Robert the dog, a cave, one gas station, several near-disasters, and being better tomorrow

Montignac is a gorgeous French village where we wished we had planned to stay longer…until we stayed longer than planned.

The town is teensy. Montignac has a population of 2,700 or so, but I’ve seen Montignac also referenced as Montignac-Lascaux; Lascaux itself has a whopping 170 people – or, at least that was true as of 2007, way up from 167 in 1990… (I promise, I looked this stuff up. Trying hard to be accurate here.) Anyway, it’s small.

Montignac-Lascaux was put on the map, so to speak, in 1940 thanks to a dog named Robert (best. dog. name. ever.) who was running around the hills with his master when he (Robert, not dog-naming wizard) fell into a hole. The hole, it turned out, was the entrance to a 17,000-year-old painted cave made by the region’s Paleolithic inhabitants. Yes, the very same guys who invented that low-carb diet!

And I can’t find confirmation of this but I am quite sure that there is exactly one gas station in Montignac-Lascaux, outside of an Intermarche. This gas station definitely, absolutely does not accept any of our credit cards. This, unfortunately, is something I am completely sure of.

I know this because starting around 7am, we tried each of those credit cards, again and again, and they were all rejected, again and again. Not declined, just rejected, just mysteriously irrelevant to this particular gas station. I’m still not sure why.

By 7:20am or so, we were beginning to panic. The car was basically out of gas and the next-nearest gas station (according to Google maps) was too far to risk it. The drive to Toulouse, where we needed to catch a flight, was about 2 and 1/2 hrs, and our flight was in a little less than 4hrs. While normally this sounds like perfect timing to me, we’d vowed not to cut things quite that close on this trip. Plus, I was speaking in the late afternoon at a conference north of London, and the next flight – in the evening – was not a viable option.

So back at the gas station we waited and worried and tried to come up with an alternative plan. No such plan had materialized when two guys drove up in a truck. Two of the 170 citizens of Lascaux. It would have been obvious to anyone, even two citizens of a much more populous city, that we were tourists. But it must have been indisputable to these guys, who knew we weren’t any of the other 168. Plus I was waving frantically at them and yelling, all the while grateful for my high school French, EXCUSEZ-MOI! S’IL VOUS PLAIT! POUVEZ-VOUS NOUS AIDER? The truck pulled up slowly, reluctantly, and I saw the guy in the driver’s seat make a preemptively-annoyed sort of face, and I glimpsed the guy in the passenger seat roll his eyes as they approached, but I still kept yelling, strategically adjusting my yelling now to just, MERCI MERCI MERCI MERCI MERCI!

I explained the situation and few minutes later, they’d paid for our gas with their credit card, and taken my cash, and eye-rolled away.

We got on the road. 730am. Everything seemed to be on track again.

Then, an hour into the drive, we hit a roadblock. Well we didn’t actually hit the roadblock – there were no crashes – but we did drive right up to actual concrete barriers sitting there on this tiny country road, with no way to move forward. Route fermée.

I won’t belabor this part of the story but a short disagreement ensued, where in the end I convinced Reza that the rental car insurance would very probably cover the damage we were about to cause to the car, and even if they didn’t, he should (and did) cut through a field to get to a dirt path that crossed through two farms and traversed some other tiny trail along the way – they may have been driveways but they were barely cleared, not even gravel on the “roads” – for a good mile until we could wind our way back to the road we’d been on.

So. Everything seemed to be on track again.

But then, and this is coming from an aggressive optimist of a person, let me just say that more crap happened at just about every point when more crap could happen. We missed the airport exit, then the rental car exit. We didn’t have time to stop and get gas, and somehow the fee to fill up the half-empty tank cost more than the total price of renting the car itself. My phone died, so I had to leave Reza and the kids at the entrance to security to run three terminals back to get paper tickets. The woman behind the desk wouldn’t give me paper tickets because, even though I was checked in and had everyone’s passports in my hands, she wanted to see that my actual human children existed in real life. I begged, and she still refused, until a nice gentleman standing by intervened and said, basically, Give the lady a break (in French). So she did, and I again MERCI‘d and basically bowed (I know, this is not French culture but it felt right) and backed away slowly with the paper tickets in hand, then turned and sprinted back to security…where I was told we couldn’t bring our car seats to the gate but instead had to go back to the desk I’d just returned from, three terminals back, to check the car seats, but bien sur it was too late to check them, so again we begged and MERCI‘d somehow got them through. Etc. Etc. Etc.

