Lost in France

When people ask, “Did you face any special challenges driving around France?” I say, “None at all.” This is because I cannot drive. Passengering around France, however, I confronted several peculiar obstacles. While my girlfriend — hereafter referred to as “the driver” — lazed idly through her reflexive routine of pedal-pushing and steering, I was an electrical storm of activity, a tireless human whirlwind, dexterously changing the cassette with one hand and balancing the road atlas in the other, while simultaneously interpreting French road signs, and offering advice such as: “I think you should’ve turned left back there.”

Were my efforts appreciated? They were not. My navigation was denigrated and scorned from Toulouse to Verdun. I accepted every vilification with a heroic conviction that history would provide my vindication. In the Age of Discovery, the navigator was king. The name of Vasco da Gama lives on, but who remembers the colourless journeymen who sailed his ships? Sticklers for detail may point out that Vasco da Gama could read a map — and in this respect the great man and I differ. I can marvel at the magnificent inevitability of a road map’s arabesque, in which paths converge and conflate to form a decoration like the calligraphy around the dome of a mosque (but with McDonald’s restaurants and service stations marked at the appropriate points). I cannot, however, relate the pleasing pattern on the page to the positions of roads and buildings in the corporeal world.

None of this mattered at first, because the driver could not drive the car. We picked up a Peugeot 406 automatic at Toulouse airport. I approached the glossy woman at the airport desk and announced in extremely peccable French: “The car is here, brothel-owning lady, for us.” Luckily, she spoke English. We closed the deal, and took the car for 11 weeks. When the driver found our Peugeot in the car park, she could not release the handbrake. She pulled, she pushed, she pressed buttons. She grunted and sighed and almost cried. She handed me the manual and asked me what was wrong. “I don’t know,” I said. “I can’t drive, and I can’t read French.” When the handbrake finally and mysteriously released, it never stuck again, and we had no more trouble with the car for at least a day. “Remind me to drive on the right,” begged the driver. She immediately took the first corner out of the car park on the left, and I instantly forgot my sole task as passenger, leaving her to shout to herself: “Stay on the right! Stay on the right!” like Margaret Thatcher. The driver attempted to indicate, but turned on the windscreen wipers instead. This happened every day for months.

We drove first through the heartbreakingly beautiful countryside of the Languedoc-Roussillon, to the medieval city of Carcassonne. I was in charge of interpreting signs, and was able to assure the sceptical driver that “Aimez-vous nos enfants”, accompanied by a picture of laughing schoolkids playing by the side of a road, did not, as she thought, mean “Aim at our children”.

French warning signs are infused with drama, verve and emotion. A plaque on a bridge near Chamonix illustrates the quite complex idea of “Do not throw bottles over the side of the mountain because they might hit somebody sweeping up the snow” with a silhouette of the snow-sweeper throwing up his arms in helpless terror at the sight of the casually murderous glass vessel bearing down on him. A “Don’t touch this thing or you’ll get electrocuted” sign on the Côte d’Azur combines the comic-strip line of Pop Art with the nightmarish howl of German Expressionism. The detailed figure of the man-who-ignored-the-sign-and-touched-the-thing sizzles and dances at the point of a lightning bolt. He is wearing his zoot suit and flat-heeled boots. The message is clear: he is being executed for his poor fashion sense.

We travelled winding roads to the Cathar hill fortress of Peyrepertuse. In the castle car park a typically alarmist French sign warned us against leaving anything in the car. A giant, hooked hand, an evil black claw, swooped towards a shattered window to grab a camera. We packed whatever we could into our daypacks and carried it to the ruin in the afternoon sun.

In Aix-en-Provence, where Cézanne repeatedly painted the looming Mount St Victoire, I exercised the passenger’s prerogative to get drunk at dinner. Unfortunately, I did not fulfil the passenger’s obligation to remember the name of our hotel or its address. I have studied Cézanne at degree level, and could tell the driver a number of interesting facts about Mount St Victoire, but not where it was in relation to our bedroom. Like every city in France, Aix (as we who know it call it) is protected from tourists by a huge, looping ring-road that ensures its heart is impenetrable to all but the most determined visitors. We missed the exit for our hotel, and had to drive once around the city to get back to it. Then we realised we had been following the wrong signs, and it was not our hotel anyway, so we had to drive around the city again. No matter how hard I tried, I could not think of the name and all I really wanted to do was sit and be drunk, occasionally repeating: “I can’t drive and I can’t read French.” We finally found it by accident. It was five minutes from the restaurant, and it took us 90 minutes get there.

We bought books to enhance our cultural experience, novels and non-fiction about French life. I purchased Lolita, mistakenly believing it was set in Paris. We crisscrossed France, my much younger girlfriend and I, driving from motel to motel, like Humbert and Lolita except without so much sex. The further we went, the more stuff we acquired. As well as the books, we collected clothes, souvenirs, more CDs, and piles and piles of travel brochures. Lolita, of course, bought shoes. At one point she had five pairs. I did not mind giving her footwear a bit of a holiday, but I could not see why we had to keep the empty boxes. I opened one to demonstrate its uselessness, to find it was stuffed with old plastic bags. The charmingly domesticated driver had recreated the kitchen plastic-bag drawer in the cramped confines of the car boot! In Paris we met up with my brother and because he can drive and read maps, he took over the passengering. Watching him at work, falling into all the same traps as I did, I realised the five great passengering rules:

  • Never apologise, never explain. There is no answer to any question that begins “Why didn’t you . . . ?”
  • Never give up. As soon as you throw down the map and announce: “I’ll tell you where we bloody are! We’re lost is where we bloody are!” the driver will calmly turn the next corner and you will be facing the Champs Elysées.
  • Never blame the map. The map is not wrong. You are wrong.
  • Never hesitate. When the driver yells: “Left or right? Left or right? Left or right?” Just pick one. It is your indecision that is infuriating.
  • Never attempt to enlist the driver in your own misreading of the map. Do not ask: “Doesn’t it look like that to you?” because it will not look like that to her; it will look exactly as the cartographer intended. Besides, she has been driving all day and she is tired and it is the only thing she has asked of you this whole trip, and if you cannot just do one tiny thing . . .

Passengering around France was a life-changing experience. By the end of 11 weeks, I actually could, more or less, understand French. I discovered that a constant shower that costs €4 is better value than a free shower than stops every 25 seconds. I found out the location of the bonnet popper in a Peugeot 406. Above all, I finally understood what a passenger is for: the driver is a perfect being. If it were not for the passenger spouting his ceaseless stream of misinformation and exercising his nervous equivocation, the driver would glide effortlessly from one place to the next, wafting on a cloud of unfailing intuition and zen-like woman-car-environmental harmony. The driver has to believe this. The passenger does, too. If they did not, the sheer terror of being trapped in a car in a country where every second vehicle carries a dent in the right side because of the unworkability of priorité à droite, where a roundabout has seven lanes and none, and the road signs scream of terrible monsters and unlikely deaths, would send them both scurrying back to backpacks, boots and bus tickets.

– Published in The Times (UK), 21 August 2004