Driving Tips for that French Road Trip

Kathy drove.  I rode shotgun, tracking maps and GPS.

Given that I’ve fondly called Kathy my ‘map nut’ these many years, let’s just say this wasn’t ideal.  But, under the circumstances, it was the best we could manage.  Our grand-daughter Devon is 11, still a few years from her learner’s permit, so she wasn’t an option.

The ‘circumstances’ were explained fully in the yellowing four-year-old correspondence zipped into my suitcase in case of an emergency.

Briefly. In June 2014, toward the end of our second French sabbatical, I apparently went from Point A in Alsace-Lorraine to Point B, somewhere to the south, too fast.  The French measure this — rather sneakily I might add — by calculating time and distance between tolls.  No speed traps, No helicopters.  The problem is that it took nearly three months for the speeding ticket to arrive at  our Lexington, Mass, home. By then the bill had mushroomed from 80 euros, then about $100 to 300 euros, about $375.

Still, I tried to pay. I clicked the designated email link. It led nowhere.  I called the phone number — and got a recording in French that I couldn’t decipher.  I gave up. A year later, I found myself about to lead a group of Emerson College students to Aix-en-Provence. With visions of being handcuffed when my plane touched down in Marseille,  I sent a long email to the French consulate, asking again if I could pay.

“Ah, these things happen,” was the essence of the reply. “Perhaps you could contact the police when you get to France.” With 12 students in tow? Perhaps I couldn’t.

And so, in 2019, when it came time to rent a car, Kathy was the designated driver.

Part of the problem and also without doubt our salvation was the terribly polite British woman on our GPS.  Occasionally she got muddled. But the real problem was that if I tried to make sense for Kathy how many left turns we would pass before arriving at our next turn, I’d occasionally brush the screen and everything would go haywire.  As a result, we took a wrong turn in Paris and added about an hour to our trip to Beaune.  Once or twice we resorted to our long-held practice of going in circles in roundabouts until we were absolutely sure we had determined the right direction (French road signs don’t always give the next town but instead might name a big city a few hundred kilometers away).  What matters, however, is that we survived, with just a tiny scrape that someone imprinted on the bumper of Cleopatra (our black Renault stick-shift Clio) in a parking lot.

Which, I can only hope, is enough  to convince you to play close heed to these driving tips:

  1. If you are driving in France, swallow your pride. Invest in a GPS. And keep your hands away from the screen.
  2. For long distances, take the autoroutes, the peages.  They are well-maintained and efficient.  They also are expensive. We went all the way from Annecy to Chartres on our really long day. That’s 360 miles and it took nearly seven hours.  Without autoroutes it would have been impossible.  Beware though: Gas is is about $7 a gallon. Our biggest toll was 61 euros, about $67.
  3. On the road, don’t dawdle in the fast lanes. The French pass and immediately move to the far right. If you fail to do so, expect a Mercedes about three inches from your rear bumper.
  4. At toll booths, head for the lines under the green arrows. These are the ones where you can pay by credit card (and you have to have a credit card).  If you go to the wrong booth, you will have a line of angry people behind you.
  5. Carry cash. Most gas stations do NOT take credit cards. I don’t know why but I’ve noticed this on previous trips to France as well.  Go inside to the cash register to pay for a predetermined amount of fuel.
  6. Rent the smallest car you possibly can.  This will give you better gas mileage and keep you from losing your mind driving through small towns in which two-lane roads are often less than two lanes wide.  The car is likely to be a stick shift. Make arrangements in advance if you only drive manual.
  7. Don’t speed.  After 16 days with Kathy behind the wheel, I am thinking of taking another stab at resolving my outstanding speeding ticket.  This is not meant to be chauvinistic. It is Kathy who taught me how to drive a stick shift 50 years ago. It’s just that it is not good for my self-esteem to be designated second-string GPS and map reader. And even though Kathy was driving, I was second-string. Besides I like driving a car in France; I’m pretty sure Kathy would be happy to return to being our navigator.




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