Saturday, August 22, 2009

Driving in Provence

Is often dangerous but also often surprising and funny. Hordes of people get killed and injured on the roads and it's easy to see why. The driving style is eclectic and rules are interpreted fairly approximately. One of the first things you notice driving here is that there is always another car practically driving into the back seat of yours. Drivers seem to find it impossible to keep any distance behind a car. It's as if there's a rule saying you must get as close to the car in front as you possibly can. Discussing this with my neighbour a while ago he disagreed that this happens. The same week he braked in town and the car behind ran straight into him.
Overtaking whenever possible and preferably when it's dangerous also seems to be a rule. I watched a driver today tailing another car on a long straight stretch of road and just as we all came up to a bend he decided to dodge out and risk everyone's life. Recently, on the same stretch of road I started overtaking a guy (on the straight bit) and a young driver behind me started overtaking me as I was overtaking. Naturally another car appeared from the other direction and we all narrowly avoided a crash.
Almost every week the papers report young drivers and their friends hurt or killed in accidents. It's not necessarily down to alcohol - the driving is too fast and too impulsive. I have many friends and neighbours who, like practically everyone I know in Provence, are courteous and considerate as a rule. Get them behind a steering wheel though and it's like they've had a brain transplant. I mentioned this to one friend last week. We were driving back from the Saturday market at Coustellet and he had to stop to let a woman driver turn in front of him. After much swearing and instant bad temper from someone normally completely laid back, I mentioned my observation that driving here seems to bring out the worst in people. He looked completely blank for a moment and then, like my neighbour, denied it...
If drivers interpret the rules flexibly, the police sometimes do too in my experience. Thankfully. Driving the wrong way up a one-way road in the village a while ago I realised my mistake when a member of the Police Municipal came dashing out of the tiny police station. Assuming she was going to fine me I wound the window down and started apologising. 'Oh,' she said pleasantly 'I just wanted to remind you it's a sens unique. I'm sure you'll remember next time.' And I have remembered, every time since. That's what policing should be like. A service to the public.
I also got stopped last year for not displaying my insurance ticket on the windscreen. I'd received it the day before and, forgetting to display it, had left it in my bag at home. The very pleasant cop pointed out that he couldn't know whether or not I had insurance. When I explained that I had but had forgotten the ticket he said that was OK but I should attach it when I got home. He could have fined me I guess, but he was using his discretion and figured I didn't look like an insurance dodger.
The police also seem to take a driver-friendly view of speed cameras and radar controls. Every week the papers publish the locations where you might get caught for speeding. I used to think it meant people drove more slowly knowing they were being monitored. But it's also possible that locals, reading La Provence, take the back roads while tourists, reading their Rough Guides, drive on in blissful ignorance and are the ones who get pulled over.
Last point about driving here. Don't buy or rent a big car or a smart car or an expensive car. Big cars have been known to get firmly lodged between the walls of houses in narrow medieval streets. And big cars, smart cars and expensive cars will get scuffed, bumped and dented giving you lots of expense. Best practice is to do what everyone else does round here and get a small, cheap car that will get cheerfully bashed and dented several times a year and wear its dents permanently, without worry.
And last, last point - when you park prepare to find you've been blocked in when you come back to the car. Don't worry though. After a minute you'll hear someone call in a smiley voice: 'J'arrive. C'est moi qui vous bloque!' Anyone who double parks is only parking for a minute and will courteously keep an eye out for you returning.
It's not, clearly, part of the eccentric driving etiquette - they're not behind the wheel when they come to release you.

2 comments:

  1. hi, i'm going to be a tourist in provence next month and am thinking about renting a car. i'm glad i saw this post. can i ask a question - i'm reading about the Canyon of Verdon, Nice and other areas where you are driving high up a mountainous region. Are these type of roads one way streets, with a sheer drop off the cliff on one side and each car has to maneouver the single way road to get by? I ask b/c this type of driving makes me nervous.

    Thanks!!

    ReplyDelete
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