Friday, November 26, 2010

Paris 10: Le voitures

Oh yes. The Nutelle crepe guy. Maybe he'll help me overcome the heartache of the galette bretonne.

You might think, Oh, driving in Paris how hard can it be? It's just a city.

But those of you in the know do that French lip thing, look up to the sky, and say, Ooh la la! Le driving en Paris! C'est fou!

But why? you ask. You are from a midwestern city with a grid layout. The streets are at right angles to each other. The highway system? Pah. Exits everywhere. If you miss a turn or an exit, you take the next one and circle around. It might take you a little longer to reach your destination, but if you turn up Ninth Street instead of Seventh or Oak instead of Main, you'll find your way back easily. And if you don't - if you must consult a map, then you just pull over into a parking lot and peruse your cartographic information at your leisure, returning to the street when you are ready and being guided by the street signs on every corner.

We had this for supper on Friday. It's fatty pork and onions stuffed into a pita topped with a white sauce made of more fat. Tonight, we are eating at the booth where they were mixing potatoes, cream, bacon and cheese.

In Paris?

Imagine a street layout that looks like a spiderweb.

Laid on top of another spiderweb. Many spiderwebs, laid on top of each other. One-way spiderwebs. Acute angles.

Without street signs.

Well, that's not exactly true.

Discreet street signs, mounted on buildings, that you can find only once you are on the street and have made your commitment. Not lit. So not visible in the dark.

Now imagine traffic so heavy that you move only one car length at a time and stop after each advance. Throw in motorcycles zipping next to your car because lane splitting is legal in France.* The lanes are narrow and they might hit and damage your rental car but tralalalala! they don't care!

We were in stop and go traffic for the last two miles of trip back from Mont St Michel. (We had snow in the hilly town of Caen - slushy snow that did not yield to summer tires. Also a lovely experience.) From La Defense to Porte Maillot, the huge traffic circle we had to enter to get to our street, was a straight line of four lanes of bumper to bumper traffic. We inched along. We saw cars changing lanes and wondered why anyone would do that, as there did not seem to be any cross streets or gas stations** to distract anyone.

Just zipping along, changing lanes.

We were in our original lane. Because we couldn't move. Not that we thought we needed to. Because we wanted to go straight. Why would we change lanes to go straight? That's crazy! Crazy!

Guess what?

The lane we were in split to go to the Paris Peripherique, which is the "highway" loop around the city.

We didn't even know this loop existed.

And yet we were on it.


With no way to get back to the lane for the Porte Maillot traffic circle, which was the only way to get to our road that we knew of, based on the horrible Hertz map.

SH freaked.

"Oh s***! Oh s***! Oh s***!" he exclaimed, each "Oh s***!" louder than the last.

I grabbed the map and tried to figure out what had happened. It looked like we were stuck on the loop going away from our destination, which closed at 9:00 p.m. and offered no provision for late dropoff.

"Oh s***!"

He took the first turn possible, making a 180 so that we were now perpendicular to our destination but going (in the broadest sense of the word, as we weren't moving very fast at all) north instead of south.

I tried to figure out where to exit and if there was even an exit and Darn you, Hertz, and your crummy crummy maps!

"Take the first exit you can," I said, as I tore off my expensive bifocals so I could see the map.

We inched along and ten minutes later, we pulled off the Peripherique. "Which way? Which way?"

"Right, I think."

But there were three ways to go right. All angles. Oh sheesh.

It was dark. Full of cars. Pedestrians demanding the right of way. An ambulance came up behind us with that French ambulance sound. I couldn't see the street names. SH was panicking and furious and I was stuck navigating in a city I did not know, in the dark, with a lousy map, with a series of streets that appeared to be un-named but even if you know the name of this block, the street changes names on the next block, so street names aren't useful navigational tools anyhow.

We barely missed pedestrians. We guessed and hoped that we were on the street that we thought we were on. We braved a left-hand turn. We braved a right-hand turn. We went around a traffic circle. Twenty fingernail-biting, sweaty, swearing, marriage-breaking minutes later, we were at Hertz.

Some couples bond over shared stress.

SH and I are not those couples.

We sulk and fight over shared stress.

We got out of the car and glared at each other. He told me I had not navigated well. I told him that he freaked out too easily. I flounced to the ladies' room. He got mad when I returned, telling me I had abandoned him to unload the car by himself. I pointed out that he doesn't like how I unload the car anyhow so what difference did it make? He said I should be nice to him because he had had a stressful day. Oh, like I didn't? I asked him.

Then we grabbed our bags and stomped the mile to the Hilton, where we drowned our sorrows in the executive lounge snack bar with cheese, Bailey's, and brandy, and made up. The end.

* My friend Heidi lives in Germany and wrote, Did you survive the kamikaze motorcyclists??! When we drive through Paris, everyone is assigned a window to watch for crazed cyclists.

** The service plaza where we filled the tank had a minimum gas purchase of five liters. That makes no sense to me whatsoever. Are there any French readers who can explain this practice?


Anonymous said...

Wow--I'm totally stressed just reading about this.....White Chocolate

Anonymous said...

Remembering VIVIDLY why after an hour of driving our own newly purchased car in Paris, we sought out a shipper and abandoned it forthwith in favor of a book of Metro tickets.


Joan said...

Good lord, I stopped reading your blog for a while and I just found out you were in Paris! No, I can't explain why there is a five liter minimum when purchasing gas. If you only need two liters, they probably still charge you for five.

My favorite part of driving in France is the rule that at unmarked intersections the car coming from the right has right of way over you. And, as you mentioned, that motorcyclists drive on the dotted lines.

That is why I refuse to drive in Paris except if absolutely forced to, and then only on a Sunday.

Class factotum said...

Joan, the yield to the right! I had heard that but not the part about only at unmarked intersections, so our entire drive west, I was tense as I watched for speeding cars to emerge from the small roads crossing our larger one.