Driving in France: The Struggle Is Real

When you move to a new country, one of your first tests is learning how to drive in a completely different environment, with an entirely new set of rules—both official and unofficial. The learning curve can be steep and high speed—figuratively and literally!

After years of driving in France, here are the things that the writers at The Real Expat Life still struggle getting used to:

EMILY: Driving in circles on roundabouts and ringroads.

I hail from Chicago where the streets are straight and follow a grid pattern. Occasionally, you’ll come across a road that runs diagonal or follows a bit of a curve, but the vast majority run either north-south or east-west. Even the famed Chicago Loop is really more of a square with boxy, straight lines.

Not here. In France, the straight road is an anomaly. Winding, meandering roads are the norm, especially where I live in Provence. And you can literally drive in circles here. There are roundabouts everywhere. Want to get a gal from Chicago hopelessly lost? Hide all street signs, put her on roads that twist like strands of spaghetti, and then spin her around a successive series of circles.

I spent my first few months in France sweating profusely behind the wheel, yelling at my car’s navigation system, “Where on earth am I??” Anytime I had to be anywhere at a specific time, I had to leave 15 minutes earlier to accommodate getting lost. Fortunately, in France, being late is a way of life, so my complete and utter lack of direction meant that I fit in culturally right from the beginning.

Another time France will make you drive in circles is on its many ringroads. As an American, the concept of a ringroad was new to me, but to my British and Irish friends, they’re a normal thing. To the uninitiated, a ringroad is a street that encircles the old, city center. Ringroads are actually great when you’re looking for parking as you’re never that far away from any point in the city center. However, I do find them a bit disorienting and when I finally do find a parking space, I’ll often have absolutely no idea where I am in relation to where I’m trying to go. It’s a good thing I left 15 minutes early!

PIPPA: Driving on the wrong side of the road? Nah, it’s the crossings that get me.

Coming from the UK, you might think that one of the greatest causes of anxiety would be driving on the right hand side of the road instead of the left. Actually, it’s all pretty logical and if you still have a right hand drive car, you have the advantage of seeing how close you are to the scarey ditches they love having right at the edge of the road here.

Nope, I find it’s the proliferation and location of pedestrian crossings that can catch you out. In the UK, our highways are highly regulated to maximise safety (i.e. we assume that drivers and pedestrians alike are all numptys and need nanny with us at all times), so all pedestrian crossings have belisha beacons (stripey poles topped with yellow lights) or traffic lights to forewarn the driver. They also have to be a certain distance from junctions, roundabouts etc, to avoid cars backing up to places with limited visibility. Here, however, you can be merrily looping around a roundabout, confident in your right of way over approaching vehicles, but suddenly need to halt on the roundabout as someone crosses at a turn off point a car or so ahead of you. You just hope the Speedy Gonzalez driving a foot from your bumper has fast enough reactions to brake when you do.  You might also be driving on a bright sunny day (and I mean bright, with no British soft cloud filter) and either the brightness or a contrasting shadow masks the faded white stripes on the road until you’re virtually on top of them.

No wonder pedestrians seem much more wary here at crossings–a lot of cars seem oblivious to them. In the UK, a pedestrian always has priority. My advice as a driver: you need to be equally wary (once you’ve clocked where the crossings are), even if you end up with a staring stand-off with a pedestrian while crawling towards the crossing at 2km/h trying to judge who’s going over the crossing first (they are usually not as numptyish as us Brits and recognise their vulnerability, so either stop or wave you on, impatiently, of course).

MEREDITH: Narrow “two-way” roads

I look at driving in France as a real-time video game I play in my car. Whether I’m yeilding to the right, dodging cars parked on the road (with or without hazard lights), stopping suddenly for hidden pedestrians, or navigating narrow roads, it’s always an adventure. It feels a bit like this…

I often find myself laughing as I wind my way down a “two-way” lane as wide as the one-way streets at home. However, I must say I am impressed with the French ability to share the road.

Near my home, there is a shortcut I often take to avoid the traffic of the village center. This street is clearly not wide enough for two cars to pass side by side unless one of the drivers chooses a strategic spot where the road is slightly wider and hugs the edge so the other car can gingerly pass by. Sometimes, you have to pull in your side mirror so you don’t bump the other car with it.

There’s no roadrage, no annoyance at the inconvenience of having to slow down. Instead, the drivers wave. A small act of solidarity that says, “Thanks for making room. See you around.”

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