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.”

Growing Pains

My family has outgrown France.

Not to say that we’re beyond the culture, the food, the landscape, or the history–we’re not. We love it. BUT, we have literally outgrown France.

Let me explain…

I am six feet tall. An Amazon goddess with a size 12 shoe.

My height is a challenge in almost every part of the world (especially where jeans and high heels are concerned). Here in France, most of the women and half of the men look at me, not face-to-face, but face-to-cleavage; I am–at the very least–above average, and as such I do my shopping elsewhere. Many everyday items must be imported. This doesn’t bother me. It’s my life and I made peace with it long ago. The miracle of online shopping has helped tremendously.

My husband, a strapping six foot four inches, has fewer issues, but still definitely encounters short doorways that require limbo-like maneuvers on a daily basis.  

When we arrived five years ago, our family was smaller–meaning shorter. While we have not grown in number over the years, the majority of us have grown up. With five out of six of us now being adult sized, and our gene pool being what it is, you can imagine people like to stare when we walk together down the streets of our village. We are a sight not often seen in the south of France.

Here’s the issue…

A few months ago, while returning from a Venetian road trip, our car began slipping out of 5th gear. Upon returning home, we took the car to a mechanic who told us it would cost the value of the car to repair the transmission. We decided to look for a new-bigger-more comfortable-road trip mobile.

Our new-car wish list included three simple items:

-enough leg room for daily use

-a small frame that easily fits typical French parking spaces

-seven comfortable seats

By this point we had totally given up on finding anything that’s nice to look at. We were sticking to the basics plus it had to be able to make the tight turn into our driveway.

Sounds reasonable right?

Over the course of the next month, we sat in everything. Used cars, new cars, sports cars, trucks, vans, minivans, sedans.

Nothing fit us.

In the end, we just couldn’t justify paying for a new car we didn’t really like.

So, we’ll repair our Toyota, Verso. We don’t love it, but with a few creative seat configurations we can make it work–even on long roadtrips.

The real expat life.



Photo by: Jace Grandinetti

The Slippery Clutch

Buying a car can be a stressful experience. Buying a car in a foreign country with a different language brings the stress to a whole new level. For that reason–and many others–our family tried getting by for months in France with only one car.

Living in the French countryside, this was challenging. In order to catch the bus for work, my husband, Matt, had to leave just as the kids and I were getting up in the morning. And then he wouldn’t get home until I was putting the kids to bed. After six months, we decided for our sanity that we would need a second car. Fortunately, Matt knew a guy from work who was getting rid of an old Peugeot. Nothing fancy, just a clunker to get him back and forth during the week.

His coworkers promptly christened the car “the slippery clutch” because, well, it had a slippery clutch. It felt more like riding in a go-kart than a car. The passenger side had no handle on the outside of the door. The sunroof leaked when it rained. Anytime he rounded a corner, his passenger was treated to an unexpected shower. This would prove awkward for any unsuspecting coworkers who would ask for a ride home. Fortunately, he was prepared to offer a towel, which he kept in the back for such occasions.

The Thanksgiving Spool Debacle

It was Thanksgiving 2016. I was preparing for a Thanksgiving potluck we had organized with other American expats, when I spied a man standing in our driveway. Next to him was an industrial-sized spool. Why is there an enormous spool in my yard? Who is this strange man? Where did he come from?

“MATT!” I bellowed. “There’s a man in our driveway–and he has a giant spool!”

“Did you say ‘bonjour’?” he asked.

Did he not hear the part about the massive spool?? “No, I didn’t tell him ‘bonjour’!”

Matt glanced out the window and then walked outside to talk to the mysterious man and his giant spool. After some time of animated conversation, he returned and filled me in on the story.

Apparently, the man owned property above us (we live on a hill) and his children had been using the spool to play a game of “circus.” The spool began spinning out of control, rolled off the embankment above our property, dropped twelve feet, and landed smack on the hood of Matt’s car. It left a perfect imprint of the spool in its wake.

Luckily, none of us were outside when it happened. Matt and Mr. Spool Man traded contact information and his insurance was able to cover the damage to the car.

The Slippery Clutch Finds a New Home

Shortly after the Thanksgiving spool episode, Matt decided it was time for an upgrade from the slippery clutch and bought a Mercedes from a friend. But what to do with the slippery clutch? Surely, no one would want to buy it.

For six months, the slippery clutch sat in our driveway–outcast and leaking rain. Then we miraculously found someone willing to give the car a new home: the owner of the local garage where we get our cars serviced. He planned to use it as his loaner for customers when they drop off their car for maintenance or repair.

And it appears he followed through with his plan. Every now and then, we will catch a glimpse of the slippery clutch zipping around town in all its dilapidated glory.

Hopefully it doesn’t rain.

The Breathalyser Test

Flash. The brights of an oncoming car briefly shine into my eyes. Something’s coming.

I warily reach the summit of a small hill and can see the reflection of police vests in the roundabout ahead.

Even though I know I haven’t done anything wrong, my heart starts to pounds and my palms start to sweat. Please not me! Please not me!

The weak streetlight in the center of the roundabout doesn’t do much more than attract moths so I can’t see much. Was that a signal? Should I pull over? Where should I go, there’s no shoulder in the middle of a roundabout?!

Naturally, I decide to err on the side of caution and panic. Instead of pulling over, I take the exit and drive away in the direction away from home.

Maybe if I just keep driving, he won’t realize I was supposed to pull over and he’ll let me go.

Half a breath later, I realize turning off is madness as there is only one way home and it’s through that roundabout. I make a u-turn. I really look guilty now.

My mind is frantically buzzing with possible French vocabulary words.

Should I use vous? I should probably use vous. This is useless! I don’t even know the word for headlights or trunk. 

French class has not adequately prepared me for this moment.

The two children in my car are silent as I we advance toward the checkpoint.

The officer watches my approach with confusion. He lifts his eyebrows skeptically as I roll down my window and say, “Hello.” English, only speak English if you get pulled over they always said.

He responds with a question I can’t understand, but based on his body language is, “Why did you turn around? I thought you were heading the other way.”

I smile weakly and ask if he needs to see my driver’s license. I begin frantically digging through my purse to find it. He furrows his brow and examines the other occupants of my car. They don’t move.

“Non, non,” he motions for me to put my card back.

I’m confused. If he doesn’t want to see my license, what does he want?

He walks around my car then looks at my windshield and verifies that my insurance and safety inspection stickers are up to date. Satisfied that the car is legal, he heads back to me.

Calm, remain calm. Breathe. Smile. 

He takes a loud breath and begins to rummage through his pockets. Soon, he pulls out a clear plastic bag containing a white, plastic straw. He attaches it to a machine and points it at me.

“Souffle,” he orders. He demonstrates by blowing.  

I look up at him doubtfully and try not to laugh. He thinks I’ve been drinking?!

Instantly, I feel calm. This is a test I know I can pass. I don’t drink. Ever.

I place my lips over the straw and look at him for instructions.

“Souffle, souffle,” he orders. “Continue, continue. C’est bon.”

He suspiciously eyes the machine and waits for the results.

Ping. He looks at me, shrugs he shoulders and shows me the results–0.0.

I could’ve told him…if I had only known how.

The real expat life.


–Special thanks to Nabeel Syed for the photo