Getting from point A to point B is never as simple as it looks in France. One-way streets, traffic jams, road works and demonstrations are just a few reasons why you often need to find a way around.

I quickly learned the words for this on moving to France.

Contourner: to go around something (an object but also various rules and regulations, or the ‘interdictions’ I posted about here.)

Contournement: the act of going around something or, in road terms, a route that takes you around. Most people call this a ring road. It’s also known as a rocade.

When we lived in Lyon and were looking to buy our first home, there was much talk of a potential ‘contournement ouest lyonnais’ (Lyon west ring road). The famous ‘COL’ was a much talked-about project that would have freed up the huge mess of north-south traffic on the A7, the main motorway that serves traffic between Paris and the south. It has the misfortune of cutting through the heart of Lyon via the Fourvière tunnel – a crammed, polluted and sometimes scary experience that is best avoided.

As you can see from this map, the city has no major alternate route on the hilly west side. Which, by the way, is the most picturesque, pastoral part of the countryside.

The eastern side of the city, with its broad plains, has all kinds of highways and byways serving the airport, leading east to the Alps and to parts south. Using these routes can save time when you factor in traffic, but they do add considerable distance. Therefore, many drivers prefer to avoid them. Or look for another way around. Un contourement au contournement. Am I making sense?

So when we were considering buying near a village in a pretty corner of the southwest of Lyon, we went to the city hall to check that there were no plans to start work on a big highway project just beyond our doors. Just to be safe.

Can you tell us if there any plans for the ‘contournement’ in this area? my husband asked the nice lady at the Mairie. Ah oui, she said, nodding her head vigorously. It’s supposed to be just on the other side of the village from where you want to build.

My heart fell. Mais non, sans blague? (No kidding?)

Further probing revealed that she was talking about the ‘contournement du village’. A local way around rather than straight through the village. We were relieved. It was nothing more than a minor road around the village.

Many towns and cities in France have ring roads, rocades or contournements. If your objective is get from A to B as quickly as possible, they’re probably a good bet. If you want to see the local sights, stop and smell the roses along the way, it may be best to avoid them.

But if you want to think and act like a French person, you need to learn to find your away around by using alternate routes. Believe me, I know. I’ve been getting lost on them for years!

Changer de vitesse

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?

Pompe à fric

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!”

“C’est scandaleux!”

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.

Which is pretty well par for the course.

When was the last time you got a speeding ticket?

Faire le pont

pont-du-gard-bridge-franceThe French have a sparkle in their eye and a spring in their step these days. It often occurs in the month of May when the warm weather returns along with a month of long weekends.

Leave it to the French to coin a phrase for the act of bridging between a holiday and a weekend. ‘Faire le pont’, literally ‘to make the bridge’, means to take an extra day off in order to extend your weekend into a mini-holiday. When two holidays fall close together, some lucky ducks will take an extra day or two and offer themselves a full week. This we call a viaduct.

Given the vagaries of the calendar, there are fat and lean years – when holidays fall on a weekend, you lose. There are no comp days.

This year in France we have been especially gatés, with the 1st and 8th of May falling on Friday. Now, with two long weekends under our belts, we are off to enjoy ‘le pont de l’Ascension.’ This holiday always falls on a Thursday, and many companies give their employees the Friday off as well. Those who don’t will allow people to add in a ‘RTT’ (Réduction du temps de travail) day – a work time reduction scheme the powers-that-be developed when a 35-hour week was introduced some years ago.

Some of my fondest memories of raising a family in France involved taking off for that 4-day weekend. By the time I found work in a company big enough to give me the extra day off, the kids were old enough to travel well (and young enough to still want to.) We would pile into the car and head south to the sea. It was like a sneak preview of the summer holidays that lay ahead.

Bouchon LyonOf course, what we had to go through to get there and back was also memorable: les bouchons. At best, traffic was like an accordion between Lyon and Valence. At worst, we would spend hours stuck in the car.

The beauty of Ascension weekend is that in the offing there is still an extra bonus: La Pentecôte.The Pentecost holiday always falls on a Monday so it will only be a three-day weekend.


Now I find it difficult taking any long weekends in May as I’m self employed. But I’ll make an exception for Pont de l’Ascension and bridge with the best of ‘em.

Bon weekend à tous!

Bye bye, carton rose

Carton roseThis 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.