Citroën Cactus

The French Cactus. Photograph by Holly Connolly. “Okay, fine,” I said, when we saw the price of train tickets from Paris to the wedding we were attending deep in the South of France. “I’ll drive. But we’re getting a Citroën Cactus.” I had not driven in Continental Europe before, and had, by quirk more than anything else, only ever driven a succession of Cactuses; first my mum’s, then a different rental, then, finally, my own. The Cactus is essentially a four-door, five-seat car, but one of deeply muscular proportions—when I sent a photo of my gray model to a friend who could barely believe that I drive, let alone own, a car, he replied, “It’s, like, a 4×4?” Then there is my favorite feature—unique, as far as I know, to the Cactus—a strip of “Airbumps” lining each side. Said to act as a buffer on collision-prone Parisian streets, they make the car look a little like it’s kitted out in a North Face jacket. Cactuses are not flashy, nor are they known for their reliability. Say the word Citroën to any man who is invested in cars and he will shake his head and start talking about “those French cars and their electrics.” But I have never loved anything because it is functional. So if I was going to drive for hours on the wrong side of the motorway, I wanted a Cactus. Europcar, however, had other ideas. “What is this car?” I said, when I saw the word Renault on the rental forms in Europcar’s Charles de Gaulle office. “We selected the Citroën Cactus.” “Yes,” said the stiff-haired woman behind the counter. “But we have upgraded you. You’ll see: this is a much better car.” “The key.” She handed me a strange, sleek object that could have come from an Apple Store. There was no metal key attached to it. It was far too light in my hand. “And remember to photograph any scratches that we haven’t marked up.” Brave face. “It’s the future!” I said, brandishing the keyless key as I returned to Zsófia, who stood with our suitcases outside the office. “We’re looking for row F28.” “Oh! My mum had this car,” Zsófia said as we arrived at a nondescript white car. “She loved it. It’s a good car.” It looked small—much smaller than the Cactus. Inside, it was worse. We were seated so low down that we’d be looking up at every other car, crammed in tight together; Zsófia’s knee was touching the gear stick. There was no ignition. Of course there wasn’t, because there was no key. So then what. There were many buttons. One, apart from the others, read “Engine Start Stop.” Was that it? Start the car by pressing a button? Slowly, very slowly, I pressed it. Nothing. It was like sitting in one of those coin-operated rides for children they have in shopping centers, but you’ve run out of money. “I’ll call my mum and ask how hers worked,” said Zsófia. The phone started ringing, she was put on speaker—the connection was terrible. “The clutch?” Zsófia was saying. “The button and what with the clutch?” I felt really hot. I started trying to get the windows down. “How the fuck do you even move the mirrors in this thing?” I know now that all I had to do was hold down the clutch, then press the on button and the car would start. But this felt too illogical to even bother to try: How would it know I was pressing the clutch before it was even turned on? “No,” I said. “It’s too much. This is all too much. This is not a real car.” Once, driving back to the airport at the end of a family holiday, my dad pulled over onto the hard shoulder of the Spanish motorway and, screaming all the while, threw a suitcase full of John Grisham novels into a field. I felt like that. “Zsófia,” I said. I was trying not to catch sight of myself in the rearview mirror. “Let’s take the suitcases out of the boot.” I marched back to the office, straight to the front of the queue—“It’s urgent”—and slammed the fake key down on the counter. “I saw a Cactus in the parking lot,” I said. “Give it to me.” The woman looked up. We had been awake since 4 A.M. I did not look nice. “Of course,” she said. “One moment.” Ten minutes later, driving out of the parking lot high up behind the wheel of my Cactus, I was Thelma and Louise. I was ready. I was home. Driving, as anyone will tell you, is about muscle memory. It is also about overriding your own fear of the car’s capacity to kill, until being at the wheel becomes something maybe like the thrill of holding a loaded gun. Or it is for me, at least. I was taught to drive twice. First at nineteen, then again at twenty-seven, both times by a sturdy County Tyrone man called Jim. I felt younger the second time. Timid and illegal in the driver’s seat and horribly aware that it was I and only I who was operating thousands of pounds of steel and aluminum—that I was responsible for everything that happened. When it clicked, and I can’t explain it any better than that—it was a thing that happened overnight—there was nothing like the sheer feeling of control. The meditative gravity. Very few things that I do in my life have any real stakes; driving is one

Citroën Cactus

The French Cactus. Photograph by Holly Connolly.

“Okay, fine,” I said, when we saw the price of train tickets from Paris to the wedding we were attending deep in the South of France. “I’ll drive. But we’re getting a Citroën Cactus.” I had not driven in Continental Europe before, and had, by quirk more than anything else, only ever driven a succession of Cactuses; first my mum’s, then a different rental, then, finally, my own.

