Friday, June 25, 2010

Cursed Be Crossroads?

“Maudits soient les carrefours. C’est le diable qui les a faits à l’image de sa fourche!”
–Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris

As a traveler and Francophile and person who has pinballed between two countries for most of her adult life, I’ve developed an appreciation for the French road system, which, like its railway system, has the kind of tidy uniformity unimaginable in a country as vast and rebellious as the United States.

In France, bike lanes often line perfectly paved streets, unlike my most recent city of residence where pock-marked pavement and jagged cracks zigzagging across streets and sidewalks seem to evidence some low-scale natural disaster. Last summer, in an effort to make the capital more bikable, the city undertook the not-so-grand gesture of painting stenciled bright white bikes periodically along the middle of the main thoroughfares, as if to say, “See, bikes belong on the road, too!” The effect suggested something more sinister—an overturned, flattened bike, mid-street, overrun by the passing cars.

“At least there’s no chalk-outline painted around the bike,” offered my ex-crime reporter then-boyfriend, cheerily, as I puzzled over what the bike meant, knowing that cycling would be my main form of transportation in my new city. There could have been a chalk outline, I later learned, since the cycling fatality rate placed Louisiana as the second most dangerous state for biking in the nation.

French speed limits also attest to a kind of uniformity, reminding you to be more cautious en ville and more aggressive on the autoroute, while never suggesting for a second that you reach the kind of face-blown-back velocity you might in Montana in the pre-speed limit days. Establishments such as the drive-through daiquiri bars that dot the southern-Louisiana landscape, or ranges in legal blood-alcohol limits do not muddle the message about drunk driving. There are rules for the road.

French people learn to maneuver a car in driving school. Because the age for obtaining a license is eighteen and many people wait until later due to the extensive and efficient public transit systems, French auto-école students theoretically have more maturity than their fifteen-year-old Driver’s Ed American counterparts. It costs close to a thousand dollars to take the classes, and if you fail the tests (which many people do) you have to repeat the process and pay the fee again. And despite a real propensity for rule-breaking, as evidenced daily by sights like cars zooming backwards down sidewalks, most French drivers I know seem to possess a thorough knowledge of a reference manual called Le code de la route, which they can cite like the Bible. 

More than once, I’ve been scolded by Gallic passengers for blatantly ignoring key tenets of le code by passing on the right, not leaving enough following room, or otherwise doing something pas prudent.

Once, back home, a policeman named Darryl asked me and a friend, both small-town, southern girls and native North Carolinians what we would do if we arrived at an intersection at the same time as another car:

I answered honestly: “I’d look at the other driver and gesture for him to go ahead or see if he was signaling for me to do the same.”

“Ha!” my friend said triumphantly, “That’s what I said, too.”

“And if you couldn’t see his face?” Darryl pursued.

“I’d flash my lights. Or beep, lightly. You know, in a friendly way.”

Darryl rolled his eyes. “There are right-of-way rules that clarify this sort of thing.”

But I don’t remember them. I learned to drive over a few weeks at seven A.M. free classes offered at the high school. Most of my classmates were probably only semi-awake or stoned. Our teacher was a retired, white-haired, blue-eyed coach who referred to everyone as Nadine, sometimes even the boys, as a playful acknowledgement that having taught both you and your parents and everyone they knew there was no real way for him to retain the names of an entire community.

One of my favorite things about the French road system is the abundance of roundabouts, or ronds-points. I had heard of roundabouts, once, in a Beatles song. There was a shelter there, in the middle. But I never encountered one until I studied abroad. I loved that you could hop on and spin around a few times, as if you really had to spiral into the center of something before knowing which direction to take.

Roundabouts struck me as superior to simple intersections, which demanded a decision as soon as you arrived, and where sitting in the middle (where there was no shelter) unlike circling a rond-point, was a good way to get smashed. Maudits soient les carrefours, (“Cursed be crossroads.”) pronounced Pierre Gringoire, a struggling writer in Hugo’s Hunchback, lost in Paris’s labyrinthine cityscape, a locale that is, itself, more circular than gridded.

A very instructive sign precedes most roundabouts in France. Several meters before you arrive, you see a diagram of the traffic circle indicating which way to turn off if you want to head to a particular place. Nîmes this way. Sète that way. Chamonix further still and by another path. Sometimes, if you’re lucky and find yourself in the embarras du choix, you’re offered what has become my all-time favorite French sign: one that simply announces Toutes Directions, or “All Directions.”

The sign seems to whisper something hopeful and expansive. “You’re not sure if what you’re looking for is in Nîmes or Sète or Chamonix? Feel a little limited by a straight and single path? Then travel in Toutes Directions. Everywhere you want to go is this way.

At first it seems confusing. Really? Paris and Cairo, New York and Dakar, San José and Québec, New Orleans and Santiago and Casablanca all in this all-encompassing direction? Foreign and familiar, home and away, they’re all this way?

Joy surges up. Maybe there’s a logic not so circular in this. Maybe all directions are the same direction. The one all of us are choosing. Forward.

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