Wednesday, 2 September 2009

9. The French and their cars

Talking about cars, there now follows a short rant about driving in France.

I always thought I was pretty slick at aggressive town driving if it was required – spotting gaps before they occur, and being at least one step ahead of the average dork. However, I hadn’t felt the need to exercise these particular skills for a long time. Think driving around in Malvern (home of the Daewoo Matiz with a comatose pensioner at the wheel!) may have had something to do with that.

However, nothing in my driving experience – including London’s West End, the Arc de Triomphe, Naples or Belgium (where they only introduced the driving test in the 1970s and then it was only for new drivers – it wasn’t retrospective) – equipped me for the mano-a-mano combat that is driving in Bayonne in rush hour. Or any other hour come to that.

First of all, no car that I know of has enough mirrors to enable you to follow what the average Basque is up to when he’s behind you. It’s as though they were all born with the instinctive knowledge of the blind spots of every car in production and how to get in them... And secondly, they only seem to have 2 speeds: fast and “What the hell was that..?”.

As I said earlier, our gîte was down a single track lane and when we would turn out onto the minor road that ran between our village and the next one I could guarantee that, no matter how many times I looked right and left, the moment I emerged onto the road, a small car (wearing a local 64 plate) would suddenly appear with smoking tyres around the nearest corner heading straight for me at the speed of heat.

Alternatively, if I did manage to emerge without causing a 64 car to swerve violently, it could be guaranteed that the top half of a small Renault or Peugeot or Citroen - aka “a sticker” – would be up close and personal in my rear view mirror in no more than 10 seconds. Curiously, people driving Japanese cars are never “stickers”. And it doesn’t matter how much I speed up, these “stickers” will remain welded to my rear bumper regardless.. especially, repeat especially, if the car has a GB plate! I know this could sound like rampant paranoia but Madame noticed this phenomenon too. So it must be true!

Then we come to road signs.. In most other areas of Western Europe, the authorities position their road signs well before junctions in order to allow the motorist time to position himself on the road correctly. Not so in France. Here, road signs are invariably located behind a tree on junctions, or even better, on roundabouts.. Not only that, but they are often all coloured the same so that the local accordion repair shop (“New bellows fitted while you wait”) is accorded the same colour coding as the main road to Bordeaux. Plus they're in French and Basque. So a lot to read in a quick scan.. What’s more, they stack them up in random fashion such when arriving at a junction at high speed – which is de rigueur here – you have approximately 0.72 seconds to scan the stack, find the one you are looking for and then, as you’ve already gone past it, try and remember if it was pointing left or right. The idea of one large sign with a graphical representation of the junction - and all the relevant directions on it - is not one that appears to sit easily with the French authorities.. I wonder where they got the idea from..?
And finally, in the interests of spicing up your driving experience, the French method for indicating “straight on” is not, as you might reasonably suppose, a sign pointing up at 12 o’clock, but, instead, theirs point either left or right and thus you are left with the eternal conundrum of which one do I take..? I would hazard a guess that more marriages fail in French cars than anywhere else.

And then there are the roundabouts.. The French came to roundabouts later than the rest of us having clung onto to their homicidal priorité à droite law in typiquement pig-headed fashion for years when common sense dictated that it should be ditched in favour of a safer alternative. However, within the last few years they have increasingly adopted the Anglo-Saxon roundabout but, as always, with caveats..

Now yer average Brit is a fairly law abiding soul and just about tolerates being regulated. In the UK, drivers on roundabouts tend to stick to the lane nearest to the centre, only gravitating to the outside lane when their exit approaches.

Not so in France. Their roundabouts are marked by lanes and sometimes they follow these lanes religiously - and sometimes they don’t. Usually though, they treat the roundabout as a free for all.. First of all, having grown up with the idea that they must give way to traffic from the right, they now find that if they want to join a roundabout, they must give way to traffic which is already on it, ie, traffic coming from the left. Here, the notion of giving way is perceived as a sign of weakness. I’m not even sure there’s a phrase in French for ‘give way’..
Arc de Triomphe traffic
But, to every rule there is an honourable exception and this one is called the "Arc de Triomphe Exception" (sounds like a Robert Ludlum thriller). The mere thought of driving around the Arc de Triomphe has had the power to turn the spines of generations of British drivers, even when sat in their favourite armchairs in Tunbridge Wells, to jelly. Many, en route to the south of France, have even been known detour via Berlin in order to avoid having to negotiate it. Here, the rule is that when on the world’s biggest accident black spot, you should always give way to traffic coming from the right, ie, joining traffic and disregard anything coming from the left.. Still with me..? I doubt it..

To be fair to the French, it must be remembered that the road layout in Paris was designed back in the era of the horse & carriage. Here's the view from the top of the Arc de Triomphe. Knowing what you know now - that drivers on this particular roundabout give way to those joining from their right - the clip below might start to make sense (kind of!):
It’s no wonder that yer average Frenchman is now totally confused as you are. The upshot of all this is that they now regard roundabouts as a complete “bordel” and so they feel they can overtake on them either on the left or on the right, they can pull out in front of you if you are on the roundabout and if they join a roundabout with the intention of exiting 270 degrees later, they will happily sit in the outer lane and drive across the exits leading up to the one they want thus causing havoc with the equanimity of the Anglo Saxon driver who was just about to emerge onto the roundabout. And of course no-one but no-one uses indicators. Complete anarchy reigns - which, of course, is exactly as they like it!

