Taxi cab tales

Cab cultures, not to mention the cabbies themselves, vary widely around the world. The Australian habit of hopping into the front seat with the hack and exchanging a cheery word is not generally welcome in Paris, for example, where frigid silence and glacial waves of disapproval are likely to follow such imprudence. In any case, Parisian cabbies often pre-empt that manoeuvre by having their front passenger seat occupied by paperwork, folders, or, in one admittedly unusual case, a toothy little poodle stropping its paws on the upholstery.

So when I had to get a cab in the nearby provincial town to take me back to my mountain village, I wasn’t sure how best to behave. For a start, I couldn’t see any cabs on the streets and I couldn’t see anything that resembled a taxi rank. Resigned to asking directions, I was suddenly almost run over by a cab as I hesitated at the curb. With great patience and gentleness, the driver helped a very old lady out of the back seat and then waited while she sorted through what appeared to be every euro cent coin ever minted to put together his fare and a tip. Hovering respectfully, I managed at last to communicate, as he farewelled the old woman.

Yes, he could take me to ‘my’ village—he knew it well because his daughter often worked in a restaurant there; no, it wasn’t too far and it would cost ‘à peu près vingt trois, vingt quatre euros ... ’ (About 24 euros at the most). So, before you can say, ‘Oop-la’ or ‘Zut alors’ I’m sitting beside him, having first established that protocol would allow for this matey Australian custom.

We rip round the fountain in the centre of town, head for the open country and soon we’re barrelling along those narrow, tree-lined French roads so familiar in photograph and painting. Designed—or more accurately evolved—for the slow, medieval plod of horses and carts, these anciens chemins have been forcibly adapted to the high speed needs of Renaults, Citroëns, Peugeots and, increasingly, four-wheel drives as wide and as high as the armoured tanks that once fought over these undulating fields. There are, without doubt, some cautious and sedate Gallic drivers. It’s just that you don’t often come across them in your part of the country, and cabbies, regardless of geography, are not among them.

So Monsieur Marc Lagrange, my cab driver, and I chat amicably and get to know each other as we hurtle round the bends and over the narrow bridges and past any trucks inconsiderate enough to be lumbering in our path along the 30 kilometre journey. Roadside trees and stone walls drop behind us with a flick-flick-flick of momentary, blurred visibility and Monsieur Lagrange’s protruding rear-vision mirror, lance-like, seems eager to joust with its counterparts on every passing car, but misses all of them by a distance that would make a hair look thick and is not measurable by modern physics. Soon, the village appears in the distance, a turreted, walled outline on top of its high hill. And on our left Mont Ventoux looms suddenly into view, its snow-covered summit only slightly whiter than my knuckles.

Monsieur Lagrange has been a cabbie in his provincial home town for the past 25 years. He is a lively, witty bloke and—despite my need to keep an eye on the road ahead, not to mention the deep ditch that seems to be yawning at my right elbow—I enjoy his spirited run of conversation. We range over rugby, the effect of last year’s heat on the vintage, the beauty of the countryside, immigration, Le Pen, kangaroos, Australian red wines, and Paris, which he loves, and where he is going with his wife at the end of the week for a few days off. To make some points more forcibly, he finds it necessary to take both hands off the wheel, achieving an emphasis so impressive that I doubt if I will ever forget his arguments.

He is a pied noir—an Algerian-born Frenchman—and is interesting and liberal in his views on immigration. He has followed Australia’s story since l’affaire Tampa, which he refers to with a kind of guarded, respectful contempt. When he realises I share his disgust, his relief is palpable and moves him to abandon the steering wheel again in an extravagant gesture of fellow feeling.

We navigate the hairpin bends up to the village and roll through the tight, one-car-wide alleyways with the same insouciant panache that had distinguished our cannonading ride through the vine-patterned plains. In the Place de l’Horloge he pulls up with a stylish swoop under the clock tower and says, ‘Voilà.’ The meter says 22.50. He says 20 will do, but I add a handsome tip—it has been a marvellous, rollicking ride even if rather demanding physically, emotionally and conversationally.

I farewell him, just a little sad to think that we almost certainly won’t meet again. But I’m wrong there, as it turns out. Good luck and some wild coincidence—the sort no one will believe when you tell them later on—will see our paths cross again and often, to our great mutual pleasure, not to mention the furtherance of my éducation culturelle from that most quixotic of all teachers—the career cabby.  

Brian Matthews is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Victoria University, presently living and working in France.



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