Pluck up your courage, guys....


Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris. But not, thank Heaven, by car.

In our Bed & Breakfast in Normandy, we had visitors from half the states in the Union, and the only ones who liked driving in Paris were those from Chicago. Chicagoans think Parisians are polite and courteous drivers who proceed at a sedate, respectable pace.

Californians emerge from Paris white-faced and white-knuckled, mentally revising their plans for the hereafter.

Of course, they should have listened to our advice. Don't do your first French driving, we told them, in Paris. That's like getting your first taste of Mexican food by eating a raw chilli. Take the airport shuttle to Gare Saint-Lazare, get on the train to Normandy and pick up your hire car in Caen.

Even this isn't foolproof; one of our clients booked his car by telephone, went into the agency in Caen, and discovered that the car was waiting for him in Cannes seven hundred miles away. Of course, they had other cars, but like 95% of European vehicles, they were of the stick-shift persuasion. Which he had never driven.

Others arrived at midday and discovered that, in provincial France, everything including car hire agencies closes from twelve till two. When they expostulate, people look at them wide-eyed and wonder why they want to be driving when they ought to be eating.

After that, though, the whole thing's a breeze. The roads are not wide, but they are straight, smooth and empty. French drivers have an unnerving habit of driving very close behind you, but that only means they want to overtake. You're probably going too slowly. Like, on the speed limit. This is a mistake. Go with the flow, add 20 to the limit.

When it comes to speed limits, you see, Americans are idealists, Europeans are pragmatists. The road is straight, there is little traffic, you are not driving a forty-ton truck. Plainly, a limit of 90 kph (56mph) is absurd. So you do 110 (69). In the States, this would lead straight into a radar trap. In France, no self-respecting gendarme would dream of setting a trap on a road where exceeding the limit is not actually dangerous. Besides, in Lower Normandy, the traffic cops only work weekends.

The same for STOP signs. These have two meanings. 1) Please stop here if you need to. 2) If you don't stop and you hit something, then you'll be in trouble. At the end of our street in France there was a STOP sign. If you were turning left, especially on a tractor which was the main form of transport in the village, you needed to stop because visibility was difficult to the right and there might be somebody coming. Turning right, however, nobody stopped unless they could see something coming from the left.

Actually, it was at that junction, though in the opposite direction, that I stopped one day and the guy behind ran straight into the back of my car. He had been busy lighting a cigarette, and was quite upset at the way his small, elderly Honda was impaled on my towing hitch. But he offered to pay for my damage, which appeared minimal. The curious thing, though, was that when my wife reported to her driving instructor what had happened, he replied, 'Ah. Rear-ended you, did he? And whose fault was it?' In France, it turns out, you can be at fault for stopping too suddenly. The guy at the back is not always to blame. The next driving lesson explained why. 'Overtaking", said the instructor. 'Go really close up to the car in front, then when you have a chance to overtake, nip out smartly, accelerate all the way past him, then cut in sharply in front.' Yes, French drivers are actually taught to do this. Keep an eye on the mirror before you slam on the brakes; if a tail-gater hits you, it could be your fault!

Once you get used to this, it can be quite reassuring to know that tail-gaters generally have no aggressive intent. When you come to a straight section of road, slow down and wave the pesterer past. He's the one in a hurry, you are here to look at the scenery. Of course, if you can wave him past just before a dangerous corner where you know there's often a speed-trap, well, that's a bonus.

Just when your average tourist is beginning to enjoy himself, he sees a 50 limit sign accompanied by the word RAPPEL. His High School French tells him this means REMINDER. But this is the first 50 sign hes seen. Is there something wrong with his eyesight? Some people can worry about this all day. What he needs to know is that the plaque telling you the name of a village is also the official sign for a speed limit of 50kph (31mph). That's why, at the end of the village, there's another sign with the name crossed out, to tell you to go back to 90. Or rather, 110.

Once you know these things, driving in France is a pleasant experience. Especially compared to England, where the roads are appallingly crowded, and you have to do the whole thing on the opposite side. That's where even the folks from Chicago finally meet their Waterloo.

Hedley Grenfell-Banks