It’s the busiest road in France. Its 35 kilometres have been taking people in and around Paris since 1973. Le périph, as the the Paris ring road is known, is not the most famous monument in the French capital but it is certainly the most visited. And while it is hardly a beautiful sight, it is a view that many French drivers spend hours looking at each day.
Many large French cities have boulevards périphériques – Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseille — but the Paris ring road is the biggest and best known. It was built alongside the old fortifications around the city, there since the 1840s to protect the capital from outside invaders — or the rioting French people.
It seems the recent wave of ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests) are only the latest in a long tradition.
The speed limit on the densely packed périph is limited to 70 km. There are many on- and off-ramps but no safety shoulders, which can make driving on it a hair-raising experience. I once had to do a stretch on the périph to pass my French driver’s test.
I remember thinking that some poor tourists might turn in endless circles around Paris before getting up the nerve to squeeze through its multiple lanes of traffic to exit.
Here’s more info and details on the inner and outer ring roads from Wikipedia.
Do you have a memory of driving on a ring road or ‘périph’?
Breaking news here in France this week is the government’s decision to reduce the speed limit on secondary roads from 90 to 80 km/h. That’s all roads without a central divider mostly outside of towns across the country. Now will come the tedious business of changing thousands of road signs from 90 to 80.
Macron’s government has had the good sense to say they’ll pick up the tab for the sign change, sparing us the otherwise massive public outcry that would follow if the local taxpayers had to pay for it.
There’s still a lot of crying going on. If the French have one value, it is the right to go fast. When they can. Which is not often. But once they’re outside of urban areas, and unstuck from the frequent traffic jams, they treasure their right to gun it and make up for lost time.
This approach applies to much of life here. That characteristic gear changing, from foot-draggingly slow to all-systems-go fast, is one of the things I had the hardest time adapting to when we moved to France. It applies to so many areas of life that you simply have to get used to it. There are times when we do nothing but wait, and there are times when we move ahead at the speed of light. C’est ainsi.
Changer de vitesse – to change gears – is a skill I had to learn on many levels. From driving a car with a standard transmission to switching languages from my mother English tongue to the French way of formulating thoughts. To accepting that when we go, we go. When we stop, we stop.
I’ve gotten better at switching gears but it’s still not my forté (which, by the way, the French don’t say despite that little accent – the expression is rather: ‘ce n’est pas mon point fort’).
We are still gearing up from a very slow period following a fabulous family vacation in Curaçao. It was a wonderful way to spend Christmas, to ring out the old and ring in the new. But like probably every other island in the Caribbean, things move slowly. It took me no time at all to gear down to the slower pace of island life. Watching the waves roll in and out, the birds singing, the iguanas in the leaves, happily waiting for that piña colada.
But coming back is another story. We had a good rest and filled up on sunshine, so the body is more or less willing. My mind, however, is still five hours behind. It didn’t help that our return was a bit delayed.
Our flight circled for too long over Geneva, where the winds were very high and we were bumping around through the clouds for ages. When we finally began our descent, everyone on board was quietly relieved. Then, just as we saw the familiar approach across the lake and mountains, up we went again through the clouds. A few white-knuckled moments later, the pilot announced that he had aborted the landing due to wind shear. We were rerouted to Lyon, and finally made it home by bus some four hours later. Happy to be home safe.
When it comes to speed, I’m all for going a little slower. Yes, it’s annoying when things take longer than they should. And okay, they’ll probably enrich the state coffers with a few more speeding tickets. But hey, there’s no denying that it will save lives. And gas. And we’ll get there, sooner or later.
How has your new year begun? Are you in high speed or gearing up after the holidays?
The female voice that lives inside my GPS is called, improbably, Serena. Perhaps this female persona was the fantasy of the German engineers who designed my personal navigation app. Or maybe the marketing people thought the name would inspire a sense of serenity.
When I had to choose between Serena and Henry, her male flatmate, I went with dulcet-toned Serena. Of the two, she seemed slightly less commanding.
Did I mention I have issues with authority?
