“Le champignon le plus vénéneux, c’est celui qu’on trouve dans les voitures.” Coluche. Coluche was a working-class comedian that died in the 80’s. His citations tend to be biting and sarcastic and are to the French what Saturday Night Live back in the John Belushi-Danny Akyroyd-Eddie Murphy days. A rough translation “The most poisonous mushroom is the one we find in cars”.
Having traveled quite a bit, I have seen lots of driving styles: pure chaos in Bangalore, pure aggression in Moscow, recklessness in Italy but the meanest and most annoying combination of these has got to be Paris. Not France but Paris. French drivers seem to think that they own all of the available lanes on any particular road. Whether it is a motorcycle coming head on at you in your lane because he is skipping traffic on his lane or the driver in the right lane that just suddenly decides (with no turn signal of course) that he really should take the next left RIGHT NOW (of course the other way is also common – crossing from left to make a right turn in 5 meters or less), it is a real challenge to keep one’s cool. Something about driving in general can change one’s personality from easy-going to a raging fury and something about driving in Paris just makes you batshit after a while. I think there is a latent aggressive gene specific to this city that just makes it a madhouse to drive in.
Some Fino rules for driving in Paris:
1/ At the world’s largest traffic circle, Charles de Gaulle Etoile – NEVER STOP. Just keep moving even at a snail’s pace. If you stop, you may never get the opportunity to move on.
2/ Fold your rear-view mirrors when parking because the risk of having them dangling along your door in the morning is relatively high.
3/ Do not leave ANYTHING visible in your car when it is parked. It will get broken into in Paris in almost any neighborhood if it looks like there is something worth breaking a window for.
4/ Watch the right side of the street for two reasons: a) almost all traffic lights that apply to you are on the right side of your car and not above the intersection like in the US 2) the French us a rule called “priorité à droite” (priority to the right) which means that anyone coming from a small side street where there isn’t a stop sign or stop light has priority over oncoming traffic when turning onto the main street . And yes, there are kamikaze drivers here that take that rule to the heart much to your dismay when you are driving along peacefully and suddenly scream to a halt because someone just guns it out of a side street. There are generally signs to warn you of these kinds of intersections on highways but not in cities where they are prevalent. WATCH YOUR RIGHT!
I have a 15km commute daily into work which takes me between 50min on a good day to 1h30 or more on a bad day. That is to say that the traffic is almost as dense as the aforementioned (see my post) population. My theory is that the congestion has so overloaded the grid here that the patterns of traffic jams and so forth are completely unpredictable. I have been in traffic jams at 2AM on a Sunday and I have driven in the city center with almost no other cars at 8am on a weekday. Like I said, completely unpredictable. Given the choice, take public transportation because you’ll arrive a lot less harassed and on your nerves. Probably.
On the positive side, the speed radars have been pretty effective at calming Gaullic speeding habits because so many have come within one Driver’s Ed class to losing their driving permits. Admittedly, there are several of these cameras that cheat (I have been a victim of the yo-yo scam where over a stretch of, say 50km the speed limit changes from 130 to 110 and back two or three times and they place a radar about 10km past the last change just to see if you were paying attention). And to be perfectly honest, the French Autoroute has to be one of the best road system’s in the world. The pavement is extraordinary for the most part, the rest stops are mostly clean and regularly spaced. The signage is clear and unambiguous. Seriously, for all my complaining about, it is a real pleasure to drive on a French freeway when it isn’t a parking lot during vacation season.
Last anecdote for today, as I already mentioned for, say, the tax office, when you are pulled over by a French cop, they are far easier going than the American equivalent. I recall once getting a warning from a Texan cop that must have been about 8 feet tall and wished he could squash me as the ex-pat ant that he perceived me as (he hated my French drivers license and my expired Massachusetts license didn’t amuse him either). The one time I was pulled over here (speeding with a few friends to Amsterdam many years ago in my youth), the cop was friendly despite the fact that that incident cost me about 3 points off my license.
More reading fun, Issue #7 about Power