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Wanderlust and Laughter - Rental Car Chaos

"Turn right at the Giant Baby Head!”, the Hertz agent's heavy Spanish accent echoed through my cellphone speaker. I had called to ask for precise directions to the rental car return at the Atoche train station in downtown Madrid.

"What?" I exclaimed incredulously.

"TURN RIGHT AT THE GIANT BABY HEAD, NEAR THE ROUNDABOUT!" he shouted in a frustrated tone.

Click. Crickets.

“Did he seriously just say turn right at the Giant Baby Head?" I asked my husband skeptically, "And do you think that's what he meant or that's just some bad Spanish-to-English translation?"

He responded with agitation. “I have no idea. Right now, I’m just trying to not get us killed."

"Well, that's not very helpful," I thought, "but it probably is a good goal to stay alive as I contemplate the numerous traffic violations we have committed in the last several minutes. Trying to return a not-so-powerful Ford Fiesta Ecoboost Hybrid Edition back to Hertz was not turning out so well.

Our misadventure began a week ago when we picked up the rental car at the Madrid airport. Jet-lagged from our overnight flight and dreading the ambitious 6-hour drive to the Mediterranean Coast, we simply confirmed that we would return the car to the Atocha Train Station near our Airbnb in Madrid. How hard could it be?

Little did we know that the Atocha Train Station is a massive facility spanning several blocks in downtown Madrid. Combined with Madrid's well-earned reputation as one of the busiest cities to drive in Europe, with 3+ million cars sharing the roads each day, you've got a recipe for a rental car return disaster.

By the time I resorted to making the distress call to the local rental car office for directions, we had been approaching the Atocha Train Station from various directions for what felt like an eternity Each time we passed by the station we were swept up in six lanes of swiftly moving traffic. In the fleeting moments I had to survey the train station exterior, I saw no signs of anything resembling a rental car return area. Each subsequent pass became tenser with a series of traffic miscues trying to circle back to the station in a sea of one-way streets, roundabouts, bus lanes, and aggressive Spanish drivers. Needless to say, this caused my stressed-out husband to utter an ever-growing list of expletives.

Armed with dubious instructions involving a Giant Baby Head, we summoned our last ounce of resilience and approached the station from yet another angle. Suddenly, a massive roundabout materialized before us resembling a sci-fi traffic vortex.

"That must be the roundabout," I said ominously feeling a wave of dread sweep over me.

The roundabout was at least six lanes of swirling cars all partaking in a magical dance of effortless entrances and exits to which we clearly did not know the steps.

As we maneuvered our way through the bewildering circle, my eyes widened in disbelief at the sight of a statue of a Giant Baby Head!

"There's the Giant Baby Head, I exclaimed triumphantly. "He did mean to say Giant Baby Head!"

The awkward dance continued through several more rounds of circling. My husband finally found an escape route on the outer lane. We shot out of the roundabout, hurtling towards The Giant Baby Head where lo and behold, we finally spotted a rental car return sign no larger than a car license plate.

The car returned intact. Marriage remained intact (barely).

The end. But wait! There’s more…

I wish I could say this is our only car rental return misadventure, but we are apparently slow to learn from our mistakes.

After the Madrid fiasco, my husband reminded me of another rental car return misadventure in Avignon, France, several years ago.

Once again, the trouble stemmed from picking up a car in one location, the Marseille Airport, and returning it in another, the Avignon Train Station.

During a family vacation in the south of France, we savored a leisurely afternoon sipping wine at a charming café on a tree-lined street in Avignon. Time slipped away, and we suddenly realized we had to dash to the train station to catch our bullet train to Paris. The urgency mounted as we encountered heavy late afternoon traffic and found ourselves running on a very tight schedule.

Elevating the stress even more, the wine had taken its toll, and I desperately needed a restroom break.

As we neared the train station, I frantically googled the location of the Hertz rental car office, hoping to save precious minutes.

"There it is!" I exclaimed as we whizzed past a building adorned with a prominent Hertz sign.

At this point, there was still no sight of the actual train station, so I assumed there must be a shuttle service to take us there.

Panicking about missing the bullet train and with my bladder on the verge of bursting, we careened into the parking lot. Our family of four burst out of the car simultaneously yanking out backpacks and suitcases from all orifices of the car.

We rushed toward an open garage door, where a man in overalls appeared with a quizzical look on his face.

"Where's the shuttle to the train station?" I panted, breathlessly.

He responded with a blank stare.

I proceeded to launch into a panic-induced tirade of how we are late and need to get to the station as soon as possible, each sentence growing louder as the look on his face became more perplexed.

“Mother, he’s not deaf, he just doesn’t speak English,” my 8th-grade daughter interjected into the conversation with a maturity beyond her years.

That explained part of the problem. The other, more glaring issue became apparent when we realized we were not at the Hertz rental car return at all. No, we were at the maintenance facility near the train station!

My daughter, armed with her 6 months of French lessons, took charge. She proceeded to explain our predicament to the bewildered mechanic. It had been several years since my high school French, but I was pretty sure I heard her apologizing and then telling him her mother was crazy.

"Ah, oui!" he exclaimed, grinning widely at my daughter.

“He has nicely offered to drive to the actual rental car return, and we can follow him,” my daughter smugly informs me.

Suitcases and backpacks are shoved haphazardly back into the car and we again race towards the train station rental car return behind a thoroughly amused French mechanic.

At last, we arrived at the rental car return, cleverly concealed behind the train station. For the second time in ten minutes, we performed the circus clown car exit routine with our luggage, handing over the keys and a generous tip to the mechanic. With seconds to spare, we made it to the train platform, finally able to answer the call of nature.

Car returned. Children armed with an everlasting tale of their crazy mother.

Honestly, I wish I could say that our rental car return misadventures ended there, but alas, I could tell many more tales. Yet, fear not, for I have devised a plan to put an end to these comedic disasters.

1. Confirm the precise address of the rental car return location before embarking on the journey. No more ending up at maintenance facilities or sales offices! 2. Confirm the return location's hours of operation, especially for smaller locations with limited schedules. Understanding the procedures for returning outside regular business hours will save you time, money, and yes, unnecessary stress. 3. Research online resources about the specific return location. Platforms like YouTube and TripAdvisor forums often hold valuable information and insights from fellow travelers. 4. Allocate plenty of extra time for the return process. Account for potential traffic jams, wrong turns, and even long lines at the gas station. Embrace the opportunity to enjoy a leisurely coffee or a glass of wine while waiting once the car is safely returned.

And finally, the most crucial rule of all...

5. Ensure that every occupant of the car visits the restroom at the gas station when you refuel the car, whether they need to or not!

I can't say we will never have another rental car misadventure with these techniques. But if we fail, I hope we at least have another story that makes us laugh after the car is safely returned.


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