Thursday, July 21, 2011

In a Roundabout Way

July 14th is a national holiday commemorating the storming of the Bastille on that date in 1789. It was a political prison, and its fall marked the beginning of the French Revolution.
Last time we were in Paris, we went to find it. There is bound to be a monument, or a ruin, or something to mark its importance, we thought. 
Wrong. It’s a roundabout. And every minute of every day, Parisians storm it again, in their Renaults and Citroens. The idea seems to be that, if they throw themselves at it fast enough, centrifugal force will shoot them off down the right side street. If it seems like a good idea to go and stand in the middle of it, take my word for it – it isn’t. You won’t survive the attempt.
The roundabout is a fairly new concept over here. Whereas the British have had them for donkey’s years, and the Highway Code will tell you exactly how to approach one, and how to choose a lane, and when to signal, the French seem to have no idea how to handle them. 
Until recently, it was the rule that anyone joining any road from the right got right of way. So if you were on a major road and someone approached from a farm track, that rule applied, and you would screech to a halt, and do the gentlemanly thing. In fact there are villages in Brittany where the rule has not been changed, and there will be a notice to tell you of this as you enter. If you don’t see it, you may well wonder at the hostile reception, not to mention the death wish of local drivers leaping out in front of you.
Motorists over a certain age can cause no end of interesting moments as they pull across your front wing, with a determined set of the jaw, and a gesture implying that you are completely and unjustifiably in the wrong. When such a person approaches a roundabout, your immediate instinct is to floor it and get out of the way. The behaviour of the other drivers suddenly seems understandable: it’s simple self-preservation.
There is a big roundabout here which we have learned to avoid at busy times. This means taking a wide detour, but in the long run, it is the wiser course. Nobody has any lane control. They will either drive all the way round on the outside, or they will be on the inside and suddenly leap across in front of the outside laners to take the desired, but apparently totally unexpected, turn-off.
If you try to do things properly, you not only confuse the locals, who then drive in the middle of the two lanes in case you should be trying to overtake them, or you are too scared to ease out for your turning because there just isn’t room, and no-one will give way. You could be there for hours.
No wonder the Paris ring-road is notorious. It’s just a giant roundabout. And on that particular roulette table, all bets are off.


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