Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Why I Will Never Drive in Paris

I thought I had it bad in Washington, DC. After moving there from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, I nearly had a driving-induced nervous breakdown. The combination of overly-aggressive power-hungry DC drivers and completely a unnavigable road system (incorrect signs, roads without exits, the apparent inability of Google maps to correctly direct you through the area) left me feeling anxious every time I took to the streets. After a few months, I finally figured out my necessary routes - school, work, and Target - and rarely deviated from them. But nearly two months in Paris have shown me the error of my ways. Compared to Paris, driving in DC is like driving I-80 through Nebraska on your way to Denver: a straight line at minimal speeds.

Driving in Paris is not for the faint of heart. The roads are narrow, motorcycles dart out at you and around you without warning, and everyone drives fast. It can be difficult to see who is entering the street, as parked cars line every square inch of the pavement. Pedestrians and bicyclists are everywhere, and against better judgment, they are always ready to run a red light or dart across a busy intersection. Don't even think about riding in a taxi. I'm convinced it's the French version of an extreme sport.

Despite the initial fright of riding along Parisian roadways, you soon realize that there is one thing you can take heart in: Parisians know how to drive. It might seem like they're out of control, too fast, too reckless, but really, they're just highly skilled at maneuvering their little stick-shift cars through streets that would scare the pants off those Americans who have become used to big lanes, big cars, and speeds that allow you to take in the scenery. Parisians make full use of all vehicular mirrors and are always aware of the traffic around them. They are confident, and composed. They never flinch before making a move. They have skills most drivers I know have never even heard of. Take the traffic around the Arc de Triomphe, for example. Known for its ability to frighten away even the most road-sure tourists, Parisians tackle its immensity and complexity with a certain je ne sais quoi. Try putting an enormous roundabout without any lines painted on the pavement and with 13 different entry/exit points in the middle of Anytown USA and I'm not sure it would be as flawless of a ride as this:

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