Hiking High in the Pyrenees

Talking the Talk
  |  Gorp.com
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Little differences can make for big problems. Take stoves for example. French hikers do not use liquid-fuel camping stoves; they use the locally made Camping Gaz stoves, which run on compressed fuel. Which means that while compressed fuel is widely available, white gas is not.

And, as every outdoorsperson surely knows, it is illegal (not to mention possibly insane) to bring fuel on an airplane trip.

So, when Dan and I arrived in Paris, jet-lagged and bedraggled after an overnight flight on Pakistan Airlines, our first task was to look for fuel for our MSR stove. Which explains why we were running around attempting to pronounce a sentence that I am willing to bet a whole passel of francs you never learned in high school French:

"Excuse me, sir? Do you sell dry-cleaning fluid I can use in my backpacking stove?"

The reason for this bizarre request: A fellow hiker had assured us that, (a) While white gas is very difficult to find in France, dry cleaning fluid works in white gas camping stoves, and (b) The French sell it in drugstores.

The first part is true enough: We didn't see a drop of white gas anywhere in France, not even in outdoor-supply stores that sell MSR stoves and fuel bottles (and local regulations make buying a liter of unleaded fuel from a gas station difficult or impossible). But certain kinds of petroleum-based dry-cleaning fluids do indeed work in multifuel stoves.

The business about drugstores was a little less accurate, as we discovered when we tried to buy dry-cleaning fluid in a pharmacie filled with prettily packaged soaps, herbal supplies, and medicines. The bemused clerk sent us to a department store, where an English-speaking concierge gave us directions to a dry-cleaner, who helpfully sent us to a drougerie—not, as my friend had thought, a drugstore, but a shop selling light hardware, cleaning supplies, and things like turpentine, paint—and yes, dry-cleaning fluid.

Language is a challenge for an American in Paris, no question about it: The French are just as bad as we are at learning foreign languages. Nonetheless, although what we asked for probably came out mangled as something like "fluid for the cleaning of dry," four complete strangers in busy downtown Paris were willing to help two grubby, barely articulate foreigners with their unusual request.

It made me wonder how the French ever got a reputation for aloofness.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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