Monday, December 8, 2014

Driving in Paris

I had one lesson at a driving school here in Paris before I officially took the wheel. My driving instructor gave a generous eye roll when he learned I didn't speak French (other than "un café, s'il vous plaît), and begrudgingly escorted me to the car. His confidence was reassuring. He actually seemed rather congenial, like someone I might enjoy a conversation with if either of us knew anything more than right and left, alle and arrete in each other's language. As it was, he got continually frustrated at my lack of conversational skills as I tried not to kill us. Priorities, you know.

Now three months later, driving in Paris has become one of my favorite activities of being an au pair. While the adrenaline rush has lessened considerably from when I first revved out into an economy car-packed roundabout, it has been replaced with a calm understanding of the rhythm of the rue, like taking my place in a daily dance. I am so glad I get the opportunity to drive in Paris as an au pair because getting behind the wheel is as much a part of learning the culture as the food or the language. But as with any immersion experience, there are some real surprises along the way.

Here are the big shocks (that's a little car pun, folks) of my driving experience in Paris:

Traffic lights on the sides of the street: This took me a while to get used to. I would be driving along, and seeing no red lights above me, I would leisurely coast right through an intersection much to the consternation of my fellow drivers. A majority of all traffic lights are located on the right side of the road, not overhead. Sometimes easy to miss when you are distracted by boulangerie window displays.

Lack of lanes: The French are opportunists. Perhaps not with anything else in life, but on the road, yes, everything is possible. If there is room for a vehicle (and sometimes even if there isn't), then you will find a car there. You can have as many as four such "lanes" in a given road meant for one car. And even if you are in the actual lane, expect to be joined on either side of your car by drivers who saw more opportunity than you did.

Lack of personal space: Most of my cardio the first month in Paris came from the generous amount of heart attacks caused on my daily commute. I could not (COULD NOT) believe how close some cars would come to mine, going 70 kmh on the Peripherique (the highway that circles the city). Tailgating is simply the norm. And you will be amazed at how little space is required for changing lanes and passing. But as mentioned above, if the car fits...

Vespas: If you think the roads are cramped already, wait for the Vespas to zip into every last inch of space left. Vespas and motorcycles are the wildcards of the traffic deck; they may take up any bit of space they see, changing lanes and passing lines faster than you can say "Espèce d'idiot!" To get one step closer to heart failure, wait for the ones that skirt around you from your blind spot and pass in front of you to change lanes again just because there is space. Because remember, lanes don't exist.

The roundabouts: No driving experience in Paris compares to learning the ways of the roundabout. And there is no baptism by fire like taking on the Arc de Triomphe during the evening rush. (Check that one off my list!) The general gist seems to be, wait for your chance to merge to the left, move as quickly to the center as possible, then immediately cut off everyone to take your exit. Or you can just play the ignorant immigrant card and stick to the outside circle. Bonus perk: with the latter choice you get a sample of all the different horn pitches of every make and model of car in Paris. Winning!

The pedestrians: No lanes sometimes includes no crosswalks. Parisians are serious jay-walking offenders. The little red man cautioning them to stop for oncoming traffic is really only a suggestion, a choice of preference, if you will. And most Parisians prefer to bump elbows with a passing car. (Confession: I am completely guilty of this in every way.)

Texting while driving: It doesn't exist here. Of course you have a rare exception, but besides it being illegal, Parisian traffic flow doesn't allow for it. There is always a car door being flung open, one of those aforementioned pedestrians bolting in front of you, or a sudden delivery truck blocking your path. Add that to the lack of lanes and personal space, and one simply does not have a millisecond to look away from the road, or one will most certainly have an accident. And in this respect, it's a great thing.

Yielding to the oncoming lane: Those cars coming out of what looks like an alleyway on your right actually have the right of way. Priority is still given to the right in many areas of the city and in Europe. The problem is you rarely see where these oncoming routes are unless you are familiar with the area. Even then, you still might be very confused why you get flipped off at the same intersection every day (speaking of no one in particular, of course...). There are yellow and red diamonds to signal these roads, but who has time to read signs while you are dodging Vespas?

Flashing lights: Waiting at an intersection to turn left and the oncoming car kindly flashes their lights at you? Think again before you turn. In Paris and much of Europe, this means "I see you, and I'm not stopping."

Parking wherever: Sure there are designated parking spaces, but who uses those? If you need to stop somewhere really quick, just pull onto the sidewalk or throw on those trusty caution signs and you are gold. Of course, you always run the risk of getting towed, but no one is towing those giant delivery trucks, now are they...

No turning right on red: Definitely still the hardest habit for me to break. A red light is just that, with no exceptions. This also means correcting where you stop at a light, never to block the crosswalk or you will get many glares (even though the crosswalk is only optional for a pedestrian anyway).

So now you know a few (just a few) of those unwritten rules that have kept me alive while driving every day in Paris. And for those brave souls who have taken their lives in their own hands with me behind the wheel before, who putting it nicely say my driving style is "aggressive," well you probably aren't surprised at all that I am another tire track closer to feeling right at home in that horn-blaring, free-wheeling city of Pah-ree.

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