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General Articles

Driving Lessons


I don’t know if I’m the only one to feel that, on moving to France and having to change from right to left hand drive, my car suddenly expanded. And the roads got narrower. And other cars coming towards me were driving far, far too close to the middle of the road.

Three years later – I’m not counting the first year when, rendered so nervous by my lack of spatial awareness, I either walked or took the bus – I am marginally more confident on French roads. My arms were beginning to resemble those of a body-builder from lugging the groceries home from the supermarket. I did catch myself checking out those wheelie shopping
bags – not an unusual accessory here but, back in England, definitely the territory of the old lady. My children laugh at me enough and I didn’t want to give them any more ammunition. I also joined a choir which holds rehearsals a good half an hour’s drive from home and which finish way past the bus driver's bedtime.

So I got a grip on myself (and my steering wheel) and, hey, it’s not too bad once you realise there are certain unwritten tenets where driving in France is concerned.

Needless to say one’s eyes must be everywhere. Not only looking straight ahead but simultaneously in the rear-view mirror and both wing mirrors (should they still be attached; what with the spatial awareness problem). Don’t relax the swiveling eye movements for a second. In city traffic those motorbikes and scooters shoot out when you’re least expecting it.
On the rural roads, it’s the lycra-clad cyclists.

Is there a collective noun for the French road cyclist? A chain of cyclists? No, that would suggest that they rode in single file and that rarely happens. An inconvenience of cyclists perhaps? One has several minutes to ponder this question whilst admiring their brightly coloured plumage from behind whilst waiting for a safe overtaking spot. I love to read what they have written on their outfits. I particularly like the brand “LOOK” which is emblazoned across many a trim buttock. This has happily decided me against taking up the sport. Too humiliating to have anything written across my backside let alone an invitation to study it. Just as I manage to rev up and get past without committing mass genocide with my wing mirror, it comes to me – a snag of cyclists. And, just before the next series of bends in the road, guess what? Another bunch. How about a clog of cyclists? I have to stifle my impatience and homicidal tendencies towards the cyclists as one of my sons is horribly 'sportif' and quite often kits himself out in the Spandex and silly looking (though essential) hat and takes to the road. So stay calm, forget that the three tubs of Carte d’Or you’ve just bought at the supermarket are now no longer worthy of the prefix “ice” before the word “cream”, and just accept that 'les cyclistes' are just part of the French scenery.

My most important snippet of advice to any driver here in the South of France is never, ever sound your horn at another driver. It is, to many Frenchmen, the proverbial red rag to a bull.

Both of my sons have ignored Mum’s maxim and had irate motorists slam on their brakes, leap from their automobiles and run with murderous intent towards the driver who dared to criticize their driving skills. Both managed to keep their wits about them, swerve neatly around la voiture du M. Furieux, now blocking several other bemused motorists, and accelerate off leaving him hopping up and down with smoke coming out of his ears.

My husband pays no attention to my golden rule of French motoring and will sound his horn willy-nilly considering it his duty to educate French drivers on lane discipline at roundabouts. I was with him once when he upset a BMW driver who performed the slam-on-the-brakes/leap-from-car number. This particular M. Furieux managed to run to our car and with three thumps of his bare fist, smash the windscreen. He then started to run back to his car to make his escape. Before I knew what I was doing I had jumped out of our car , sprinted up to his BMW, opened the passenger door and installed myself in the seat before he got back. I don’t know which one of us was more surprised! My husband, unaware of my exit as he was at the time
extricating himself from the wires of the dislodged TomTom, then came and stood in front of the BMW in an attempt to stop its driver doing a runner. The look of astonishment on his face when 1) he saw his wife in the passenger seat and 2) when the BMW driver decided to drive over him was a sight to behold.

I am so grateful to the passing motorist who, witnessing this roadside scene of insanity, parked his car in front of the BMW preventing its escape and the possible crippling of my husband. He phoned the police who, when they arrived, just seemed to be lost in admiration that someone could smash a windscreen with his bare hand! They took ages studying everyone’s papers, but despite the obvious criminal damage to our car, were not in the slightest bit interested in getting involved. To cut a long story short, the BMW driver suddenly lost all his bluster and fury and offered to pay for all damages and any hospital treatment needed by my husband.

We look back on this incident now and laugh at the absurdity of it but it could have had some very nasty consequences. I’m convinced that the BMW driver was on drugs and I now consider ourselves lucky that nobody was seriously hurt/ kidnapped/crushed to death.

It should be said that, on the whole, men are far more aggressive drivers than women and I have only been involved in incidents such as described above when travelling as a passenger. I shall continue to drive politely, calmly and in a sedate (my sons might say sedated) manner. That way I’m sure I’ll stay out of trouble. Keep those eyes swiveling though – there are a lot of lunatics out there.


You can read about Mary Anne


Wednesday, 25 November 2009    Section: General Articles
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