurance were up.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference when you’re in a new place talking to someone from a totally different line of work. When I told him I would go get the check, he said he and his wife would come the next day to drop off the car.

When they drove up here, they were a little put out because it was so hard to find the house.  I apologized to him, then apologized to The Maniac.  I told her that I was sorry I had called her a car, and sorry that I had screamed at her as though she were a bank.  She seemed a little tightly wound, or maybe just her pointy high heels made her unhappy.

Launa:  They were very high heels.  But it was his shirt that really blew me away.  I didn’t know that they could even make fabric in a shiny black alligator print.  And it’s also possible that her dress was a just little more like lingerie than I am used to seeing in the middle of the day.  On our beautiful rented terrace.  

Bill:   There you go again.  These are superficial differences.  You have to admit he was very very nice, and awfully polite.  He printed out all those forms for us.   But I was still freaked out by how tidy they both were.   Her signature was the tiniest one I had ever seen.  

Who knew: dirty movies can be sold by tidy people.  

But you gotta admit, Launa.  I got us a really great car. 

Bill was just about 100% right about this trip.  And now, once again, I state for the record that she is a really great car: if we do get arrested for owning our little electric blue German, she may be the nicest car I ever get to drive.   Time will tell, but I think he may even be even right about Chanson and his Maniac being two of the most stand-up members of the adult entertainment industry. 

While Bill and I do not always (ever?) think alike, and it often takes me awhile to admit it, I love finding the method in his madness.  His decisions are governed by a logic all their own.  And when you get right down to it, he’s right: based on his completely sensible decision-making process, we got a great deal on exactly the car we had hoped to find.   I would have dumped way too much at the dealer with my squeamishness about negotiation, then lost even more on resale.  When you're buying a car using your business mind, it really doesn’t matter how strange, or how tidy, the strangers are who had it first.  

So welcome to the family, Diesel Liesel.  Expect your future adventures to be strictly rated G. But while there will be no more dirty movies in your trunk, your life is about to get a lot less tidy. 

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