The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Round About That Time, the Duke Boys Decided to Go Cross Country

The French are, by reputation, the second-worst drivers in Europe, lagging only Italians in their disregard for the rules of the road, disproportionate use of turn signals and horn, and pure suicidal aggression. There's really no explanation for this; after all, Europe's best drivers (the Germans) are right over the border, and the French driver training system is rigorous and extensive. To get a French driver's license, one must endure months of classes at a driving school--at a cost of around €1000--followed by a timed written test and a series of road tests. Failure to check mirrors in the proper order (inside, left, right, blind spot, left) while executing a lane change results in failure and a wait of another month before beginning the testing process again. My department threw a party, avec champagne, naturellement, for one of the staff who successfully got her license on the fourth try.

After completing this rigorous course of instruction, French drivers forget everything they've learned and do whatever the hell they please.

I bring this all up now because last week I moved all of our stuff from our temporary home in Villeurbanne to the new apartment chronicled extensively below. We had the twenty large moving boxes that were airshipped to us when we came over, plus our six suitcases, the cat, and the miscellaneous groceries and supplies we'd bought since being here. I figured I could handle that in a couple of trips in a van, so I rented one, a Renault Kangoo as it turns out (see pic). I made it through the paperwork, and a brief moment of panic when it turned out that the van was reserved for me for the following day, and hit the road.

I learned very quickly that in France, lane markers are merely suggestions, like the Chef's Recommendations on a restaurant menu. Perhaps monsieur would prefer to stay in the rightmost third of the road? Non? A little of the center and most of the left lane? Tres bien! I found that the best way to deal with this was to adopt that attitude as well, forget where the lane markers are, and go where there's space. Things went fairly smoothly and I didn't have much trouble with the driving except that I had to learn to look in different places for signs and traffic lights. French cities (well, Lyon at least) don't have the tangle of power and phone lines strung overhead along every street, so traffic lights are on posts, and they are, diabolically, set further back from the intersection than one would expect--so if you roll up to a stoplight as if to make a right on red, and pull up so you can see what's coming from the left, suddenly you can't see the traffic signal any more; you're just stuck out there in space, having to rely on the inevitable blast of horns to let you know when the light goes green.

There are no stop signs at most intersections, either, the question of right of way being dictated by a complicated system of pavement markings that are hard to distinguish from pedestrian crossings. This makes every intersection an adventure, with an element of stomp-it-and-pray to make things interesting.

No, the driving wasn't bad. It was parking that was a nightmare. Lyon is desperately short of parking; with the exception of a few large garages underground in the center city, almost all parking is on-street along the rat's warren of one-ways that make up most of the city's streets. There is one advantage to driving those ridiculously tiny cars they have here (pic). With our Villeurbanne townhouse being on one of these one-ways, I couldn't just pull up in front and hit the hazard lights to load the van--I needed to find an actual parking space, and within carrying distance of the house. Did I mention it was 5PM?

I circled the neighborhood for 45 minutes before I found a space.

Unloading at the new place was a lot easier...I waited until nightfall, looked both ways for les flics, drove over a curb, dodged pedestrians around the fountain at Place Republique (yeeeeha!), and pulled up 3 feet in front of our door. Threw open the hatch, dropped the boxes inside the foyer, and smoked the Michelins as I peeled out. Illegal? You betcha. Francais? Vraiment.

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