Posted: 01 Oct 2004
Driving in France is, well, interesting to say the least. To start with, I'd like to tell a story of the first hour with our car. We booked a rental car with an automatic transmission, which is apparently rather rare over there, or in Europe in general. Upon finally finding the rental office, we were given instructions on how to find said car (which was a good five-to-ten minute walk away) and were on our way. After trying in vain to unlock the wrong car, we found the right car, a shiny-new red Citroen C3, and threw our shit in.
This is where the adventure part begins.
I jammed the key in the ignition, turned it, and nothing happened. I tried it again, nothing. Hrmm. Well, there must be some button or something, right? This is France, they do things differently here. In turn, I pushed each button without a readily obvious purpose on the dash, turned the key, and nothing. I grabbed the manual from the glove compartment and started reading through it, but that's sort of a pain in the ass when you're in a dark parking garage with a dim overhead interior light. That, and when the manual is entirely in French. Wait! Buckle your seat belt and try, that must be it! Alas, no. To make an already long story short, we flagged down a random guy walking through the garage and asked him for help, explaining that things are different in the U.S. Well, as it turns out, they're not. He turned the key, nothing, then yanked the wheel to the left, turned the key, and vroom.
The goddamned steering column was locked, much like my old Pontiac used to do. Le sigh.
And so empowered with a combustion engine actually working, we headed out to the convoluted maze Paris refers to as its city streets. I'd been observing traffic patterns and lights and signs before then, preparing myself. When it came right down to it, though, it didn't make much of a difference. While the signs and lights are different, it's fairly intuitive when you're out there to the point where you don't really need to focus on such things. Just follow the flow of traffic. The flow of traffic, though, can be insane at times. Really, though, it's no worse than any city. Especially Boston.
Back to the story. Yes, there's more story! I drove along in traffic with no problem, but as I made my way away from the busier streets, onto side streets, I started noticing that the engine was sounding rather...odd. Odd in that "VROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM" at 30 kph way. Instinctively, I knew what it was, but my consciousness didn't admit to what it was until I'd puzzled over it a while. All at the same time, I noticed the "1" on the digital dash display, recognized the sounds the car was making at higher speeds, the fact that the gearshift had four settings -- Park, Reverse, Neutral, and Drive -- and in the Drive well, there were "+" and "-" signs above and below where the stick sat, and shouted "I'M IN FIRST FUCKING GEAR." I recalled my parents' and brother's new Volkswagens with their "Triptronic" (or something) shift types, where you could pop it out of "automatic" into "manual" and shift as you would with a manual transmission, but without the clutch. I jabbed the gearshift up, and shot into second gear somewhere around 35 kph. It was like finding nirvana. Had I made it all the way to the highway without figuring out that our automatic was actually a bizarre European hybrid, I don't even want to know what would have happened. We wouldn't have made it to Rouen, that's for certain.
I guess the idea is that it's supposed to shift for you, as an automatic, but allow you to shift manually if you please. The problem, though, is that it doesn't really do this. It downshifts alright, like if you pull up to a toll booth (oh, French toll booths take credit cards -- kickass) if you forget, which I almost always did, but flooring it out of that thing, you'll find yourself doing 45 kph in first gear and your car sounding like it wants to jump off a cliff to end the misery. I think I caught it upshifting me once, and I don't recall the incident in particular, but that's about it.
Anyway, I hope this story can help you out if you go over there and rent a car. If you drive a stick, though, you'll have no problems, so go fuck yourselves. It's worth noting that while we had problems at first, I came to absolutely love the Citroen C3 and the hybrid transmission. As shown when I try to play the drums, I'm quite coordinated in some areas but lack the coordination to hammer a clutch pedal and shift and drive at the same time. I once could do it fine, when I was fourteen, but those times are gone. I could do it in an emergency, and even on a regular basis with practice, but a vacation in a foreign country isn't the time to do that. Regardless, though, I loved that car and that way of driving. Even now, weeks later, I'm still motioning to shift an automatic Honda. If you can tell me how I can import that particular car, please let me know.
While I'm here, though, there're some other items worth mentioning.
First off, in France (and I assume in Europe in general), cars are Wicked Fucking Small. In fact, as an extreme, they have these things called SmartCars. They're sort of like a go-kart with a coupe shell slapped on it. They're not allowed on highways, for obvious reasons, but in the city you can park them anywhere. Like, you could probably pick it up and drag it onto the sidewalk like a moped. While our car was small by U.S. standards, it was surprisingly roomy inside. At 6'0", I could sit up perfectly straight and still gave a good 3-4" of clearance over my head. The whole cabin, actually, was surprisngly roomy. I suppose that means there's less between me and an oncoming car, mais c'est la vie.
Car manufacturers over there are different, too. You'll see the occasional Ford or Toyota, but for the most part all the cars are Citroen, Renault, Peugot, and other names with too many vowels that are hard to pronounce.
Th speed limits are another thing, too, most especially out in the country. The speed limits are jacked up quite a bit, for one. Their major highways are posted at 130 kph. I translated this on paper to 94 mph, but I just checked and it's only 80 mph. That's still 15 mph over most U.S. highways. On top of that, it's pretty bitchin' to look down at the speedometer and see 145 in big, bold digits. Once you approach civilization, you start to hit less major routes that run between towns. The speed limits on these range between 70 and 90 kph, which translate to 45 and 55 mph, respectively. They often blow right through thickly-settled towns, though (at least in Normandy), so it's a little weird at times. A lot of these roads have hairpin turns, too. In the U.S., the speed limit would drop suddenly to 25 mph, but they don't seem to give a flying fuck over there. I saw more than a few hairpin turns posted as the metric equivalent of 30 to 45 mph, and you can find out for yourself when you slam on the brakes to keep from driving off the road into a ravine. Cool shit.
And that, my friends, completes my Adventures in France. I hope I've given you some good tips and tricks for traveling to France or to Europe in general. There's plenty I've forgotten or left off, but I figure that without everything being laid out for you, it'll be more exciting. It sure as hell was for me. So go forth, wreak havoc, and have fun.