While there were other smaller mishaps strewn among the major near-disasters that morning, in the end we did get to the gate as the agent made her “last call for the Aslan family, please, we will close the gate, please come now” announcement (which she made in both English and French, which struck me as very considerate, and also struck me as extra lucky for us because it took 2x the time to make, and we needed every single second we could get). So we staggered onto the plane, everyone feeling awful, and hungry, and tired, and sweaty…but, we made it.

So. The only real failure of the day? Unfortunately, we hadn’t been that nice to each other along the way. And when I say “we” and “each other” I mean mostly the grown-ups. The kids were their usual selves. Heck, they slept through most of the drive, even the off-roading part.

Reza and I could’ve been high-fiving as we avoided/extracted ourselves from each near-catastrophe, but we weren’t doing that. We were grouchy and pushing each other away. Nothing egregious, but nothing nice either. We were the opposite of a team. We made the morning more miserable than it had to be, by far.

As if our unpleasantness toward each other wasn’t enough, we realized later that we’d wasted a really good opportunity to demonstrate to the boys something we’d talked about a few days earlier. I’d told a story – one of my favorite stories – about how my college cross country coach Art Gulden would often remind the team, “You don’t have to feel good to run good.” He’d say this when we were tired, or sick, or in any other way not feeling our best. And he was right. Remembering this truth got me through a lot of tough races, but also much more. I’ve come back to that advice again and again over the past 20-ish years since I first heard it, not just when I want to push through something that’s physically challenging but when I know I need to show up to something and be present, patient, generous, or whatever else is required of me when I don’t really feel like I can do it.

I’ve told this story to my boys before, but I reiterated it on the first day of this grand adventure to set expectations that, even though we were going to be jet-lagged, and travel weary, and wiped out a lot, we still needed everyone to choose to be their best. To behave. To act with kindness. To treat each other well.

You know, the way Reza and I had not just done. Teachable moment officially lost.

All five of us fell asleep on that flight from Toulouse to Heathrow with our mouths wide open, most likely snoring in our chord of snores, drooling our faces off. When we landed, the groggy adults finally got coffee, the kids got snacks, we regrouped and made up, and Reza and I reverted to that evergreen back-up lesson, that go-to we use all too often when, in retrospect, we realize we sort of screwed up in front of our kids: we acknowledged our mistakes to them, apologized, and reiterated that even grown-ups need to practice being better every day. Even when they don’t feel good.

So that’s what we’ll do. Practice being better. That’s the lesson. Again.

That, and also: try not to run out of gas.

Oh wait! And: always, always go after your dog if he falls down a hole.


jessicajackley View All →

author of #claywaterbrick. cofounder of @kiva. instructor at @USC. investor at @collabfund. in love w @rezaaslan + our three boys.

14 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I can relate to trying to teach your kids a valuable lesson and not exactly doing it yourself…oops. I’m glad you all made it! Sounded like a real patience tester.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You people (Aslan family) are precious. Thank you so much for sharing with us your adventures. Our prayers and good thoughts are with you. God bless you every second of your awesome trip. And also for teaching us to be better even when we don’t feel like doing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Murphy’s Law, isn’t it? Wonderful and fun way of telling the story! It took me a few years to figure it out, but American credit cards typically require a signature, and thus do not (ever) work at gas stations where you want to avoid (or when it is closed) the person behind the cash register. I’m glad you made your flight, though. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Turns out my card was shut off by my bank – fraud scare! ha! But we’re going to be much more careful from now anyway re: last-min gas station runs 🙂 Thanks for reading!


  4. This post made me laugh out loud several times, and my 6-year old is now convinced that Mom — who said she could not play Ludo because she was doing SOMETHING VERY IMPORTANT — is definitely not working. You have captured so well the hilarity and absurdity that often comes with family travel. It especially resonates with me because it reminds me of our travels in Italy over the last few years, and the several completely ridiculous situations in which we often found ourselves. The gas station incident is all too familiar — we also learned the hard way that gas stations rest on Sundays (because, hello, Italy). There was also the time when the GPS told us to take a bike path when we were most definitely NOT on bikes, and the path was definitely NOT made for a giant Volvo station wagon. The hours-long process of maneuvering ourselves out of there was entertaining in hindsight but we were not our best selves either. So thank you for documenting and sharing these adventures, and for making me laugh. In these trying times, that is a rare respite.
    ps. Heard Reza speak on faith and good work when he came to Princeton last year, and it was one of the most moving and inspiring talks I’ve attended.

    Liked by 1 person

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