One day when I was riding to the airport in a taxi, the driver told me she’d just met French Président Emmanuel Macron. Of course I believed her. My driver was the one and only Christelle.
“Votre Président veux vous rencontrer,” she’d said to me that summer day in the Côte d’Azur, quoting the aide-de-camp who had waited alongside her for an incoming airplane. “Your Président wants to meet you,” the aide had said, addressing the redhead who stood over six feet tall in her heels.
“Mes jambes étaient paralysées!” Christelle remembered. My legs were paralysed!
Her voice always dances over its words when she drives. As boulangeries and bistrots speed by outside the taxi’s windows, you can’t help but listen to Christelle’s conversation. She could fascinate riders with a story about washing her minivan if she wanted to, but she always has more interesting things to say.
Surely Christelle entertained her other client, another regular, that morning in August 2020, when she drove him to meet Président Macron’s plane at a military airport in the South of France. Like that client, my family has enjoyed Christelle’s company from the black leather seats of her red minivan many times over the years, often journeying between Nice Côte d’Azur Airport and our long-time summer home, Bellevue, in the coastal town of Antibes. Usually my husband, Philippe, takes the passenger seat beside Christelle during the half-hour trip and chats with her en français about everything from politics and economics to the latest celebrity gossip. I perch in the back with Lolo, our bilingual teenager, and Yoko, our miniature poodle, and try to concentrate on Christelle’s cheery repartee. Instead I catch myself quietly admiring the sparkly butterfly clips in her red-highlighted hair, or the way the Rivera sunlight catches her arms and makes them glitter. Or how she maneuvers her five-inch stilettos between the brake and accelerator as we glide through the abundant highway traffic.
Whether the other regular client noticed Christelle’s dress sense that morning he was meeting M. Macron, I do not know; he was undoubtedly preoccupied with the day’s events. He joined the Président aboard an aircraft, flew to Beirut, and met with the Lebanese president following the explosion at Beirut’s port.
That same evening Christelle returned to the military airport to collect her passenger. The hours ticked by. The sun set and the sky grew dark. At one point she was chatting on the phone with her husband Éric, another driver. “I bet you’ll meet the Président,” he said with a laugh.
Just then, Christelle’s phone beeped with another caller. She glanced at the name on the screen. “It’s my client,” she said and rang off with Éric.
“Coucou,” she said gaily into her telephone. (“Coucou” is a familiar version of hello, a word used among friends and always uttered with song in your voice.) “C’était comment votre journée?” she continued with her usual playfulness. “Pas trop dur?” How was your day? Not too tough?
“Bonsoir, Madame,” replied a less familiar voice. “C’est votre Président.” It was Président Macron.
Christelle felt as if someone had punched her in the gut – and yet. And yet, hadn’t her husband just joked that she would meet the Président? For once, the driver of the red taxi was tongue-tied. M. Macron forged on, apologizing for the flight delay. The meetings and the interviews had pushed back the party’s departure by over two hours. He was sorry she had been kept waiting.
So Christelle and her heels hung around with the aide-de-camp for the incoming plane. Shortly, once the plane had arrived and Christelle’s legs had gone numb on the news of a meeting with M. Macron, she stood before her Président in person.
“Bonsoir, Christelle,” he said. “May I call you Christelle?” Président Macron said he’d met several of her regular clients in Lebanon that day. Everyone had sung her praises.
“J’étais toute émue,” Christelle said, replaying the meeting in her mind. She was very emotional. She had only a simple education, she’d told M. Macron, but he assured her that he valued her profession a great deal. Then he asked her opinion about his first two years in office. And thus, some time after the gilets jaunes movement had triggered M. Macron’s nationwide listening tour, our favourite driver managed a private feedback session with France’s Président.
Christelle has featured in this blog several times over the years, filling roles from restaurant concierge to real estate agent, but during our recent drive to Nice Airport, the native Niçoise expects my questions. She knows I want to profile her. She also knows at the end of our journey, I’ll pose a series of short questions in the style of US talk show host Stephen Colbert. “I’m open to new things” was her typically enthusiastic response to my request for the interview.
