If you read the title and pronounced the last word “air,” congratulations, you can now speak a bit of French. If you tried to pronounce the “e” at the end of the word, you have failed and the French will treat you like a moron for thinking that any letter at the end of a word should be pronounced. Once you have learned not to pronounce most of the letters in any French word, you will be speaking French like a native. If you pronounced the word aire with some extra rrrr at the end, then bonus points for you and you must be French.
Now that you know how to pronounce the word, “aire,” you can learn what it means. The French definition means area, but for our purposes we will use the French road side sign definition which means, “toilet facilities, and possibly gas station/restaurant/charging port for your electric car, and/or all of the above.”
In the U.S., a rest area off of an interstate highway is typically a simple road side pull off that may or may not have a toilet facility. In France, an aire can also be a simple road side pull off, but it will typically have a gas station as well as some sort of restaurant facility along with a large parking area. Toilet facilities are always available and some aire’s even have showers available.
As you can see in the above picture, the signs in this French aire leave no doubt as to what happens here. You might also find things that you absolutely would not expect to see, for example, an Amazon Locker. Yes, a place where you can have your Amazon order delivered and then pick it up when you happen to be at a road side aire in the middle of nowhere.
As far as I could tell, when Emily and I pulled over at the above pictured aire, we were not near any town or village. Yet there was this Amazon locker waiting for whomever chose to have their stuff delivered to a random aire parking lot.
Since you started reading this particular post, you have probably been thinking that I was writing about French aires because they are quite different from the simple rest areas in the U.S. That is partly true. The French aires seem to be a bit more high tech, with hands-free everything in the toilet wash area.
As you can see in the above picture, things are pretty fancy in some of the aires. However, the comparison to U.S. rest areas is not the real reason I am writing this post.
The real reason for writing this post is to try and explain the mind numbing pressure, the gut-wrenching tension, the sweaty palms and teeth grinding madness that comes when one tries to figure out how to drive into the car parking area at the aire. I know what you are all thinking: “Gee whiz Chris, you just drive in and follow the sign with the big “P” and a little car on it”. I used to think the same way until I encountered the minimum 47 signs with a big “P” and little car on them that are at all French aires.
What anyone traveling to a French aire for the first time does not realize, is that all but one of those 47 signs do nothing except lead back out onto the interstate, without having found the actual parking area. This is especially true when one or both passengers have to pee. If you are fortunate when you inexplicably find yourself back on the interstate, the next aire will only be 10k away. If you are not so fortunate, the next aire sign you see will say, “Aire For People Who Have No Gas and Really Have to Pee, 50km.”
Emily and I had our first experience trying to find the aire parking area on a recent road trip. Fortunately we were not in dire straits when after following the signs that indicated the place to park your car, we suddenly found ourselves with no option but to continue back on to the main highway. Confusion reigned as we tried to figure out what had just happened. Emily of course accused me of missing the sign. I informed her that this was impossible as there were at least 47 signs. We agreed that Emily would help at the next aire.
After a couple of hours we were 1 for 3 in actually getting to the parking area of the aire. By this time, Emily had also realized that things were not as simple as they seemed and that each aire entry would require a carefully laid out plan of attack. I would slow the car down to the pace of a sleepy snail, and Emily and I both would scan the various signs to try and ascertain which one actually led to the car park area.
After several more aire stops, we finally became more confident in our ability to follow the correct sign and not end up back on the interstate. We did encounter one final challenge though, and it was the biggest one of all.
The biggest challenge we faced came on our way home. We had to stop for gas. This meant that we had to make sure we found an aire that had a gas station. It also meant that once we found an aire with a gas station, we had to navigate our way through 38 different signs indicating how to get to the gas pumps. Those were but minor inconveniences however, compared to finding a place to park the car after getting gas without accidentally ending up back on the interstate, without Emily, who was inside the store getting coffee. You can feel the tension now can’t you? Everyone knows, you CAN NOT LEAVE YOUR WINGMAN!
I had determined that I would drive over curbs or go off road if I had to, but I was not going to leave Emily at the aire. Also, I figured that if I did, she would quickly realize that I had tried to park the car after getting gas and was then helplessly jettisoned back out onto the interstate where I would quickly make my way to the next exit and come back for her. Or so I hoped.
Having learned my lesson about the dangers of French aire parking areas, I carefully made my way over to a parking spot with no problems. I went into the store and found Emily who was duly impressed and noticeably relieved when I told her I had moved the car with no issues.
I am happy to report that we have since done a second road trip and had no issues finding the car parking area and no one was left behind. We consider ourselves fully educated regarding French aires now. Feel free to ask for advice if you are considering a French road trip.
Go out and be consistent.