The Cactus is essentially a four-door, five-seat car, but one of deeply muscular proportions—when I sent a photo of my gray model to a friend who could barely believe that I drive, let alone own, a car, he replied, “It’s, like, a 4×4?” Then there is my favorite feature—unique, as far as I know, to the Cactus—a strip of “Airbumps” lining each side. Said to act as a buffer on collision-prone Parisian streets, they make the car look a little like it’s kitted out in a North Face jacket. Cactuses are not flashy, nor are they known for their reliability. Say the word Citroën to any man who is invested in cars and he will shake his head and start talking about “those French cars and their electrics.” But I have never loved anything because it is functional.

So if I was going to drive for hours on the wrong side of the motorway, I wanted a Cactus. Europcar, however, had other ideas.

“What is this car?” I said, when I saw the word Renault on the rental forms in Europcar’s Charles de Gaulle office. “We selected the Citroën Cactus.”

“Yes,” said the stiff-haired woman behind the counter. “But we have upgraded you. You’ll see: this is a much better car.”

“The key.” She handed me a strange, sleek object that could have come from an Apple Store. There was no metal key attached to it. It was far too light in my hand. “And remember to photograph any scratches that we haven’t marked up.”

Brave face. “It’s the future!” I said, brandishing the keyless key as I returned to Zsófia, who stood with our suitcases outside the office. “We’re looking for row F28.”

“Oh! My mum had this car,” Zsófia said as we arrived at a nondescript white car. “She loved it. It’s a good car.” It looked small—much smaller than the Cactus. Inside, it was worse. We were seated so low down that we’d be looking up at every other car, crammed in tight together; Zsófia’s knee was touching the gear stick.

There was no ignition. Of course there wasn’t, because there was no key. So then what.

There were many buttons. One, apart from the others, read “Engine Start Stop.” Was that it? Start the car by pressing a button? Slowly, very slowly, I pressed it. Nothing. It was like sitting in one of those coin-operated rides for children they have in shopping centers, but you’ve run out of money.

“I’ll call my mum and ask how hers worked,” said Zsófia. The phone started ringing, she was put on speaker—the connection was terrible. “The clutch?” Zsófia was saying. “The button and what with the clutch?” I felt really hot. I started trying to get the windows down. “How the fuck do you even move the mirrors in this thing?”

I know now that all I had to do was hold down the clutch, then press the on button and the car would start. But this felt too illogical to even bother to try: How would it know I was pressing the clutch before it was even turned on?

“No,” I said. “It’s too much. This is all too much. This is not a real car.”

Once, driving back to the airport at the end of a family holiday, my dad pulled over onto the hard shoulder of the Spanish motorway and, screaming all the while, threw a suitcase full of John Grisham novels into a field. I felt like that. “Zsófia,” I said. I was trying not to catch sight of myself in the rearview mirror. “Let’s take the suitcases out of the boot.”

I marched back to the office, straight to the front of the queue—“It’s urgent”—and slammed the fake key down on the counter. “I saw a Cactus in the parking lot,” I said. “Give it to me.” The woman looked up. We had been awake since 4 A.M. I did not look nice. “Of course,” she said. “One moment.” Ten minutes later, driving out of the parking lot high up behind the wheel of my Cactus, I was Thelma and Louise. I was ready. I was home.

Driving, as anyone will tell you, is about muscle memory. It is also about overriding your own fear of the car’s capacity to kill, until being at the wheel becomes something maybe like the thrill of holding a loaded gun. Or it is for me, at least. I was taught to drive twice. First at nineteen, then again at twenty-seven, both times by a sturdy County Tyrone man called Jim. I felt younger the second time. Timid and illegal in the driver’s seat and horribly aware that it was I and only I who was operating thousands of pounds of steel and aluminum—that I was responsible for everything that happened.

When it clicked, and I can’t explain it any better than that—it was a thing that happened overnight—there was nothing like the sheer feeling of control. The meditative gravity. Very few things that I do in my life have any real stakes; driving is one. But for me, for the magic to work, there needs to be a certain symbiosis with your car: you have to trust it. And so I got in my Cactus.

Later, after we had gotten a flat tire and the only mechanic within an hour’s drive still open in rural France at 6 P.M. on a Friday had taken pity on us and offered to change it for free, I texted my brother a photo of the Cactus being repaired. He wrote back: “Do you have some sponsorship deal with citroen cactus haha.”

Holly Connolly is a writer based in London and Belfast.