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How to Survive The French Car Pound

Me: Can you hear me? Hello?

Mum: Hiss…crackle…Where are you?

Me: Mum? Can you hear me?

Mum: Static… We’re going to hit the road now. Pamplona is four hours away. We will see you there. It’s getting late.

Me: What? No. I don’t have a car!

Mum: Hiss…Static…Crackle…Where… hiss …car?

Me: Hiss…Crackle…Static… The car...hiss, crackle …is gone!

Imagine my surprise when on a sunny Sunday morning in Toulouse France, I looked out of the window of my French country loft to see a massive farmers market filled with people selling all sorts of antique goods.

French car pound - driving

Before My French Car Pound

It was our last day in France on our 18 day Mediterranean Coast road trip. We had done some fun things with the kids in France, seen a beautiful French cave and now the kids and I had packed our bags and were ready for Spain. My parents were meant to meet us on the street, as I came downstairs I realise that the street had been blocked off for the market. ‘Never mind,’ I thought. ‘The kids and I can meet them at the top of the street o the main road’.

So I locked up the beautiful apartment we had stayed in during our time in Toulouse and walked all our stuff, and 2 kids to the top of the street. At the top of the street was a car park where we had parked the night before.

Now imagine for a moment the growing dread as you walk through the market on your street to the top of the street and witness the crowds of people continuing. The unfathomable shock I felt when I huffed and puffed to the carpark to see instead of cars, a fresh food farmers market. Fruit and vegetable stands as far as their eye could see.

Hang on a minute; I parked my car in that car park. Didn’t I?

french car pound markets

My mind was playing tricks on me. Did I park elsewhere? I took a wander around the surrounding streets from where I thought I left the car. The scent of overripe bananas filled my nostrils while the vendors yelled at each other in French. All I could see for miles was a sea of bananas, apples, oranges, and a crowd of people standing in the one spot I was sure my car was located last night.

I may have experienced a little bit of denial. Ok, a lot of denial. Did I park my car somewhere else? I kept wandering in circles for a bit, but am only met with more markets. Acceptance finally comes and I know I parked my Europe Car Lease in that parking lot, in that direct spot where the banana man was still yelling.

I sauntered back to my family, who were standing on the sidewalk with all our bags, and tensely stumble on the words, “the car is gone”.

Our walkie-talkie batteries had needed replacing for several days now and we kept meaning to do it but hadn’t. As such the walkie-talkies had started to drop in and out instead of communicating clear messages. Oh, I had batteries for it. But they were in the car.

The car was gone.

I could hear on the other end that my parents were driving around the streets trying to find us, but they couldn’t hear anything I was saying. Next, I hear them telling me that they want to hit the road now because it was getting late.

Finally, after repeating the phrase over and over, I spot them driving down the main street. I run to their car arms waving and scream, “my car’s gone!”

It would have been comical if I wasn’t so upset.

How do you find out if your car has been towed away?

Now that I knew my parents weren’t going anywhere I started to think through my problem more logically. I approached one of the fruit vendors and managed to inform him, in my terrible Frenglish, that my car had gone. It seemed to be a common occurrence because the fruit attendant knew exactly what the issue was. In broken English, he drew me a little map on how to get to the local police station.

Ah, yes. The French police had stolen my car.

French car pound - luggage

Why did the French Police steal my car?

When I had parked the night before the sign had stated to buy a ticket and make sure the car was removed by 9 am the next morning. This was fine with us because we had a 4-hour drive to Pamplona planned.

The fruit vendor explained that the market supersedes the normal parking signs on this one day every year. And that it is most probable that my car had been taken to the French car pound.

What does it mean to have your car impounded?

Impounding is when a vehicle is taken away for a certain amount of time. Your keys to the vehicle are seized and the vehicle is taken to the place where it is to be stored. This may be done by the police or by a person contracted to assist the police.

French car pound - car impound

How to recover a vehicle impounded in France

Using my excellent Tetris knowledge I squeezed the bags into my parent’s car and hopped in with the kids for the 1.2-kilometer drive to the police station. It was a very squishy ride.

When we arrived at the police station, there was a fairly long queue and a bunch of people in the waiting room. Most of them, we guessed, waiting to pick up their French impounded cars.  We joined the line and watched the ticking clock pass extremely slowly. Half an hour later as I am about to break down in a heap, I get to the front of the line.

As expected the Police Officer did not speak a word of English and I poorly mimed ‘my car is missing’ using my hands to pretend drive with an added shrug of the shoulders. She asks me for the registration papers in French and we kinda worked out what she meant. Of course, the registration papers for the car are in the glove box. So the officer told us that we had to go to the French car pound to get the registration papers, come back to the police station, show them, get them signed, and then go back to get our car and pay the fine there.

Where is the impound? 4 kilometers away. I motion to my children and ask her how do I get there, she places two fingers on the desk and makes them walk. Again I tell her I can’t possibly walk 4 km with two young children. She shrugged her shoulders with complete indifference, rolled her eyes, and moved on to the next person. Ah, you’ve got to love the French.

So thankful I had my parents still here my Dad drove to the French car pound to get the papers, while my mother and I waited at a nearby cafe. I was dreading how much this was all going to cost and more than slightly annoyed that we’ve wasted a whole morning on travel at a police station.

I met my Dad back at the police station handing over the papers. The Officer made me sign something in French and then told me to go back to the impound. I have no idea what it was, but by now I was more than over this wonderful learning experience.

With my son sitting on a suitcase and my daughter on my lap, we all squeezed back into the car and drove the 4 kilometers back to the impound again. With the paper in hand, they asked for 102 Euros (AUD 140) via credit card to get the car out.

It could have been a fairly simple process if only they’d thought that we could do it all at the impound instead of having to put the police into the middle of it as well. But I paid the fine and finally drove out of the French car pound gate. I moved my luggage back into my car and finally, we were back on track, although much later than anticipated, for our four-and-a-half-hour drive to Spain.

French car pound - packing car

Tourists to France beware

What a mission! I honestly am not sure how a tourist would be expected to know about this. I guess a helpful tip could have been provided by the Airbnb host, but she had simply told us it was fine to park on the street. I’m not sure what we could have done differently.

It didn’t seem any signs were telling us there was a market and that the car would be towed away at 6:30 the following morning. We certainly paid a nice little fee to Toulouse that was unexpected and, as it was our last day in France, it certainly didn’t leave us with the fondest feelings towards the country. I guess you could say the whole experience kind of summarised our trip throughout France, insurmountable language barriers and overall unfriendliness of the French people we had encountered during our stay. Except for that vendor. Thank God for him.

I guess I should have paid more attention to my French classes in high school because maybe then I could have read the invisible sign that said ‘markets will be here in the morning, don’t park your car here… or else!’

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