My first impression is that she sounds nothing like a Serena to me. Her snooty British accent makes her seem far too well-schooled to be doing this job. And, having taken a trip or two together, I fear she must agree.
Although we are in France, Serena speaks English. If I have the option, I always pick the language this is least likely to cause confusion, or misinterpretation, to my English ears. This is especially true when it comes to getting from point A to point B. I am, as confessed before, geographically and spatially challenged, a condition that only seems to get worse with age. But because we are in France, and French-speaking Switzerland, I do expect her to have a minimal grasp of the lingo.
The problem begins as soon as we hit the road.
“Prepare to bear right,” announces Serena imperiously. The road stretches ahead in a straight line.
“I think you mean go straight,” I suggest, trying to be polite.
“Beware!” says that lady.
“Beware of what?” I ask. There is no danger that I can see.
“At the roundabout, take first exit.”
“You mean turn right?” I ask, squinting at the screen propped on my dashboard. You are not technically allowed to use a GPS on your phone while driving in France. Just in case you might be cheating by texting or checking your Facebook status, they make any use of a phone in a car illegal.
Thankfully I no longer have to face the road conditions shown in the picture above, which used to be part of my daily commute. But getting around France can be confusing, so I take all the help I can get.
“In 200 metres, prepare to turn left.”
Okay, that much I get.
“Prepare to turn left in 100 metres, onto LARUEDELAMARTINIERE,” anounces Serena blithely.
Her French pronunciation is a curve ball that catches me unaware. It bears no connection to French as I know it. What street does she mean? I glare at my screen but cannot see any name resembling her French with an English accent.
The road curves and I miss the turn.
“Now turn right onto CHEMINDELACHARBONNIÈRE.”
“Chemin de la what? Where did you learn to speak French?”
“Now turn right.”
“Wrong! It says do not enter.”
There is silence. I glance at my screen and see a straight arrow. It seems that Serena has strategically repositioned.
“At the roundabout, take the third exit.”
“You mean go left?”
“Take the third exit and continue onto the D93.”
“Whatever you say.”
“Now prepare to bear right.”
“Now bear right.”
“My god you’re a nag.”
“Turn right on RUDE LACHAINE.”
“Rude is right!”
“In 300 metres, you will have reached your destination.”
“What? You are seriously confused!”
“You have reached La Rue de la Résistance.”
“Ray-sis-tance?” I say, mocking her accent. “Listen, lady, this is France. You need to work on your accent.”
I look in my rear-view mirror and see a cop right behind me. Realizing he may be able to see me talking to my GPS, I put two hands on the wheel, activate the turn signal and proceed into the parking lot.
“Merci Serena!” I say, signing off. She says nothing, far too polite to say I told you so.
If there is one thing that is uniformly reviled by the French, it is a radar trap. They call such revenue-generating devices ‘des pompes à fric’ – ‘fric’ being slang for cash, bread, dough or moolah.
“But what’s wrong with radars if they force people to slow down?” I asked many years ago, all innocence, when friends were ranting about how ‘vicieux’ were such machines. Surely you couldn’t have a cop on every corner, I continued, and speed limits are set for a reason – to save lives.
The conversation ground to a halt. I felt all eyes upon me. Was she kidding? A pause. Then, one of our friends very nicely explained that such devices were not intended to get people to slow down. In fact, they were strategically positioned just where they knew you would drive above the limit. On purpose. To earn money.
“Ce sont des pompes à fric!”
You cannot argue with the French when they are convinced they are right. Which is to say 99% of the time.
I am no speed demon. Husband likes to joke that I get traffic tickets for driving too slowly. This is categorically untrue – I don’t even think there is a minimum speed limit. But it is true that I hate driving on the motorway and avoid it like the plague. Too many cars, not to mention trucks, driving too fast and too close. So I take the scenic route, often shorter in klicks but far, far longer in time.
The odd thing is that on city roads I am impatient and always in a hurry. Which leads me to get a certain number of speeding tickets, usually for going just a kilometer or two above the limit. Fortunately, most of these occur on the Swiss side of the border, where the law is more forgiving. First of all, they give you a margin of 5 km/hour. Also, they don’t deduct points for minor infractions (at least that I’m aware of) as they do in France. The tickets take a while to reach us, but they do get here eventually.
