The Chantilly Toll Booth Adventure

Château de Chantilly

Château de Chantilly

I was going through old files and found this letter sent to my mother when Vicky & I lived in Brussels in the early 90’s. At the time, we were still new to European life and there were discoveries – as well as puzzles – around every corner. We called ourselves The Griswalds after the image of bumbling, culturally deficient, white-sneaker-wearing American tourists clumsily trying to find their way around in a new homeland. Wilbur is a nickname I earned after a store clerk misunderstood Vicky pronouncing my real name. It stuck immediately and went well with Griswald. Mr. [American] Golf Course was a name I imagined my Belge neighbors called me as a result of the way I mowed my yard – perfect lines or stripes sometimes enhanced with a secondary, criss-cross cut. I was obsessed with my yard because my neighbors were obsessed with theirs: perfectly trimmed hedges, sculpted shrubbery and beautiful flower gardens. It was sort of like keeping up with Les Joneses. We had a tall hedge in the front yard that required a ladder, a level, patience, and many days to trim; I always felt like by the time I finished on the other end, it was time to start trimming the damn thing all over again. It was difficult finding a gasoline-powered lawn mower and the one I found was not only expensive – but tiny! It reminded me of those little plastic toy lawnmowers that toddlers push around…well, I am getting off the subject…perhaps Gardening in Suburban Belgium should be another chapter…

oh. and to set the record straight, we really did not wear white sneakers while we lived in Europe!

Here’s the letter:


Dear Bebe & Jay,

We got back from Paris on Sunday afternoon. We had a great time. No major obstacles for the Griswald’s on the return trip –other than jamming up the tollbooth!

It was Sunday morning: we were driving back to Brussels. We had only 35 French francs (US $7) and, as it is in Belgium, nothing is open on Sundays. I knew we would have to pay toll and it would be around 50 – 60 francs. I was hoping to find a rest stop with a restaurant and a currency exchange (I was carrying lots of Belgian francs,) Although Michel assured us that the tollbooths would take credit cards.

We made a stop in the small village of Chantilly, North of Paris, upon Michel’s recommendation. He said we would find a beautiful château, amidst horse pastures and a quaint village. He was right: the château was magnificent! It was grandiose with a gorgeous, pastoral backdrop. If only we had brought a picnic basket and a chilled bottle of white wine! We stopped to take some pictures but didn’t go in because of an entrance fee – money that we needed for the toll back home. We’ll save it for Bebe, Jay, and Barbs on their upcoming visit. Rather than backtrack to the highway, we drove in a new direction, through the rural backroads, hoping to later connect with the main highway to Brussels.

Next we see an entrance to the highway and –OH NO! – a toll booth. This was an automated booth – not a person in sight. Lucky for us, I realized it wasn’t a collection point – it was where you took a ticket. I pulled up, stopped and went to retrieve my ticket. Nothing came out of the little black ticket slot! I pushed it. Still nothing. Maybe you had to put a ticket IN? And I certainly didn’t have one. No written instructions…nothing. I started pushing every button in sight. NO TICKEY! I feel panic is coming on. OK, Wilbur, calm down, put the car in reverse, get out of the way and watch to see what someone else does when the next car pulls up. Too late! There were already cars lining up behind me. Oh shit!… Not the American golf course–yard-guy from Belgium– AGAIN! And because this was an entrance to the highway, we were in the only lane. I pushed a button with speaker–type holes all around it. It buzzed but did not respond with any human noises or words. I got out of the car. I pushed more imaginary buttons. I looked behind again: Heads shaking in disapproval. Hey Wilbur, why don’t you just lift the damn gate arm and get Vicky to drive on through! No, better not… I had visions of a movie where the secret agent crashes through the East German border check and his sleek, black Austin Martin is plugged full of machine gun rounds as he crashes into a tree. A lone bullet finds its target right in the forehead!

I rubbed my forehead to check for bullet holes. None yet. I walked back to the next car. The elderly woman behind the wheel looked like the understanding, helping type. “Do you speak English (the infamous line for Americans in trouble)? I can’t get my ticket out of this machine.”

“Non…pas le billet?”

“No mam, no ticket.”

The lady offered nothing further; It was my problem, not hers.

I glanced at the cars behind us. Their sheer number, combined with the squiggly heat waves rising from their engines gave the place the atmosphere of a San Juan traffic jam. I turned and walked back to my car. As I did so, I peered around for East German border guards…

Next, the lady sticks her head out of the window and says something in French to the car behind her. Why can’t these American assholes figure anything out? It’s scary when you think of them as being superpowers of the world!

 Maybe if I back up in reverse? I probably didn’t trip the switch…

I try the reverse trick. As the car’s reverse lights come on, I see horror in the lady’s eyes through my rearview mirror. Maird! Mr. Golf-course-superpower-asshole is going to crash his car into mine. Those violent aggressive warmongers! Can’t they leave Europe alone!

 I see her talking to her EC buddy behind her: he’s pointing in a direction high above my head.

I looked up to the sky behind me for East German fighter planes approaching and in the process saw the little white ticket patiently hanging halfway out of another little ticket–exit–hole. It was only 6 feet or so above the ground. I reached up and took it. I wondered how anyone not driving a large truck could possibly reach it [or see it] from within their car…

“Another example of good European design,” Vicky added, as if she was reading my mind.

The Griswalds were now merrily on their way!

Wilbur drove very fast. He didn’t want the humiliation of drivers and passengers looking back in disbelief as they passed the American buffoon.

We did find a rest stop with a currency exchange. We had a quick lunch and got back on the road. It was a beautiful day and the rest of the drive was most pleasant.

Vicky & I are looking forward to your visit!



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