Yesterday I was late picking up the kids at noon. They come home for the long French lunch, then go back in the heat of the day for another 3 hours on Mon and Tues, 2 hours on Friday, and not at all on Wednesday and Thursday. Please memorize this schedule as you will need to know it.

I was late because I was meeting students—why else? That and traffic. Just between you and me, I try to be about 15 minutes late because traffic outside the French school is beyond the realm of imagination and exists in some strange twilight world of horror. Seriously, only in nightmares could you come up with traffic like this—people driving in any direction through any opening just to gain an inch of space, horns honking incessantly, people just leaving their cars in the middle of the melee to go get their kids, small children wandering in and out, etc. And, it’s actually better than it used to be! They paved the road and blocked off an area in front of the actual gate.

I’m a writer and my husband is a photographer (who just started his own blog: Lumiere) so we sometimes argue about our callings. I usually disagree with the maxim that a picture is worth a thousand words. No, we can use our words to paint pictures, I protest. But in this case, he’s right. Because you can’t picture it, unless you’ve seen it. You are too hidebound in your thinking about how cars move down the road. You think of sidewalks and shoulders as places for pedestrians, not passing lanes. You don’t expect someone to swerve suddenly into the right lane so they can make a left turn right in front of you and two lanes of incoming traffic. You think of cars staying basically on their side of the road, rather than driving into any open space no matter if a large truck full of sand and without functional brakes is bearing down on them. You have these beliefs at bedrock level—so deep you don’t even realize you have them. So nothing prepares you for the road just outside the French school.

Back to yesterday. I was late, so things were already clearing out when I arrived and parked quite near the door. I went and collected the kids, my 3 plus two five-year-olds, other Americans who live near us and with whom we carpool, plus Erik, Abel’s friend, who was coming home for the afternoon. (It was Wednesday, no afternoon school. See above) We crammed everybody in and I started to back out. Crash! Bang! I had backed into the side of a car.

I got out to survey the damage, and found my anger mounting. The car was parked in the middle of the street. Not even a sliver of tire left the pavement in any direction. And we were at least thirty feet away from the actual school entrance. Oh, I knew what had happened; when he parked, it made sense to him because he was surrounded by cars pointing every which-way and no room to budge. But to park there? And leave it? And then for me to just smack right into it? I was more than a little irritated.

This being Africa, a crowd quickly gathered. A man waiting in a nearby car went off to the find the driver of the dented vehicle, and the kids started to get out of the car to see and make comments about the size of the dent. I was in no mood for that, and shooed them back in. Abel’s teacher from last year (currently Erik’s teacher) strolled by and sympathetically agreed that parking on the road was not a good idea. Understood was that backing into a car, even a car that is small enough to not be visible through the back window of a four-wheel-drive and through five little heads all chattering excitedly, was also not a good idea.

The other driver arrived and my ability to speak French departed. It does that when I’m upset. I yelled and waved my arms because he was parked in the road. He yelled and waved his arms because I had backed into his car and also, because I obviously didn’t understand what the traffic was like. Apparently he thought it was my first day or something, because given the 6 children waiting oh-so-patiently (sarcasm) in my car, obviously I couldn’t picture the traffic. The children were helpful; Elliot doubled over laughing at my French accent, Erin, who’s 5 and has chubby cheeks and big brown eyes, leaned out the window and said, “Miss Nomad! Tell him he’ll just have to live with it! We got a dent in our car and we just have to live with it.” “I don’t think that’s going to help the situation,” I told her. (Erin’s family is from Tennessee and the kids call everyone Miss Somethingorother. Every adult woman, that is. It’s very cute.)

The crowd watched appreciatively. It’s not every day you get entertainment like this! People driving by stopped their cars and strolled back to watch.

The man calmed down when he realized I was planning to pay for the damage, I just wanted to explain to him how stupid his choice of parking was. I calmed down after I had finished venting. He wanted me to go with him to the auto-parts market in Le Ksar, but I declined. I knew that the sun glinting off my fair skin and hair would blind the mechanics and prices would miraculously double or triple, plus it just wasn’t my idea of a fun way to spend the afternoon. I gave him my phone number, told him to call me and let me know what it cost and I would pay—a reasonable price, I affirmed, not the triple price for Americans. The crowd laughed. This was great fun!

That evening, we met again. I paid about $20 for what in America would have cost probably $200 or $300. Auto body work is much cheaper here. So are mechanics, but then, sometimes they don’t have the part needed so they use tin foil. You get what you pay for.

Maybe he won’t park in the street again. Maybe.

Maybe I’ll make better use of my mirrors. Maybe.

Everyone living here has a story like this. The driving has to be seen to be believed. Everyone’s car has dents and paint damage. Overall, it could have been a lot worse.

Coming soon: why do people, seeing your car backing up, walk behind you?

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