Call of France

A Trilogy of Adventure

Category: Driving in France

Parking By Ear

When it comes to parking at the roadside an Englishman might be forgiven for thinking that, in a country such as France where mathematical Cartesian logic is held in the highest esteem, a suitable parking space is considered to be one whose length exceeds that of one’s car. He would be hopelessly wrong. For that same desire to maintain the closest contact with fellow drivers on the highway can assume an even more intimate dimension when it comes to parking in town. For here the French driver shows a remarkable ability to defy the laws of elementary arithmetic by introducing himself into spaces which the length of his car should not normally allow. How does he do it? Apart from the fact that it’s a relatively common sight to see a car parked obliquely with one wheel reposing firmly on the pavement, drivers have developed a more drastic technique which, for the moment at least, would be unthinkable to the Anglo-Saxon mind. The method, that of parking by ear, consists in diving head first into the smallest space, and then with eyes tightly shut, proceeding to create enough room for vehicle by systematically shunting the one to the front and rear.

In England, on the other hand, when it comes to street parking that same respectful distance is scrupulously applied as between vehicles on the move. The English driver will, therefore, usually leave a minimum margin of at least six feet (three in front and three behind) so that the driver of the car parked in front or behind may extricate his vehicle without undue manoeuvring.

It must have been the Frenchman in me  who was driving that day when I parked in the street of a large English town. Having left a foot between our vehicle and the one in front, he switched off the engine, and was just extracting key from ignition when its driver happened to appear. After gazing dubitatively at the dozen or so inches he’d been granted he stormed up, rapped loudly on the driver’s window and, even before my  Frenchie had got it fully down, began castigating him in the strongest terms for parking ‘too bloody close,’ and ‘not giving a damn about other road users!’ It goes without saying that in France remonstrances of this nature would have been met with general stupefaction.

 

French Traffic Lights – When Amber and Red Have a Shade of Green

One might be justified in thinking that the French driver’s aspirations to covering the distance between departure and arrival in a time more commonly associated with the Monaco Grand Prix could be seriously compromised by a set of humble traffic lights. In reality, as my Englishman has had ample opportunity to observe, this is only marginally the case. For the French conducteur has at his disposal a number of tactics aimed at reducing this type of enforced pit stop to the barest minimum. Nowhere is this more evident than when the lights change to amber.

Now, for obvious reasons of safety, traffic lights, both in England and France, are programmed not to change directly from green to red. A brief intermediate phase, signalled by amber, warns the approaching motorist that red is about to follow. In England, where limits are sharply defined, things could not be clearer: amber is amber, so when this colour appears the driver brings his vehicle to an obedient halt. In France, where boundaries are generally viewed in a hazier light, amber takes on a perceptible shade of green.

Sooner or later, however, even the French motorist – albeit with rage in his heart – must resign himself to halting at red. Now the Englishman will generally take advantage of this type of obligatory stop to meditate on the more mundane aspects of his daily existence: if it doesn’t rain on Sunday I’ll give the lawn a trim; it’ll be more than my life’s worth if I forget the wife’s birthday next Tuesday, etc., etc. And when the light changes to green he’ll slip into gear, ease off the handbrake and resume his journey at the same leisurely pace. On the contrary, the French driver is on the starting grid of a Formula One Grand Prix. He waits with car in gear and handbrake off, eyes fixed intently on the lights ahead so as to be able to blast off the very instant they change to green.

I would, nevertheless, be the first to admit that the more sedate behaviour of the English driver should not be attributed solely to his phlegmatic temperament and innate respect of the rule. The difference in colour sequence between French and English lights has certainly a part to play, too. For in England, traffic lights are set to change from red to amber and then to green, thereby providing the driver with a few precious seconds to slip his vehicle into gear, release the handbrake, and move gently away. In France les feux tricolores are programmed to change directly from red to green, so a much greater effort of concentration is necessary for the driver to get his car off to the required racing start.

