Australian drivers could learn a thing or two from French drivers - there, I said it. We are forever pleasantly surprised at the general courtesy and patience evident on French roads, even in the biggest cities, at least in comparison to what we are used to in Australia.
Looking out our apartment window early one morning in Paris on that first big family trip we saw a rubbish truck stop-starting along the narrow single-lane street as it emptied the bins from the numerous restaurants and bistros - a long queue of cars piled up behind. There was no aggression, no impatience, no horn blowing, cursing or rude gestures. Just an orderly queue of drivers who realised it was pointless trying to do anything other than relax and be patient. In fact in true French style the truck driver may even have slowed down had he been tooted.
Likewise on the auto routes and even out in the country there is a respect for other road users that seems often sadly lacking in Australia. No one in France would even dream of driving in the overtaking lane unless they actually were overtaking. Of course traffic in cities such as Paris, Marseille and Toulouse can be frenetic and quite confronting for the first-timer but there is still that underlying respect and everyone seems to get to where they need to be more-or-less when they need to be there.
I remember accidentally (thanks to the GPS) plunging into the infamous Arc de Triomphe traffic in Paris and later - after I'd stopped shaking - marvelling at the ease of it all despite the facts: 10 lanes, 12 streets, no lines and no hire car insurance. This roundabout certainly breaks the general French rule of only moderate horn use but we seemed to just naively glide through and, miracles or miracles, managed to exit where we needed to without even a scratch. Maybe decades of Melbourne traffic stood me in good stead.
Paris' ring road the Boulevard Périphérique (or just the "Périph") is a similarly action-packed experience but a cool head and faith in your human navigator will get you through. Yes, these situations will usually end happily if you have a passenger who can devote their attention to the GPS and let you keep your eyes firmly on the road and the traffic around you.
We've found similar respect and patience on the roads all around France, especially when confronted with farm machinery plodding along, or the local nonagenarian out for his daily baguette.
Of course we have had our fair share of crazy driving stories and a few that spring to mind include:
• seriously scaring another nonagenarian (and us) out in the country by driving the wrong way around a roundabout when she was coming the other way;
• driving straight over the top of another roundabout in Provence while looking out of the side window at yet another amazing sight;
• negotiating a goat track (complete with goats) that our GPS decided was a road;
• driving down a pedestrian mall in Montpellier (as described by Penny in a previous post);
• squeezing into ridiculously small car parks and small hotel garages;
• pushing on down ever narrowing village lanes with little hope of getting out;
No way! Really?
• finding out the hard way that it's virtually impossible to buy fuel in the country on Sundays;
• getting stuck on a small road in the Camargue in the middle of an international motorcycle conference ride of over 1,000 bikes;
Wisely we pulled over and let these guys go by.
• being envious of the French habit of parking on corners but never being game to try it;
Going to do this one day.
• driving down into Marseille at 6pm on Friday night with the GPS deciding it was over-worked and was taking the night off.
And we've been lost numerous times, particularly pre-GPS, due mainly to that quirk of French road direction signs where your destination will appear on four or five signs in a row and then never be mentioned again.
Another buying trip road trip with another early morning start.
Driving on the "wrong" side of the road requires a spacial and directional mind shift. The more you do it the easier it gets. Sometimes though it doesn't switch back as fast as you think when you arrive home and I did once run into my father-in-laws brand new gatepost within 24 hours of landing back in Melbourne.
Proudly I can say we have driven tens of thousands of kilometres in France and Belgium all in manual cars and, at least to date, we are yet to put even the smallest scratch on any of our hire cars. But let's not jinx that just yet.
Our back seat is usually full of street market finds. Sorry kids ...
Lunch on the run ...
Innovative solution to touch-parking damage.
So that's how they get down those narrow lanes!
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