If you are stationary & waiting to join a roundabout, you may see someone on the roundabout in the outer lane coming towards you and suppose, not unreasonably, that he’s going to exit at the junction prior to the one you’re at. Big mistake. They will - and do - happily cruise around roundabouts in the outer lane seemingly unaware that they could be T-boned by other drivers trying to turn off the roundabout or motorists trying to enter it.. There is definitely a cultural difference at work here.

The rules seem to be:

1. Assume nothing.
2. Above all, never signal your intentions by road positioning or by indicating.
3. And never, n-e-v-e-r, e-v-e-r establish eye contact with another driver because if you do, he will take it that he can take your space on the grounds that you’ve seen him.
4. The converse of the three previous rules also applies.

The underlying principle is: When in Rome etc. Don't fight it - go with the flow.

Traffic lights… (how long have you got..?) In the UK, when the lights change from red to green, the amber comes on before the green if I’m not mistaken. Here, the lights change straight from red to green and if you not accelerating hard within one second, there will be a cacophony of horns behind you (aka the Naples syndrome). You know how it is – you’re sat there with the lights on red (thumb in bum etc) and you think “I’ll just check I’m in first” because there’s nothing worse than trying to accelerate away from a standing start in second or third.. And we’ve all done it. Haven’t we? Well, I have anyway..

You can guarantee that for that one second while you glance down at the gear lever that the lights will change and, what’s worse, it can be guaranteed that Madame will shout, “It’s green!” at you in a tone that indicates that you are a complete and utter Anglo-Saxon numpty. When the lights change, you half expect to hear “Trois.. Deux.. Un..” followed by a whistle blast along the lines of “International Jeux Sans Frontieres”.. Remember that programme..? All those be-blazered Euro mates - all sun tans, languages, teeth and whistles – and they were all called Serge or Gianfranco. Except for our man… It says a lot about us Brits that we picked the resolutely monoglot Yorkshireman Eddie Waring to do the honours for Britain in Europe.

Anyway, back to driving in France.. When we went to get quotes for insuring the car, we decided that having an accident here was likely to be compulsory so we went for the ‘plenitude’ policy. This means we are insured against all the usual risks but some additional ones thought essential here such as the cost of a prosthetic limb, tsunamis, plagues of locusts, icebergs and the rest. You get the picture.

The other day, I was in the car park of the Biarritz Carrefour (a huge hypermarket) waiting while Madame did some shopping. A woman returned to her car which was parked just a few yards away. She started it up and just took off without looking. A chap driving along almost wrenched his steering wheel off taking violent, and I mean violent, avoiding action and it was the closest to an accident without there being one I’ve seen in a long long time. How he missed her I’ll never know. What’s more.. she didn’t stop – and I almost wrote here - “ apologise...” but that is an alien Anglo-Saxon concept. I honestly don’t think that she’d seen the other car and thus didn’t realise just how close she’d been to having an accident.

Another “how was that not an accident?” moment occurred one Sunday morning. I was waiting in the car for Madame while she was in a cafe buying a newspaper. A car that was parked across the road suddenly and without any warning executed a U turn right in front of a car coming up behind. All I heard was a sudden screech of brakes and when the blue smoke had cleared, I saw that the culprit had driven off a short distance before stopping again – probably to consider his options. I imagine the chief of these would have been to change his laundry!

Finally, you daren’t leave a space (known naïvely as braking distance in the UK) between you and the car in front. A 64-plated car will just slide straight in there as one did to me to my complete amazement and, I have to say, my total admiration just the other day. Still don’t know how he did it. Or why. Think the GB plate (aka the twit magnet) caused his brain to temporarily overload. Still, something new to try!

I try not to let these things bother me – I say to myself, “Breathe deeply, relax and think happy thoughts”, but every now and again I still get an almost uncontrollable urge to reach for a pump-action..

But I wouldn’t like you to go away with the idea that driving in France is all bad. For example, on their motorways, they have “Aires” or rest areas every 15 miles or so where you can pull off the motorway and have a snooze, rearrange one’s clothing or practice the Heimlich manoeuvre with a loved one or indeed all of the above. Generally their roads seem to be better maintained than is the case in the UK. That’s certainly true for the rural roads. The verges are trimmed too so we haven’t seen weeds 3 feet high at the side of the road here.

The French also have the quaint idea that you should be able to eat the food served at service stations. The food available is of a uniformly high standard as is the coffee which must be at least half the price of a similar cup in the UK. Their service stations are the model that those in the UK should be based on. They treat their customers as adults and serve wine with their food. (although writing this now in Sept 2009 this practice is about to stop.) Curiously, you don’t see shaven headed tattooed French oiks lurching around their service stations as you might if wine and/or beer was available on the M1/M4/M5/M6.. Perish the thought.

The other day we paid £100 to register the car. That was a one-off payment and there’s no annual road tax and the Contrôle Technique (equivalent to our MoT) is only every 2 years.

One of the main differences is that, due to the proliferation of radar cameras, the French by and large just do not speed any more. Plus, and this is a real bonus, they don’t hog the fast lanes on motorways. When they’ve completed overtaking, they pull back into the middle lane or the nearside lane if it’s free. Plus it’s clear that they use their mirrors. If you have to resort to encouraging them to move over by means of a quick flash of the lights, then no pride is hurt and over they move. Driving on their motorways is much more relaxing than in the UK. It’s on the other, less regulated, roads where the fun starts…

There are bound to be differences between the two systems and because they do things differently here it doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily wrong anymore than the UK system is inherently better. It’s just that some things strike you as being wildly different when you first come over here. I’m sure that in time these differences will fade.

Otherwise, driving here is no problem..

Feel better for that rant..! Right.. lie back, relax and unwind with this while I'm off for a few laps around the nearest roundabout.. (with a 5 shot pump action!)

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