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driving in france

Gilli told me about a time she drove to Nice.   She drove around Nice for two hours looking for a parking place where she wouldn’t have to put the car in reverse, didn’t find one and drove back home.    Makes perfect sense to me.

I can’t think of one time I’ve driven in France when I didn’t want to turn around and go back home.   Unfortunately, I’m usually unable to because I often find myself on really narrow one-lane roads that require putting the car into reverse,  Often a cliff is involved.

The ubiquitous manual transmission

Most of the cars here have manual transmissions.   Many car rental places don’t even offer automatic transmissions and if they do, you will pay dearly for one.   But as I have learned, if you share my fear of stick shifts, you’ll also pay dearly without one.

Even though I learned to drive a manual transmission and I understand the concept, when I try to put it into action, my brain gets all flustery.    I swear I lose about 70% of my IQ focusing on my hand to brain to foot coordination.   If I’m driving the car correctly, chances are, I’m using all available brain cells and I won’t be able to answer a relatively simple question that I can normally answer in a heartbeat ( like ‘what do they call that thing over there?’ Answer:   a stop sign)

this is what the French consider an intermediate sized car

Apparently many French people have the same sense of panic when forced to drive an automatic transmission.   I’m told they are at a total loss as to what to do with their hands and spare foot.   Stupid French people!

Transportation, not lodging

Unlike cars in the US, French cars are not designed to provide all the comforts of home.  Cars are smaller in France.   And for good reason….so are the roads.    Some of the cars are so small, you couldn’t live in them unless you were permanently wedged into the fetal position (or amputated your legs, which would make shifting gears even more difficult).

Get off my ass, Frenchie!!!!

In France, if you are not driving above the speed limit, chances are you’ll be enjoying a steady view of french drivers in close detail in your rear view mirror.   Even if you’re on a roadway with lanes and they can easily pass you, they’ll be there.    I’m told it’s not an act of aggression.   They’re not in a hurry or trying to push you off the road.   It’s just the way they drive.   Good to know, but I wish they’d stop.

Road laissez faire

So far, the only road rage I’ve encountered in France has been my own.   The French are actually fairly mellow drivers.   I’ve often checked my rear view mirror to see if the drivers behind me are cursing me, flipping me off or calling the police.   I rarely see expressions of impatience or rage and in the rare instances it usually turns out the driver is from Belgium.

I’ve done things that I’d be shot for on a California road and I don’t even get the finger here in France.   Maybe a quick honk..   But they seem to take all delays in stride. Which I guess is easier to do when you have four hour lunch breaks.

The beauty and splendor of hazard lights

The first thing the car rental personal always shows me when I start the car for the first time and it immediately shudders to a stop is where the hazard light is.  They’re a godsend.  When I stall, I turn the hazard light on so the people waiting behind me will assume the problem is my car instead of me.   It takes a little bit of the pressure off.


These little arteries are the most mortifying thing about driving in Europe.

Not only do you have to downshift and yield, you have to read the signs in order to get on the right road, because once you’re on the wrong road, god knows when you’ll be able to get off.   You may wind up in Bratislavia before you find a graceful exit.

The only way to survive the roundabout is to stay calm and try to ignore the fact that there are other drivers on the road.   Go around as many times as you need to even if it takes all day.   Relax and remember that the worst thing that can happen (besides a fatal collision with a truck) is you’ll take the wrong road.   And you can always pull a u turn and double back from Bratislavia.

Toll roads

Oh how I love the toll roadways of France!   There are several lanes, they’re smooth and well kept and you hardly have to shift!   Unfortunately, they had to go and ruin it with frequent toll booths that force one to down shift, stop, manuever through little gates, take tickets, pay and do more shifting.

The pay booths are particularly difficult because I don’t understand the signs indicating which lanes you want to be in for your payment option.   You can pay with coins, you can pay a person and you can use a credit card.

There are icons over each toll booth lane indicating whether there’s a human or machine to take your payment.   Don’t worry if you wind up in the wrong lane.   If you stall in an unmanned tollbooth while searching frantically for the correct change, eventually someone will come out and help you.   Don’t expect them to speak English though.

A note about horrid little medieval villages

Who doesn’t love a charming medieval village?   Well, that’s how I refereded to them before I had to drive through a few.   Avoid them at all costs.   Sure, St Paul de Vence is lovely, Antibes totally rocks as do Les Arcs, Les Baux and Arles.   But don’t go there, unless you park well outside the city limits In a spot with lots of space.   Like the Sahara desert

You can always see nice pictures of those villages in books or online.

3 Responses

  1. at least they drive on the right side of the road…

  2. […] they were really cool, but I think Diane’s reaction, from behind the wheel was more like that of Lesley Stern, a traveller, who writes, “the most mortifying thing about driving in Europe,” is the […]

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