Sunday, February 18, 2007

Vroom vroom



I am not a great fan of getting around – getting out of bed is exhausting enough for me and I need the rest of the day to recover. However, there are times when I have to make a little more effort – to go to the supermarket, for example, or take my children to somewhere more interesting than the park next door or the letterbox at the end of the road. For outings like these, I need to take the car.

Watching the French drive is traumatic in itself so joining in could be seen as foolhardy. Fortunately, I have not had to pass the French driving test as I already earned my driving licence thirty years ago, tootling around my home town of Whitchurch in a short-sighted daze. Back then, a traffic jam was anything more than three Ford Cortinas and a combine harvester all trying to get out of the same car park: in those days you could do an Emergency Stop on the dual carriageway in the rush-hour and no-one would notice. Nonetheless, I still managed to write off my dad’s car a few months later on an isolated country road and it was with fear, trepidation and a new pair of glasses that I took up driving again a few years ago.

France is not the ideal country in which to do this, actually. Not only do they drive on the wrong side of the road – their steering wheels are also on the wrong side of the car. This can take some getting used to. At the beginning – provided you’ve remembered which door to open and are not sitting in the passenger seat with a bewildered look on your face – you may find yourself trying to wind down the window every time you want to change gear and vice versa. Believe me, this is the least of your worries.

It is all the fault of Napoleon, of course. He was a whimsical so-and-so at the best of times – I mean, he was a supporter of the French Revolution, thoroughly approved the lopping off of aristocrats’ heads and then promptly crowned himself Emperor of France and got jobs for all of his family. Anyway - research has shown that the Romans drove on the left and yet today, everyone in continental Europe drives on the right. One theory is that Napoleon had his troops march on the right-hand side because their muskets or pikes - which were slung over their right shoulders - would crash into each other as they passed in the narrow roads and create an awful lot of noise and bother which made everybody late for the invasions, wars etc. Personally, I think Napoleon was just being very French and flouting the rules for the heck of it.



While Road Rage is a comparatively recent phenomenon in Britain, in France it has always been an integral part of learning to drive. Some of the compulsory hand signals might not appear in the Le Code de la Route but they would certainly be immediately recognisable to anyone, regardless of nationality, trying to do a U-turn on a Friday afternoon on a busy main road. The same hand signals may be employed in similarly dangerous situations: stopping at a red traffic light, for example, or slowing down to let a pedestrian cross the road. Zebra crossings are lethal, in fact, because they lull the hapless walker into a false sense of security. As any seasoned driver knows, the idea is to slow down as you approach the crossing, thus allowing the pedestrian to scuttle half-way across, and then you must accelerate, forcing him to leap comically backwards into the old dear with the three shopping bags. Alternatively, he may just stand stock still like a petrified rabbit, in which case you have to screech to a halt, which can be quite impressive if you do it loudly enough.

Other things to watch out for include sleeping policemen – called dos d’ânes – which are to be driven over as if there were thirteen double-decker buses to clear on the other side, STOP signs which are to be ignored and signs for speed limit which indicate the minimum speed at which you should drive. At least, I think that’s right.



French motorways are beautifully maintained and - unlike in Britain, where service stations are so far apart it’s worth installing a Porta potty in the back seat – they have wonderful picnic areas called aires every few miles. Here you can meander through forest glades, stroll around a lake, visit a museum or even jog around an exercise circuit and in the south, you can cool down by walking through a sprinkler contraption similar to a car wash. Bien entendu, all this has a price – French motorways are not free and every now and again you will come upon a toll. You can either pay by credit card or by throwing the exact amount of coins required into a container, placed just far enough away from your car to ensure that you miss (people in right-hand drive cars shouldn’t even bother trying). If you are brave, you get out of the car and painstakingly pick all the coins from off the floor, under cars etc., despite the horn-blowing and death threats. If you’re not, you just scrabble desperately for more change and try again. This latter method may make you look like some frantic, undiscriminating benefactor but it’s probably safer.


At least in France you can park (and I use the term loosely) wherever you like, the only restrictions being physical impossibility and even then, it’s not for want of trying. The pavement seems to be the most favoured place, but slap bang in the middle of the road is quite popular too. I once saw a car parked in the centre of a roundabout, but I think that may have been Art. Otherwise, you have to pay to park, although many people just screw up their parking fines and wait for the amnesty usually granted after every Presidential election. So, not long to wait then…

17 comments:

Braunstonian said...