Though the French driver shows consummate skill in scraping through traffic lights, even when amber has assumed a ripe tone of red, the same cannot be said of all. For occasionally he is delayed by those less colour blind than himself. In cases like this, he spends his waiting time coldly meditating revenge, and if the imbécile in front is absent-minded enough not to crush accelerator to floor the instant green appears, a prolonged blast of horn will teach him to keep his mind on things.

     It is, however, temporary traffic lights which provide those conditions enabling the Frenchman to demonstrate his inborn skills to the full. Now, in France, as in England, major road works on busy highways usually make it necessary to implement a one-way traffic system. This is regulated by a set of temporary, moveable lights positioned at each end of the road works, and designed to enable motorists coming from either direction to avail themselves in turn of the usable half of the road. And in order to prevent cars meeting face to face in the middle, lights are programmed so that when they change to red at one end they change to green at the other only after a sufficient lapse of time has been allowed to enable oncoming traffic to clear.

In England things are again of child-like simplicity: the lights turn to red, the motorist brings his car to a gentle halt, patiently waits for green, and then continues imperturbably on his way. In France, where things are never simple, the system provides the motorist with a heaven-sent opportunity to shave a few more seconds off his moyenne: for when red appears, not only will any self-respecting Gallic blithely carry on, but the more audacious will even overtake a column of those who now consider it more judicious to stop. Moreover, since major road works are often located well outside towns, temporary lights of this nature present the additional advantage of rarely being the object of police surveillance. It might be thought that at some time or other the inevitable is bound to happen, and the miscreant motorist meets on-coming traffic in the middle. In reality, this is rarely the case. For the French driver has acquired a sixth sense of timing, honed to such an incredibly fine degree, that he usually scrapes through at the other end a fraction of a second before the lights change to green. On the rare occasions when he does make a slight miscalculation and comes face to face with oncoming traffic, the driver in his right indicates what he thinks of the driver in his wrong by that well-known screwing movement of forefinger applied to temple. It goes without saying that this in no way prevents the in-their-rights from joining the ranks of the in-their-wrongs at the next set of temporary lights.

The English driver might be tempted to think that such behaviour can only lead to scenes of indescribable chaos. But this would be to underestimate the impressive effectiveness of le Système D which is applied to the full by one and all: for, as if by magic, the disorder quickly sorts itself out, and the same cycle begins all over again.

Driving in France: Parking

In England, in both public and private areas, the disabled driver is provided with specific, conveniently-placed parking spaces which he may only occupy when proof of disability in the form of an official pass, complete with photo, is clearly displayed behind the windscreen. Though in France parking is regulated in public places, and policemen or traffic wardens are on constant prowl, this is never the case in private supermarket car parks where the police have little jurisdiction, if any at all, and parking attendants together with wheel clamping are practically unknown. Parking spaces for the disabled do exist (often in pairs or more) but, generally speaking, no proof of disability is required; and understandably , in a country whose citoyens are one of the least public-minded on our planet, the only attempts to dissuade the able-bodied driver from parking in them is to colour the space in blue, paint a stylized wheelchair on it, and accompany the whole by the conscience-pricking appeal: ‘Prenez ma place prenez mon handicap’ – Take my space take my disability. Needless to say, the Englishman in me  (here my Frenchie seems to be totally blind) frequently observes perfectly valid motorists (and sometimes even les flics) not only parking their vehicles in this type of space, but doing so with wheels unashamedly straddling the dividing line between.

Is it that same Marxist syndrome which drives the ‘have nots’ to seek revenge on the ‘haves?’ Do driving schools in France consider this aspect of driving management beneath their notice? Or can we simply put it down to a lack of proper care and attention? Whatever the case, the French driver reserves his most vicious parking conduct for nice, expensive-looking cars in stationary configuration – usually in supermarket car parks, and especially when deposited there in brand-new, unsullied form. It is my personal experience that a parked vehicle answering these criteria has little chance of keeping virginity intact very much beyond half an hour. During the neigh-on 45 years of my residence in France I have been fortunate enough to possess nine brand new cars, all of which, incredible as this may sound, have suffered varying degrees of damage in just a few weeks after purchase.

