Tuesday 20 March 2012

Scarier than a Steven King Novel: Driving in Paris, France (it’s Misery)

When I moved to France almost 10 years ago, I had never driven outside the US. I was accustomed to clearly visible street signs, the grid system, stop and go traffic, 4 way stop signs, big bulky automatic cars, defensive driving, and bumper stickers.

But when I got to Paris, I had to forget everything I thought I knew about driving, because it would only get me killed. In a nut shell, driving in Paris was like being trapped in a huge pinball machine with multiple balls flying at me from every direction.  Quick, TILT!

At the time, my job was 70% field work which required extensive driving in Parisintra-muros (the city within the beltway). The first day driving, I followed a colleague and tailgated her so closely, I could have changed her radio station. Not a safe way to drive, but I was a stressed out wreck, afraid of getting lost, and I was driving a Twingo which is nothing but a glorified tuna can on wheels. Meep, Meep. When I got home that night, I cried. But, got up the next day and gave it another go. And over the next few months I began adjusting to a new country, a new job, a clutch, a new language, etc, and I also learned to get used to insane things like:

 “Priorité à droite” (priority to the right).

This crazy little law states that while driving along a road, anyone joining from your right hand side has priority over the main road on which you are driving. Come again? That means they do not have to stop. Hun? Instead, you have to slow down and let them merge no matter what road they were on!? It’s a pretty dangerous law imo especially for foreigners, but don’t worry, this driving rule is not widely used anymore! Nope, you just have to guess if the French driver up ahead is going to yield or shoot out in front of you. No sweat :/

Itty, bitty, confusing as heck street signs.

Street signs: means to give drivers invaluable information, like what street I’m driving on! It’s the best method to help you get from point A to point B without having to go through the North Pole first. I believe
French street signs are actually a national inside joke, made to confuse and infuriate foreign drivers. The signs in the city are small, often located far off the street and nailed to the side of a building usually behind a bus stop.  Brilliant.  And don’t think these babies are lit up at night either. In short, Parisian street signs are more useful on a hook as decoration in your kitchen.

Traffic circles / roundabouts

Another thing I had to get used to, traffic circles. Though I must admit, I now prefer traffic circles that maintain a certain flow, over traffic lights that bring cars to a halt. You just have to make sure it’s a real traffic circle (where you yield to those already in the circle) as opposed to the fake traffic circles where you have priority, but must yield to on coming traffic on your right! Luckily, I didn’t have to deal with too many of the latter.

So really, traffic circles weren't that bad, with one exception: Driving around Surviving Place de l'Étoile. You know, the big traffic circle with the Arc de Triomphe stuck on top. First, don’t let the name fool you. It’s not a traffic circle, it’s a Sphere of Hell. It has at least 12 different streets dumping into it and the only way you find yourself there is through unfortunate circumstances (you couldn't read the tiny street sign and took another wrong turn) and voilà, welcome to driving hell. Now, you find yourself having to cross over 6, unmarked lanes of spastic, high-speed traffic or be condemned in spending the rest of your life driving around in circles. How did I survive Place de l’Etoile? Two words: Aggressive driving. 

Aggressive Driving

This is the only way to drive safely in Paris imo. Ignore what the cars are doing or want to do beside you, or behind you. Now, don’t confuse aggressive with reckless. French drivers may be aggressive but they are not necessarily reckless and they will avoid hitting you if you are in front. Therefore, keep your eyes only on what’s in front of you and GO! Learn to use the gas peddle, accelerate hard or get run over. This is where knowing how to use a stick shift is so important!

After several months of driving in the city, I still hadn’t gotten used to it and it remained a stressful exercise until the day I finally purchased a PalmPilot with GPS! Do they even make PalmPilots anymore? Anyway, GPS saved what was left of my sanity and removed most of the stress of driving in the city. I no longer worried about missing the sign for a street that I wouldn't be able to read anyway. Getting lost was no longer an issue, GPS would recalculate. And I could now successfully avoid the Sphere of Hell. YEAH!

After two years living in Paris, I finally moved to the countryside where driving is much more reasonable and nothing like Paris. But sometimes, I do miss the excitement. Ha, just kidding!


  1. Love it - brings back memories of inadvertently driving through Paris (which we were meant to bypass) on our way to a campsite further south in France - two young kids in the back of the car - needless to say they learnt some 'new' words that afternoon.

  2. It's nice to know others admit about aggressive driving! LOL! A wonderful post.

  3. What a great real life tale :) Thank you for sharing!
    I always thought Italians were the most nightmarish drivers, but now I begin to doubt that.

  4. And I thought DC traffic was bad! This sounds terrifying.

    Today I showed you some blog love with an award. Check it out here: http://depressioncookies.blogspot.com/2012/03/thankful-and-sharing-blog-awards.html

  5. Eeeepppp! I love Paris. Of course, I never drove there. Walking around was difficult enough even with rigorous study of the maps.

    That's super exciting you get to live in France. I'm jealous. :D BTW: my first book takes place in Paris. Super cool.

  6. *chuckles* You think that's bad? I could tell you stories about driving that would make your anecdotes sound like child's play...

  7. Sally: LOL, I bet I used some of those "new" words you mentioned when I was driving there too!

    Mina: I think sometimes people confuse aggressive with reckless, but in some situations it is best to be "aggressive". Thanks for stopping by!

    Treelight: I have heard about the Italians too... I'll have to get out there someday for a comparison, and pizza! (:

    Tia: Thank you so much for the "blog love" (: You made my day! I'll hop on by this evening when I have a little more time. Today has been C.R.A.Z.Y.

    Julia: If you ever make it out this way again let me know! And I'd love to read your book. The last part of my wip takes place in Paris as well. Something about that city is so amazing.

    Mish: You are such a tease! (: *sniff* I smell a future post for you. Come on, you have to share now, heehheh.

  8. That was hilarious! I now have absolutely ZERO desire to drive through Paris! When I lived in South America, I never drove (no desire to there either), and there basically are NO rules. I honestly thought I was going to die on my first trip through the Andes. Narrow roads, hairpin turns, cliffs on both sides (one going up, the other down), need I say more:)

    1. I would suggest using the subway. Paris has an extensive subway system that can get you just about anywhere in the city.

      I stopped imagining what driving in South America would be like when you said "cliffs on both sides" Yikes! But the view must be spectacular!

  9. Being French and having lived in France, your post cracked me up ! So, so true ! :-D

    1. Salut Celine et bienvenue! Thanks for stopping by and glad you liked the post. (:


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