Yes it can be a bit hairy on French roads - I get around on a scooter and get fed up with idiots cutting me up, or just overtaking in stupid situations.

At least we don't have mini-roundabouts here in France (although I remember seeing one in northern France once). The only think I've never been able to understand here in the Paris area, is how people seem to find it acceptable to park on a roundabout!

That would be unthinkable in the UK.

Braunstonian said...

Oooh... I forgot to mention in my other comment... the sign showing that animals can escape onto the road.

My girlfriend has come to the conclusion that it's a sign for FLYING animals - it seems some of these signs have information below them saying these animals are capable of jumping 1500m!!!

Of course, the truth could be that we are both just a bit daft... :)

Gigi said...

I actually like the roundabouts here - some of them are so artistic and I'm amazed that they don't get vandalised.

I'm better at driving than I was - I even sound my horn a few times, just like they do!

If you're seeing flying animals, I'd check you weren't over the limit :-)

angela said...

You do make me laugh..and that last photo is priceless.
I'm one of the ; if you can't beat them join them sisterhood!!

Which Whitchurch? I'm from Whitchchurch, cardiff...
Angela

Bill Taylor said...

A few years ago, when I was writing travel full-time, I was on a wine tour of the Rhones-Alpes region with a group of French vintage-car enthusiasts. Yeah, I know, tough life. But it was harder work than it perhaps seemed. Anyway, I remember riding one day with the group leader, Bernard, in his 1938 Buick. His English was about as good as my French so we passed much of the day in amiable miscomprehension. But every time we drove through a village and had to slow for speed bumps, Bernard would shriek, "Pourquoi? Politics!"

Gigi said...

Angela - I'm afraid I'm too scared to join 'em. Sometimes I overdo the politeness though, just to provoke :-) The other day I got gesticulated at for stopping to let someone cross the road on a zebra crossing! Tee hee hee...
I know about Whitchurch, Cardiff...but I'm from Whitchurch, Shropshire, further up north. A bit of a dump really but the home of Blue Cheshire cheese, nonetheless, so not all bad...

Bill - are you sure that work was harder than it seemed? Hmmm. Where can I get a job like that? I love your phrase 'amiable miscomprehension' - it sums up my entire life!

Bill Taylor said...

Travel-writing is a great job, no mistake about it, though it means spending a disproportionate amount of your life in gruesome airports. But whatever you're doing, you always have to be watching the way the story's developing; you always have a notebook close at hand. I've been in a club in Salamanca, Spain, until 4:30 in the morning and then gotten lost on the way back to the hotel and had to cross a field full of horses (of dubious temperament) and climb a wall. And then, knowing that the bus was leaving at 7 and I had to be on it, before I grabbed what little sleep I could, I had to bring my notes up to date (including details of crossing the field and climbing the wall, which all became part of the story). There's way more to it than sitting on a beach and wondering whether to describe the sea as turquoise or azure.

Gigi said...

Yes Bill - I do realise it's not as romantic as it seems. But it's got to be better than teaching gerunds to businessmen...surely.

I have also crossed a field in the early hours of the morning - and in pitch darkness. The field was full of spitting cobras.

I know this is not relevant to the topic but I just wanted to tell someone that one day :-)

Bill Taylor said...

I've never been altogether sure what a gerund is. But I certainly take your point. And I'm full of admiration for your cobra exploit. I think I might have gone around that particular field (or however many fields it took to avoid them).

Tinsie said...

A gerund is a verb ending in -ing, for example when you say: I love travelling. N'est-ce pas?

Gigi, that was brilliant, so funny and so true! It reminded me of the opening chapters of Merde Actually :-)

Bill Taylor said...

It's also an anagram for red gnu, a hitherto unclassified species.

Gigi said...

And also 'rug end' - a well-known hazard for red gnus who tend to not look where they're going.

Bill Taylor said...

And when they trip, they tend to disgrace themselves and produce er... dung. (Sorry, that was a terrible one; a real stretch)

Gigi said...

Not on my rugs, they don't.

Gigi said...

Tinsie...I haven't read 'Merde Actually' for the simple - and totally stupid - reason that every new book about living in France that is published is another nail in my heart. I realise that metaphor doesn't exist, but I'm tired.

Anyway, I was supposed to write a book years ago and I just never got around to it. And it's too late now...

Merde.

Tinsie said...

It's never too late. You could publish your blog entries, they'd make fantastic reading!

Braunstonian said...

I think a lot of the mairies round here must have a large budget set aside just to landscape roundabouts. :)