Wednesday, September 20, 2006

driving in France

I had meant to post about driving in France. After driving in the UK, driving on French roads was like a vacation in itself. UK drivers are extremely agressive and do not keep what I consider safe following distance on motorways (interstates) or any other roads and the roads themselves are not maintained to a super high standard.

Not so in France. Sure, there are bastard French drivers who speed. But on the autoroutes (motorways/interstates), the speed limit is 80 and the roadways are smooth and well maintained. And, of course, they drive on the right in France, which is good, even in my car that's designed to drive on the left. (Driving a car with a steering wheel on the right and driving on the right makes passing extremely difficult, though. You can't see around the slow moving tractor unless you pull right over into the opposite lane). I was pleased with my ability to slip easily back into driving on the right - I didn't mistakenly drive on left once while I was away. Of course, I did have some trouble accomodating myself to driving on wrong side of the road when I got back to the UK. (oops)

And the French road signs were - in the main- excellent, some of them worthy of adopting on US or UK roads.

There are warning signs (at least in Brittany) with signs showing safe following distances based on the outside white line painted on the roadside. Instead of being a continuous white line - it's broken - and the size and number of strips help to judge following distances. One sign says "1 trait, danger" and second sign says "2 traits, securite" - with a little picture showing what they meant (which was good, because I'm not sure I would have known what trait meant and looking it up in the French-English dictionary might have resulted in danger) People were driving so fast that I'm not sure that keeping two strips between you and the next car really represented securite, but the spirit was absolutely right.

There were many warning signs on the roads, signs warning that the road was a little messed up. And plenty of signs warning "Risque de _______". Risque was easy enough to figure out, but often I had no idea what exactly the risque was. A common sign we saw was "risque de bouchons" - which we finally deduced meant risk of crashes, as the sign usually appeared before traffic got heavy or there was rapidly merging traffic. Of course, it didn't actually mean that. Our dictionary said bouchon meant cork or stoppage, so I guess it meant risk of stand-still traffic. Still it made us proceed more carefully. Other "risque" signs were even less clear to us, some were those long French words that I could barely get my head around before the sign was past like "risque de abellissement" (I'm making that word up, but there were words like that). We'd discuss what this possible risk was - usually with fanciful possibilities - anyway, we never experienced abellissement or whatever the real words were.

Many of the roads were toll roads, and that was OK, usually. For long stretches, you'd get a card and then pay for how far you'd travelled when you exited (and that might be 6 or 7 bucks). But occasionally, you'd get toll stations after short distances with small fees - 80 cents or a dollar. I couldn't figure out if this was due to jurisdictional fee grabbing or a French job creation scheme. This was particularly the case around the Pont de Normande - a most amazing suspension bridge over the bay of the Seine.

And best of all, you know those official brown road signs which advertise coming attractions, like a park or a monument or an historic house? Well, in France, they have those, too, but they're fancy. They were the road signs I was most impressed with. I didn't get a picture of them and I can't find one on the Internet either, but they were fantastic. (Since they were mainly on the autoroutes, I guess it's hard to get a photo when you're going 80 or 90.) Not far out of Calais, for example, is the site of the Battle of Crecy (English kicking French butt) - the sign says Bataille de Crecy and there's a clever drawing of medieval warriors. They didn't just have a picture of the attraction, but often people interacting with the attraction - like visitors walking across the tidal flats to Mont St Michel. The Omaha Beach sign has soldiers walking onto the beach with their rifles held over the heads - and the artist has conveyed a real sense of the landings. Some areas get more than one sign, Bayeux for example has loads to see, so there are signs for the Bayeux tapestry, the WWII museum and the British war graves.

Most areas get a brown sign, but some are a littled stretched - for example a farming area gets a cool picture of cows (I could see the real cows from the road, you've just told me that there's nothing to see but cows). And the worst of all were "maisons de charactre" - and a picture of a typical, though old, French house. If the best you can come up with is "houses of character", your village sucks.

The brown coming attractions signs were one of the few things I saw that I thought - "Man, that would really be fantastic in Tennessee." Tennessee has loads of cool stuff to see. Major cities could have pictures of the Ryman, ducks walking to the Peabody fountain, a choo-choo train or some representation of the Lookout Mountain battle, the ever iconic Sunsphere or fans entering Neyland stadium. You get the idea. Smaller places have plenty of potential, too, for example, an image of Davy Crockett before you turn off to Lawrenceburg, or a Tennessee walking horse for Shelbyville, or whiskey barrells for Lynchburg, or colorful locals placing bets over a cockfighting pit in Newport.

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