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An American in the French Languedoc

Anxiety in the Accelerated Lane


Much has been made about the erratic driving patterns of the French, but similar adjectives have likewise been applied to Italians, Germans and even Los Angelinos.

I don’t regard the majority of French motorists as unskilled or careless, simply anxious. This anxiety often translates into a maniacal haste to pass. Pass the motorist directly in front or on any a particularly hectic afternoon, the subsequent three.

Tolerating this habitual passing tactic is adaptable. The subsequent consequence of this same vehicle slicing directly in front of your car after the pass is maddening and common. The razor thin margin of error on such a transfer is a tenable reminder of the fragility of life on the roadways.

Amidst the mathematics of my cosmic reasoning, several hundred near misses equates eventually into one fine and catastrophic mess.

Since I’ve swapped the workaholic pace of California for the life in the decidedly slow lane of the Languedoc, I’ve had time to contemplate the meaning of existence, a musing I’d postponed since university days when I thought I was really busy.

My contemporary conclusions are as hazy and muddled as my post-teen confusion, but at least I’m currently in a better position to shape my immediate future.

This hardly explains the French driving dilemma. To a European, roundabouts, iconic signage and paying for motorway access are commonplace. For an American, still acclimating himself to driving with a stick shift, it is often decision-making overload.

Evaluating French driving etiquette is far from straightforward. For every bumper humping kamikaze straining to peer into my rearview mirror, there exists genuine courtesy, restraint and good humor when I’ve stalled in mid-intersection (regretfully too often). Road rage typical consists of firing insults rather than handguns.

An encircled red A (student driver insignia) plastered on the rear of most juvenile-driven vehicles is well intentioned, but misappropriated. The motorists who clearly need identifying are Mémé and Pépé, whose leisurely pace and decision-making transform driving itself into an aging process. Some warming sticker for them could lower our collective expectations in advance.

Driving is a hazardous necessity everywhere and as long as the near-collisions remain misses, I will acclimatize.

As driving prompts its share of nervous moments, parking provides comparative comic relief.

Village parking is never an obstacle for a French driver. They routinely park wherever it suits them. Sidewalks, against traffic, two-lane roads with traffic, your doorway…it makes little difference if they are pressed for time. Why people are pressed for time in a village eludes me. However, I wish more of the locals in front of me at the post office, bakery or butcher line would inherit a sense of urgency in their decision-making capabilities. Anything shortening the process to less than twenty contentious minutes would be welcome.

Truck and bus parkers are the worst offenders, displaying an absolute disregard for space sensibility. To save a few loading steps for their handcarts, drivers habitually block complete lanes of traffic on the two-lane motorway outside of our house. Our house is primed on Fabrezan’s central motorway entrance, across the street from the library, Mayor’s office, Charles Cros Museum and wine warehouse facility. Thus, all local concerns pass in front of chez moi and frequently loiter on our sidewalk.

If precarious exposure is a concern to the French parking location, most vehicle owners are decidedly blasé.

It is no personal mystery why used French vehicles are loaded with dents, dings and scratches. I’ve witnessed numerous vehicle touches where the offending driver, merely shrugs and darts off to their next collision.

Here’s some sage advice for your next used car purchase here, concentrate on the engine and ignore the bodywork.

Marques Vickers and his wife Claudia sold their San Francisco Bay Area home, left their jobs and moved to the village of Fabrezan in the Languedoc region of southern France in June 2005.


Marques Vickers will be contributing monthly columns sharing his experiences as an expatriate in Languedoc.

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