We're finally out roaming the French countryside two days after getting our Roadtrek off the boat in Antwerp, but first we had to attend to a few things. The first thing we had to do is caravan the Roadtrek and the rental car to the rental car office to return it, always a fun thing to do. The office is a few miles away down a freeway with access roads on each side – since Sharon is following me in the rental, we decide to stick to the access road. More opportunities for me to pull over and wait for her to catch up if we get separated.
We arrived uneventfully (together) and I go in to drop it off. They try the old “there's a new scratch on the paint” routine, I ask to see it, and after much blustering they finally locate a little scuff mark on the rear bumper by the hatchback. I look – it's practically invisible, and only in the clear coat, not the color coat. I tell them I didn't bring my buffer, but I've got some polishing compound out in the Roadtrek, and I can buff that scuff mark out by hand in two minutes flat. I instruct them to hang on, lemme get the compound, take a few steps toward the Roadtrek, and magically the problem goes away. Sharon's watching the whole thing from the Roadtrek and is laughing when I get in – she knows what's going on.
A more serious problem, though, is a funny tire noise I had noticed from the port to the campground, and I heard again as we returned from the rental car office. A little crawling around underneath revealed that one of the inside rear tires was almost flat, so I got out the Mercedes tool kit from the passenger footwell and pulled the two right rear tires. Sure enough, there's a big nasty bolt stuck into the tread, and cracks in the sidewalls from running it low – I had driven it from Florida to Baltimore to drop off just fine, but the port employees and merchant sailors couldn't manage to drive it a few hundred yards on and off the ship without picking up some serious hardware. Those guys may be fine on the water, but in my opinion they're a menace trying to drive. Now I need either a new tire or to patch this one.
The big surprise, though, was when I started emailing around to local Antwerp tire stores, looking for this tire size (215/85 R 16). Nobody had it – Merciless Benz in its wisdom fitted North American Sprinters with 85 profile tires, whereas every Sprinter in Europe is running on 75 profile tires. This is the aspect ratio of the tire, the tire height above the wheel expressed as a percent of tread width, which in this case is 215 (in millimeters). An 85 profile tire is taller and skinnier than a 75 profile tire. A 50 profile tire is half as high as the tread width. My British neighbor in the campground opined that Americans need taller tires because things are deeper over here. I can't buy this size tire – with zero demand, nobody in Europe stocks it.
I install my never-been-on-the-ground spare where the flat tire used to be, and go to the tire store the next morning, hoping we can salvage the flat. The clipboard commando front desk guys lose interest immediately once they realize they can't sell me a new tire, and foist me off on the guy who actually does the work out in the back. He looks at my flat, and shakes his head. Not repairable because of the sidewall damage, even if he could patch the puncture. Am I stuck in Europe for six months without a spare?
Let's go look, he motions. We head back into the bowels of the tire shop, and along the back wall is a rack of used tires, which we start rummaging through for a candidate. We can only communicate in bad French – he's West African from my guess based on his accent, maybe Senegalese, but we point at the size, aspect ratio, and weight ratings on the tires and agree that a 75 profile tire that's a little wider will be almost the same rolling diameter as my skinnier, 85 profile tire. 85% of 215 is about 75% of 235 – the used tire is smaller by about 3 and a half percent. A 245 would be closer, but might rub because of the extra width. If I ever need to use it I'll put it on the front and tolerate the pull – using it in a rear position would overload the other rear tire on that side. It's a serviceable substitute, considering the situation. He's doing the calculations with a stubby pencil on a paper bag, I'm doing it with him, and even with the language barrier, we are communicating.
Tire guy dismounts my defunct tire, I grab the almost-the-same tire, lube the bead, and turn it so that it'll be mounted in the right orientation. Tire guy looks at me, really starting to wonder why I seem to be familiar with the procedure, and know a bit about tire sizes. In my bad French, and pantomiming, I say “J'ai tourné les clés pour plusieurs années” (I've been turning wrenches for a while”). “Pour vivre (for a living)?”, he asks. “Oui, pour vivre.” Big grin from tire guy. He mounts the used tire on my wheel, rolls it out to the Roadtrek, and I tell him I don't need any paperwork on this transaction. The two of us silently ponder this situation for a moment, and then simultaneously look both ways to see who's watching. Front desk guys have long ago lost interest – the coast is clear. Two twenty euro notes swiftly change hands, another big grin from tire guy as they even more swiftly disappear into his pocket, we chuck the tire in the side door, and I'm off down the road, problem solved.
Tire sizes may vary, but some things are the same the world over.