Now, only a couple of months ago, I became the proud owner of another new car. It was my  Brit who hit on the idea of attempting to extend the duration of its pristine state beyond that of its predecessors by systematically parking as far away from other vehicles as a car park area would allow. This strategy – the effectiveness of which he was beginning to congratulate himself on – worked perfectly for six weeks, until that day when I came out of a supermarket, only to note with much dismay that a dent had appeared in the rear bumper. Mystified (the nearest car was parked some 20 yards away), I  proceeded to closer examination, and could only conclude that the damage was more in line with the trajectory of a hand-pushed shopping trolley than that of the combustion-propelled car bumper. At the suggestion of my Froggie I’ve now decided that since I can’t beat ’em I’ll join ’em; so now, when I go to a supermarket not only do I park as close as possible to new-looking cars but throw my door open with such vigour that a dent will be automatically inflicted. And you know what?  I’m actually getting to enjoy it – especially when it’s a more expensive car than mine!

It goes without saying that this strong Gallic relish for clunking into immobilized vehicles is not just limited to those deposited in parking areas. It is also manifest, albeit in far more lethal form, on the motorway hard shoulder. For here the motorist who has been unlucky enough to be driven to this type of enforced parking through breakdown or puncture, can count on a survival time not greatly exceeding that of a Tommy stepping out of his trench during the Battle of the Somme. Since average life expectancy on this narrow strip of no-man’s land is calculated at no more than 20 minutes, it is vital (and this I cannot emphasize enough) that the English motorist should first switch on his warning lights, invite his passengers to get out (on the opposite side to the flow of traffic), and take immediate shelter behind the safety barriers. He should then don his compulsory fluorescent jacket, place his warning triangle at a suitable distance (though this is not obligatory if, in doing so, his life would be endangered) walk carefully to the nearest emergency phone (they’re at most 2 000 metres apart and signalled by signs every 500 metres). There he must press a button which will put him in contact with the gendarmerie. Give them details of the vehicle – make, colour, direction and position (distance posts are located every 100 metres) as well as the nature of the breakdown. They’ll inform a breakdown service which should arrive in 30 to 45 minutes. Then, he must walk back and join the others behind the safety barriers.  That is, assuming he’s still alive to do so.

 

Driving in France – Never Trust Appearances

Driving in France can be a unique experience.  For one thing  my  English readers may be surprised to learn that a recent report suggests that one in ten French motorists is not in possession of a driving licence. As my English alter so often reminds me, what matters for the French driver is that he knows he can drive, and that whether he can drive or not is nobody’s business but his own. Moreover, driving in France at night soon brings to light of day the fact that a surprising number of vehicles have defective headlights (i.e. badly adjusted, or in need of bulb replacement). It must again be understood that what is important for the Frenchman is that he can see where he’s going, and that where he’s going is nobody’s business but his own. Similar conclusions can also be drawn with regard to traffic indicators. Now in England all cars are fitted with direction indicators, the purpose of which is, of course, to inform other motorists of their drivers’ intention to deviate from a straight line. In France cars also have indicators. These are almost totally superfluous to needs. For what is important to the French driver is that he knows where he’s going, and where he’s going is nobody’s business but his own.

It would, nevertheless, be wrong to assume that the Gallic never uses his traffic indicators. But what is more normal in a land where everybody does the opposite to what is expected that, though he rarely signals his intention to turn right or left, he sometimes does so when he means to go straight on? An indication of this was provided the other morning when I left home, drove down the side street where I live, stopped at the halt sign at the end, and patiently waited for a gap to appear in the traffic. Finally, everything was clear on the right. On looking to the left, my Englishman (it was he who was driving) observed a small van approaching some 50 yards away with right indicator winking. Now, he might have been forgiven for thinking that, when a vehicle is approaching with right winker on, it’s safe to assume its driver is signalling his intention to turn right. So out he pulled. The screech of brakes and prolonged honking of horn which followed proved my Anglo had made a horribly mistake. Though the van driver managed to stop just in time to avoid a collision his fury was great, and was accompanied by the usual screwing action of forefinger applied to temple. My Englishman could only surmise that, shortly before, circumstances had obliged the driver (perhaps there had been a police car behind him) to signal his intention to change directions. But so unaccustomed was he to using his indicator that he was simply unaware it hadn’t automatically cancelled itself. Proof that my experience was not uncommon is provided by the fact that the great majority of French motorists wait until a vehicle actually begins turning before pulling out in front.

