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Saturday, August 02, 2003

Living with a car

This is a sad story… for our car at least.

I bought our Peugeot 405SRI (I know, it’s a boring family car - don’t tell me - I used to own sport cars…) eleven years ago, brand new in Switzerland. It was lovingly serviced by first the main Peugeot dealer and then by a most charming Italian in our village. Every scratch, every wheeze and rumble was corrected immediately. Eight years on we left Switzerland with a car that (changing styles notwithstanding) looked and felt new.

Three years in France and she is a pathetic wreck.

Driving in France

The French still drive… er… quickly. On the whole French drivers are not reckless. That is a vicious slander perpetrated by English and Swiss drivers over for their holidays. Look more closely and for longer and you’ll notice that the French style of driving is more, shall we say, negotiative.

They do not give way naturally. There has been a mania for building roundabouts (just like English ones) in a land where the previous principle for negotiating precedence at a junction was ‘priorite a droite’ - that is, give way to the right. Think for a moment about a roundabout in a country where they drive on the right and you’ll see that this is actually the reverse of the old style. Before every French roundabout is a sign saying: you do not have priority. Not ‘yield’ or ‘give way’. No, for the French the message is you have lost priority: the other guy will have to be the winner. Deal with it.

They are competitive but the standard of driving, the raw skill behind the wheel, is high. Speeds, when we arrived were scarily high. Speed limits were ignored by a margin of 50%. On the Promenade des Anglais, the grand frontage that stretches seven kilometres from Nice airport to the centre of town, the limit is 50 but they used to drive at 80 habitually.

The police started a programme of fearsome advertising - including black life-size cutouts of people on the spot where they died in an accident every few metres along the road - and stringent radar control. Now, more-or-less magically, speeds have dropped to a mere 20% above. Quite tolerable and, according to the statistics, a lot safer. This is not just getting used to it. This is a sea change.

The problem that remains is the motorcycle.

It is a social convention here that a motorcyclist must overtake. It is impossible for a motorcyclist to drive behind a car. So strong is the instinct to overtake that almost every manoeuvre fills the heart with dread. Risks are taken which would bring traffic to a halt in Britain (which I note on my visits has become an extremely cautious and temperate place, driving-wise) and would result in road-closure and deportation in Switzerland. Along with your crash-helmet and keys, every motorcyclist round here must receive an injection of stupid disease. I don’t understand it.

The roads

Most Brits on holiday complain about the condition of French roads. We all know this is why Renaults and Peugeots have always had soft suspension. Ha-ha.

Yes, the roads are generally not billiard-table smooth. The autoroutes (which are paid for by tolls) are excellent but the ordinary roads are quite laughingly pot-holed and bumpy.

It can only be explained away by considerations of money. The French can build excellent roads; they just don’t want to. They are great patchers. They are always applying tiny amendments to the surface when it seems quite obvious that the whole road should be re-laid.

There again, when they do it they do it with style. The old road from where we live down to the coast used to be a typical French country road, barely wide enough for a 2CV with no wing mirrors but it was replaced just before we arrived by a swish new mountain-style road which twists back and forth across the face of the hill to make it an easy climb and a safe descent. This was improved last year (only a few years after it was built) and widened with a new surface to two full lanes for the whole ascent. It is such a fine piece of work, we habitually call it the ‘Swiss road’. There, what more can one say?

The car parks

For some strange reason, French car parks are still designed for 2CVs only, perhaps Renault 4s. They assume a turning circle which our car can only dream of. They assume (very, very scarily) that your car has a regulation-short overhang: the ramps between floors in the car-park at Cannes main station scare the bejesus out of me. I always think our spoilers will get it.

So, while we cringe at the competitiveness of French motorists and while we hold our breath at the axle-breaking quality of the roads, it is in the car parks that we have met the greatest dangers and not from other cars.

Our car is dented so badly now, we can’t even begin to consider mending it. The first little nudges all came from parking incidents.

But we look around and we see hardly any cars on French roads without a few bruises. It is absolutely normal to drive with dents. No shame at all.

So we stopped fixing ours. Our lovely Swiss miss is now a raddled old hag. I’ve driven her into gates in the dark and shrugged as the sound of ripping steel echoed off the walls of our neighbours houses. Why worry?

Importing a car

If you come to France with a car (which you would only sensibly do coming from a drive-on-the-right country), you will need to import it and get one of those three part number plates with your departement number on the end.

Don’t get anxious about it. It is as much an introduction to the French way of life as your first plate of moules et frites.

Our importation took months. The general style is: take your car to garage A or office B; let them look at some feature such as the number of wheels, the number on the engine block, the colour; sign something to say thank you; they will give you a piece of paper with a stamp on it (French rubber stamps are what makes their world go round); they will then tell you where to take your car and this new bit of paper; try to fix a date at this new place; repeat.

We’ve been to garages where they lifted the bonnet, grunted, stamped, charged us €100 and sent us on our way without us understanding a single thing.

One appointment was at Nice Airport. It appears that the act of bringing in a car (which we actually did by driving over the border with Switzerland about three months before) has to be re-enacted at the airport, as if you were flying the thing in. This is where the big customs guys are. Or should be.

The day we turned up as instructed at the customs office at the airport, the car importing official was busy with some number he had to read or seats he had to count. We, instead, were put in the hands of the official with time on his hands: Nice Airport’s cheese excise man.

He sat us down, got out the forms and started to fill them in. Lots of stuff about our stay in Switzerland, our journey here and the history of the car. What is the power of the car? I don’t know. Let’s guess. He guessed wrong. What’s the value of the car? We don’t know. It cost us a bomb in Swiss francs eight years before but… So he gets out a copy of the French version of What Car and looks it up in the guide price table. Or rather I do, because he wasn’t sure what model we had. The car, it appears was worth about as much as a bag of pork scratchings but still…

Half way through, someone knocked and entered and asked about the load of Emmenthal going phew on the hot runway. Now our man was in his essence. The look of relief on his face was sad really. Cheese: now you’re talking.

Ah, France. Bureaucracy and cheese. They do both with such style.

Posted by Martyn Horner at 14:16
Edited on: Sunday, March 23, 2008 14:19
Categories: Living in France