Somehow it got to be over 40 years since we first drove to France, and being francophiles we’ve done that most years since then. The driving experience has changed somewhat!
It’s the early 1970s. We arrive at Dover for the cross channel ferry. The time waiting on the dockside is busy – cleaning the headlamps, putting on beam deflector stickies, then applying yellow paint to the glass. All headlamps had to be yellow in France, a law designed in wartime to distinguish French civilian vehicles, but retained until reversed by EU conformity standards in 1993.
There was a magic in sailing away from the White Cliffs and seeing the French coast gradually coming into view, followed by the unfamiliarity of driving on the right.
The most scary part was knowing that French drivers treated priorité a droite as a sacred right and, particularly within towns, would zoom out from any old side road without even looking. It was easy to forget, and the odd fright ensued.
Almost as scary was the inevitable succession of Citroens that suddenly appeared inches behind you on the mostly empty single carriageway roads. Just before a bend or the brow of a hill, they suddenly zoomed out and overtook you at the most suicidal moment. Sometimes they themselves were overtaken by an even more suicidal driver behind them. Amazingly, we never saw anyone killed.
The roads were something else. The sign chaussée déformée appeared with incredible frequency. In fact all the roads were deformed, shaped like an upturned U with a huge camber that didn’t help steering around the nids de poule (potholes). It was clearly no accident that those Citroens were all so softly sprung.
Other road signs included the ubiqitous un train peut cacher un autre at every railway crossing. Speed limits seemed to be fairly notional, and drivers sped through residential districts.
As far as fuel was concerned, all fuel was served by the garage attendant, who would usually appear if you waited long enough. And you’d better have the francs to pay, and don’t forget the tip.
Over the years the French driving experience has changed beyond recognition. Motorways and péages gradually covered the country, road surfaces were brought up to EU standards, most long distance roads gained priority over the dreaded priorité a droite.
Speed limits have become increasingly strict, and are quite well observed, probably because of the success of the renowned flics hiding in the bushes at popular speeding spots. The limit is now down to 30kph (20mph) in many residential areas. Chicanes and roundabouts abound.
Even the suicidal overtake has been in long term decline, apart from the odd revival by geriatric Citroen owners and young Belmondo wannabes.
The fuel experience has reversed completely. There is no service. You fill the tank yourself and are lucky if there’s a paystation, if not you have to insert your credit card, which at least usually works these days, but only in recent years.
Chaussée déformée is much reduced, but certainly not dead out in the sticks. And un train peut still cacher un autre.
One thing has not changed. Get back to Dover and you’re suddenly assailed by a level of traffic that is well beyond what you’ve become accustomed to in France. That’s one good reason to go again!
Featured image is one of many striking images at canalblog