 

 

Driving in France – A Strange Encounter

It is yet one more French paradox that a people who taught our world the principles of international diplomacy, and who attach such vital importance to the rules of polite behaviour and restrained elegance of speech should be given to such gross excesses of conduct and language once their derrière comes into contact with a driving seat. And so diametrically opposed is driving in France to that encountered in England that the English motorist who takes the plunge to cross the Channel for the very first time, and compares the speeds at which the French drive with the limits publicly displayed could be forgiven for thinking that their Minister of Transport, considering the English have enough on their plate keeping right (which for them is wrong), and in a laudable attempt not to overface them with too much metric system as a starter, has thoughtfully served up speed limits in mph, and that 50 is really 80 km/h, 70 is 105 km/h, 90 is 145 km/h and 130 corresponds to 210 km/h.

The English are convinced that a plane travels considerably faster than a car. The French do their best to prove the opposite. When an Englishman sets off on a drive of 200 miles, well … he sets off on a drive of 200 miles. When a Frenchman sets off on a drive of 300 kilometres he launches himself on a desperate race against the clock where traffic lights, halt signs, roundabouts, pedestrian crossings, the pedestrians on them, other drivers, les flics are so many obstacles placed in his way to stop him from reducing his journey time at a speed more associated with jet propulsion than the combustion engine. And if you ask an English motorist after his 200 mile drive whether he had a good trip he’ll most likely reply: ‘Oh yes, it was marvellous. We took the highways and byways and stopped a couple of times for a cuppa. The scenery was wonderful.’ Put the same question to a French driver, and he’ll proudly declare: ‘Ah oui, j’ai mis deux heures seulement. Ca fait une moyenne de 150 km/h!’ – ‘Oh yes, it only took me two hours! That’s an average journey speed of 150km/h!’

For it’s a measure of the vital importance he attaches to systematically reducing time between departure and arrival at a speed normally associated with an inter-continental ballistic missile that the Frenchman who struggles to divide twelve by three is able to calculate in less than the blink of an eye, and to three decimal points his ‘moyenne’ – the result of dividing the distance he has covered by the time he has taken to do it in.

Proof that driving in France is not quite the same experience as that enjoyed in England was quickly brought home that very first time I took myself over to the Continent. As this was well before I grew into the Frenglishman I now am a 100% Englishman was at the wheel.  Driving his Mini off the ferry at Calais, he set a nice, gentle course for Paris. A minute later, a configuration of alternating black and white stripes painted on the road some fifty yards ahead gave him every reason to believe he was about to have his first encounter with a passage piéton, a pedestrian crossing. His assumption seemed to be reinforced by the presence of a bent, elderly lady clutching a walking stick standing on the pavement beside it.

Now, this young Englishman couldn’t have been faulted for thinking that a passage piéton in France has much the same function as a pedestrian crossing in England: namely that of providing the muscle-propelled with a clearly designated strip by which to reach the opposite side of the road in conditions offering enough protection against the engine-propelled as to ensure arrival in very much the same physical and mental state as departure. He could also have been excused for thinking that, when a bent old lady clutching a stick is seen standing beside one, not only might it be imagined that she wishes to cross to the other side, but the rules of elementary courtesy require a motorist to do his best to help her do so. So he brought his vehicle to a gentle stop and with a smile beckoned her to cross.

Now, had this scene taken place in England, the elderly lady’s reaction would have been both predictable and polite: she would certainly have returned his smile, and with a wave of thanks slowly made her way across. He would have waited patiently and, once she was safely over, he would have happily continued his way.

