The Marine View Driver: Notes on Speeding and Driving Drunk in France

In which the author writes of tiny cars, tinier streets, and contemplating the Return of the King.

by Mike Smith

I had a pleasant vacation. Thank you for asking. When we go to France, though, it is generally a working vacation. We go to spend time with grandkids by helping our daughter and step-son with their five.

We did, however, find ourselves at Normandy (France not Park) on Memorial Day weekend. It was simultaneously cool and melancholy. It was also a bit joyful to see the area thriving with tourists and residents alike. It is quite a resort area.

I learned the area has quite the history of wars and armisti—for instance, there is a sign erected to commemorate the ending of the battle of Hastings in 1099. There have been many a war or battle followed by truce on these beaches.

The area is also actually the origination point of the French fry. Apparently in Normandy one of the local delicacies going back a hundred years or so was a deep-fried potato strip. Sound familiar?

Narrow Street TreportApparently when the U.S. GIs showed up they went wild for the deep fried frites. Pronounced freet. Yes, we had some and they are really good.

Here is a picture of the town as we left it:

The frites are all gone, though. So no picture.

You will note the streets are not much wider than a French fry.

I have previously mentioned the tiny cars that they make you drive if you lose your license. I have a picture of one of those, too.

I learned a little more about them. They are tiny, noisy and underpowered so as to not be able to hurt yourself, anyone else, or get a speeding ticket. Because it turns out you can lose your license for a number of things in France besides drunk driving, the penalty for which is swift and sobering. Which is a good thing when you drink and drive.

AxomBut you can also lose your license if you get a speeding ticket. How fast do you have to be going? Well, how about two-hundred kilometers per hour? Although specifically our friend person we know in France was doing a bit more than simply speeding. He was going 200 kph? He’d bought himself a fancy yellow sports car and wanted to see how fast it went. Well, he knows it went at least 200, which is just slightly slower than the Gendarmes can go. And that, as they say, was that.

In order to get to work he had to rent one of these little Axom cars. Top speed is a measly 20 percent of aforementioned ticketed event. But they get you to work.

I did quite a bit of driving—I have a reputation to uphold—around France. And, it is not a silly question to ask which side of the road the French drive on. I was not sure when I first arrived in France in 2003 either. But just so you know, it is on the right, just like the U.S. When you drive through the Chunnel into England, though, the lanes actually crisscross so as to put you on the right left side of the road. Wacky.

I was privileged to chaperone a school outing with my grandson’s class in Fontainebleau Forest, a place that is world-renowned for rock climbing. There are literally thousands of rocks suitable for climbing. They are all mapped and numbered and people come from all over the world to practice climbing there, all with their noses in little map books pointing and gesticulating like so many tourists. The rocks represent every conceivable climbing challenge. The place is renowned because the rocks are all on the ground and allow for safe practice. The area is called Twenty Peaks.

It was an arduous hike. When we arrived at the practice site there was a fashion magazine photo team from Paris, complete with models, doing a magazine shoot amongst the school kids and rocks. [I didn’t recognize any of the models. But they were skinny. The magazines portray them in actual size.] A note about models: there must be something about a camera that gives them some meat on their bones. In real life, they are basically human clothes hangers.

There were several foreign climbers practicing on the rocks nearby and fifty 8- and 9-year-old school kids and about 40 high school aged kids from a private school all doing some sort of school sponsored outing. Everyone was mixing it up in the great outdoors. Strangers were everywhere. An American school class could never have gotten permission to do this trip. The hike was treacherous and the crowd of people made it almost impossible to monitor everyone in our group. There was no planned trail, just a few paint blazes on an occasional rock or tree. The lawyers would have put a stop to this type of activity decades ago. I admire the French. They are a hardy bunch. Oh—and man, these kids can really climb rocks!

Of course being French, when it was lunch time, all activity stopped so everyone could eat. It became quiet in the forest again. I think the only ones who didn’t stop for lunch were the small group of Americans practicing their climbing.

I like the French culture. Eating is a time to rest, visit, and enjoy the day.

One note of politics. There is a rube driving around my daughter’s town with a political bumper sticker on his Peugeot that says: “Louis XX.” Emblazoned with a fleur de lis. (The fleur de lis is the emblem of the succession of Louis kings.) I guess there are some who want a return of the monarchy. Not sure if he is advocating an election or a cake sale.  I did a quick bit of math and determined that he must be pushing for the twentieth Louis and he lives somewhere in obscurity. Perhaps he drives a Peugeot. Perhaps he has a bumper sticker on it. It’s a long shot!

WP_20150523_17_19_42_ProWe visited a castle, Chateau, with an interesting history. It is one I’d never heard about. It was never completed for its 15th-century purpose. It took until the 19th century and Napoleon III to actually rebuild and pretty much finish it.

I might talk about that next week. I don’t want to bore anyone with my French travelogue. However, we probably do get a taste of France that most people don’t. Since I have family there and we don’t have to pay for lodging, we get to see the countryside and avoid the expensive touristy things.

We also spend our time living like the French do. We go to places that most people don’t experience and we shop in the local shops and have a full-time translator who is a local so we avoid the foreigner syndrome.

At least until we open our mouths.

But, if you keep quiet, smile, buy stuff and don’t try to negotiate, you are golden. We actually have a good time there.

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