As the red minivan weaves through traffic, Christelle wears a silky white top with flowing trousers in a kaleidoscope of peach, orange sherbet, and rainslicker yellow. Her nails – fingers and toes – are peachy pink, and her patent orange heels have shrunk to only a few inches in height this morning, but they suit the ensemble to a tee. I thought her aviator sunglasses were dirty at first – how could that be? – but the grid of dots decorating her lenses are little Louis Vuitton stamps.
After Christelle recaps her Macron story for me, she says her early days in the business didn’t roll so smoothly. Fifteen years ago, toward the start of her career as an executive driver, she found herself standing on the pavement in the drop-off lanes at Nice’s airport, hands fixed to the outside of her vehicle, telephone surrendered, surrounded by police. She was a suspect in a major jewelry scam. Christelle had been driving the same clients to the airport four times a week. Apparently they’d been buying jewelry in France with credit cards, claiming tax refunds at the airport, and then switching their bags so the jewelry remained in France, where they returned the items to the shops at full price. Over time they had pocketed hundreds of thousands of Euros from the French Government. Now the police thought Christelle was in cahoots with her regular passengers.
“J’était toute jeune,” she says. She was very young. Fortunately she was able to fish her taxi driver’s permit out of her handbag, and the cops let her go.
These days, even while hauling luggage and sitting behind the wheel of her minivan, Christelle distinguishes herself by dressing to the nines (or “to your 36,” as Philippe once labelled her attire, or “to your 31” as she called it herself). But she puts her success down to character.
“It would be easy for me to faire la gueule all day,” she says. She could just sulk. Instead she keeps her morning TV news intake to 20 minutes – the headlines are always so negative – and fills her Instagram account with breezy sayings. Clients appreciate her attitude and have hired her to drive them as distantly as Venice, Geneva, and northern Switzerland. On one trip to Geneva, a mother-daughter duo asked Christelle to keep them company for a week. (She obliged for a couple of days.) But one of her driving colleagues once said he was so disgusted by her chirpy Instagram posts that he allait la virer. He was going to fire her. “Okay,” she told him cheerfully, “go ahead!” Two years later, he’s still a follower.
As the red minivan nears Nice Airport, I push onto my list of rapid-fire, Colbert-esque questions. Stephen Colbert and I share an alma mater, and his former roommate is the sister of my former roommate – all of which makes us nearly siblings – so I decided to take my semi-brother’s cue and ask my interviewee a series of set questions. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe we’ll pull out the same list of questions for another interviewee. (Do let us know what you think in the comments.) So, Christelle:
Peaches or figs? Peaches.
Cats or dogs? Dogs obviously. (She features her Pomeranian on Instagram.)
Jet ski or paddleboard? Paddleboard.
Croissant or pain au chocolat? Pain au chocolat. Take the one with the most calories! If you asked me fois gras versus salade, I’d take fois gras!
Haute couture or haute cuisine? What, between the two?! Haute couture.
Favourite smell? When the sun is warming the dew off the grass.
Worst smell? Broken sewers.
Sunshine or thunderstorm? Sunshine.
Morning or nighttime? Morning.
Johnny Halliday or Céline Dion? Céline Dion.
Baguette or saucisson (a dried French sausage)? Baguette.
Sandy beach or pebbly beach? Sandy. Pebbles hurt your feet.
Red wine or rosé piscine (the Côte d’Azur’s signature drink of rosé wine with ice cubes)? Red wine. I’ve done the rosé piscine too much. You add des glaçons and then you drink too much. So red wine. J’aime bien des grandes verres! I like big glasses!
Favourite French word? Merci.
Favourite English word? I can’t think of one.
Favourite place you’ve visited? London. It felt super there. I was with a friend of 40 years. We did lots of things.
Place you want to visit? Canada. It looks magnifique – the space, the mountains. People talk about it. I thought about moving there but the paperwork was too much.
Living most of the year in Toronto as my family and I do, Christelle’s final response surprises me. But we humans are always curious about elsewhere. And on that note, her red minivan pulls into Nice Airport and drops off my family and me for our next discovery.
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