Our rental car is an economy Citroen, the old French model that used to have big, buggy, lotus eyes. It's a stick shift. Yes, it's a stick shift and we're maneuvering in and out of tight, tight one way little French streets once made for the width of two horses.
It's also a funny little car, because as we emerge from the underground garage, me at the wheel, Tony at the maps, I say,
"I feel like I'm in a British comedy."
You know the scene: when the camera angle is from the driver's point of view and it's a flustered middle aged, frumpy, fabulous, British actress driving, and her silly, henpecked husband who sits in the passenger seat---but it's me, Tony, and I'm driving in Paris for my first time! Up the Champs-Elysees and around the Arche de Triomphe. It is the path of heroes and villains.
Each day of German occupation, the Nazis marched the Champs-Elysees, but it is also the entrance for the French Resistance, Charles deGaulle, the Americans, WWI fighters and most recently, the bikers at the end of the Tour de France.
The Champs Elysee is the road that will lead us to Giverny, Normandy, Bretagne (including Mont St. Michel), through the upper right atrium area of France, and back to Charles deGaulle. It is the beginning of the many roads that will twist and turn through round-abouts, through villages lined with stone cottages and unexpected chateaus, to cafes that lure us in with a "frites" sign, to frustrations when the gas pump spits back our credit card.
Driving in a foreign country requires only a state driver's license. Yet, I would be mistaken if I presumed my license gave me all the skills I needed. So far, so good, but we have had our encounters of disgruntled French when we once turned up a one way street and everyone had to pull over. Ooops. It was a petit street and no one was out of second gear.
Overall, these are the observations I've made for better driving--besides the obvious of increased awareness, observation and diligence. And, it's very hard to eat a croissant while driving. Leave it for the ambiance of a sidewalk cafe or a morning on the terrace.
Observations of comparison:
Speed limits in France are often dependent on weather and posted as such to reflect the increased dangers of driving fast under those changing conditions. 110 kilometers per hour in ideal weather, 80 kilometers per hour in rain. At home, a change in weather is often a guarantee for freeway pileups. Slow down in inclement weather.
I'm actually ashamed to admit that recently, a yellow light in America has been a signal to speed up and make it through the light. Where am I in such a hurry to risk danger? In France, it appears that every car stops immediately at the yellow light, no matter how close it may be to almost making it through. Smart cookies.
In a sudden freeway slow down, I watched the car behind to make sure he was aware I'd stopped. He was, and he let all the cars behind him know, by immediately punching the emergency flashers. I used to watch my father pump his brakes to alert the car behind him. In the states, it might take me a minute to locate the emergency flash on the dashboard, but when I get home, I'm going to practice until I can nab it in a second.
Observations most practical to European driving:
Unlike the US, stop lights are behind the intersection--usually. In order to see the light change, one's car must be behind the crosswalk and behind the light post, relatively distant (from what we are used to), from the intersection. This is counterintuitive, because before I proceed when the light is green, I want to make sure the cross traffic has stopped; this magnifies the French practice of stopping at the yellow light. Still, I cautiously move forward. I've seen too many Americans run red lights with often disastrous consequences.
"Wooooow," Tony and I both shuddered, and then I teared with gratitude. We'd pulled into the round about safely, but on this certain one, there was an immediate right turn next to our entry. The car in front of us slowed and made a right hand turn. We couldn't have anticipated the move, so when I looked to the left and it was clear, I came very close to striking the car as it turned. Since then, I've checked to see if there is a round about exit directly to my right. Overall, don't stick your nose into the round-about too soon.
The most important driving habit for Tony and me is that I'm the driver, he is the navigator--and we learned this--from experience.