It quickly became apparent that this was not England. Oddly, the bent old lady refused to budge one inch. And even more strangely, his friendly smile was met by a hostile glower. It was as if somewhere she was saying, ‘You don’t think I’m going to fall for that one at my age, do you?’ And his growing suspicion  all was not quite right received sonorous confirmation a split second later when a deafening screech of tyres, followed by an ill-mannered blast of horn, prompted him to look into his rear-view mirror. Reflected in it was the furious face of a Frenchman executing a gesture I have now become all too familiar with: a disagreeable screwing movement of forefinger applied to temple indicating that the person it was directed at needed to tighten up on a thing or two.

 

Please, Monsieur le Gendarme

In his indefatigable pursuit of ‘la moyenne’ not only can the French driver show considerable ingenuity, even daring, in covering the distance between departure and arrival in a time normally associated with jet propulsion but he is not lacking in imaginative prowess when it comes to supplying messieurs  les gendarmes with explanations designed to justify his transgressions. My Englishman has noted the following examples:

 

Driving Is No Picnic

When stopped by the gendarmes for driving through a village well above the legal limit late one sweltering August Sunday morning, this motorist pleaded indulgence by explaining that his excessive speed was due to the fact that he and family were heading for a local picnic spot, and he didn’t want the food and drink in the boot to get too warm!

 

Between Two Stools

After stopping a motorist for driving without his seatbelt, two patrolling gendarmes were intrigued by the fact that the offender only lowered his window a couple of inches or so to answer their questions. So they asked him to open the door. Imagine their astonishment on seeing that he was sitting on … a kitchen stool! The motorist explained that he was on his way to buy a new driver and passenger seat in a neighbouring town, and he’d thought it would be more practical if he fitted them on the spot.

 

Mother-In-Law Trouble

After the breathalyzer had revealed he was well over the limit this motorist had no hesitation in laying the blame on … his mother-in-law! Apparently, he and his wife were just driving home after Sunday lunch with his in-laws, and that infuriating mother-in-law of his had insisted on serving up an ice-cream dessert copiously laced with rum. ‘I mean, I could hardly refuse to eat it, could I?’ he pleaded.

 

Moo Cow!

The breathalyzer test had indicated that this motorist was well over the limit, so the gendarmes asked him to get out of his car. Then, suddenly, to their utter stupefaction, he dropped face down onto the grass verge and began executing a series of press-ups. What amazed them even more was that every time his face came near the ground he ate a mouthful of grass. When asked the reason for this bovine-like behaviour, he explained he’d been told that eating grass lowered your blood alcohol level.

 

A Hair of the Dog That Bit You

Stopped by the gendarmes for exceeding the speed limit by 30 km/h this driver explained that he was in a big hurry. When asked the reasons for such haste his reply was that he was on his way to a nearby town where he was to appear in court on a charge of … speeding!

 

A Flea in Your Ear

After being accused of using his mobile phone while driving, this motorist told the gendarmes they were mistaken … he’d only been scratching his ear! Confronted with evidence to the contrary he finally admitted it was true. Suddenly, putting his hand to one ear he started grimacing with pain. When asked what the matter was, he informed them he suffered from chronic ear-ache, and that the waves from his cell phone helped to soothe the pain.

 

A Quick Bite

Had he been exceeding the speed limit or the length of time a trucker is legally allowed to drive? This we’ll never know. For the method one lorry driver resorted to in order to stop the gendarmes from examining his cardboard control disc was simply to fold it up, stuff it in his mouth and eat it.

 

Ghost Driver

After driving for some five kilometres along a motorway in the wrong direction, narrowly missing a lorry and colliding with another car, this driver finally brought his car to a halt on the hard shoulder. But when the gendarmes arrived they found him sitting innocently in the front passenger seat. ‘The driver’s just run off!’ he explained. The police even used a tracker dog in the resulting search … until the ‘passenger’ finally admitted he’d been the one at the wheel. The breathalyzer test he then took revealed an alcohol/blood level of 244 mg of alcohol per 1000 ml of blood (almost five times above the French legal limit of 50 mg).

 

 

 

 

 

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