Any successful transition from engine propulsion to that obtained by foot involves, of course, finding a suitable place to deposit one’s car. In busy English towns the density of traffic, stringent parking regulations and a general lack of space can make this a daunting task. And though town centre car parks are usually provided, these require payment of a not inconsiderable fee, together with a scrupulous respect of the length of time paid for. What’s more, English car parks are frequently under the surveillance of sadistically-inclined attendants (often women) who gain fiendish pleasure from issuing the stiffest of fines for the slightest deviation. And in the event of serious transgression, they have at their disposal a form of dissuasion, almost unknown in France, of such redoubtable efficiency that the very mention of it is enough to strike terror in the heart of the most intrepid driver: for the offending car will be mercilessly clapped in the steely grip of the wheel clamp, release from whose clutches can only be obtained by payment of an extortionist fine.
What’s more, once he has found a vacant space, the English motorist is required to deposit his vehicle tidily within. For it is frequently brought to his notice that he who leaves his car with wheels straddling, or even just touching the delimitations will expose himself to a punitive fine. While in France a certain tolerance is reserved for this type of minor transgression, it goes without saying that in a country which prides itself on having produced an Iron Lady, sanctions are applied as unbendingly as the parking space lines themselves.
This was brought home to the French part of me when, during a recent holiday in England, I decided to do some shopping in a nearby town. After cruising round the main car park for at least a quarter of an hour I finally spotted someone pulling out of a parking space. Quickly depositing my car in it, I proceeded to buy a ticket, duly stuck it behind the windscreen and set off for a stroll round the shops. On coming back (well within the time paid for), I couldn’t help noticing a slip of paper tucked behind a windscreen wiper. Imagine my Frenchie’s stupefaction on discovering it was notification of a fine, applied, it was explained, ‘for not parking within the designated parking area’. Though it was true that viewed from a certain angle one of the front tyres could possibly have been perceived as overlapping one line by half an inch, I keenly felt the injustice of a sanction which imposed a penalty for such a minimal fault. So, on seeing the car park attendant not far away (she was grimly writing out another fine), I walked up to her and explained my point of view. My words couldn’t have fallen on deafer ears. It must have been my Frenchman who at this point decided to change tactics: in a laudable attempt to apply le Système D, he affirmed that the car in the adjoining space had been parked so badly that he’d had no option but to leave his with a tyre touching the line. She remained unmoved. Pointing to a nearby car, one wheel of which could also possibly have been perceived as dangerously approaching one of the lines he angrily enquired why she hadn’t given him a fine too. With a stiffly polite ‘Thank you very much’ she proceeded to write one out.