The proliferation of photo radar machines and traffic enforcement cameras on all major routes (click on the map to get an idea) means that you must constantly be on the lookout – or, alternatively, drive the speed limit. Stop when the light turns red.
Try that in France, however, and you may just get rear-ended. At the very least honked at, insulted and made to feel like an outsider.
This highly coveted piece of paper will soon be an artefact. The French government has announced the phasing out of the old pink ‘permis de conduire’, fondly referred to as ‘le carton rose’. It will be replaced by a standard credit-card sized piece of plastic. But I’m not giving up mine just yet. Here’s why.
“You’ll have to get a new driver’s license.” Those words didn’t mean much at the time. I’d figured moving to France would mean turning in my old Ontario driver’s license for a French one. I didn’t bargain on having to learn to drive all over again.
“It means you have to pass a test,” my husband explained. I hesitated for a moment over the grammar (it’s ‘passer un test’ in French rather than to take a test as we say in English, which translates somehow as if success were a requirement.) Then I realized. Merde.
“But I already know how to drive!” I wailed. “Standard or just automatic?” My heart sank. I’d learned how to drive in the U.S. on one of those big boats of a car that had automatic everything. No one but hippies drove sticks.
In France, however, the standard is still standard. Automatic transmissions are something of a novelty, generally reserved for little old ladies. The only way to get your driver’s license here is to take the test on a standard.
So I had to learn how to use a stick shift. It is a testament to our marriage that my husband was able to teach me this skill.
For one thing, I am not the world’s most coordinated person. To put it in the words of my dear old dad, I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Any form of driving involves a certain amount of multitasking: eyes on the road, checking your rear- and side-view mirrors, knowing when to step on the gas or the brakes, signalling and turning. Add a clutch and stick-shift into that equation and it’s like learning to juggle.
Second handicap, mine: I’m not a good student. When I can’t do something perfectly right away, I get mad. I don’t give up, mind you, but being around me through the learning process is not for the faint of heart.
Third handicap, his: a tendency to confuse left and right. Frustrating, but no biggie most of the time. As a driving instructor, however, it’s a problem.
If anyone witnessed those early scenes, I am not proud. But I learned to shift with the best of them (although I wore out the clutch on our first car pretty fast).
I also had to learn the ins and outs of the ‘Code de la route’ and take a written test – no small challenge for my then-fledgling French. The rules of the road in France are almost as complex as the grammar. Along the way I learned a lot of new vocabulary: la chaussée (road surface), la roue de secours (spare tire), un céder le passage (yield sign). As for the driving itself, the biggest difference is a little concept called ‘la priorité à droite’. It means you must yield to drivers who arrive on the right. This concept also exists in North America but as uncontrolled intersections are few and far between, it’s rarely an issue.
The French road test is no joke – it’s not uncommon to fail several times. I got it on my first try, perhaps because of my experience as a driver, perhaps because I was visibly pregnant. Most likely because I took the test through a driving school (it was faster and cheaper than applying on my own) and the inspector knew my teacher – they gossiped throughout the ten minutes of my road test.
When I finally got my new driver’s license it felt like a mere formality. I’d been driving for almost a year with my Canadian license anyway and had learned the real rules of the road: watch your rear and always pull over for anyone going faster than you. If in doubt, let the person on the right go first. And no matter how mad you get, don’t flip the birdie, especially at men (see my earlier post on gestures).
Now let me share a deep, dark secret: I have two French driver’s licenses. It happened a few years ago when I’d thought my original license was lost, and had it replaced. Then I found the old one lurking in the corner of a disused wallet. So even if I have to hand over the more recent one in exchange for a laminated card, I’ll keep the old carton rose as a souvenir.
But I’m in no rush to make the switch. This being the old world, we have until 2033. By then, I’m not even sure I’ll need a driver’s license. And in the meantime, I look a lot younger.