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The pitfalls of driving in France

Narrow road in Sarlat, Dordogne

Listen to Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” Hear the beeping horns? Feel the frenetic tempo? A perfect anthem for drivers in the City of Light.

Now take a spin in the quiet, calm Dordogne Valley where we live six months of the year. No horns (we’re told they’re illegal), no kamikaze sprints around the Arc de Triomphe. Who’s got a theme song for motorists in this idyllic setting?

I do.

It goes like this: da da!…da da!…da duh da duh da duh, and on and on till the shark chomps you. And guaranteed, on roads in Southwest France, the shark will chomp you.

There’s so much to adore in this region two hours east of Bordeaux, something’s got to be wrong. That something would be driving: no Uber, no taxis, no hope. You’ve got to have a car to get around here. But you’ve also got to have the fortitude to get behind the wheel.

We bought a French car sight-unseen from the U.S. while waiting to occupy our Dordogne home. It’s a Citroen Picasso. It cost 3,000 euros. No telling why it’s a Picasso. Something to do with the Cubist movement, probably. Shifting gears sounds like grinding ice.

Picasso gets us where we want to go…just not in a hurry. That’s a problem for French motorists. They want to get there faster. They let us know by tailgating close enough to read your shirt collar.

But that’s just one of the foibles of French motoring. If you want to know why driving is realty scary here, check this list:

  • Speed limits are insanely high on twisty country roads.
  • Right of way goes to your left…except when it goes to your right.
  • Two narrow lanes aren’t wide enough for cars confronting the oncoming battleships known as lorries.

And if that isn’t bad enough, here’s the real problem: the Dordogne Valley is gorgeous. It has castles, glistening rivers and villages Thomas Kincaide would have declared too cute to paint. No one’s going to watch the road with all of that to look at.

There is upside to French driving. For example, the roads are in excellent condition. They don’t talk about infrastructure here –  they maintain it. It’s just that the roads were built in another time, before the wheel, I think.

Take the path going downhill from our house to the Dordogne River…please. It’s the width of a small sedan, if you don’t exhale. It’s lined with jagged stone walls that were old when the Romans arrived by chariot. How tight is our road? We have racing stripes on all four doors that weren’t there when the car was new.

The easiest way to tell a Frenchman from everyone else is on country roads. If they’re French, the speed limit is an amusing starting point. The rest of us stay behind tractors going the speed of evolution. Then we pretend to be French, gesturing impatiently, but secretly giving thanks for farmers on two cylinders.

The best way to tell an American driver is by his American wife. She’s riding shotgun, clutching the door handle, losing feeling in her tensed hands. Best of all, she’s stating the obvious: “That truck is too close…this speed is too fast…that’s a blind curve…we should have taken the train.”

I’m getting a bumper sticker. It will say: “Be considerate: helpful wife on board.”

A French driver pulled alongside the other day, slapping his right forearm with his left palm. A friend explained: I hadn’t yielded the right of way to his car approaching from the right. But at the round-abouts, I protested, you yield to the left. He shrugged. In this league, you switch hit.

There’s one more thing about country roads in France – they’re not just for cars. Bikes use them, too. Without  bike lanes, cyclists share your lane…usually in front of you. In the U.S., this would cause road rage. In France, it’s as natural as rind on camembert.

Mike Zampa is a communications consultant and retired newspaper editor and columnist splitting time, along with his wife, between Southwest France and the San Francisco Bay Area

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